Monday, June 30, 2008

Manhunter from Mars #300 (July, 1989)

"Emperors... Czars... Presidents... ultimately all are mere vultures pecking at the carrion in my wake."

This tricentennial issue picked up from last month's big revelation that not only was VULTURE behind J'Onn J'Onzz's recent trials, but the original Mr. V was none other than Vandal Savage! It seemed "VULTURE," often mistaken for either an acronym or a spy agency, was in fact Vandar Adg's first attempt at a dictatorial government. Realizing that even he could not be in all places at once, the earliest evolution of the immortal Savage selected the most brutal lieutenants available to control what he knew of the world through intimidation. Modern readers may have noted the appearance of members of this Cro-Magnon Mafia in the recent "Final Crisis #1," where they were confronted by Anthro. The name "VULTURE" was simply the closest approximation to his concept the developing Vandar Adg could articulate, and it stuck through the ages.

A couple of years prior to this issue, Vandal Savage regained memories lost to him for some time-- including the nature of VULTURE-- and began rebuilding in Central City (funded by the Velocity-9 drug.) Savage also remembered the international crime operation's still active cells, as well as his ability to wield magic to some degree. Years prior, VULTURE had captured Manhunter's pet/sidekick Zook, and tortured him into revealing the secret mountain location of the Martian Marvel's abandoned hideout. There, they uncovered the Book of Diabolu, and began assembling what pieces of the Idol-Head they could locate.

Savage unleashed the mentally ravaged Zook on Manhunter, a malformed adulteration of the lovable imp Silver Age fans knew and loved. Zook taunted his former friend in a sick recreation of his "baby talk," just the sort of perversion one would expect from the late 80's (especially edited by Andy Helfer.) While J'Onn J'Onzz attempted to address the unhinged Zook as carefully as possible, Savage began reading incantations from the Book of Diabolu over the Idol-Stones, releasing a slew of classic menaces. While the Alien Atlas pinned Zook to a wall with Martian lungpower (hampering flames that were triggering his then-psychosomatic vulnerability,) he was confronted by Mike Mignola's distinctive renditions of the Doom Shadow, the Venomee, and more. However, the terrors originally sealed in the Idol-Head were never intended to work in unison, and began attacking one another. This allowed the Manhunter the opportunity to turn this mess around.

"Vandal Savage-- you have harmed my friends, violated my home, and compromised the integrity of dear Zook's mind. By your own abhorrent actions, you have surrendered the sanctity of your psyche to my will. I am now assuming custody..." Through Savage's eyes and voice, the Sleuth From Outer Space began to read spells from the Book of Diabolu to recapture the monsters within the Idol-Stones. However, poor Zook was absorbed by the Being In The Color Rings before it was re incarcerated. Filled with hurt and rage, the Manhunter had Savage cast one last spell-- sending the immortal menace into an Idol-Stone of his own!

Later, J'Onzz brought the Book of Diabolu to former teammate Zatanna, after ruling out Dr. Fate (in the face of Kent Nelson's departure from his long held role as the dominant sorcerous super-hero.) Zee was apprehensive, but J'Onn was convincing. "I understand you have begun to turn away from the harrowing world we once shared, and I do not wish to trouble you or impede your progress. However, there is a great deal of power locked between the covers of this nefarious tome, and you are one of the very few people I feel I can trust with its stewardship." Zatanna smiled, politely agreed to house the book, and watched the Manhunter from Mars' lonely ascent to parts unknown...

With the over-booked J.M. DeMatteis forced to resign from "Manhunter from Mars" shortly after his Post-Crisis reboot of the character in a separate "Martian Manhunter" mini-series, DC was hard-pressed to find a gifted replacement. Peter Milligan was still fairly new to the company at this point, but I think he acquitted himself nicely by both honoring the dark new direction and the silly past of the Martian Marvel. It was also great to see Mike Mignola work his magic here, if only for four issues. It would have been nice if the book had gotten the 64-page treatment of the Superman and Batman anniversaries, instead of a flimsy standard issue... but if the character were to receive any respect, it just wouldn't be the Manhunter, would it? DC even launched a second "Manhunter" title, completely unrelated, to compete with their own market recognition! DC loves aiming for their feet, and anyway, that title only squeeked by for two years with future "Martian Manhunter" scribe John Ostrander.


Luke said...

I seem to remember this issue being advertised as a "double sized spectacular!" in Direct Currents or in a house ad or something, but I guess things changed between the advertising stage and the publishing stage. It did deliver, I thought, a good story for the 300 point -- a pretty decent capstone for a lot of the longer plotlines (VULTURE, the Book of Diabolu) as well as some nods back to the older, more wild and wooly days of the character from the Silver Age. Still, it could have been so much more, but it was apparent that DC had only a minor interest in J'Onn at this point... (begin rant!)

