Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Erdel Say Relax

Way back in the olden days, some shepherd shared a story about winning the Babylonian lottery, and some other guys in togas were like, "dude, that's rad." Then some pedantic listener pointed out that the story was full of biographical inaccuracies, that leprechauns hadn't been invented yet, and science had not yet proven rain was what restored all the water that was lost falling off the edges of the flat Earth. A revised story was drafted to address these concerns, but someone hit somebody else with a rock anyway, and there was a holy war. Thus was born retroactive continuity.

I was at the comic shop today, tossing through the newly released Brightest Day #2, and there was a retcon. I expect there will be much gnashing of teeth and rending of sackcloth over it, but we'll get to the specifics in a little bit. What I want to address is that whatever happens from here is no different from where we've been before.

In the first Martian Manhunter story, a scientist named Prof. Mark Erdel accidentally teleported a Martian named J'onn J'onzz into his lab. I don't know that it was ever revealed exactly what J'onzz was doing at the time, but since he proudly proclaimed that he was a scientist and had a miracle serum in his own lab that could save Erdel from a shock-induced heart attack, I like to think he was playing Yahtzee at the beach. That seminal story established that while Mars was technologically similar to Earth in that it was still developing manned space flight, it was culturally so far advanced that it had eradicated war and crime a millennium back. Among other powers, J'onzz could read minds, see into the future and extract gold from water.

Within the first year, J'onn J'onzz's name went through numerous misspellings. A character named Lt. Saunders was renamed Captain Harding and slowly redesigned. J'onzz almost immediately stopped using the powers I just mentioned. Several sets of Martian criminals were introduced, one managing to reach Earth from a space prison.

Although the Manhunter from Mars strip had the exact same creative team for better than a dozen years, the Alien Atlas' powers changed from story to story. Although it was initially a crime series with a science fiction twist, it slowly shifted to straight sci-fi, then super-hero adventure, then creature feature, then espionage thriller. It originally seemed targeted to older readers, then backslid to younger readers fantasy, then ramped back up to violent pre-teen action. Supporting characters and villains, in the few instances they appeared with any regularity, would have their histories regularly altered and contradicted.

In the late 1960s, it was revealed that J'onn J'onzz wasn't so much a scientist as the "science leader" of his own army locked in a racially charged war. Captured and sent into political exile in a wasteland, J'onzz's promises of peace and salvation for Professor Erdel were recast as empty lies. Commander Blanx was introduced as his nemesis, even though he's only ever appeared in two comics, both of which were flagrant retcons. In the second, Blanx was revealed to have been the impetus for the formation of the Justice League of America. To cover for scientists discovering there was no life on the actual planet Mars, Blanx wiped out the entire planet with an mighty inferno, sending the few survivors to colonize another world.

In an early '80s Hawkman story, it was revealed Prof. Mark Erdel did not in fact die from shock, but was instead murdered by his own computer. Later in the decade, it turned out that every single Martian Manhunter story taking place on Mars or involving other Martians was a figment of the imagination of an amateur inventor named Saul Erdel, who was still very much alive. Also, instead of living parents and a younger brother, J'onzz (whose name was also made-up) was a widower who had lost his daughter and race to a plague. J'onzz didn't even look like the Martian Manhunter, but was instead closer to a wrinkled Gumby. Where John Jones had once patrolled Middletown, U.S.A., he was now from Middleton, CO.

By the late '90s, the Saturnians of the Jemm series had been retconned into cloned Red Martians. There were also still-living White Martians, but only a few other Green Martians who had managed to survive in secret, including an evil twin brother for J'onzz. This "Malefic" engineered the plague that killed the other Martians. Also, J'onzz had been brought to Earth by Dr. James Erdel, who died in the resulting explosion of his equipment. Police Detective John Jones was a human being whom J'onn J'onzz would impersonate after his death, seeing as J'onzz had himself been a cop on his home world.

I've left out a bazillion other retcons, but I hope you've gotten the point. Even if you claim to be a fan only of the story "The Strange Experiment of Dr. Erdel," Erdel was actually a professor, so even that single story contradicts himself. The Martian Manhunter hasn't faced retroactive continuity like most super-heroes, but rather been defined by it. There isn't a single living fan who hasn't embraced at least one Martian Manhunter retcon, and since he picked up a massive amount of his current fan base after the 1996 JLA series launched, most of his readers love a third-plus generation revision of the entire premise of the character.

