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For the next two weeks, I’m going to alternate entries between favorite characters of mine and really cool creators. To start, let’s take a look at a great superhero who suffers from an intriguing misfortune: no one knows what to do with him. Read on! And don’t forget the archive.
196. Martian Manhunter
J’onn J’onzz, Manhunter from Mars! One of the DC Universe’s “Big Seven,” as far as superheroes go. Unfortunately, he can’t seem to hold his own series, and no writer knows what to do with him. He’s suffering from an acute case of “Aquaman Syndrome.” Heck, I bet the average comic book aficionado doesn’t even know who created him. I know I didn’t. And yet, I think the Martian Manhunter is the bee’s knees.
Created by Joe Samachson and Joe Certa in Detective Comics #225 (pre-dating the first appearance of the Silver Age Flash), J’onn J’onzz was a Martian who ended up on Earth due to a bizarre experiment by one Professor Erdel, who then promptly died on the spot, trapping J’onn on Earth. In order to fit in, he shape-shifted into human John Jones and signed up to be a police detective. Hence, Manhunter. From Mars.
Later, though, he’d end up as the lead feature in House of Mystery, and it was here that his secret identity was changed, this time to playboy Marco Xavier, Agent of VULTURE, trying to take down the evil organization from the inside. At some point, he also got some kind of alien pet, who was a diminutive fella named Zook, a cross between Superman’s Krypto and Aquaman’s Quisp, apparently. Nothing seemed to work, though, and J’onn got squeezed out of the pages. There’s a Showcase volume of quite a bit of J’onn’s early stories, however, so seek it out!
Luckily, he was still a member of the Justice League of America, which he co-founded with the other big DC heroes. Unfortunately, he then disappeared from those pages as well, and vanished into limbo. He’d return years later, however, a fresh, new Martian, and see the team through multiple incarnations. He was one of the few JLA regulars to stick around during the Detroit era. And later, he would lead the American faction of the Justice League as it went International, under the pens of Mssrs. Giffen and DeMatteis. This is my favorite era of the Justice League, as we all know, and J’onn was the soul of the team (with Blue Beetle as the heart). The interaction between J’onn and the other characters was superb. Whether it was with Max or L-Ron or Guy Gardner or Booster and Beetle, J’onn took to his leadership role with a fatherly attitude and a hilarious dry wit. He also loved Oreos. A lot. These were J’onn’s glory days.
Things change, though, and J’onn disappeared from the League again– or did he? No, he was there the whole time disguised as new member Bloodwynd. Yeah, it was kinda lame, you’re right. Grant Morrison’s revamp of the JLA was not far off, however, and ’twas there that the Martian Manhunter became reinstated as one of the Big Seven. He’d last as a key member throughout this entire volume. And sure, maybe he turned evil that one time. Also during this time period, our favorite Manhunter from Mars was granted his own ongoing series again, from John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake, two great creators who work great together. I admit I haven’t read the series, but I’m told it was good. Unfortunately, it only lasted three years.
Alas, Brad Meltzer’s taken over the Justice League, and J’onn’s been booted out. I hear he’ll be joining the Outsiders, though, still sporting his hideous new look that he got in a recent mini-series. Even the nice reviews said that comic was bad. I avoided it.
So what’s the deal? Why does Martian Manhunter suffer so in the comics marketplace? Is it because he has too many powers? I mean, yeah, he can do everything Superman can do, plus shapeshifting and invisibility and telepathy and a few others, but so what? Is he not relatable enough? Is he too alien? Is it because he doesn’t have much of a supporting cast or rogues gallery? It also doesn’t help that his origin has been retconned into something different every few years. I have no idea what the deal is with that anymore.
Me, I think J’onn suffers from too much potential. You can tell straight superhero stories with him, you can take him into space and offer philosophical science fiction akin to Silver Surfer, you can bring him down to Earth and tell detective stories and crime noir with John Jones, or you can take him into glitzy espionage as Marco Xavier. They’re all great, but they don’t all mesh. The Martian Manhunter is the hero with a thousand secret identities, and the “Superman of the Third World,” as I believe Grant Morrison put it, and so many other things. I imagine many writers don’t even know where to begin with the great potential and multiple storytelling engines that J’onn possesses.
Someone has to like him, though. He keeps popping up time and again in comics and on the Justice League, repeatedly getting a chance at the spotlight. He’s also appeared in multiple television roles, whether animated in Justice League or on The Batman, or showing up in live action on Smallville, or even that unreleased live action JLA show in which he was played by the awesome David Ogden Stiers! Well, alright, maybe they didn’t all go over so well. Bah.
I have the utmost confidence that the “Manhunter Curse” will be broken one day. All it takes is one good creator to make any character or concept the next big thing. Soon, it shall be Martian Manhunter’s turn.
In fact, y’know who should write a Martian Manhunter series? Peter Milligan. The good Peter Milligan, that is– the one who loves themes about identity. He’d do gangbusters on the title. And maybe we can get Doug Mahkne or Norm Breyfogle to draw it. That’d be awesome.
The greatest source of J’onn J’onzz information on the web is definitely at this Monitor Duty profile by Alan Kistler. It chronicles his entire publication history. Check it out!
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