Seriously though, it does kinda boggle my mind that elements like Kandor and Mr. Mxyzptlk and the Fortress of Solitude (with it's gigantic key) and Toyman and Prankster and the rainbow colors of kryptonite are endearing, time-honored traditions for Superman but Diabolu, VULTURE, Zook, Iwangis, and Martian super-breath are just "too silly." Your anniversary posts may be a way for you to cut loose and have fun, but they also illustrate a good point -- ALL of DC's Silver Age stuff was silly. Every last bit of it. But some of it manages to transcend silliness and become endearing. And ufortunately, poor Martian Manhunter just never was popular enough to make that leap. Or else Geoff Johns might be writing a revival of him right now involving the new and more deadly Idol-Head spewing forth all manners of devilish beasts onto Earth, battering down Superman and the Justice League with their demonic might, leaving the fate of the world in the hands of it's most alien champion ever.

The comics world is cruel and immediate sometimes.

Diabolu Frank said...

While my tongue was planted firmly in cheek with that Zook bit, I'm afraid Johns might actually go somewhere in that vicinity. Please, no.

Seriously though, I don't think you appreciate how little love there is for Silver Age Martian Manhunter stories, Luke. I run this blog, and it took me years to appreciate their charms (and overlook as best as humanly possible their glaring inequities.) I will say though that you're right that most DC comics of that era share the same embarrassments, overlooked through force of will/multiple revisions until they're accepted.

Also, many are just plain better written and drawn with more palatable lead characters and greater originality. J'onn J'onzz had a great many crosses to bear, and it's to his credit he held up as long as he did.

Speaking of which, I read the one page funeral in Final Crisis #2 today, making it all the more clear resurrection is assured. Morrison isn't taking a bit of this seriously, which almost makes me regret the Tomasi/Mahnke special that lends the death unintended weight. I have faith in Johns should he attenpt it himself, but I suspect a few years will pass to allow the stink to wear off (ala Hawkman.) I'd prefer to see his Aquaman, likely sooner than later...

Luke said...

Yeah, I think I have probably given them too much credit... having never read the Silver Age MM stories, I can't say to what quality they are other than the fact that your enthusiasm for them makes them sound like a lot of fun, which is what I want, personally. And your descriptions of these stories has made me desire the Showcase volume -- especially a hypothetical second volume, with all the Idol-Head and Dial V For VULTURE stuff in it.

I'd rather read Morrison's revival of the Manhunter than Johns', to be honest. I know Johns' would be a badass, who would probably sell a ton of copies and bring in all sorts of new-old baddies for the Alien Atlas and really go to town on the history, but Morrison's take on him would be probably even more popular, and more outlandish, which better suits the character. Consider the inanity of bringing back the Club of Heroes and the Black Dossier stuff like he has done on Batman; such a treatment for the Manhunter coupled with Morrison's treatment of him in JLA (Inlcuding that Annual you talked about) would surely produce something memorable. Perhaps not something DC would keep publishing for decades, but something that would define the Manhunter for the modern era in the 4 Color World.

Such dreams I have.

Diabolu Frank said...

Let me put it like this: I've read some of the Robert Kanigher Wonder Woman Showcases, and I've read two volumes of Gardner Fox's "Justice League of America." Jack Miller & Dave Wood's Manhunter strips are no worse, and in some respects better. That said, pretty much any DC Silver Age material not written by Bob Haney or Mike Sekowsky makes my brain sore and my belly ache. Well alright... John Broome and Arnold Drake have their moments.

I will be very displeased if DC never issues "Showcase Presents Martian Manhunter Volume 2." Professor Arnold Hugo and Zook are my favorite parts of the entire MM Silver Age run, whereas I have no strong affection for Captain Harding or Diane Meade at this point. Zook appeared in some god-awful stories, but his presence makes them just a bit better. Most Diabolu Idol-Head tales are really bad, but most Vulture stories are pretty solid, so I think it evens out. The entire House of Mystery run, and all the remaining Detective installments, would fit in just one more volume. They could even squeeze in all the major 70's appearances, although royalty payments would likely prevent it from '76 up.

In theory, I'd be very happy with either Morrison or Johns. With Geoff, I can rely on the heroic ideals and backstory being hewed to, but might have to suffer through a lot of "gritty" revisionism. Morrison would offer a clearer connection to the gonzo Silver Age, for both good and ill, and would probably be truer to the spirit and variety of Manhunter material. Either way, we should be so lucky.

Sphinx Magoo said...

You know, you had me going with this one... even though the image of Zook looked suspicious, it wasn't until I saw that "Fanatical Fictions" tag that I caught on. I was even searching through Mile High Comics and not understanding why I couldn't find it!

My only complaint is that Vandal Savage seems kind of overused as the source of multiple menaces for the DCU.

Diabolu Frank said...

I'm always pleased to lie convincingly, Sphinx!

I'd agree with you on Vandal Savage as randomly applied to a given DC character, but there's an established history between him and Martian Manhunter I was playing off of. They were regular adversaries over a variety of books and creative teams during the mid-to-late '90s. Seeing as J'Onn has very few repeat villains, and rarely holds down solo work, these encounters left a strong impression on me. Besides, I like Savage a lot, I enjoyed connecting him to Vulture, and he plays great off Manhunter. They're both long-lived super-humans looking at and affecting humanity from the margins in opposing directions. Savage was born here, but seeks only to stripmine the adoptive home the Martian treasures. They're naturals.