Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Manlover from Mars?

Time does not often work in favor of comic book characters. When was the last time you met someone named Clark or Bruce? How about that classic, totally straight golden age favorite "The Gay Ghost?" In that same time period, two separate publishers decided to take the police term "manhunt," add an "er" to the end, and create what they thought would be formidable trackers of the world's deadliest game. Today, and quite frankly for some time, references to a "Manhunter" have been more broadly interpreted like, well, this. I've been addressing the "gayness" of J'Onn J'Onzz's nom de cape since the late '90s by pointing out that he was a married father who's had numerous sexual relationships with women of various races and species while asserting himself as a heterosexual male, sometimes quite pointedly.

Recently though, I've been reconsidering the matter of the Sleuth from Outer Space's sexual orientation. I'm a big believer in representation of all people through the spectrum of super-heroics. These are figures meant to inspire the best in all of us, so it kind of sucks when white males have their pick of Super Friends, while minorities are asked to make do with Samurai, Apache Chief, El Dorado and Black Vulcan. There's been a trend toward depicting John Jones as African-American in popular media, but for many he'll never be African nor American, and there's always the reminder that his first four decades in comics were spent in the human identities of various Caucasians. The Alien Atlas is undeniably powerful and well respected within the DC Universe, but if he can never be wholly "owned" by the black community, an adjustment in pigment may forever be seen as a halfhearted measure.

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Meanwhile, John Jones in the Silver Age was no ladies man. Superman and Lois Lane were courting one another from the beginning, while Spider-Man saw years of comics retroactively altered solely because a large contingent of his fans missed the girl-chasing that long defined the character. Batman and Robin were more forcefully pressed into relationships with the newly created Batwoman and Bat-Girl to dispel Fredric Wertham's allegations of improper conduct between the Caped Crusaders, but Batman tended to have a femme fatale in waiting for a sufficient percentage of his adventures to at least secure him bisexuality.

Middletown Detective John Jones seemed to operate in an almost entirely male sphere for much of his early career, and even when pretty Patrolwoman Diane Meade was brought into the mix, her partnership with Jones was purely platonic. J'onn J'onzz spent entirely too much time in a secluded mountain hideway with an orange imp of undetermined foreign origin. As international playboy Marco Xavier, the disguised Manhunter was often availed of beautiful women that he dismissed while obsessively mediating on Mister V. Having debuted in 1955, and aside from ill-defined episodes of affection toward Meade and Bel Juz, J'onn didn't present an unambiguous "girlfriend" until 1984. Of course, Hunter Commander J'en had already suffered an acrimonious break-up from J'onzz at her point of introduction, and the couple never so much as kissed on panel. J'Onzz was retroactively "married" in 1988 to a conveniently deceased spouse. Of his three strongly implied intimate relationships with women (and a stated lust for another,) not a single one predates 1997. That is an awfully long period of mourning for his wife, and it's worth mentioning that each of these couplings was seemingly established with planned obsolescence (two had fire-based powers, one was a reformed villainess, and another was the fiancée of an alien prince set for an arranged royal marriage to bring forth global harmony.)

Over two years into the New 52, we still know very little about a visibly altered Manhunter from Mars. He's full of secrets and agendas, with no time for romance. Not to fall into stereotypes, but where J'Onn was something of a chaste "Green Guru" Post-Crisis, the current Manhunter is a much more physical, visceral, passionate being. Where altering the race of an extra-terrestrial shapeshifter provides a limited object of identification to black readers, such a figure of fluid orientation hiding his true nature in a society that lacks understanding and is quick to persecute his kind would resonate strongly in the LGBT community. Loosening the definitions on J'Onn's gender identity would make far more sense on the DC Mars as we understand it today, as opposed to the more patriarchal model from the 1950s. Nothing need be lost in translation, as J'Onn could still be widowed and dealing with the loss of a child-- but his tragedy could be made more universally endearing if his family unit were allowed to include a homo-or-polysexual partner.

I'm not confident that J'Onn J'Onzz could ever be a great black hero, and as a white one he's rather doomed to mediocrity in a sea of same. However, with competition like Northstar and the fifth most popular flavor of Green Lantern who makes his home in an alternate universe, the "Manhunter" could more fully own his name and become the premier queer of the cosmic set.


