Thursday, January 05, 2017

Martian Manhunter: My Version

I gave you your chance recently to share here your visions for the Martian Manhunter.  Now here's mine.

My guidelines generally are: stick as close as you can to the original classic version of the character; incorporate beloved later elements judiciously and in a way consistent with the classic context; provide a context that allows for solo story-telling but permits connections to the larger DCU and opportunities for crossovers; whenever possible, use existing story elements from the DCU and the character’s past.

My version of the Martian Manhunter would look like the following.  

The Martian Manhunter is from Mars; a Mars in a parallel universe, where Mars is Earthlike, perhaps even occupying Earth’s orbital slot in its solar system.  If there is an Earth in that solar system, it is lifeless.
[Believing in the distant long-dead world of Krypton is one thing.  But Mars is a real-world place that we know, which doesn’t have Martians and if it I did they certainly wouldn’t be like the Manhunter.  He IS from Mars; just not OUR Mars (or Mars-1, I suppose). It’s a simple, minimalistic fix.]



The Martian Manhunter was brought to Earth by Dr. Saul Erdel in an experiment in transdimensional outreach that accidentally kills Erdel. 
[People parallel universe hop all the time in the DCU.  This is a solution that uses the tools at hand.]



The Martian Manhunter lives in Apex City, a metropolitan area in the northern Atlantic coast of Florida.
[Been over this before.  Heroes need a homebase, ideally a fictionopolis that can be tailored around their storytelling needs.]


His real name is J’onn J’onzz
[This is very ingrained. He’s called J’onn J’onzz almost often as he is called The Martian Manhunter.]


He has some powers natural to his race, such as shapeshifting and some psi ability. Back home, the psi ability allows people to identify one another regardless of any temporary shape.
[J’onn’s powers should be Martian in origin, but the idea of an entire planet of ultra-powerful beings isn’t necessary or realistic.]


The experiment that brought him here altered and amplifies some of those natural abilities.  Specifically he can redirect his psi power to do things impossible on his own world and not all of which he intuitively realizes.  When he is in his ‘human form’ he is mostly human and his ability to use his other powers is more limited.
[J’onn should not be merely as powerful as any other Martian, he should be a plus-up.  Many of J’onn’s expected power set – intangibility, invisibility, low-grade telekinesis—were originally portrayed as requiring effort. J’onn should be able to do those things but only with focus and only one at a time, like a present-day Ultra Boy.  Also, J’onn has often displayed odd and inconsistent power use; instead of denying that, own it.  This limitations of his human form give him a reason to change in the Martian Manhunter.]


The experiment that brought him here gave him a ‘tap’ into the energy generated by the interdimensional tension between his universe of origin and the Earth-1 universe.  This is a sort of “Martian Speed Force” that makes him super-human rather than just Martian.   He can redirect this energy to temporarily become superstrong or superfast.  But his applications of those powers are limited by the fact that they are not inherent. For example, when superstrong he’s not as supersturdy as he needs to be to use it fully and safely.  When superfast, his reaction time doesn’t keep up, so he’s limit to short sprints and non-traveling uses of superspeed, like spinning or vibrating.
[A further extension of the “Ultra Boy” limitations that are required to keep the character from becoming over-powered.  Also, it helps justifies why he tends to use his powers in odd and indirect ways.]



Emitters of certain wavelengths of black body radiation, most especially fire, interrupt his connection to this force, rendering him vulnerable and cutting off the source of much of his power.
[Fire being J’onn’s kryptonite is, admittedly, stupid.  But that’s how it is.  Gotta find a simple way for that to work.  A simple pseudo-science hand-wave is a lot cleaner than an overly dramatic psychosomatic PTSD condition from some Martian tragedy.]


The experiment that brought him here changed his ‘polarity’; Jo'nn can’t return to his own universe (“Mars-55”).  If he does, he’ll die after a short time.  Other beings from his Mars can show up here, but they have a similar limitation and cannot stay.
[J’onn used to have his own story; his home existed but he couldn’t go back to it.  He deserves that, rather than just being a Superman-lite, just another ‘sole survivor’.  This set-up allows for him to visit Mars and receive visitors, good and bad. This keeps Mars in the storyline but prevents it from dominating the storyline.]


He has a brother named T’omm.
               [If you are going to own the stupid, might as well own it all.]


T’omm has a daughter named M’gann.
[Miss Martian is one of the most well liked and refreshing additions to the MM story ever and is worth keeping.]


In some attempt by his family to rescue J’onn so he can return home, M’gann is stranded on earth.  She is altered as he was, but she can spend up to half her time on Mars safely.  Her powers manifest slightly different than his and less strongly 
[This provides a reason for J’onn to be raising a teenage niece. She can be available or unavailable, whichever the story may require. Her story becomes a hopeful best-of-both bicultural story rather than his poignant immigrant making a new life for himself in a new world but still longing for home.]


