Friday, April 2, 2010

A Guide For Writing the Rebooted Martian Manhunter Part 10

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

Looking back: Number 10, Number 9, Number 8, Number 7, Number 6, Number 5, Number 4, Number 3, Number 2.  Whew, that's a lot of numbers.

Now, considering that the last chapter to Blackest Night just arrived yesterday, I realize this is all pretty irrelevant now.  But, oh well.  Here's the last installment in my "countdown."

1.  Figure out who the Martian Manhunter is.

Now, I don't mean what his powers are.  I don't mean how powerful of a telepath his is.  Or what his costume is like.  Or any of that superficial stuff.  (Though that is important as well.)  I mean, deep down, who is this character and what does he stand for?

Superman and Batman have instantly-recognizeable character premises: the ideal superhero, the avenging of a past wrong, respectively, and this is why readers connect to them, not because of X-ray vision or batarangs.

Now, it's no secret the character of J'onn J'onzz has suffered from a lack of focus.  Go back twenty years and you'll see at least three different versions of his character (including the I-don't-care-about-humans-anymore coneheader.)  Was Batman really all that different twenty years ago?  Sure, there were some differences, but the character was fundamentally the same as he is today.  (Well, the Bruce Wayne version, that is.)  Someone at DC needs to take the initiative the define the Manhunter from Mars, otherwise he's going to be a B-lister all his life.

All of this begs the question: who is the Martian Detective, anyway?  Well, I don't really know.  Sometimes I think I know, and then a few months (or even days) goes by, or someone offers a different viewpoint, and then I really don't know.  I'm not sure anyone knows.  Which is kind of a bad thing.

So far, J'onn J'onzz seems to be the inkblot character of the DCU, with each fan seeming to have his or her own conception of who he is.  Just take a look at the comments over on I-HoD and you'll see what I mean.  I mean, we can't even agree on costume, let alone villains, supporting cast, and such.

Perhaps it's because J'onn's most defining characterist is that he is the "alien" and we all have different ideas of what "alien" means to us.  Well, DC, I challenge you to develop him to be more than just a variation of "The Outsider" archetype.

I'll now digress into my first awareness of the character to show you at least how I see J'onn.  (Not that it really matters what I think--it's up to DC to fix this, not me.  Oh, and feel free to offer your own opinions on who you think the Martian Manhunter is.)

All right.  I'll make a confession: I came to comics really, really recently.  I mean, really recently.  Honestly, I don't deserve to have a comics blog, and without Google I'd know next to nothing.  So, I have a really skewed outsider's perspective on everything comics-related because, well, it's all pretty much new to me.  I started out with Batman, because, well, he was always my favorite, then I started reading Darwyn Cooke's The Spirit (do check that out, by the way) becuase I saw it at Borders, and the guy on the cover was wearing a hat.  (Yes, I really am that superficial.)  Then I heard Mr. Cooke won an award for DC: The New Frontier, and I really liked his style, so I picked up that.  I pretty much knew who no one was in that book at the time except the Big Three and The Flash.  Yep, not even Hal Jordan.

Now, I I like sci-fi.  I like aliens.  I watch the cheesy UFO-sightings shows on The History Channel.  Space fascinates me.  As I was reading New Frontier, there was this little Martian guy running around who I found simultaneously fascinating and amusing.  And if something amuses me, well, I'll be hooked for life.  (Never mind the fact that I thought Darwyn Cooke made him up.  I didn't know he was an established superhero till later.)

Now, this Martian guy had kind of a sad story.  He got beamed to Earth against his will by some scientist in Gotham City.  (Which really ticked me off that there was an observatory in Gotham, because I'm sure the seeing is terrible there.  Worst place ever for astronomy.  Anywho.)  Then the scientist guy dies in his arms and our little Martian friend (who's kind of scary looking) is stranded on Earth.  In addition to being a fan of things which amuse me, I'm also a fan of tragedy.  So, score two points for this Martian guy.

Turns out this Martian guy can shapeshift, and while he's watching an old detective movie, he decides he's just going to be one.  How cool is that?  This guy is naive enough to believe that movie heroes actually exist in the real world, and he decides he's going to go out and be one.  There's such a sweet little wide-eyed innocence in that premise that it melted my cynical little heart.  This was a guy who wanted to be good for the sake of being good, despite being given a raw deal.  Not because his parents got murdered or some such.  That's the true essence of hero in my book: someone who puts his or her personal needs aside for the betterment of humanity.  Score three points for the Martian.