Count Drunkula said...

Interesting speculation. I wonder--as an alien--would he find humans attractive at all given their alien-ness to him? On the other hand, as a telepathic shape-shifter from a race of telepathic shape-shifter's, would a person or other being's outward appearance even factor into what attracts J'Onn sexually?

I guess I'm comparing him to the other notable shape changer, Mystique, who was established as bi-sexual pretty early on before they could even confirm it. How does being able to change appearance at will affect your concept of Self? Also, if you can read other people's emotions and/or thoughts, how would that shape your identity? And if your entire race is killed off and all of your relationships are now with aliens, do the same rules of hetero- and homosexuality even apply?

Damn, Frank, why you gotta bring up such heavy questions so early in the morning?

LissBirds said...

Ehh...I just don't like it when creators start changing established characters--even if the intentions are good--I don't think it works. (Kind of like what happened to The Atom.) I also think social commentary is more of a Marvel thing than a DC thing. One can go back and read between the lines of any story to say that a certain theory fits...and I guess if you made the Martian Manhunter gay it might garner some buzz about the character--but would that really serve him well or just make him perceived to be the token gay character? Would there be a backlash? (Since we can't make any other Justice Leaguer gay, let's make it the character that no one cares about, is how I would interpret it if DC officially decided to do this.) Why not create a new character entirely rather than change an established one? (Although I do see your point.)

The fact that he has no time for romance is just one more reason I like the Martian Manhunter. Being completely alien and alone is what defines him, as opposed to a character who is defined by his/her relationships (Hal Jordan, Adam Strange, Aquaman, etc.) To me, it just works better for him than a relationship would. If he finds a significant other, doesn't he lose a bit of that pathos? He can move around (across the globe if need be) without worrying about how it will affect his relationship. He's got no one that a supervillain could use to threaten him with--no baggage.

The Martian Manhunter can be any race he wants and I'm surprised this was never played up to its full potential. I don't remember the series, but I remember him being undercover in Japan(?), and I thought that was an interesting avenue to pursue. (Speaking of underrepresentation, Asia should definitely be on DC's list.) I'm not sure if they are considered offensive or not, but I thought the Great Ten were one of the best parts of Fifty-Two.

Maybe instead of changing J'onn internally, he just needs a change of setting to find his niche? Why not have J'onn go east of the Prime Meridian, (or south of the Equator) and interact with superheroes throughout the world? (Assuming that DC can create some good respectful non-Western superheroes.) He could go all Bladerunner in a dystopian Asian metropolis. Undercover in a foreign land--kind of a reboot of his original arrival on Earth, only a different culture to assimilate to. When in doubt, just keep retelling the same story.

Diabolu Frank said...

"would that really serve him well or just make him perceived to be the token gay character?"


Here's the thing-- when they made Alan Scott gay, it bugged me because one of the central appeals of the character to me was his relationship to his (often very) elderly wife, Molly. That said, the whole point of Earth 2 was to move the JSA away from everything that mattered about them to me (WWII super-statesmen with decades of legacy) and toward a new market, so at least there's a progressive element to the cynical move.

In the case of J'Onn J'Onzz, sexuality really isn't that central to the character, and in fact the "Pon Farr" in the '00s struck me as rather forced and uncharacteristic. His being a family man who lost his loved ones did matter, as did his child being a girl, since it explains his string of teenage human female sidekicks. The gender of his spouse has never been important. M'yri'ah went unnamed for a decade, and is more of an object of longing than a character.

Now, J'Onn J'Onzz doesn't really have a clear demographic beyond being a different flavor of Superman. He's not even a particularly strong variant, seeing as he's often in the same circles serving a similar role. If the Man of Steel is Coca-Cola, the Alien Atlas is merely Coke with Lime (which was "quietly discontinued in 2006" but can still be found in Coke Freestyle Machines.) However, "Superman Hetero Zero" immediately turns the Sleuth from Outer Space into an out of closet sensation. Founding member of the JLA. More powers than a Kryptonian. Reams of ready-made published subtext. A built in "everything you thought you knew is wrong" retcon circa 1988. A modest fanbase that could easily be shouted down as homophobes if they object. Martian Manhunter wouldn't just be a gay super-hero, but the gay super-hero, ungraded from niche also ran to premier representative.

