On The Trail Of The Hunter-Killers

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What if everything we believed about America’s place in the world were dead wrong, an elaborate 50-year fabrication designed to hide a darker, sinister truth too dangerous for us to know? It’s easy to read the newspapers and watch CNN and wonder just that. It’s a powerful myth, perhaps - if the success of The Matrix and The X-Files is any indication - the central meta-narrative of our time.

Why? Because it works; on the intellect as well as our deepest anxieties. And nowhere is it working better lately than in Top Cow’s new series Hunter-Killer.

Written by Mark Waid and illustrated by Marc Silvestri, Hunter-Killer is about an America we really wouldn’t want to know - much less live in - if it were real. Ultra-sapiens, humans possessing incredible powers and abilities, live among us. They were the product of genetic experimentation in the early part of the 20th century and so powerful, so critical to the balance of power among nations are they that the Cold War wasn’t about nuclear weapons at all, but about persons of mass destruction. But something went wrong. No one is really sure why or how, but the US ultra-sapiens program was sabotaged and destroyed, scattering these superhumans to all corners of the globe. They live in hiding now, and they are dangerous. From this threat was born the Hunter-Killer program. Ultra-sapiens themselves, their task is to hunt down the rogues from the program. If they do not surrender and come back to the program, they are summarily terminated.

Oh, and I almost forgot - for forty years the guy chilling in the Oval Office hasn’t really been running the show. But we all knew that anyway.

But it takes strong main characters to turn great premises into great stories, and Hunter-Killer has quite a few. Meet agent Samantha Argent, an ultra-sapien hunting down her own kind. Though capable and hard-nosed with a humorous streak, one reads her character wondering how much she’s really hiding. Then there’s Wolf, who makes his place as the bad-ass of the series deadly clear from the first swipe of his razor-sharp claws. Up next, Ellis, the series’ P.O.V. character. There’s just a hint of his “foreshadowing” ability early on; but we learn his true value later - The Catalog, a registry of every ultra-sapien on the planet, is encoded in his DNA. Finally, in issue #3 we meet Morningstar. The name alone, never mind what he’s up to, tells us he may be more dangerous than Wolf ever dreamed he could be.

The black-ops superhero story presents an artistic challenge - it needs as much atmosphere and intrigue as action. Not only did Marc Silvestri define the sub-genre, but after a decade strewn with imitators, he’s still the best. His panels are clean and slick, with tight linework delivering as much detail as edginess. The gorgeous colors add the finishing touches to the amped-up yet also smoldering atmosphere. The combination makes for an immediate impact, especially in the fight scenes, as dynamically framed and gracefully choreographed as anything currently found in comics. And because he’s a co-creator and not just the artist, his visual storytelling skills are working at top notch, even amid the generous amount of backstory and complex narrative.

Maintaining that narrative complexity while also delivering the adrenaline rush an action-thriller needs, Mark Waid drives the story forward by raising more questions with every answer he reveals. “The basic concept, for those new to the series,” he says, “is that we're focusing on the stealth agency who travel the world cataloguing rogue super-humans, gathering who they can use for the common good, and taking down those who are a threat to humanity. But who's behind the agency? What authorizes them, and why are they doing this? Those are the real mysteries that give Hunter-Killer a disturbing edge.”

And while sharpening that edge and deepening the mystery from issue to issue, Waid also offers some intriguing characterizations, yet doesn’t set them on clear good and evil sides. Instead, the main characters are driven by reasons that defy easy categorization and make the title a more engaging read. 

And if all this isn’t enough to get new readers on board, Waid offers a little skinny on what’s to come:

"Beginning with issue four, we're revealing a lot more about who the chessmasters are - what the agendas are that now rule the life of our main agent, Ellis, and the truths he uncovers. And issue number four may well be one of the most beautiful, subtle books that Marc Silvestri has ever illustrated; with his amused blessing, I deliberately set out to challenge him this time to draw, in large part, things he's not known for - children and jungle animals and rotted corpses and all sorts of other good stuff. Silvestri stunned me with some of his work this time out."

Issue #4 comes out soon, and the conclusion of issue #3 has made the waiting difficult. Luckily, a Hunter-Killer Dossier and Hunter-Killer Scriptbook have been released in the meantime, giving readers great looks behind the characters and the creative process that brought the series to life.

Whether you’re looking for fast-paced superhero plotting, or the character development and intrigue found in mystery/suspense titles, Hunter-Killer is well worth a look, because it has both.

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