Ask Chris #233: Making Sense of The Martian Manhunter
Q: What are the qualities that allow a character to sustain a solo book, and why doesn't Martian Manhunter have any of them? -- @RichBurlew
A: I gotta tell you, Rich, this is a very interesting question, and I hope you'll forgive me if I completely ignore the first half so that I can talk about the second. I mean, let's be real with each other here, if I knew what qualities made for a successful solo character, I would probably be writing that comic instead of this column, and between the two of us, you're the one who's been doing a successful and beloved character-driven story for the past decade. If anything, I should probably be asking you.
The Martian Manhunter, however, has always been a really interesting character to me, if only because in terms of being a solo character, he's the definition of an also-ran. He's been around forever, but he's never quite clicked, and I think the simple reason for that is that there's nothing he does that isn't already done better by someone else.
Before I go any further, here's two standard caveats. First, as is usually the case in comics, just because the Martian Manhunter hasn't ever really worked as a solo character doesn't mean that he can't, it just means that it hasn't happened yet. If you'd asked me five years ago, I'd probably say the same stuff I'm about to say about Hawkeye, except for the part where I actually like the Martian Manhunter. All it really takes is the right team with the right take to come along and make it work, and the great thing about superhero comics and the sheer number of people who are working on creating these massive shared universes is that this happens pretty regularly.
Second, and the thing that makes things a little more complex, is that while I might not think he's ever really clicked as a solo character, I actually really like the Martian Manhunter. I like almost everything about him, he's a key part of some of my favorite stories, and there are even good, very good solo stories about him. There are takes on the character and ideas that I think are absolutely fantastic. The problem is that almost all of those ideas are on display in comics where he's part of a team, and they're not quite enough to make him work outside of that context, especially in a universe where the same teammates who work so well with him as a group are filling the roles he's built for way better than he ever could.
And that's really the problem with J'onn J'onzz in a nutshell.
On paper, the Martian Manhunter should be the best DC character ever, if only because he combines everything that we all like about DC's biggest hits. He's got all of Superman's powers, and he's a detective! A detective who can turn invisible, walk through walls and read minds, which ought to make him the single greatest crime-fighter in history, albeit at the expense of removing any of the actual drama and fun of, you know, actually putting clues together to solve a crime. We can go ahead and call that Problem #1.
But still, there's a whole lot there to work with. Combining a Superman-esque set of powers with a deductive mind (and a pretty convenient weakness that can be used to turn them off as needed) seems like it'd be a slam dunk in terms of crafting engaging superhero stories, and on top of that, everything that's different about him is compelling as all heck.
He and Superman might both be the last survivors of their home planets, but while Clark Kent grew up in Kansas with two loving parents and thinks of himself as a human, J'onn Jonzz came to Earth as an adult, pulled against his will through time and space after watching his entire race --- and his family --- die. It gives him a tragedy and a distance from humanity that, again, seem like a slam dunk when it comes to hooking the readers.
I mean, how many years have they spent trying to hammer Superman into being a lonely outsider who stands apart from humanity while still protecting it? J'onn Jonzz is already there, man! That's like his whole deal!
But that's Problem #2, which is the much trickier one to get around: That position has already been filled. If you want to read superheroic detective stories, well, there's one guy that they've spent 75 years telling you is the World's Greatest Detective, so why would you bother reading about this other guy? On that front, Martian Manhunter can't carry an ongoing series for the same reason that we're not celebrating a hundred issues of Jason Bard. And as we've all seen from Shazam, having the same powers as Superman --- and maybe even being a more inherently interesting character --- doesn't really do you a whole lot of favors when it comes to getting the spotlight, even when those early Justice League stories used him as a stand-in. And really, there's no reason that it should.
Like 'em or not, Superman and Batman are always going to be the characters that the DC Universe revolves around, and it's pretty difficult to argue that it shouldn't be that way. They're great characters, and while there are plenty of new twists and takes to be found in superhero comics, trying to compete with those two on their own terms is pretty difficult. I hate to be the one to break it to them, but if there are any aspiring superheroes from the DC Universe out there who figured out how to read this, trust me: Work hard and take your vitamins and you might end up being more important than Aquaman, but you're never going to be more important than Superman.
Which is weird, because a lot of my favorite aspects of the Martian Manhunter are built entirely on the idea that he's every bit as important as Superman.
In a lot of ways, that's a fool's errand. It's something that comes up in comics a lot, particularly when they're introducing new characters, and I'm always really fond of how Darkhawk from the '90s (which is better than you think) is full of scenes where some dudes from the future talk about how Chris Powell is going to become the greatest hero of his age. Chris Powell. Darkhawk. Who lives at the same time as, you know, Spider-Man.
