Saturday, November 14, 2009

2009 The Martian Manhunter Archives Volume 3 Introduction by Tom Hartley

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"Wade Greenberg" is at it again, offering pointed observations about Patrolwoman Diane Meade's treatment in the Silver Age. Once again, I've neglected a character Greenberg does right by, a great service to the blog and you all. To witness the page in it's full glory, download it as a PDF...

Batman has Robin, Aquaman has Aqualad, Hawkman has Hawkwoman (or Hawkgirl, as she was called in the less-politically-correct Silver Age), and our hero, J’Onn J’Onzz, the Manhunter from Mars, had, for a time, Diane Meade (or “pretty patrolwoman, Diane Meade”; welcome to the Silver Age, girls).

Diane Meade, the police chief’s daughter, herself joined the police force, and in her first case, as part of a probationary period, was paired with Detective John Jones (secretly our hero, the Martian Manhunter). Despite some initial awkardness——she smoked, which did not please our hero, who shared with all Martians a vulnerability to fire which robbed him of his super-human powers——Diane proved to be as smart and capable as any policeman (or should we say brawny boy in blue?), and our hero found himself as much attracted to her inner qualities as her outer beauty. (But, he mused, would she find him attractive if she knew he was really a Martian?) A couple of years later she returned as a full-time (pulchritudinous) policewoman and she and Det. Jones would have many adventures together, including the ones you’ll read in this volume.

As already stated, these stories are from a less politically correct, or, to be blunt, more sexist, age, so despite Patrolwoman Meade’s bravery, loyalty, intellect and all the other fine qualties she possesses, the writers (Jack Miller and possibly some anonymous others) often insist on reminding us that she needs a man’s help. The best, or worst, example is this volume’s first story, which ends with Diane fuming at Det. Jones because she finds out he’s been secretly helping her all along. “You again! My one chance to solve a really big case——and you have to interfere!” And our hero winks at us readers and thinks, “Lucky for you I spent the whole day interfering with you, Diane.” Take that, ya’ dizzy dame!

When DETECTIVE COMICS’ “John Jones Manhunter from Mars” back-up feature expands to 12 pages, beginning with issue #300, the threats have to become more powerful, so that it takes twice as many pages for our hero to beat them. Diane is along for the ride in most of these stories, but what can a mere Earthling, male or female, do when faced with a would-be dictator with a magic ring, giant robot animals, or an entire army of invading Martians, all with the same super-powers as our hero? Other than getting captured by the bad guys so that J’Onn can rescue her, not much. In these more perilous times, the hero’s sidekick also needed super-powers.

One solution is to make Diane super, and this is tried out in this volume’s final story, “The Bandits with Super-Powers” from DETECTIVE COMICS #316. A recurring plot device was for a passing comet or fallen meteorite to rob J’Onn of his powers (as if having something as common as fire for a weakness wasn’t bad enough). In a couple of early stories rerprinted in our first volume, it was a comet. In this volume we have two meteorite stories. The first is “The Last Days of J’Onn J’Onzz” from DETECTIVE COMICS #306. As J’Onn explains, “It’s giving off rare solar rays, which contain the same basic elements as fire!” Ten issues later, another meteorite renders J’Onn powerless——this time without even a vague, pseudoscientific reason——but now there’s a twist: ordinary humans gain super-powers! But remember, this is the early sixties, so our male writer cannot allow even a super-Diane to defeat the bad guys on her own. But what can J’Onn J’Onzz do without his Martian powers? Simple: he assumes his Earthling guise, as John Jones. Now that he’s an ordinary human, he also gains super-powers. Step aside, pretty patrolwoman, super-heroing is a man’s work. This is the only time Diane would have super-powers.* There was no intention of ever making a Diane a super-heroine who could fight side-by-side with J’Onn. In fact, the sidekick problem had already been solved in a previous story.

Five issues earlier, in DETECTIVE COMICS #311, J’Onn J’Onzz battles “The Invaders from the Space Warp”. The other-dimensional invaders can cause minor earthquakes by vibrating their bodies, and if that’s not menacing enough, they’re also armed with ray guns. Upon arriving on Earth, their first act hold up a grocery store. It’s moments like this that make me think the Martian Manhunter would have been more at home in a comic called TALES TO UNDERWHELM.* An other-dimensional lawman is able to follow the criminals to Earth through the space warp before it closes, and following the lawman is a Zook, a diminutive demon with powers of his own: he can change shape and project heat and cold. You can read the story to find out how the invaders are defeated, and how J’Onn is able to return both the criminals and the lawman to their home dimension. But am I really spoiling anything when I reveal that Zook is accidentally left behind on Earth, and that J’Onn adopts him as a pet?

Editor Jack Schiff and his writers now have what they consider a worthy crimefighting companion for our hero. But don’t worry, Diane Meade fans, your favorite curvaceous cop still has a role to play, even if it is, in most stories, as damsel in distress.
—— Wade Greenberg


LissBirds said...

