Friday, April 19, 2013

Martian Manhunter: New 52/Old Story

J'onn J'onzz was a scientist from Mars who was teleported to Earth and stranded. He couldn't very well practice Martian science while secretly on another world, and anyway, there's not much indication that Martian science was any great shakes. They may have had some nifty architecture and a few ray guns, but they were also just about the only alien race that didn't have interplanetary travel worked out. I mean, it was Mark Erdel who came up with the robot brain that brought J'onzz to Earth, and it took J'onzz over a decade to figure out how to throw it in reverse, assuming he didn't have help. One of the only science experiments we ever saw him involved with was TOR, the robot that was accidentally turned into an unstoppable rampaging criminal. Not something you want on your resume.

While J'onn J'onzz was stuck on Earth, he decided to pretend to be a police detective and fight crime with his awesome concealed Martian powers. For quite a while, he just fought gangsters and mad scientists, who he still struggled with despite his overwhelming extraterrestrial talents. His parents and kid brother were alive and well, and they visited one another on occasion. John Jones may not have had a proper girlfriend, but his relationship with sometimes partner Diane Meade wasn't entirely professional, either. In short, as created and portrayed in most of his original series, J'onn J'onzz was a dude. He was a seemingly unexceptional Martian who made the most of becoming a reverse John Carter, except not really, because John Carter became the revered warrior of his adoptive world and the recipient of sweet princess lovin'. John just had a decent apartment where he kept his dog while serving as the least popular member of the Justice League of America until he was quietly pushed aside.

John Jones was created in a time when characters didn't have to be terribly involved. His motivation could be chalked up to a guy needing a hobby while stuck in (literally) Middletown, U.S.A. Later, his scene got messed up by John Jones' apparent demise, and his secret existence as the Manhunter from Mars had already been revealed. As a result, J'onn J'onzz just tooled around as himself with his imp buddy Zook in tow as they looked for a strange magical artifact that kept spitting out monsters for them to fight. By that point, the Marvel revolution was beginning, with Spider-Man specifically changing everyone's game. John Jones came from a time between the Golden and Silver Ages, and was exceptionally simplistic for his times in comparison to the Julius Schwartz heroes, much less Stan Lee's. Floundering in the market and no longer buoyed by being hosted in a Batman comic, J'onn J'onzz needed to make a change.

The main creators of J'onn J'onzz's solo adventures were Jack Miller and Joe Certa. In their title's final years, they chose to update the initial alien cop angle to embrace the 1960s spy craze. The basic premise was still the same, but J'onn J'onzz would adopt the more suave and conniving role of Marco Xavier, international playboy. Most of his final adventures involved the criminal organization VULTURE, who played fast and loose with human life. The Manhunter met them halfway, facilitating the dispatching of evil agents without any sign of remorse, marking J'onn J'onzz as perhaps the first true "grim n' gritty" revised super-hero. The Manhunter's stories were increasingly brutal, with his final tale ending in the explosive demise of his arch-foe Mister V. The Manhunter briefly returned to the pages of Justice League of America, where he became the poster child for retroactive continuity. It was revealed that J'onzz was Mars' "science leader," living in exile after the racial conflict between two nations had seen the Pale Martians gain the upper hand. In his absence, a hitherto unknown nemesis named Commander Blanx sold out the entire planet of Mars and rendered it uninhabitable through global genocide. J'onn J'onzz killed Blanx for his heinous act, then took a spaceship to parts unknown in search of the few survivors of his home planet.

At this point, J'onn J'onzz was clearly no longer a dude. This guy was a muckity-muck in a dirty conflict that made World War II look like a tea party. This J'onn J'onzz was a hardened soldier concealing essential information from his Justice League confederates. In the end, whatever gambits J'onzz was running failed, his planet died, and none of those supporting players or villains seen in the old stories survived J'onzz's hubris. That's some heavy, dark stuff for a super-hero to carry around. Superman's grief over a Krypton dead while he was in diapers, fated to be destroyed no matter how many times he traveled back in time to save it, was juvenile compared to J'onzz's weight of personal adult culpability for an incalculable catastrophe.