Oh, and he wears a Fedora.

Four points!

So the Martian decides to be a cop, and he acts and talks like a movie cop, which is simultaneously amusing and endearing, much to the chagrin of his hard-boiled partner.  Now, I failed to mention that I love buddy cop stories, so we're now up to five points:

John with his partner Slam Bradley, as portrayed by Robert Mitchum

Oh, and I like secret identities.  Six points.

He also has this strange hypnotic weakness to fire, which I found intriguing.  A superhero stricken to his knees by flame?  This guy can't get a break.  Again, kind of tragic.  I liked it.  Meanwhile, Detective Jones (oh, I like detectives, too: seven points) is investigating some weird goings on in the world, complete with a conspiracy board, and takes a lot of ribbing from his fellow cops because of it.  Two bonus points for the conspiracy board.

What are we up to, like a million points or something?

Anyway.  I became an instant fan of the innocent-outsider-Martian-as-human "John Jones."  Later in the book, he winds up getting the crap scared out of him by Batman (welcome to Gotham City!) and then is captured by a government agent, King Faraday.  They play chess.  (Board games: ten points.)  And when a threat arrives J'onn decides he'll be a hero and join the fight, despite it nearly costing his life.  Again, true hero.

After reading New Frontier I started looking for that Martian guy and found out he was a bona fide superhero.  News to me.  Fast forward a little bit to me watching the Justice League: Unlimited cartoon, which I enjoyed, and then Alex Ross's: Justice, and Gerard Jones's American Secrets, Justice League International, and I was hooked.

What conclusions had I come to about the character?  In my own opinion, I thought at heart J'onn J'onzz was the "incorruptible one."  Meaning no matter what he always does the right thing.  Because he's a tad naive, he still believes in heroics and saving lives and goodness all that "corny comic book stuff" like Slam Bradley said.  He's kind of innocent, but very principled: he knows where his morals are.  Later on I realized he's the most patient member of the Justice League: he always could see things from each opposing viewpoint, and despite being an alien, he seemed accessible to any Leaguer who had a concern.  (One reason why his ignoring of Blue Beetle in Infinite Crisis bugged me...)  He's wise and mature and the elegant simplicity of just wanting to do good things is what drives him.  He seemed to be more passive than Superman, and willing to stop and think before acting, and much more humble than other League members.  (*coughHalJordancough*)  He carried around a lot of tragedy but didn't go whining about it or engage in self-punishing survivor's guilt like Batman.  To me, he was completely unique.  Plus he just seemed like a really nice, decent guy, and it's nice to see pleasant heroes for a change.  Like many heroes he was selfless, even though there was more working against him than other heroes: Superman was lauded, he was not (well, in modern continuity anyway) and he still decided to help us out.  Yeah, if my planet got wiped out and people were scared of me, do you know where I'd be?  Hiding out behind a rock somewhere.

Now, a lot of people see J'onn as just the outsider.  That's okay.  But looking back now at New Frontier, it was very clever of Darwyn Cooke to make J'onn the outsider not because of custom or culture, but because of morals.  In other words, J'onn's otherworldliness didn't come from pained observations on "your strange human custom of (fill in the blank with some everyday task)," but from believing that one could easily choose to do good and then put that into action without a second thought. I don't think we, as humans, really engage in that.  I mean, how many people wake up and say, "I'll do so such-and-such with my life" and then actually live it?  Not me, anyway.  We're all works in progress, we're all imperfect, we all hang on to the past, we hold grudges, we second guess ourselves, we're cynical, we're petty, and the Manhunter from Mars transcends all that self-serving behavior that tends to pull us down.

That's why I think the Martian Manhunter is a hero.  Your view may differ.  Deep down, I think we all agree on something about the character, though I'm not sure what, and I really wish DC would articulate even half of what the fans believe about J'onn J'onzz.  I hope Brightest Day delivers.

