Thursday, February 14, 2008

QUICK FIX DOUBLE FEATURE: A League of their Own!
All Together Now (DC)
Where: Secret Origins #32 When: November 1988
Why: Keith Giffen & Peter David How: Eric Shanower

Quick Fix...
Q: (Art and Literature) What does Wonder Woman have all over her blue shorts? A: Yellow stars.

The follies of my 1983 edition of Trivial Pursuit aside, a lot has changed for comics' most recognise icons. Despite their trials off the page, the trio of Wonder Woman, Superman, and Batman, has been elevated to that of a holy trinity within the DCU superhero community.

As DC attempts to rebound from a disppointing follow-up to the weekly comic mechanic [Countdown (to Final Crisis)], they put their best foot forward, announcing a fifty-two issue series built with their biggest heroes central to each story. From here the geneology of supheroes branches out to the Justice League, and from there, outward to a universe of characters.

Like many things in comics, the origin of the Justice League has seen multiple iterations. The moments that bind them, and the characters that are bound, has varied from version to version, and although the DC Trinity represents the foundation of the League for many, I find myself gravitating to a different tale.

Modern storytelling carries with it the gift, (or burden), of sixty years of history, politics, and characterization. As the stories strive for a greater sense of reality, influences from the past help steer and cement characters and places.
This worldly approach to story telling elevates characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, onto a global scale. For these characters entrenched in their own affairs, it seems almost implausible that they could maintain a regular presence with a team of watchmen, which makes an alternate all the more palatable.

In 1988 the origin was retooled, keeping the threat of an alien gladiatorial invasion, without pulling the Trinity into the heart of the story. While Wonder Woman and Batman get the snub treatment, the Man of Steel manage to clock an appearance, albeit a cameo, dealing with his own threat from afar, too intimidating for the rest of the would-be League to approach.

There has been, and will no doubt be plenty more of, entries featuring the DC heavy hitters. Thus, for a change of pace, I thought it might be nice to celebrate Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley's upcoming work on Trinity by refocusing our attentions on the other individuals that make up the Justice League elite!

Following the order of this segmentalized Secret Origins story, we find our starting point with a character often referred to as 'the soul' of the Justice League: J'onn J'onnz -- the Martian Manhunter.

Set during the early part of his career as a Detective in disguise in Denver [as opposed to his better known base of operations; Gotham City]; J'onn glides high above the city contemplating the potential ramifications of revealing his true identity to his law enforcement colleagues. From this bird's eye vantage point, the astute alien is able to identify a town frozen, it's citizens and vehicles resembling stone statuettes. He recognizes two policemen, right down to shaving scratches observed earlier that morning.

Returning to the sky, the Martian Manhunter quickly spots a giant, featureless stone humanoid marching through the city. From it's eyes, the giant emits yellow beams of energy, responsible for the predicament of Denver's denizens.
Under the cloak of invisibility, the Manhunter swoops in to strike a super powered blow to the creature's cranium, but it goes completely unnoticed. Desperate to turn about events, the Manhunter turns to his skills of telepathy in an effort to communicate with the silent behemoth.

The attempt backfires as the beast absorbs all information from the Manhunter's psyche. This includes his morbid fear of flames, and with that the creature ignites petrol from a nearby gas stop!

With anxiety his greatest threat, Martian Manhunter braves the flames to spiral toward the street where he collides intentionally with a fire hydrant. The hydrant spews water, quashing only part of the fire, which feeds on the flowing supply of fuel.

The Martian again confronts his greatest fears, heading for the stone creature with a zen-like determination. His ability to focus on the point beyond his objective and reject fear allows him to pierce the alien host body like a speeding bullet!

His Martian strength shatters the stone giant, and in doing so, frees Denver of the effects of it's Medusa-like gaze. With the people returned to normal, J'onn J'onnz finds himself in the unexpected predicament of being exposed to humanity in his true form. Recovering from the blow, he is met with disbelief by passersby who lament on his unconvincing appearance, assuming he is a costumed actor in a film. This assumption provides him with convenient anonymity, as he makes a sheepish escape.

As far as Martian Manhunter stories go, this chapter touches upon all the key elements. You've got his conflicted relationship with humanity; his so-called weakness to fire; and a superheroic show that rivals the scale of any Superman adventure story. Perhaps indicative of his vital role with the League, the Manhunter is the first to be conscious of a larger threat, having learned of other creatures from his brief mindscan of the Stone God [named-so in a later issue featuring the conventional Justice League, including the Trinity].

