I haven’t bought a comic book, at least not a current one, in over two decades. But that doesn’t mean my head is in the sand when it comes to what the popular things are. Fora like the Captain Comics message board keep me posted on that; I may not know the bit-and-piece details, but I am privy to the general ideas. And one of the things which has vaguely amused me over the last twenty years has been the popularity of the character of the Martian Manhunter.
The attention J’onn J’onzz has gotten from both DC and the fans is one of those things that make an old-time comics fan like me scratch his head and smile. You see, I remember the days when the Manhunter from Mars, at best, was a reliable, but unremarkable back-of-the-book character. His one shot at Silver-Age stardom, as the brief headliner of House of Mystery, failed to ignite. In due time, following a return to also-ran status, he faded from sight. His prominence among DC’s characters to-day, from my perspective, is like having the hit television series of 2013 turn out to be a show starring the character of Jeff, the assistant dispatcher, from Taxi.
One of the benefits for a popular comic-book hero is a lot of fan-buzz. And whenever fans get together to chatter about their favourite character, questions get brought up, sometimes about things which had not given too much thought when the character was created. Or that the original writers had simply hoped no-one would look at too closely.
Case in point: the origin story of the Martian Manhunter is more well known than it used to be and it has survived through all of DC’s revisionist history reasonably intact. As presented in “The Strange Experiment of Dr. Erdel”, from Detective Comics # 225 (Nov., 1955), Professor Mark Erdel had invented a sophisticated “robot brain”, capable of exploring space and time. However, the first time it was activated, the device accidentally transported a Martian, J’onn J’onzz, to Earth. Unfortunately, the shock of meeting an alien from space caused Erdel’s weak heart to fail. He died and J’onn J’onzz, unable to operate the robot brain, was stranded on our world.
Until he could figure out a way to get back to Mars, J’onn J’onzz decided to spend his time on Earth fighting crime and he assumed the human identity of John Jones, police detective.
Even if the fans don’t know the subsequent details (and it’s not their fault; some of them have changed quite a bit in post-Crisis, post-Zero Hour, post-whatever retellings), they know the basic events that followed. At first, the Manhunter kept his presence on Earth a secret, but eventually, he was “outed”, and that led to him becoming a charter member of the Justice League of America. Stop right there. It is this stage of the Manhunter’s career which has raised one of those fan questions that later writers had to bend over backwards to answer.
If the premise was that he was stranded on Earth, once J’onn J’onzz joined the Justice League, why didn’t he have one of his space-capable fellow members, such as Superman or Green Lantern or Wonder Woman, simply give him a lift back to Mars?
Now, the real-life answer to that, of course, was to do so would remove the Martian Manhunter as a viable DC character. There would come a time when JLA editor Julius Schwartz and JLA writer Gardner Fox probably wished for that very thing, but as long as DC saw enough potential in the character to maintain his own series, the Manhunter wasn’t going anywhere.
As with many details presented, then forgotten or contradicted, in the Manhunter from Mars series, editor/writer Jack Miller didn’t seem to be paying too much attention to this one, either. Originally, the series had focused on John Jones, police detective, who secretly employed his Martian abilities to solve crimes. Within a couple of years, though---and through no coïncidence, following the Flash’s debut in Showcase # 4 and the revival of interest in super-heroes---the thrust had shifted to putting his alien identity in more typical super-hero-type situations. At first, J’onn J’onzz had to perform his feats invisibly, but eventually, Miller got tired of working around that limitation and revealed the Manhunter’s presence on Earth. This moved the Alien Ace completely into the standard super-hero rôle, and by the time he became part of the Justice League, the concept of his being stranded on Earth had so faded that DC had either forgotten about it or hoped the readers had.
Die-hard fans are tenacious creatures, though. (Granted, by the end of the Silver Age in 1968, the Martian Manhunter had few of those left.) And those stragglers wanted to know why J’onn J’onzz just simply didn’t ask his JLA buddy Green Lantern to drop him off on Mars the next time the Emerald Crusader made a trip to Oa. Post-Silver-Age, later writers did, indeed, attempt to explain that. Denny O’Neil, in his “. . . and So My World Ends!”, from JLA # 71 (May, 1969), took a stab at it. But, as O’Neil was wont to do, he practically rewrote the Manhunter’s entire history to make his explanation work and the result was largely unsatisfying.
