Monday, November 8, 2010

Does the Martian Manhunter Belong in Science Fiction?

I've had a post brewing in the back of my mind for ages, and finally decided to knock some of it out after reading Can Mars just go away now?

H.G. Wells has been called "The Father of Science Fiction." Within five years of 1900, he produced novels that popularized time travel (The Time Machine) and the concept of genetic engineering and related rights issues (The Island of Doctor Moreau,) the inherent immorality of the super powerful (The Invisible Man,) global warfare (The War of the Worlds,) and space exploration (The First Men in the Moon.) Since then, these novels have been turned into the basis for "period" episodes of sitcoms, vehicles for Marlon Brandon to look like a demented whale, direct-to-DVD voyeuristic horror series, Smashing Pumpkins music videos, and that Tom Cruise movie where Dakota Fanning screamed for like, 90 minutes straight. Point being, as soon as there was enthralling speculative fiction, there were penny novel knock-offs that married surface elements to run of the mill adventure nonsense. It's the difference between science fiction and Syfy ("Sharktopus Weekend starts now!")

John Jones was never high minded material, but it did start out as a detective strip with a twist, not so much pulp sci-fi. Even when various Martian invaders and other aliens started popping up, it still felt like a series about humans (one with a super-secret) struggling to maintain the status quo against these weird creatures. The paradigm didn't shift until John Jones "died," and the Martian Manhunter began chasing the Diabolu Idol-Head with his pal Zook through one monotonous, uninspired, illogical and clearly juvenile-targeted monster battle after another. That track failed to catch on, and a shift toward the then hot super-spy fad was insufficient to save the Alien Atlas' solo career.

The Martian Manhunter was shuffled off to obscurity in a Justice League of America story that contradicted much of the previously established history of J'onn J'onzz, and grounded him in a haphazardly written pulp sci-fi mileau. Suddenly he's a military leader in a civil/race war with an opposite number in pursuit of a power source, all of which he conveniently never mentioned in thirteen years comics of publication. For the next decade, the Martian bounced across hostile worlds, battling weird menaces (usually with Super Friends that diminished him greatly,) acted as a savior to his nomadic people, and tried not to miss any opportunities to fly spaceships/spelunk crystal mountains/other genre schlock. I've often spoken of these years because of their contribution to the Manhunter's artistic legacy (Mike Nasser, Dick Dillon, Jim Starlin) and rogues gallery (Commander Blanx, Bel Juz, Mongul,) but they remain some of the worst stories ever written about the character.

Here's the problem with the Martian Manhunter in sci-fi stories: Where's the hook? That he's a particularly silly looking alien with super-powers that generally outstrip his nobody foes? That he's bound by years of goofy Silver Age stories and a membership to the Justice League of America? It's an alien fighting aliens in outer space. Isn't having the Martian Manhunter in pulp sci-fi tales as on-the-nose as Aquaman in undersea action or Wonder Woman always defending that damned island?

Being a Martian super-hero isn't what makes J'onn J'onzz special so much as being a Martian amongst Earthlings. Looked at that way, it's no surprise the one objectively good '70s Manhunter story was the one in which he rarely appears outside human guise in a buttoned-down period setting. No DC super-hero can play in the McCarthy era like John Jones, and Commander Blanx was infinitely more interesting as the instigator who united the players of the 1950s against him than as the random jerk that destroyed Mars.

There were a lot of things that drove me nuts about the Ostrander/Mandrake series, but one was its seeming to turn the Martian Manhunter's world into Batman's by way of Superman's sci-fi metahuman trappings. Most of the stories revolved around Martians or other aliens showing up and getting pounded by the Marsman of Steel, but they would be all Gotham City creepy about it. Alternately, you had stories about people going after the Martian Manhunter because he was the Martian Manhunter, not because they had an existence or motivations of their own.

That tradition has continued through to Brightest Day, where D'kay plays Malefic with a uterus, another Martian psychopath who tussles with J'Onn J'Onzz because what else was she going to do? The Alien Atlas is once again putzing around his dead world getting into ancient arguments, and I have to wonder where one goes from here? Aquaman is out of the water, back with his wife, rebuilding his mythology and ties to the surface world-- all while showcasing how nasty his arch-foe is before a mass audience. Firestorm is becoming more powerful, resolving old issues and creating new conflicts, trying to take from the best bits of past incarnations to make something new. Deadman is alive and shifted away from '90s macabre toward his more cosmic '60s roots. Hawkman is... well, doing what Hawkman has always done, but that's his thing. Martian Manhunter is only doing that thing he's done since the '90s, that took him most of the decade to gain a series he couldn't sustain under said terms.

One of these days, I hope someone figures out that what makes the Martian Manhunter interesting is the ways in which he's not Superman or Batman, and that he's supposed to be the uniquely alien element in his stories, not just another tired pulp sci-fi hero.


Luke said...

"Hawkman is... well, doing what Hawkman has always done, but that's his thing."

I couldn't have put that better myself!

mathematicscore said...

I feel there are two camps on the question "what direction should J'onn J'onzz go."

One would be the take the mindless ones blog took, that I linked a while back.

There it is again.

They argue for a rich Martian culture, with elements of horror and sci-fi and Lovecraftian madness in it's villainy. A Morrison/Johns era take with big ideas and weirdo action.

