Comics that Should Make a Comeback: Martian Manhunter

Martian-manhunter It wasn’t easy to think of a DC title that should make a comeback. They bring back their titles so often that I have more opinions about which concepts should be given an extended vacation than I do about which titles should come back. But there is one very notable exception: the Martian Manhunter.

I’ve been a fan of the Martian Manhunter since I was a little kid. I had his action figure form the Kenner Super Powers line. I was intrigued by his bald green head. I was amazed by a character that had all of Superman’s powers plus invisibility, shape-shifting and telepathy. I wanted to know more and more.

I grew even fonder of the character as I started to read about him. He had a small part in George Perez’s Justice League of America that merely whetted my appetite (the great issue 200 was a Martian centered story). The Giffen/Maguire Justice League was the main course. Finally, J’Onn J’Onnz was a star. He was a straight man in the center of chaos. Yet he had a light side. He was amused, even whimsical. And he liked his cookies. He was like Dean Martin- the coolest guy in the room, allowing 59-1 others to riff around him but always in on the joke.

Since then, DC has made a couple of attempts to make Martian Manhunter a solo star. He headlined a pair of mini-series in 1988 and 1992, and then a one-shot in 1996. Finally, they gave him his own series in 1998. It was critically acclaimed if not a smashing sales success. It was also a bad time to launch a new title, right in the middle of the late ‘90s trough. The title strode along for three years until it was canceled after issue 36. DC tried one more go with the Manhunter, giving him an 8 issue limited series in 2006.

So why would I want to give a new title to a character who has a poor track record on his own? I guess it’s because I’m convinced that he’s a great character, fully capable of being a star. He’s been the best part of several team books. His one ongoing series was really good, even if it didn’t garner the attention it deserved. In the right vehicle at the right time, J’Onn J’Onnz could be a smashing success.

DC has also shown that they’re pretty good at reviving old characters. I did make fun of them a little 389px-Martian_Manhunter_v.3_2 bit earlier about doing it too often. But they’re much better at bringing characters back to their roots than they are at giving them a new spin. The 2006 Martian Manhunter limited series is evidence of the latter. The very successful Green Lantern Rebirth series of 2004 and the fairly popular Flash Rebirth series from this year are proof of the former.

In fact, that’s the model that I would choose to follow. I would wait a couple more years (he was just killed in last year’s Final Crisis, after all) and then put a big promotional push behind the Martian Manhunter Rebirth. I’d use that mini-series to reintroduce the character and build his new status quo. And then, I’d jump from that mini-series into a new ongoing.

I even have an idea for what the new series should be like. I think that Martian Manhunter should be brought back to what worked in the beginning. When he was first introduced, he was an alien new to this world. Things were strange, even wacky. It’s not a stretch to think that the world might just be alien to him again. He would see it with new eyes. He is reborn, after all.

J’Onn J’Onnz coped with this world by taking on a secret identity. I think that’s the way to go again. I know that secret identities are losing their cachet. Hal Jordan and Barry Allen are now public heroes. The X-Men no longer hide who or what they are. But there are a few heroes for whom the secret identity is still an essential part of their character- such as Peter Parker as Spider-Man and Clark Kent as Superman. This would work for J’Onn as well. He could learn about the world through the eyes of his secret identity. And you could give him an actual supporting cast, something that was attempted in some of the mini-series but never really caught on.


One of the reasons why secret ids are in disrepute is that they are less and less believable in a digital age. Yet I think that could be turned into an asset. You could use that issue as a complication for the hero instead of as an impediment to the story. Spider-Man stories often contain bits about how his superhero life complicates his private life and vice versa. Martian Manhunter stories could show how difficult it is for him to maintain a secret identity. He would have to use his full arsenal of powers- invisibility, shape-shifting and telepathy- to pull it off. I might even introduce a new power, such as the ability to disrupt technology telekinetically. There’s precedent for the Martian Manhunter to reveal new powers and there’s an in-story rationale: they’re part of his rebirth.