I've been wanting to read the Diane Meade appearances in Showcase for a while now but never seem to be able to get around to it. I always thought it would make sense for "John Jones" to have to deal with a human partner following him around. Now I'll have to read them to see how sexist they are. I always thought having a woman as a policeman was a pretty big step for the late fifties/early sixties, even if she gets some grief from men, at least DC was showing that women could be something other than housewives. Even The Atom had his "Lady Lawyer," girlfriend, too.

I don't want to launch into a whole discussion of gender in comics through the ages (unless anyone else wants to) but I don't see a problem with a girl having to be rescued by a guy, as long as she can take care of herself. There's a certain charm and sweetness to the Silver Age Adam Strange stories because of this, and I find that a lot less sexist than, say, the way certain female characters are drawn in today's world, where women are supposedly equals. (Starfire, Carol Ferris...)

Diabolu Frank said...

Mr. Greenberg has a point about the Silver Age sexism, especially as Meade morphed from an athletic curly redhead into a platinum blond in a tight skirt. There was more than a little bit of a Lois Lane lift there, as well. Still, Meade was empowered and active for her time, which made her occasional distressed damsel turns ring false.
I've read Wonder Woman stories from the period that made the Amazing Amazon look worse.

LissBirds said...

I was just browsing through Showcase last night and Meade seemed pretty smart. It took her, what, two seconds to figure out who John Jones really was? And how long did it take Lois Lane? :) I haven't gotten to read her later appearances yet. I agree there's sexism rampant in the Silver Age, but I've seen me, overt gender roles of the 50's aren't that much more offensive than how women are drawn in today's comics.

And Wonder Woman was pretty much what I was thinking about in comparison to Diane Meade, Iris, Jean, etc. Those Wonder Woman stories had some weird subtexts....but at least they had damsel-in-distress Steve Trevor. I think if you're a friend/boyfriend/girlfriend/coworker of a superhero, you automatically become the damsel in distress, no matter your gender.

One of the (many) mistakes of the Ostrander series was mishandling Diane Meade. What a great source of conflict it was to have John Jones work with a human and exist in a human's world. The more I think about it, J'onn is defined by his weaknesses, one of which is his "alienness" and his role in a human's world. And if memory serves, Ostrander had Meade discover J'onn's secret identity way too early, and then she got killed off. (Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong!)

Tom said...

Diane Meade's portrayal was more sympathetic than what one would typically find in '50s and '60s comics (or any other form of popular entertainment). Maybe she was ahead of her time, but only by a couple of minutes. Yes, she showed kids that women didn't have to be housewives, but in most of the stories, the "pretty policewoman" gets her comeuppance for trying to prove she doesn't need help from a man. A perfect example is Detective #296's "The Alien Bodyguard", which opens with the line, "Patrolwoman Diane Meade, J'Onn J'Onzz' pet nemesis, insists she can always take care of herself!" But as we readers learn, of course she can't. (In many stories she's nicknamed J'Onn's "pet nemesis" or "pesky partner" because she's always following him around and getting herself into trouble.)

Editor Jack Schiff, writer Jack Miller (and possibly some other anonymous writers) toy with the idea of making Diane J'Onn's sidekick, but apparently these men, or their (mostly boy) readers, or both parties, aren't comfortable with our hero fighting alongside a woman, so finally, in issue #311, another, more suitable (male) sidekick is introduced. (Presumably male. Zook is always called a "he" but who knows what the little critter is.)

LissBirds said...

Okay, I somehow skipped the first appearance of Diane Meade and after reading it now I know where you're coming from. I like her original look a lot better.

Diabolu Frank said...

"The more I think about it, J'onn is defined by his weaknesses, one of which is his "alienness" and his role in a human's world. And if memory serves, Ostrander had Meade discover J'onn's secret identity way too early, and then she got killed off. (Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong!)"

I totally agree that "vulnerability" is a defining characteristic of the character, and a topic I've wanted to post about at length for years. I myself made the mistake of wanting J'Onzz to shed his fire weakness, missing the whole point of the character. He's a noir super-hero, haunted by a troubled past and his own colossal failings.

Also, it was not Diana Meade killed in that first Ostrander story arc, but a female P.I. who had been John Jones partner before uncovering his secret. The Post-Crisis Diane Meade first appeared in JLA: Year One, but didn't show up in the Ostrander series (as I recall) until late in the second year (the Revelations flashback arc?)

Tom said...

Although the vulnerability to fire was clumsily handled and way, way overdone, I like the idea of a superhero who has a common phobia for a weakness. Add to that his homesickness, loneliness, and being burdened with a secret, and you have what was definitely a hero for the sad kids.

But the stories had to change with the times, otherwise the Manhunter from Mars would have gone the way of Roy Raymond, TV detective. John Jones, plainclothes detective became J'Onn J'Onzz, superhero. The result was a mightier, less vulnerable, and consequently, less sympathetic character. He no longer had to work in secret and acquired friends. His acceptance on Earth allowed him to shed his homesickness for Mars. Of course, he still had fire. But fire was handled in the same gimmicky way as Kryptonite. (Mr. Greenberg gives some examples in his Vol. 3 intro.)

