SHOWCASE #92; Aug. 1970; DC Comics (National Periodical Publications); featuring "Manhunter 2070" in "D.O.A," written, drawn and edited by Mike Sekowsky.
Review by Bill Henley
I hadn't thought about Manhunter 2070 in a long time until a few months ago I came across "The Judas Coin," a Walt Simonson graphic novel which featured a succession of past, present and future DC characters, ending with Manhunter 2070. I'm pretty sure that was the first significant appearance of the character since his unsuccessful tryout run in SHOWCASE #91-93 (the last three issues of the original SHOWCASE run). But I kind of liked "Manhunter 2070" when it first came out, and I resolved to do a review of one of those issues when I came across them. So here goes...
As established in issue 91, Starker, aka Manhunter 2070, is a bounty hunter in a future a hundred years hence (from the original publication date), in which mankind has expanded out into interplanetary and interstellar space (via the "Bridwell Space Drive", har har) and conditions look a lot like the old Wild West. Though Starker collects rewards for the human and alien baddies he brings in "dead or alive," he's already rich, and is clearly motivated more by anger at the criminals he targets than by money. This second issue is an origin story which explains the reasons why, and it left the biggest impression on me of the three issues, so I'm reviewing it.
On the cover, a young, space suited Starker stands on a tiny planetoid on which a cross marks a grave! "You can rest easy now, Dad-- I got them ALL-- EVERY LAST ONE OF THEM!"
The story begins in the "present" of 2070, in Janus, "resort city of Jupiter," where Starker is relaxing and escorting two pretty girls-- until they spot a "wanted" poster from the "Brotherhood of Space," which turns the tables on bounty hunter Starker by placing a 100,000 credit price on HIS head! Sternly, Starker insists that he must now part company with the two girls (to whom he seems more like an honorary uncle than a lover) lest they end up in the line of fire! As Starker's spaceship blasts off for Earth on automatic pilot, Starker accedes to the girls' pleas to tell then how his vendetta against interplanetary crime and piracy began.
It began 17 years previously (that would make it the year 2053) when Starker was a young teenager accompanying his father, a wandering asteroid miner, who had just made the find of a lifetime, a rock full of the ultra-valuable mineral didanium. But the elder Starker's dreams of wealth and a settled life for his son are shattered by the appearance of a crew of ruthless space pirates with a sideline in asteroid claim-jumping! "Thanks for finding all this didanium for us!", the pirate captain sneers before brutally shooting down Starker's father!
It appears that young Starker is about to share his dad's fate until a member of the ship's crew, the cook known as "Slops", intervenes. He urges the captain to let Starker remain alive to serve as his helper in the galley. "You know my rule-- no LIVE witnesses-- but okay-- a kid can't hurt us!" If Starker imagines that Slops is motivated by mercy to save his life, he is quickly disabused, as upon the two of them arriving in the galley, Slops lays him out on the floor by a brutal slap. "That's to show you who's boss here! Now get started cleaning this place up!"
And so, long years begin during which young Starker knows nothing but brutality-- orders backed up by boots and fists-- from Slops and the rest of the pirate crew. However, rather than being cowed, Starker is hardened and confirmed in his hatred for the Pirates as he watches them victimize other innocents. He begins observing the Pirates closely as they practice their deadly combat skills in their leisure hours. Once he is caught "spying" on Slago, a pirate whose specialty is knife-throwing. Slago has him stood up against a wall with a fruit atop his head to serve as a William Tell-like knife target! The Pirates are impressed with the boy's "nerve" as he stands without blinking or flinching as Slago's hurled knife slams into the fruit on his head! Nonetheless, he is punished with a blow and warned against future "spying". But Starker is not deterred. He is totally focused on revenge, and "to get that revenge, I knew I had to be TOUGHER and BETTER than they were". Though he still pretends to be cowed in front of the pirate crew, he sets up a secret practice area in an unused hold where he can emulate Slago's skills with a stolen knife from the galley and practice combat moves against a dummy. He also wanders the ship to learn every nook and cranny of it, and lifts weights to "harden my muscles to match the hardness of my heart".
"Zone day, when I had just turned eighteen," Starker begins the first stage of his revenge campaign by rebelling against Slops, his cruel master in the galley. When Slops tries to beat on him once too often, Starker fights back, takes a knife away from Slops, and beats him unconscious. Then, he hurls the senseless Slops at the feet of the pirate crew, announcing, "Meet your NEW waiter and dishwasher-- Slops is taking over THOSE chores now! I'M your new cook! Anybody object?" Will this act of rebellion win him a quick death? No; by the Pirates' rough code, "I deserved the job because I was able to beat Slops out of it", and besides, he turns out to be a better cook than Slops.
After two more years of slightly higher-status servitude, Starker, now full grown, decides it is time for him to make his real strike for freedom and vengeance! He begins by systematically disabling the pirate ship's lifeboats. Then he lays a trap for foe member of the pirate crew, tripping him with a wire strung across a corridor, rendering him unconscious with a karate chop to the throat, and taking his weapons! "A blaster, a needle gun and a knife! Now I've got a chance!" He leaves the subdued pirate alive, tied up in a tool locker; he is not bent on killing the entire crew, just the five pirates who were present at the killing of his father!