The other camp is towards Martian Manhunter being a hero of earth who happens to be from mars, who deals with earth problems in the fashion of Superman and Batman, and the like. A recognizable, earthly milieu, a stable supporting cast, and an emphasis on earthly identities, ususally as detectives or spies; and thing that brings his other worldly powers into terran intrigue.

I have love for both approaches. When J'onn was in the JLI and the JLTF, and had issues where he got to shine, I loved to see him punching out mind controlled Captain Marvel, or beating the crap out of three heavies in quick succession in the Underworld Unleashed tie in. Similarly, seeing as a fifties detective, a sixties superspy, and more recently CEOs and DEO agent is a lot of fun too.

On the other hand I enjoyed "in my life" arc quite a bit, as well as the 1,000,000 issue and it's follow up as well. Rings of Saturn sits well enough with me. And I really enjoyed my recent aquisition of the Marshall earth mars war. Oh! and the Mongul story (mostly on potential)

You make an excellent point that the noir stories have almost entirely been of higher quality than the sci-fi, but I'd argue that that ratio would probably hold true if you expanded it to all media. For every Slaughter House five or Starship Troopers, there are a metric ton of poorly written, lowbrow sci-fi novels. For every 2001: A Space Odyssey or Alien there's a load of Species or Battlefield earth. Granted, Noir's heyday is largely gone, but I feel there is a better ratio of noir works with artistic merit to poorly conceived tripe than there is for Sci fi.

Diabolu Frank said...

Good point about the quality ratio, M.C. I guess it's important to note that sci-fi covers a lot of ground, where noir is much more specific in its conventions. I like when J'Onn is involved in firmer sci-fi, while the science fantasy stuff leaves me cold. I can handle Lovecraft/horror in smaller doses, but it seems like every third Manhunter story since the late '90s has tapped that vein. It worked for me in Scary Monsters and Neron's ties to Martian folklore, but the mysticism of "Rogues of Mars" and the like seem inappropriate for a scientist like J'Onn J'Onzz. Most importantly, I just plain want to see something different from the Ostrander mold (and I do mean mold) of the past fifteen years.

mathematicscore said...

I can appreciate that. If at the end of Brightest Day, he decided to set up a primary earth identity and start doing cool stuff, not dealing with Mars for a solid 50 issues or so (I wish!), I'd be pretty cool with that.

LissBirds said...

Bravo on an excellent post that says what I couldn't about the same idea!

"it still felt like a series about humans (one with a super-secret) struggling to maintain the status quo against these weird creatures."

I think you hit the nail on the head right there, in my humble opinion. Any story that takes place on Mars, to me, has no tension whatsoever, because it's mostly backstory. A big chunk of the Ostrander series was about how Mars got destroyed. Well, just like I can't stand the Star Wars prequels becuase all I need to know is that Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, I don't need to know the exact details of a character's backstory, especially becuase backstory implies we already know how it turns out. The only tension is in finding out how it turned out that way, and frankly I'm bored by what the name of the psychic plague was that wiped out J'onn's people or what the name of the planet was that Anakin and Obi Wan dueled on. Backstory is why immerse a character who's already passive to begin with in a stagnant storytelling framework? This is part of the reason I can't keep all (or any) of the details of the Ostrander series straight becuase I just don't care about them, becuase they're just trivia.

And like you said, with D'kay, we're right back where we were in the 90's, hitting all the same story beats, and all the story amounts to is listening to two people talk about what happened decades/centures/whatever ago. I guess you could say there's potential to have Mars and J'onn's family come back to life--but that's the last thing that should ever happen. Giving J'onn his family back means he quits the superhero business, gets what he wants, and lives out his retirement on Mars in contented bliss, giving up on Earth becuase he won't need Earth anymore.

I like seeing character stay true to their original intention. The Manhunter from Mars was created to be a detective strip with a twist, and Martian history didn't enter into the story at all, becuase that's not what the character was about. Making him become a superhero always felt, to me, like putting a square peg in a round hole, only to satisfy the disbelief that couldn't be held to satisfy readers' need for verisimilitude just becuase Viking 1 got there and found nothing.

LissBirds said...

Oh, and hurry up with that whole writing-for-DC prospect you mentioned. Someone who "gets it" needs to be writing the Manhunter from Mars, asap.

Luke said...

I don't mind the Martian Manhunter as a "science fiction" character in the same way that Superman in the Silver Age is generally regarded as a "science fiction" character. He's the sort of hero who should have to deal with weird and bizarre crap every month. Because he's the Manhunter, nothing bothers him. Just snap off a wry little comment and take care of business. Put him on Earth, but in a city that attracts the most unusual sort of stuff, like Smallville in the early seasons. J'Onn would be the weird hero to the even weirder city, and the people would embrace him as "their hero" because of that weirdness.

What's the old saying, in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king? In the City of the Insane, the Weird Hero rules supreme.

Diabolu Frank said...

Luke, have you been reading Scipio's "Apex City" posts, because you've definitely been drinking water bottled there? Middletown is so Smallville in its consistent weirdness, and I don't have a problem with J'Onn sharing some sci-fi time with an additional element grounded in "reality." I meant to and really should have titled this a rallying against "Science Fantasy" more than sci-fi.

Liss, ditto! I like the I Am Legend dead family, but for me, J'Onn's life begins on Earth. I'm watching (and have long been reading) The Walking Dead, and Mars stories are like following Rick as a small town cop before the zombie plague. Why?