LissBirds said...

...toy with the idea of making Diane J'Onn's sidekick, but apparently these men, or their (mostly boy) readers, or both parties, aren't comfortable with our hero fighting alongside a woman, so finally, in issue #311, another, more suitable (male) sidekick is introduced.

Darn. I would've liked to see them paired up. I haven't read that far, obviously. I'm only halfway through the first Showcase.

With Zook they probably thought it would be cool to have a superhero have an alien pet...but they never realized J'Onn is best when he's out of his element and being around humans.

LissBirds said...

He's a noir super-hero, haunted by a troubled past and his own colossal failings.

Amen, Frank. Amen. If only the right writer could come along and put him in the proper setting. Noir is also needs the right atmosphere, be it disorienting or paranoia, and the only writer to get that right was Gerard Jones.

There was one JLI Annual, I think, that captured a similar atmosphere, but I can't remember which one off the top of my head.

Diabolu Frank said...

Liss, I think you mean this one.

Diane and John (& J'Onn) teamed-up a few times, but nothing steady. They worked well enough, but still a bit too Lois Lane for me. She wasn't active or defined enough to escape the "gal pal" shadow, though she had her moments.

Since Miller never got J'onn's isolation and alienness right after Samachson (who only hinted at it,) I can't say there was anything wrong with bringing in Zook. In context, Zook complemented Manhunter better, and was more generally useful and entertaining (or nauseating, depending on the reader.) It wasn't until the shift to Marco Xavier that Zook stuck out awkwardly. Zook was perfect for the Idol-Head/monster of the month formula.

It's tricky to keep the Silver Age stories in perspective, because J'onn simply was not the lonely, tragic figure he would become from 1969 onward. Until Vulture, he was a pretty light-hearted dude, with little to worry about besides fire and exposing his dual identity.

LissBirds said...

It is really hard to reconcile the Silver Age. Especially Martian Manhunter stories...the strangest things happened in Apex City... But it was such a different time. I haven't read any Batman Silver Age stories, but I'm sure they were equally silly (with giant clocks or somesuch), and the Dark Knight of today probably took decades to come about. There was one story that stuck out to me in Showcase that stood out to me and I think that was Diane's first appearance, where at the end of the story, J'onn's looking at himself in the mirror and pondering if Diane would like him if she knew he was really a Martian. I thought that was pretty ahead of its time.

Frank, I don't know if that's the right issue. I don't remember Conorr being in it and the story doesn't sound familiar...all I remember is J'onn undercover, out on the streets and he's beating up a criminal and he's about to kill him when Batman stops him. And I'll be darned if I can remember the rest. (Seriously, I'm too young to be senile.) It's going to bug me all day until I figure it out, but I will, eventually.

LissBirds said...

Ok, I found it. It was a subplot in the JLI Annual #3. J'Onn's chasing down some guy who killed his partner, and the rest of the story was the usual JLI silliness. Though I think it was the first time where someone in the League saw J'onn in his "natural" form. (To much hilarity due to Oberon's reaction.)

And I did read the JLA Annual #1...I had completely forgotten about it and I just went back and looked at it and remember I liked it a lot, even if "John" was drawn a little bit too much like that Sin City guy for my tastes. But I don't think it reprinted in trade which was a complete shame.

Now...why have the best Martian Manhunter stories either been annuals, specials, or miniseries, never part of an ongoing series, and none of which have ever seen reprints as trades?

I smell a conspiracy....

Diabolu Frank said...

Sorry I didn't come through in time. I approved a new batch of comments based on names alone, and only just now read your posts. "The Man I Never Was" is easily one of the best Manhunter stories ever told, and I love that Oberon reaction shot (he spilled his cookies!)

I had serious reservations about that JLA Ann.#1 story on first read, but in 20/20 hindsight, I like it. Martin Stein does look too much like Violent Marv, but the xenophobia and J'Onn's yo-yoing between empathy and revulsion rings true.

Diabolu Frank said...

Oh. You mean J'Onn isn't part of the Firestorm Matrix? Make that Martin Smith...

LissBirds said...

D'oh...right, Smith, not Jones. You'd think after 50 years on Earth he'd start picking up some less-obvious aliases.

Yes! Though it says Time Gula did the art, he must've really channeled Maguire for that panel. I was always a fan of the over-the-top Maguire facial expressions. And one of my favorite lines came from that issue, "It's like seeing my mother...naked!" It was nice how Giffen & co. could balance the serious with the silly.

From a noir standpoint, everything worked so well in the JLA annual #1: atmosphere, the femme fatale, J'onn's losing his logic to emotion, character revelation, the "voiceovers." I like how it becomes more of a story about J'onn finding his place in the world rather than just a detective tale. If they ever make a Martian Manhunter movie I'd want it to be a cross between this story and American Secrets.