Sunday, January 8, 2012

Martian Manhunter Mark III

Crisis on Infinite Earths was the game changer. The DC Universe had essentially been rebooted in the Silver Age, but that was because their super-hero line had mostly gone moribund. What brought the genre back was the radically revised and novel take on the Flash concept. From there, the more imaginative and of-the-time the reworking, the bigger the success. The more faithful the revival, the more modest the impact. That's why the Flash and Green Lantern still had books being published going into Crisis on Infinite Earths, while Hawkman-- not so much. An argument could be made against the Atom, but Al Pratt was bush league during the 1940s, so Ray Palmer making the b-list was a major improvement. Marvel Comics did pretty much the same thing as DC in the 1960s, except they had far less loyalty to their Golden Age roots, keeping Captain America and the Sub-Mariner as contrasts to a brand new world of heroes.

Anyway, COIE showed that you could reboot an entire universe in progress and make it a critical and commercial success that injects new vitality into your entire line. However, there was a lot of fighting, missteps, and a general lack of consensus following COIE. A sort of "expansion pack" could be found in Zero Hour: Crisis in Time, which codified the then-current DCU through a set timeline that excluded problematic deviations. Infinite Crisis was meant to be an anniversary sequel that would give DC another shot in the arm, but there was too much confusion throughout the book as to its aims, to the point where changes were still being made to the material as it transitioned from periodical to collected edition. Its only truly lasting changes were the reintroduction of the multiverse and a new Blue Beetle. Final Crisis, while a better executed event, still only amounted to killing off the New Gods and completing the transition of the Marvel Family to fully radioactive status. Curiously, it was Flashpoint, a Flash-centric dud of a crossover involving a lot of garbage non-canon tie-ins, that ended the Post-Crisis DC Universe with a whimper instead of a bang.

The reason I bring this up is that, all things considered, the Silver Age Manhunter from Mars wasn't any kind of a big deal. It was a back-up strip in the worst selling Batman book at a time when DC seriously considered cancelling all of them, and it tried to exploit whatever fad came along. The property was based on mashing up a watered down version of the crime comics that had been crushed by the 1950s crusade against perceived causes of juvenile delinquency and the lightweight science fiction that survived the collapse of EC Comics. When super-heroes got hot, J'onn J'onzz started flying his cape proudly while acting as a Superman stand-in for the Justice League of America until getting pushed aside by the real thing. Whenever everybody got an alien, imp, or pet sidekick, Zook qualified as all three. From Big Eyed Monsters to men from V.U.L.T.U.R.E., J'onn J'onzz tried and typically failed to get down with whatever was happenin', until he transitioned from Detective Comics to House of Mystery to sporadic guest star. Aside from co-founding the JLA, the Martian Manhunter was an also-ran, and meant little to nothing in the Bronze Age.

Crisis on Infinite Earths was where J'Onn J'Onzz began to matter. He'd only begun appearing regularly again after a thirteen year absence as a member of a very esoteric and poorly received Justice League line-up. As an extremely powerful cosmic character, he was the only current member of that grand old super-team to really fit the scale of Crisis. While better known teammates sat on the sidelines, Martian Manhunter was given a comparatively meaty role. The Alien Atlas' role in the Justice League of America series expanded, and he was the only member to transition to a relaunched volume. Once again standing in for Superman as resident powerhouse, Justice League International proved a huge success, with J'Onzz playing straight man and den mother amidst a comedic troupe. The Martian Manhunter broke out in two mini-series as a result, and was the featured leader of a modestly successful spin-off, Justice League Task Force.

By this point, the character was completely unrecognizable when compared to his prior publishing life. The Silver Age Martian Manhunter was a young man stranded on Earth, occasionally making contact with his parents and little brother on Mars. John Jones had a pet dog and friends on a minor metropolitan police force. He had no telepathy, and most of the time his shapeshifting was limited to switching from human to alien form. He was a good natured fellow who had inconsequential adventures involving amusing "threats." The Modern Age jettisoned all of that, as Mars went from a futuristic utopia to a long dead world. J'onzz was the last living Martian following a plague that saw his wife and daughter perish before his eyes. The Modern Manhunter was solemn, what humor he had left sardonic, and his power usage was much different. As the character progressed to his own solo series, he carried with him a tragic air. His brother turned up as a serial killing maniac, and his other foes tended to be inclined toward a similarly grisly sociopathy.

