Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Guide For Writing the Modern Martian Manhunter, Part 3

Top Ten Things Writers Need to Remember When Writing the Martian Manhunter

We've already covered Number 10 and Number 9.  Onward with the Top Ten:

8.  Give him back his secret identity.

Why?  Well, I'm glad you asked, and if you didn't, I'll tell you anyway.

Giving J'onn J'onzz his secret identity of human John Jones accomplishes several things.  First of all, it's the easiest way for him to observe humanity directly, and by assuming the guise of a human, it's the best way to show the differences between humans and a lone Martian.  Whenever I hear J'onn waxing tragic about feeling alienated from humanity when he's in fact sitting far above Earth on the Watchtower, I feel the need to roll my eyes.  How can you feel alienated from something if you never spend any time with it?  It just rings hollow.  To feel truly alone, you need to be around lots of people different than you.

Second, having J'onn assume a secret identity of a human opens the door to all sorts of juicy story conflict. Now, besides having to save the day, he's also got to keep a lid on his secret--that's more to juggle, and therefore, more interesting.  The constant threat of having his identity exposed is a wellspring of conflict and keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense.  There might be people threatening to give away that secret:
Detective Comics #243

Or J'onn might be tempted to give away that secret himself:

Detective Comics #246

It's a very classic conflict, and there's a reason it's stuck around for so long: from a storytelling standpoint, it just plain works, and it never gets old.  That's why Clark Kent is still around.  It also works wonders for effectively showing his alienation.  It's so efficient that it only takes two panels for us to understand his dilemma.  (You learn efficiency pretty quickly when you only have six pages to work with, I suppose.)

Third, having J'onn live amongst humans will deepen the character by allowing (or not allowing, depending on who it is) him to connect personally and professionally with humans.  Letting him have some acquaintances and deal with the quirks of daily life on Earth will only help readers identify with him.  Plus, it's another source of conflict: how close will he allow himself to get to his human friends?  What will happen if he loses one?  Also, seeing the people he cares about threatened by a villain is a classic weakness to be exploited, and J'onn J'onzz is the type of character who is defined by his weaknesses, not his strengths.  Just don't have him do anything stupid and pointless while he's down on Earth, like, you know, live as a cat or something.  (Wait, what?  That actually happened?)

Finally, having J'onn live among humans will show how much he cares about us Earthlings.  I mean, he's always going on about how he loves his adopted world, and he genuinely does.  Well, let's see him put those words in action and get down in the thick of it, rather than stand off in the corner and watch everything from afar.  Watching things from afar gets kinda dull after a while, both for you, and the reader.

In short, let's see John Jones come back.  After all, in his early appearances, that's how he was billed: John Jones, Manhunter from Mars.


mathematicscore said...

I liked the cat, especially from the idea that J'onn is a wholy different species than us, so why would he only take on human form? I even liked the multiple identities. I just hated how ostrander immediately got rid of all of them, developing none of them. I can see him influencing the world economy for the better through his Japanese company, fighting for human rights as the activist from the Fire issue, and working global politics in the UN. He's a super hero, so why not live super lives? I'm always pissed when writers gloss over the good characters can do that doesn't involve punching a badguy.

I will say there is more than enough room for sweet detective stories there too. I think it's a way of showing J'onn having fun, living out fantasies that most people would have after reading a good detective novel. After all, being a highly evolved superpowered being with a centuries spanning life span, why wouldn't you try on different lives?

LissBirds said...

You like the cat? :) Oy. I couldn't stand the cat. It kinda served no purpose other than the writers thinking "Hey! He's a shapeshifter. Wouldn't it be cool if he was a cat?" I guess it was kind of cool in a way, considering that he kept that old lady company.

I could see J'onn assuming different personalities and doing good in different ways with them like you suggested. It might have the effect of diffusing his character a bit, though, which could be risky: we always should know who J'onn is deep down and what he stands for. I like the simplicity of just having one secret identity, or a main identity and a few other ones that he uses on special occasions. Having to solve mysteries in other countries would be pretty cool, though--I know he was in Japan as a woman at one point. Seeing him immersed in Asian culture would've been really interesting in my opinion.

In any case, he needs to have a human identity of some sort.

mathematicscore said...

Agreed, the alien integrating into society is a big part of what makes the character cool. Also, let's not forget Marco Xavier. Dude was bad ass!

Diabolu Frank said...

Dispute rears its head here:

I can forgive J'Onn's modern distance from humanity, given all the years he spent amongst us as John Jones and Marco Xavier. If he can't fit in, and I believe that's intrinsic to the character, why subject himself to our company after decades of failed integration?

Along the same lines, decades of "secret identity" juggling in comic stories have left me rather cold on the premise. It's one thing when you only have the one alter ego, but as was shown in the Ostrander series, J'Onn can pack up and leave an identity behind for new turf as it suits him. Shapeshifting and inherent alienation negate this angle as one I'd choose to pursue. It's worn out.

