Sunday, January 8, 2012
Martian Manhunter Mark III
Crisis on Infinite Earths was the game changer. The DC Universe had essentially been rebooted in the Silver Age, but that was because their super-hero line had mostly gone moribund. What brought the genre back was the radically revised and novel take on the Flash concept. From there, the more imaginative and of-the-time the reworking, the bigger the success. The more faithful the revival, the more modest the impact. That's why the Flash and Green Lantern still had books being published going into Crisis on Infinite Earths, while Hawkman-- not so much. An argument could be made against the Atom, but Al Pratt was bush league during the 1940s, so Ray Palmer making the b-list was a major improvement. Marvel Comics did pretty much the same thing as DC in the 1960s, except they had far less loyalty to their Golden Age roots, keeping Captain America and the Sub-Mariner as contrasts to a brand new world of heroes.
Anyway, COIE showed that you could reboot an entire universe in progress and make it a critical and commercial success that injects new vitality into your entire line. However, there was a lot of fighting, missteps, and a general lack of consensus following COIE. A sort of "expansion pack" could be found in Zero Hour: Crisis in Time, which codified the then-current DCU through a set timeline that excluded problematic deviations. Infinite Crisis was meant to be an anniversary sequel that would give DC another shot in the arm, but there was too much confusion throughout the book as to its aims, to the point where changes were still being made to the material as it transitioned from periodical to collected edition. Its only truly lasting changes were the reintroduction of the multiverse and a new Blue Beetle. Final Crisis, while a better executed event, still only amounted to killing off the New Gods and completing the transition of the Marvel Family to fully radioactive status. Curiously, it was Flashpoint, a Flash-centric dud of a crossover involving a lot of garbage non-canon tie-ins, that ended the Post-Crisis DC Universe with a whimper instead of a bang.
The reason I bring this up is that, all things considered, the Silver Age Manhunter from Mars wasn't any kind of a big deal. It was a back-up strip in the worst selling Batman book at a time when DC seriously considered cancelling all of them, and it tried to exploit whatever fad came along. The property was based on mashing up a watered down version of the crime comics that had been crushed by the 1950s crusade against perceived causes of juvenile delinquency and the lightweight science fiction that survived the collapse of EC Comics. When super-heroes got hot, J'onn J'onzz started flying his cape proudly while acting as a Superman stand-in for the Justice League of America until getting pushed aside by the real thing. Whenever everybody got an alien, imp, or pet sidekick, Zook qualified as all three. From Big Eyed Monsters to men from V.U.L.T.U.R.E., J'onn J'onzz tried and typically failed to get down with whatever was happenin', until he transitioned from Detective Comics to House of Mystery to sporadic guest star. Aside from co-founding the JLA, the Martian Manhunter was an also-ran, and meant little to nothing in the Bronze Age.
Crisis on Infinite Earths was where J'Onn J'Onzz began to matter. He'd only begun appearing regularly again after a thirteen year absence as a member of a very esoteric and poorly received Justice League line-up. As an extremely powerful cosmic character, he was the only current member of that grand old super-team to really fit the scale of Crisis. While better known teammates sat on the sidelines, Martian Manhunter was given a comparatively meaty role. The Alien Atlas' role in the Justice League of America series expanded, and he was the only member to transition to a relaunched volume. Once again standing in for Superman as resident powerhouse, Justice League International proved a huge success, with J'Onzz playing straight man and den mother amidst a comedic troupe. The Martian Manhunter broke out in two mini-series as a result, and was the featured leader of a modestly successful spin-off, Justice League Task Force.
