Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Post-Pointal Discussion: J'Onn J'Onzz and the Justice League

It's understandable for fans to get defensive about the sweeping changes being made to the DC Universe in December, but along with the risks, there's a lot of opportunity presented by the shake-up. From what I understand, this is much less of an Ultimate Comics DC Universe or ground zero relaunch and more of a Brand New Day widespread tweaking of existing continuity. That's how Geoff Johns' books will remain pretty much untouched, and recalls how most Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Flash history has progressed uninterrupted since the Silver Age. In short, just because Cyborg is in the new seven member core Justice League doesn't mean he's been retroactively made a founding member and left J'Onn J'Onzz out in the cold. Heck, they tried that with Wonder Woman, and look how the old history inevitably reasserted itself. Still, we're approaching the fifth anniversary of the Martian Manhunter being dropped from the JLA line-up, and this has given me cause to reevaluate his (and other heroes') role in the group.

I began to like the Martian Manhunter when I bought his Super Powers action figure in 1985, but didn't really follow him in the comics until Justice League International launched in 1987. Within my first year reading the book, Batman, Captain Marvel, Doctor Fate, Black Canary, and Dr. Light were all exiting to some degree, and being replaced by obscure characters I had never heard of. I feel this was the beginning of J'Onn J'Onzz's characterization as the "heart and soul" of the team, as a way to spin damage control with the one respected founder the creators could keep in the book. As more members came and went, and comedic elements were increasingly emphasized, the Martian Manhunter was the "straight man" who maintained the spirit of the League's heroic legacy. Just as the Alien Atlas served as a proxy Superman when the Man of Steel was withheld from heavy participation in the original Justice League of America comics, the Manhunter now had to also stand in for the Dark Knight as grim martinet, Green Lantern as the veteran of space odysseys, and Wonder Woman as the extreme foreigner commenting on our culture. Further, the Martian Manhunter was the sole member to last from 1984's doomed launch of the "New Justice League of America" until the cancellation of JLA in 2006.

However, virtually no Justice League founder had shown the lack of fidelity to the team the Martian Manhunter did prior to 1984. The insertion of "special guest stars" Superman and Batman into monthly Justice League adventures in the early '60s made the Sleuth from Outer Space largely redundant. As more and more new super-heroes joined the team, J'onzz had less and less room to operate, leading to many skipped appearances in the book. By the third year of the series, the Martian Manhunter was barely appearing at all, and he was written out entirely in 1969 after years of rare appearances. In fact, prior to 1984, the Manhunter from Mars barely showed up anywhere in comics from then on. This is likely what prompted Bronze Age fan Brad Meltzer to leave J'Onn J'Onzz out of his relaunch of Justice League of America, serving to remind everyone that the myth of the character serving in every incarnation of the team was of fairly recent vintage.

I bring all of this up because, while I had liked the Martian Manhunter for a decade, I didn't get really serious about being a fan until 1996's Justice League: A Midsummer's Nightmare mini-series. JLA was one of the first series I followed specifically because of the Martian Manhunter's involvement, along with Wonder Woman. Through JLA and back issue diving, my appreciation and knowledge of J'Onn J'Onzz grew, so I and many fans tend to see the two properties inextricably linked. The problem is that this notion doesn't bear out with the facts, and in many ways, the Justice League have held back the Martian Manhunter's development.

After a serious, artsy solo mini-series failed to impress JLI fans in 1988, writer J.M. DeMatteis continued developing the character within the pages of the team book. This built up until about 1992, when J'Onn J'Onzz's need for personal time to determine his next steps in life saw him leave the team and the series along with DeMatteis. The character seemed poised for a solo run, coming in second to Death among fans polled about heroes they most wanted to see receive a new mini-series. The result was the criminally overlooked American Secrets prestige project, which left the Martian Manhunter stuck as the primary recurring hero in the Justice League Task Force for three years. From there came the JLA, where aside from fulfilling Grant Morrison's decree that the team consist of the magnificent seven founding members, J'Onzz was also the Patron Saint of Loser Super-Heroes. The Martian Manhunter was like the official stand-in for every unpopular super-hero to have served in the League up to that point.

A generation or two of comic book readers have been taught to regard J'Onn J'Onzz as the safe, reliable given of a Justice League series. Even when he received his first self-titled series in 1998, it was treated as an adjunct to JLA and hub for other series' leftover business, like Chase, Jem and The New Gods. The impression was made that J'Onn J'Onzz couldn't stand on his own without a supporting cast full of other heroes. The only carryover from his Silver Age solo strip was an appearance or two by Diane Meade, and that was directly attributable to Mark Waid's version from the JLA: Year One mini-series. Most creators only know the character as a Justice League member, and so feel the need to invent casts and continuity in ignorance.

