Saturday, October 4, 2008

Manhunter from Mars #400 (November, 1997)

"I've suffered a good deal of ridicule over the years regarding the inordinate amount of time I serve on monitor duty. It was a habit I developed during my years with the International League, over the many times I would find Booster Gold trading stocks or Blue Beetle engaged in "Pong" rather than their individual duties. Never mind that instance of Dinah and Ollie making use of our video conferencing technology in a manner... most unbecoming.

'A little neglect may breed great mischief... for want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost.' As a detective, I recognize the devils in details, and endeavor to scour them as the opportunity presents itself. We Justice League stand at the ready within this Watchtower for menaces that threaten all creation, but most can be determined well in advance with careful attention. Nipped in the bud, as it were.

For example, I've just found an article about a suicide in Denver-- a hanging death. Nothing exceptional about that, until the journalist notes the noose was fashioned from linked scarves..."

The Martian Manhunter returned to his old stomping grounds to investigate, only to be struck by a potent flashback once he neared the scene of the suicide.

"It was during my years on the police force, when I was often paired with a fellow officer, Diane Meade. She was the beautiful daughter of the police commissioner, and had taken an interest in me both as a super-hero, and most especially as an apparent human male. We had just finished a case in which Diane had briefly developed super-powers. My own Martian abilities had been temporarily lost, forcing me to remain in my John Jones persona in order to aid her. The events seemed to have left Diane in a state of pique; perhaps inflamed by her brush with the metahuman and my heightened virility in her eyes.

Back at my apartment, she tried to seduce me. For a moment, I was intoxicated by her form... her actions... even her simple interest. Still, I pushed her away, droning on about official conflicts and complications. I could see how I'd wounded her, after months of building tension between us. Alone, I considered every misgiving about the situation... professional considerations, questions about the necessity of revealing my dual identity... even indulging in useful prejudices about the 'bestiality' inherent in a potential interspecial mating.

In truth, I had been isolated for so many years, the thought of intimacy frightened me, above all other considerations. I had grown comfortable in my role as detached observer and secret aid. Meade's interest threatened the life I had built for myself on Earth. Also, despite the falsehoods that enshrouded my true memories in those years, I believe somewhere in my heart was guilt at entertaining the company of any woman after the death of my wife.

My relationship with Diane never recovered from my slight, and we drifted out of one another's circles... I suspect by design. Soon, John Jones appeared to have been 'killed' by a manifestation of the Pandora's Box known as the Diabolu Idol-Head. Jones could have miraculously recovered with ease had I so chosen, but I instead exited my former life under the pretext of pursuing that infernal device...

Martians are possessed of a mixed blessing of total recall; the ability to revisit a memory in the most intricate detail. As such, my sudden remembrance of that time with Diane struck me with full force-- the sweet smell of her skin... the warmth of her breath. I found myself anxious and irritated. Again, total recall is an expectation among Martians... something we are trained through life to manage with ease. This wave of sensory nostalgia was beyond my control."

Manhunter eventually collected himself, and realized there was a massive psychic resonance left in the wake of the suicide, though he was unable to delve deeper. Unsure that it would be safe to resume the form of John Jones, the Sleuth from Outer Space instead became Martin Smith to continue the investigation, which picked up with another body.

A woman at a mill had managed to saw herself in half. "Smith" briefly spoke with investigating officers, until being struck by another overwhelming flashback.

"From early childhood, Martian children are telepathically imparted a racial memory. We are allowed to develop into individuals, but are guided by historical knowledge, a base skill set and the assumptions of communal existence toward independent competency. I continue to be perplexed by the disparity of ability between humans.

My nostrils flare and eyes water at the toxic stench emitted from Hank Heywood's artificial flesh and synthetic hair after the attack by Professor Ivo that left him brain dead. I recall the shuddering anguish Paco Ramone's mother succumbed to as I presented her the corpse of her son. I'm sucked into a gaping maw of numbness as my mind touches Queen Olaf's at a glacial graveside, taking me back slightly further... To the horror and betrayal felt by Cindy Reynolds as I abandoned my surrogate daughter to her own potential frigid tomb, other matters pressing. I see myself through her eyes... I experience my own desertion, and consider dying alongside her."

The Manhunter managed to shake loose of the vision, only to find one of the policemen had managed to penetrate his own skull with his baton. Another had used blades to detach his jaw, left arm at the elbow, and both legs at the knees... making himself resemble a human chicken. Both were rushed to hospital, but lost causes. However, through the dismembered man's flickering mind, Manhunter managed to re-tap into the remembrance stream, and search out a source. The Martian followed the path closer to the point of greatest intensity with the city, and stumbled upon another time past.

