Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Post-Pointal Discussion: J'Onn J'Onzz and the Justice League
It's understandable for fans to get defensive about the sweeping changes being made to the DC Universe in December, but along with the risks, there's a lot of opportunity presented by the shake-up. From what I understand, this is much less of an Ultimate Comics DC Universe or ground zero relaunch and more of a Brand New Day widespread tweaking of existing continuity. That's how Geoff Johns' books will remain pretty much untouched, and recalls how most Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Flash history has progressed uninterrupted since the Silver Age. In short, just because Cyborg is in the new seven member core Justice League doesn't mean he's been retroactively made a founding member and left J'Onn J'Onzz out in the cold. Heck, they tried that with Wonder Woman, and look how the old history inevitably reasserted itself. Still, we're approaching the fifth anniversary of the Martian Manhunter being dropped from the JLA line-up, and this has given me cause to reevaluate his (and other heroes') role in the group.
I began to like the Martian Manhunter when I bought his Super Powers action figure in 1985, but didn't really follow him in the comics until Justice League International launched in 1987. Within my first year reading the book, Batman, Captain Marvel, Doctor Fate, Black Canary, and Dr. Light were all exiting to some degree, and being replaced by obscure characters I had never heard of. I feel this was the beginning of J'Onn J'Onzz's characterization as the "heart and soul" of the team, as a way to spin damage control with the one respected founder the creators could keep in the book. As more members came and went, and comedic elements were increasingly emphasized, the Martian Manhunter was the "straight man" who maintained the spirit of the League's heroic legacy. Just as the Alien Atlas served as a proxy Superman when the Man of Steel was withheld from heavy participation in the original Justice League of America comics, the Manhunter now had to also stand in for the Dark Knight as grim martinet, Green Lantern as the veteran of space odysseys, and Wonder Woman as the extreme foreigner commenting on our culture. Further, the Martian Manhunter was the sole member to last from 1984's doomed launch of the "New Justice League of America" until the cancellation of JLA in 2006.
However, virtually no Justice League founder had shown the lack of fidelity to the team the Martian Manhunter did prior to 1984. The insertion of "special guest stars" Superman and Batman into monthly Justice League adventures in the early '60s made the Sleuth from Outer Space largely redundant. As more and more new super-heroes joined the team, J'onzz had less and less room to operate, leading to many skipped appearances in the book. By the third year of the series, the Martian Manhunter was barely appearing at all, and he was written out entirely in 1969 after years of rare appearances. In fact, prior to 1984, the Manhunter from Mars barely showed up anywhere in comics from then on. This is likely what prompted Bronze Age fan Brad Meltzer to leave J'Onn J'Onzz out of his relaunch of Justice League of America, serving to remind everyone that the myth of the character serving in every incarnation of the team was of fairly recent vintage.
I bring all of this up because, while I had liked the Martian Manhunter for a decade, I didn't get really serious about being a fan until 1996's Justice League: A Midsummer's Nightmare mini-series. JLA was one of the first series I followed specifically because of the Martian Manhunter's involvement, along with Wonder Woman. Through JLA and back issue diving, my appreciation and knowledge of J'Onn J'Onzz grew, so I and many fans tend to see the two properties inextricably linked. The problem is that this notion doesn't bear out with the facts, and in many ways, the Justice League have held back the Martian Manhunter's development.
After a serious, artsy solo mini-series failed to impress JLI fans in 1988, writer J.M. DeMatteis continued developing the character within the pages of the team book. This built up until about 1992, when J'Onn J'Onzz's need for personal time to determine his next steps in life saw him leave the team and the series along with DeMatteis. The character seemed poised for a solo run, coming in second to Death among fans polled about heroes they most wanted to see receive a new mini-series. The result was the criminally overlooked American Secrets prestige project, which left the Martian Manhunter stuck as the primary recurring hero in the Justice League Task Force for three years. From there came the JLA, where aside from fulfilling Grant Morrison's decree that the team consist of the magnificent seven founding members, J'Onzz was also the Patron Saint of Loser Super-Heroes. The Martian Manhunter was like the official stand-in for every unpopular super-hero to have served in the League up to that point.
A generation or two of comic book readers have been taught to regard J'Onn J'Onzz as the safe, reliable given of a Justice League series. Even when he received his first self-titled series in 1998, it was treated as an adjunct to JLA and hub for other series' leftover business, like Chase, Jem and The New Gods. The impression was made that J'Onn J'Onzz couldn't stand on his own without a supporting cast full of other heroes. The only carryover from his Silver Age solo strip was an appearance or two by Diane Meade, and that was directly attributable to Mark Waid's version from the JLA: Year One mini-series. Most creators only know the character as a Justice League member, and so feel the need to invent casts and continuity in ignorance.
Additionally, when you take a hard look at his relationships within the team, J'Onn J'Onzz is something of an odd fit in the "Magnificent Seven" Justice League. While it has been established that J'Onn has been good friends with both Superman and Batman for decades, his ties to Wonder Woman and the Barry Allen Flash are at best warm acquaintanceships. The Martian Manhunter has adverse relationships with all Green Lanterns, the only semi-exception being Kyle Rayner. Aquaman is a character J'Onn seems to be fond of, but I'm not at all certain the feeling is mutual, as the Sea King has been outright abuse toward our hero on numerous occasions without any seeming remorse or reconciliatory action. As a founding member, J'Onn J'Onzz does not represent the best and brightest of the DC Universe, but an obligatory standing based on being in the right place at the right time. J'Onzz also represents the very arbitrary revisionism DC fans protest regarding the September relaunch. After all, his glorification in the '80s and '90s was based on the conceit of a Justice League founded by Dinah Lance, Hal Jordan, Barry Allen, and Arthur Curry, with no regard for the DC Trinity.
The Martian Manhunter has also been left off the new, serious take on the Justice League International. This makes sense, because J'Onzz's role in the original team was as den keeper of an immature motley crew of fill-ins while the "big guns" were getting revised Post-Crisis. J'Onzz's presence in the new line-up would cast a pall over Booster Gold, Guy Gardner, Fire and Ice, who are now trying to establish themselves as respectable and self-reliant. Of the announced line-up, J'Onn only has deep emotional ties to Batman and the Vixen, as opposed to the love of the Justice League institution that other present members served within.
Looking at the revamped Justice Leagues, I realize that the Martian Manhunter really doesn't belong as a member of either. While I have been dismayed by the many missteps in solo adventures since the Alien Atlas stopped being a Justice League fixture, I recognize the character is still waiting to have his fifty-six years of experience looked at comprehensively. Until the Sleuth from Outer Space can be fortified as a multidimensional character with something to offer outside of a team membership, he will never equal more than nostalgia and a foil for other characters to work off of. I didn't put together a daily blog for a walking storytelling device, but as a recognition of a super-hero with something significant to contribute. Let's hope somebody will make that apparent again, sooner rather than later.