Thursday, August 26, 2010


When Worlds Collide is a general "thinkin' about comics" column at Comic Book Resources written by Timothy Callahan. In his December 7th, 2009 column, Callahan discussed his theory of "recoil," or WHEN CHARACTERS DON'T STICK. The basic premise was that comic book universes, whether big guys like DC & Marvel, or smaller spheres like the Kirkmanverse, inevitably form their own pantheons of archetypal characters. Once solidified, new characters must offer something entirely new or previously lacking in the universe in order to join the pantheon of successful, sustainable, respected heroes. Since between the Golden and Silver Ages, virtually every super-character type was attempted, it's nearly impossible for someone to break into the big leagues. For instance, there have long been driven vigilantes in comics, but the Punisher was such a simple, iconic presentation of the type, he ascended to archetypal status. The Hulk was already the rampaging berserker in the Marvel Universe, but he was defined by his strength and his childlike misunderstanding of the threat he posed. Wolverine usurped the Hulk in some respects by being a very guilty, knowledgeable personification of a sort of justifiable sociopathy popular with the disenfranchised. Meanwhile, Invincible is basically a Superman/Spider-Man mash-up that works far better divorced from the universes of either of his progenitors than he ever could within.

A follow-up column debuted on January 11th, 2010, in which Callahan was joined by "poet, comics writer, and author of six books for visual artists, Mr. Steven Withrow." The pair discussed "The Superhero Pantheon," taking the view that sociological and theological inclinations throughout history define the forms of "gods" we embrace, which trickles down into our comic book icons. Withrow elaborated in the second part of the series on the primary attributes the archetypes share:

The iconic-dramatic spectrum is my own variation on a set of concepts that are widely discussed in literary criticism. Alexander Danner and I explore these concepts in our book "Character Design for Graphic Novels."

I often divide the archetype into two essential parts: (1) the character as icon and (2) the character as actor. To enter the pantheon, a character must succeed in both aspects at once.

An "iconic" character is instantly identifiable and aesthetically powerful. The character's visual surface or the name alone elicits a strong response. To one person at one moment, that response might be informational: "That guy with the cape is Superman, and he can fly." Or the response might be more emotional: A flash of childhood memory or a burst of excitement.

To be iconic, or used as a corporate brand, the image must remain (relatively) static for the sake of both instant recognition and positive association. To apply this to the superhero pantheon, two characters shouldn't, as a rule of thumb, have too similar a name, costume, or abilities, for if we can't even identify them, how can we possibly identify with them?

Moreover, a character's consistent visual representation should be functional and not just decorative, immediately communicating something significant about purpose, powers, and personality.

Applying these principles to the Martian Manhunter, it's clear that the name is evocative. You know he's a not-too-distant alien being, and you know he's some sort of policeman, bounty hunter, or perhaps an assassin. Nothing wrong there, aside perhaps for the length. Unfortunately, "Martian Manhunter" indicates a real bad ass type, where J'Onn J'Onzz is introspective and of moderate temperament. What the name sells is not the actual product. Further, DC consistently dilutes the brand by constantly foisting other "Manhunters" on a disinterested public. If you're not pulling people in with the somewhat famous Manhunter from Mars, what makes you think the succession of also-ran terrestrial and robotic Manhunters will break through?

The image is the failing point. J'Onn J'Onzz looks like a well built human with a large brow and green skin. Speaking from experience, he can easily be confused with characters like the Hulk and Dragonball's Piccolo. However, even though Piccolo started out as a demon, he was retconned into being an alien because his antennae and pointy ears made him look extraterrestrial in a way Martian Manhunter does not. Further, there's nothing particularly distinctive about the Alien Atlas' costume. Worn sans body paint, a cosplayer would likely be confused for a luchador or generic super-hero. Finally, there is no real indication from the visuals of the Manhunter from Mars what he can do. The bald head and brow could indicate mental abilities, but that's negated by his brawn and near nudity. Muscles mean strong, cape means flight. Where do shape-shifting, intangibility, and J'Onn's other distinctive powers come into his design?

Combining the two, we've got a character whose visuals are too vague and recalls only the most common powers, while constantly wrestling with other unrelated "Manhunters" within his own company who actually better personify the name. That amounts to terrible marketing on DC's part.

Timothy Callahan wondered, "Do some characters lack the iconic "gene," and have no chance at iconic status? Like, for example, Red Tornado or Martian Manhunter? Or Nova? None of those characters seem to have hit the culture at large, even if they have stuck around in comics for a long time. So is this notion of the iconic-dramatic spectrum relevant to characters who last in the comic book world, or is it mostly relevant for characters who break through into the world at large?" Steven Withrow replied:

Let me take a step back and say that, in trying to connect this spectrum with archetypes and the pantheon, I've been conflating (and possibly confusing) two common meanings of the word "icon": (1) a sign or representation that stands for its object by virtue of a resemblance or analogy to it; and (2) one who is the object of great attention and devotion; an idol... Red Tornado (android elemental hero), Martian Manhunter (alien hero), and Nova (cosmic hero) meet the first definition of "icon" pretty well, but they fall short of the second definition, perhaps because their objective or symbolic intent is unclear to the mass of people who are not intimately familiar with science fiction and superhero fantasy conventions, in the sense both of genre norms and of geeky get-togethers. Or maybe these guys are just too silly-looking to inspire hero worship (though I could see the Richard Rider version of Nova making a good pitch for this under the right dramatic conditions).

