Okay. What's noir? Often it's just used (both in comics and film) to describe a medium which is in black-and-white panels instead of color, and/or uses dark tones or, in the case of film, "low key" lighting. However, noir is much more than a visual style. It's debatable whether it's an actual genre or not, but most film buffs can agree on certain aspects of what makes a film a film noir. Film noir usually conjures up images of a private eye played by Humphrey Bogart. But a detective isn't necessary for film noir. Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, and Memento all are without detectives, and the last one is in color.
Yes, style is a big part of film noir. But so are certain themes that many films noir hold in common: disorientation being one of the main noir storytelling devices. Some film scholars assert that the changing atmosphere of Post-War America gave birth to film noir: soldiers came back home to find the world a very different place than when they had left it, including but not limited to a more powerful role for women in society. (I can only partially agree with that, because many of the seminal crime novels which important films were based on were written in the 1930's.)
The plot and atmosphere of any film noir must be convoluted: often the hero is a victim of circumstances, he's not sure whom he can trust, morality is often realative, and the "hero" often feels like an outcast struggling against a cold, cynical world out to destroy him. He's often alone and trapped in circumstances beyond his control which he struggles to be free of. Conspiracies abound. Not only is the hero chasing a bad guy, but the good guys are chasing the hero, too. Morality is a fuzzy shade of grey and the hero often has his own moral struggles. Corruption is rampant, the world feels like an oppressive urban jungle, and the women the hero encounters--who archetypally fall into the role of caretaker and fairer sex--prey upon men's weakness and ensnare him further into danger. Amidst all this paranoia and hopelessness, our hero is usually doomed to fail despite all his best efforts, and even if he does gain some sort of insight or find some sort of truth, there's always some loss the darken his (small) success. Often, the plot centers on a mystery of some sort where the hero seeks to find the truth in a dangerous world, but that is certainly not the only plot. In a nutshell: the world kinda sucks, you don't know where you stand with others, you do the best you can, and usually that's not enough to save the day.
So who's a good candidate for a superhero cast in a noirish setting? Batman, right? I mean, we've got all those crooked cops in Gotham City, Gotham's a rotten, hopeless place, Bruce is a master detective. Perfect noir character, right?
All right, what about one of the primary themes of noir: disorientation? Batman is so sure of himself and his mission: he knows his place in the world world, he knows who he can trust and who he can't. And as for his morality? I think it's pretty well-defined. Batman is way too clear-cut to be a noir hero. A great crime hero, yes, but noir? No.
Okay. Paranoia. Outsider. World suspicious of him. Ringing any bells?
Yep. J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter. Think about it for a second. He starts out with tragedy: he loses his family and his entire planet. He's brought to Earth against his will. On his first encounter with a human, he winds up scaring the guy to death. Though he's convinced he'll use his power for good, he's still not sure how he fits into the world: it takes him a while to even "go public" as a superhero. (In his early days, many of his superfeats were hidden from human eyes.) His weakness (fire) is so easy to exploit and take him down. Later on, in the 90's JLA run, he had to deal with evil shadows of himself: the White Martians which spawned paranoia among the JLA and the world. And, to top it all off, he's a detective. In two different future incarnations, he's portrayed as weak and broken (Kingdom Come and The Dark Knight Strikes Again), so despite all his power, it seems as though he's destined for tragedy.
The only thing that doesn't work is the whole not knowing whether others are true allies or just playing the part. Having telepathy kind of kills area of suspense. Though even with telepathy he's been fooled by the intentions of humans. (I'm not quite sure exactly how that's possible--most likely it's because J'onn doesn't like to "pry" into others' minds, which I always thought was a plot device to de-power him and get around any potential telepathy-induced plot holes. More on that later.)
Anyway, there's been a few stories that have shown some promise on the Jone Jones: Noir Superhero front. One is a story in the JLA (1997) Annual #1 and the other is a three-volume series in prestige format, Martian Manhunter: American Secrets (1992). The former has shades of the femme fatale motif, and the latter is all Cold War paranoia and conspiracies. Both are great reads and you should definitely read them. Twice.
And hopefully, J'onn's days as DC's star noir hero will come.
One film noir cliche that J'onn J'onzz can't fit: chain smoker