Thursday, February 21, 2008

Martian Manhunter (DC)
Where: Secret Origins #35 When: Holiday 1988
Why: Mark Verheiden How: Ken Steacy

Quick Fix...
"Make no mistake -- It took a seventy-thousand dollar sliver of meteor to stop the one in Metropolis. With you, all I need is a penny for a book of matches."

When it comes to the Martian Manhunter, sometimes it can be very difficult to nail down exactly what it is that makes him one of the most intriguing characters in the DC stable.
In so many ways this character resembles the far more iconic stranger from space, Superman, and yet, far beneath the multi-media powerhouse of the Man of Steel lies an obscure but dedicated fanbase to a character often described as the soul of the Justice League. It's fitting then, whilst discussing one of the varying origins of that team [Secret Origins #32], that we turn our ponderous eye to two of the Martian Manhunter's retroactively defining moments.

When it comes to the definitive Martian Manhunter story the modern era provides a retro example. Many a fanboy will inevitably turn to Darwyn Cooke's, DC: The New Frontier, from which the opening quote is taken. This powerhouse story has earned critical acclaim for it's depiction of some of DC's major Silver Age icons, like; Green Lantern, Flash, Wonder Woman, and of course, J'onn J'onnz.

There is, however, a little known gem in the DC catalogue that could almost lead to speculation of influence on Cooke's handling of the character.
Sharing both theme and three-panel presentation in common; each story distills the character to his earliest struggles as Det. John Jones, who secretly strives to identify and co-exist with humans after his abrupt transmission to Earth.

Typical of Secret Origins stories immediate to post-Crisis editorializing; a thread pertaining to the contemporary era provides the basis for connecting a newly confirmed backstory. In the case of "Martian Manhunter", the returning memories of an aged and tired police officer reveal to him his forgotten past with John Jones; the disguised martian whose secret and backstory was revealed to him telepathically one fateful night, during the pursuit of kidnappers.

Vital to this story is it's graphic design.
Like Cooke; artist Ken Steacy channels the retro energy and bold lines of the nineteen fifties, suitable for the era in which Martian Manhunter is derived.
In the interest of servicing this entry, my selection of panel scans are not only under represented by the quality of my scanner, but also by their selection.

At conclusion, if this review can do nothing else, it will be to compell every Martian Manhunter fan to seize any [legal] opportunity they have to come into possession of this story. Having rattled around in my brain for twenty years, in reflecting, I not only see how much I value this short as a piece of my youth, but also as an unconscious influence on my work on The Kirby Martin Inquest.

While a feature of "KMI" has been a sliding and multi-layered narrative; this tale takes my own experimentation with narration in a more specific and extensive direction, exclusively telling the tale through captions, and no dialogue.
In an interesting way, this manages to make the tale all the more vivid, capturing the mystique and abrasive loft of John Jones' stone-jawed demeanor, while also delivering a heart warming, silent reunion between old friends. No doubt Steacy's design plays a major part in appropriately communicating the script, which Ken himself may have contributed to.

This version of the origin locates the bewildered Martian Manhunter, (and the scientist who brought him to Earth, Dr. Erdel), in Denver, Colorado. Personally I prefer to think of MM in terms of his identity as a citizen of Gotham, which actually compliments this story quite well, despite the details.
As discussed previously [Solo #1, JLA #118], I tend to think Gotham colours it's inhabitants with the musty grey of it's decay and corruption, making for an appropriate contribution to what I think of as a well written Martian Manhunter. Bringing it full circle, that description of Gotham's inhabitants maybe even comes a little from this story I hold so dear.

Visually Steacy's colours typify Gotham with it's muted browns, greys and complimentary blacks, but as the fantasy of the metamorphosis of John Jones works it's way into the action, so too does the colour change. Reds pop and purples permeate as the green of the Martian explodes from within the blue of his trademark cape. It's a subtle, but powerful tool for differentiating between the nature of the sci-fi superhero and detective worlds.

Hot on the trail of the kidnappers who have taken the town Mayor's daughter hostage; the Martian Manhunter comes face to face with his weakness: fire!
Suddenly this bulletproof dynamo withers like a plant without water, suffering under the heat that emenates from the kidnappers' makeshift hideout in an abandoned, but fully functional, steel foundry.

Having staggered back to Police HQ, J'onn is discovered by the unnamed officer whose tale this is to tell. With a telepathic download of information, the cop returns to the foundry where he attempts to tackle the kidnappers alone. He manages to powerdown the equipment just as he's shot by the crooks.