A defining characteristic of J'Onzz life, much of this was inherited from Superman. In the 1980s, DC swept most of their Silver Age Kryptonian lore under the carpet. Kal-El was no longer an alien who longed for the life lost amongst his own kind, but an Earthling farmboy who felt disconnected from Krypton, and tended to be fearful or distrustful when elements of his heritage turned up. The Weisinger Superman had watched lovers die and failed repeatedly in time traveling crusades to save his birth world. He knew that he could never settle down and have a normal life with a woman like Lois Lane. Aside from occasional friendly survivors, Superman's primary interaction with Kryptonians was in wrangling its worst criminals back into a deathlike prison in the Phantom Zone. For their time, Silver Age Superman stories were routinely heavy and dark in a way J'Onn J'Onzz would emulate. Due to changes in the Crisis timeline, J'Onzz often literally stood in for Superman on adventures that he was retroactively removed from. Basically, the Martian Manhunter most fans know had more to do with the Silver Age Man of Steel than the contemporaneous Manhunter from Mars.

By adopting a more commercial archetype, J'Onn J'Onzz saw his breakthrough to mainstream awareness in the late '90s, first as a member of the well-received revival of the JLA, and then amidst the televised animated series version of the same. To this day, you can still walk into a Wall*Mart or Target expecting to find some sort of Martian Manhunter merchandise.

Despite promises made otherwise, Flashpoint has proven the hardest reboot of the DC Universe since COIE. As a result, the next few years' worth of comics could shape the future of the Martian Manhunter for decades to come. The character had faded from relevancy midway through the aughts, was radically redesigned, then killed off when that proved unpopular. The Martian Manhunter had just starred in the Brightest Day maxi-series that helped restated who the character was supposed to be following his resurrection. Months after its conclusion, we're now seeing the entire universe being rethought, including the Manhunter's role in it. While his powers and attitude remain seemingly the same, he does not appear to be the "heart and soul" of the central heroic team of the entire line. In fact, despite being linked to the Justice League, former teammates like Green Lantern Guy Gardner don't appear to even know who the fellow is. Instead, the Martian Manhunter seems to be part of the cold, calculating, clandestine super-ego of the multiverse, Stormwatch. For years, J'Onzz was among the more spiritual and ethical heroes around, but has now traded his pacifistic race for one of warriors willing to brutally trespass in the minds of combatants.

Recent comments in Stormwatch bring into question elements of the Modern Martian Manhunter taken for granted over the past quarter-century. For instance, his race may not be dead, and more importantly, they may not even be Martian. The Daemonites of the Wildstorm Universe looked like bipedal Brood, but the pale ones popping up all over the DCnÜ with elements of invisibility, intangibility and shapeshifting seem awfully similar to White Martians. J'Onzz himself seems more violent and secretive, so what are his origins and motivations today? If he's no longer one of the most beloved heroes on DC Earth, how does he relate to humans, metahumans, and other aliens? The answers to these questions could determine whether the Manhunter from Mars remains a known quantity outside comics who hasn't quite managed to sustain a solo career. It could build him up, or wash him out like in the Bronze Age. Whichever way the worm turns, it seems likely that fans will have to adjust to not knowing who this new Martian Manhunter really is, and how they relate to him. Personally, I'd like to see an effort made to play with more of J'onn J'onzz's publishing history, working to make him more unique and essential while acknowledging the efforts of past creators. Regardless, this initiative will hopefully lead to compelling stories as we learn the rules of this protagonist and his canon in a universe unlike the one we knew...


LissBirds said...

Excellent post as usual, Frank.

I've only read one or two Superman comics, so the parallels between him and the Martian Manhunter are always lost to me. I found that angle particularly interesting.

I'm only reading Stormwatch currently, so I have no idea how J'onn fits into the DCnU. I wasn't aware that Guy Gardner doesn't seem to know who he is. Does that mean the JLI years never happened? I'm just so confused by Flashpoint.

I can't say that I like his characterization in Stormwatch at all. (I'm only up to issue four.) I just feel no interest towards any of the characters.

Do you think they're angling J'onn to go back to the days of being feared by the human populace? Maybe have him operating incognito?

Diabolu Frank said...

Excellent? Eh. It started out as a different topic altogether, but I rambled so long on COIE at such a late hour that I just altered course and wrapped it up. The actual topic when written should be more fun.