The Manhunter from Mars continued down this harrowing path. A girl he'd known back home turned out to be willing to see every other Martian enslaved to save her own skin. J'onn J'onzz's best friend faked his death, framed him for treason, and attempted to slaughter a peaceful native race for spoils with a naive Martian army behind him. A genetically engineered Martian "hero" overthrew the government and again conned his people into invading a world that meant them no harm. A former lover of J'onn J'onzz was among those forces, and made repeated attempts on J'onzz's life. The Manhunter himself was consistently played as a paranoid thug willing to assault his former friends with the thinnest of provocations.

That began to change in 1984, when the Alien Atlas rejoined the Justice League of America as a minor player but helpful powerhouse while new heroes Vibe, Vixen, Gypsy and Steel took center stage (alongside veteran leaders Aquaman and Batman.) The revision of J'Onn J'Onzz accelerated in Justice League International, where the Martian Manhunter became a leader and role model of the old school contrasted against dysfunctional Bronze/Modern Age punks like Guy Gardner. J'onn received his first mini-series, which erased the lion's share of his solo stories. He was retroactively made a husband and father whose family perished in a global plague over which he had no control beyond simply managing to survive through the twist of fate that brought him to Earth. There was no Commander Blanx, and J'Onn J'Onzz was now a blameless victim of tragedy. Even his long time vulnerability to fire was revealed as a psychosomatic response that he could work through with therapy.

At a time when super-heroes were becoming increasingly unstable and complex, J'Onn J'Onzz was simplified and grounded... spiritual and meditative. He was a sound, steady mentor who refused to abuse his considerable powers. He was sad and deep, but not conflicted like other deconstructed heroes. He stood out through his serenity at best, or his understandable irritability in the face of shenanigans at worst. This approach made him a well liked, essential aspect of an ensemble, but did not allow him to find purchase as a solo character. An eponymous mini-series and Justice League ongoing spin-off with Martian Manhunter as the lynchpin failed to make waves. Dan Jurgens teased a return to the colder J'Onn J'Onzz in his extended Bloodwynd subplot, and Christopher Priest set him up as a manipulative instructor in Justice League Task Force, but neither take played out for long.

The Alien Atlas enjoyed a huge spike in interest during the late 1990s thanks to his association with the "Magnificent Seven" JLA and popular recognition of his extraordinary power levels within the DC Universe. The longstanding stoic last survivor of Mars interpretation carried over into J'Onn J'Onzz's first major appearance in outside media as a member of the animated Justice League, and guided him into his first ever ongoing self-titled comic book. His origin was revised so that he was again partially responsible for the destruction of Mars thanks to his protection of a heretofore unmentioned evil twin brother, Ma'alefa'ak. "Malefic" was killed by the Martian Manhunter at the end of his debut story arc, and J'Onzz showed an increased willingness to use his powers in a manner that was ethically questionable. However, J'Onn J'Onzz remained essentially the same reliable, even-tempered hero he had been for the previous decade and change. As the solo series progressed, more and more time was spent on untold tales from the past, usually involving team-ups with other heroes. The creators did not seem to know what to do with J'Onn J'Onzz, or weren't allowed to do what they wished, and so they wrote stories around the character instead of for him. Similarly, JLA threw trashy odd couple girlfriends and bizarre retcon villains at the Alien Atlas, in order to make him less "boring" without changing the character as preferred by fans.

Martian Manhunter got another mini-series in the mid-00s that was in spirit very much a revival of the 1970s approach to the character; changing his appearance, alienating him violently from other heroes, and honing in on the racial conflict amongst Martians. The mini-series was broadly rejected, and J'Onn J'Onzz was soon sacrificed as part of a stunt to start off an unspectacular event mini-series. J'Onzz's body was barely cold when he was resurrected alongside other heroes as part of a stunt to cap off a well-received event mini-series. The Alien Atlas was back to recognizable form in the follow-up maxi-series Brightest Day, which is to say all of the interesting actions were performed by a newly created villainess whose existence demanded another retcon to J'Onzz's origin, and it all amounted to a mean-spirited, underwhelming arc for the Sleuth from Outer Space.

Aside from short-lived and creatively anemic evil Green Martians popping up sporadically, J'Onzz's people remained dead. When Fernus slaughtered the White Martians, the prospect of J'Onzz trying to learn and teach racial tolerance fell by the wayside. His acquaintance with Miss Martian was in passing and platonic. Most every character from older Alien Atlas tales remained deceased or retroactively aborted. His most famous foe, Malefic, died in his first arc and made return visits only in flashbacks or as a psychic fragment. J'Onn J'Onzz was a static character from a lost culture with no place to go but ever backwards.

