Wednesday, July 16, 2008

John Jones, Manhunter of Integrity

A while back at ...nurgh... I ran a series of posts expounding my theories on comic book creations and the responsibilities that come with writing these characters (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.) Basically, it's about staying true to the seminal integrity of the creation, both out of respect and the consistent direction offered. I'd just stumbled on a batch of swell Mike Grell commissions on the net, and used them to illustrate the series. This one above is of Mike Hammer, but at least as a thumbnail, it might as well have been a take on 50's John Jones stories. While the Manhunter from Mars is often considered more a "writer's character" than a fan favorite, many in the profession have expressed their difficulty in finding a handle on the character. It's really quite simple, and I'm glad to help.

After two World Wars and a Depression, the fifties were full of hard-boiled men, some with some pretty dark passions. Crime fiction had been swollen with titillating and sadistic imagery for years, which began to manifest more generally in the cinematic genre later dubbed "film noir." These works were partially defined by their moral ambiguity, cruelty, eroticism, and the influence German expression to create a stark or surreal atmosphere. The protagonists were often possessed of undesirable traits-- obsessive, manipulative, and so on. While more realistic than earlier detective stories, there was still a desire amongst many for heroes in dire times, men of virtue to combat both the blacks and the grays of their existence. A perfect example of this was Joe Friday.

Created by Jack Webb in the late 40's, Joe Friday began life as the lead on the "Dragnet" radio show, continuing throughout the 1950's on television. Friday was aware of how awful life could be, but he didn't allow the crimes he investigated to drag him into the gutter. He wasn't a boozer, didn't mingle with femme fatales, and tried to treat everyone he encountered with respect. He carried a badge, and did his job as best he could, to investigate wrongdoing and bring perpetrators to justice. He was a professional, only drawing his gun in the most dire circumstances. No flashy car chases, no roughing up suspects. It isn't that Friday lacked emotion: he shared a chuckle with his partners, expressed contempt for dope, and could lecture you to within an inch of your life.

Fanboys have been known to complain that the Martian Manhunter is just an unimpressive Superman knock-off. There's some truth to that, but the facts are, that isn't how he started out. John Jones was very much like Detective Sergeant Joe Friday, with a bit of Phillip Marlowe and a science fiction twist. Like pulp detectives, crooks routinely got the drop on Jones in the second act, roughing him up to add tension before the final turnabout. In later years, those femme fatales Friday dodged would get their hooks into J'Onzz, and he would become a bit too quick with the fisticuffs, more akin to a Spillane character. Like many of the dime store sort, he fixates on elusive truth, sometimes despite the harm that comes with the pursuit. Ultimately though, John Jones was too rough around the edges for a drawing room detective, and too tame for noir. He's Joe Friday with x-ray vision. In most every comic, at his heart, he's still the super-cop on patrol, his primary concern the protection of others from the gray, blacks, and even whites-- at least when they take Martian form. If you just keep that in mind, it's amazing how easy it can be to stay in-character. Also remember, if he doesn't always work as a typical, He-Man American super-hero, it might be because he wasn't meant to be one to begin with.

Say, if any of this intrigues you, might I suggest another "discussion" between Jules Pfeiffer, Larry Niven and myself regarding Superman?


Luke said...

"My partner is Zook. My name is J'Onzz. I carry a badge."

I think you hit the nail on the head here; I am a fan of Dragnet from watching the late-60s revival on Nick At Nite as a kid and John Jones always reminded me of the straight-laced, no-nonsense Joe Friday rather than someone like Sam Spade. I mentioned in an earlier post that the Martian Manhunter feature should be a "weird" police procedural, and I still hold this to be true.

I think the problem comes in that a good portion of your Big Two comic book writers -- nowadays especially -- are not overly interested in writing about a "boring" hero like Joe Friday. Friday and his ilk represent the Establishment, that faceless, evil right wing terrorist organization which has been stifling their rights as artists for generations. So they certainly don't want to detail the adventures of such a tool. (See also: Bendis writing Iron Man.) I mean, that's just my opinion, I could be wrong, but considering the way which protaganists with a working moral compass are routinely either ridiculed or otherwise made to look buffonish at best ("What do you mean our government is working against us?!"), or villified at worst ("I had the best of intentions!"), it seems pretty plain to me.

Diabolu Frank said...

Everything you said there is right on, especially the bit about a "weird police procedural." I mean, "American Secrets" alluded to murder, child molestation, drugs, Communism, media manipulation, political and social suppression... all with Lizard Men and evil gardners. J'Onn J'Onzz can be surrounded by all sort of twisted business and bizare characters and still work as the calm center of a furious storm. He's made interesting through contrast. Unlike having Wolverine say "Bub" and slash at people's clothing, you've got to have a story to carry the Manhunter through to showcase him.

I'm a Liberal, but my fellows have the same problem as Neo-Cons in that they want to wave the banner of unrestricted freedom for whatever they believe in, but you've just gotta regulate everything else, right? Creative people, to lay claim to the term, have to recognize that great art only comes through adversity, including adherence to an established character's traits. We need a "Disneyland Memorial Orgy" every now and again, but it has no effect if you haven't build and sustained the wholesome icons you're belittling first.