Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Saturnian Salutations: The Secret Origin of J'Em, Son of Mars

Who is Jemm and why should a Martian Manhunter fan care about him? That goes back to December of 1982, when Greg Potter expressed interest to his old editor Paul Levitz about returning to freelance writing for DC. Levitz had Potter meet with DC's Executive Editor Dick Giordano, who sent Potter home with an edict: "Create a new super-hero character. Plot the first story of that character. If what we see is good... well, we'll see." Potter mulled over ideas for a few days, determining that he wanted to tell a story steeped in human emotion that spoke of contemporary times, and offered a hero different from all others in the then-present market. Combining influences that included E.T., Star Wars, and Frank Miller's Daredevil, Potter came up with Jemm. Potter also decided to set his story in winter time, that his aliens wouldn't conveniently speak English, and "let's have some real, honest-to-God black people in the strip."1

"J'Em" was to have fled from Mars II to Earth after a Pale Martian coup. "When Jemm was first conceived, the storyline called for Jemm to be the cousin of J'onn J'onzz, the Manhunter from Mars. Naturally, when Gene designed the character sketches for the series, he kept this relationship in mind. As a result, there is a resemblance to JJ."2 The Manhunter from Mars strip had ended in 1968. Aside from sporadic appearances (and an attempted revival in 1977 that was aborted as part of the DC Implosion,) J'onn J'onzz had been in publishing limbo ever since. "Well, about two or three months down the road, we editor-types at DC realized that we had a problem on our hands between the new maxi-series entitled JEMM, SON OF MARS and the JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA. You see, both books had storylines containing the Manhunter from Mars, and, unfortunately, those storylines conflicted and played havoc with continuity. Since the maxi-series was not as far along in production as was the JLA, we, i.e. the JEMM team, retrenched and brought you JEMM, SON OF SATURN."2

The Martian Manhunter would be returning as a member of the Justice League after sixteen years away, in a storyline setting him against his own people in a Martian invasion of Earth that would lead to the disbanding of the super-team. Meanwhile, three issues of "J'Em" had already been written by Greg Potter and one drawn by artist Gene Colan. Swift rewrites shifted Martians to Saturnians. Unsure if the maxi-series would even take place in the mainstream DC universe, a planned guest appearance by Superman was rewritten as "The Patriot," just in case.3

Jemm did officially join the DCU, and the actual Superman joined him for several issues. You could hardly tell, since Jemm's appearances dried up swiftly after the close of his maxi-series. A planned 40-page special for 1986 never materialized4. Jemm didn't make a single notable appearance from 1989-1997, until Grant Morrison was casting about for a villain to serve as Martian Manhunter's counterpart in a new Injustice Gang. Whether Morrison remembered "J'Em," or just noted his vestigial Martian brow, Morrison decided to use the Son of Saturn as an unwilling antagonist. Ironically, a book that may have contributed to Jemm's obscurity had rescued him from it.

A couple of years later, when an ongoing Martian Manhunter series was commissioned to cash in on JLA's popularity, creators John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake wrote Jemm into its first major story arc. Further, the Red and White Saturnians were revealed to have been created by ancient Martians, and the Manhunter was drawn into their politics in a second major story arc in his own book. Through Martian Manhunter, Jemm was restored to a level of visibility that saw him guest appear in a major Superman story, and eventually even received his own action figure. Given the poor fortunes suffered by the multitudes of DC mini-series stars in the 1980s, I'd say the kid turned out alright.

For those curious, "Saturnian Salutations" was the name of Jemm's letter column back in 1984, and the primary source of information for this post.
1: Writer Greg Potter in Jemm, Son of Saturn #1.
2: Editor Janice Race in Jemm, Son of Saturn #10.
3: Editor Janice Race in Jemm, Son of Saturn #12.
4: Editor Janice Race in Jemm, Son of Saturn #11.


LissBirds said...

I like the E.T. influence, but that's the Spielberg fan in me talking.

Do you know if it was ever Potter's intention just to cast the Martian Manhunter as the star of this series and not create a new character? I haven't read them, but other than the lack of understanding English, there's enough of a similarity there to make me think that could have been the case at one point.

While I find the revelations in regards to Saturnians in the Ostrander series interesting, the politics of it just strike me as way too simplistic and implausible. It's more fitting for Star Trek than DC comics...

Diabolu Frank said...

I don't think J'onn was ever meant to headline. The initial proposal involved Potter creating a new character to pitch. More likely, Super-E.T. in the 'hood came first, and making him Martian was later.

