I am a huge fan of Martian Manhunter. A lot of this has to do with how I first entered the world of advanced comic readership. When I was younger my first entry point to comics that wasn’t in the form of animated TV was the extensive work of Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis. These two guys basically invented the tropes and ideas of modern comics, from character identities to universal events 90% of the stuff we like in modern comics can be traced by to Giffen and DeMatteis. One of their first comics I ever read was a 1988 four-issue mini-series spotlighting the Martian Manhunter and his origins. This series alone stands as a testament to how influential their work was as it’s still the defining mythos by which Martian Manhunter is written today.
Since reading it I’ve always been keen to check out any appearances of the Manhunter from mars so when DC announced a new comic series I was intrigued. So far DC’s post-New 52 titles have been a mixed bag but both Batman and Action Comics turned out very well, so I was optimistic going into Martian Manhunter. The result doesn’t so much sore as it stumbles at the starting line but makes a decent effort in the process.
In case you haven’t been following Martian Manhunter’s New 52 origin and identity, don’t worry, I haven’t either and the comic remains completely understandable. That’s thanks mainly to an actually really superb opening sequence in which Manhunter rescues a crashing airplane. The entire sequence is downright inspired; a broad, sweeping act of incredible heroism that’s reminiscent of the likes of Superman or Iron Man but specific enough that it could only be accomplished with Martian Manhunter. We see J’onn utilize his telepathy, intangibility, and shape shifting to rescue the plan in a very imaginative visual sequence. During the whole period J’onn is narrating to himself and the audience, basically laying out the thesis of the comic. Martian Manhunter isn’t actually the last of his race or a superhero, he’s actually a sentient Martian sleeper weapon, designed to infiltrate Earth’s defenses as a prelude to a Martian invasion.
The idea of Manhunter not being the last of his race isn’t new territory, it first appeared in the later ‘90s when Grant Morrison helped revive the Justice League from the Justice League Task Force era (another book I’ll probably review down the line.) Martian Manhunter #1 has a lot in common with what’s come to be called Morrison’s White Martian story arc; the idea that a malevolent Martian invasion would come disguised in the trappings of new superheroes. At the same time the story draws from a later plot about White Martian sleeper agents living amongst humanity as that’s the other major concept of the book. This where things start to break down for the comic.
The idea of shape shifting aliens secretly invading is a good one, it’s a well tested idea that we know can work. Where Martian Manhunter falls down is in the same place most previous attempts at adapting the idea have fallen down; the invasion ends up too loud and in our face. Rather than emphasizing the deadly power of secrecy and influence, focusing on the Martians combining telepathy and shape shifting to alter the headings of our world through subtle manipulation everything is very out in the open and in our faces. The book actually opens with a wave of Martian attacks across the globe that makes the whole thing feel far too reminiscent of a stock, boom and bombast invasion story. It’s a real shame because keeping an emphasis on secrecy and manipulation without obvious action could’ve given the comic a focus on noir elements that have been missing from Martian Manhunter’s character for a long time. Everyone tends to forget that when he first came to Earth he first walked among the humans as a hardboiled detective so it’d be nice to see him in that capacity once more.
None of this ends up breaking Martian Manhunter, just wounding it. There’s a very interesting running theme about the Martians hiding in plain sight that has a lot of potential. The problem with the broader, more in-your-face invasion narrative is that it’s supremely overdone in comics and runs the risk of taking the focus off J’onn. As a result of the all the focus paid to the Martian infiltration Martian Manhunter himself only appears in 7 out of the 28 pages of the comic. It’s also not quite clear how much of J’onn’s powers his fellow Martians have, they display telepathy and shape shifting but beyond that it’s pretty opaque.
The other major misstep is that J’onn ends up a bit too depressed and mopey as a character. This is part of a misconception in recent years that Manhunter has to be a tragic loner hero to be interesting, something that came about in the wake of Identity Crisis and conforms somewhat to the depiction of J’onn in the Justice League animated series. While not an unfair portrayal of the Manhunter it’s certainly a tired one and one straining for new areas to explore.
At the same time, combining the tragic lone survivor angle with J’onn’s new “human weapon” back-story makes him a far less unique and interesting character, he’s basically treading the same ground as Wolverine or Diehard or lesser Captain America writing. J’onn has always been at his most interesting in the role of the cool parent, shifting between the role of a stern guiding compass that’s willing to engage with people on equal footing and the role of a guardian and commandingly powerful leader. That’s why he’s always played den father to the JLA and why that’s where he’s seen his greatest popularity.
As it stands Martian Manhunter is engaging and worth the price of admission more for the potential it represents than the content it actually delivers. There are flaws that need forgiving but for the most part this has a lot more potential for greatness than for failure, I recommend it especially for fans of the Martian Manhunter. Now all we need is a Jemm, Son of Saturn revival.