But why stop at one? As part of their series, John Ostander and Tom Mandrake revealed that Martian Manhunter maintained several secret identities around the globe. I wouldn’t want to go that far. It’s hard to juggle too many roles and too many supporting casts. Yet I would want room for at least one more. It’s also been established that J’Onn J’Onnz has used other heroic identities, including Bloodwynd and the Bronze Wraith. I would give him a new one. I would have him learn about the superhero world as if he was a new hero. He would try to re-establish himself, without his former teammates knowing who he was. I wouldn’t completely discard the classic look. J’Onn would use his traditional identity to fight crime and supervillains on his own. But he would use the new identity to try and work his way back into the superhero community, even joining a team that doesn’t currently have a title of its own (there has to be at least one, right?).

That would give us three levels of stories: the new secret identity and the street level detective work (go with what works), Martian Manhunter as a solo hero, and the new id trying to fit into the superhero club. There’s the potential to tell all kinds of different stories, and for these stories to run into each other and conflict with one another. And there’s potential for the Martian Manhunter to be a star.

At least, that’s my idea.

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Comment by Chris Fluit on October 22, 2009 at 3:06pm
Wow. Thanks for the continued comments, everyone.

Cap, one way to deal with the alien issue would be to introduce a sidekick. I'm thinking more of a Snapper Carr or a Rick Jones than a Robin or a Bucky. I'd even like the idea of a new character in that role (like the government liaison in Christopher Priest's Black Panther). That way we could have both J'Onn J'Onnz remarking on the weird and arbitrary aspects of humanity while someone else is reacting to J'Onns alien nature.
Comment by Figserello on October 21, 2009 at 6:25am
I'm with Cap in that his alien-ness should be a big part of his character, and that more could be made of his attitude to gender/identity. Obviously he arbitrarily picked the male form in the 50s because it was men who were doing the work and being taken seriously back then.

I enjoyed the Ostrander/Mandrake series in the late 90s. Perhaps both creators coming to it so soon after their excellent Spectre meant that it felt too much like that series and didn't mark itself out as sufficiently different to it.

I loved the idea of all those different identities, including Japanese robots and others. The wider the scope for telling stories the better. Also a way to see all around the DC Earth. These days a 'supporting cast' is just a group of folks that's there for the tenure of a particular writer and are only around to be shived, minced, roasted or perhaps impaled when the writer needs to up the ante.

There are problems with his power-set and his alienness in that comic fans are a conservative lot, even moreso than they used to be, so a solo series of that type of Martian Manhunter might be too far beyond the pale for them.

What I think should be done with him is to make him a great supporting background character in the DCU. That way he can be as alien and powerful as he's supposed to be and add interest and consistancy to other heroes stories.

Marvel have been handling Namor like that for years now, and I think he works better as a consistent character whose personality as-is would be a hard sell in his own book, but who is treated as a formidible major player when he shows up in other books. I find him fascinating and I love the way good writers have him behave quite cold and unsentimental, but with a certain moral standpoint. They'd have to soften him up in his own book and the first thing they'd do would be to take away his kingship.

It adds to the cosy shared-universe feel that we go to these universes for and it means the character doesn't have to be compromised and made more 'palatable' for the fanboys pull-lists.

J'onn too, would benefit from being consistently shown as more powerful and more alien than usual. As a founder member of the JLA and someone with a strong moral centre and big heart, all these things would make him highly respected in the DCU, but he could be held in fear by those that don't know him.

The big comics companies should work to have these powerful supporting characters fully fleshed out. They add to the feeling that things aren't just being made up on the hoof and it is comforting when they appear. With whole status quos changing every summer now, they'd ground their worlds more and add stability to proceedings. All of the characters with comics are in constant state of flux these days, after all.
Comment by Captain Comics on October 20, 2009 at 1:38pm
I've mentioned before that I have a soft spot for J'onn, going back to the Silver Age. Part of that was simply rooting for the underdog; J'onn seemed under-utilized in Justice League of America, and was the only founding member of the team who didn't have a solo title. He did star in House of Mystery, but it was not his own title and the stories were nothing to write home about (pretty formulaic). And he was merely a back-up character in Detective for almost 10 years prior to that.

Part of it also, though, is what you're talking about Chris -- the appeal of his alienness. Unlike Superman, who grew up here, J'onn is a real and true "illegal alien" and knew nothing of our species or culture when he got here. His discovery of us would follow the time-honored literary convention of the outsider providing the reader a POV. Plus, as you say, he did have a propensity for developing new powers ad hoc, which was quite fantastic, even if some of them were lame (like "see-around-corners vision," when he already had x-ray vision).