It looks like certain doom for our hero, but with the machines shut down, a green guardian angel is able to unleash a vengeful tide of violence on these men who would endanger a small child. The Manhunter bursts through a solid brick wall, easily repelling speeding bullets as they collide with his martian muscle.

Though angered, fury fails to impair the Manhunter's stern sense of justice.
The gunmen suffer the bone rattling locamotion of being thrown against a wall at car crash speeds, but J'onn J'onnz has no intention of killing them. Particularly not when a frightened child and a wounded friend require aid. Both are returned to safety, but for the officer, commendations are his consolation, as the event is stripped from his memory by the secretive martian.

I think it's interesting to think of Martian Manhunter as the 'soul' of the Justice League, because it's here, in the realm of far more human tales, that I think the character truly shines. As favourably as the lighthearted trappings of Giffen and DeMatteis' Justice League International are regarded; I can't help but look to a story like this, with the pulp trappings of an alien detective as the definitive instance of the Martian Manhunter character.

Recent attempts to revamp the character appear lacklustre and contradictory to everything I would like to see. In Batman and the Outsiders, MM is shunted out of the book amidst creative turmoil, the canonical explanation being attributed to moral differences between MM and Batman - something I like to interpret as highly unlikely, with the two characters sharing a strong, unspoken bond conspired by their Gotham design - something ties them together on common ground other Leaguers could never fully appreciate.

More specifically, I find myself entirely frustrated by the further demystification of the Martian Manhunter mini-series which indulges in efforts to waterdown the notion of J'onn J'onnz as the last survivor a dead race. This is something I loathe of the Superman franchise, but find inexcusable for a far less popular brand.
Additionally, I find something untrue about the Manhunter's sudden burst of overt martian pride, and his shift to the cone-head said to be his natural form.

Ultimately I think it's his status as a self-imposed outsider, and the duality of his identity as someone no longer martian, but not quite human, that makes the character so compelling. The juxtaposition of Martian Manhunter against his superhuman equivalents is very interesting, but it's his interactions with humanity and psychological motivations and metaphors that make him one of the most intriguing aliens in the DC Universe. Every time I try to think of a way to describe J'onn J'onnz personality, I find only contradictions, and as such, should maybe leave you to draw your own conclusions.

I want to say he's innocent, yet slightly corrupted; violent, yet utterly passive.
I want to say he's a loner, yet values friendship. Is sad and stoic, yet joyous and friendly. I suppose for someone who can become anyone, maybe it's valid that he's all these things. Or maybe, to be even more accurate, these varying states of persona and emotion are indicative of one single transformation: the shift of J'onn J'onnz, Manhunter from Mars, to J'onn J'onnz - champion of Earth.

ARTWORK: Kevin MaguireThe Fight: 3.5 The Story: 7
Winner: Martian Manhunter

"Martian Manhunter" is collected in the long out-of-print 1990 "Secret Origins", which also happens to include Secret Origins #32, which contains the Justice League origin we're currently following, as well as other origins classics like the Denny O'Neil story which provided inspiration for Batman Begins, "The Man Who Falls". Otherwise, I don't know how you'll track this classic tale, but it's well worth it!


Book Two: Strange Adventures
Chapter Four: Gods and Monsters (DC)

Where: DC: The New Frontier #2 When: April 2004 Why: Darwyn Cooke How: Darwyn Cooke

Quick Fix...
Now, back to that little matter of the match sticks and meteor... I have to admit, it probably seems a little odd to lead with that kind of quote, before talking about Martian Manhunter in terms of a close relationship with Batman.

The two characters, who debuted 198 issues and 16 years apart, began their print-lives in the pages of Detective Comics, and have since gone on to be regularly associated in various incarnations of DC's compilation franchise, the Justice League.

Darwyn Cooke brings to the two characters together in the series that focuses on the transition from the Golden Age of the thirties and forties, into the Silver Age of the subsequent generation(s). As such, events transpire in those given decades, and allow characters to be repositioned in familiar classic settings, with the benefit of contemporary characterization.

Even though DC: The New Frontier has since been incorporated into DC's model for the new multi-verse [aka; the mega-verse] as designate Earth-21; I actually like to think of the interactions between the Bat and Martian in this, and the following issue, as reasonably plausible for their earliest encounter.

In thinking about the now abandoned Earth-38 posts; which were built on the premise of an alternate DC Earth where real-world chronology more specifically influences the emergence of characters in the canon; I grew to really appreciate Batman as one of the earliest proponents of the "super human" movement, and also as one of the most paranoid.

