Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Saturnian Salutations: The Secret Origin of J'Em, Son of Mars
Who is Jemm and why should a Martian Manhunter fan care about him? That goes back to December of 1982, when Greg Potter expressed interest to his old editor Paul Levitz about returning to freelance writing for DC. Levitz had Potter meet with DC's Executive Editor Dick Giordano, who sent Potter home with an edict: "Create a new super-hero character. Plot the first story of that character. If what we see is good... well, we'll see." Potter mulled over ideas for a few days, determining that he wanted to tell a story steeped in human emotion that spoke of contemporary times, and offered a hero different from all others in the then-present market. Combining influences that included E.T., Star Wars, and Frank Miller's Daredevil, Potter came up with Jemm. Potter also decided to set his story in winter time, that his aliens wouldn't conveniently speak English, and "let's have some real, honest-to-God black people in the strip."1
"J'Em" was to have fled from Mars II to Earth after a Pale Martian coup. "When Jemm was first conceived, the storyline called for Jemm to be the cousin of J'onn J'onzz, the Manhunter from Mars. Naturally, when Gene designed the character sketches for the series, he kept this relationship in mind. As a result, there is a resemblance to JJ."2 The Manhunter from Mars strip had ended in 1968. Aside from sporadic appearances (and an attempted revival in 1977 that was aborted as part of the DC Implosion,) J'onn J'onzz had been in publishing limbo ever since. "Well, about two or three months down the road, we editor-types at DC realized that we had a problem on our hands between the new maxi-series entitled JEMM, SON OF MARS and the JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA. You see, both books had storylines containing the Manhunter from Mars, and, unfortunately, those storylines conflicted and played havoc with continuity. Since the maxi-series was not as far along in production as was the JLA, we, i.e. the JEMM team, retrenched and brought you JEMM, SON OF SATURN."2
The Martian Manhunter would be returning as a member of the Justice League after sixteen years away, in a storyline setting him against his own people in a Martian invasion of Earth that would lead to the disbanding of the super-team. Meanwhile, three issues of "J'Em" had already been written by Greg Potter and one drawn by artist Gene Colan. Swift rewrites shifted Martians to Saturnians. Unsure if the maxi-series would even take place in the mainstream DC universe, a planned guest appearance by Superman was rewritten as "The Patriot," just in case.3
Jemm did officially join the DCU, and the actual Superman joined him for several issues. You could hardly tell, since Jemm's appearances dried up swiftly after the close of his maxi-series. A planned 40-page special for 1986 never materialized4. Jemm didn't make a single notable appearance from 1989-1997, until Grant Morrison was casting about for a villain to serve as Martian Manhunter's counterpart in a new Injustice Gang. Whether Morrison remembered "J'Em," or just noted his vestigial Martian brow, Morrison decided to use the Son of Saturn as an unwilling antagonist. Ironically, a book that may have contributed to Jemm's obscurity had rescued him from it.
A couple of years later, when an ongoing Martian Manhunter series was commissioned to cash in on JLA's popularity, creators John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake wrote Jemm into its first major story arc. Further, the Red and White Saturnians were revealed to have been created by ancient Martians, and the Manhunter was drawn into their politics in a second major story arc in his own book. Through Martian Manhunter, Jemm was restored to a level of visibility that saw him guest appear in a major Superman story, and eventually even received his own action figure. Given the poor fortunes suffered by the multitudes of DC mini-series stars in the 1980s, I'd say the kid turned out alright.
For those curious, "Saturnian Salutations" was the name of Jemm's letter column back in 1984, and the primary source of information for this post.
1: Writer Greg Potter in Jemm, Son of Saturn #1.
2: Editor Janice Race in Jemm, Son of Saturn #10.
3: Editor Janice Race in Jemm, Son of Saturn #12.
4: Editor Janice Race in Jemm, Son of Saturn #11.