Saturday, July 16, 2011
New Beginning, Again
I've tried to be a dutiful fanboy and take umbrage with the Martian Manhunter's exclusion from any Justice League team in the DCnÜ, potentially retroactively to the dawn of the super-hero. I even went off on a rambling tangential thought from this post, trying to sell the outrage. The truth is, I simply do not care. DC continuity never really recovered from the Crisis on Infinite Earths twenty-five years ago. The people I really feel bad for are the Justice Society fans who have once again been thrown under the bus to try and make the DC Trinity both contemporary and the "first ever" super-heroes. It doesn't really matter though, because I think this initiative will ultimately bleed fans and lead to another much needed DC Implosion. As for J'Onn J'Onzz, this is business as usual, because he's never really been much for maintaining a status quo.
Let's set the Wayback Machine to 1955. The Martian Manhunter's creative origins are shrouded in mystery to the point where it's anyone's guess Who Created the Martian Manhunter? What we can plainly see is that the John Jones, Manhunter from Mars strip started out as a crime series with a sci-fi twist starring a police detective who secretly was an alien. It's one of the reasons nobody talks about the Martian Manhunter starting the Silver Age anymore, because it was super-hero fans who defined those arbitrary "ages," and John Jones was not a super-hero. Like a number of DC back-up strips, it was trying to jump on the popular crime bandwagon, but since National was a family company, they couldn't trade in the lurid details that made EC Comics and Lev Gleason money. Following the imposition of the Comics Code Authority in 1954, National employed kid-friendly gimmicks where once an injury to the eye motif would have been the hook.
What happened was Julie Schwartz jump-started the super-hero market with new versions of the Flash and Green Lantern. Detective Comics was selling poorly, and fans were more inclined to watch detectives on their brand new televisions rather than read tepid comics like "Roy Raymond, TV Detective." Since cops and aliens weren't getting the job done, John Jones began spending a lot more time as the Manhunter from Mars. It was only when Schwartz looked to other editors' stables to round out a revival of the Justice Society of America (but trading out the high falutin' "Society" for the more Americana-like-baseball "League,") that the super-heroic Martian Manhunter was truly born.
It was an easy transition to make, because nobody cared much about the Martian Manhunter or his continuity back then. His alien name was alternately "J'onn J'onzz," "J'onn J'onz," "J'on J'onz" or "J'on J'onzz." His powers were whatever the writer said they were in a given story, and the book changed writers by the fourth strip. The character went through ten variances of physical appearance within a three year span. His only supporting cast was Captain Harding, who was pretty much just an exposition machine assigning John Jones' cases. Harding had morphed out of Jones' original commander officer, Lieutenant Saunders, with whom he was interchangeable in the first year's worth of stories.
As J'onn J'onzz made more appearances, he shifted from a scrawny creature with a Matt Groening overbite into a lantern jawed Wayne Boring type into a leaner, more graceful Everett style hero. He acquired super-villains after a while, but only two made repeat appearance through into the first half of the 1960s. Jones picked up a Lois Lane style girl helper in Policewoman Diane Meade, but without the romantic tension. When that didn't work, J'onzz gained a impish sidekick in Zook, not unlike Green Lantern's Itty, Aquaman's Quisp, and Bat-Mite. Just after the town John Jones had been patrolling for the better part of a decade finally received a name, Middletown, the biggest shake-up occurred. Detective John Jones was killed off, and stayed that way for over twenty years. Captain Harding has only made one appearance in the nearly fifty years since, Diane Meade vanished for about thirty-five years, and I don't believe Middletown has been mentioned in a DC Comics since 1977.
J'onn J'onzz moved from Detective Comics to the lead feature in House of Mystery, a corny creature feature comic. In a bid to keep old readers and hopeful gain new super-hero ones, the Martian Manhunter and Zook were given the mission of finding the Diabolu Idol-Head, a monster-of-the-month manufacturing artifact. That didn't pan out, so after about a year, the Idol-Head was destroyed, Zook's appearances became sporadic, and the Martian Manhunter abandoned his secret mountain headquarters. Instead, he was directed by a government agent named Mr. Steele to move to the Mediterranean in pursuit of the international criminal organization Vulture. Assuming the identity of deceased former associate Marco Xavier, J'onn J'onzz's personality became grim and violence prone in his relentless pursuit of Vulture's faceless leader, Mister V. Once that villain was killed in an explosion, J'onn J'onzz ended thirteen years of solo adventures.