The New 52 Martian Manhunter has seen the return of an adversarial J'Onn J'Onzz with vague motivations acting from a place of moral ambiguity while advancing machinations of unclear ends. It's a jarring change for fans who know the character from cartoons or happier times in the comics, but their pushback has been met by other fans who are embracing this Alien Atlas as an empowered, effective super-hero in his own right. As a guy who has probably spent more time thinking about J'Onn J'Onzz over the past fifteen years than most anyone on the planet, I can see both sides' argument. However, I find myself ultimately siding with embracing the New 52 take.

You see, I was one of those people who were screaming for blood when the Ostrander/Mandrake series was being published because they weren't getting the character "right." In retrospect, I can see that they were hamstrung by the expectations of editors and readers like myself to maintain the Grandfather Super-Hero approach, but the fact is, that doesn't work for a solo character. J.M. DeMatteis took the Martian Manhunter to a place where he was nearly complete as an entity. His J'Onn J'Onzz longed to ascend spiritually and to take hold of a higher truth that precluded running around in a costume and punching bad guys. It was a heartfelt reaction to the tide of deconstructionist super-hero comics of the late '80s, but it also stalled out the character's ability to progress, since he could barely function within the genre due to the restrictions placed on him by being above it. The Green Guru was like a monk; rigidly disciplined, lacking libido, unimpeachable in his actions. Such a character can function in an ensemble, but someone evolved beyond his own creators is bound to end up spouting pseudo-profundities and being an insufferable read until his inevitable cancellation.

Despite being two years into the New 52, the Martian Manhunter hasn't been properly introduced yet. He was purely a background figure in Stormwatch, has had a few teasing moments in Justice League, and has only just begun to take part in Justice League of America. What we do know is that he's on a clandestine mission to save civilization from an unknown, overwhelming threat that the Earth is not yet ready for. He has used his powers quite offensively, both literally on the page and against the sensitivities of some readers, but has not committed any indefensible acts depending on the circumstances he's confronting. This is clearly not the JLA's lovable pappy, but he is recognizable in his deeds as carrying on traditions from both the Silver and Bronze Ages, and by extension has not contradicted the intent of his creators in his conception and long term execution.

This is the same character who lied/psychically nudged his way onto a police force, and allowed them to believe their hero officer John Jones had died in the line of duty. This is the same character who kept the secret struggles of Mars to himself while serving alongside the Justice League, until that ploy blew up in his face. This is the same character who battered Superman, Hawkman, and Firestorm when they crossed his path.

J'Onn J'Onzz isn't safe and predictable anymore, and while that can be off-putting in some regards or feel like a betrayal of individual readers' trusts, it also allows the Manhunter to be intriguing and gives him directions to develop in as a solo hero. In a role reversal, elder readers like myself are now the paternal figures, and J'Onn J'Onzz is the adolescent entering adulthood. Do we really want this character to forever remain encased in amber as the grumbling Oreo-loving den mother overseeing green recruits? Shouldn't he be allowed to do things we don't necessarily agree with but are right for his life in these times, retaining hope and expectations that enough of "our" J'Onn remains to see him through?

What I keep going back to is that I read Martian Manhunter appearances in comics for over a decade without truly being a "fan." I liked him well enough, but he wasn't on my radar in the same way as other characters. Two moments stand out though: his angry eye-blasting of super-villains trying to take advantage of the Crisis on Infinite Earths, and the righteous fury in A Midsummer's Nightmare that saw him shut down the minds of an entire super-team with a thought. I wasn't thinking about the ethics of his actions, but how his powers and the force of his emotions swept me up in his story. I haven't read any Martian Manhunter moments like those in a long time, but I feel like the New 52 offers the potential to revive the passion lost since my indoctrination into the Friends of Our Martian in 1996. The creators still have to do good quality work, but we have to give them the breathing room to get enthused enough about J'Onn J'Onzz to deliver on his promise. It's the difference between a compelling concept reaching its potential, and a comforting cypher Cookie Martian forever loitering in the background behind heroic icons.


mathematicscore said...