Not too long ago I had a brief exchange online with a couple of the lads from iFanboy, debating the viability of Martian Manhunter as a starring soloist.
This story, by no means, backs up my claims that there is still untapped potential in the much-loved greenskin. Now that I think about it, that might just be fodder for a quick fix in the near future, because Martian Manhunter really is a character I believe in. Evidence of his viability dates back to his earliest appearances in the fifties where, albeit as a less popular character, he sustained stories touting pulp, science fiction and espionage themes.

The character's retroactive history positions him in Gotham City, making his relationship with humanity all the more interesting. If Superman is the immigrant who placed his faith in America and was rewarded by it; Martian Manhunter is the same to [almost] opposite ends.

DC is characterized for it's fantastical and iconic heroes, but often overlooked is an underlying theme of celebrating the outsider.
Far less overt than Marvel's supposed 'everyman' approach, DC pushes among it's top tier, immigrant heroes from Krypton, Mars, Themyscira, Atlantis, and Thanagar.

Martian Manhunter is unique in that he is inevitably positioned as an outsider.
Adopting the persona of Det. John Jones, he lives the stoic life of a hard-edged detective; married to the job, and as abrasive an icon to crooks, as to colleagues. Hailing from a planet where telepathic communication is common place, it is debatable that his stodgy, repressed alias is a similar commentary on human-life as Superman's frail and overlooked, Clark Kent.

Like Superman, this last survivor of his race could be said to be 'coloured' by his environment. Much like a humble upbringing in Kansas influences Superman to adhere to wholesome values; Martian Manhunter may be coloured by a history in the tainted city of Gotham. It's decaying musk is known to filter many of it's personalities through a distorted lens, where it's not unreasonable to think his identity-crisis and paranoia might be fed by a town dripping in corruption.

Martian Manhunter is a favourite character, and as much as I enjoy his position on the Justice League, I love seeing him in a solo capacity. The points needn't necessarily be exclusive, but that might be best left to discuss another day.

Though not recognisable from a major motion picture; Martian Manhunter has been exposed to a new fanbase through the Justice League cartoon series'. Heavily portrayed as the stoic and mournful outsider of the team, Martian Manhunter instantly carries a "cool" factor readily identifiable by mainstream youths in contemporary culture. I wonder if you, the reader, have a story about the Martian Manhunter and how you've come to observe the character.
Be encouraged to scroll down to the comments and let me know, because that's definitely a point of interest!

ARTWORK: Keith GiffenThe Fight: 3.5 The Issue: 5.5
Winner: Martian Manhunter

I'd love to give this story a higher rating, but there's no denying that it suffers from a clunky arrangement and corny plot with no heart beyond dragging the characters together. This is a common symptom of this type of storytelling, and was subject of many criticisms in our reviews of Omega Flight, and references to the New Avengers, who failed to form, let alone fight crime, for several issues.

All Together Now (DC)
Where: Secret Origins #32 When: November 1988
Why: Keith Giffen & Peter David How: Eric Shanower

Quick Fix...
Following the order of chapter-based features, we arrive at perhaps the most baffling DC property in the modern age.

Aquaman is a character best noted for his struggles to appeal to contemporary readers. The best efforts of writers like Peter David, Will Pfeifer, John Arcudi, and Kurt Busiek have succeeded only in further complicating the history of the character, reinventing him through means grim, gritty, traditional, and fantasy-inspired.

The character is often measured by against the Sub-Mariner, two years his predecessor. Though comparable by their connection to the Atlantean lore, the characters are otherwise decidedly different; a popular footnote to their encounter in the DC/Marvel crossover [Marvel versus DC #2].

Like the rest of the team, Aquaman is returned to his roots for this first-year tale of the Justice League, calling upon elements of the 1950s revision that redefined Aquaman as Arthur Curry; surface-dwelling son of a lighthouse keeper, and Atlantean. New to his powers as Aquaman, and the existance of Atlantis, this hero is not without his own struggles with alienation.

The story; part of a line-wide post-Crisis reboot; manages to break the fourth wall to draw upon doubt over Aquaman's value to a superhero team operating on the surface, with powerhouses like Superman.

Aquaman's self-doubt is tested when he discovers blobs of a mercury-like substance floating through the waterways. The source is soon revealed to be a larger mass of the substance, emitting a beam that transforms the sea-life into more of the substance. Alas, Aquaman is caught in it's ray before he can act.