By that point, the Martian Manhunter had already made his de facto resignation from the Justice League, but it became official when his entire origin was heavily retconned. Instead of a humble scientist on a utopic Mars accidentally whisked away to Earth, J'Onzz was a military leader in mortal conflict with the heretofore unheard of Pale Martians, specifically Commander Blanx. Defeated through treachery, J'Onzz was sent into political exile, which he spent on Earth. In the meantime, Blanx destroyed all of Martian civilization, presumably including J'onzz's mother, father, and younger brother T'omm, who'd never made more than a couple of appearances anyway. The sixties ended with J'onzz traveling the galaxy in search of the ark bearing the last survivors of Mars. This was also chronologically the last time a Pale Martian would ever be seen again. While I'm thinking about it, there was exactly one Yellow Martian, B'rett, but he only showed up for one story.
In the 1970s, J'onn J'onzz liberated the last of his people and helped them forge a new civilization. This might have been on the planet Vonn, or it might have been Mars II, because there's conflicting stories about both. The beetle-brow, possibly J'onn J'onzz's most memorable visual trait, was reestablished in 1977 after having been dropped for the previous twenty years. This period was actually the longest lasting status quo for J'onn J'onzz, since he only appeared a handful of times between 1969 (when Mars was first destroyed,) and 1984 (when the Martian Manhunter returned to Earth.) There was a popular militant uprising led by The Marshal that overthrew Mars II's government (including J'onn J'onzz) and attempted to conquer Earth. Bel Juz returned for the epic after a twelve year absence, and a new girlfriend of J'onn's named J'en was introduced. None of the three have appeared since the invasion was routed, and J'onn J'onzz stayed on Earth to co-found a new Justice League of America with lesser known/loved characters. During that run, the John Jones identity returned as a private investigator, a grandmother was mentioned for the first and last time, and the Martian deity H'ronmeer was created. Aquaman quit the team and Batman took over briefly, with Martian Manhunter getting his first stint as team leader between their terms.
By the way, somewhere in there, the kindly old scientist named Mark Erdel who died from a heart attack at the sight of the Martian he'd transported to Earth was revealed to have actually been murdered by his computer in a Hawkman story. Also, Commander Blanx and the Pale Martians had one more story in them, the extra-secret origin of the Justice League of America that revealed it had actually be founded in 1957 by Martian Manhunter, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman and Roy Raymond, with Superman, Batman and Robin abstaining until further consideration. See why I don't worry about retcons?
In 1987, the Martian Manhunter co-founded his second Justice League in three years, which saw both major roster and status changes almost immediately. J'Onn J'Onzz was a morose figure for about a year, but as the comedy of Justice League International ratcheted up, his sardonic humor and love of sandwich cookies became defining traits. This was even after his 1988 mini-series, which revealed that pretty much every Martian Manhunter story prior to 1985 was a figment of his imagination, especially if it related to fellow Martians. You see, all the other Martians were simple natives who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago, but died out in a plague. He'd been transported through space and time by a still living Saul Erdel, who cured J'Onzz of the plague and fed him the false memories to protect him from the trauma of having lost a wife and daughter. J'Onzz may have been visited by the deity H'ronmeer, or it may have been a delusion brought on by a resurgence of his illness, but the end result was the restoration of his "true" memories. Of course, Saul Erdel never turned up again after the mini-series ended. Finally, there was no Middletown, so Jones had now been in a cop in Middleton, Colorado. Oh, did I mention that it was decided in 1989 that the Justice League was actually formed by Black Canary, the Flash, Aquaman, Green Lantern and the Martian Manhunter, with Superman and Wonder Woman having never become members? No really, see why I don't worry about retcons? Also, there was a bounty hunter named Glenn Gammeron around when Mars died that hasn't been mentioned in fifteen years. Just saying.