What is the Martian Manhunter's point? In the '50s he was stranded on Earth, so he decided to clean up the place while he was stuck here. That's a good starting place, but he had no clear motivation for becoming a police detective outside of it being a hobby/pastime. Even taking retcons into account, becoming a cop for social acceptance is somewhat pathetic. In the '60s, he chased the Diabolu Idol-Head, but that was more a scavenger than manhunt. J'Onzz also pursued Mr. V and the criminals of Vulture, but through plodding and duplicitous means that don't register as a "manhunt." Plus, what does either have to do with his being a Martian?

In the '70s, the Martian Manhunter did next to nothing outside bringing in fellow heroes to solve the problems of himself and his people. In the '80s and '90s, he was a hybrid stand-in for Superman and Batman amongst lesser lights, often acting as their father figure. Since when do the masses want to read about super-space-daddy, lacking the Man of Steel's omnipotence as well as the Dark Knight's drive and intellectual heft? For most of his fans, he's an interesting character for whom they have affection, but who actually idolizes the Martian Manhunter? Who would model themselves after and be inspired by him?

Even if we were to colonize Mars in this century, I have a hard time believing that Martian Manhunter would suddenly become an American idol; his origin and purpose are just too fuzzy at present. He's got the "icon gene"; its just not adequately expressed to help him survive or thrive in a hostile environment. Will he adapt, disappear, or stay just as he is?

Whichever way, we'll always need secondary characters to give someone for the Big Guns to buddy with and fight against.

Despite his potential, without some radical rethinking, Withrow makes clear Martian Manhunter will always be the bridesmaid, never the bride. He's the minority partner of the hero cop whose ill-fortune inspires violent retribution. Martian Manhunter isn't in the Superhero Pantheon, but instead on the periphery of the Superfriend Zone.


LissBirds said...

Cool article, Frank, and insightful as usual.

Of course part of the problem is that nobody can define who the Martian Manhunter really is. I've tried, but I think it's just as impossible as traveling faster than light. Part of the reason is that, I'm guessing, when he was created he probably wasn't meant to have that much mileage, and he just kind of hung around because he was there.

But I'm wondering if the setting for J'onn's exploits were different, if that would somehow focus his character a bit more. The colonizing Mars comment is what made me think of that. Then I thought of Darwyn Cooke's interpretation of the naive do-gooder who basically up and decides to be a good guy just for the sake of being good. Even though that's admirable (how many of us decide to be good and follow through with it on a daily basis?) that doesn't seem all that Earth-shattering, since it was easy for him to be a cop with the ability to pass as human.

Okay, so then I started thinking American Secrets, and not to beat a dead horse because I always bring that series up, if the setting is tweaked to the 1950's height-of-the-Cold-War (the same era that produced the Twilight Zone), things change a little. It's still easy for him to choose to be a good guy, but it's harder to execute if he's always watching his back. If the sci-fi/fantastical element was pumped up a bit to a Twilight Zone-esque morality play reflecting the nature of humanity (i.e. people are rotten to one another) vs. the nature of a Martian (a pretty decent guy), then I think J'onzz could shine a little brighter. I just don't think people like to be reminded of how crummy we are as a species, and J'onn just reminds us of that. (Somehow Superman gets a pass and is still what we aspire to be.)

I"m still not sure if he could break the archetypal glass ceiling even with the right tone/setting. I'm not sure if his concept is focused enough for that. But I'm thinking really strict Joseph Campbell-esque when I say "archetypal." Only Batman and Superman make the cut with those kind of standards, which is why they're part of our culture.

mathematicscore said...

I think your earlier post about his being the patron saint of loser superheroes is very applicable here. Not everyone needs to be Bruce Willis or George Clooney. Some can be William H Macy or Jason Statham.

The pantheon of gods in most traditions is filled with many lesser gods. No reason our modern pantheon would be any different.

will_in_chicago said...

I think that it would take a radical rethinking to get J'Onn up to the iconic level. Perhaps there needs to be equal emphasis on his alien nature, his powers, and his personality. For example, J'Onn is very compassionate, but has been able to take down some very powerful figures in the DC Universe. In addition to a redesign (not sure what would work), a few moments of awesomeness might be required. One could be proving that he is as sharp as Batman. Another could be telling a possessed Superman: "You are my friend and I hate doing this, but someone has to stop you. NOW!!" and then beats the Man of Steel senseless -- or back into his old self.

J'Onn is a challenge, but there is such a wealth of material to work with that a truly talented writer and artist team could do something remarkable. I am not sure that it will happen.

Steven Withrow said...

Great analysis! Thanks for referencing my discussion with Tim Callahan on CBR. You've definitely given me much to think about regarding the "soul" of the JLA.

Steven Withrow