I don't see any indication than any Justice League story "happened" anymore, but especially no JLI story. Guy didn't know who J'Onn was in the most recent Green Lantern Corps. From what I can tell, only the Batman family have come out of Flashpoint with their history relatively intact.

I can't say that I've seen characterization in Stormwatch at all. After reading #4, I'd only give it credit for having a plot in the loosest sense.

That GLC appearance and the new Justice League series make it very much seem that super-heroes are feared by the general public and that Martian Manhunter works largely incognito.

mathematicscore said...

I hadn't even made the Daemonite connection, probably because I was too busy being lamed out by another issue of "tell and don't show" characterization (and mostly shitty ones at that)almost zero action except for Midnighter and the blades guy I don't care about. Pushing MM into a "dark past" direction is not at all exciting to me, but even if it was handled well I would be ok. Cornell cannot get off this book soon enough.

will_in_chicago said...

I would hope that some of the J'Onn J'Onzz that I have come to know survives. One can be a warrior and compassionate. Indeed, one thing that I noticed about J'Onn in the first three issues of Stormwatch (I have yet to read the fourth issue) is that he seems to care about others. He seems concerned not just about his team mates like Jenny Quantum but also took the effort to try to calm people about the moon's appearance changing and took steps to encourage civilians to leave a dangerous area. We also showed him outwitting Midnighter by faking to be defeated by him.

I am not sure what the future holds for J'Onn or Stormwatch. I thought that I wanted to see much more about the characters, and I felt like I had hints of characterization. We do not know who will write or draw Stormwatch. I just hope it is someone who can do justice to characters like J'Onn, Apollo, Midnighter and the Engineer.

If J'Onn is not known to the entire superhero community, I would hope that he is known and respected by some key players. It does seem like the old JLI issues are not in continuity. However, if Guy Gardner does not know J'Onn, maybe some of the other Justice League members know him. Possibly Icon and some of the Milestone heroes know him or know of him. My hope is that J'Onn can help integrate new characters int eh DC universe as well as he did for several Charlton characters.

will_in_chicago said...

Frank, first the humor .... I presume you meant canon and not cannon in the last sentence! Otherwise J'Onn is a lot more militaristic than I thought!!;)

I also started a thread on Comic Book Resources for this excellent article --

will_in_chicago said...

Frank, I also referred someone wanting to learn more about the Wildstorm universe to your Stormwatch posts. The message is at

Raye said...

It's strange that I find people I agree with more here, than on the Wildstorm board I normally post at. :p Yeah, Authority fan, here. I feel you guys. I don't know a ton about MM, (though, this helped enlighten me) I am tired of being told I am wrong for wanting some consistency in how my favorite characters are portrayed. Reboot or no, many of the changes seem to be ueless, change for change's sake which don't do anything to really enhance/improve the characters. I see you feel the same way, just about a different character. I notice the differences to Martian Manhunter less, I'm sure, but I'm guessing you guys feel about the same way about him as I do about Apollo and Midnighter in this book.

anyway. I've seen a twitter slip up that suggests Jeff Lemire and Cully Hamner *may* be the new creative team after Jenkins, (Cully accidentally made a private tweet for Jeff public, saying he needed to discuss "SW" with him. He deleted it, but I saw it before he did.) which pleases me greatly if it's true. Assuming he has some freedom to break away from Cornell's characterizations (what little there was of them) I know Lemire has it in him to give us a more compassionate MM and a less annoying and more badass Midnighter, both. (the last issue just broke me with his smarmy dialogue with Apollo. Just awful. so not Midnighter.)

...And a more coherent plot...

btw. you guys know that in the original Stormwatch, there was a Martian Manhunter analog named Stalker on the secret team that Apollo and Midnighter were on? He was part Daemonite... coincidence, I'm sure, but hey.

mathematicscore said...

Raye: good call on Stalker! I'd still be pissed if Mars is a lie, but at the very least that could be fun. Also, the Projectionist is pretty much Synergy, AMIRIGHT?

Diabolu Frank said...

Cornell had some heat on him from Captain Britain and such, but after Stormwatch and the odds and sods I've read, he's not my bag. I gave him a chance, but Stormwatch isn't about anything. There's no politics, there's no subtext, there's no characters and the plot is slight. Stuff blows up and Grant Morrison's spirit gets evoked without substance like Ronald Reagan name by every republican candidate. That guy will have to work hard to ever get my dollars again.

