Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Martian Knock-Offs: Red Tornado
This is a very special day for the blog my friends, because I have decided to finally discuss the Red Tornado in detail.
You see, when I started my first Martian Manhunter fan site, The Rock of the JLA, I had no particularly strong feelings about the fellow. He was this guy who appeared on the covers of a bunch of Justice League of America comics I never read, because you'd get past that George Pérez surface and find Don Heck or George Tuska underneath. There was a mini-series I never read, but the full page ad was nice, and a Super Powers Collection action figure I never owned. Basically, the Red Tornado was on his way out before I really came into the DC Universe in a big way after cutting my teeth at Marvel. Plus, he stayed away until Primal Force, where I went, "oh hey, I remember that guy." Then in 1999, I began doing serious research into the Martian Manhunter for my site, and like Jim Garrison, I could not deny the many and ominous connections with Red Tornado.
Don Markstein offered "Answer: A red-skinned android invented in 1968 by a master comic book villain as part of a plan to defeat the publisher's most prominent superhero team, who winds up joining the team instead, and named after one of the publisher's more obscure 1940s characters." The question? "Who is The Vision?" Markstein went on to explain that Red Tornado and the Vision debuting within months of each other was probably sheer coincidence, then moved on to one of the shortest biographies I've ever seen on his site. The problem isn't so much in the seeds, but in how the Red Tornado's garden was tended. R.T. took on a human identity like The Vision, began a romance with a human woman like The Vision, and even became a parent like The Vision. Each had big villainous turns in the '80s, followed by being disassembled and spending most of the '90s metamorphosing into different forms. Both were given needlessly overcomplicated retroactive origin stories meant to tie into the continuity of previously unrelated characters. The one trail Red Tornado blazed was being downgraded from team player to mentor figure for a bunch of under-aged heroes.
How does this relate to the Martian Manhunter? Well, J'onn J'onzz was introduced into the Justice League as their Superman stand-in, because editor Mort Weisinger wouldn't sign off on the Man of Steel being a regular for fear of diluting his brand. When the team book began dipping in sales, Jack Liebowitz asked why they didn't use Superman more, and upon receiving the answer, explained that Mort didn't own Superman, so use him. This led to the Martian Manhunter slowly getting pushed out of the book due to redundancy and more popular solo characters coming onto the team. Besides, the Manhunter from Mars had his own book with its own editor, so why bother with the headache? When Denny O'Neil took over writing JLofA, he preferred the less powerful, more realistic characters, and packed the Martian Manhunter's bags for good... in 1969.
After his two issue debut in 1968, Red Tornado returned the following year in the very next issue after J'onn J'onzz's big send off. He turned up for another couple of issues in 1970, then was joined by Martian Manhunter (in a cameo) upon the book's hundredth issue. That was in 1972, the first year J'onn J'onzz was seen since '69, and was now tending to his people as they settled on a new planet. By 1973, Len Wein was writing the book, and The Avengers had changed the game so that teams were most popular when they mixed major heroes with their own books that couldn't be altered in a major way with characters "owned" by the team title that could offer melodrama and significant changes over the course of their adventures. Since Wein was comfortable with more powerful heroes and the Martian Manhunter now lacked a series of his own, there was no reason he couldn't come back to the team and the scene in general... except for Red Tornado.
R.T. had been appearing at regular intervals in the book, and served as DC's parallel to the Vision, something '70s creators seemed to dig on. Red Tornado was a bald-looking, solid red guy with a blue cape. He was somewhat morose and withdrawn, struggling to relate to humanity. He took the rather generic name of "John Smith," and disguised himself as a thirtysomething white male prone to donning trench coats to blend in. His supporting cast consisted of an attractive blond woman who acted as a romantic interest and her adorable adoptive daughter. R.T. had anger management issues, but was a stalwart member of the team throughout the Bronze Age.
Detective John Jones had an adorable adopted pet/sidekick, and spent years working with an attractive blond co-worker/romantic interest. When not disguised as a human, he was a bald, solid green guy with a blue cape. Before reintroducing Red Tornado as a more volatile character, Denny O'Neil wrote the Martian Manhunter as emotionally unstable, morose, withdrawn, and irrationally hostile. Len Wein wrote a more even-tempered take in the one issue Martian Manhunter got to guest star in after Red Tornado had taken his place in the Justice League. He could perhaps have made more, but what's the point of having two characters of similar looks and demeanor who function in a similar capacity in the same book? Only after Red Tornado left did J'Onn J'Onzz become a stalwart member of the team from the end of the Bronze Age through to just a few years ago.