As the maxi-series coverage continues, you'll find Ostrander just plugged Saturnians into his usual Shakespearean notions of political intrigue. He couldn't even keep the race of one of his borrowed characters straight, much less their wildly idiosyncratic cultures.

will_in_chicago said...

It is incredible to think how crowded the Solar System was in the DCU at one point. I wonder if there are any Saturnians left, as well as Martians beyond J'Onn and M'gann. (For that matter, what is their relationship? Is she a White Martian still?)

Diabolu Frank said...

Don't think I haven't considered the possibilities of a solar system in which J'Onn has dealt with criminals native to most of the planets.

M'gann barely exists in the New 52, so that's entirely up in the air.

will_in_chicago said...

Frank, I think that you have given more consideration to the state of the Solar System than I suspect the editors at DC have. Perhaps most of the other races in the Solar System are related to Martians in one way or another. Or came from elsewhere so long ago that they are effectively native.

J'Onn has all the elements in his history for a great supporting cast, with J'emm playing the role of a younger brother/pupil. So, I hope that DC has put in some thoughts on what to do with some of these characters. (As for Stormwatch, I am not sure that I will follow it once Etrigan shows up. I did like how J'Onn was playing a mentor/father figure role with Jenny Quantum and I doubt that anyone would be doing so on that team after August.)

will_in_chicago said...

Frank, you might want to peruse the thread The Role of the Martian Manhunter in the New 52 at Comic Book Resources -- http://forums.comicbookresources.com/showthread.php?410134-Martian-Manhunter-s-role-in-the-New-52

Diabolu Frank said...

Gah, I just spent four hours translating (with BabelFish & my girlfriend) the Spanish introduction to the Jemm paperback collection that pretty much covers the same ground as this post. Just kill me and get it over with already.

Will, I read the thread. It's kind of circular, but it's nice to see a group of people speaking positively about where J'Onn should be headed (and that one guy swiped his avatar from the Book of Diabolu!)

LissBirds said...

Going back to the crowded solar system, will, I'm surprised there isn't more creativity in regards to DC's solar system these days. I was just watching an old episode of NOVA where scientists are looking for conditions for life on Titan, Europa, and Io--there's lakes on Titan--imagine what a comic book writer could do with that! You think some of DC's editors and writers could watch some science shows every now and then and inject a little creativity here and there. Why not create some new alien races living on Titan and incorporate those in an MM or JLA story? Unfortunately, DC seems to have its collective head stuck in the sand and looks inward rather than outwards for ideas. That's one feature of the Silver Age I admired--writers' willingness to take ideas from science (or history, etc.) and use them as a springboard. Okay, end soapbox.

I also took a look at the CBR discussion board. That one guy who stole his avatar from IHoD seems pretty well-versed in J'onn's origins, so I had to chime in. Gotta keep that torch burning.

Diabolu Frank said...

As soon as we got satellite images showing a dead Mars, Denny O'Neil wrote the entire culture out of existence. I suspect DC chooses not to populate nearby celestial bodies to keep the nerds from pointing out scientific inaccuracies. Also, they probably figure it's too hokey, because super-hero comics are just soooo cool.

I swore off message boards long ago, so I can't reply to this follow-up comment directly:

"I just can't see how a noir style detective thing would fit the character at all, even if it's been done. I think Stormwatch works because the new Stormwatch is partly inspired by Planetary, so he is a detective uncovering the secret history of the world. "

Maybe it's the wording, but I think the guy missed the point by a mile if he thinks the most basic concept of the character (Martian Detective) doesn't fit that character. What I heard as he spoke was "that doesn't fit the character as featured in a couple decades worth of JLA comics," which is the worst way to approach a former solo hero languishing as a support player in team books. If he meant the New 52 specifically, he'd still be wrong, since the reboot is all about finding marketable mainstream hooks for aging DC characters.

I watched the Christopher Eccleston season of Doctor Who for the first time a few weeks back, and he kept reminding me of J'Onn J'Onzz. Play it a little bit darker/straighter and dress him more like Tennant-- voila! Instant 21st century relevance. Gypsy could even be his companion as he solves mysteries on alien worlds and amidst the secret corridors of Earth.

will_in_chicago said...

I referenced this thread over at CBR. So, maybe we will get some visitors. There does seem to be a lot of love for the character of J'Onn J'Onnzz and I think that it would be great if DC noticed that and started using him more.

