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

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.


Anonymous said...

Those are the essentials from the Martian Manhunter's beginnings, I can't deny you any of that. But J'onn was also a dud back then -- he got a spot in the Justice League only because Cyborg hadn't been invented yet. (OH SNAP)

The J'onn I like is the kind, melancholy, philosophical avuncular presence -- the last survivor of Mars, who will never quite fit in on earth but loves the place anyway. Unless I miss my guess, those are the character traits that give J'onn any fans at all.

In terms of his power set, I'm all for keeping the powers that Superman DOESN'T have. Invisibility, intangibility, shape-changing, telepathy -- that's a good power set for sneakitude but not unbeatability. I'd also keep limited strength and invulnerability, like around original Superman levels or lower. I'd give him limited flight but only because a J'onn who CAN'T fly seems like too much of a step back -- and I'd be okay with explaining the flight as some sort of localized atmospheric control (read: his lungs).

I still like the idea of the Martian Manhunter being the hero in parts of the world that have a shortage of heroes of their own, but I think that might have to go. It's just too much, especially if we're clipping his power levels. (Though if he wandered the world for a while and spent some time in Japan as Bio-Armor Jade Warrior, I'd be okay with that.)

Anonymous said...

I'm now picturing two Martian Manhunter series:

1) J'Onn J'Onzz: Manhunter From Mars-J'Onn as Detective John Jones, who deals with Weird Crime in Apex City. He doesn't (or can't) use his full powers due to [the Earth's atmospheric composition or radiation or some other pseudoscientific nonsense]. He's worried about how humans would react to his pressence, so he has to both solve crimes involving magic and aliens and cover them up. It either takes place Pre-League or in the early days of the current main Earth. J'Onn is able to learn Earth customs but only in the technical sense. He has trouble dealing with non-telepathic emotion and communication. His co-worker, Diane Meade, tries to understand him with limited success. The Idol Head of Diabolu & it's cult are the main troublemakers, especially when they become mixed up w/ organized crime. Art by Franco Francavilla.

2) J'Onzz has the power to do practically anything. His powers are sorely needed in the galaxy, in other dimensions, in realms of impossibility... J'Onn faces threats on both physical and metaphysical levels, working to save everybody from ordinary people (no matter what planet they hail from) to abstract concepts. In the tradition of the great pre-Vertigo super-hero comics of the '80s & '90s, pulp sci-fi, and acid philosophy comes Martian Manhunter: Guardian of Reality. Art by rotating teams of artists: J.H. Williams III, James Stokoe, Cameron Stewart, Frazer Irving, Christian Ward, Mike Allred, etc.

He can be in the Justice League between the two series. Guardian of Reality could take place in the future. Neither series will last past issue 12 or sell more than 2,000 copies per issue.

- Mike Loughlin

Imitorar said...

I feel like the solution to the Martian Manhunter is to watch Justice League: The Animated Series (not actually its name, I know, but a good way to mark that I mean the cartoon) and make him like that. I say this as someone who learnt who the Martian Manhunter was from that show, so I may have some bias, but I think it solved the issues of his powers and his personality nicely. Add a bit of "Detective John Jones" stuff behind the scenes (the bits of history from the comics that seemed to fit the show's interpretation of J'onn J'onzz best were that he'd been on Earth for decades hiding in the background and subtly using his Martian abilities to solve mysteries and fight crime, and that he had multiple identities), and I think that's a pretty good basis for a character, if not a series. I also don't think there's anything wrong with being a character who functions best as part of a team, even if that team is the Justice League, which may also be a result of JL:TAS' influence.

Unknown said...

Maybe J'onzz is supposed to be shrouded in mystery, with stories driven less by his actions and more by his interactions with other characters. And since he's so weird, maybe his presence turned the city's criminal element kind of weird, to the point where they barely understand what they're doing or why. It could be further implied that his secret identity is a ploy to gain allies, information, and other resources. He would be essentially The Shadow as interpreted by Silver Age DC writers.

Unknown said...

Another way to revive a solo series is to invent a mysterious new character with spooky powers, whom readers never suspect is actually J'onn the entire time. That was the story of Bloodwynd. Look carefully at the DCU, could they be pulling it again right now?!

Tim C. said...