I suppose my main reservation in slagging Cornell is that I agree with Will. Cornell did no harm to J'Onn J'Onzz, and in fact Stormwatch comes off like sweethearts compared to the violence of the Justice League. Talk about a paradigm shift.

Man, I wrote "cannon" twice. I was pretty tired though, so I was just glad it was halfway coherent.

Raye, I've read some Wildstorm, and expressed similar sentiments about those characters. It really bugs me that between the Authority and the new characters, there's hardly anyone from Stormwatch in Stormwatch. I don't like the stalker-creepy courtship between Midnighter and Apollo, and I frankly find it offensive the way Apollo swoons in #4. The Engineer is unrecognizable, and it's weird to see Hawksmoor dismissed as a leader candidate following multiple volumes in that role. Hopefully, Jenkins will have a better handle on the characters, or just a handle.

I disliked Lemire's Atom strip, but people seem to love him on everything else, and even I dug the bit of Sweet Tooth I read. He seems to be a Martian Manhunter fan and weird enough to maybe take Stormwatch where it needs to go. Cully Hamner will rock the house.

I need to get back to my volume one coverage. I want to look at those Hitch analog issues again...

Raye said...

Yeah. For a guy who is a self professed Warren Ellis fanboy, he sure has a poor grasp on the characters and tone that Ellis had on any of his Wildstorm work, not his Stormwatch, not Authority, not Planetary... I mean, it has moments and themes that are clearly trying for things shown in those books, but in such a clumsy, superficial way... and it jumps from one thing to the next so quickly, that nothing that happens has any weight to it. It's strange though, cus his Demon Knights is actually pretty good. I'm not sure what's going wrong here. Is it him trying to compensate for the bad art? editorial? just not clicking with the characters? a combination? I'm not sure.

I agree, it's strange that no old Stormwatch characters are on the team. I mean, Jack Hawksmoor was on Stormwatch for a good long while, and Apollo and Midnighter at least appeared in the book for a few issues, but... I'd have expected to see Jackson King, Hellstrike, Winter etc. all fine characters. I was happy to see the Authority characters return, but still.

And yeah, Apollo is my favorite... and aside from being OK with Midnighter's creepy advances, (and the hair, if that was Paul's decision) he hasn't done any DAMAGE to him, by virtue of him not having much of a personality so far aside from apparently really hating superheroes, even though his actions so far have been very superhero like. not like Midnighter, or some of the others....I mean, a few things made me roll my eyes... a kiddie porn ring? really? but it's things that can be easily forgotten about, and for that, I am grateful. But the treatment the others are getting made me worry that it was only a matter of time that Cornell would feel the need to put his stamp on him somehow.

I love Jeff Lemire's work. I never read those Atom backups or his Superboy, but I've read his Essex County, Sweet Tooth, Animal Man and Frankenstein, and liked all of them. His work is very character driven for the most part, so I am certain he will inject some personalities into the characters. hopefully good ones.

Is Lemire a MM fan? I did not know that. I know he is an Authority fan, and was really excited about this Stormwatch (as a fan, I mean) but he hasn't said anything about it since issue 1... make of that what you will. If he's a fan of both, obviously, this is the perfect book for him.

But bear in mind, the tweet was vague, "SW" could refer to something else, or for a different reason. Though, I can't think of another book by DC that could be shortened to "SW", and after seeing that and getting excited, I did some digging in Twitter, to see if there was anything else about it. Seems he DOES have a new project coming out for certain, but no official announcement as to what it is yet. Though, Geoff Johns tweeted that he's collaborating with him on it. Justice League vs Stormwatch, maybe? We all know that's coming. Who knows.

Diabolu Frank said...

Raye, my hope is that the Atom was Lemire writing as a proxy for Geoff Johns, as that book was a derivative mess in the "Rebirth" mold. I only assume he likes J'Onn because of his frequent inclusion in Lemire team shot pin-ups and his solo cover for the Hero Initiative JLA 100 Project. Still, I figure it's a safe bet, because really, why else?

I seriously wonder if establishing a schism in Stormwatch so early was related to a plan to eventually spin-off an Authority book and recast Stormwatch with more of its classic characters. Or maybe Checkmate leftovers. DC's like that.