"When my memories of my true life on Mars were first restored, I endeavored to reclaim my former existence as a peaceful mystic-- the last living representative of my race communing with our surviving god of fire and creation. I struggled to relinquish my role as leader of the JLI, and devote myself to spirituality full time. However, material existence conspired against me... the need to protect my compatriots from the fates of those we had lost... to defend innocence from the horrors of the universe... to strike with unimaginable fury at those threats. What use is a pacifist to anyone in the face of such adversity? Where was H'ronmeer, the deity who reawakened my true nature, as I attempted to walk this path? Was it simply to lead me to death, finally completing the work of the plague? Were our beliefs a failure, or worse, an aberration in the grand scheme? These were questions I asked myself even in the old days... inquiries that troubled my wife, and kept us apart at times. Why, when there was a matter to be confronted, or an enigma to be uncovered, was I compelled to take the lead? Where was my acceptance, and had it cost me a shared afterlife with my family, or was faith itself a delusion disproved by their fate?

I recall an instance of atrocity... Martian corpses covering a hillside... Gathering a search party into caverns long abandoned to superstition... A momentary touch of primordial fear... childhood dread of the Howling One..."

Manhunter broke his reverie with a cry, "NERON!" To his left and right, people were failing to levitate off the sides of buildings. J'Onn J'Onzz caught those he could before slipping back into the psychic plane. The Martian Detective was surrounded by darkness, except for a pinprick of light in the distance, toward which he moved.

"Backslider. That's what my father would have called you, the way you question God. I certainly heard it enough myself, as he racked my backside with a switch. We all have those sorts of stories, though... we villains. It's what turns us, I imagine." Manhunter recognized the voice as that of the Conjurer, a magic-themed thief from his earliest years on Earth. "The parlor tricks were supposed to liberate me from the badlands, you see, but the 'boob tube' ruined that for we slight-of-hand artists. Then the heists, but you saw to the end of that run. All these years later, I was given another angle... Just light a rather unique candle, and you may receive your heart's desire."

Through his heightened vision, Manhunter could see the distinctive green bougie of Neron, the demon lord known for brokering Faustian deals with super-villains to increase their power.

"I wanted to be the greatest conjurer of all time, and all it would cost me was my godless soul. I thought I could live with that, but there was a rub. Lucifer is a lawyer, you know, so he always gets you in the fine print... the language. I can conjure alright. Memories; only the worst, and nonstop. At first, they were only my own... the taste of blood in a victim's mouth... virtue I once stripped from a girl for a price... on and on, every hour of the day and night. Then, I realized I could share, like that time I just spent with you on Mars."

"What do you want?"

"I was there, Manhunter. I felt your pain... everybody's pain. I can't give mine away, but I can take anyone else's on... I don't want this... I can't live like this. I want you to fix me. Take it all away, right this minute, because I've had my fill."

As Manhunter grew closer to the Conjurer and his candle, flames surrounded his eyes and entered his mind. "I can't! I can barely think myself! This is mystical... beyond my abilities!"

"I don't care! Do your worst! Lobotomize me if you've got to!"

"It's impossible! Even if I were psychically capable, it would be immoral. "

Thanks to their simpatico, the Conjurer knew better than to carry on arguing against an insurmountable truth.

"Ah, well. I've got one last trick for you, then. Watch me pull a revolver out of my hat."

There was a flash-- a quicksilver halo about the Conjurer's head, before he and his candle flickered out.

The second half of the '90s began a golden period for the Martian Manhunter, as he experienced an unprecedented surge in popularity. While his spin-off "Justice League Task Force" had been canceled alongside most related titles, it was to make way for the hugely popular "JLA" relaunch. Grant Morrison and Howard Porter introduced the Alien Atlas to a whole new audience, but they were only helping to pay off groundwork laid out with the character since the mid '80s. Also of great help was James Robinson, whose strong working relationship with reconstructionist editor Archie Goodwin led to the Brit's taking on "Manhunter from Mars." Steam had been building for some time, but after his two years, the book was a bona fied hit for the first time in its existence.

While DC was ending other series left and right, or riding out rough patches on mainstays, talks began at this point about a second solo title for the "Martian Manhunter," by another critically acclaimed creative team. Certainly, the pencils on this book by Jeff Johnson, one of my favorite Manhunter artists, couldn't have hurt the momentum. The vulnerability and depth of emotion Johnson was able to imbue complimented Robinson's scripts fantastically. I also have to congratulate the pair in ending their run on such a grim and ambiguous note. On an ascendant title, to take such a creative leap took serious guts on everyone's part.

No comments: