Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Secret Origins #35 (1988)

"I just couldn't sleep. My wife was snoring like a chainsaw and a radio down the street was playing white noise by something called "The Crue," but that wasn't the problem. It was this dream that came out of the blackness, like a thick fog lifting. I kept seeing my old friend, John Jones, and beside him a creature I knew only as the Martian Manhunter- It didn't make sense. John had been killed in the line of duty during a police raid in '68, and I'd never met the Manhunter - Why would I suddenly-? My God, I remember. I remember."

Now a retiree, the dreamer was once a thirty-year-old beat cop who chanced to work with the one-man police force that was John Jones, who "collected commendations like postage stamps," but, "I can never remember him smiling. He accepted the accolades and the awards, but John wasn't in it for the glory." Doing paperwork alone in the squad room, the unnamed narrator was startled when Jones stumbled in looking much worse for wear. Collapsing into the young officer's arms, John Jones was replaced by a green-skinned Martian.

"It was about then the movie started." Images filled the narrator's mind of J'Onn J'Onzz's arrival on Earth, and the presumption of death that befell a younger, now anonymous Erdel than we'd seen before, clean-shaven and sporting a crewcut. Left alone in a world not his own, what was this Martian to do? "He was equipped with a basic sense of right and wrong, and Erdel had left him with a functional grasp of language and custom. But the late fifties and early sixties were a strange time. For some reason- or maybe for no reason- Americans were afraid of almost everything... Conquest and world domination had no special allure for J'Onn J'Onzz. Still, good intentions or no, it just wasn't the right time for super-powered Martians."

Aware of the threat he would pose to others, and they to himself, J'Onn J'Onzz sought sanctuary and knowledge from the reigning media, television. "With Martian telepathy... you can peer into the storyteller's mind... Maybe that was why he was so intrigued with the tube. It brought back the joy of surprise. There were no minds to read, no instantaneous give and take. He was forced to accept the vision at face value." Who did Earthlings, specifically those that surrounded him in the United States of America, most value? From television, it would appear to be tough talking, sharp-dressed police detectives. J'Onn J'Onzz could see justice done, and he would be respected for his contribution to society, in assuming this role.

The Manhunter from Mars was born, initially in secret, taking notes on actual police procedure and interceding on their behalf when necessary. Eventually, J'Onzz came out of the shadows, looking to serve. "So, using telepathy, he created detective John Jones. Suddenly. Duncan and John had been acquainted for years. Family barbecues, the bowling team- you name it! Bill Ralston and John had gone to the same high school.... And me- well... John and I were pretty close."

Recently, Jones had begun investigating the case of the mayor's daughter having been kidnapped by the mob. Unfortunately, the crooks had taken her to a steel foundry, where flames had driven off the Martian Manhunter. "Maybe he'd planted that 'best buddy' business in my mind, but as time passed, I'd developed a real kinship with John. He was forced to tell me of his past so I could understand his fear of fire, but there was more to it than that. I think he needed the help- and trust- of a friend."

The narrator returned to the kidnapper's hideout, where he was wounded while shutting down as many of foundry's operations as he could manage, allowing the Martian Manhunter entry. "If he'd wanted, he could have turned those two hoods into supersonic greasespots. He satisfied himself by slamming them backward at 60 miles per hour... Then he cradled the mayor's little girl like a robin's egg and carried her gently to freedom. When it was over I woke up in a local hospital with a painful bullet wound and a nasty case of amnesia... Why was I remembering it all now?"

"John had made me forget. To protect me from the Manhunter's enemies, to protect his secret- he probably had dozens of reasons. I sensed that he'd been discovering some frightening truths about his own past and realized how important our memories can be. Maybe that's why he decided to unlock my- our- little secret. Or maybe he just wanted to see a friend- for old times' sake. My God, I remember. And so does he."

During a text piece biography in this issue's letter column, it was noted "Now, let's go back to our discussion of DETECTIVE #225 for just a moment. Late last year, when editor Mark Waid originally scheduled the Martian Man­hunter for this issue of SECRET ORIGINS, he wasn't aware that that character's beginnings were to be re­capped in the then-ongoing MARTIAN MANHUNTER mini-series by J.M. DeMatteis and Mark Badger. The chal­lenge, then, of what more to say about J'onn J'onzz in ORIGINS was settled by an offhand question by JLI plotter Keith Giffen: "How did a super-powered alien from another world end up as a police detective, anyway?" Thanks, Keith, writer Mark Verheiden had the answer, and we had a brand new story."

Change was the norm at DC Post-Crisis, and the alterations to the Martian Manhunter's background made in the DeMatteis mini-series would take far too long to detail here. Suffice to say Verheiden's dialogue-free excercise turned out to be influential in its own right, not to diminish the awesome art from Ken Steacy here. It's just that so much that has come to be taken for granted about the character's origins, specifically the McCarthy era paranoia and the influence of television, came directly from this supposedly minor piece. True, Steve Englehart pioneered the 50's Red Scare angle in a Justice League of America #144, but no one else picked up that ball for eleven years. It seems unlikely the criminally under-valued "American Secrets" or some of the best parts of the much lauded "New Frontier" would have existed without this tale as a touchstone. Meanwhile, Giffen and DeMatteis followed up this story with "The Man I Never Was."


Luke said...

I always wondered where the television aspect came from. I figured the McCarthyism was a retrofit, but at least someone took the time to point it out.

One thing I always liked about the Manhunter is that he stays green. He'll change his shape and skin color to protect his identity, but he doesn't fly around as a white powerhouse just because he's on Earth. He has only good intentions, but he has self-respect and a little measure of Martian pride as well.

Diabolu Frank said...

Verheiden introduced the McCarthyism, but Gerard Jones perfected it. Seriously, "american secrets" is a unheralded classic of the medium, nevermind the Manhunter cannon. It was so challenging, it took me a week or so to process my feelings about it, which is always a good side. "Bad" usually stands out right away.

Part of what I love about J'Onn J'Onzz, and so many writers miss, is that he's a lousy mimic. Perceptive individuals consistantly see through his facade, because while his shape may shift, his essence does not. I am convinced this is a major reason why Batman's feelings toward and trust for Martian Manhunter remains more consistant and warm that toward Superman: he's so predictable. He's vulnerable, constant and relatable in a way the Man of Steel isn't.