Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Why Can't Martian Manhunter Have His Silver Age?

The other day, I ran a piece on the 2007 DC Direct New Frontier Series 2 Martian Manhunter Action Figure, based on the acclaimed mini-series by Darwyn Cooke. I wasn't as bowled over by the book as a lot of other people, because to me it just felt like it was covering the same retro-relevant ground as Paul Levitz, Roy Thomas, James Robinson and many others. However, it was an exceptionally good entry point for Martian Manhunter fandom, for which I'm grateful. For the first time ever, someone took Steve Englehart's '50s hero team-up from 1977 that made the red scare part of John Jones' origin, J.M. DeMatteis' revised "Last Son of Mars" reboot origin from 1988, Mark Verheiden's TV education short from that same year, Gerard  Jones' further exploration of the McCarthy era in 1992's American Secrets and worked them all into one compact presentation. It was the best of the Modern Age period Martian Manhunter in a nutshell.

The thing about New Frontier was that, like Englehart, Cooke did the research on where every Silver Age DC hero would be at a specific point in time before the super-hero revival was in full swing. Eisenhower was president, Hal Jordan flew in Korea, and so on. The book was a tribute to the "greatest generation" that fought in the Big One, and the optimism entering the 1960s with a fresh crop of super-heroes. Why is it then that every element of J'onn J'onzz's story as depicted comes not from the Silver Age, but a series of retcons beginning over twenty years after John Jones' introduction? Why is the Manhunter depicted wearing a cape with a high folded collar, a look that didn't come in until the 1980s? Why does J'onzz spend a substantial portion of the book in a "natural Martian" for introduced in 1988?

My questions carry over to plenty of other projects, like Alex Ross' Justice. That book looks not to the '50s, but to the '70s, as a grim modern take on the Super Friends and Legion of Doom. Aquaman's son is still alive and his marriage is intact, Wonder Woman battled the Priscilla Rich Cheetah and so on. Sure, Ross took liberties with the inclusion of Captain Marvel and Plastic Man, but both were part of children's TV programming from the '70s. A bunch of Satellite era Leaguers like Elongated Man and Red Tornado are also involved, but given the period, they belong. Then along comes the Martian Manhunter, in '80s style, a character who skipped appearing for most of the seventies and nearly half the '80s. J'onn J'onzz didn't appear in cartoons until the 21st Century, and his origin as depicted comes straight out of 1998. What is Martian Manhunter doing in a nostalgia fest for a time he was absent from?

JLA: Year One made a point of having Green Lantern wear his initial costume, without the shoulder pads, while Black Canary rocked high heels and fishnets. So why does J'Onn J'Onzz look exactly the same as his then-present self? It could be argued that the 1988 mini-series wrote off most of Martian Manhunter's Silver Age stories as delusions in his mind, but wouldn't J'Onn still be running around looking like a green-skinned Yul Brenner, regaling his teammates with fantastic, untrue tales of how he remembered Mars? If J'Onzz only learned of his true, "natural" form during the JLI years, why would he assume it in almost every period story since its introduction?

Virtually all of Aquaman, Flash, and Green Lantern's Silver Age adventures remained factual after Crisis on Infinite Earths. Meanwhile, not only did Martian Manhunter lose his entire solo career, but even the '88 mini was dismissed. Since Infinite Crisis, the original Justice League founders' histories with the team have been restored, and Manhunter even had a '50s villain turn back up recently. Yet, not only does J'Onn's 50-mid-80s solo material remain unreferenced in continuity, but it never seems to turn up in even Imaginary/Impossible Stories/Elseworlds.

My assumption is that the Martian Manhunter just didn't have all that many fans from back in the day, and those that made good as creators who already told their nostalgia tales back in the '70s. The current crop likely caught up with J'Onzz in prodigal son mode, known through others' recollections of times before their own. Alternately, J'Onn J'Onzz was much improved from his updates, and so many readers became fans through his modern incarnation, there's no interest or knowledge of his publishing past.

Hopefully, the revival of the Human Flame was the first salvo in a talent pool now provided access to the solo Manhunter from Mars via Showcase Presents. So many other '50s heroes are reconnecting to their roots, while poor J'Onn J'Onzz is currently suffering through yet another origin corruption in Brightest Day. If Martian Manhunter is ever going to be more than a background Justice League character, he needs to start building a foundation that takes advantage of thirteen years of continuous publication (plus crazy extensions in the Bronze Age,) rather than another tweak of the timeline. If all anyone knows about Martian Manhunter are revisions, how can he ever escape an endless loop of "bold new directions?" Just look at how that's worked out for Wonder Woman...


Tom Hartley said...

I'll got with the simple answer: nobody had bothered to read those old stories.

I couldn't help noticing that you referenced most of the contents of my imaginary MARTIAN MANHUNTER ARCHIVES Vol. 7. So far you've only posted the front cover mock-up. Didn't I send you a link to the create-your-own-back-cover page weeks and weeks ago?

Diabolu Frank said...

Oh hell... this is what happens when you try running six regularly updated blogs at once. Now I know what's posting tonight. Sorry!

will_in_chicago said...

I agree that many of the writers likely did not read any of the stories from the 1950s and 1960s. Okay, some of the stories may no longer hold up in light of current knowledge -- Mars has been in its current dead state for sometime.

However, it might be a good idea to get the DC writers to read the old stories and use them for inspiration. So, if Mars has been a dead world for millions, if not billions, of years, maybe Dr. Erdel's machine in the 1950s reached into the distant past. Maybe instead of visiting Mars in the 1950s stories, J'Onn visited a Martian colony somewhere -- there are a few G-type stars within a few light years of Earth.

There is a wealth of material on J'Onn J'Onzz and they can be used in many different ways. I just wonder if the writers either don't know or care (or both) about the wealth of resoruces that they have in DC's archives.