Friday, September 13, 2013

“The Martian Manhunter is the Shemp of the Justice League”

During a stand-up special, comedian Bob Saget tells a story of watching an episode of South Park with his daughter that ridiculed him as ugly and boring on America's Funniest Home Videos. Saget curses the television, and then his daughter supposedly said "Well, they're not wrong." So then Saget turns on his daughter, cursing her and cutting her off financially.

In a 2004 E! Entertainment article titled Martian Manhunter Need Not Apply that could have just as easily been published this year with a few updates, writer Joal Ryan wondered why Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and Aquaman were all getting talked up for movies, questioned why the Alien Atlas wasn't in contention, and randomly chose Mark Evanier as his only quoted source for perspective. Evanier offered such gems as, "The Martian Manhunter is the Shemp of the Justice League," said of his exclusion from early cartoons "It is kind of sad," and characterized the "J'onn J'onzz" strip in Detective Comics as "just a space filler."

Now Mark Evanier and Bob Saget are not dissimilar in their career arcs. Evanier is best known as a comic book professional for providing scripts for Sergio Aragonés comics, plus he set up his creator owned DNAgents and Crossfire at Eclipse back in the '80s. More broadly, he's become the unofficial mouthpiece for all things related to the late Jack Kirby, and he's made a living writing for television and animation since the 1970s. If you bother watching Bob Saget's act, it's probably because he constantly namedrops his co-stars on Full House and otherwise exploits those past relationships. So on the one hand, who the hell asked the guy with scripts for The Love Boat through The Garfield Show on his IMDb page, but on the other hand, he's not wrong, is he?

"John Jones, the Manhunter from Mars" was introduced in 1955, and the strip ran for over a hundred issues, as every other non-Batman feature was dumped from Detective Comics over the succeeding nine years. J'onn J'onzz was not a super-hero character, but a science fantasy/crime strip that was converted to super heroes ahead of his inclusion in the Justice League of America. Despite Green Arrow having been published continually since World War II, League editor Julie Schwartz "forgot" about him and used J'onn J'onzz as a founding member of his team, most likely because he wanted a Superman-type character, but did not have unfettered access to the actual Superman from competing editor Mort Weisinger.

When Jack Schiff was made to hand over Detective Comics to Schwartz, Schiff thought enough of the Martian Manhunter to make him the headliner in House of Mystery, and he was given two early team-up adventures in The Brave and the Bold, which had previously launched the League. The strip continued until 1968, when Jack Schiff retired from comics and new editor Joe Orlando decided to return House of Mystery to its roots as a horror anthology. In total, 133 "Manhunter from Mars" strips were produced over thirteen years time, whereas a strip it pushed out, "Roy Raymond, TV Detective" ran for about a hundred less installments. The Elongated Man, which replaced Martian Manhunter in Detective Comics in 1964, lasted 57 issues over six years. So no, "The Manhunter from Mars" was not just filler material.

Association with the Justice League can be a boon, but is often a curse. As one of DC's most popular series, the team book has influenced the perception of characters for generations of readers who have limited-to-no exposure to member heroes in their own titles. Captain Marvel outsold Superman and is meant to have the Wisdom of Solomon, but Giffen & DeMatteis played him for laughs in a half dozen early issues of Justice League, and he's struggled with the lazy shorthand of an idiot "Captain Whitebread" ever since. Wonder Woman had no personality in the original Gardner Fox League stories, '70s writers turned her into a grating straw feminist, and both poor representations have been present under various writers ever since. These are inarguably two of the greatest super-heroes of all time, creatively, commercially and in regard to cultural impact, but their shoddy JLA treatment makes them perpetual features in moronic/hit trolling articles like 50 Comic Characters Who Should Never Get A Movie* and 10 superheroes who really don't need their own movie.

The Martian Manhunter suffers from a similar problem, but on a much smaller scale. Critics say that he has no supporting cast, villains, or stories worthy of adaptation, having never read anything but his guest and group appearances. Even if all of their points were true, what's wrong with the premise of a kid who says a magic word to become a hero, or an Amazonian warrior ambassador, or a stranded alien who helps out his adoptive world? If you could quit naysaying for half a second, you might appreciate that even B'wana Beast could fly as an action-comedy. Only the most dire and otherwise terrifically problematic properties are truly worthy of the scorn often heaped by these dunces on beloved figures like Aquaman, who could never, say, outsell every Marvel comic for two months to become on of DC's most popular heroes?

