Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Martian Manhunter: Rebirth

The New 52 launched on August 31, 2011, and even though I speculated exhaustively about the presumed certain Martian Manhunter relaunch, it never actually came. However, something with a very strong BOLD NEW DIRECTION flavor involving the New 52 design and continuity arrived four years later on June 17, 2015 as part of a failed slate dubbed "DCYou." I guess it still counts as the New 52 series, despite its lack of branding as such, since that initiative didn't officially end until May 25, 2016. That's the date the "Rebirth" initiative began, course correcting the less popular alterations to return to a still changed but more familiar DC Universe. All of these dates are from Wikipedia, so excuse any errors, but "Rebirth" is stated as ending on November 29, 2017. However, I think J'Onn J'Onzz has another late entry into that theme. Since I exorcised my more pessimistic presumptions yesterday, let's seriously and more objectively take a look at The Hollywood Reporter's Heat Vision coverage of the December-launching latest Martian Manhunter #1 (of 12.)

  • 1. The Writer
Real time here: I've barely read anything Steve Orlando has done (possibly only his Vixen special,) so I'm taking it back to grade school with context clues. As people who grew up with too much time and not enough money are want to do, I bought the Virgil graphic novel three years ago and have yet to read it because I can now afford to throw money down the hole where my unmet childhood wants lies. Anj seems fond of his Supergirl work. Justice League of America volume IDK seemed like a well-intentioned attempt at diversity. He's been something of a one man '90s nostalgia machine, and I ain't mad at that. Actually, no one seems mad at him, which is a minor miracle in this age, and his reception on Wonder Woman stands in stark contrast to James Robinson's. That's heartening. I guess I need to finally sit down with the Martian Manhunter/Marvin the Martian Special and that Terrorsmith issue that has been collecting dust next to Virgil? Regardless, I'm heartened by Orlando's obvious great affection and enthusiasm, who states J'Onn has "always been my favorite character since I was younger."
  • 2. The Artist
I've had a bit more exposure to Riley Rossmo, particularly the grim n' gritty first arc on Bedlam, but I have to say that I much prefer his current work. I confess that I initially briefly mistook him for Robbi Rodriguez, which should be taken as a compliment. (Before anyone's butthole clenches, getting mistaken for Ethan Van Sciver would also be a compliment #GoodArtOnBothSides.) I'm a Bronze Age baby, and I've internalized a lot of that How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way jive, but I appreciate the fun and creativity on display in the preview art. Most importantly, it's weird, and J'Onn J'Onzz always works better in Portland than in Gotham City, as far as I'm concerned.
  • 3. The Story
We don't know much, but I'm a bit of a Martian Detective, so I have some hunches. The easiest, obvious assumption is that Orlando is a fan of the John Ostrander series. He references Ma'aleca'andra in a tweet, and I'm old enough to recognize the similarities between Orlando's and Ostrander's talking points in pitching their individual series ahead of the launch. While I like to see J'Onn go places more iconic heroes can't, I also think writers with no clear affection for the character like A.J. Lieberman and Rob Williams "break" the property in pursuit of bold new directions. Orlando's desire "to fire our best shot across the bow of doing an evergreen story with him" indicates to me that we're in Man of Steel/Year One territory, reestablishing the basics of the character after literally decades of neglect toward the Samachson/Miller premises, but with a modern twist. We'll get to see Mars and the J'Onzz Family perish again, but also more character building on Earth in his life as John Jones, which was treated as an afterthought by Ostrander. Orlando's insistence that J'Onn was too "perfect" makes me wonder if he'll have a Lieutenant Jim Gordon type arc.
  • 4. The Characters
Nobody says nothin' on this front, but obviously Police Detective John Jones is b(l)ack, and his female associate is for sure Diane Meade (who I haven't done a biography for because... um... the patriarchy?) It would be nice if Captain Harding got in there, but I wouldn't count on it. More probably, a revised Malefic will at least turn up in the flashbacks, if not serving as the overall villain. The Martian serial killer M.O. in the first issue strongly recalls D'Kay D'Razz (another female character I've yet to profile, but is it my fault nobody uses Bel Juz or Cay'an?)
  • 5. The Costume
