Monday, June 2, 2008

Martian Manhunter: American Secrets. Book one. (9/92)

"He reached for me as the bullet broke his breastbone. Who else could he reach for? He's a stranger. I'm a stranger. Not just strangers to each other, but even bigger strangers to the cold stone eyes of the city. He's a beatnik. I'm a Martian." The scene was a street corner on a cold winter's night in New York, 1959. Denver Police Detective John Jones was in town for a forensics convention. The bleeding beatnik told Jones "It's the dogs. The dogs who...see inside," before dying in the alien's arms.

Police soon arrived, as a witness informed Jones that the beatnik had been chased out of a nearby cafe. "Procedure would be to let the local cops check the story. But I feel something in this. Something that no procedure can cover." After asking a few questions, Jones decided to sit and observe the goings on at this bohemian establishment. Open-mic poets rambled apparent nonsense, while he noted an older gentleman at a table jotting lines on paper. A folk singer preached resistance as Jones departed, wondering about seemingly casual mentions of a supposedly omnipresent game show called "The Big Question."

Returning to his hotel room, Jones deflected a bellhop's attempts to solicit "companionship" for him, preferring a glass of milk and the boob tube. "This is what the cold brings. Companions on order... Contests so they can cheer for the meaningless victories of strangers. Manufactured families. Staged communication. It's a cold world for a stranger. I'll look for my own warmth. My way. The Martian way. I remember little of my world, of my past life. But in moments of peace I remember a warmth. I remember a silent companionship. But peace is short here. And suddenly I can't even remember the warmth." The cold and warmth are a concern for Jones' questing mind throughout the story, referring less to the snow falling outside than that of the heart. He watched the television; visited bars; glanced at pornography; trying to understand the nature of these temporary respites from loneliness men cleave to.

Exploring the 50's game show scandals two years before the much-lauded film "Quiz Show," Jones continued his investigation invisibly at the filming of "The Big Question." The show was rigged, but one obstinate contestant refused to request the question category, "horticulture," that was being fed to her. Before a live studio audience in a heated booth, her head exploded. As the mess was quickly cleaned up and attributed to technical difficulties, an invisible Manhunter spied a woman threatening her pig-tailed daughter. "She said the wrong thing, Patty Marie. You won't say the wrong thing, will you, darling?" The contestant's identical duplicate then entered stage left, pushed the corpse aside, and picked up where the original left off. Into her session, however, the duplicate spotted the incognito John Jones through unknown senses. "Him! He isn't one of them! He sees!" Racing from the scene, John Jones noted to himself, "And she sees...what no human can see." He also noted the reappearance of the older gentleman from the beat club in a station hallway, and followed that lead out.

The gentleman led Jones to a diner, where he met and turned out fading pop singer Eddie Lowe. "These kids don't know music. You give them a Negro beat and they think it's all they need. Now you know I have nothing against the Negroes, Phil. Our people, we have a spiritual kinship with the Negro. We're all exiled people, Phil." The gentleman replied, "You're exiled...Exiled from the Hit Parade, you are." As the singer stormed out, Detective Jones materialized to step up to the gentleman. "Didn't mean to eavesdrop...but you're in the music business, aren't you? I need to ask some questions." The older man, Phil Jerry, was less than helpful. However, the arrival of hot new music sensation Perkins Preston, an Elvis analogue, was illuminating. In the midst of listening to the country boy ramble about writing to his mama regarding the sinful big city, the mention of "lizards" caught Jones' attention. Pulling out a religious comic strip pamphlet given to him by a "holy man" in the New York streets, Preston stated, "He knows the end in store for us all."

On finding the aged zealot, the detective was informed, "Satan is a lizard! I can see him, that's why he torments me. That's why he had me thrown out of Nuts." This "Nuts" was revealed to be the Mad Magazine-type humor publication of one Melvin Keene, complete with gap-toothed mascot. "I put the lizards into all my pictures," said the former cartoonist, "to warn people. But Satan made them fire me." Perusing a copy of "Nuts" at a newsstand, Jones noted a parody called, "The Big Kvetch-tion" where a contestant fervently asked for the horticulture category. Jones also noted a conspicuous zeppelin above the caricature's head reading, "ZOPRBETIE".

On his way back to the hotel, Jones stopped at a corner store for some Oreos, but they only had Hydrox. "Tell me. Why are there two of everything here? Or more. Hydrox and Oreo. Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler."

"Competition, buddy. The American way."


Sinnycal said...

I've always felt that this mini perfectly captures the tone and general atmosphere that more writers need to aim for with MM, but the story itself is forgettable. I don't read it and think, "wow!" I think, "wouldn't it be great if someone took this approach and applied it to a better story?" In the end, it just seems to taunt me with the promise of what MM could so easily be.

Diabolu Frank said...

I do think the mini-series was an excellent template for writing a solo Martian Manhunter series. I can also see taking issue with elements of the story. However, there are so many memorable lines of dialogue, odd images, and left-field twists that even if you hated it, I can't imagine forgetting it. If nothing else, it leaves an impression.

Sinnycal said...

The story has some crazy twists, but none of them feel organic to me. A good twist should be both unpredictable and inevitable. Unpredictable is easy. Making it simultaneously inevitable is the real trick.

There are some good lines peppered throughout, but those, too, just sort of stand out as something I wish could have been supported by a solid story.

I still have a soft spot for it if for no other reason than that it comes the closest to how I envision the perfect approach to Martian Manhunter.

Diabolu Frank said...

I can definately see your point. It's funny: I hated the Ostrander ongoing series, and spent time each month it came out on the DC Message Boards, going page by page, picking the latest issue apart. Someone could do the same with AS, but since I like the story, things that were arbitarary become simply "non-linear" to me. For example, I loved the Leavitzville sequence, and I could easily earn a "No-Prize" explaining why it happened as it did, but I know in context there was no good explanation for it. It happened that way because that's what Jones felt like writing, and I'm glad he did, but it's still objectively problematic.

Anonymous said...

i'm gonna make my own site about it