Beautifully written, as usual. Hope for the futures, for the hopeless hero.

will_in_chicago said...

Frank, you have said many of the things that I have wanted to say. I will take some time to work up a worthy reply to the essay.

Anj said...

Just a great piece!

Here's hoping that J'Onn gets treated the way he deserves moving forward.

LissBirds said...

I've been thinking about this for the past few days but I've been in a fog and forgot most of what I was going to say.

Frank you have written a wonderfully-persuasive essay here--I'm almost about to agree with you 1005, but I am still stuck on a couple of points. I could possibly accept a darker version of the Martian Mahnunter if maybe that change didn't come in the midst of so many other characters changing--I'm so disoriented by n52 that I don't even know if certain characters are still alive.

That being said, I am still stuck on old and safe--given the state of the world, many different art forms are reaching back to traditionalist expressions rather than modern or avant garde ones. (Would The Artist have been made 15 years ago, let alone win an Oscar?) I was expecting comics to go back to something more traditional rather than pushing the envelope. At first, Brightest Day had that tenuous promise, and then it all devolved into yet another reboot, and here we are, still going for edgy when all it really amounts to is confusion.

Personally, I just don't like change (which is a dumb habit to be in and say you like comics.) I think of comics as kind of sitcom: find the right formula, and stick with it as long as it's feasible. When the characters in a sitcom start changing for whatever reason, that's usually when I bail; sitcoms aren't about character change, they're about situational comedy. Likewise, I don't particularly like to see character growth in a comic; I think of all the characters as a "work in progress." If they ever grow to the point of full maturity, what do we do with them now? If Bruce Wayne gets over his parents' deaths, he's no longer Batman. I think you're completely 110% right in that that character type only works in an ensemble, which is why tried-and-true J'onn J'onzz can't fly solo.

However, I think you still can have a solid moral compass and fully-realized character, if you place him in the right setting. There's many types of noir stories, but just to name two: 1.) Hero is an anti-hero with vague morals, 2. ) Hero is seemingly the only upstanding character in a shifting, morally-ambiguous world full of corruption. Take a solo, Oreo-munching heart-of-gold Martian Manhunter and put him in a terrible, shadowy world and you could have a story. (Maybe this is why writer started that whole "Earth is afraid of Martians" theme that didn't last long.) But this is also the formula for American Secrets...J'onn may have been a bit unsure of his identity in that book, but his morals and motivations were pretty clear.

LissBirds said...

I do get your point, and it is a brilliant one; the fact that J'onn started lying on day one is something that not most people would notice--he's been pretty Machiavellian (and grim n' gritty) from the start. But did he ever stop to think about robbing a bank before he signed up for the police force?

I don't mind the J'onn who caused his world's destruction, but still, that Bronze Age J'onn seems a far cry from the New 52 one. Maybe it's the execution--there were no great moments of emotion in that first issue like you saw in A Midsummer's Nightmare. If the story had reached out and grabbed me like some of Johns's other work, maybe I could've given him a pass for a new take on the Martian Manhunter. But I'm just afraid this is going to be yet another try to make J'onn "cool" by making him creepy/different/immoral/etc. To me, that's not strength...real strength is restraint, to paraphrase Ralph Fiennes Schindler's List.

Maybe if the setting were changed, Johns could let J'onn shine...that's why I always secretly hoped for a period piece, or, at least, a change of setting--there's lots of shady places in the world where J'onn could sneak around in.

I am going to keep an open mind best I can and still going to read JLA and hope that it picks up a bit. I'm still waiting for #2 to arrive, so fingers crossed.

Okay, now this post got terribly long, so I am sorry...!

Diabolu Frank said...

Well, the thing about the shift towards more conservative entertainment amidst our tumultuous past decade is that modernity has empowered an effective counter-movement not available in previous generations. The FCC may be mobilized against nipple slips and the Dixie Chicks may be put in a corner, but turn around twice and zombie carnage goes mainstream while every deviant act imaginable is readily accessible on the world wide web. There's no longer an authority in the Western World capable of prohibiting the wants of an entitled people, and sadly, that access seems to lead the beleaguered masses toward debasement rather than enlightenment. A nostalgic motion picture academy may prop up The Artist while longing for simpler times, but society appears to be more concerned with keeping up with the Kardashians and Honey Boo-Boo. I do think there's a demand for better than that, but often creators feel the need to go dark to project sophistication, especially in media still "proving itself" like TV and comics. I also think "good" is harder to do well and sustain, but only quality really has any staying power over the long haul, the cream rising to the top.