There's a fairly simple fix to some of J'onn's most basic intrinsic problems: whether or not there are other Martians, why he doesn't just go back to Mars, what happened to his family, and the weakness to fire thing.

Dr. Erdel's machine moved J'onn in space and in time. Martians are a ridiculously old civilization that developed when Mars was a water covered planet (which I would happily believe was the state of ancient Mars in the DC Universe).

Being a water covered planet gives at least an explanation to the fire thing, and being a shape-shifting aquatic race makes him more alien and reinforces how different he is from his new surroundings. Water based life also elementally reflects the fluidity of shape-shifting and gives a hand-wavey sort of explanation for the super strong lungs and lack of flight.

Further it deals with the idea that J'onn is the last Martian. There was no great cataclysm or anything; the Martians just slowly died over centuries. If you wanted to keep White Martians around, the "exiled into some sort of Phantom Zone" deal still works fine.

I can't remember if I've ever seen anymore then hints that say Mars was covered in water, and from the past, but the idea seems, at least, comic-book logical.

The second fix that makes sense to me is making him sort of adjacent but not subsidary to Superman; make him both an "Elder Statesmen" to Superman, but also inspired by him. I sort of like the idea that J'onn, being just a regular guy on Mars, figured he'd get a somewhat regular person life on Earth, while he copes to live in this new world. He uses his Martian powers to be a better detective, which, but doesn't realize he could be a hero to Earth until he sees Superman flying around in his shiny costume. Superman helps him live up to his potential, the Manhunter helps Superman cope with the whole "lone survivor" and "alien amongst humans" problems. This would fit in with his published history : he started out dealing with "crooks" and now fights supervillians.

Power-wise, I've always liked the way animated series portaryed him: much stronger and faster than a person, but nowhere near on Superman or even Wonder Woman's level. Emphasize the abilities that make him different from Superman.

Steve Mitchell said...

Or, maybe we could just go back and get John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake to pick up the series again. Nobody handled the Martian Manhunter better, before or since.

Bryan L said...

My take would combine the Justice League Animated version (flight, density powers, shapeshifting -- sort of related to density, and telepathy) and a Dark Horse title called Resident Alien.

Resident Alien is a brilliant take on a stranded alien waiting for rescue, who's able to masquerade as human using a mental projection power. Based on his advanced scientific knowledge of humans (he's here to study us on the down-low), he takes the role of a small-town doctor. He gets involved in police work (autopsies and crime scenes) because he's the only doctor in this rural area, and of course, solves them. Interestingly, a small percentage of people can see through his mental projection. Some become friends, while others are a danger to him.

Really, it's almost J'onn's original premise, with much more limited powers. With a little Murder, She Wrote thrown in. Have J'onn investigate crimes, partner up with Diane Meade, etc. I wouldn't keep him a loner, though. I'd give him a confidante, maybe Diane.

And if it's not clear, I highly recommend Resident Alien.

SallyP said...

To make things very simple... and fabulous... just go with the Darwynn Cooke version.

Unknown said...

Brian L I like that, except you suggest J'onn's shapeshifting is actually an illusion of mental projection. I think it's the opposite I think J'onn's primary power is actual shapeshifting, including shapeshifting his brain to telepathic. "JLA:Rock of Ages" includes a confirmed example of shapeshifting his brain to think like Joker. Perfectly synced mind-body connection.

Unknown said...

It appears Hawkman, Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, Green Arrow and to a certain extent Wonder Woman, each have a similar problem. Consistency.

J'onn started the least consistent without even a name for is fictionopolis, during a time when Superman already had letters written as if Toyman, Mxyzptlk and Krypto were real!

Too much reinvention or prolonged "experimenting" with status quo, leads down a road where some people feel more familiar with reading Hawkeye than they do with Wonder Woman (reading that is, not the face on merchandise etc).

Bryan L said...

Sorry, Jacob, I wasn't clear. I prefer J'onn to be an actual shapeshifter. The character in Resident Alien uses mental projection. It's a fascinating idea, particularly the concept that it doesn't work on some people, but that's not what I'm recommending for J'onn. I also like the idea that J'onn has developed several personas in different locations.

I also didn't say this earlier, but I do like the idea that Erdel's machine moved J'onn in time and space. I think there's an interesting angle to be pursued on him trying to figure out exactly what happened to Mars' civilization.