Being gay wouldn't need to change the essential character one iota, making it unquestionable tokenism to turn him queer. At the same time, that shift would matter to a lot of people, and by extension make J'Onn J'Onzz matter more to a lot more people. I doubt the name "Martian Manhunter" has ever been utter on FOX News, but this minor tweak would get him national attention. There's a new audience to be had while virtually guaranteeing the Manhunter's continued existence and value in a shrinking market without sacrificing anything that makes the character the hero we already love. Taking such a stand now is all about adding value, not diminishing in any appreciable way.

Just by being gay, Martian Manhunter fights stereotypes. Career oriented. Family man. No time for romance. Never recovered from the loss of his one true love. Also, instead of filling a role that necessitates an earthling (race, nationality,) he could embody a universal concept of gender-irrelevant love that was unreservedly accepted on his world but controversial on ours. It expands the character's textual merit without significant alteration-- all win, no lose.

LissBirds said...

Maybe, but I think what I'm stuck on is this: "gay" is a human construct. By making an alien fit into a very human concept of sexuality, does that not make the character more of a tool for the creator's viewpoint rather than an exploration of character? To wit, maybe Martian sexuality can't even be comprehended in human terms. Martians could be pansexual, asexual, or something we can't even begin to understand or label. (Mind reading I'm sure would make relationships completely different from ours.) Much in the same way that I don't think a shape-shifting character should pick a single human race for his human identity, I don't think an alien has to be fitted into the increasingly specific pegs of human sexuality.

Making his dead spouse male is one thing (and leaving it up to the reader to think about Martian relationships--maybe he had a wife and a husband, who knows,) but having him identify with "gay" or "straight" and finding a human companion can become rather a simplification of what could be a very complex alien social world. If so, then aren't Martians are just like us--so how are they alien at all? (Yes, I'm ignoring all of the Green Lanterns' significant others to make a point--but are aliens really well-written in the GL universe?) Fifty years from now, future readers might be snickering at J'onn's very human and banal sexuality, much in the way that we laugh at his very 1950's nuclear (American) "Martian" family from Detective Comics--it might very well be an outmoded idea 50 years from now. (Already a district court upheld a polygamy case, I think. Who knows where this could go.) J'onn, to me, transcends all that is human (race, nationality, etc.) while at the same time upholding human ideals (honesty, kindness, etc.) Maybe Martians are advanced enough to move beyond human sexuality/gender roles in a way we can't understand. (Hence, the "tribal" Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars always got on my nerves.)

I never really saw J'onn as anything similar to Superman because I've read hardly any Superman comics, and perhaps that's why I'm diverging on this issue. I rather did like the idea of the public being slightly afraid of him (no one worries about Superman's powers, even though they should), coupled with the fact that he actually remembers the destruction of his home planet.

I do see your point that this could be a non-stereotypical view of a gay character, but I just can't see anything working out anymore. I don't think many writers would have the depth to make it work, and then there'd be "A Very Special" Martian Manhunter arc where it would be all about his Earth-shattering new relationship, and it would amount to nothing but a pure marketing gimmick. (Jay Garrick did make Fox News, after all.) It would be Batman/Catwoman all over again, I'm sure. And if it really was to move beyond stereotype—should his sexuality even be made an issue? Kind of like you said—he's a family man who just happens to be gay, which is the right way to portray it, not the other way around. But you know DC wouldn't write it that way. ("He's a gay Martian who happens to fight evil" is how it would come out.)

And if I had to pick a DC character to be gay, it would be Dick Grayson. Wore the Bat-mantle, so he's high profile, plus decades upon decades of subtext to read into, plus the Teen Titans angle, which would speak to younger fans, and I think it's more important for the younger audiences to be exposed to diversity more than us. Jay Garrick and J'onn are old(er), why not have it be a younger character?

