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CSBG Archive

365 Reasons to Love Comics #196

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.

7/15/07

196. Martian Manhunter

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

27 Comments

“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.”

I agree on this one–100%

Part of J’onn’s problem is he has had a few retcons–nto anywhere near as many as Hawkman–but whoelse has that many? (Besides Hawkgirl/woman)

I still haven’t heard a solid explanation of what’s so bad about his new costume.

I think some things that can help a J’onn solo story are art thats really good and a good story. The basic fundamentals of comic books. Make people actually want to read it. If somebody like Gary Frank was doing it, I’d pick it up instantly.

I’d really love to read a memorable MM book. Especially if hes the only martian in the whole thing

I still feel quite good about my 2004 article suggesting that one way to approach J’onn is to place his alien culture against human sexuality. The piece was called “Why Isn’t The Martian Manhunter Gay?
http://brokenfrontier.com/columns/details.php?id=89

I agree that he has potential and I completely agree that there has been too much retconing of his past. The one thing he is lacking, however, is motivation. Why is he a hero? They’ve tried with all the stuff about his family dying and the last Martian (and I don’t like the White Martians at all) but he still doesn’t have a reason for fighting crime.

Where is his soul? What is his personality? I think that’s the same thing that plagues Aquaman as well as Wonder Woman. If you had to describe them how would you? Superman is the Boy Scout. Batman is the grim one who is smarter than everyone else. Hal Jordan is the recless flyboy. What is the Martian Manhunter? What is Aquaman? What is Wonder Woman?

That’s what the Martian Manhunter is missing.

Annoyed Grunt

July 15, 2007 at 6:57 pm

Wow… That cover of J’onn looking at the New York skyline and the JLA base is really depressing these days.

What is the Martian Manhunter? What is Aquaman? What is Wonder Woman?

Aquaman is easy: he’s the King of the Sea. If you need anything else to come up with good Aquaman stories, you’re completely missing the point. He’s a fantasy lead in a superhero universe. There’s tons you can do with that: you can go for the obvious Arthurian parallel, the underwater explorer/protector riff, just go straight Namor-alike, your pick really.

Personally I like it when Aquaman is pretty jovial ala Silver Age . Never been a fan of Angry Aquaman.

I thought Darwyn Cooke did a really nice job writing him in New Frontier, but that’s basically the only non-JLA Manhunter take I’ve read.

Strangely, New Frontier is the only take on the Martian Manhunter I’ve liked. Ever.

Bill’s pretty close to “nail on the head” as t’why. But I’d put it a different way: There are two types of Martian Manhunter stories. Those that would be better as Superman stories, and those that would be better as Batman stories.

Or Martian Manhunter as straight man, I guess.

I think part of the problem is, J’Onn can’t be better than Superman or Batman. All his powers make him essentially the most powerful DC hero, but because of the Big 3 myth, Superman has to be stronger and Batman tougher and smarter.

Over years, DeMatteis got rid of the goofy fire weakness, his character got built up and expanded…then Morrison comes along, with his Big 7 stories, and J’Onn suddenly can be stopped by a guy with a zippo. In the Giffen era, Batman pushes J’Onn to be the leader…a job only he can do…in the Morrison..not so much.

I have such love for the Ostrander Martian Manhunter series.

He makes J’onn into the soul of the entire DCU there.

I don’t think the costume is that bad…I just really don’t care for the weird, Skrull-like chin and misshapen head. That in conjunction with the AWFUL turn the storytelling with J’Onn has taken has soured the whole new look for me.

The Kirbydotter

July 16, 2007 at 9:38 am

The only time I was really into Justice League was during the fun Giffen/DeMatteis run. In a cast full of quirky characters that didn’t take anything seriously, Jonn Jonzz was the straight man. Everybody was a clown but someone had to keep a straight face to make the funny people look , well funny. The strength of a comedy team often lies in the underrated straight man. Jerry Lewis wasn’t as funny without Dean Martin (who was a regular comic book reader by the way!).

During that fun run, Jonn was often the one to remind his team (he was pretty much the leader) that, beyond the riot, this was still the Justice League dammit!

I also liked a couple of Martian Manhunter solo stories that appeared in some ANNUALS during the same era (or just after that period) where the emphasis was much more about Jonn’s detective skills than his super powers.

The Kirbydotter

July 16, 2007 at 9:42 am

Just noticed the Justice League cover with Jonn saying to Blue Beetle: “Well, here’s another fine mess…”

Martian Manhunter was Hardy to the rest of the team of nincompoop Laurels…

Good choice for a reason, and very good choice giving a link to Alan Kistler’s article. I would have been very disappointed if you hadn’t.

