Friday, July 03, 2009

The Death of John Jones

Okay, as mentioned, Vol. 2 of the Martian Manhunter Showcase is in some ways even crazier than the first one; but why?

It's clear that the editorial/authorial powers realized they'd painted themselves into an uncomfortable corner. They'd created a nearly infallible character whose powers were a mash-up of Amazo, the Composite Superman, and the Phantom Stranger. His only weakness was the most absurd one any character has ever had. Yellow? Wood? Those at least had some sort of ad hoc logic to them. But the Martian Manhunter's vulnerability to fire defied not just physics, but sociology and common sense. Fire has no radiation-like "emanations"; at a distance, there's no difference between fire and any other heat source. The Martians built a high-tech society without... fire? Maybe they used "Martian vision" to melt metals or just finger-snapped machines out of thin air, like they do ice cream cones?

PLUS, this super-scientific society has no way of rescuing one of its people, even when it's established early on that they know he's on earth? No, it's obvious that the Martian Manhunter was a rather hastily cobbled together character, and a difficult one to write. Despite J'onn's godlike powers he spent most of his time fighting crooks in hats, and laughable losers like the Human Flame, Mr. Moth, and the Human Squirrel. His only substantial challenges would come from other planets like the Venusians or the Martian Mandrills (yes, really). Something had to be done.

The recognition that J'onn's powers were out of literary control led to one early limitation: exposed to a chemical by a Martian bad guy (B'rett, as I recall), the Manhunter could no longer use his powers while he was invisible. Not only did this prevent the obvious question ("Why doesn't he always remain invisible as matter of course during combat?"), it forced him to 'come out' and become a public hero.

In Vol. 2, the Martian Manhunter even started to fly as a pure and simple power, whereas before he always had to suck or blow himself into the sky. And now he even had a superpowered sidekick (more on that subject later) to help him.. Something beyond the 'invisibility limit' was required.

The writers (well... writer, really) came up with an idea: J'onn's 'Martian powers' worked only when he was in his "Martian form" (although this was in direct and stark conflict with every previous Martian Manhunter story). Now, when in any other form, he had only the powers of that other form (and, of course, his power to shape-shift!). This helped a bit at first... JJ kept having to disguise himself as humans, and in so doing became as vulnerable as they are.

Unfortunately, the concept kind of backfired; when face with a superior adversary, the Martian Manhunter could simply assume the form of his opponent... and did.

So they killed him off. Not the Martian Manhunter, but John Jones, his civilian ID. He was "killed" when he and a car were eaten by corrosive cloud being. Things like that happen in Apex City.

Rather than concoct an escape story or one of those Clark Kent-style "Superman saved me when you weren't looking, Lois!" yarns, the Martian Manhunter simply said, "Huh, oh well. So much for my carefully constructed private life, my friends, and my job. What's for lunch?"

But this coincided with a move for MM. He no longer needed his job as a detective because he was no longer in Detective Comics. Now he'd be the back-up in House of Mystery (which was, at that time, a sci-fi title, not a horror title), so his adventures became more mysterious and less detective-y. Enter the Idol Head of Diabolu, a magical Pandora's box that spit out a different, crazy magical threat like clockwork once a month....

to be continued.

16 comments:

TotalToyz said...

So they killed him off. Not the Martian Manhunter, but John Jones, his civilian ID. He was "killed" when he and a car were eaten by corrosive cloud being. Things like that happen in Apex City.

One wonders why this didn't come up in the JL Detroit series, when "John Jones" applied to the Detroit PD for work. They turned him down on grounds of age.

"Yeah, but the real reason we can't have you on the force, Officer Jones, is that you died twenty years ago! That's what it says in this telex from Apex City, anyway. And what's this about Martian mandrills? We can't have stuff like that in Detroit; next thing you know, GM would pack up and move away!"

Pat said...

If you look at the timing for the Martian Manhunter losing his ability to use his other powers while invisible, it seems obvious why J'onn's presence on Earth had to be revealed. Detective #273 was November 1959; Brave & Bold #28 (first JLA tryout) was Feb-Mar 1960.

SallyP said...

Poor J'onn. Having all those ridiculous superpowers doesn't make you easier to write...it makes you harder to write.

Which is why I seem to prefer J'onn as the babysitter for the Justice League, eating Chocos and rolling his eyes.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

In the intro to THE BLACK CASEBOOK, Morrison mentions how, if every single event in Batman's career did happen, then, yes, he'd lose his mind. I would think that compared to MM's career, well, you see where I'm going with this.