Additionally, when you take a hard look at his relationships within the team, J'Onn J'Onzz is something of an odd fit in the "Magnificent Seven" Justice League. While it has been established that J'Onn has been good friends with both Superman and Batman for decades, his ties to Wonder Woman and the Barry Allen Flash are at best warm acquaintanceships. The Martian Manhunter has adverse relationships with all Green Lanterns, the only semi-exception being Kyle Rayner. Aquaman is a character J'Onn seems to be fond of, but I'm not at all certain the feeling is mutual, as the Sea King has been outright abuse toward our hero on numerous occasions without any seeming remorse or reconciliatory action. As a founding member, J'Onn J'Onzz does not represent the best and brightest of the DC Universe, but an obligatory standing based on being in the right place at the right time. J'Onzz also represents the very arbitrary revisionism DC fans protest regarding the September relaunch. After all, his glorification in the '80s and '90s was based on the conceit of a Justice League founded by Dinah Lance, Hal Jordan, Barry Allen, and Arthur Curry, with no regard for the DC Trinity.

The Martian Manhunter has also been left off the new, serious take on the Justice League International. This makes sense, because J'Onzz's role in the original team was as den keeper of an immature motley crew of fill-ins while the "big guns" were getting revised Post-Crisis. J'Onzz's presence in the new line-up would cast a pall over Booster Gold, Guy Gardner, Fire and Ice, who are now trying to establish themselves as respectable and self-reliant. Of the announced line-up, J'Onn only has deep emotional ties to Batman and the Vixen, as opposed to the love of the Justice League institution that other present members served within.

Looking at the revamped Justice Leagues, I realize that the Martian Manhunter really doesn't belong as a member of either. While I have been dismayed by the many missteps in solo adventures since the Alien Atlas stopped being a Justice League fixture, I recognize the character is still waiting to have his fifty-six years of experience looked at comprehensively. Until the Sleuth from Outer Space can be fortified as a multidimensional character with something to offer outside of a team membership, he will never equal more than nostalgia and a foil for other characters to work off of. I didn't put together a daily blog for a walking storytelling device, but as a recognition of a super-hero with something significant to contribute. Let's hope somebody will make that apparent again, sooner rather than later.


Count Drunkula said...

I still believe that one of the twenty-six #1s still to be revealed will be a Martian Manhunter book. Whether it's an ongoing or not... I'm also confident that he'll find a place on a team book, as well.

Now, I still think he'll be a presence in the Justice League book. Also, Dan Jurgens has said that the characters depicted in JL International #1 is the complete team roster for "that issue"; there could still be turmoil and turnover in those books. We haven't seen an Outsiders book solicited yet.

Now here's a wild flight-of-fancy that I don't think has any chance of happening, but... What if J'onn became a part of Batman, Incorporated? They don't all have bat-themed gimmicks so he wouldn't have to change his identity really... Yeah, like I said, won't happen but it would elevate his status.

mathematicscore said...

Well said Frank. I still am less interested in Leagues that don't involve him, but agree that this may be a blessing in disguise. I decidedly don't want to see him in Outsiders or Batman Inc for much the same reasons you outlined. I hope they let him fly on his own for a while just having good adventures and being awesome. I actually think Tomasi would be a pretty good choice for that. Say what you will, Malefic and D'kay are both way better than Cay'an. Ostrander series weaknesses aside, that was a good run of varied, interesting adventures. If Tomasi can bring the level of his Nightwing run to a new MM series, you'd get no complaints from me.

Diabolu Frank said...

M.C., I slag on Tomasi, but there are far, far worse choices out there. Thankfully, the announcements to date have tied both Tomasi & the Awful Makers to enough books that I don't think they'd have room on the schedules anyway. I have recently, finally read and am working on write-ups for the 2006 mini-series. Cay'an was... something. I like her better than Malefic or D'Kay, but more because her story was so moronic and utterly irrelevant that she was comparatively inoffensive. I'm working on liking Malefic because I've had to acknowledge that I'm stuck with him, and he has some redeeming qualities. D'Kay though-- what a waste of space. Oh, and about Tomasi's Nightwing...

Ryan, I've got to agree with M.C., Outsiders or Batman Inc get a thumbs down from me. J'Onn already came out of Detective Comics, and usually defers to Batman's leadership in the League. Sticking him on one of the Dark Knight accessory teams would basically brand the Martian Manhunter's butt as Batman country. That doesn't mean you're not on to something, just that I have something else to fret over.

mathematicscore said...

Frank, you know I love you, right?

Just making sure :)

Count Drunkula said...

Well, DC is down to just 18 more #1 titles to unveil, at least for books coming in September. I'm less confident of a Manhunter from Mars book than I was last weekend, but I still think it could happen. And if not, well, that sucks, but also: DCU Presents would be a good place for a 4-5 issue J'onn story.

Paul Jenkins just did a Word Balloon podcast interview with John Siuntress where he described the book as a place to distill the essence of each character in a short multi-issue story. Sounds like--in the absence of an ongoing--that would be a good place to pseudo-reboot J'onn J'onzz and build up his status quo and supporting cast.

And Frank, I've got to ask now: Is there a particular art team you would prefer for a MM book from DC's current stable of writers and artists?

