Search This Blog

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Panel Vision - History of Martian Manhunter

Edited by Robert Beach

I am a huge Martian Manhunter fan. I’ve liked the character since before I could remember, though I’m fairly certain my love for the Manhunter came from owning his action figure as a kid. I kid, but a big part of my love for this character does come from nostalgia. Specifically, it’s nostalgia for the 4-issue Martian Manhunter mini-series from 1988 written by J.M. DeMatteis and Mark Badger. This was basically the first “adult” comic I ever read when I was younger. Previously my experience with superheroes was relegated either to animated shows or re-printings of classic silver age stories.

Martian Manhunter was how I was introduced to the broader DC universe and discovered my favorite incarnation of the Justice League, the Justice League International. Coming back to it now, I concede that the comic doesn’t quite hold up, but it’s still enjoyable and allows me the chance to talk about the history of the Martian Manhunter: a subject I’ve been meaning to tackle for a while now.  

DC Comics' Origins and the Shifting Ages of Comic Readership

Martian Manhunter is probably the strangest and most vexing “major” hero in DC’s stable. A lot of what’s so strange about him gets into the origins of superhero comics, another subject I’ve wanted to do a post on. See, DC Comics first started back in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. They broke onto the comic book scene initially with a blend of science fantasy adventure like Superman and pulp crime buster like Batman. 

As the ‘30s waned and war broke out, the audience for comics shifted.  Most of the previous readership was sent overseas and so the central readership became more kid oriented, hence the boom of superheroes. This period in comics is called the Golden Age, and it’s where, conceptually, most DC heroes got their start. This is when DC introduced Robin along with Hawkman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, and Aquaman. Additionally, it’s where the first versions of heroes like The Flash, Green Lantern, and the Atom showed up. The character identities may have been different but a lot of the base line ideas started here. 

When the war ended, the market shifted away from superheroes. Part of this was that readership was simply growing up, so the emphasis on stories went to stuff like horror, romance, and weird sci-fi.  While Batman and Superman remained a publishing constant, most of DC’s other heroes simply faded off as the new status quo took hold. This is how things went till about the mid-to-late ‘50s when superheroes experienced an unexpected new boom. This was because the children born in the post-war boom were finally reaching a solid reading age for comics and ended up drawn to superhero stories. Suddenly, the race was on to start cranking out heroes to feed this starved market. 

DC’s main tactic was to simply revive old Golden Age heroes with new outfits and new back-stories; this is where we get the Barry Allen and Hal Jordan versions of The Flash and Green Lantern; however, another tactic DC used was to take some of their weird Sci-Fi tales characters and retrofit them into superheroes.  This is where space adventurers like Captain Comet or Adam Strange come from and it’s also where Martian Manhunter came from. 

Martin Manhunter's Firsts 

He first appeared in 1955 as a back-up feature in Detective Comics #225. This premiere date has always left Martian Manhunter in something of an in-between state. His origin point was early enough that the realm of superheroes was still less than fully formed, so his position as a bizarre back-up feature became the writer’s central source of story information. This meant he spent most of his early stories fighting an evil, sentient Tikki Head and its army of killer caveman and living instruments. 

Manhunter’s back-ups never really took off, and he might’ve been confined to the dustbin of history if not for a very weird mandate from the higher ups at DC. In 1960, DC had decided to publish a new flagship title that would feature a ton of their major new comics; a team book entitled The Justice League of America. The project hit a snag when DC editorial decided Batman and Superman, the company’s most successful characters, couldn't be on the team. To get around this problem, writer and God of sci-fi, Gardner Fox, resurrected the Martian Manhunter to be the team’s Superman stand-in. 

Martin (Super) Manhunter

This particular usage as a Superman clone is really what doomed Martian Manhunter to never have a sense of individual definition. It pretty much relegated his character to the role of “Green Superman” forever going forward and crippled future stories. There’s really not much point to having an additional Superman comic only without the name value or super villain roster. None of that is to say Martian Manhunter hasn’t been done well since sliding into this role, quite the opposite, simply that it’s why he’s never enjoyed solo success.

Another effect of Manhunter’s Superman stand-in status was that he never really went away in the comics. He ended up sticking around mainly through his role on the Justice League. The character has been featured as a prominent member of nearly every iteration of DC’s premiere Super team. Eventually, DC lifted the ban on Superman and Batman joining the JLA, which led to Martian Manhunter getting fazed out of the team’s membership. What happened was Manhunter left the league to lead the Martian populous in their colonization of New Mars. 

That may come as a surprise to modern fans, or people who only know Martian Manhunter through the animated Justice League show. From 1988 and on, Martian Manhunter has been the last of his race. However, originally the idea was that Manhunter was just here on Earth because he got transported here, liked it, and decided to stay. Originally, he had a wife, family, and entire civilization waiting for him back on Mars, and it was assumed that’s where he was if he ever didn’t appear in a Justice League story.