Starker smashes into a room where three pirates are playing cards. One of them is Sergio (no doubt, like the "Bridwell Drive," a backhanded tribute to a DC coworker) who is one of "the five". Starker warns the other two that his business is with Sergio and they should stay out of it. But all three go for their Ray-guns! Starker's draw is faster, and he blasts down all three! "I told you others I had no quarrel with you," says Starker, but they don't hear him, being dead along with Sergio.
Then an alarm goes off and Starker realizes his attack is being seen by closed-circuit TV on the bridge. The element of surprise gone, Starker hurls his defiance; "Hello, Captain-- I'll be coming after you-- VERY soon!" "It's the kid! He's gone wild! He's killed three of my men!" "It was funny, even after what I had just accomplished, I was still just 'the Kid' to them."
As the captain orders the crew to hunt down "the kid," Starker holes up in the engine room where he disables the lights. One of the crewmen sent after him is "Cyclops," not Scott Summers, but a one-eyed alien and one of his father's killers. Hanging from overhead pipes in the darkness, Starker seizes Cyclops by the beck with his legs! "For long minutes, powerful leg muscles stay locked around Cyclops' neck-- and then..." "That's number TWO, Dad."
Starker knocks out another pirate from behind and gets the drop on two more, leaving all three tied and gagged in a storage room. Gaining entrance to the ship's weapons room (you'd think the captain would have kept a guard on it), Starker emerges with an oxygen helmet and four cans of "paralyzo-gas" which he introduces into the ship's ventilation system. At one swoop, nearly the whole crew is put out of action! But not the captain and his two chief henchmen, who are the remaining three of "the five," and who spot the gas danger in time to don their own oxygen helmets. "And one lousy punk kid did this!" Growls the captain. "Well, there's still THREE to ONE! Let's go get him!" The three imprudently "spread out," separating in order to find Starker, and the one who finds him first is Slago, the knife artist. "Disdaining the use of a blaster, he used his favorite weapon-- and MISSED!" Starker pulls his own knife; "Let me show you HOW to do it, Slago!" He throws the knife, in a panel showing the knife hurtling almost directly at the reader; "You do it like THIS!" And now it's three killers down and two more to go. Quickly Starker meets "number four," an alien named Dondor, and Starker's draw with a blaster is more accurate. "Only one more-- THE CAPTAIN!"
Tracking the captain by closed circuit TV, Starker revels in the look of fear in his face. He catches up to the captain where he is trying to escape in a disabled lifeboat. "I knew I should have killed you back there on that rock!" "There's only one way out for you, Captain-- that's PAST ME!" "ALL RIGHT THEN- I'LL GO PAST YOU!" But he doesn't. "Two blaster a sounded almost as one," and though Starker appears to suffer an arm wound, only he remains alive! "That's the LAST ONE, Dad-- you can rest easy now!"
Two days later, Starker brings the pirate ship to a "Space Security patrol station," where he herds into custody the Pirates who are still alive, "still groggy from the Paralyzo-Gas." "There's seven D.O.A. still in the ship outside your airlock." And so, Starker's career is launched as "the richest bounty hunter around," since the rewards on the pirate crew totaled over two million credits.
As I indicated, this story left an impression on me at the time, mainly because it was more violent and brutal than I was used to in Code-approved comic books. That panel of young Starker throwing the knife particularly stuck in my mind. Even now I'm a little surprised this story got past the Code. Though it has seemed to me sometimes that the Comics Code took a more relaxed attitude toward comics set in past or future time eras than those set in the present.
The next issue of SHOWCASE featured a "present day" Manhunter 2070" story, which ended on a cliffhanger; an unconscious Starker is about to be brained by a primitive, ax-wielding alien. Did he escape? "You'll find out in the next Manhunter 2070-- IF THERE IS ONE!" There wasn't. Not only were there no further Manhunter 2070 adventures, but issue 93 was the last in the legendary original run of SHOWCASE. In interviews years later, Mike Sekowsky claimed that his previous SHOWCASE feature, "Jason's Quest" about a wandering teenage motorcyclist, sold well and would have gone to an ongoing series if DC office politics hadn't caused Sekowsky to be fired from his editorship. (Of course, in those work-for hire days, nothing would have stopped DC from continuing "Jason" with different creators if they had wanted to badly enough.). As far as I know, though, Sekowsky never claimed "Manhunter 2070" was an unsung hit. Sci-fi comics are always an iffy sales proposition, unless tied in with a non-comics franchise such as Star Wars or Star Trek, and I guess "Manhunter" fell flat on the comics stands of 1970.
I liked it, though, and would have bought a "Manhunter 2070" title if there had been one. Let us hope that Starker evaded that caveman's ax and went on to more adventures, even if we never got to read about them.