Sunday, December 7, 2008

Commander Benson's Notebook: Mysterious Disappearance

When I was first putting together my fan site "Martian Manhunter: The Rock of the JLA," U.S. Navy Commander Adam Benson became my guru with regard to the Manhunter's Silver Age stories. I ran a series of "articles" culled from his message board posts from 1998-2000, and thought it would be nice to return the pieces to the web. If you'd like to read more current and thorough offerings, visit the index of his Commander Benson's Deck Log columns at Captain Comics and the Legion of Superfluous Heroes.

"I'm as much of a J'onn J'onzz fan as anyone--at least of his old Detective Comics/House of Mystery incarnation--so this isn't a criticism of his character. It's more like putting things in perspective:

Where was the Martian Manhunter when:
--the Crime Syndicate first invaded Earth-One? (JLA # 29-30)
--When both Earth-One and Earth-Two almost collided; that is, if either of them wasn't blown up first when Anti-Matter Man stepped on it? (JLA # 46-7)
--When the Key condemned the rest of the JLA to die at their own hands? (JLA # 63)
--When T. O. Morrow killed the rest of the Justice League in "The Stormy Return of the Red Tornado"? (JLA # 65)

The Manhunter's run in House of Mystery went from # 143 (Jun., '64) to # 173 (Apr., '68). The only other comic in which J'onn J'onzz regularly appeared in at that time was Justice League of America. So, I went through the run of JLA between the dates of the Manhunter's strip in HOM--June, 1964 to April, 1968, inclusive.

The JLA issue with the June, 1964 cover date was # 28--"The Case of the Forbidden Super-Powers"--and the issue with the April, 1968 date would be JLA # 61--"Operation: Jail the Justice League". Not counting Giant Annuals--reprinted material--that is a run of 31 issues of JLA which ran concurrently with the Manhunter's own strip in HOM. I went through each of those 31 JLA issues and counted up the appearances of each of the 11 members at the time. If a JLA member appeared only to say "hi", but did not take an active part in the case (such as in JLA # 31, when half of the membership took off on "important cases of their own" after page 4), I counted it as an appearance. Counting the number of absences by each Justice Leaguer in those 31 adventures, the mean group was between 8 absences (or did not show for cases 26% of the time) to 13 absences (42%).

Only two heroes failed to show up for more than half of those 31 cases. Aquaman was one, who with 17 absences failed to show 55% of the time. The other, with the number one slot for absenteeism, was J'onn J'onzz, the Manhunter from Mars--who missed 20 out of 31 adventures, or failed to show up for a case 65% of the time. Even Snapper Carr missed fewer (42%). For that matter, Hawkman--who wasn't even a member at the start of this 31-issue run--missed less (39%). And note that this period does not encompass the Manhunter's longest streak of absences--8 straight issues, from JLA # 62 (May, '68) to # 70 (May, '69), inclusive. I'll stipulate that those absences were due to that "thirteen-month period" when J'onn J'onzz was on a desolate Mars, returned there automatically by Dr.Erdel's robot brain--as described in JLA # 71 (which is a terrible story, incidentally). However, during that period from June, 1964 to April, 1968, J'onn J'onzz has no excuse for missing such an overwhelming number of JLA meetings (he had not left Earth during this run, since he showed up for the case in JLA # 61--the last issue of the period)--except that he was too busy in his own title.

I can't deny, explaining J'onn J'onzz's mid-to late-60's absences from JLA cases by saying he was embroiled in his activities against Vulture out in the Mediterranean is an exceptionally good notion. The few appearances he does make with the JLA during that period can be explained by stating they were contemporaneous with the occasions when his "Vulture-fighting" took him back to the United States. There were a few stories in his House of Mystery series which showed the Manhunter combating Vulture agents in the States. In fact, two issues of JLA--# 52 and # 60--which depicted the same thing; in fact, the Manhunter's efforts against Faceless form a major plot point of the story in # 52.

I'm not sure why Gardner Fox started curtailing the Manhunter's appearances in JLA. Until JLA # 28--which coincided with the Manhunter's debut as the headliner in House of Mystery in June, 1964--Fox had used J'onn J'onzz in all but one of the previous thirty JLA stories, and used him prominently. Moreover, Fox had made use of the Manhunter's non-Superman like powers, if not constantly, at least fairly often. (In The Brave and the Bold # 29, he has the Manhunter turning invisible; and in JLA's # 23, 24, 27, 44, and 61, Fox depicts the martian using his transformation power to change shape or become someone else.) So Gardner Fox knew the character; I can only presume that some kind of editorial fiat forced him to use J'onn J'onzz less.