is funky. I know Jim Lee's New 52 redesign has not been universally embraced by Manhunter fans, but I like it a lot, and it's been a solid bridge between the classic suit and the José Ladrönn Coneheadhunter that has set the tone for his media adaptations since 2006. As much as I love J'Onn, I really do feel that he was way too basic for the first half century of his existence. I think you lean into the science fantasy, and dressing like Casual Friday Hawkman just doesn't cut it. Rossmo brings the stripes, discs and boxer briefs back, but trades in the cape for... arm warmers? He's got sleeves but no shirt? Is he a stripper? M'Ajik My'Ke?
  • 6. The Politics
DC has teased John Jones as African-American since the New 52, not to mention the Daryl Wessel persona in the previous series. Listen, DC needs better representation, and the vast majority of actors to portray J'Onn in live action and animation have been black (plus on the Supergirl TV show, they're the default human race for their Martians.) It's about time DC committed to this. But also, we're seeing John as a cop for the first time in the 21st century, and his police badge appears prominently in multiple promotional images (while bleeding from the mouth in one.) Whether intentional or not, it sure feels like #BlackLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter have been threaded into this piece.
  • 7. The Martians
Grant Morrison perhaps infamously (to my mind, anyway) pointed out his theory that one of the reasons Martian Manhunter never caught on despite much lip service of folks liking him was racism... his otherness and the cultural imprinting upon him as a result. J'onn was at his most successful when he was a white guy in all but coloring running as a back-up strip in a book starring a white guy and his young ward. Probably his worst selling book was "The Others Among Us" mini-series, where his alienness was most pronounced. A manifestation of this unconscious racism has been the modern age Martians, a species of shapeshifters, being portrayed as naked aborigines of almost universal body type and complexion. All the greens and all the whites looked the same within their racial type, an odd thing given it was the aforementioned Morrison who reintroduced the White Martians. For the first time since the Silver Age, Rossmo is depicting Martians with varied appearances, and leaning more heavily on the shapeshifting than any artist before him (and without doing another Geiger/Lovecraft xenophobic riff.) Finally.
  • 8. The Expressiveness
Another element that may have hurt J'Onn since the Bronze Age is the tendency to let the beetle-brow do all the work. I remember reading years ago that Japanese audiences had largely rejected Western-style comics in part because our characters were too "realistic" and inexpressive, where an obvious hallmark of manga/anime is its embracing broader, more cartoonish expressions of personality. Rossmo's preliminaries look like a Pixar character sheet, and after I got over the initial shock, I approved of this outreach. Maybe now nitwits can stop dismissing J'Onn as "boring"?
  • 9. Whatever That Red Creature Is
Orlando has referenced Per'elandra on Twitter, which is derived less from Ostrander than his original source, C. S. Lewis. Perelandra is Venus, a planet not represented among the solar syndicate of Silver Age criminal from the Sol system. H'ronmeer save us from another Mars-centric story, but I'd love to see more of their interaction with the rest of the solar system's unearthly inhabitants.
  • 10. The Tone/Influences
Series editor Chris Conroy tweeted, "If I had a logline to give you, it'd be "TWIN PEAKS meets DUNE." This is a weird one, and all the more rewarding for it." He also called it "a very intense MISTER MIRACLE-esque take." That comparison has been made with such repetition, especially among DC staff, that it's worryingly "party line." That said, what I've read of King & Gerads' maxi-series would well suit the Sleuth from Outer Space. I've often noticed the similarities between F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper and Detective John Jones, and cited another yet Kyle MacLachlan vehicle, The Hidden, as a template for a Manhunter movie. Odd that DC reached out to Albert Rosenfield for J'Onn and had Coop play Superman instead. Steve Orlando also claims, "I’ve read ever solo J’onn issue ever, we will be drawing not just from those but from Mars literature in general across the last 100+ years," which would be a first, while also finding time for "Space Bar Mitzvah". While I have my misgivings about the sway the modern era series seems to have this project, the creators have made a lot of smart associations and seem overall to be headed in the right direction. The more I look at the art, the more clever bits I catch, like the solar system contained within the telepathic waves while J'Onn is addressing the iguana, or that cover where all of the parts of Detective Jones in the light are human, while the shadowed portions are Martian. I really dig the swirls and textures across J'Onn's emotive red eyes. They're whispering sweet somethings in my ear, and I start to swoon, but I've been hurt before...

