Monday, June 25, 2012

Motivating the Manhunter from Mars

I had a nice "I'm feeling down, let's go buy some stuff" Friday, which included purchases of the new Fiona Apple album (not feeling it yet,) the much less new two disc Blu-Ray of Grindhouse, and a book on writing from archetypes that I'm sure I'll get a lot of mileage from around here. I'm not a big fan of Robert McKee style writing from formula, any more than I like the pointless meandering inconsistency of modern comics, but I love putting concepts into a box to see whether they fit well or wiggle out in compelling ways. It's good to know what the rules are, so you can figure out how, where, and why to break them.

Linda Seger's Making A Good Script Great apparently outlines seven options for essential character motivations. I initially groaned over the immediate realization that they were clearly adapted from Maslow's hierarchy of needs, until I noticed that two levels were added that do reflect the needs of characterization. What interested me enough to point them out here is the realization that Martian Manhunter can be found lacking in these basic motivations.

In the Silver Age, J'onn J'onzz was teleported from Mars to the lab of Professor Mark Erdel. The Martian immediately demonstrated that his physiological needs were reasonably accommodated by Earth atmosphere. In the 1988 revision of his origin, inventor Saul Erdel brought J'Onzz to Earth cradling the body of his deceased daughter, and was nursed back to health to keep J'Onn from expiring from the same plague. However, that was established in the span of a few pages, so the Martian Manhunter's larger story is not motivated by survival as a pressing concern.

In 1955, J'onzz swiftly shapeshifted into human form. Despite the sudden death of the man responsible for his displacement, John Jones could walk amongst humanity, and had incredible powers that allowed him to do things like extract gold from the ocean. From 1988, J'Onzz's acclimation was shown to be a bit slower and more reliant on the power of telepathy to allow Jones to earn a living in his chosen field. Therefore, safety and security just aren't a major issue for an Alien Atlas.

John Jones' first job was as a policeman, exactly what he wished to be under the circumstances of having to build a life on Earth. He was readily embraced as a rising star in the department, so any alienation J'Onzz might have felt was at least partially related to his desire to keep humans at arms length over ill-defined concerns. Only since the late '90s have writers delved into issues Jones had with relating to humans, and vice versa. This worked alright in a "Year One" setting, but his modern appearances had already established him as one of the most universally beloved members of the Justice League. How would a need for love and belonging stand up to that kind of acceptance?

In most stories, the Martian Manhunter has been portrayed as self-sacrificing and bereft of ego, which helps him take his licks as a jobber trampled under more powerful villains in service to glorifying more popular heroes. There's never been any indication that J'Onzz is insecure in this role, and has in fact expressed disdain for heroes who in any way seek glory, or see the job as anything more than a necessity for the greater good. He's too together for esteem & self-respect to be a goal rather than fully attained.

Writers like Mark Waid and Gerard Jones spent a lot of their time handling J'Onn J'Onzz within the scope of his early years on Earth, confounded by humanity and his fellow heroes. However, the job of a Sleuth from Outer Space is to figure things out in a big way. After decades stuck on this planet, J'Onzz is typically portrayed as a sardonic optimist; someone who recognizes our foibles, but has faith in our ultimate good. He is neither naive nor confused, his opinion validated within his continuity. While J'Onzz has tended toward meditation and spirituality, as well as reflection on the tragedies that have plagued his existence, he still tends to be more of a calm wise man than a seeker into mystery. The need to know and understand isn't the compulsion for the Green Guru the way it is for, say, Batman.

To skip a step, when you have more powers than Superman allowing you to become pretty much anything your mind could conjure, self-actualization is a routine option, not a drive.

That leaves perhaps the best (but far from seamless) motivation for the Manhunter from Mars as aesthetics. "The need for balance, a sense of order in life, a sense of being connected to something greater..." That fits the religious zeal of his membership in the Justice League from Crisis on Infinite Earths through Infinite Crisis, and his aimlessness since 2006, although his embrace of the "Others" in the mini-series from that year also fits. A similar approach was taken in his New 52 alignment with Stormwatch, which is of course undercut by that association's not surviving a year in print.

As I've stated in the past, I feel the Martian Manhunter has been developmentally stunted by his decades on super teams, and needs solo space to grow beyond the status of a well liked also-ran. The eponymous 1988 Ostrander/Mandrake series suffered from the sense of J'Onn J'Onzz as a college graduate who moved back in with his parents. Instead of charging into the greater world and defining himself, J'Onzz just hung out with his JLA buddies and got into fights with his brother. He hooked up with this one chick from Saturn, but she was like, dating this prince, and nobody even met her. Booster and Beetle thought J'Onn made her up, then pranked him out of some Chocos. J'Onn was always talking about stuff that happened years ago, instead of what he was doing with himself today. It was pretty sad, but to quote Wonderfalls, J'Onn as the aesthetic created for himself a "pressureless, expectation-free zone."

In his origin story, J'onn J'onzz decided to secretly police the Earth when he realized that he would be stranded here for the foreseeable future, and that we were so backwards as a civilization that we needed whatever help that he could give. The various other unruly alien invaders demonstrated the need for an extra-terrestrial protector, while the Master Gardener demonstrated the danger of J'Onzz taking his governance into the realm of dictatorship. The Martian Manhunter did not share scientific discoveries or in any other way try to advance humanity. He followed Star Trek's prime directive, never interfering with "the internal development of alien civilizations." Martian Manhunter sought only to maintain an equilibrium within which he and the people surrounding him could continue their separate existences peacefully without widespread chaos and destruction taking hold.

