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.
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.