LissBirds said...

I echo your sentiments. Comics just seem to be lacking an imagination lately.

I didn't check back on CBR so I didn't see that reply. I guess I'm outnumbered...maybe we're all underestimating how the majority of fans interpret the Martian Manhunter? Maybe that's just how everyone sees him? I would've thought a high profile comic/movie like DC: New Frontier would've done something for the detective angle, but I guess it didn't stick. Even the Doom cartoon had him as a detective (and the original comic didn't, if I recall correctly.) So did Smallville. And one or two annuals of the old JLI, too. *shrugs* I guess for most fans he's just a laconic Superman clone with an ill-defined powerset who gets knocked down first because no one wants to see Superman or Batman go down first.

Dr. Who is one of those shows I've been meaning to watch for years because I know it's something I'll like, but every time I look at a list of episodes it's like a mile long and I don't know where to start. I could see him hopping from planet to planet (and time traveling!) solving crimes with a companion or two. Gypsy is under-utilized for sure.

Recently I started watching The Untouchables on the old timey TV channel and I could also see J'onn as an incorruptible detective who's above all forms of temptation in a world full of corruption, be it corrupt cops (á la L.A. Confidential) or morally ambiguous superheroes. That straight-n-narrow naviete of his from The New Frontier really rang true and I wish more writers had picked up on it. For me, J'onn has such a strong moral compass, so maybe that's why Stormwatch just didn't sit right with me. (Even that comment in Doom about how he doesn't necessarily mind probing minds rubbed me the wrong way. J'onn's supposed to be the one to take the high road, darnit.)

Diabolu Frank said...

Agreed. I won't miss him in the poor man's Authority, and am glad he left before getting seriously compromised. I've grown to loathe Midnighter, and association is poisonous.

I had help sampling a few key modern Dr. Who episodes from my father a year or so back, after decades of keeping my distance from Whovians (even my first girlfriend!) All you really need to do is pick up the 2005 first modern series of Dr. Who, the only season with Christopher Eccleston. If you like that, progress with each season from there, and if you really like it, you can figure out an entry point into the thirty-odd seasons from the original '60s-'80s run. I'm finding that I don't like David Tennant as much, but it's still pretty fun as I'm halfway through the third season. Just please no more Daleks. They're getting worse than the Borg.

Sobek said...

Hi, I post as Sobek on CBR forums, and saw this blog after will_from_chicago posted a link here.
I really think that J'onn's future stories should take some inspiration from Doctor who (which is one of my favourite Tv shows ever, I've watched all the episodes of the modern series). If you want to watch some more great Doctor Who episodes heres the episodes I'd suggets you watch:
(these should all be pretty accessible for you if you've watched the first two series like you said you did)

Blink (one of the best DW episodes of all time)
Utopia, the Sound of Drums, The Last of the timelords (these episodes make up a three part storyline which features the return of the Master, the only other timelord in existance)
Silence in the library, forest of the dead (a two parter, features the first appearance of river song)

Series six and seven are basically two long storylines told over multiple episodes, but if you don't want to watcht the entire series (Although I strongly suggest you do) these are the individual episodes that I suggest you watch (most of them don't connect to the larger storyline):

The Eleventh Hour (the eleventh doctor debuts here)
Vincent and the Doctor
The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon
The Doctors Wife
Night Terrors
The Girl who waited
God Complex

You can watch most DW episodes online for free.

Regards, Sobek

Diabolu Frank said...

Sobek, I believe that "Blink" and "The Girl Who Waited" were among the episodes my father showed me to whet my appetite. I'm halfway through series three, on disc 9 of the 26 disc "The Complete David Tennant Years" set. It was my girlfriend's idea/purchase, and so long as she doesn't get fatigued by the formula, I expect we'll progress all the way through the Matt Smith stuff. I like a lot about the series, although it can get highly repetitive (especially when watched on a nightly basis.) I also think I like Tennant the least of the Doctors I've been exposed to so far. Thanks for the recommendations!

For the record, I thoroughly enjoyed series one, though the Slitheen episodes less than the rest. "Love & Monsters" was my series two high point, and I enjoyed the season overall, except "The Christmas Invasion." Three is where we're losing enthusiasm, as it's trod a lot of the same ground, and I'm sick of Daleks especially. Best so far has been "The Shakespeare Code" and "Gridlock," the worst "42."

Diabolu Frank said...

Just checked... I saw "The Time of Angels" / "Flesh and Stone," not "Blink."