With Martian Manhunter, though, it rings a little more true, largely because he had a long career as a cornerstone of the JLA to back it up, whereas Darkhawk had a three-week internship with the Power Pack or something.
There was a really cool idea that came about in the late '90s, around the Ostrander/Mandrake era, that outside of America, J'onn was as well-known as Superman, and devoted his time to protecting the massive parts of the world that, unlike Metropolis or Gotham, didn't have resident superheroes. It's a really interesting take, one that plays on his status as a Justice Leaguer (and therefore a pretty Big Deal within the DC Universe), and explains why we, reading comics that were mostly set in America, didn't know about all these other adventures, without detracting from anything else. It brought J'onn up to Superman's level without trying to surpass him.
Similarly, there was also the idea that J'onn wasn't just "John Jones," he had secret identities all across the world --- including one named for Sailor Mars in what is unquestionably the single greatest moment of Mark Millar's entire career.
The best example of this might actually be in JLA: Earth 2, where Batman --- Batman! --- decides that if the League is going to leave their home dimension to go on an adventure, then they're going to leave two people in charge who can handle anything that might come up: Aquaman and Martian Manhunter. It's an easy trick to have Yr Fave show up and tell you, "Hey this guy's pretty cool," but in the context of that universe, it says a lot that they're willing to trust the fate of the entire world to the Martian Manhunter.
And Aquaman, I guess.
There was another cool idea in that era, too, something I believe was entirely the product of Ostrander and Mandrake that played into how the DC Universe was built on the theme of legacy. It's a really simple idea for a world where there were a bunch of superheroes around World War II that, for some reason, went away until Superman showed up "ten years ago" and sparked a whole new heroic age, and the basic premise is that J'onn was there for all of it.
I'm fascinated by this idea, because it does things with the "sliding scale" timeline that are a little more interesting than the usual practice of just figuring out which Golden Age Superman adventures were retconned into being about Iron Munro instead. It starts with the idea that the Martian Manhunter was just using his powers to do good in secret rather than expose his existence to a public that had been trained by sci-fi to hate little green men from Mars.
And then you get to the Bronze Wraith, which is where things get really interesting.
The Bronze Wraith was a superheroic identity that J'onn used as part of a short-lived and intentionally terribly named team called the Justice Experience, which ended disastrously and also featured a bat-themed superhero in Gotham City before Bruce Wayne. What makes it so interesting is that it shows that he was trying to be a superhero long before the world was ready for him, and that "The Martian Manhunter" is an identity that he only adopted after Superman showed that the world could accept an alien superhero.
It's a great little piece of character history that not only shows how dedicated J'onn was and how much experience he has with superheroics, but also how isolated he was from humanity, and how much Superman changed everything.
The biggest problem with DC's post-Crisis universe, from a structural standpoint anyway, is figuring out how to preserve Superman's status as the center of this new Heroic Age when there were already superheroes and "mystery men" fighting crime back in the '40s. With a simple idea of J'onn trying and not succeeding, only to go on and become a core member of the Justice League for years, the change brought about by Superman's arrival becomes indisputable.
Quick side note: Out of everything that got changed for the New 52 reboot, that aspect of the Martain Manhunter's character was one that stayed, sort of. The Bronze Wraith and the Justice Experience (and presumably the Acro-Bat) were dropped, but one of their ideas was that he'd been a part of Stormwatch for decades, protecting the world in secret. Unfortunately, that ended up being pretty disastrous in and of itself, for entirely different reasons that mostly centered on the story being Not Very Good. Anyway.
That stuff's all really interesting and compelling, but it also kind of tanks him as a solo character, too, because all of those ideas tie him into being part of the Justice League. It's what defines him. He's the team player in search of a team, the person who's isolated from humanity whose only true identity is the superhero, not "John Jones" or "Hino Rei." He's the one who saw a team of superheroes get destroyed partially due to their inexperience, and moved into a role where he could be at the center of the team, mentoring young heroes and doing what he could to protect them. It's why the fight with Despero in the Detroit era and the rematch in the JLI era are his defining moments as a character, because he's fighting for his team just as much as he's fighting for the fate of the world. Even New Frontier is about Martian Manhunter as part of a crowd.
But when the team is so much a part of his identity, it makes it difficult to see him without it. Superman works fine without a team. Wonder Woman works fine without a team. Batman works fine without a team, unless you count the massive crowd of sidekicks, hangers-on, surrogate fathers and domestic servants that hang around in his basement.
WIth Manhunter, though, it's part of his identity in a way that's far more inextricable, and while that might have been something that developed because he just flat-out didn't work on his own when he first appeared, it ended up forming the basis for a lot of really interesting stuff.