Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Commander Benson's Notebook: Notable Stories

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 would warn the contemporary fans that the Manhunter of the Detective/HOM days had a different style and attitude. However, for those who want to explore them, those old stories of J'onn J'onzz have some gems and milestones. There are some very key stories in those old Detectives.

At his debut in Detective Comics #225, J'onn J'onzz possessed the abilities of telepathy, telekinesis and clairvoyance. All three of these powers gradually disappeared through editorial intervention, as it became readily apparent that with his overwhelming host of powers, there was little tension in cases where J'onn J'onzz squared off against an Earth crook or even a reasonable alien menace. Frankly, I agreed with the elimination of those powers for that very reason. For the first couple of years of the "Manhunter from Mars" series, the Manhunter could and did utilise his powers while in his guise of John Jones, police detective. Rarely did he assume his true form, and when he did, he turned invisible. (At the time, he could use his other Martian powers while invisible.)

Inconspicuously, an editorial change was made in the Manhunter's abilities: whenever he turned into his Earth identity--or any earthling--he lost his Martian powers. He became an Earth man. Or if he turned into a Saturnian bird man, he lost his Martian powers and gained the Saturnian power of flight. In short, he adopted the abilities (or lack thereof) of whatever form he assumed. This compelled J'onn J'onzz to change to his Martian form to use his powers. (I don't know this remains true with the current version of the Martian Manhunter, but it stayed true for this version through his last appearance in House of Mystery # 173.) However, since he could do so invisibly, his presence on Earth could still remain secret.

This was also a wise editorial choice, for it gave J'onn J'onzz another weakness of sorts, for he was now vulnerable as John Jones. Although frankly, I almost feel the best change of all was when Joe Certa stopped drawing him with that goofy-looking beetlebrow.

More Detective Comics:
# 236: J'onn J'onzz finally makes contact with his father from Earth.

# 287: Introduction of J'onn's little brother, T'omm J'onzz, as well as his mother.

The story in which the Manhunter's presence was revealed on Earth appeared in Detective Comics # 273 (Nov., 1959). Detective John Jones was on the scene when a yellow-skinned Martian went on a rampage in downtown Middletown. Jones recognised him as B'rett, a Martian criminal. Invisibly changing to his true identity, the Manhunter confronted B'rett in a deserted warehouse. At that moment, B'rett exploded a vial of Formula Z7 at J'onn J'onzz's feet, enveloping him in a cloud of the formula. Formula Z7 caused a Martian to lose his other Martian powers whenever he turned invisible. (It was developed and used by Martian authorities to prevent Martian criminals from escaping.) As Captain Harding and the Middletown police department surrounded B'rett, J'onn J'onzz realised he had no choice but to reveal his existence to keep B'rett from slaughtering the police. Turning visible, the Manhunter defeated B'rett and secured him in the rocket the criminal had used to escape the authorities. Then, he sent the rocket back into space. (Why J'onn J'onzz didn't accompany him on the rocket was studiously ignored.) The last panel showed Captain Harding welcoming J'onn J'onzz to Earth. I know there have been at least two other, different stories of how the Manhunter's presence on Earth was revealed. But this was the first one--and for me, the best one.

#301: J'onn J'onzz returns to Mars, briefly, for the first time since being marooned on Earth.

#311: The first appearance of Zook

To give you the quick run-down on Zook's appearances, the little fellow debuted in DETECTIVE COMICS #311 (Jan., 1963) as "one of the Zooks . . . a mischievous little animal" from another dimension, who was stranded on Earth after a dimensional warp closed. He did not become sentient until an issue or two later; hence his usual description as the Manhunter's "pet". His powers included: a limited ability to stretch his body, the ability to raise or lower his body temperature to extremes (hence the ability to cast heat and cold), and his antennae could track any person which he had met. Zook appeared in the J'onn J'onzz strip from then on through the rest of its run in DETECTIVE, ending with issue #326 (Apr., 1964).

#326: The Manhunter's last appearance in Detective; the story, entitled "The Death of John Jones, Detective", showed why the Manhunter was forced to abandon his John Jones identity. Also the debut of the Idol-Head of Diabolu storyline.

In May of '65, J'onn J'onzz took over as the lead in HOUSE OF MYSTERY, in issue #143. Zook went with him and continued in the strip throughout the remainder of the "Idol-Head of Diabolu" storyline.

#158: The conclusion of the Idol-Head of Diabolu storyline. The Manhunter discovered the origin of the Idol-Head of Diabolu and destroyed it.

#160: J'onn J'onzz assumed the identity of Marco Xavier and began his war against Vulture. Zook, probably viewed as not fitting into the more-serious storyline, was not seen, nor mentioned for several issues. Eventually, however, Zook re-appeared in the Manhunter stories (by reader demand?) in HOM #166, 168, 171, and 172.

#173: The conclusion of his war against VULTURE, the revelation of Faceless' true identity, and the last story of the Joe Certa-drawn "J'onn J'onzz" series. Zook did not appear in HOM #173, and since that was also the Manhunter's last appearance in the series, we never saw Zook--as we knew him--again.

The Martian Manhunter appeared on the covers of HOUSE OF MYSTERY #143 (his first appearance in HOM after being kicked out of DETECTIVE), 144-8, 151-3. And Zook appeared with him on most of those nine covers. Good stories, all!"

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
What's up with the plant? - posted May 23, 1999
Zook - posted May 19, 1999 03:39 PM
Martian Manhunter in DC Archives - posted March 08, 2000


Bookgal said...

With the Martian Manhunter Showcase that came out in 2007, I was able to enjoy many of his old adventures. While the J'onn I know and love came from the 90's and 2000's, there is such charm to these old tales I really enjoy then.

Diabolu Frank said...

I'm still guilty of having not read all of the Showcase edition, I'm afraid. Until I'm ready to do something blog related, I avoid the '50s stuff. I'm found of the House of Mystery run, though. It took me years to accept the Silver Age J'onn J'onzz as the same character I loved, just in a slightly different light. Some of those stories are really terrible, but anything with Zook, Diane Meade or Professor Hugo is aces with me.

Bookgal said...

I was very found of Diane myself. A lot of the old stuff is pretty cheesy, but its the kind of cheese I can enjoy with a big smile. :) Kind of like cotton candy....fluffy, not particularly great for you, but oh so much fun.