I've mentioned here before that I never thought DC took his alienness far enough. If you think about J'onn's shapeshifting powers as presented (and ability to come back from a few random cells, as he did in Morrison's JLA), then his native form would more likely be something amoeba-like, not a skinny green guy with a banana-shaped head. That might be his preferred fighting form as well (how do you hurt an amoeba?).

Even if you don't want to go that far, it's still likely that he would have no regard for gender (since his entire race could be either gender it wanted to be at any time), and almost certainly wouldn't reproduce as we do. At the very least, the kind of sex we have would probably be truly be alien to him (and possibly disgust him). Upshot is, reading the minds of beings who are obsessed with thoughts of sex and gender-identity issues would be baffling to him. He would be lacking a context to understand any of it. It's possible he would even feel most comfortable with bi and transgendered community, which is often less hung up on specific gender roles.

Would he be desperate to become one of us, as he is often presented? Maybe. But I think it more likely he would think us un-evolved ("You still fertilize embryos? Physically? And you like it?"). Or he might think of himself as an anthropologist, studying this inane species. Or he might even like us, but think of us a lesser life form, like a pet.

I mean, seriously: If you were trapped among a society of apes, would you want to be one? Would you want to marry one? Would you pretend to be an ape and have sex with one, just to fit in? Maybe J'onn's sense of self is so different from ours that it wouldn't bother him -- after all, he may not even have a fixed physical form. But if he is genuinely OK about passing for human, then he is so unlike us (or our hypothetical fellow stranded among the apes), that we have no context for understanding him. He would well and truly be alien to us, in ways big and small.

But I'm probably overthinking this, as I sometimes do. And I doubt any writer would take J'onn to the extremes I'm suggesting here. (And I might not care for the end product myself -- he's got to have some connection to humanity for me, as an ethnocentric human reader, to care.) But he could be far more than a "green Superman," as Justice League International implied, and I'd sure like to see that explored further.
Comment by Rob Staeger (Grodd Mod) on October 18, 2009 at 4:50pm
I have to say, I *loved* the multiple secret identities conceit, and was sorry that it was pushed aside. A new MM series might be a hard sell with me (everything is, these days), but I *do* have a soft spot for the character, dating back to the Detroit league. (I'd read earlier appearances in JLA back issues, but didn't really see his appeal until later -- and the first time I really loved him was when he hugged Vixen in the middle of the JLI/Suicide Squad throwdown -- a wonderful moment in an excellent crossover.)
Comment by Chris Fluit on October 17, 2009 at 2:12pm
Love your articles on comics that should come back,

Thanks for the compliment, Mr. S.

but I have to disagree with this one.

Oh well. It takes all kinds of comics for all kinds of people.
Comment by Luke Blanchard on October 17, 2009 at 1:59am
A series needs a lead character who can capture the imagination of readers, and/or whom readers like identifying with. It also needs to tell a type of story that readers are interested in reading. J’onn’s basic appeal is probably his alienness. I haven’t seen his solo titles, but I’d guess that his alienness can also make it difficult for readers to identify with him.

If a hero is not all-knowing he can always face the problem of sorting a situation out before a disaster comes to pass. It's harder to cast very powerful heroes as underdogs, but I don’t think only stories about underdog heroes can be interesting. Even the most powerful character might be matched against a comparable powerful opponent. J’onn doesn’t have to fight ordinary crooks, have his adventures on Earth, have his adventures in the present day, or fight SF-oriented as opposed to supernatural opponents.
Comment by Mr. Satanism on October 16, 2009 at 3:09pm
Love your articles on comics that should come back, but I have to disagree with this one. MM has all the powers of the Silver Age Superman PLUS shape-changing, invisibility, and probably a few I'm forgetting. How can you possibly tell a superhero story about a hero who can literally do anything? I suspect this is why attempts at giving MM a series always fail. He's unstoppable, so there's no suspense or story to speak of unless one jumps through so many hoops or makes so many concessions that it becomes ridiculous. If you ask me, J'onn never should have made it past the conceptual stage.


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