Losing control of his physical form, Aquaman is at the mercy of the tides, helpless in combat moreso than ever.

Attempts to ride the current toward the alien host body prove unsuccessful. Though without character, the creature is able to sense his approach, reforming to leave the hero to drift harmlessly aside.

The creature continues to transmorph the sea creatures in it's wake as it drifts in the direction of Atlantis. Feeling despair for his predicament, the threat to his newly discovered home is enough to pull him from depression.
Noting a whirpool in the distance, Aquaman considers that the alien lifeform might not understand the implications of the phenomena, and begins refocusing the landscape as a homeground advantage.

Aquaman does his best to call upon his telepathic capabilities to encourage a school of fish to head toward the raging whirlpool. It requires great effort, but finally the frustrated deepsea ruler is able to communicate his message.
Lured by the fish, the mercury-like creature moves closer, only to be caught by the roaring spin of the ripping tide. It shreds the glooping host body, dispersing it diluted through the waterways, and returning the sea life to normal.

It is an unremarkable victory for the king, all too reminiscent of the defeat of Namor.
To Giffen and David's credit, they make use of one of Aquaman's more individual skills -- the ability to communicate telepathically with sealife -- that said, one wonders if the solution for a character like this is to play upon his weaknesses.

Unfortunately, Aquaman does seem to have been reduced to a puzzle for any would-be writer that would be assigned the job. Various reboots have found limited, mostly short-lived success, and with such a wide range of approaches taken, indicated few solutions for a character once, long ago, deemed viable.

Aquaman very nearly received a shot in the arm with a television series, Mercy Reef, set to spin-out of the character's appearance on the hit WB teen drama, Smallville. The project ultimately failed to 'hold water,' but the unaired pilot managed to garner plenty of attention from TV-philes, and fanboys alike.

Looking back on the history of comic book revivals, Aquaman really is in an ironically favourable position. In the tradition of tarnished and disgarded heroes like Swamp-Thing, Animal Man, or even Batman; Aquaman is in a prime position for something radical to open the floodgates to success. Of course, this would require a serious rethink of strategy on DC's part, and an admission of defeat for a new character holding the mantle with mixed results.

Not too long ago we made reference to the pie-in-the-sky prospect of joining DC and Marvel's review-copy mailing list [JSA #65]. The concept here would be for DC and Marvel to directly sponsor characters in our makeshift rankings, using the site to promote weekly issues starring their franchise characters.
At first glance this sounds like a silly and selfish want, but is actually meant to propose an edict central to the concept of the Infinite Wars. Both companies have been guilty of placing great value on the names of writers and artists, and to their credit, the recognition is not only deserved, but demanded by fans who vote with their dollar. Even so, characters will inevitably transcend the people who make their adventures possible, and as much as the creators deserve their slice of recognition, for characters like Aquaman, the push to attach recognisable and/or acceptable names to projects seems to have superceeded any heart-felt attempts at a relaunch.

Not to say there haven't been strong hi-concepts attached to relaunches.
Over the last decade, Aquaman has been identified by three hard shifts in creative direction. The loss of a hand, Sub-Diego, and 'lord of the rings' beneath the sea have all pushed a strong concept that has failed to tread water, arguably losing steam as they enter the deep end of on-going runs.

There's no 'quick fix' to the Aquaman problem.
Honestly, if approached with the opportunity to redefine the character, I'm not sure I'd be confidently up to the task. I've got ideas, sure. There are character traits waiting to be drawn upon, but all of them seem, to me, to stem from DC taking greater investment in the character. That means suffering hard choices to avoid undermining the character with hard reboots. It might also mean turning one of the so-called 'big seven' icons loose to allow for organic transition, but above all else it means investing in the character.

What are your ideas for an Aquaman revamp?
Would you turn the character loose on an endless world of science-fiction and fantasy, or is the irreverant parody a prospect that speaks to your whims? Scroll down to the comments section, and let us know!

ARTWORK: ???The Fight: 3.5 The Issue: 5.5
Winner: Aquaman

Bonus points in this otherwise tame fight for ingenuity!
More droning rantings as we follow the rest of the post-Crisis Justice League origin sometime in the very near future! If time allows, no doubt we'll get a chance to talk more about Martian Manhunter in the entry promised earlier in the fix. More Aquaman is unlikely... Maybe some Sub-Mariner. Or maybe just Batman...

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