Amusingly enough, like the Martian Manhunter, Red Tornado was demonized before dropping out of the comics scene for about a decade with few appearances of note, before returning as part of an ill-fated multicultural super-team. R.T. never enjoyed his own JLI, jumping straight to his own Justice League Task Force as a supervising adult amongst Young Justice. Also, after decades without any collar and another fifteen years with a folded one, Martian Manhunter began popping his vampire style in emulation of the Vision, right around the same time Red Tornado began folding his collar like J'Onn J'Onzz.
You might ask why I would hold up one character as worthy of admiration, and another as a despicable rip-off, if they are in fact so similar. You might even ask why John Smith couldn't perhaps be invited into the unofficial John Jones "family." This gets back to the other reason I developed strong feelings about the Red Tornado: he sucks.
For instance, J'onn J'onzz's debut was preceded a year earlier by Roh Kar, First Lawman of Mars, a slightly goofy character with potential that was reshaped into a more commercial form for the Manhunter from Mars strip. While few would count him as the first Silver Age super-hero, J'onn J'onzz certainly anticipated Julie Schwartz's sci-fi detectives, who would soon revive the genre. Red Tornado was preceded by Ma Hunkel, a slightly goofy character from nearly thirty years earlier. However, the original Red Tornado was one of the few DC heroines of the early Golden Age, a tough husky woman who made up for her lack of abilities and resources with moxie. The android Red Tornado was yet another fit white male in appearance to come out very late in the Silver Age with incredible inborn powers he used to be a whiny, ineffectual "hero" granted near immediate access to the JLA. While few would count him as the first Bronze Age super-hero, John Smith certainly anticipated the worst tendencies of "feet of clay" heroes the fan-writers of the "Me" decade adored.
Part of the appeal of the Alien Atlas for many is that he seriously has more powers than Superman. Red Tornado, meanwhile, blows. He creates tornadoes that can gust at others or propel himself. Even when he became the "Wind Elemental," the only difference was that Red Tornado blew more. Both the Martian Manhunter and Red Tornado are "jobbers" who get knocked out to make other heroes look good. J'Onn is known for getting back up again, or continuing a losing battle to the brink of exhaustion. Smith is known for getting shattered to pieces, then skipping runs of issues until someone bothers to put him back together again. J'Onn is always solemn because of the deaths of his family and race, but he is known for his quiet dignity and droll wit. Smith is always moping because he's a little wimp, even though he has a loving girlfriend, adoptive daughter and supportive teammates (despite his being such a lousy, unreliable, frequently treacherous super-hero.) Yes, J'Onn needed pants for a very long time, but at least the most distinctive aspect of his costume isn't bright yellow directional arrows like one would expect to use as a guide to the nearest freeway entrance. Finally, the Martian Manhunter has the simple, elegant origin of being accidentally transported to Earth and trapped here, but deciding to make the best of things by helping his adoptive home. Red Tornado was a robot built by a mad scientist who often fought the JLA to infiltrate the Justice League, but decided to do good against his programming, except it turns out he was really an alien Tornado Tyrant who had fought Adam Strange, and there's something about a Tornado Champion, but he's an air elemental of the Earth and... Let me be honest. I still don't understand what the Red Tornado's origin is supposed to be. I just know that he crawled out of the four color primordial slop to plague us all.
Unlike Rob Kelly's Grudge Against Shazam, I don't just resent Red Tornado for being "The Usurper" who helped cape-block Martian Manhunter's return to comics throughout the 1970s. I genuinely feel that the Red Tornado embodies much of what was and continues to be wrong with comics books. He has a terrible set of origins dependent on ties to impenetrable continuity, a lousy personality, lame powers, an ugly costume, he wipes his rust hole on his legacy status, and exists in opposition to racial and gender diversity in comics. Red Tornado is a character who makes a comic book worse simply by being in it, but is perfectly willing to actively push a book over the abyss with his distasteful activities. He was, is, and will forever be "The Usurper" to me, irredeemable and begging to finally be destroyed to make way for a better use of the trademark.