The Martian Manhunter left the Justice League International when it temporarily disbanded, except he got possessed by Bloodwynd and joined the reformed Justice League America in that identity. Eventually, J'Onzz got his freedom, and formed the Justice League Task Force, joined by his "surrogate daughter" Gypsy, as well as his mortal enemy of the '90s (whom he rarely fights anymore) Despero, and his Justice League of America co-founder Triumph. What, another retcon? Perish the thought. See, Triumph's initial membership was retconned within his first few appearances, and a deal with Neron retconned the entire JLTF series, and Triumph is dead now (if he ever existed) anyway. Oh hey, did I mention the Martian Manhunter's devastating kryptonite of over thirty years, fire, had been revealed to be solely a psychosomatic disorder that simply triggered PTSD, but could totally be overcome?
Well, forget that. Ancient White Martians (not Pale) were released from what was essentially the Phantom Zone, tried to conquer Earth, and were defeated by lighters and gasoline. A couple of years later, it was revealed that the Martians had a telepathically transmitted virus that caused them to kinda sorta spontaneously combust after prolonged exposure to open flames. It had been engineered by J'Onn J'Onzz's newly introduced evil twin brother Ma'alefa'ak, who was still alive and killing. He captured and tortured Jemm, Son of Saturn, whose race were actually clones of Martians, created when the White and Green Martians were locked in an interstellar war. Did you know that in the original stories, J'onn J'onzz was trapped on Earth because Mars didn't have a single ship capable of interplanetary travel? So remember, the Martians were technologically comparable to Earth in 1955, but socially advanced, then socially regressed in 1969, but technologically advanced. Then they were all dead, but noble savages, and now were galactic conquerors. Speaking of the earliest J'onn J'onzz stories, he had telepathy back then. For a few stories. Then that power was forgotten for thirty years or so. Telepathy. The one power everybody knows the Martian Manhunter for being useful with. Since about 1986, give or take. P.S., J'Onn's whole family got names, and he's at least a second generation cop, not a scientist. The only scientist was Mark Erdel. Yes, Mark. Oh, and John Jones was a real dude that got killed and replaced by J'onn J'onzz (how convenient) to testify against "his" own killer. And there were Martians worshiped in Ancient Egypt still living in human bodies. And tons of other retcons from the solo series nobody remembers now, like new powers involving absorbing mass to become a giant and crap.
J'Onn J'Onzz co-founded another JLA in 1996, and after his solo series ended, it turned out that the Martian weakness to fire was actually encoded into them by the Guardians of the Universe because they were originally demonic fire creatures as seen in Fernus the Burning Martian, whom J'Onn J'Onzz regressed into after conquering his fear of fire with the help of his short-lived girlfriend, the redneck villainess Scorch, who has been in a coma since the early '00s. That was all one sentence, ya'll. Don't sweat it, as everything in that sentence got completely blown off pretty much immediately.
Surprise, the JLA disbanded, the entire universe rebooted, Wonder Woman helped found the team again, but J'Onn was booted off its latest incarnation (and ever since.) His head turned into a pickle wrapped in blue latex, and he was a really, really sour pickle, for no reason that ever made much sense. He starred in a comically inept mini-series, and then got forked to death by a random one-shot JLA villain from the 1970s. Then he became a evil zombie, and then he was alive again, but sometimes turned back into an zombie in a subplot that totally got dropped a few issues into Brightest Day... because the writers were totally winging it... as if you couldn't tell... duh. Also: pants. Also Also: Cabochon. I mention that last one just to point out that I'll never use the word cabochon again, which I only learned because they gave the Martian Manhunter a cabochon.
I might mention "cabochon" again. I kind of wing it, too. Like how I just remembered to mention J'Onn J'Onzz was briefly an Earth elemental. I'm sure that doesn't make Alan Moore want to swallow the business end of a pistol.
John Jones, right? Somehow, J'Onn J'Onzz was definitely police detective John Jones in the 1950s, and was still so until the early days of the Justice League, and intermittently since. I don't know how that works. Occasionally, he's also Black John Jones, Angry White John Jones, and Fox Mulder, just to keep up plausible deniability. He's been an undercover double agent in the Department of Extranormal Operations a few times, but I think their screening got beefed up by the Patriot Act.