Diabolu Frank said...

If I'm reading you correctly, the problem is with homosexuality being too narrow and Terran a classification. If I shift the terminology toward a broader polysexual interpretation, we're good?

I'm not trying to diminish Martian Manhunter with the Superman comparison, but that reflects a commonly held viewpoint, and I do think a strong case could be made for the Bronze Age-Chromium Age Manhunter being based on the Weisinger era Superman. Basically, as the Byrne Superman shed all the alienness and emotional baggage that lingered from the '50s, J'Onn J'Onzz picked it up and ran with it.

I've long assumed Dick Grayson was a closeted bisexual, but it opens too many problematic doors for DC to ever explore that angle.

Count Drunkula said...

I just read JUSTICE LEAGUE TASK FORCE #7-8 where J'Onn becomes Joan J'Onzz and takes on a feminine version of his form. Peter David trying to comment on sexual identity and understanding women through the Martian Manhunter's forced wedding to a hermaphroditic alien was... not the best moment for David or J'Onn.

Lots of homosexual tones in the story, though.

LissBirds said...


More or less, yes. Having a race of shapeshifting telepaths ascribe to very human behaviors at all, I find to be limiting/oversimplifying. There's animals on our own planet that break our understand of gender, and that's just Earth--is a male seahorse really "male" in the way a human male is "male?" What about fish who can change gender based on population? (The problem is, I think fully realizing all the implications of Martian shapeshifting, telepathy, etc. is such an enormous task for any writer as to be impossible--so maybe it's better to drop hints here and there rather than try to work everything out.) The alternative is the lazy James Cameron Avatar way, which is: aliens are just like humans from 5000 years ago. Kinda anticlimactic. (But they needed to do that for the sake of the simplistic romance subplot.) Personally I like Martian culture to remain a bit of a mystery, with a few hints dropped here and there so the reader can fill in the gaps themselves. Otherwise, there's just too much room for plot holes.

Personally, whatever Martian relationships and gender roles are like, I always thought of J'onn as kind of a warrior priest unable to recover from the death of his family, and therefore unable to forge a new relationship. Finding love, to me, means he could move on from his past, rendering it less of a weakness. I think it makes for better pathos if he still carries the wounds from losing his home and his family. That's the angle I'm coming from, anyway. (There was an episode of JLU where Morgane le Fey tempts J'onn into betraying the League by bringing Mars (and his family) back--would he be as vulnerable to something like this if he were currently happy?) J'onn is, to me, forever defined by his psychological weaknesses. Fix those problems and he becomes too simple a character without any depth.

In regards to Superman, I see where you're coming from now. Emotional baggage works much better for J'onn than it does Superman, I think. (Superman shouldn't be that deep.)

LissBirds said...

@Count Drunkula

Never read that...not sure if I should?

But it's interesting to note from the cover image alone that female J'onn wears just as few clothes as male J'onn does. There's some kind of parity there.

Diabolu Frank said...

Count Drunkula, those issues were favorites of many readers, and I like them, but they definitely stomp heavily through fields of gender identity phobia. J'Onn J'Onzz is the worst possible "lesson" character for that kind of angle. If you're reading the JLTF series on my recommendation, let me stress that I only meant #0 on. I will not take responsibility for any ill effects felt during New Bloods appearances or the "Judgment Day" crossover.

Liss, I kind of like Martians as a medium for examining humanity, and enjoy things like the Silver Age "nuclear family." They're from the next planet over, and they were the rare aliens whose space program was behind ours (and whose interplanetary hero was dependent on Earth science for his trips.) I say let the Durlans be ALIEN aliens, and Martians be our neighbors. Our buck nekkid, super-powered, poliamorous neighbors.

Totally with you on paragraph two.

Read the issues. They're way better than Avatar.

Count Drunkula said...

Oh, trust me, I knew what issues to skip. I read #1-3 because J'Onn, Flash, Nightwing, Aquaman and Gypsy is a cool team lineup, #4-6 because Yay, Bronze Tiger! and #7-8 because of Peter David and the all women squad. Then I jumped to #0 and up. No need for New Bloods.