That said, I'm okay with a "darker" Manhunter, but I still demand that the character remain true. In the old continuity, I supported J'Onn as a green knight in a gray world, but that was because of his established history. It was problematic though, because it left J'Onn as more of a minty alternative to Superman rather than his own character; basically the Man of Steel in Gotham rather than Metropolis. Smallville helped establish John Jones as something different; a harder edged, paranoid and more pragmatic alien hero. He's a cop/soldier who accepts more stark contrasts than Clark Kent, still a good man but a part of a morally relativistic world Superman cannot abide. Under those terms, J'Onzz can more fully utilize his abilities as a protagonist, but the ethical questions that raises sets him apart and fuels story conflict in relation to other heroes. Again, J'onn J'onzz always did things that were questionable by modern standards, but there's now mileage to be found in addressing those questions in context, rather than glossing over them.

I like J'Onn J'Onzz as a war veteran. Some vets come home to drink, beat their wives or use the skills they learned in combat to effect domestic terrorism. J'Onn J'Onzz should realistic have had to do the sort of things spies and soldiers must do to function, such as manipulate and kill to meet their objectives. However, there's still a world of difference between Nathan Hale and Aldrich Ames, or even Jack Ryan and James Bond. J'Onn may have had to do things he's not proud of, like mind-wiping his teammates and conspiring against the Justice League, but he has to have done them for an objectively greater good and retain personal integrity. I just think it will be more interesting to see him struggle with landing on the correct side of his code than appearing smugly confident in his righteousness looking down on Earth from a lunar base.

LissBirds said...

You're definitely right about the dichotomy and hypocrisy present in modern media; I do still like the idea of an alien character who is better than human nature who can provide a contrast to all our irrationalities and all the sometimes awful way humans treat each other. I guess I do think of J'onn as a rather lofty character at times; but maybe that should be Superman's role instead.

I really like the war veteran angle, especially because it harkens back to the birth of film noir, which was post-WWII American, when vets came home to a seemingly-different world after fighting through atrocities. It was a huge long shot, but I was always secretly hoping New 52 would restore the Bronze Age Mars continuity because I thought it had a lot more gravitas than the Malefic backstory. I would love a darker story filled with paranoia and disorientation if it was within the right context, and if J'onn had to do the wrong things for the right reasons, I could accept that as being part of a refreshingly mature storyline. I've only seen Smallville J'onn in clips because I started watching the show much too late; I should rectify that one of these days.

It could be context that's making me read JLA #1 wrong; right now I'm reading it in a veritable vacuum; no other New 52 books. J'onn eavesdropping on Steve Trevor seems out of place and as if he eavesdrops just because he can. If there was a backstory or context to that to explain his motivations, I'd respond to it better. Maybe eavesdropping is the only way to get information in this situation; I honestly don't know. Unfortunately, the first issue didn't establish that, so I have no way to interpret his (and other characters') motivations. Maybe I missed something in another New 52 book that would've explained J'onn's motivations a bit better? (I gave up on Stormwatch mid-way, too, so I don't even have that.)

I'm still having trouble accepting this new direction, but that's just because I'm stubborn and I dislike change; I'll stick with it and keep an open mind. (But if this book ends disastrously, I'll probably still say something to the effect of, "I was right all along!!") All in good fun, of course.

Diabolu Frank said...

For me, one of the most important elements of good noir is the relative powerlessness of the protagonist. They may be agents of change, but their potential draws out overwhelming oppressors who will punish them to the nth degree just for their very existence being a threat. J'Onn J'Onzz on 1950s Earth between the Golden and Modern Heroic ages negates much of that dynamic because of his extraordinary abilities facilitating relatively ease in confrontation or subterfuge. J'Onn needs a properly intimidating opposing force, which only the Bronze Age provides. So far, the New 52 has leaned toward that dynamic, and whether the menace turns out to be Martians or Daemonites or whatever, I approve in principle.