To contradict myself, I think that paranoia and distance should be inherent to Batman, but at the same time, have different meanings in different situations.
For Batman and Martian Manhunter, it seems perfectly reasonable to me that Bruce Wayne would approach this powerful, alien clandestine influence in his city with concern and suspicion, but ultimately be quite capable of coming to turn that blind hatred to a stern friendship as he becomes better informed.

That said; we've seen, somewhat ironically, what kind of lengths Batman could potentially go to in the pages of Marvel's, Civil War.
Tony Stark's decision has a very different face on it, but ultimately boils down to a similar means-to-an-end similar to Batman's actions surrounding Project OMAC and the Brother Eye satellite, and various other stories that have specifically seen Batman as, for lack of a better term, an obsessively organized anarchist.

I think it's very interesting to transplant Batman's relationship with the other heroes at it's most strained, and reimagine that in a world where he's already monitoring goings-on as these alien powers emerge in a time of post-war suspicion and paranoia. To reiterate, however, it's also just as interesting to see how the lifestyle of Gotham and the common ground of two isolated men can bridge that divide, which I think we see in New Frontier.

The characters meet, as you might expect, on the job.
J'onn, as Det. John Jones, accompanies his partner, Slam Bradley, on a call to, as it would happen, the kidnapping of a wealthy financier's small child.
Unlike the previous entry in this quick fix, J'onn finds himself working with far less willing colleagues, sickened by the depth of corruption within the Gotham Police Department. Slam makes a note that the exceptionally corny comic-book-speaking Jones is probably one of the few straight cops on the beat, except for maybe "that new guy, Gordon."

While his fellow officers may be of no help to the child's life, luck would have it that there is another secret force for good, operating in much the same clandestine fashion as the shadey Martian. When he and Slam storm the Hill Street Catholic Church, they find a one man army battling an army of gaudy robed cult members. Against dozens of them, the Batman holds his own!

Slam jumps into the fray, throwing fist and lead with wanton regard.
There's a kid's life on the line, and just as he's about to start formulating an exit plan with his partner, it dawns on him. John Jones - super-dick - is already on the stage and stealthily making his way toward the centerpiece of the dramatic plot.

Then, something unexpected happens.
The Batman's skirmish knocks a candle holder, and suddenly the drapes are aflame and all the slick runs off John Jones. He becomes a mess. Unable to move -- gripped by fear and confusion -- all while his partner is trying to yell sense as he tears himself away from the masses of robed hoods, desperate to save the kid who's in danger of being sacrificed by some crazy goon with a moustache.

Slam's words fall on deaf ears as J'onn J'onnz is paralzyed by the first signs of weakness during his time hidden amongst the frail humans. Ultimately, it is one of their own that does what he cannot. Like some kind of devil, the Batman slinks across the stage and yanks the cult leader into the shadow of his cape, where only the screams of terror can be heard to eminante from the looming figure.

The Batman does his best to console the child, with whom he might even feel a kindred spirit, but the nightmarish image that sends the cultists fleeing into the night, bares a similar effect on the innocent child already frightened so.

Slam does what any macho male does for a man he admires: he makes an excuse, pretending not to have seen John Jones in his uncharacteristic moment of weakness. Batman, on the other hand, is much less altruistic, silently deducing the secrets of the Martian Manhunter, filed away for future reference. You already know how that pans out, when he brings a medallion to the book-wielding Martian and forces a joint secret-investigation.

I'm running very late, on very little sleep, so I might not have had opportunity to express everything I would've liked to, but at the very least, I hope this can be an interesting future reference point for would-be Martian Manhunter fans.
By interesting coincidence, Kalinara started thinking a bit about JJ only a couple of days after us, putting out a call for strong stories. When it comes to recommendations, I suppose these two issues are what best represent my vision of the character, but there's a whole range of other styles and appearances to be found out there.

What are some of your Martian Manhunter experiences?
I know you readers are out there, and you don't need to be registered to comment, so share your thoughts! I'm sure some of you must be fans of JLI, or how about Sandman? Maybe even the solo work of John Ostrander? Let us know!

ARTWORK: Ed McGuinnessThe Fight: 5 The Issue: 7
Winner: Batman & Slam Bradley
(w/ Martian Manhunter)

Chances are by now you don't need to be told how fantastic The New Frontier has managed to be! For those of you eagerly anticipating the DTV animated movie release, released soon, you might like to consider owning the original full-length story for yourself! Amazon not only provides both the paperback and Absolute editions, but helps sponsor your favourite secret earth every time you use the provided links to purchase. So do so, and help keep us in business!

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