I'm not entirely in favor of more Martians -- they should be very, very limited or nonexistent (though I do like the Miss Martian/White Martian angle). But only one or two. And yes, I feel the same way about Kryptonians. I'm good with Supergirl and maybe Zod, but it should stop right there.

Slaughter said...

I think J'onn should be quite powerful, but I agree in stripping most of his physical powers. Shapeshifting, Telekinesis, Telepathy, Invisibility and Intangibility are the powers to keep. That would make him a less physical and stealthy hero, not a brawner, through he should be able to go at it a bit if he has to - say, fight 1v1 with Aquaman, inferior to Diana, but not last long on pure might vs Superman or The Flash. That's what the mental powers are for.

I like the idea that J'onn is THE telepath and I think it should be kept.
To keep telepathy from cheesing the story, I would say that J'onn should be able to do surface scans but he (and other telepaths) need something more elaborate to deeply probe minds - concentration, focus, co-operation (its easier if the mind is opening itself), mantras, items, etc. A deep mind probe is more like a ritual.

Secret identity: John Jones. Its a classic, keep it. "Hank Henshaw" should be his "Matches Malone" - alien J'onn J'onns masquerades as "John Jones" who actually is masquerading as "Hank Henshaw". Hank Henshaw is a asset they activate to keep tabs on aliens in J'onn city and region. Sometimes they send "Hank" into missions and such. J'onn eventually infiltrates it and turns DEO into a decent organization, then uses it to "filter" the aliens - he shifts out the bad ones from Earth and keeps the good ones.

I think all martians should have super-powers. Their weakened powers combined with the fire weakness makes them still dangerous but not as dangerous as loose kryptonians - a single or a few bad martians around don't "thrown the balance off", so to say. Maybe some martians have different powers - some are better shape-shifters, some are better at invisibility, better telepaths, etc. Probably represented through appearance.

Slaughter said...

On Mars: I like the idea of a alternate universe Mars that is habitable. Idea: Mars-55 is sort of a Rocketpunk retro-fifties solar system. In the very distant eons, movements of the giant planets changed the orbits of Mars and Venus. Mars is more or less between Venus and Earth, where it absorbed some more mass and became a life-bearing planet that stays stable. Earth is either barren or a "eternal fifties" rocketpunk world - Think pre-war Fallout mixed with Buck Rogers. Venus is a greenhouse jungle world where Mars should be - with matriarchal natives, of course.

Its a weird part of the multiverse, so even the Multiversity crew can't stay there long, so no "why Adam Strange doesn't get someone to send him to Rann without Zeta Beam" problem. Maybe the only people from our dimension that can stay there for long are The Flash and Vibe, because of their superpowers.

On Martian bad guys: Martian society after J'onn was gone went through A LOT of law and order after J'onn disappeared, because the authorities went after all the Crime-Mongers - all they could discern was that somebody desintegrated or teleported J'onn's particles, and that means either a teleporter or desintegrator, the authorities gone none of either and suspect the Crime-Mongers and transgressors of their society had something akin to this, so they arrested almost everyone to those things and either take or destroy such tech. People got scared and afraid after a well-know Manhunter one day got "zapped out". How long until the authorities itself got all zapped and chaos reign?

So, when T'omm and J'onn family found him, news spread out, and the last remaining crime-mongers realized the transporter concept was viable. Oh, and to martian standards, Earth is a crime-ridden hellhole - a paradise to Crime-Mongers. So they eventually stole or made teleporters and went to this "Earth" to plunder, conquer, rape and burn, sometimes together.

These martian villains have three in-built reasons to hate J'onn:
1. He put a lot of them behind bars - or forcefields.
2. He's a Manhunter.
3. He's the reason the authorities came down on them.
4. He is the only one on Earth who has a clue on how to fight them (even Superman has problems fighting people who can change what his very senses perceive).

LissBirds said...

The one quality that always felt intrinsic to J'onn was his morality. He always seemed to be the one to do the "right" thing and weigh various options with an impartial eye to what was fair. But I may be influenced by the JLU animated series in that respect.

Other than that, I agree with Sally in that the Darwyn Cooke version had a good handle on him. Second to that is the American Secrets version, which, for me, is the best representation of J'onn's human secret identity. And JLI did the best job at showing how he interacts with other Leaguers.

I have no idea what it is happening to J'onn now in the comics and I'm kind of afraid to know...