This wound up being endlessly long.  I hope you enjoyed it, and the rest of the countdown.  Because it went on forever, here's a little silliness.  No lie, this was my original reaction when J'onn first changed into his superhero duds:

Oh my God, that's the WORST costume ever!  Ha ha!  What great comic relief!  Now change into your REAL costume, J'onn!

(Ten seconds later....)

Crap.  That IS his real costume.


mathematicscore said...

Of all of the entries in this series, I enjoyed this one the most.

In the JLI, JLA, JLU, but not JLTF, he always works best when he's being friendly. Dry wit and violence aside, he's a keeper of the peace, an ideal both in physicality and spirituality.

I think most heroes could stand to lose this "edge" I keep hearing about.

LissBirds said...

Thanks, m.c. I'm glad you liked this post. I really appreciate your commenting all the way through the countdown.

I like the "keeper of the peace" role. I think that's unique amongst superheroes, too.

Yeah, it's time to stop pushing the envelope. It's time to regroup.

will_in_chicago said...

I enjoyed this post as well.

At his heart, J'Onn is a person who has a deep moral center. Perhaps because of his telepathy and his experiences, he can put himself into the shoes of others fairly easily. Even Batman has said that J'Onn has the best understanding of group dynamics of anyone he has ever met.

So, I think that J'Onn with his optimism and unique way of seeing things encourages others to become their best selves. This explains why he is often shown as a mentor to heroes. I hope that J'Onn is handled well now that he is back. (I enjoyed the rest of the series.)

LissBirds said...

Optimism is a good word to use when describing J'onn, too, Will. I realllly hope he's handled well in Brightest Day as well. I'm trying not to keep my hopes too high, just in case I wind up being disappointed, though...

will_in_chicago said...

In the end, I think J'Onn believes in humanity's potential to achieve the sort of world that he knew on Mars. Many heroes today are portrayed as cynics, but J'Onn seems to see the light shining through the darkness of our era. (Perhaps because of J'Onn's life span, he may take a much longer term view than many heroes.)

I am fairly happy with the new look for J'Onn. The conehead did not work and it is nice to see him get pants finally.

LissBirds said...

"it is nice to see him get pants finally." King Faraday would approve, that's for sure. I'm not sure if I like the pants or not. I'm kinda feeling grumpy over the loss of the pie belt buckle. I shouldn't complain, though. Beggars can't be choosers.

will_in_chicago said...

Liss, I am overall happy with the costume,although I miss the classic belt buckle. I wonder if the gem on the chest band is symbolic of Mars, or perhaps has some functionality. (Fire resistance might be welcome -- something to help J'Onn fight through his weakness without eliminating it might help.)

Also, let me recommend a comic. JLA: Liberty and Justice was written by Paul Dini with Alex Ross as the artist. J'Onn narrates the story of the JLA facing a plague and the reaction of the world to it and the League's actions. I think that you would like the characterization of the Martian Manhunter.

Tom said...

I haven't read New Frontier, but after your post I guess I'll have to.

It would be nice if someone from DC stumbled across this blog. If there ever is another Martian Manhunter series, this one post should be the "bible" for that series (just like how TV shows have "bibles" which tell how freelancers how to write for the series).

Your being new to comics makes your opinions especially valuable. The comics business has to attract new readers if it is to survive. The current business model, pandering to a few aging nerds, is a dead end. In fact, maybe your blog should focus on your perspective as a someone new to comics, who has enjoyed the same kind of material in other media -- movies, TV, "real" books -- and so is someone who SHOULD be a comics fan, and WOULD have been a fan all her life if comics had been more accessible. You could show us what works for you as a newcomer and what doesn't. Keep writing about the stuff you like, but also write about the stuff you find dumb and confusing.

Your blog could be more than just another comics blog, which the world needs like it needs a bigger hole in its ozone layer. By giving your blog a focus, with an individual point of view -- in this case, a newcomer to comics -- you could have something unique and valuable to offer.

LissBirds said...

will, I miss the pie belt buckle, too. I hadn't thought about it, but maybe that red cabachon might have a purpose, though it really bugs me. (It's just too generic.)

I did actually read Liberty and Justice and really did like it. Not only did I like J'onn's characterization, but Hal and Barry's, too. Paul Dini, for the most part, just seems to "get it."

LissBirds said...

Tom, looking back, I'm really glad New Frontier was my first introduction to the JLA. Darwyn Cooke really loves these characters and I picked up on that, plus it subliminally planted a Silver Age bias in my brain.