That having been said, "John Jones, the Manhunter from Mars" was a lame strip. It was competent and modestly enjoyable for the standards of the time, but Schiff's books lacked the ambition of Schwartz's & Weisinger's. There's material there that could be salvaged, and the basics of the feature are sound, but it was inessential product. Sales on Detective Comics improved with the editorial/creative turnover, while House of Mystery's numbers were only marginally and temporarily improved by hosting the Martian Manhunter before declining again. J'onn J'onzz was phased out of Justice League of America with no appreciable impact, and barely appeared in comics, via reprints and guest spots, from 1969-1983. Despite returning to the JLA in 1984 and receiving an action figure in 1985, he was passed over as a Super Friend and would not debut in an animated series until 2001.

Martian Manhunter received a four issue mini-series in 1988, but by the final installment was selling less than half as much in the direct market as the parent title that spawned it, Justice League International. The 1992 prestige mini-series American Secrets did a little better, selling the same ratio at a much more elevated price point. For comparison's sake, the twenty-fifth & final issue of the first Booster Gold series sold only slightly worse in 1988, while the Martian Manhunter's debut issue in 1992 sold half that of Guy Gardner: Reborn #1 at the same price. In 1998, Martian Manhunter #0 sold far less than half of JLA #23 in the same month. A year later, the book was selling comparably to Spirit of the Tao and Webspinners Tales Of Spider-Man. Its final issue was outsold by Spawn: The Dark Ages #31 and Sam And Twitch #26, but at least it pulled slightly ahead of Azrael Agent of the Bat #82. 2006's Martian Manhunter #1 sold almost a thousand copies less than OMAC #2, but pulled ahead of Outsiders #39. By the finale of the mini-series, the audience had been halved, narrowly besting Helmet of Fate: Zauriel.

There has never been a breakout series success for the Martian Manhunter. Firestorm has had four series volumes totally 160 issues. The Atom has had three volumes of 81 total issues, Hawkman 178 issues across six volumes, and even Animal Man's two volumes have seen over a hundred issues and counting. The Sleuth from Outer Space offered 38 issues in his single ongoing edition. Due to his prominent role in the very popular JLA during its decade run and the visibility afforded the character as a founding Leaguer featured in the Cartoon Network animated series, there is a common assumption that J'onn J'onzz is a bigger name than he's ever proven to be.

The Martian Manhunter is no Shemp Howard. Shemp was one of the early members of the Stooges, left before they hit it big, came back to replace the deceased Curly, and inspired the term "shemping." People know and like Shemp, but he wasn't as necessary or as faithful to the troupe Moe & Larry. That sounds more like Wonder Woman to me. Martian Manhunter is more like Ted Healy, the forgotten inspiration for the Stooges coming together who had a contentious relationship with the team, disappeared for long stretches, and was the first of the lot to pass away. Alternately, he's Joe DeRita, whose ego prevented him from replacing Curly in 1946, so he waited until 1957 to succeed Joe Besser, outlasted Moe & Larry, recruited Emil Sitka, Mousie Garner and Frank Mitchell as replacements, but then dissolved the group when his own health declined. No wait, I just talked myself into AquaJoe.

It's not a smooth analogy no matter how you play it, but the point is, Martian Manhunter isn't even up to Shemp's level yet, and that's okay. Martian Manhunter is an imperfect character who's still waiting for his defining run with the right creator. Like Marvel Comics' Blade (as screenwritten by David Goyer and later Geoff Johns,) I think J'onn J'onzz might have to wait for the transition to cinema to become fully realized in a way he's yet to be in comic books. Green Lantern was DC's hottest property in 2011, but that meant nothing to general audiences, who preferred seeing Seth Rogen as the more obscure Green Hornet. Indie favorites the Crow and Hellboy have made mincemeat out of the Punisher and Daredevil movies. It used to be "comic book" elements were thought to not transition to movies at all, but the brightly costumed Spider-Man and Iron Man have made far more money than the downplayed X-Men. The trick is to figure out what works best for each medium, a strength I feel Martian Manhunter has cinematically over a lot of more accomplished heroes in published adventures. Despite running down the character, Mark Evanier consoled, "All it really takes is a hot, young filmmaker who remembers a comic when he was young," and regardless of the medium, I believe the Sleuth from Outer Space's day will come.

*The doltish Jason Serafino ranked J'Onn #26 while using the same stock image from the 2006 Martian Manhunter mini-series that everyone else who's done a variation on this stupid list throws up, despite it's being out of date twice over as of 2012. His rational was also per usual, with added lack of a "unique personality." CTRL+X, CTRL+V. No imagination.

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