Also played out considerably is the John Jones identity. Of all the faces to wear, our alien hero still chooses a Caucasian male with records dating back decades. If you're a vampire, or a Highlander, you're stuck like that. There's no good reason to apply that anchor to J'Onn. It opens up the stupidity of John Jones/J'Onn J'Onzz, and if the identity were so valuable, why did the creators kill it off from the early 60s until the mid-80s? My one ax to grind with Gerry Conway over Martian Manhunter is that he resurrected the John Jones persona-- and it caused problems even in 1986! Let Jones die!

Also, I like the bestial identities to a point, especially higher forms like the gorilla that got tied up in Grodd's town. Not so much the domesticated cat, though.

Ideally, I'd like to see John as one Earthling in a new series, preferably a black male, since that's who usually plays J'Onn in movies/television. That way you have a stronger audience identification angle, and can invest in a role for J'Onn besides full-time super-hero. I don't feel he needs to be a detective again, as that was played out decades ago. Maybe a therapist of some kind, or he could go back to science? Manhunter is unique in that he could be anyone on the outside and by profession. Only his interiors need to remain constant.

LissBirds said...

All valid points, Frank. I think the problem with J'onn--the REAL problem--is that his character has never really been defined. It seems to have plagued him since the early days. Deep down, who IS he, really? I think if we could all figure that out, all these other questions would fall neatly into place.

Part of where I'm coming from with this is to make comics accessible again to the newer readers, while at the same time getting back to the "glory" days of the Silver Age. You've been reading comics a lot longer than me (really, I'm quite new to comics), so we're just coming at it from different angles. Hence, the secret identity doesn't get old for me. I know it's probably been done to death but I just see it as a classic part of superhero comics. Plus, from a storytelling standpoint, it's such a wellspring of conflict and plots.

Also, someone needs to straighten out the philosophical questions of identity that shapeshifting brings up. Both of you don't mind the animal personas but they really bug me. Does being a shapeshifter mean you don't have an identity? Does it necessarily mean you enjoy taking any form you want? Or would being a shapeshifter mean you yearn for a primary form to give a sense of stability to your existence? I don't know the answer to that question. I don't think the Ostrander series answered it, either.

"Let Jones die!" Eh. I can see why that can be a problem. But I still remain so hung up on American Secrets that I really think someone ought to tap the potential that was in that series.

"Maybe a therapist of some kind, or he could go back to science?" Again, I wouldn't mind that, though if he took the science route I wouldn't want him to steal the thunder of characters like the Atom. And I like his portrayal on Smallville, even though I don't really like the show that much. But, again, who IS J'onn J'onzz? Crime fighter? Healer? Scientist? Do we even know? Does he even know? I certainly don't, though I try.

Someone at DC needs to start answering those questions for us.

LissBirds said...

Oh, and the "J'onn J'onzz sounds like John Jones!" bit...that is one of those Silver Age-isms that does make me cringe. I think somewhere J'onn said his Martian name was unpronounceable by humans so he went with that. Maybe all that goofiness could be fixed by giving J'onn a Martian name closer to his true name? Eh. I don't know.

Diabolu Frank said...

I think somewhere J'onn said his Martian name was unpronounceable by humans so he went with that.

The 1988 mini-series started that. I think the name "John Jones" came from Saul Erdel in that revision. Ostrander dropped it, though.

Deep down, who IS he, really?

That was the Ostrander series' tagline upon its launch: "Who is the Martian Manhunter?" I think Ostrander himself was the one asking, because his writing offered only contradictions and vague new attributes. I knew who J.M. DeMatteis' J'Onn J'Onzz was, but successive writers had other ideas, and I myself have trouble sorting it all out.

Part of where I'm coming from with this is to make comics accessible again to the newer readers, while at the same time getting back to the "glory" days of the Silver Age.

I used to be a hardcore Post-Crisis revisionist continuity defender, but with age and thought I ended up with The Delano Theory of Seminal Integrity in Super-Heroic Fiction. I now believe that everything that takes place in the "shared universe" must count, even the parts I hate or don't make sense. Even embarrassing, damaging stories. I've had plenty of those in my own life, and I have to acknowledge that was the course that made me who I am today. I feel the same holds true for fictional characters.

Where it's difficult to apply this to the Manhunter is that he never had "glory days." The premise established in Detective Comics #225 wasn't really adhered to, the formula/genre of Manhunter stories was fluid, and he never sold all that great nor embedded himself in the general consciousness. J'Onn as we know him is an 80s/90s construct. The Silver Age incarnation(s) might as well be a different character entirely.

The other thing about the secret identity "conflict" is how rarely it came into play for John Jones. The fear of discovery was more about the fire weakness than preserving the Jones identity. It was never this torturous burden, but merely an ongoing precaution. It suits other characters far better, and hanging it on J'Onn where it never set well just makes it seem derivative to me.

I think DeMatteis and Peter David expressed well that J'Onn needs to be J'Onn, and is uncomfortable in certain forms. Even Jack Miller tended to keep J'onn a Caucasian male (counting Arabs.) Morrison and Millar blurred that line, and Ostrander just followed their lead into formlessness.