By this point, the character was completely unrecognizable when compared to his prior publishing life. The Silver Age Martian Manhunter was a young man stranded on Earth, occasionally making contact with his parents and little brother on Mars. John Jones had a pet dog and friends on a minor metropolitan police force. He had no telepathy, and most of the time his shapeshifting was limited to switching from human to alien form. He was a good natured fellow who had inconsequential adventures involving amusing "threats." The Modern Age jettisoned all of that, as Mars went from a futuristic utopia to a long dead world. J'onzz was the last living Martian following a plague that saw his wife and daughter perish before his eyes. The Modern Manhunter was solemn, what humor he had left sardonic, and his power usage was much different. As the character progressed to his own solo series, he carried with him a tragic air. His brother turned up as a serial killing maniac, and his other foes tended to be inclined toward a similarly grisly sociopathy.
A defining characteristic of J'Onzz life, much of this was inherited from Superman. In the 1980s, DC swept most of their Silver Age Kryptonian lore under the carpet. Kal-El was no longer an alien who longed for the life lost amongst his own kind, but an Earthling farmboy who felt disconnected from Krypton, and tended to be fearful or distrustful when elements of his heritage turned up. The Weisinger Superman had watched lovers die and failed repeatedly in time traveling crusades to save his birth world. He knew that he could never settle down and have a normal life with a woman like Lois Lane. Aside from occasional friendly survivors, Superman's primary interaction with Kryptonians was in wrangling its worst criminals back into a deathlike prison in the Phantom Zone. For their time, Silver Age Superman stories were routinely heavy and dark in a way J'Onn J'Onzz would emulate. Due to changes in the Crisis timeline, J'Onzz often literally stood in for Superman on adventures that he was retroactively removed from. Basically, the Martian Manhunter most fans know had more to do with the Silver Age Man of Steel than the contemporaneous Manhunter from Mars.
By adopting a more commercial archetype, J'Onn J'Onzz saw his breakthrough to mainstream awareness in the late '90s, first as a member of the well-received revival of the JLA, and then amidst the televised animated series version of the same. To this day, you can still walk into a Wall*Mart or Target expecting to find some sort of Martian Manhunter merchandise.
Despite promises made otherwise, Flashpoint has proven the hardest reboot of the DC Universe since COIE. As a result, the next few years' worth of comics could shape the future of the Martian Manhunter for decades to come. The character had faded from relevancy midway through the aughts, was radically redesigned, then killed off when that proved unpopular. The Martian Manhunter had just starred in the Brightest Day maxi-series that helped restated who the character was supposed to be following his resurrection. Months after its conclusion, we're now seeing the entire universe being rethought, including the Manhunter's role in it. While his powers and attitude remain seemingly the same, he does not appear to be the "heart and soul" of the central heroic team of the entire line. In fact, despite being linked to the Justice League, former teammates like Green Lantern Guy Gardner don't appear to even know who the fellow is. Instead, the Martian Manhunter seems to be part of the cold, calculating, clandestine super-ego of the multiverse, Stormwatch. For years, J'Onzz was among the more spiritual and ethical heroes around, but has now traded his pacifistic race for one of warriors willing to brutally trespass in the minds of combatants.
Recent comments in Stormwatch bring into question elements of the Modern Martian Manhunter taken for granted over the past quarter-century. For instance, his race may not be dead, and more importantly, they may not even be Martian. The Daemonites of the Wildstorm Universe looked like bipedal Brood, but the pale ones popping up all over the DCnÜ with elements of invisibility, intangibility and shapeshifting seem awfully similar to White Martians. J'Onzz himself seems more violent and secretive, so what are his origins and motivations today? If he's no longer one of the most beloved heroes on DC Earth, how does he relate to humans, metahumans, and other aliens? The answers to these questions could determine whether the Manhunter from Mars remains a known quantity outside comics who hasn't quite managed to sustain a solo career. It could build him up, or wash him out like in the Bronze Age. Whichever way the worm turns, it seems likely that fans will have to adjust to not knowing who this new Martian Manhunter really is, and how they relate to him. Personally, I'd like to see an effort made to play with more of J'onn J'onzz's publishing history, working to make him more unique and essential while acknowledging the efforts of past creators. Regardless, this initiative will hopefully lead to compelling stories as we learn the rules of this protagonist and his canon in a universe unlike the one we knew...