"If there ever is another Martian Manhunter series, this one post should be the "bible" for that series" Thank you, Tom. Thank you. That just made my day.

"You could show us what works for you as a newcomer and what doesn't." I'm really liking this angle, and looking forward as I try to define this blog, I think that's the right direction to go in. Just like you said, I would've been a comics fan all my life if I had the opportunity. I grew up adoring movies like Dick Tracy and The Rocketeer, and vaguely understood they were based on comics. But I had no idea where you actually bought comics. They certainly weren't available at any grocery store or convenience store that I can think of, and trades didn't show up at bookstores until much, much later. The only comic I ever read as a kid was a free Spiderman comic they gave out at school to promote science and engineering careers. And, which I am proud to say, I still have in my possession. I really do think comics need to be more newbie-friendly, as it took a lot of reading scouring the internet for me to figure out what the heck was going on in some books, and I don't think it should be that much work.

Thanks again for your insights and advice. I've been fighting to hide my noobishness, but now I'm going to embrace it.

Oh, and take a look at New Frontier when you get the chance, if even for the art.

Tom said...

Did you ever have to do hours of online research to understand a movie or TV show you enjoyed? I'm guessing no. It's nice that you had enough time and enthusiasm to do the research. (Of course, you're a librarian.) Most people wouldn't bother. Not because they're stupid or lazy, but because life is too *@#%$ing short. One should not need a PhD in X-Menology to enjoy an X-Men comic. Most comics are not Art-with-a-capital-A and don't aspire to be; they are simply light entertainment (and often can't even succeed at that). If I want reading that requires time and effort, if I want to flex my mental muscles, I'll read James Joyce, not Green Lantern.

I'm lucky enough to have been a child when comics were still sold in every grocery store, drug store and convenience store. If I were a kid today, would I even know there were such things as comic books?

LissBirds said...

"One should not need a PhD in X-Menology to enjoy an X-Men comic." You should've seen me when I tried to read an X-Men comic. That I did give up on, because even a cursory peek at Marvel's database showed that the histories of all those characters is way too complex and convoluted for me to keep straight, and there wasn't any character that I cared enough about to go through all that research.

The beauty of liking a B-lister, I think, is that it seems much less daunting to get a handle on their history. It's a lot easier to read all of J'onn's appearances as opposed to, say, Superman's. In less than a year's time, I've read a pretty good chunk of J'onn's appearances read. Plus, to me, second string characters seem to change less. While I have no idea what is up the Red/Blue Superman, looking at an old Charlton appearance of the Blue Beetle presents me with pretty much the same guy as who was in JLI.

Comics shouldn't be that much work. They should be fun! Even Blackest Night was hard for me to keep straight at times, but it was a LOT better than the meta-textual behemoth that Final Crisis was.

"If I were a kid today, would I even know there were such things as comic books?" Have heart. My local Borders store just installed a comics rack a few months ago (unfortunately located in the "Twilight" section, so I can't browse comics without looking like a Twilight fan). The exact relationship between trades and actual comics might confuse some, took a little while before the lightbulb went on in my head that trades were originally published as single issues.

Diabolu Frank said...

1) They have comics at my local Kroger. It's a light selection (X-Books, Spider-Man, Archie) but its still there.

2) I was in Family Dollar this weekend, and they were selling polybagged three-packs of Marvel Comics for $2.50, like I used to buy as a kid (for $0.75-1.00.)

3) Notice the lack of DC? Nice, Didio.

4) Great article, which I agree with fully, and which explains my loathing of the unethical Ostrander series. I've been run ragged, so sorry for the lateness and brevity.

LissBirds said...

No, prob, Frank. Great to hear from you and I'm glad you liked this post. I'm hoping I can keep writing posts like this.

Nice to hear that some general stores do carry comics. We don't have Kroger's up here. And no dollar store that I've been in carries comics, but that would be a great place to sell comics--maybe even some older ones.

No DC? Maybe that's why Marvel is so popular with the kids. Plus you can't walk into Target without seeing Spiderman/X-Men/Iron Man coloring books and activity books for like a nephews love them. No DC characters to be found, even though I always look. (I must brainwash the children while they are young...)