TotalToyz said...

Wayne, name me a DC character active in the Golden and/or Silver Age for whom that WOULDN'T be true.

Ray said...

Allow me to put on my Pontificating Cap.

I understand that M.Manhunters powers were aquired ad hoc. But list them and consider what they might be useful for. Then contrast them with Superman's powers. Supermans's powers, like the abilities of humans, are adaptations for survival (this would assume Krypton is a harsher environment than Earth). But what if there was a different biological imperative in evolution. It would appear that M.Manhunter powers all revolve around exploration. Now they make sense.

Yes, I got this idea from that Planetary team-up.

Jake said...

I think the idea that he loses his powers when invisible or shapeshifted is somewhat clever, and I wish they'd kept it. To me, the fact that J'onn is ridiculously overpowered but has an even more ridiculously common weakness would mean he can't come charging in like Superman to save the day because, oh noes, MATCHES! He'd have to be a hero who works from the shadows and through surprise.

LissBirds said...

^ but don't you think it's kinda cool (and ironic) that such an over-powered character has such a common weakness? If he's going to be so darn powerful, there should be something readily-available to weaken him otherwise (from a story perspective) he'd be unstoppable.

Plus I find it sort of amusing, like an elephant and a mouse.

TotalToyz said...

Martian weakness to fire can be easily explained with Silver-Age Science! Fire has no radiation-like emanations that Earthlings can perceive. But Martians can perceive its emanations, and they hurt like the dickens. Hey, if you buy that the Shark had an "invisible yellow aura", an oxymoron if ever I heard one, why not?

And while I'm on the subject of weaknesses, what is the "ad hoc logic" behind the wood weakness anyway? I never understood that.

Scipio said...

Originally, the ring could not affect anything in its "natural state". Iron as opposed to steel, for example. Metals are seldom used unalloyed, but wood can't be alloyed, so it became the default weakness for Scott and the rest of it got forgotten.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

TotalToys, true, there was a lot of craziness going on in the 1950s, I'm going on the longetivity of the MM chararacter. Sure, Flash was turned into a puppet and Green Lantern was attacked by ice cream, but MM devolved as a character to the point of comic relief. Hopefully, there's an Earth 27 out there that has MM as the only hero on the planet, weakness to fire or not.

DC really should reprint AMERICAN SECRETS in a collected trade.

LissBirds said...

DC really should reprint AMERICAN SECRETS in a collected trade.

That I wholeheartedly agree with. I'd start a letter-writing campaign to DC for the purposes of getting American Secrets released as a trade.

Then after they bring him back to life, MM should have his own series that it's in the noir style of American Secrets.

I'm not holding my breath, but hey, I can dream.

steve mitchell said...

The Martian Manhunter had an excellent series once before, courtesy of Ostrander and Mandrake.

Who also delivered the best run of the Spectre ever.

Why aren't these guys working together now?

Booby-Trap Bagley said...

Scipio "His only substantial challenges would come from other planets like the Venusians or the Martian Mandrills "

Well, his second big weakness,and the one they should have stayed with and developed, came from outer space, too. Comets.
In April 1956, the "Blazer Comet" removed all of J.J.'s powers, while it was passing between Earth and Mars, as it does once every century, for a full 24 hours. "It's blocking off the rays that emanate from Mars... the rays responsible for my super-powers!" See? Toon Physics included! Okay, it's unwieldy and statistically rare, but so are kryptonite meteorites, right?
Then in December 1956, another comet, with no brand name, but recurring annually, showed up and also removed his powers, but THIS ONE compensated for that, by negating his weakness for fire. That too was a step in the right direction. But whatever, they went with "fire," bah.

Steve "Why aren't [Ostrander & Mandrake] working together now?"

Moreover, why aren't they working on Doctor Fate? Who but they would I, or anyone, trust to salvage that character now?

TotalToyz said...

Originally, the ring could not affect anything in its "natural state". Iron as opposed to steel, for example. Metals are seldom used unalloyed, but wood can't be alloyed, so it became the default weakness for Scott and the rest of it got forgotten.

Are you sure about that? As I recall, in the earliest stories Alan Scott's ring could only protect him from metals. He was knocked out by some non-metal objects that definitely weren't in their natural state, like a leather blackjack (All-American #16) and a glass bottle (All-Star #4).

Jack Norris said...

"B'rett, as I recall"

B'rett M'ichaels?