Wednesday, July 16, 2008
John Jones, Manhunter of Integrity
A while back at ...nurgh... I ran a series of posts expounding my theories on comic book creations and the responsibilities that come with writing these characters (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.) Basically, it's about staying true to the seminal integrity of the creation, both out of respect and the consistent direction offered. I'd just stumbled on a batch of swell Mike Grell commissions on the net, and used them to illustrate the series. This one above is of Mike Hammer, but at least as a thumbnail, it might as well have been a take on 50's John Jones stories. While the Manhunter from Mars is often considered more a "writer's character" than a fan favorite, many in the profession have expressed their difficulty in finding a handle on the character. It's really quite simple, and I'm glad to help.
After two World Wars and a Depression, the fifties were full of hard-boiled men, some with some pretty dark passions. Crime fiction had been swollen with titillating and sadistic imagery for years, which began to manifest more generally in the cinematic genre later dubbed "film noir." These works were partially defined by their moral ambiguity, cruelty, eroticism, and the influence German expression to create a stark or surreal atmosphere. The protagonists were often possessed of undesirable traits-- obsessive, manipulative, and so on. While more realistic than earlier detective stories, there was still a desire amongst many for heroes in dire times, men of virtue to combat both the blacks and the grays of their existence. A perfect example of this was Joe Friday.
Created by Jack Webb in the late 40's, Joe Friday began life as the lead on the "Dragnet" radio show, continuing throughout the 1950's on television. Friday was aware of how awful life could be, but he didn't allow the crimes he investigated to drag him into the gutter. He wasn't a boozer, didn't mingle with femme fatales, and tried to treat everyone he encountered with respect. He carried a badge, and did his job as best he could, to investigate wrongdoing and bring perpetrators to justice. He was a professional, only drawing his gun in the most dire circumstances. No flashy car chases, no roughing up suspects. It isn't that Friday lacked emotion: he shared a chuckle with his partners, expressed contempt for dope, and could lecture you to within an inch of your life.
Fanboys have been known to complain that the Martian Manhunter is just an unimpressive Superman knock-off. There's some truth to that, but the facts are, that isn't how he started out. John Jones was very much like Detective Sergeant Joe Friday, with a bit of Phillip Marlowe and a science fiction twist. Like pulp detectives, crooks routinely got the drop on Jones in the second act, roughing him up to add tension before the final turnabout. In later years, those femme fatales Friday dodged would get their hooks into J'Onzz, and he would become a bit too quick with the fisticuffs, more akin to a Spillane character. Like many of the dime store sort, he fixates on elusive truth, sometimes despite the harm that comes with the pursuit. Ultimately though, John Jones was too rough around the edges for a drawing room detective, and too tame for noir. He's Joe Friday with x-ray vision. In most every comic, at his heart, he's still the super-cop on patrol, his primary concern the protection of others from the gray, blacks, and even whites-- at least when they take Martian form. If you just keep that in mind, it's amazing how easy it can be to stay in-character. Also remember, if he doesn't always work as a typical, He-Man American super-hero, it might be because he wasn't meant to be one to begin with.
Say, if any of this intrigues you, might I suggest another "discussion" between Jules Pfeiffer, Larry Niven and myself regarding Superman?