What was J’Onn’s role in the DCAU? He was the outsider right? I guess that wouldn’t work in the comics now that he has been around so long.

Bill: Sooo glad you chose MM to highlight! He’s a great character. I suppose there are a dozen or more characters who could fulfill your description: “a great superhero who suffers from an intriguing misfortune: no one knows what to do with him.” Still, as soon as I read that, I was thinking “Martian Manhunter” as I clicked to read on.

I think it’s great that he’s got several different secret identities. So much to work with, right there! Yeah, all those powers he’s got makes him tough to beat — I’m sure that’s why Morrison re-introduced the fire weakness, otherwise there’s no drama in his stories because he’s never in danger.

Ostrander did some great stuff with J’onn but one boneheaded move he made was to introduce Malefic (am I spelling that right?) but then kill him off. I’m not opposed to the White Martians — they give J’onn a natural enemy — but Malefic was clearly designed as J’onn’s nemesis, and you just don’t kill off the main nemesis. Every hero needs his Luthor, his Joker, his Sinestro, his Green Goblin. (Of course, the other trick there is to not overuse them.) So J’onn could benefit from a rogues gallery, which Ostrander tried to provide. (Plus, there’s Despero.)

I’ve got no problem with the new look — well, OK, Paul’s right about the weird Skrull-like chin. But the head shape holds true to his “real” physiology. And isn’t it about time he got out of his bathing trunks? I mean, damn, they let Robin have pants almost 20 years ago. Poor J’onn was running around all these decades in brightly colored fetish gear, a cross between a leatherman and a pirate. (But I guess I’m weird about costumes. The only characters I really like to see showing all that skin is the old ’70s Legion. I think Wonder Woman should lose the star-spangled thong (that thing just keeps getting smaller and smaller!) and I don’t even like Black Canary’s fishnets.)

I’ll reserve judgment about MM with the Outsiders. But with him and Metamorpho on the team, that’s a lot of power. Could suddenly be a really interesting book! And mabye things’ll turn around for our favorite martian — after all, there’s a whole new generation that came to know him through the Justice League cartoons, which is the greatest exposure he’s ever gotten.

I still haven’t heard a solid explanation of what’s so bad about his new costume.

The Conehead and the Skrull chin. I also don’t like that they’re covering up the majority of his green skin– it’s there to make him look alien and stand out, so show more skin. (Yes, I’m apparently asking for Martian beefcake. This has not slipped past me.)

“Why Isn’t The Martian Manhunter Gay?”

I’d also ask– why isn’t his John Jones identity black?

What is the Martian Manhunter? What is Aquaman? What is Wonder Woman?

Aquaman is the King of the Sea. Wonder Woman is the Ambassador and the Warrior Princess. Martian Manhunter is the noble alien, and the philosopher.

Also, I’ve edited the original post with a creative team suggestion for a possible Martian Manhunter title.

The Conehead and the Skrull chin. I also don’t like that they’re covering up the majority of his green skin– it’s there to make him look alien and stand out, so show more skin. (Yes, I’m apparently asking for Martian beefcake. This has not slipped past me.)

Heh, okay. Personally, I always thought he looked RIDICULOUS in his classic costume. Maybe it just comes from having no real attachment to the character, but the conehead doesn’t bother me. The skrully chin doesn’t even, really either. I think it does a good job of making him look alien and stand out, you know? And isn’t that his natural form or something?

His classic costume does look somewhat ridiculous, but… well, frankly, so do *most* superhero costumes, in isolation. What strikes me as “weird” about the new costume is that he’s wearing a costume at all. To me, it’s like J’onn’s only wearing clothes of any sort as a sop to human customs, but only the absolute minimum.

On the character, I do think there’s a “too much potential” problem, particularly because every new writer can and does focus on some different “central” aspect. And he’s not necessarily *wrong* either, because it’s all there, somewhere.

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That article has one critical flaw, it forgets its own logic. Martian Manhunter can’t be “gay” because he has no gender(something I as well believe). in other words, he can date a gay guy, but he’d still be an alien(one without “true” gender. He could also date a straight guy, if he makes himself a woman. I’d love to see that too. Both of them would be seriously in love, but MM reveals his superhero identity as a muscular green man. Heh, that’d be a great love story, with humour, to help whatever action happens.

His classic costume does look somewhat ridiculous, but… well, frankly, so do *most* superhero costumes, in isolation.

Yes. I didn’t say “in isolation”.

Looking stupid among stupid looking things is usually a sign that you look the stupidest.

Just wanted to say thanks for the plug and that I’m glad you liked my article. I very much like your blog here about J’onn, you bring up many good points.

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