But, if we ignore post-Silver-Age developments, can a satisfactory reason be provided as to why, once he was integrated into the regular DC super-hero universe, MM didn’t hitch a ride back to Mars? I put off dealing with that question for a long time. Then, a couple of weeks before I originally wrote this article, I picked up Showcase Presents: Martian Manhunter. That filled in the gaps in my collexion of Manhunter stories, most of them being in the 1956-7 time frame.
Once I filled myself in on what I had missed and had a complete run of the series to access, it wasn’t too hard to draw out a Silver-Age reason why J’onn J’onzz remained on Earth.
As it developed, the Manhunter had several opportunities to return to Mars long before he sat down at the JLA council table. Most of them went the way of the castaways’ chances to get off of Gilligan’s Island, but even so, they offered a valuable insight to the Alien Ace’s attitudes and feelings toward his temporary home.
The first such occasion arose as soon as the Manhunter’s fourth adventure, in “Escape to the Stars”, from Detective Comics # 228 (Feb., 1956). John Jones is on the trail of Alex Dunster, a thief with a scientific background. With fantastic weapons of his own invention, Dunster has been able to thwart conventional police attempts to capture him. Jones’s Martian abilities enable him to locate Dunster’s hide-out, where he discovers that the criminal scientist has gotten his hands on Professor Erdel’s robot brain. Amazingly, Dunster has been able to re-program the machine, enabling it to transfer objects and people through space.
As the detective eavesdrops, Dunster sets the robot brain to teleport him to another planet. Jones realises that all he has to do is wait for Dunster to depart, then use the device on himself to return to Mars. He can’t risk subduing Dunster, whose weaponry would enable him to put up such a tussle that the robot brain might be damaged.
It’s tempting, but immediately, Jones reconsiders. If Dunster is able to use the robot brain to leave Earth, the detective figures, then he also has arranged a means to return. Only then, John Jones wouldn’t be there to stop him.
This is a telling scene. At first blush, it seems a bit of a reach that after only a brief time on Earth, J’onn J’onzz would feel so much loyalty to our world that he would sacrifice his first real chance to go home.
But consider---in his debut tale, J’onn J’onzz reflects on the fact that Mars saw its last war a thousand years previous. (He also indicates that crime was obsolete on his world, but since that is contradicted by later Silver-Age stories, we’ll let that one pass.) This suggests that Mars is a civilisation of exceptional moral sophistication, and it would be logical to assume that Martians possessed an extreme sense of duty, to themselves individually and as a society. The fact that J’onn J’onzz’s first instinct after familiarising himself with our world was to help us by warring on crime is indicative of that.
Yes, it’s extrapolation, but it makes sense and it fits. Thus, it wouldn’t take long for J’onn J’onzz to adopt a strong sense of duty to Earth in a relatively short time. This is a key element in explicating the Manhunter’s subsequent failures to return home when he could have.
The idea is reïnforced a mere three issues later, in Detective Comics # 231 (May, 1956), when another ticket to Mars drops into MM’s lap. In “The Thief Who Had Super-Powers”, Detective Jones runs up against a thief who exhibits unusual powers. At first, Jones chalks up the fantastic stunts to standard magician’s tricks, but ultimately, he learns that the thief is actually a convicted Martian outlaw.
Jones confronts the crook and reveals his own alien identity. Interestingly (at least as far as comic-book conventions go), once the Martian fugitive discovers that he’s up against one of his own people, he stops resisting.
Martian authorities imprison their criminals in space, by means of a “guard belt” which keeps the inmates in orbit and protects them from the void. His guard belt was defective, the thief explains, and it teleported him to Earth. Jones realises that, with the belt, he could return to Mars.
The thief makes it even easier; he offers the belt to Jones. It’s no good to him. He’s a wanted man on Mars.
The Sleuth from Space, for a moment, considers the offer. “But,” he realises, “if I go, this criminal will remain here and be allowed to rob and plunder Earth with his super-powers!” Once again, his choice is difficult, but clear.
Jones uses super-vision to activate the belt while the Martian thief is still holding it. The felon is immediately whisked back to Mars.