There's a lot of fan casting of Jon Hamm as John Jones. I think casting a Caucasian actor in a role with greater racial flexibility than the icons would be a mistake, but Hamm would be an awesome choice. Don Draper is another veteran living a double life under a particularly familiar false pretense during the height of the American Century. Of course, Don's just left of the establishment, so John should go up against guys like him. Also, people should watch Madmen instead of Smallville because it's good instead of really very bad. Well, okay, the last couple of seasons have been kind of off. Stupid Megan and her Zou Bisou Bisou.

Stormwatch was completely irrelevant in the long run. The important things to know are that all the good left Amanda Waller when she went on Weight Watchers, and J'Onn has an adversarial relationship with the JLA after betraying them in some unrevealed fashion. J'Onn seems to have just cause to be suspicious of A.R.G.U.S., just as he did when he spied on the D.E.O. in the old 52.

Luke said...

Good post and good analysis as usual Frank. Since you are the only one on the Internet who 1) Likes the Martian Manhunter AND 2) actually knows his full history, you're in a unique position to make commentary like this.

I have no problem with a J'jonn who is not afraid to bend the rules without outright breaking them in order to get the job done. The back up from Justice League of America #1 I think did a good job of showcasing this direction -- psychically influencing a man to make a try on the President's life in order to influence the President to order the creation of the JLA? I dig it!

This Manhunter seems like someone who is not afraid to do the heavy lifting, even if he does it from behind the curtain. Hopefully e'll get a chance to really get to know this Manhunter in the coming months and years.

LissBirds said...

Right, there's that element of powerlessness/fatalism in noir. Which would be very delightfully ironic situation for an otherwise powerful character to find himself in. (That's why I think the fire weakness needs to stay.)

I like when it manifests itself as not knowing who the villain is until the very end, if there even is one. (American Secrets pulled that off pretty well.) I would like to see a story/setting where we see a Martian Manhunter who is pretty sure of who he is and where his motives lie placed in a world that made him start questioning things...that might be one way to employ a noirish angle.

I never knew Jon Hamm was being fancast...I could possibly see that--Hamm has a kind of authoritative gravitas you don't see in too many modern actors. I've only seen snippets of Mad Men here and there--though saw all his SNL appearances. (The "Hamm and Bublé" sketch where he holds Michael Bublé hostage in his restaurant that only serves ham and champagne stands out in my memory--that was great.) I missed the Made Men boat and it's probably too late to jump in; I'll have to borrow the DVDs one of these days. I'd like to see more than one actor play J'onn, even if it's a bit of a cameo for some. (I always liked the "most well-known superhero in the southern hemisphere" angle and I wish someone would explore that more.)

Ahh, so that's what happened in Stormwatch; I guess if he broke with the League for good reason I could maybe live with it. But something makes me think that DC probably is still figuring out the reason why since they have a habit of changing things lately. The Amanda Waller situation bugged me which also didn't help my warming up to JLA #1; I think there's an inherent hypocrisy when a company says they're going for diversity but draws every character like a cover model.

Diabolu Frank said...

My most basic thought on the fire weakness: Keep it if there's just one Martian. Lose/alter it if there's Martians. One noble hero with enormous power who can be humbled by the flick of a match is dramatic. A whole race just makes them look like sissies with "off" switches. For the record, my impression is that the weakness is now specific to the type of blue flame produced by Hellspont and his acolytes, making it more like kryptonite. I can roll with that.

Someday one of these last issue reveals of a conspirator will feature Mister V, and we'll cheer. The last one that comes to mind was Cay'an, and we did not, because I think A.J. Lieberman is a pen name for Glen Beck or something. The hell kind of strategery was that?

The first season of Mad Men was one of the finest ever produced in the history of the medium. Three and four were also fantastic. Subtly has since gone out the window, with Matthew Weiner walking into the living room of every audience member and screaming in their faces "MY SHOW IS ABOUT SOMETHING AND THIS IS MY THEME FOR THE EPISODE!" Jon Hamm remains excellent man-crush material though. He's the new Nathan Fillion.

Don't get me started on how much I loathe what they did to Amanda Waller. Spittle might fleck the screen. I'll eventually finish covering J'Onn's issues of Stormwatch, but it's hard to get motivated when the book sank so far so fast from an already unimpressive level. Once the Red Lanterns got involved, reading became migraine inducing toil.