Wednesday, July 28, 2010
The Patron Saint of Loser Super-Heroes
Everything flows from Superman, the god of super-heroes. I suppose that would make Batman a demigod, overseeing non-powered caped crusaders, darknight detectives and the like. I’m not sure that Wonder Woman qualifies as a goddess, since most super-heroines follow the mold set by the first two, but merchandisers would argue otherwise. From there, deification is almost certainly overstatement, and archetypal heroes become more like patron saints of increasingly narrow sub-divisions. Flash presides over speedsters, and Green Lantern arguable over energy projection and outer space. Depending on your denomination, Aquaman or Sub-Mariner may be the guardians of undersea agents. Spider-Man represents heroes with feet of clay, Captain America patriots, Hulk anger and physical strength. As happens with saints, every little thing is governed by somebody, like Ghost Rider being the bikers’ hero, or Punisher standing for vigilantes, and so forth. If anything, the Manhunter from Mars would be the patron saint of loser super-heroes.
The basic premise of a police detective with secret alien powers isn’t bad, but the inept writing of Jack Miller and the pleasant journeyman art of Joe Certa served the material poorly. Further, the strip quickly lost focus, and jumped onto any fad that might bolster its status as a third rate back-up in a poor selling Batman title. Cops & robbers, pulp sci-fi, super-heroes, bug-eyed monsters, spies… nothing really worked out better than keeping the strip from cancellation. After thirteen years of scrimping by, The Manhunter from Mars strip finally kissed the dirt, followed by sixteen years of mostly terrible and diminishing guest-appearances.
What saved Martian Manhunter from the dust bin of history was his association with the Justice League of America. The super-hero market had bottomed out at the end of the 1940s, but editor Julius Schwartz had begun a successful revival in 1955. One of his company’s most enduring properties was the Justice Society, which gathered many of the most popular heroes onto one team. The premise remained sound, and Schwartz already had his well received new Flash and Green Lantern to start the ball rolling. Robert Kanigher supplied Wonder Woman, but Mort Weisinger was doing just fine with his Superman books without cannibalizing his sales to benefit another title. Jack Schiff was similarly stingy with his desperately flagging Batman line, as he was afraid of diluting what brand quality he had to work with. A team book didn’t seem the place to reintroduce more solo concepts, so the super-heroes who remained in publication to work with were Martian Manhunter, Green Arrow and Aquaman. Schwartz has stated that he’d forgotten about Ollie Queen (or perhaps didn’t want to wrestle with Weisinger any more than he had to.) Martian Manhunter was allowed to become a co-founder by default, where his role was to fill in for Superman as needed. A few years later, when the actual Superman became active with the team, and more viable heroes joined over time, Martian Manhunter was discarded.
The Manhunter from Mars appeared sporadically until the mid-80s, usually in situations where he was begging for other heroes’ help, and sometimes getting into moronic fights with them first to appease the Marvel crowd. It wasn’t until JLofA writer Gerry Conway tired of having his headliners pulled out of the book by other editors that he started over with a new team of lesser lights that included J’onn J’onzz, still subbing for Superman. The Martian Manhunter was among the many heroes to become a toy in the Super Power Collection, and played token roles in merchandising tie-ins, but there was still no indication the character would ever rise above D-list status.
J’Onn J’Onzz’s big break came with the Crisis on Infinite Earths, when his Superman-Lite powers offered him a seat with the powerhouses during the event. What’s more, the revised history following Crisis rejuvenated the Man of Steel by stripping away a lot of his canonical baggage, including membership in the Justice League. This left a gaping hole in continuity for someone to fill, and Martian Manhunter was already on hand. Further, the Alien Atlas was one of the few heroes not so tied-up in revisions as to be excluded from a new League, and when Batman bowed out, Martian Manhunter took on his role as grim taskmaster. Channeling the twin gods of super-heroes, is it any wonder the Sleuth from Outer Space was finally transitioning from zero to hero?
Solo efforts for the Martian Manhunter were a bust, from his revised origin as a sort of R’brt N’vell, to his period detective dramas, to his short-lived sci-fi/horror ongoing. Still, so long as he remained in a highly visible leadership role in the JLA and as a single-bodied proxy for the World’s Finest, the Martian Marvel would command some small following. Despite never being able to pull his own weight, a poor rogues gallery, no supporting cast of interest, derivative powers and origins, a silly too common weakness, a lame costume and a great many more demerits, the Manhunter from Mars is still a power player in the DC Universe. Highly respected, he has even eclipsed heroes who alone easily outshone J’Onn J’Onzz in their day.
Now you might think that Martian Manhunter has plenty of unique powers, and so many in total that he’s destined to become truly great someday. I would dispute this. A-type personalities don’t care about passive powers like telepathy, invisibility and intangibility. When played straight, these abilities would make J’Onn J’onzz unbeatable, but decades of comics have made it perfectly clear that he is entirely beatable. Besides the omnipresent and laughable aversion to fire, vulnerability is in J’Onzz’s character to the DNA.
Realistically, humans like Batman, Black Canary and Green Arrow should all have died by now through their involvement with super teams. However, the Dark Knight is defined by being better than any super-human through his brains and skills, plus his moneymaking powers insure he will always play a pivotal role in stories that involve him. Green Arrow can be beaten, but part of his character is to be David to Goliath, the last hero standing with only arrows at his disposal, who still manages to save the day. Black Canary is the girl, and no one wants to see the girl picked on. Martian Manhunter though is insanely powerful while having only a small following and usually no presiding editor looking out for his interests. J’Onn J’Onzz is the hero who falls to make a villain look threatening and the heroes that will actually beat it look good. Even on lower tier teams, J’Onzz falls so a group effort can win the day. It isn’t Martian Manhunter’s place to be a winner.
Beyond that, because Martian Manhunter is the “name” you get when better sellers aren’t available, part of his appeal comes from his relationships with inferior super-heroes. From the street incredulity of the Detroit-based League to the silly shenanigans of the International era through the footnote trainees of the Task Force, J’Onn J’Onzz is synonymous with the lost legions. When Martian Manhunter is treated as a force to be reckoned with, it’s in a book with also-rans at his side. As a result, when the Alien Atlas stands among the most magnificent of DC’s heroic pantheon, he represents those little guys who aren’t considered good enough. The founding members of the Magnificent Seven are only six strong, because when Martian Manhunter is there, he gladdens the hearts of Vixen fans, of Booster Gold devotees, of those who mourn Damage. J’Onn J’Onzz is the geek made good, reaching lofty heights through networking, minor historical relevance, and simply being in the right place at the right time. Through the patronage of the Alien Atlas, even the most weasely, ill-conceived lameazoid super-hero can hope one day to become the least among titans.