Back to the present, I won't receive my copy of Brightest Day #2 in the mail for a couple of weeks, but I didn't want to stand in a comic shop reading every Martian Manhunter-related page like a total deadbeat. From what I could glean, Dr. Saul Erdel (who hasn't appeared since the 80s under that name) initially called down a demonic alien with his teleportation device, which was loosed upon the world. He did this with his adult daughter, a fellow scientist. Dr. Saul Erdel then intentionally sought out an alien hero to combat the menace he was responsible for, and found him in J'Onn J'Onzz. Saul, seeking to protect his daughter, hid her safely away where she could view J'Onzz without being detected. As happened to James Erdel, Saul's equipment blew up, killing him with shrapnel rather than crushing him. Erdel's daughter was also struck, but in the head, so that she would remain mentally incapacitated until such time as a scheming but still ludicrous writer could spring this development far too many years late. The Saul Erdel in this story bore no resemblance to the Erdel from the 1988 mini-series, and only vaguely looked like Mark or James.

Actual readers can add or take away from my impression, but regardless, J'Onn J'Onzz has had yet another origin revision and a new purpose for being on Earth. Older readers will complain about the "truth" in all this, but I think it's pretty clear how subjective that truth is. In my perfect world, every Martian Manhunter story fits into a giant, weird, uneven tapestry. I'm not wild about this latest rag, but I should be used to it by now, and I only have to adjust my vision of the character a tiny bit to accommodate it. Stupidity is rampant in comic book plotting these days, but this is only mildly annoying, and I'll forgive it if this develops into a decent story. For today though, I figured the old blog needed to acknowledge the twist, and offer a forum for your comments...


Anonymous said...

I don't particularly have a problem with the retcon....I just find it rather annoying how Johns has been doing retcons of late. He used to be the guy who made everything fit into continuity clearly. Now he is just doing plain old retcons for no reason. Aquaman is half-human again, John Stewart was a marine, firestorm is a college frat boy again....and then he shoves it down your throat.

Tom said...

Best post ever! (I don't need to say more than that because you've said everything.)

Diabolu Frank said...

Tom, I'm just glad that ramble made sense to someone besides myself.

antididio, I definitely feel where you're coming from. A supposed fan of John Stewart adapts that Green Lantern to animation, but the hardnosed military type of Justice League Unlimited bears no resemblance to the actual character in the comics (down to even his hair styles.) Johns then turns our Stewart into the animated version, and I'm not so much a fan of that guy, not that he got much play in Johns' books anyway. Maybe the new universe formed out of Infinite Crisis is to blame?

mathematicscore said...

Well said, through and through. Retcons schmetcons. This at least fits with my worldview. My way or the highway, ya ken?

Tom said...

Maybe it wasn't Johns but someone higher up at DC who insisted on giving the comic book Stewart the same origin as the animated version, so that fans of the TV show, who outnumber the comics fans, would not be confused if they happened to read a comic. Johns could have said "no" of course, but then DC would have someone else write the new origin.

LissBirds said...

Well, this is quite brilliant, and could serve as a "history" of the character of the Martian Manhunter.

I forgot what I was going to say this morning when I read this, of course, but thinking a bit about this throughout the day, something did strike me. The retcons that J'onn's been through seem to be the type in which a writer just wants to try out an idea based on their own interpretation of the character. You don't really see Batman handled that way. So J'onn is kind of a blank slate who begs to be tinkered with by writers, an archetype for writers to interpret however they want. I don't know if that's a good thing or bad thing.

Anyway, with all these multiple origin stories, J'onn's getting to be like Joker's "multiple choice" origin or The Phantom Stranger's "here's some options, pick your own" origin. I want to say I'm a purist, but I do seem to pick and choose. In my mind, Mars is (mostly) peaceful and socially advanced, Erdel dies from fright, J'onn had a wife and daughter, he decided to be a cop on his own merit (no impersonating a dead John Jones), there was a plague/war/somesuch and Blanx fits in there somehow, and Malefic doesn't exist. That's pretty much my selective origin story. Anything to the contrary is just an "author's mistake" which needs correcting at a later date. I know it doesn't make sense, but hey, it's my world and I can make up the rules.

Though I am annoyed at yet another retcon, I'm willing to give Geoff Johns a pass only because he's a pretty capable storyteller. I can't wait to read it when my comics opinion might change.

Diabolu Frank said...

Tom, if Johns were telling his John Stewart as Marine stories through gritted teeth, he'd have ground them to the gum through repetition. Architect schmaritect, Jarhead Stewart reigns.

Liss, we walk away from the Martian Manhunter buffet with virtually the same plate, though I heap on more. I recall one of the reasons artists love drawing J'Onn is because they can go far "off-model" without fans ridiculing them as they would on Superman. I try to keep an open mind on the writing front as well, instead of suffocating stories with "different=bad." Hell, I had to digest "American Secrets" for a few days before I could figure out my feelings about that. My problems come into play when things like questionable ethics crop up (see: Ostrander.)