Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Man I Never Was (JLI Ann. #3, 1989)

A man in a trench coat leaned on a petty crook for information, but the lowlife only whined and pleaded. "I hate this. The fear I feel in the boy's mind... it's almost overwhelming. I'd much rather just sit and talk to him, without this pretense... this melodramatic flexing of muscles. But his mind also tells me that this is the only method of communication he'll respond to. So I fix my mask securely in place-- and I play my part."

John Jones knew it was only a matter of time before Batman responded to the ruckus, though when he saw it was J'Onn, "I can feel the tension ease out of him; a genuine warmth rising up. He'd never admit it-- but he truly cares about me. Sees me as one of his few friends. And the joke of it all-- is that he doesn't really know me any better than this frightened boy does. So I do what he's come to expect of me: Posture a bit... puff out my chest. Then deflate it just enough-- to give him an opening... There's such pain inside him. Such rage. Yet his capacity for compassion... for love... would surprise most people... including him."

"J'Onn-- we can stand here staring each other down... or we can go somewhere and talk this out..." Frank, John Jones' policeman friend from Secret Origins #35, had been murdered while investigating a major drug operation. Jones wanted justice, as well as the Dark Knight's help, but did not practice full disclosure. "There's more I could tell you, Batman. I've written sonnets-- in Martian-- about the lessons in humanity Frank and his family taught me. But on Mars, our poetry was sacred. To share it with an outsider... even a friend like you... would be considered a sin."

Jones had hoped by shaking down the boy earlier, who he knew had no information to give, his demands would rise up the chain to someone who did. A drive in the Batmobile to a gang lord would cut out the middlemen. Jones confided, "Frank... was the closest thing to family I had in those early years. He knew who I was... what I was. I'd spend weekends with Frank and Janet and their kids. I remember my first experience of Christmas. The lovely rituals. I didn't completely understand, but--" Batman cut him off. "We'll get them, J'Onn." J'Onzz was only concerned with closure, but he knew his role. "Damn right we will."

Throughout the story, J'Onn J'Onzz's inner monologue and his exterior persona were contrasted. "In these months since I found out who I truly am... I've hardly had time to process all I've been through: I've been running on automatic. The form I show the world... Beetle-browed, muscle-bound... is a lie. The personality I assume when I'm around others... that's a lie, too. And here I am now... trying to lay to rest the ghosts of yet another life... another lie. A life... lives... of absolute fiction. Masks over masks over masks. I need time. Perhaps some time off from the League... Meditate. Breathe... When Frank died... I could actually feel his mind... his soul... crying out: Confusion. Terror. Pain. And that cry has echoed inside me ever since. Haunted me.

In the time that's passed since I've discovered my true identity, oh, how tired I've grown of this 'heroic' lifestyle. The violence... The posturing... There are other ways... better ways... to live. On Mars, we were focused on art, love, self-sacrifice. We'd known peace for untold thousands of years. But of course, this isn't Mars. Still, there must be... there are... other ways to live. Not everyone on this planet solves problems with fists...

And haven't I taken pleasure in violence, too? For so long, I believed myself to be a great Martian warrior... and I declared war on the criminals of this world... enjoying my 'holy' cause. Never once suspecting that my life as a warrior was a fiction created by Dr. Erdel-- to prevent my fragile mind from shattering. Little dreaming that my 'noble' actions went against everything the Martian culture... the Martian religion... stood for. And I'm still doing it: Pretending. Posturing. Playing the green-skinned Superman. And am I still taking pleasure in the game? A part of me has been conditioned to enjoy it. I need to get away. I need time to sort out the masks... the identities... the lives. But not until Frank's murderer has been brought to justice."

The Batman dealt violence to hoods with his fists, the Manhunter through intimidation, as he assumed a mammoth, monstrous form with claws and fangs. Batman joked about being taught shape-shifting by J'Onn. "I probably could-- if we had fifty or sixty years to work on it." J'Onzz met with the crime lord, who's inherent love and humanity mingled with the ability to commit atrocities, which J'Onn found incredible. The Manhunter invaded the mobster's mind, eventually knocking him out, but found nothing about Frank's death.

J'Onn returned to the New York embassy of Justice League International and his natural Martian form. Maxwell Lord had expressed concern over J'Onn's behavior, and asked Oberon to look in on him. The little guy brought his alien friend milk and cookies, which were literally tossed at the shock of seeing the true J'Onn J'Onzz. "I feel like I've seen my mother naked--!" J'Onn comforted Oberon, and felt the exposure was "good... correct." It eventually became commonplace for J'Onn to wander around the building in that state. J'Onn expressed gratitude for the Oreos, but explained, "I've been meditating, Oberon. Praying. Fasting helps purify the consciousness."

Batman arrived, explaining he'd continued the investigation on his own. "Frank's death had nothing to do with the case he was working on... It had nothing to do with police work, at all. He was shot by some young punk... a junkie who needed money and hit the first person to come along. It was random. Senseless." J'Onn was at first shocked, but accepted the answer, if not the premise. "On Mars, we believe there's a plan inherent in everything. No act occurs without the Divine Will... for the ultimate good." Batman was taken aback, questioning who this person was before him. "No plan, J'Onn. No sense. Never was. Never will be."

J'Onn still believed, in his heart, if not openly. "I didn't truly remember it until just now... Who are you? Who are we? My culture... my race... had answers to those questions. But my culture and race are long dead-- while I've lived so many lives... assumed so many roles... since I came to Earth... Can't I ever understand those answers the way I once did? Do they even apply to this world?" J'Onn still swore by a transcendent, divine truth, and left the embassy for a few days. In his natural Martian form, he visited Frank's grave, "To sing a prayer for a fallen friend-- and then to find that truth-- and perhaps, at long last... myself."

Cited by many Martian Manhunter fans over the years as among the very best stories about the character, "The Man I Never Was" was plotted and laid out by Keith Giffen, scripted by J. M. DeMatteis, and drawn by Tim Gula. Although clearly a character spotlight, I suspect that this was intended as an issue of the Justice League America series, based on length, follow-up in the main title, and the inclusion of subplots involving Oberon, Max Lord and Guy Gardner. I might have been inclined to complain about J'Onn not getting an issue all to himself, but the annual actually sold about as well or better than a contemporaneous issue of the "America" title. I also mourn Giffen's not providing full pencils, but Gula's idiosyncratic style acted as a bridge between the Mark Badger mini-series and the mainstream sensibilities of the team book hosting the Manhunter's continuing adventures.

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