New Origins 

As any modern fan can tell you, this idea was eventually retconned in the aftermath of DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earth’s event. That retcon happened in the ’88 J.M. DeMatteis mini-series. In the comic, it was revealed Manhunter’s family and entire civilization were dead, and his Martian name was J’onn J’onzz. What happened was his people had fallen to a deadly plague, and the only reason he was saved was that he was pulled through time and space to Earth. It also set a stricter limit on Manhunter’s powers as the pre-Crisis era abilities were as limitless as Superman’s. 

Even with the new limitation, Martian Manhunter is still the Swiss Army knife of superheroes with super strength, speed, flight, telepathy, shapeshifting, intangibility, invisibility, and heat vision. It was also explained, in the first of many attempts to retcon this idea that the character’s classic weakness to fire was due to his psychological trauma over the burning of the Martian plague victims. 

The stuff established in this mini-series basically defined Martian Manhunter for upwards of 2 decades; it really only defined his history and character details, and his personality was cemented in Justice League International. Justice League International was very much a comedy superhero book that blended quirky antics with superhero action. In that setting, Manhunter’s job was to be the straight man. He normally would act alongside Batman as the only rational adults on the team as well as the heroes who could bail everyone else out if things got really dangerous.  

It was a good characterization playing J’onn as a lovable dad more than anything else. He never got angry over his team’s antics, just a little exasperated, but he was always willing to engage with them on equal footing. The whole comic went a long way to humanizing the character and defining him as more than just a Superman clone; although, it also ended up tying him to the Justice League more than ever. More and more Martian Manhunter was becoming the Justice League’s constant, moral center of the team and its spiritual compass, a role he’d take on even more about 10 years later.

New Team, New Status Quo

By the late ‘90s, DC had pretty much burned out the Keith Giffen/J.M. DeMatteis JLA work. The first ½ of the ‘90s was dominated by weird Justice League continuations and spin-offs like Justice League Quarterly and the abominable Justice League Task Force. So in 1997, DC relaunched the Justice League with an all-new creative team, all-new roster, and single title. The new comic was run by modern legend Grant Morrison and served to revitalize the team with classic members like Superman and Wonder Woman while also bringing in more underused heroes at the time like Huntress, Steel, and Plastic Man. At the center of this was Martian Manhunter, now re-imagined into a  zen alien warrior. Morrison’s JLA saw J’onn at his most powerful since the classic JLA run, but they also portrayed him as a subdued and contemplative hero.  While Batman was the voice of reason and Superman the voice of morality, Martian Manhunter was the voice of empathy and philosophy.  This is where the character became the most humanized and is actually pretty similar to how the Vision was portrayed in Avengers: Age of Ultron. This version of the character proved highly popular, as did the new Justice League book overall, leading to Manhunter’s first ongoing comic in 1998 by John Ostrander. Ostrander’s book is an excellent addition to the character’s history, emphasizing J’onn’s psyche as uniquely human and expanded beyond the emotional and physical scope of our world.  

JLA was also the comic that reintroduced the idea of additional Martians. The new Justice League under Morrison’s stewardship was formed in order to defeat an invasion by a race called the white Martians. They have all of J’onn’s powers only none of his humanity or conscience and are colored white instead of green. The white Martians ended up as a bit of accidental foreshadowing for a 3rd group of Martians: the Burning Martians. The Burning Martians were introduced as part of another attempt to retcon J’onn’s weakness to fire. 

It was explained the fire weakness was a genetic lock placed on the Martian race by the Guardians of the Universe, Green Lantern’s bosses. The reason for the block was initially the Martians had been a violent, savage, psychotic people, but the block would keep them from reverting to their fiery and destructive natural state. So when J’onn tried to overcome his fire weakness, he accidentally undid the block and reverted to his violent, burning Martian state.  It’s a very well-told story that highly emphasizes the violent, deadly nature of Martian Manhunter’s power set when his central weakness was removed.

Unfortunately, the Burning Martian storyline was essentially the last hurrah for the character.  J’onn left the Justice League as a result of the story and prompting DC editorial to try and revamp the character in numerous unsuccessful ways. In the mid-2000s, he got a new mini-series complete with a visual redesign sporting a more alien physique and an all-black costume. This version of the character never really took off, for the character languished on the fringes of DC for most of the ‘00s, getting killed off for a few years during the events of Final Crisis. Even when DC brought him back for the bi-weekly Brightest Day comic, reverting the character to a more classic look and characterization, the Manhunter from Mars just couldn’t regain the following he once held. 
Which brings us up to the New 52 and the modern era.  This latest iteration of Martian Manhunter is most reminiscent of the characters depiction in the video game Injustice: Gods Among Us. He’s got a new costume that tries to balance his contemporary design with a nod to the classic iteration. Character wise, he’s reverted to a borderline-psychotic alien badass. This version didn’t find much readership either with his tenure on the Justice League of America being short lived.  

DC is taking steps to revitalize the character with an all-new ongoing as part of their "DC You" branding initiative. This latest comic confronts the issues of Martian Manhunter’s ongoing quest for definition head on with the central question of the comic basically being “Who is Martian Manhunter?” It’s too early to tell if Martian Manhunter ’15 will be the knock-out success the character’s long deserved or even the cult hit he was in the ‘90s, but time will tell.  

No comments:

Post a Comment