Back in the mid-'60's, just when the BATMAN television show became the national craze, Gardner Fox's stories in the JLA magazine began to regularly feature JLA members Superman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and--most prominently--Batman, reducing the remaining members at the time (Aquaman, the Atom, Green Arrow, J'onn J'onzz, and Wonder Woman) to less-frequent appearances (most often explained away by the "tied up on urgent cases of their own" excuse). The Atom and Wonder Woman didn't fare too badly; Aquaman and Green Arrow popped up every four issues or so; but the Manhunter's appearances grew few and far between. And when he did appear, he was shown using his Superman-like powers and never his unique martian abilities.

Finally, the Manhunter dropped off the scope entirely. Stories which were meant to include the entire JLA (# 63 and # 65, for example) did not include J'onn J'onzz; nor was there even a reason within the text of the story given for his absence. It was like the character was completely forgotten--by both the JLA and DC.
Only after Denny O'Neil took over the scripting chores did DC attempt to explain the Manhunter's absence retroactively. This was in JLA # 71 (May, 1969), in the story entitled " . . .and So My World Ends". I will give DC and O'Neil credit for attempting to explain not only why J'onn J'onzz had missed so many JLA meetings (at the time of that story, he had been absent for eight straight stories), but why he had opted to remain on Earth for all those years when obviously Superman or Green Lantern could have had him back on Mars in no time. The aim was good, but the execution, in my opinion, missed the mark.

The story informs the reader that, on Mars, J'onn J'onzz had been the leader of a scientific-military force, opposing an enemy force of white martians led by Commander Blanx. J'onn J'onzz was captured by Blanx's forces, and he was subsequently exiled. During that first year of exile was when he was accidentally teleported to Earth by Dr. Erdel's "robot brain". He remained on Earth in his role as a crime-fighter throughout his term of exile (which explained why he never had the JLA return him to Mars). When the period of exile was over, he had Erdel's robot brain return him to Mars (which explained why he was incommunicado and missed all those JLA meetings).

On Mars, the Manhunter found that Blanx was intent on exterminating all life on their world, for reasons too long to go into here. Actually, Blanx had done a pretty good job of it, since he believed that J'onn J'onzz was the last remaining martian besides himself. The Manhunter returned to Earth to get the aid of his JLA pals (why he didn't just use his JLA signaller [since many stories showed the emergency signal could transmit across vast reaches of space] is one of the many discrepancies in O'Neil's story). In short order, the JLA whupped up on Blanx's men, and the Manhunter himself took out Blanx. However, they were unable to prevent the complete devastation of Mars, which was reduced to a charred cinder. The story's conclusion revealed that a spaceship containing the last survivors of J'onn J'onzz's people had escaped their planet's doom, and the Manhunter left the JLA to follow his people in search of a new home.Hope this helps.

I will stipulate that when all the other big guns abandoned the JLA to such losers as the Vixen, Steel, Gypsy, and Vibe, that was one moment when the Martian Manhunter did hold the JLA together (at least until the real members could get back)."

Edited by Frank Lee Delano from posts made by "Commander Steel" on the DC Comics Message Boards. All material used with the written consent of the author.

Who is your favorite JLA member? - posted August 04 & 07, 2000
Martian Manhunter in DC Archives - posted March 08, 2000
Why did J'onn leave the JLA/earth in the 60s/70s - posted June 01, 1999


Bookgal said...

Actually, J'onn got a glimpse of what DC was going to do to him in the future, and had to take a few years off just to cope. :P

Diabolu Frank said...

I'm going to say it was PTSD from all those Silver/Bronze Age revamps.

"I'm an alien cop. No-- just a cop with super-powers! Wait-- an alien super-hero with a cop secret identity! Hold up-- I'm an alien super-hero without a secret identity searching for an ancient evil artifact with my cute sidekick! Hold the phone-- I'm taking over the identity of an international man of mystery in my grim pursuit of an crime cartel! Ah, forget that-- I'm a holocaust survivor in exile, searching for my lost people-- oh, there they are. I'll just set up random guest-appearances for a bunch of years, only making my presence known during a nervous breakdown that leads me to batter other heroes..."