Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Slow Steady Death of J'Onn J'Onzz



Folks who've been reading this blog for a bit may recall that Michael Netzer was a bit surprised by my lack of commitment to his Quixotic crusade to save J'Onn J'Onzz. You see, while I love the character, I recognize the difficulties that come with him. He's difficult to write, too powerful, has yet to wear an appealing costume, and is only modestly popular at best. I'd much prefer he die in as convincing a manner as possible, despite it being entirely unlikely to stick, until a creator with a strong handle decides he must return. Otherwise, we end up with another confusing debacle like Bloodwynd or that last mini-series where he turned into an irritable Skrull vinyl fetishist to make him kewl.

Another vocal fan of the character with an objective viewpoint is Scipio at The Absorbascon. He's made a case for saving J'Onn, another against it, written a theme song for him, considered him the perfect hero to tie together the entire DC Universe, and campaigned for an archive edition.

On the other hand, he's always requesting the character be altered. He should become a black man, return to his former beat in Middleton or as noted here, take on a whole new supporting cast of muchly unrelated also-rans or just curl up and die. This sort of thing drives me nuts, because he knows enough about the character's earliest JLofA appearances to know his primary power in that contact was super-breath, and claims the Manhunter as a personal favorite. If he likes the character so much, why does he want to rework him so thoroughly?

I don't believe he understands the whole of the character, and it's rare to find anyone who does. I don't claim to myself, and I've made something of an academic study of the matter. I believe Scipio is a genuine fan of the character, in much the same manner I was when I started the "Rock of the JLA" site in the late 90's/early 00's. I would never start such a site today, as most of my affection for J'Onn was at that time derived from his interpretation as a member of the JLA between 1987-1997. I was defining the team through the character, and vice versa, rather than comprehending the Manhunter on his own terms. Also, I was using the site and a slice of the character's history to "prove" how great he was amongst all other heroes.

Some months back, I wrote Of Hook Hands and Idol-Heads about this fallacy in my thinking. Scipio can correct me if I'm wrong, but I suspect he only recently was exposed to the Manhunter's solo adventures of the 50's through the "Showcase" volume. That collection was mostly written by Jack Miller and Dave Wood, two of the worst writers of the Silver Age. Scipio has an advantage over me regarding those stories, as I've made a point of not reading more than one story every few weeks, and he's gone through the whole thing. I remember how disillusioned I was when I started reading J'onn's 60's adventures by that same crew, and seeing how epically awful they were. This was Ed Wood level schlock, but with fewer charming idiosyncrasies. It initially made me want to disavow any connection between the Pre- & Post-Crisis incarnations of the character. However, as noted in "Hook Hands," I came to realize that denial was just a coping mechanism to avoid accepting the character, warts and all.

When I look at Scipio's proposed "Dynastic Centerpiece," all I see is a fan fiction square peg trying to force its way into the icosagon that is the entire, conflicting, exasperating whole of Martian Manhunter's being.

  • L-Ron was Max Lord's sidekick when Oberon was away, and only occasionally interacted with J'Onn.
  • Dubbilex is a Jack Kirby creature telepath that may have met J'Onn in passing during some crossover or another, but has only a surface resemblance in common.
  • Metamorpho served on multiple teams with the Manhunter, including the JLI and Outsiders, without there sharing nary a word.
  • Red Tornado usurped the Manhunter's role in the Justice League of America for over a decade and contributed to his extended exile from comics (late 60's-mid 80's.) If anything, they should be enemies, and in fact have fought on at least one occasion with no friendship to speak of.
  • Fire was never especially close to J'Onn, aside from a racist and/or apocryphal depiction of the character in one issue of John Ostrander's solo series.
  • You may note I refer the J'Onn J'Onzz heroic persona as just "Manhunter" throughout this text, because once the character became a super-hero in the 60's, that's how he was referred to. Every other Manhunter since the "Manhunter from Mars" was introduced in the 50's has stepped on his title, as he was in a sense the Silver Age incarnation of the only DC character to have had the name before him, Paul Kirk, a character retired long before the Golden Age ended. Scipio's suggestion to add the current bearer of the title into his orbit, Kate Spencer, fails to recognize her culpability in his "death." Dan Didio is a fan of the character after all, to such a degree he's sworn to keep her adventures in print somewhere for as long as he's at DC. With one "Manhunter" promised the title in perpetuity, J'Onn J'Onzz only dilutes "her" brand, right?
  • The Question, either incarnation, has no historical relevance to J'Onn J'Onzz whatsoever.
  • King Faraday, who's connection comes from one Elseworlds mini-series.
  • Miss Martian, who I'm not sure has ever met the Martian Manhunter.
That only leaves Snapper Carr, a legitimate if painful option, the certain standing of Gypsy, and the highly tenuous Reverb, who's only real claim is through a mostly undocumented relationship to Gypsy as a former teammate. Where is their a genuine connection to Manhunter history here? His resurrected parents and brother? Former police force associates Captain Harding, Diane Meade, or Lt. Saunders from the 50's? Sidekick/pet Zook from the 60's? Martian Frienemy Re's Eda from the 70's & former lover J'en from the 80's? Former love interest and teammate Vixen? Dr. Saul Erdel? Did they kill off Oberon, or is he a free agent again? Didn't he get along well with Parisian liaison Cartherine Colbert? His address book really blew up in the 90's, from Jemm & his fiance to Glenn Gammeron to Cameron Chase and more?

This is part of the reason J'Onn J'Onzz will soon be dead: People assuming there isn't more to the character and history than is commonly known, or defining him through jaundiced perspectives. I accept part of the blame for that, as I continue to fail in my mission with this blog. I have kept focusing on churning out story synopsis for set periods in sequence, or posting filler art to lighten up the history lesson/give myself a breather. I don't have enough character bios up. I haven't explored huge swaths of history. I've rarely explained what about the character drives me to make this effort, or what I've discovered about the character's nuances from this undertaking. It isn't enough to post information with philosophical interpretation and balanced recommendations. I've repeatedly stated that part of the point of this blog, really the lion's share when I think about it, is to influence and improve the Manhunter from Mars' representation and regard in future endeavors. Perhaps it's too little too late, But I intend to try harder. Regardless, there is a future for J'Onn J'Onzz, and I suppose it begins with an ending, but this too shall pass...

6 comments:

Scipio said...

"L-Ron was Max Lord's sidekick when Oberon was away, and only occasionally interacted with J'Onn."

C'mon;

"Leave the ducks alone" is one of comics' greatest moments, Frank!

Luke said...

Well, if it's any consolation, I have learned quite a bit about the Manhunter from Mars and his history thanks to your blog. More than I ever thought existed, quite frankly. It's a tough job to sell people on the history of a character when the majority of your audience (read: comic book bloggers) are only interested in how to take something from 40 years ago out of context, or complaining about how everything sucks, or otherwise poking little jabs at the medium and hobby they claim to enjoy. And unfortunately, the Manhunter just falls into that "easy to poke fun at" category.

Can he support his own title? I think he can support his own feature perhaps. Same with Aquaman, and Hawkman, and the Atom. (There's an idea: DC could bring back Adventure Comics, and put Manhunter and Aquaman in it as co-features.) It just seems that the market will only support these characters for so long before deciding that they want another Superman or Batman title, or some other new heroine that will make the Newsaramanians happy. Which is sad, really. But unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much to do at this point.

That you disagree with Scipio's Dynastic Centerpiece for the Manhunter is understandable. So I say you should counter it: create an overview of a proposal for the Manhunter, and how to make him work as solo star, either in his own title or his own feature. I'd very much like to hear how you would put such a series together.

Frank Lee Delano said...

Scipio, I didn't forget the ducks, but I did forget the year+ L-Ron was J'Onn's teammate in the JLTF. That's my bad.

Luke, I'm glad the blog works for you. I've gotten a hardy laugh out of a lot of the poke-fun blogs, though. Most of those guys have read far more comic books than is remotely healthy, and the jabs are a vent for their frustration that the weight of history rarely sinks in with any permanance. It all becomes nonsense to them, and the madness of it all is then explored. ...nurgh's... still more serious than all that, but owes part of its existence to my own need to vent.

I learned the meaning of the word "bifarcation" from the number of times I've talked with Rob at the Aquaman Shrine about his character and mine sharing another run in Adventure Comics. When Marvel was building its universe in the 60's and DC followed suit, it made sense for characters to have full-length titles of their own. Today though, there are so many beloved characters seen so irregularly, not to mention creative talents that can't produce 22 pages monthly, that the two should really be combined into dedicated anthologies. The problem is not the format, but the lack of comittment to quality characters and talent on "relevant" stories.

As for the rest of your suggestions, consider them taken and/or in process...

Nick said...

I don't think it's quite fair to write-off Ms. Martian just because the two characters haven't met yet. It's actually pretty ridiculous that they haven't met. A White Martian appears on the superhero scene pretending to be a Green Martian and J'onn has nothing to say about it? It's an oversight that needs to be addressed at some point.

Ms. Martian did explicitly claim to have modeled her superheroic identity after J'onn, and her future counterpart even calls herself Martian Manhunter. She is definitely built as the teenage female version of J'onn. That much is obvious. They've just dropped the ball on interaction between the two.

Adama said...

Frank, I'm going to throw in with Luke and give you mad props for the blog. I've always been a bit of an MM fan, but this blog has taught me so much about the character that my appreciation has reached new heights.

I'd also love to see a MM/Aquaman Adventure comics type story.

Frank Lee Delano said...

Oy! A lot of comments while I was away. Let me see...

Nick, Geoff Johns knocked out a slew of Dynastic Kid Variations as part of his next-to-last story arc. Miss Martian not only served in that respect and as an obvious red herring in the Titans Traitor subplot, but also allowed for another tug at his "Kingdom Come" fetish. Beyond that, she was just another Supergirl, handled as cavalierly and swiftly abandoned as her template. Look for an obligatory appearance in "Tribute" and then no further connection to her namesake for years (if ever.) She looks better white, anyway.

Adama, glad you dig it, and I totally agree about Aquaman!