Who is Batman? Rich kid traumatized by his parents' murder who trained for years to become a well-equipped vigilante battling routinely recidivist gangsters and psychopaths in Gotham City with the help of a "family." Has a month gone by since 1940 when that statement wasn't true?
Who is Superman? Survivor of the destruction of the planet Krypton who uses his fantastic powers to battle a small group of decent regular villains and a lot of crap ones while working in his secret identity as reporter Clark Kent alongside his lady love/rival Lois Lane. Has a month gone by since 1938 or so when that statement wasn't true?
Who is the Martian Manhunter? A green-skinned alien with a blue cape transported to Earth from his home planet by a scientist named Erdel who uses his powers for good. That's the constant. He wasn't transported on accident by either Saul Erdel, and the second one specifically recruited J'Onzz to battle another Martian named D'Kay. He's been a cop at times, and a private investigator at others, so you could maybe say he's been a detective of some sort a fair amount of his career. He usually has some kind of flight, super-strength, widely varying degrees of shape-shifting and invisibility, but the rest of his powers come and go. The basics of his costume were stable for most of his career, but almost everybody who ever drew it offered noticeable tweaks. He's had at least five distinctly different personalities. The percentage of villains he's fought more than once should be in the low single digits, and I think you could count the ones he's fought ten or more times on the fingers of one hand. With the sole exception of Captain Harding, J'onn J'onzz has never had a supporting cast member last for five consecutive years. He's often a member of some form of Justice League, but usually some sort of weird "off brand," and with enormous gaps in service (mid '60s until mid '80s + 2006-present = > half the existence of the team.) The "Magnificent Seven" League would be the longest lasting quasi-supporting cast, lasting about thirteen years if you combine the '60s and '90s series. Second place would go to the JLI, at six years (if you count Bloodwynd,) yet he has abstained from four revivals to date (two Superbuddies mini-series, "Generation Lost," and now the DCnÜ incarnation.) Even that "heart and soul of the Justice League" business doesn't hold up if you crunch the numbers.
This brings me to the point of this history lesson. J'Onn J'Onzz did not serve in every incarnation of the JLA, just a lot of little ones. He has few non-super friends with any longevity (including "daughter" Gypsy, with whom he served two three-year runs nearly a decade apart,) and even fewer reoccurring foes. He is not "owed" a slot in any version of the Justice League, and in fact has a history of blowing off reunions of past groupings. His fidelity to both the "Magnificent Seven" and JLI is certainly up for scrutiny. Should his having been on Earth since the 1950s remain true, but acting in secret decades before the arrival of "super-heroes," the new continuity would be the closest the character has come to his original conception in our definition of "ages." It would also vastly elevate his status as an elder titan, since he would now be out of the JSA's shadow, and clearly senior to newbies like Superman. Working with a super-spy group on an international scale, up to and including a more lethal "edge," would be a return to the days of Marco Xavier vs. Vulture. Just as when J'Onzz helped welcome the Charlton heroes into the DC Universe through the JLI, J'Onn is once again an ambassador, this time to the Wildstorm properties.
Frankly, I think it's about time the Martian Manhunter stopped being "best buddies" with the JLA, stuck in the "friend zone" as the safe, non-competitive team mascot amongst multimedia icons. The current mainstream DC readership is uncertain and mistrustful of Wildstorm, which to them makes the Martian Manhunter the star of Stormwatch. Not being a boring "mom and apple pie" American super-hero has likely already endeared him to international and nonconformist DC/WS readers. Hopefully, this will not only be a return to the character's roots, but will allow him to take root and grow after so very long as having such "potential." Heck, maybe he could even help diversify the new team, the way Cyborg's supplanting of J'Onzz adds a drop of color to the League. The Authority had a Latina and an Asian, so maybe a new John Jones can finally be like all the black dudes that end up voice/live acting the character. Also, the new team like to wear normal clothes, so maybe we'll see a John Jones in a neat blue suit with a fedora after too many years of strict adherence to spandex? I'm excited, because maybe he can finally stop being an obligatory, neglected seventh among the "magnificent," and instead become something truly sublime in a new sphere of influence.