Count Drunkula said...

Additionally, Gail Simone just "tweeted" (sigh) that the launch books coming in September do not comprise all of the new books coming forth. This is true since Batman, Inc. is restarting with an #1 in 2012, but Simone's comment suggests a few other books are in the works, too.

Diabolu Frank said...

Ryan, depending on the creative team, I could roll with DCU Presents. I'd be bummed to get great guys for just one arc, but I'd hate to suffer losers on an ongoing. The one downside to the anthology format is that plot trumps all, so any real development of things like a supporting cast would be unlikely.

I had a tough time with artists, since they're less reliable than writers when it comes to consistent publishing presence, but tomorrow's post is a list of creative suspects for a Martian Manhunter series (if applicable) with my usual color commentary...

LissBirds said...

Hear hear, Frank. Excellent write up of J'onn's history...some of which I wasn't aware of.

So am I reading you right that the Martian Manhunter would function better as a character on his own, without the League? If so, my indulgent solution to that would be a series set pre-League, mid-50's. The reason American Secrets works (for me, at least), is that, becuase J'onn is alone and in his own "universe" so-to-speak, he *can't* be a foil to anyone. There is no precedent, there is no shadow of other characters to live up to/be compared with, etc. Put the Martian in the 50's, and I think his stories would be a lot more interesting.

But that's just my very biased opinion. I mean, if they're re-starting/re-booting continuity, a book set in the past could easily be done. If we're going to reboot the DCU, why not bring J'onn right back to his detective noirish origins, with a smattering of the weird?

"J'Onzz's presence in the new line-up would cast a pall over Booster Gold, Guy Gardner, Fire and Ice, who are now trying to establish themselves as respectable and self-reliant." See, this is what bugs me...there's just no going back to the JLI with characters who've "grown" and "matured" and who take themselves seriously. On the whole, these characters shouldn't be taken seriously, otherwise, you kill the joke. I want to see a bunch of morons acting like morons so I can laugh at (and with) them, not a bunch of angst-ridden C-listers who take themselves as seriously as Superman and company. Then again, I don't want a complete plunge into outright absurdity like the later issues, but you get my drift.

Diabolu Frank said...

I do get your drift. For me, the JLI worked best when you had the the screw-ups (Guy, Ted, Booster) mingling with the pros (J'Onn, Dinah, Batman) and those falling closer one side side (Bea, Tora) or the other (Carter, Mr. Miracle) within the mid-range. It's tough to argue that a sonic scream is more effective than a magical wish-granting ring, so a lot of the fun is in those who can't do teaching, and those who do entirely too much. It's much better to have Booster Gold on the side of angels than otherwise, which is why I get so mad at Ted for going along with that embezzling scheme, because he's the one who's supposed to have a moral center. Booster today is like a drunk who becomes a sober born again type. Not only does he stop being fun, but outright when someone so debauched tries to define heroism for others. Somebody has to be there to mock his self-righteousness and point out his flawed logic, and I don't see Dan Jurgens or Donna Troy doing that. The result, not to get Marvel on you, is being asked to take guys like Hercules or Angel seriously. I don't care how many bladed objects or how much angst you attach to those guys, they're schmucks to be laughed at. Don't pull a Steve Martin, you jerks!

I would love a '50s set Martian Manhunter series, but outside of Vertigo, I don't think it would be sustainable as more than a mini-series. Jonah Hex is about the only period ongoing on the market, and that's been kept alive by above average trade paperback sales. What I'd recommend is a contemporary set series with a lot of extended flashbacks, coming in through the back door.

LissBirds said...

Ironically, I'm okay (for the most part) with the current "matured" version of Booster Gold that Jurgens and Johns have been writing. In my eyes, he was less of an arrogant jerk and more of a naive dupe in his original 80's series, a blog post which I never got around to writing. Giffen and DeMatteis made him more of a jerk for his JLI years for comedy's sake. At least, this is my pet theory. The same thing happened when G&D took over Boster's current book, which is why some fans cried foul at how Booster had taken a step "backwards."

But I get where you're coming from that the dude shouldn't be in a mentor role, which is possibly one more reason which I never considered that makes me not like the Booster/Jaime Reyes dynamic. In fact, he is less fun, but with Johns's ability to pull heartstrings (okay, mine at least), his stories worked. And Jurgens playing him as the butt of the A-listers jokes and as a perennial screw-up, endeared him to me nonetheless. Without any of those dynamics, (i.e. "Generation Lost") he struck me as both un-funny AND un-sympathetic.

Well, sorry to spam your Martian Manhunter blog with Booster Gold comments.

"John Jones" showing up in Vertigo was a stroke of genius. (Have you read his appearances there?) Maybe because it was a cameo, and he works best in small doeses. Maybe becuase we saw him through the eyes of another charater, thus sustaining some mystery about him. But it just clicked for me in a way I hadn't seen since American Secrets. Maybe he should just hang out in Vertigo, in lots of flashbacks, instead of the JLA?