It would be a few more years before the Alien Ace got another opportunity to go home. In “John Jones’ Farewell to Earth, from Detective Comics # 267 (May, 1959), the Manhunter learns that police officers from the planet Jupiter have arrived on Earth to recapture an escaped criminal from their world who has taken refuge here. The Jovian cops agree to deliver J’onn J’onzz to Mars on their trip back in exchange for his help in apprehending the fugitive. The clock is ticking, though. If their ship doesn’t take off by sundown, Jupiter will have orbited out of range and they’ll be stuck on Earth for a year.
MM tracks down his prey handily enough, but the alien crook makes a fight of it. Our Hero triumphs, but precious time is lost. He returns with his prisoner just under the wire, as the sun begins to set. However, the Jovian police discover that the fugitive planted a solar bomb in an amusement park. When it explodes, many innocent lives will be lost.
The Jovians urge the Manhunter to quickly board their ship. Yet another agonising decision, but he doesn’t hesitate.
“I can’t let my Earth friends die! You---you will have to leave without me!”
Once again, J’onn J’onzz chooses duty over personal benefit and it’s far from the last time.
“The Unmasking of J’onn J’onzz”, from Detective Comics # 273 (Nov., 1959), is notable for being the adventure which revealed the Manhunter’s existence on Earth. This comes at the hands of an escaped Martian criminal, B’rett, who exposes the Alien Ace to Formula Z6, which robs him of his ability to use his other super-powers while invisible. Unable to match B’rett’s might while invisible, J’onn J’onzz makes the decision to appear openly, before the super-powered villain can massacre an approaching squad of policemen.
After the Manhunter defeats B’rett, he places the criminal back the experimental Martian missile that brought him to our world and, with the help of military authorities, launches the ship back to Mars. Nothing is said about why J’onn J’onzz passed on this chance to go home.
Though the story looked the other way on this point of his returning to Mars, his ethic of self-sacrifice was yet again illustrated when he chose to publicly reveal himself in order to protect Earth from B’rett.
With his presence on Earth out in the open, it cleared the way for the Manhunter to become a charter member of the Justice League of America, as shown in its first adventure, told in The Brave and the Bold # 28 (Feb.-Mar., 1960). Clearly, the Martian now had the means to go home whenever he wished. So why didn’t he?
This takes more extrapolation, but again, it fits if we take the Manhunter’s demonstrated sense of responsibility and tie it to a known fact about the early Justice League tales.
For the first dozen JLA stories, Superman and Batman were largely absent from the group’s adventures. The real-life reason for this was editorial fiat, but their frequent non-participation was also recognised within the fiction of the series. (“The Last Case of the Justice League”, from JLA # 12 [Jun., 1962], wraps a crucial plot development around it.)
Given Superman’s frequent absences, it’s logical to surmise that J’onn J’onzz, with powers similar to a Kryptonian’s, felt duty-bound to step in as the powerhouse of the team. Especially given the fact that, with the Justice League, he was no longer tackling clever criminals and the occasional rogue alien, but true cosmic threats to the Earth and even the universe. With the Man of Steel so often being a no-show, the JLA couldn’t afford to be without him.
This belief, that his mighty powers are too needed on Earth, shows up in the tale “The Menace of the Martian Mandrills”, from Detective Comics # 285 (Nov., 1960). When a cargo-rocket from Mars goes off-course and crash-lands on Earth, a trio of Martian mandrills is released. The beasts wreak havoc on Middletown, until J’onn J’onzz recaptures them and returns them to the repaired Martian rocket. Once again, military authorities assist in launching the ship back to its original destination.
“Maybe I will, someday, captain,” he replies, “when my work on Earth is done!”
Clearly, at this point, J’onn J’onzz views his situation on Earth as having graduated to a larger rôle---from exiled lawman to protector of the world.
By 1962, Gardner Fox had changed the formula that he had applied to most of his early JLA stories. The editorial prohibition against Superman and Batman’s participation was lifted, and now Fox was including the World’s Finest Team in every Justice League adventure. With the Man of Steel being the obvious heavyweight on the team and the entire League showing up for cases, the burden was lifted from J’onn J’onzz’s shoulders. Surely, he could go back to Mars now, right?
