Monday, June 25, 2012
Motivating the Manhunter from Mars
I had a nice "I'm feeling down, let's go buy some stuff" Friday, which included purchases of the new Fiona Apple album (not feeling it yet,) the much less new two disc Blu-Ray of Grindhouse, and a book on writing from archetypes that I'm sure I'll get a lot of mileage from around here. I'm not a big fan of Robert McKee style writing from formula, any more than I like the pointless meandering inconsistency of modern comics, but I love putting concepts into a box to see whether they fit well or wiggle out in compelling ways. It's good to know what the rules are, so you can figure out how, where, and why to break them. Linda Seger's Making A Good Script Great apparently outlines seven options for essential character motivations. I initially groaned over the immediate realization that they were clearly adapted from Maslow's hierarchy of needs, until I noticed that two levels were added that do reflect the needs of characterization. What interested me enough to point them out here is the realization that Martian Manhunter can be found lacking in these basic motivations. In the Silver Age, J'onn J'onzz was teleported from Mars to the lab of Professor Mark Erdel. The Martian immediately demonstrated that his physiological needs were reasonably accommodated by Earth atmosphere. In the 1988 revision of his origin, inventor Saul Erdel brought J'Onzz to Earth cradling the body of his deceased daughter, and was nursed back to health to keep J'Onn from expiring from the same plague. However, that was established in the span of a few pages, so the Martian Manhunter's larger story is not motivated by survival as a pressing concern. In 1955, J'onzz swiftly shapeshifted into human form. Despite the sudden death of the man responsible for his displacement, John Jones could walk amongst humanity, and had incredible powers that allowed him to do things like extract gold from the ocean. From 1988, J'Onzz's acclimation was shown to be a bit slower and more reliant on the power of telepathy to allow Jones to earn a living in his chosen field. Therefore, safety and security just aren't a major issue for an Alien Atlas. John Jones' first job was as a policeman, exactly what he wished to be under the circumstances of having to build a life on Earth. He was readily embraced as a rising star in the department, so any alienation J'Onzz might have felt was at least partially related to his desire to keep humans at arms length over ill-defined concerns. Only since the late '90s have writers delved into issues Jones had with relating to humans, and vice versa. This worked alright in a "Year One" setting, but his modern appearances had already established him as one of the most universally beloved members of the Justice League. How would a need for love and belonging stand up to that kind of acceptance? In most stories, the Martian Manhunter has been portrayed as self-sacrificing and bereft of ego, which helps him take his licks as a jobber trampled under more powerful villains in service to glorifying more popular heroes. There's never been any indication that J'Onzz is insecure in this role, and has in fact expressed disdain for heroes who in any way seek glory, or see the job as anything more than a necessity for the greater good. He's too together for esteem & self-respect to be a goal rather than fully attained. Writers like Mark Waid and Gerard Jones spent a lot of their time handling J'Onn J'Onzz within the scope of his early years on Earth, confounded by humanity and his fellow heroes. However, the job of a Sleuth from Outer Space is to figure things out in a big way. After decades stuck on this planet, J'Onzz is typically portrayed as a sardonic optimist; someone who recognizes our foibles, but has faith in our ultimate good. He is neither naive nor confused, his opinion validated within his continuity. While J'Onzz has tended toward meditation and spirituality, as well as reflection on the tragedies that have plagued his existence, he still tends to be more of a calm wise man than a seeker into mystery. The need to know and understand isn't the compulsion for the Green Guru the way it is for, say, Batman. To skip a step, when you have more powers than Superman allowing you to become pretty much anything your mind could conjure, self-actualization is a routine option, not a drive. That leaves perhaps the best (but far from seamless) motivation for the Manhunter from Mars as aesthetics. "The need for balance, a sense of order in life, a sense of being connected to something greater..." That fits the religious zeal of his membership in the Justice League from Crisis on Infinite Earths through Infinite Crisis, and his aimlessness since 2006, although his embrace of the "Others" in the mini-series from that year also fits. A similar approach was taken in his New 52 alignment with Stormwatch, which is of course undercut by that association's not surviving a year in print. As I've stated in the past, I feel the Martian Manhunter has been developmentally stunted by his decades on super teams, and needs solo space to grow beyond the status of a well liked also-ran. The eponymous 1988 Ostrander/Mandrake series suffered from the sense of J'Onn J'Onzz as a college graduate who moved back in with his parents. Instead of charging into the greater world and defining himself, J'Onzz just hung out with his JLA buddies and got into fights with his brother. He hooked up with this one chick from Saturn, but she was like, dating this prince, and nobody even met her. Booster and Beetle thought J'Onn made her up, then pranked him out of some Chocos. J'Onn was always talking about stuff that happened years ago, instead of what he was doing with himself today. It was pretty sad, but to quote Wonderfalls, J'Onn as the aesthetic created for himself a "pressureless, expectation-free zone." In his origin story, J'onn J'onzz decided to secretly police the Earth when he realized that he would be stranded here for the foreseeable future, and that we were so backwards as a civilization that we needed whatever help that he could give. The various other unruly alien invaders demonstrated the need for an extra-terrestrial protector, while the Master Gardener demonstrated the danger of J'Onzz taking his governance into the realm of dictatorship. The Martian Manhunter did not share scientific discoveries or in any other way try to advance humanity. He followed Star Trek's prime directive, never interfering with "the internal development of alien civilizations." Martian Manhunter sought only to maintain an equilibrium within which he and the people surrounding him could continue their separate existences peacefully without widespread chaos and destruction taking hold. The DCnÜ's Stormwatch has to date held that to be their own mission statement, which was why J'Onn J'Onzz was such an excellent fit for the team. Acting in secret, snubbing their noses at gaudily costumed "amateurs," defending Earth from extra-terrestrial and paranormal threats. However, of late the team's line-up and command structure has destabilized, and their effectiveness has been compromised as a result. Looking at his prior conflict with the Justice League, perhaps this imbalance will be the cause of his upcoming departure from Stormwatch. Perhaps the aesthetic will continue his personal mission alone, or with better disciplined company. So far, the New 52 has not been all that unkind to J'Onn J'Onzz, so maybe with a little clarity of purpose, the Manhunter from Mars can find resonance and increased significance to a broader audience.