He has a human secret identity as Hank Henshaw.
[If no one knew the name “J’onn J’onzz”, it would make sense to once again use ‘John Jones’ as the name of his secret identity. But LOTS (in the DCU) does use the name J’onn when they talk to him; a lot.  Even if you try to editorially declare that they shouldn’t do that … they will.  It’s a habit too ingrained. We LIKE calling him J’onn and hearing him called that.  He’s already going by another civilian ID in, the Supergirl tee vee show. Might as well use that, particularly since the ‘Hank Henshaw’ who used to exist in the comics doesn’t any longer and isn’t likely to.]


Hank Henshaw is a black American.
[MM has been consistently voiced by black Americans and portrayed by them on television. Go with it, particularly given the recurring theme of racial strife on Mars.  It’s also an interesting situation with his niece “Megan” being white.]


He has a job, though he is financially comfortable without one.
[The freedom to adventure that wealth permits was a key reason that many Golden Age characters were wealthy socialites.  MM doesn’t need to be RICH, but hey… if you can draw gold from seawater with your mind and can shape shift, there is no reason you WOULDN’T make yourself financially stable, first thing.]


He is a detective.  Ideally, he works for the local police department. Usually his job is routine and his array of powers make it easy, which leaves him time for other adventures.  He could also be merely a police consultant or a PI, but if so he still needs close ties to the local police, who will supply part of his supporting cast (friendly but indolent Captain Harding, sturdy but dim Officer Mike Hanson, perceptive and witty Detective Diane Meade).
[A core element, forgotten by too many subsequent iterations of the character.  MM is a noir-ish gumshoe/police procedural AND a sci-fi alien; that is the hook of the character. Lose either of those and you have lost the character. If he’s not a detective then he’s not a “Manhunter”.]


Apex City does have its share of crime, but it’s usually weird (giant bank-robbing robot bears, Mr. Moth, the Human Squirrel).  J’onn likes it there because (1) he’s less likely to seem out of place there and (2) it reminds him of his home planet.
[As Batman has taught us, heroes benefit from having their own fictionopolis with its own character, particularly if that character reflects the hero.  MM is weird; Apex is weird.]



J’onn has a pet dog, Jupiter, a dachshund, with special powers.  He used to have another ‘pet’, the other-dimensional being Zook.  Zook has already passed away (a result of being stuck in the wrong universe), but before doing so somehow passed along some of his powers to Jupiter as a memento.  As a result Jupiter has a share of Zook’s powers of limited speech, elasticity, can radiate heat/cold, and can identify anyone he has met before regardless of disguise.  These powers are used more for comic relief than as plot points, although Jupiter might, on occasion, save the day. 
[Having a pet humanizes J’onn and makes sense for a lonely alien. Perhaps Mars-55 has no dogs and he finds them novel.  Superman and Batman have dogs; why not J’onn?  Zook, however, was annoying naked monkey/toddler and off-kilter and simply wouldn’t cut it nowadays.  He basically functioned as a dog does anyway. This solution just combines the best of both Silver age pets. And gives J’onn a pet that reflects his character.]


J’onn is a auxiliary member of the Justice League, but seldom as a combatant.  J’onn is often asked to deal with the odd situations that don’t take place close enough to anyone else’s home, because he’s got the time. 
[J’onn’s association with the Justice League is pretty much the source sole of his fame among readers. The fans of JLU who think of J’onn as ‘the heart of the League’ (despite the reality of the character in comics) need something to hold on to.]


J’onn has an A.I., L-Ron, whose main function is digital valet and JL monitor duty.  The League relies on them to keep tabs on anything that might require group attention, and on J’onn to take care of anything that doesn’t.  They are assisted by Lucas ‘Snapper’ Carr, a graduate student in linguistics who specializes in slang.
[L-Ron and Snapper are, of course, previous JL ‘sidekicks’ whose interactions with J’onn can help capture some of the comedic tone of their eras without involving any of  the more ‘serious’ Leaguers.]


Roy Raymond, an actor who plays a detective on teevee but who also likes to play one in real life, is J’onn’s friend and frequent wing-man, and often winds up dragging J’onn into various non-super mysteries.  Roy isn’t aware that he’s not a very good detective and is always in over his head without J’onn.  Roy thinks J’onn is his Watson, but the situation is actually the opposite.  J’onn likes Roy because Roy tries to help people even beyond his reasonable capacity to do so.  Also, Roy enjoys the limelight and J’onn does not.  Besides, J'onn is a big fan of the show and patterned himself after Roy's character.
[Roy Raymond, TV Detective, was of course the OTHER back-up feature in Detective Comics at the same time the Martian Manhunter was.  A good excuse to drag J’onn into anything not easily fit into normal Apex PD/JL business.]


J’onn has a few other oddball friends, including his investor Larry Loder, wealthy amateur inventor Hiram Horner, newpaper editor Jim Wade.

[Because J’onn is an odd character, it’s helpful to surround him with characters even odder to help ‘normalize’ him.  It’s how he became the Straight Man in the Giffen League; it’s how producer managed to build a long-running TV series around a long-running tertiary character, Frasier Crane.]


If this conception of the Martian Manhunter seems unoriginal...good. That's what I'm going for.  Constant 'new and original' takes on classic characters who became classic for a reason are foolish and "Rebirth" is pretty much DC's admission of that fact.  