“The Mystery of the Martian Marauders”, from Detective Comics # 301 (Mar., 1962), has slipped beneath the radar of most Silver-Age fans, even though it’s a milestone issue for our green-skinned hero. As the tale describes, Dr. Alvin Reeves, a brilliant scientist, accidentally discovers Professor Erdel’s robot brain in the abandoned building where the Manhunter has stored it for safekeeping. Dr. Reeves restores the device to working order. He has even managed to program it for teleportation between Earth and Mars. In doing so, however, he has accidentally transported himself to Mars. A side-effect of the machine sends a band of Martian criminals to Earth.
J’onn J’onzz discovers Reeves’s handiwork when the fleeing fugitives use the robot brain to return to Mars. The Alien Ace activates the machine and returns to his home planet. Following a brief reunion with his parents and his kid brother, T’omm, MM captures the Martian crooks and rescues Dr. Reeves. And since Our Hero had the foresight to put the robot brain’s controls on an automatic setting, getting back to Earth with Reeves is not a problem.
What makes this story noteworthy is that the reset button is not pushed. No last-minute stroke of fate destroys the robot brain or takes it out the Manhunter’s control. Now, he can travel to Mars whenever he wishes. I suspect this was a deliberate choice of Jack Miller’s, leaving open the option of setting an occasional J’onn J’onzz adventure on Mars. It was an option that became available when the original notion of a Martian operating in secret on Earth had been supplanted by making the Manhunter a public hero and a member of the Justice League. Miller’s dialogue in this tale makes it pretty obvious; when he leaves his family to return to Earth, J’onn J’onzz tells his mother, “Don’t worry! I’ll be able to return from time to time!”
At this point, the Manhunter no longer needed the help of his Justice League pals to get home, and in fact, he was seen to use the robot brain to do just that, in “Wanted---the Capsule Master”, from The Brave and the Bold # 50 (Oct.-Nov., 1963). Presumably, he returned to Mars for brief visits other times in between recorded adventures.
In 1964, the Manhunter from Mars series got an overhaul. All the remaining elements of the original format were tossed out with the introduction of the Idol-Head of Diabolu in Detective Comics # 326.
The Idol-Head of Diabolu was a Babylonian artifact containing a vast number of ancient evils. For centuries, it remained dormant, until inadvertently activated by thief Vince Durskin. This results in the release of a glowing glob of a creature which attacks detective John Jones in the presence of dozens of on-lookers. Fortunately, he's able to transform into the Manhunter in time to escape death. To the horrified witnesses, though, Detective Jones has been killed.
Placed in the awkward position of delivering a eulogy for himself, the Manhunter swears to avenge Detective Jones’s death by destroying the Idol-Head. It’s a far-ranging task he has set for himself, for with each full moon, the Idol-Head disgorges another supernatural monster for the Alien Ace to battle. Yet, the sinister relic’s most miraculous power is its ability to keep itself out of MM’s hands month after month, forcing Our Hero into a perpetual cross-country search for the thing.
Thus, Diane Meade, Captain Harding, and Middletown were swept into the dustbin as the Manhunter’s quest to destroy the Idol-Head took him away from Detective Comics and into the pages of House of Mystery. After the Idol-Head arc had run its course, J’onn J’onzz immediately leapt into his war against the criminal combine Vulture and its head, Mr. V. It took until the cancellation of his series, in House of Mystery # 173 (Mar.-Apr., 1968), to bring about the final destruction of Vulture and its mysterious leader.
It was just about this time that the Martian Manhunter disappeared from Gardner Fox’s JLA adventures. Fox, never comfortable with the character, began to use him less and less, until finally, in 1968, he stopped showing up on missions completely, without even the courtesy of the usual “tied up on an urgent case of his own” explanation.
If one wishes, one can tie this in with JLA # 71, by explaining that, with free time on his hands after defeating Vulture, J’onn J’onzz used the robot brain to return to Mars and confront Denny O’Neil’s Commander Blanx and his White Martians.
I prefer to think that, after four years of fighting non-stop against the Idol-head of Diabolu and Vulture, the Manhunter went back to Mars for a nice, long vacation.