  • 11. The Solicitation
written by STEVE ORLANDO
art and cover by RILEY ROSSMO
variant cover by JOSHUA MIDDLETON
blank variant cover available
No matter what you know about J’onn J’onnz, you’re not prepared for this! The acclaimed team of writer Steve Orlando and artist Riley Rossmo (BATMAN/ THE SHADOW, BATMAN: NIGHT OF THE MONSTER MEN) reteam for a reinvention of the Manhunter from Mars in this twisted, unexpected series. Back on Mars, J’onn was about as corrupt as a law officer can be, and when a reckoning comes for his entire society, he’ll get a second chance he doesn’t want or deserve! One shocking murder, and an unexpected fragment of the Mars he lost, will change his life—and the course of the Earth—forever!
  • 12. The Twist Ending
I've got a reputation for negativity, and I spent an entire post trying to purge my well founded concerns that DC was going to screw up my guy again. I took in all the information from the Heat Vision article, and I think from this breakdown you can see that I was giving the project the benefit of the doubt. I actually had hope that this would be a book that I could enjoy. And then the solicitation copy completely ruined it for me. I had questions about Orlando's comparisons to Peter Parker's allowing Uncle Ben's killer to go free after the robbery, and his tragic misreading of Bruce Wayne's origin involving "failure" on an eight year old's part has already been mocked online. J'Onn J'Onzz as a corrupt cop though is such a fundamental misinterpretation of anything that has ever been known about the character that it makes me long for the Martian Murderbot from the last series. At least that book had Darryl Wessel, Mr. Biscuits, and other fractured aspects of a J'Onn J'Onzz I could recognize and who, having been mislead about the very nature of his existence, yet defaulted to his essential humanism. There are many ways to play J'Onn J'Onzz as a flawed figure in a noir setting, but "corrupt" is absolutely not one of them. In a noir, J'Onn is the dupe, too naive and idealistic to see the true evil right under his misguided brow. He's the sucker who gets in way over his head and pays a heavy price for his mistakes. Part of J'Onzz's appeal is his inherent tenderness; someone a little too sensitive and reserved for this cruel world. He's the soft center of a cool shell, penitent for his missteps and inability to arrest the darkness in others. If this solicitation is a true reflection of Orlando's knowledge of the character, he knows nothing about J'Onn J'Onzz. Furthermore, deciding the first canonical comic book series to portray John Jones as a black man is also the perfect time to reveal that he was the Red Planet's answer to Alonzo from Training Day in the current climate is frankly nauseating, and I'm not at all sure that I can support such a book. I'm angry and disgusted and heartsick over this unfortunate turn, and I can only hope this is a misunderstanding on the part of myself or the copy writer. I have strong reservations about placing a pre-order under these circumstances, but if I do and find anything like what this copy represents to me, I will drop it like a bad habit.

1 comment:

Anj said...

Like you I had a lot of optimism going into the series.

As you say, I have liked Orlando's stuff on Supergirl (once he found his sea legs). And his JLA was a fun book with arcs on a grand scale. So I was ready.

And then, like you, I read the 'corrupt' word and felt deflated. I'll give it a whirl. But I don't think I needed this upheaval. I am all for redemption stories and perhaps this motivates him to be the hero we know him as. But you have to be pitch perfect for such a radical change to be accepted. Not everything is Moore's Anatomy lesson.

Fingers crossed!