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Justice for Martian Manhunter

I demand justice for the Martian Manhunter.

Not attention, mind you; justice.  DC is all too willing to give attention to the Martian Manhunter. But usually it's to mangle the crap out of him or make him into a problem.  Why is J'onn upset / crazy / hiding in the Satellite / not in the League at all / disguised as a cat / vulnerable to fire / black / white / dead / alive / reanimated / split into four or more beings / completely deceived / completely deceptive / crippled / more power than Superman ?  Is he really from Mars?  How long has be been here? Is he an icon or actually a supporting character rather than even a main one?  Is Mars there? Is it gone?  Is he stranded? The last of his kind?

DC's trouble dealing will the Martian Manhunter makes me think of Anselm's riff on Augustine:

For I do not seek to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order to understand. For I believe this: unless I believe, I will not understand.

It sounds less stupid in Latin.  Still, Anselm and his 'motto' are often used as perfect examples of how dumb religious thinking can be.  It's the kind of thinking-- unthinking? -- that leads people to accept something wrong as fact and make everything else fit around it.  It's a bit like redecorating the house to make your fake plant happy.  There's quite a lot of it going around lately.

It can be quite destructive.


But it has its applications.  For example, in many approaches to self-transformation -- 12-step programs, for example -- belief that you can be different must come before understanding how you can be different.

And it's the key, I think, to doing justice to the Martian Manhunter.  You can't try to understand him first; you have to just believe in him and then go from there.

This, by the way, seems to be the crux of the magic that Geoff Johns works when he rejiggers messed up characters back from literary limbo and into a state of grace.  He returns to their roots, identifies their essential mythic elements, accepts them without judgment, and tries to arrange them in the most efficient way possible, using tools at hand in the DCU rather than inventing new ones.  This helps the character's new interpretation feel familiar, accurate, and organically developed.  He's done it countless times and yet no other writers seem willing or able to follow this path.

And it's the only way to deal with the Martian Manhunter, because, let's face it: he makes zero sense. No use rehashing that here, we all know that. But what happens if you just ... believe?

An overview of his original stories gives us a picture something like this.

An elderly earth scientist named Saul Erdel conducts an experiment with a device that accidentally brings a man named J'onn J'onzz to earth from his home planet of Mars.

Pictured: old guy takes too many party drugs at a disco.

Erdel dies in the process, and J'onnz, unable to return home, decides to make himself useful as a police detective while he waits for an opportunity to return home.  He uses his natural shapeshifting ability to pass as a human being and has no confidantes; he is not publicly known as 'the Martian Manhunter' but only as an 'earth self', Detective John Jones.  He uses his various powers secretly to aid in his detective work.

Batman fights villains.  Superman fights enemies.  Wonder Woman fights foes.
Flash fights rogues. Green Lantern fights head injury. Green Arrow fights ridicule.
Martian Manhunter fights ... crime-mongers.  Because everything he does it just a bit...off.

He has some physical powers, most of which involve body control (shapeshifting, phasing, invisibility).  He seems to be able to use superspeed, but it seems limited to very short distances or non-mobile applications (spinning, rubbing his hands together, snapping his figures, vibrating his hand).  He relies a lot on super powerful  lungs and that seems to be his main way of acting from a distance.  His vision can see things earthlings cannot but he doesn't quite have Superman's four vision powers (microscopic vision, telescopic vision, heat vision, X-ray vision).

Pictured: Martian gaydar.


He has mental powers that he can apply in a variety of ways (such as limited telekinesis), but not telepathy or psychic power, as we understand their use in comics.  He tends to use his powers one and a time rather than combining them. He cannot fly.  He is debilitated by the presence of fire and must avoid it.

He combats mostly regular criminals and rarely a costumed but not super villain.  He occasionally combats other extraterrestrials, sometimes ones from his home planet; they are always returned home but he is not.  Martian life continues in his absence; he has family there (parents, a brother, but neither mate nor offspring).

I'll bet you a thousand dollars her name is M'Art'a.


Martians seem to look and dress a lot alike, but they have variations in skin tones, at least.

Or B'rett just needs some time at the solar salon.

Eventually the existence of a Martian superhero is revealed and immediately accepted by the earthlings of his city (which, for almost all his run remains unnamed; the city is on the sea and doesn't experience winter).

"Do ya have Chocos on Mars, son?  I've got a ten-pound bag in my desk, if you'd care to give 'em a try."

He acquires a small supporting cast over time.  Including some one-shot friends (Larry Loder, Hiram Horner), continuing colleagues (Captain Harding, Diane Meade, Mike Hanson), and pets (one-shot Jupiter the dog and an extradimensional creature named Zook).

I have given a name to my pain, and call it 'Zook'.


He became a member of the Justice League, and was seen occasionally teaming up with other non-Trinity members (such as Green Arrow and the Flash).

Lots of shenanigans happened with him in subsequent eras and the transitions that preceded them.  But those are the basics.  What can we do with those?

I'll give you MY answer in my next entry.  But for right now feel free to give me yours.