Monday, November 29, 2021

“Interview: Martian Manhunter” from JLA Secret Files #1 (September, 1997)

As I discussed in previous weeks, JLA Secret Files and Origins #1 was a key book for neophyte Alien Atlas allies turned on by the surprise success of JLA. You had a new Starro story by the hot creative team of Grant Morrison and Howard Porter, bridging the gap between Justice League: A Midsummer's Nightmare and the relaunch. You had "Lost Pages" from between JLA #4 & 5. You had profile pages of the individual team members by the creative teams of their solo titles. You had "A Day In The Life: Martian Manhunter", probably the first J'Onn J'Onzz solo story for many. And finally, this mock interview by Mark Millar & Don Hillsman for the fictional in-universe "The Brave & The Bold" magazine.

Along with a series of Playboy style headshots at the top of the piece, there was the full figure above, which served as "the" Martian Manhunter image of the turn-of-the-century internet. Despite the weird organic foam finger action, there is perhaps no greater example of broad fan rejection of Tom Mandrake's years toiling on the ongoing series than the ubiquity of this picture in the same time frame. An editorializing quote from Who's Whose DC Timeline: "John Ostrander’s Martian Manhunter delves into the soul of the only founding member of the JLA never to have his own title, much to the disgust of fanboys who apparently expected something else. Lots of punching and kicking maybe? Still, the series lasts 36+ issues." Well, as a fan who was kicking and screaming by the end of those three years, perhaps it was because everything in this issue geared readers for a title about the Pacific Rim's greatest protector, and the actual ongoing tossed that aside with a single issue robotto manga pastiche?

The piece opens with the interviewer acknowledging J'Onn's sensitivity to their possible concerns over being seen in public with a Martian, offering to change for discretion, though the admitted clout-chaser declines. They then discuss the JLA's internal conversations regarding nations' discomfort with a Justice League of America following the dissolution of the U.N. sanctioned international operation, their commitment to preserving their humanism, protests against perceived League authoritarianism, and the Martian Marvel's specific efforts to address the imbalance of metahuman protections outside the Anglo-Saxon West. Clearly saving all that deep "my evil twin brother, Gumby Venom," for Ostrander. Nothing communicates the sociopolitical impact of superhumans like writing a one-off of Beatriz da Costa talking like Charo while battling a racially caricatured voodoo doctor from a '70s Blaxploitation Bond movie. But I'm not bitter.

There's talk of Z'Onn Z'Orr, the ancient Martian city destroyed in the first extended arc of the series in favor of... a generic pyramid? There's a multiplicity of international identities offered, with endless story possibilities teased, replaced by the tired exploration of duality in a super-hero comic, itself abandoned for the monotony of simple Martian Manhunter Team-Up. TIL there's a sly reference to actor Gregory Reed playing J'Onn in a potential movie. There's acknowledgement of his loneliness as a widower, but also his deep religious convictions and romantic incompatibility stemming from his alien nature. Unlike that time he shagged Jemm's fiance, centuries his junior, from a race still suffering the effects of slavery and colonization by Martians, coloring his long history of mentoring young girls? We're still having fun, right? Considering what could have been? Yeah, this is fun.

Monday, November 22, 2021

“LOST PAGES”: The "new" Superman meets the JLA from JLA Secret Files #1 (September, 1997)

The JLA Watchtower. All but two of the "Magnificent Seven" were seated at their meeting table. "When Superman gets here... like we agreed. Batman's busy on a case of his own right now, but he said we could download the results of the membership drive to him later." Wonder Woman wanted to see the electric blue Superman's new capeless costume, and Kyle Rayner expressed his belief that it's good to keep things fresh. "You would say that," chided Wally West. Superman appeared as a bolt from the blue, with the expectation of having his altered powers tested to determine his continued fitness for service.

Manhunter supervised as Green Lantern created energy constructs to test Superman's "strength," though his lifting was now accomplished via generating electromagnetic fields. He could also disrupt the electrical impulses in Kyle's nervous system, inhibiting his ability to control his power ring. Next was an international race with the Flash, which Superman easily aced. Aquaman determined that water wasn't an issue for Superman Blue, and he could even detect electric eels in the vicinity. Sparring with Princess Diana in the arctic was pathetic, since he could become immaterial and convert the Amazing Amazon's kinetic energy into force beams.

"Well, Superman, you've passed the written test, the VR simulations and the Martian mind-probe. All we have to do now is download your results to Batman and see if Batman will make your membership unanimous." The Dark Knight couldn't be bothered with the details, or even to look up from whatever he was saudering at a workbench. "Of course he's in. He's Superman." The Martian Manhunter shook the hand of the renewed member. "I suppose that makes everything official. Welcome back to the Justice League, Superman. Somebody apologize to Damage for the wait." Nice nod, that.

I've talked up Mark Millar & Don Hillsman a lot while covering this book, so I'll offer more criticism in this particular case. Millar was generating a lot of copy for this comic, which should explain some of the dodgier dialogue here. Hillsman has mostly worked as an inker, perhaps his most notable pencils being for the first Malibu Street Fighter mini-series a few years prior. I have a fondness for his dynamic take on the Alien Atlas, but the other characters don't fare as well, and the storytelling is pretty basic. To this day, Millar's longest run in comics is presiding over the cancellation of Swamp Thing, the house Len & Berni and Alan Moore built. Maybe Superman wasn't the only talent being tested in these pages, and not everybody performed as confidently as the Man of--er, Static? Millar & Hillsman were unproven unknowns, so it makes sense that when the former Spectre creative team were looking for a follow-up project, they were the ones chosen to produce the high profile Martian Manhunter spin-off series.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

“The Manhunter from Mars” profile page from JLA Secret Files #1 (September, 1997)

I can carbon date my J'Onn J'Onzz fandom to August 7, 1996. As I've discussed many times before, my familiarity with the character went back about twelve years earlier, to house ads from the time of the Martian Marvel's 1984 return in Justice League of America, and I bought his Super Powers action figure the following year. That was one of my favorite toys growing up, and I had plenty of experiences with the Alien Atlas in the comics. I consider them near misses-- instances of my liking and having an interest in exploring the Martian Manhunter, but still not quite connecting in a significant way.

I was working at a comic shop in 1996, so I would have taken Justice League: A Midsummer's Nightmare #2 home on its day of release. I recall reading it in bed, reaching that glorious gut punch of a splash page by Jeff Johnson, in a sequence co-writer Mark Waid credited to Fabian Nicieza. In period parlance, it was Agent Kujan finally deducing the identity of Keyser Söze, Neo suddenly knowing kung-fu, or Cher Horowitz realizing that she loved Josh. A switch just flipped. I stole a car, drove west, played an 8-track at full blast until it stopped, got out of the car, got in a fight, got back into the car, drove back to town, went to the Cargas Club, and then got into the most prestigious hotel of all time. I was a Martian Manhunter fan, man.

A quarter century later, with admitted gaps and lots of burn out, I'm still here plugging away. But a journey of a thousand miles begins with baby steps, or some such. I was still a Padawan with much to learn, from older fans like Commander Benson on the DC Message Boards, or from scavenged back issues. There were no wikis back then, and very few fan pages. Virtually all of them referenced Don Hillsman's art from JLA Secret Files & Origins, as I was surely not alone in a newfound appreciation of the Martian Manhunter amidst the explosive success of JLA. For many of us, this was the gateway.

"All Who's Who pages written by Mark Millar and colored by Tom McCraw" if you can believe it.