The DCnÜ's Stormwatch has to date held that to be their own mission statement, which was why J'Onn J'Onzz was such an excellent fit for the team. Acting in secret, snubbing their noses at gaudily costumed "amateurs," defending Earth from extra-terrestrial and paranormal threats. However, of late the team's line-up and command structure has destabilized, and their effectiveness has been compromised as a result. Looking at his prior conflict with the Justice League, perhaps this imbalance will be the cause of his upcoming departure from Stormwatch. Perhaps the aesthetic will continue his personal mission alone, or with better disciplined company. So far, the New 52 has not been all that unkind to J'Onn J'Onzz, so maybe with a little clarity of purpose, the Manhunter from Mars can find resonance and increased significance to a broader audience.


LissBirds said...

I love these kinds of articles which delve into the psychological aspects of character development and what makes a character tick--I've love to see more entries about this. I love the chronological background and how you show how J'onn has evolved up the hierarchy over time.

OYL (and by extension, DCnU) J'onzz always felt a bit aimless to me, and maybe giving him a stronger motivation would help better define him for readers.

I always gravitate to stories where J'onn is a newcomer to Earth for whatever reason, and perhaps it is because his needs are further down on the hierarchy and make for a more visceral story. With more danger brings more needs, brings more conflict, etc., and while keeping his identity secret and operating in the shadows is a reactionary motivation, at least it's a clear motivation. In his current incarnation, everything around J'onn seems safe--there's no clear drive, no reaction, and no real proactive motivation, either. J'onn's just kinda...there. With such well-developed needs, J'onn comes off as a very abstract character, and maybe a bit aloof and hard to relate to.

I would argue a bit with the self-actualization need--could it maybe be more psychological in nature? I can see a few conflicts there, possibly with acceptance of facts (given his backstory) and morality. And in some incarnations, there might've been some Esteem issues, too, in regards to how the public viewed him.

Perhaps backing J'onn down the hierarchy to more basic needs will him a more active character and therefore make for better stories? Listening to a character talk about things and achieve lofty goals is all well and good, but there's got to be a little more heft every now and then.

I think any writer who decides to throw in a few more of those motivations in a solo MM book will start off on the right foot. I agree, solo space is sorely needed at this point.

Nice article...!

Diabolu Frank said...

Liss, good to hear from you! I feared you were lost at sea or something, especially when I started posting all those Silver Age commissions without a peep from you.

DC seems disinclined to give us a "Five Years Earlier..." (or preferably, fifty) Martian Manhunter story, but I think a more visceral take is in the offing. In Stormwatch, J'Onn's relationship with the Engineer seems somewhat tense, and his connections to Jenny & Jack haven't been fleshed out. If he makes enemies of the Justice League and Stormwatch, with an uncertain situation amongst the surviving Martians, J'Onzz could be in rather dire straits while stranded on Earth. I'd love to see him treated like early Lee/Ditko Dr. Strange, shifted into Marco Xavier and fleeing across exotic locales from all manner of (often unseen) pursuers without a single friend in sight.

Esteem was an issue under Mark Waid, and few others. Once DeMatteis rewrote Martian history and made J'Onn a more inward, serene character, it really stifled him as a protagonist. Ostrander continued that take, and I think it hurt his series because of it. I don't want an angsty or agro Manhunter, but he needs an arc instead of a basin.

LissBirds said...

Good to be back! Grad school is like being lost at sea, I swear. Only without the nice ocean views. I forgot what free time is. I've got to go catch up on your commissions.

Making that could prove interesting. I really couldn't get a feel for any of the character dynamics in Stormwatch at all. (But I only got to issue 4.) He definitely needs to go off and do something. Otherwise no writer seems to know quite what to do with him. Setting his stories in the 1950's and sticking him back in the noir element would be a simple way to solve some problems, but that's not going to happen, most likely.

Good point on how DeMatteis changed the game. It's a double-edged sword, really--we all know him as the peaceful warrior, and I like him in that role, but he's got to have some more drive to be an active character. Hopefully a writer will come along and figure things out sooner rather than later.

will_in_chicago said...

I really liked the article as well but have been busy and did not have much time to comment. I think that J'Onn could be given a need to find a community and have more of a need to know drive. I remember a Batman comic years ago when a cop found the Dark Knight of Gotham in the cemetery where Waynes are buried. The man failed an obligation to a group of Yakuza and cut off a finger. The man said, "You are watching, everything! Day and night. Even the cemeteries. If anyone would understand it, would be you."

Possibly J'Onn spends his time ferreting out possible threats to his adopted world, much like Batman searches for crime in Gotham.

Add a need to find a community and a sense of aesthetics, and there can be some motivations. Perhaps J'Onn is reluctant to share much technology because he knows how some people like Lex Luthor and some governments would put it to use. J'Onn also probably feels no particular loyalty to any nation on Earth, so this is a big difference between him and Superman. So, J'Onn may have a more global perspective than some other heroes.

Also, I believe J'Onn needs a family as you have portrayed here. There are enough good candidates from his history. I also would like to see a meeting between J'Onn and the Justice League in addition to learning why he seemed to betray the team. I suspect that DC editorial has some big plans for J'Onn as they are having him leave Stormwatch next month. (That will likely gut the moral center from that team -- unless you count Jenny Quantum who seems to at least be forgiving with Midnighter. Or rather does not want to hurt him so as not to hurt Apollo.)