Monday, July 14, 2008

Hero Tune-Up: Martian Manhunter.

Final Crisis has already claimed it's first victim in the name of sales, and while I have no doubt that Grant Morrison has plans and schemes that may eventually see the return of the Manunter from Mars, I'm writing this from the perspective that the character is in fact deceased(at least until the next paradigm shift in DC Comics that leads to his inevitable return).

So why does J'onn J'onzz draw the short straw and become the sacrificial lamb of the extended Justic League family? Well the short answer would be because he's not a name character, hasn't had a title in years (save for a brief mini-series after Infinite Crisis), and is just recognizable enough to longtime fans to carry a sting while at the same time obscure enough not to explode the Internet (imagine if it'd been Batman who'd been the one with a fiery spear driven through his chest. It'd be interesting to be a fly on the wall in the offices of DC that day. ' A week before the release of our mega-movie featuring this guy and you kill the character off?!').

Look at his power suite; super-strength, flight, near-invulnerability, super-speed, 'martian' vision, telepathy, shapeshifting, invisibility and intangibility. He's also a detective, having been an officer of the law on his homeworld, the Red Planet of ages long since past. He's a Superman/Batman hybrid via Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian Epics, who's easily got the coolest abilities on the block. So why aren't copies of MM comics flying off the shelves?

I think it breaks down to the three As: Appearance, Accessibility, and the Alien. Let's explore these beat by beat:

Appearance: He's green, and his classic outfit just looks. . .well, it looks wrong in a modern context. I will admit the suit he had been placed in for his mini-series did indeed look cool, though the colors should be a tad brighter. To my mind J'onn isn't the Grim Avenger. He's not one for rain-slicked streets at midnight. He's one of the last creations of the Silver Age of comics, and while he shouldn't be wearing some weird bathing-suit/suspenders combo with Captain America booties, he should be rocking something a bit more traditionally superheroic.

As to the famous allegations of Morrison, that people can't get past his green skin, nah. One of the most popular movies out there right now features a shapeshifting superstrong protagonist who happens to be green, so I think the concept could be sound. It just needs a hefty injection of the second element

Accessibility: Having a superintelligent shapeshifting alien as your lead character can be a bit detrimental if you're hoping to gain your reader's emotional involvement and sustain it over a long period of time. Consider Spider-Man. He's easily one of the most popular superheroes around, because we can relate to him. Peter Parker may be a bouncing, swinging, dashing young demigod in his red and blue tights, but he's also a guy who has to make his rent, has relationship problems, and deals with a boss who is a total and complete asshat. J'onn J'onzz is a martian who masquerades as human beings, but isn't really one of them. Unlike Superman, he's seen the end of his world firsthand and remembers it's culture, painfully so at times. He enjoys his human friends and cherishes them, but recognizes that he's always going to be a little apart. Hence, the distance and seeming Olympian detachment can work as a detriment to any serious exploration of the character.

So how do we fix this? As always in times of doubt in the best use of genre archetypes and tropes I turn to Doctor Who. The Doctor is an alien, the last of his kind, and incredibly intelligent and clever. He walks among us, looking like us, but isn't really a human being. Over the years we've had the odd story where he's on his own, but most often he's accompanied by a number of human companions. These serve two functions; to provide the audience a vicarious place to put our expectations and observations serving as someone we can relate to, and to also ground the character of the Doctor a bit further into human concerns. I think J'onn needs that in order to be a more successful character. He can look human, makes himself look more human in his 'superhero' appearance, but he needs a human element. He needs someone perfectly normal to ground him, to help the audience see him as less this stern sentinel at the gate and more of a man from far away who wants to help, but isn't all that sure how to relate to us. If we feel we know someone and their point of view, it helps us to become more comfortable with them, to pull for them and understand their problems. A human secondary character (be it a person he meets in his guise as Detective John Jones or someone he saves as the Martian Manhunter he strikes up an unlikely friendship with) would be just what we need to make the character just a bit more human.

But bear in mind we only want a bit more humanity. For by and large the real appeal of the Martian Manhunter lies in the third element.

The Alien: The character of the Martian Manhunter was created during the 1950s, the heady period when the thought of life on other planets was at once thrilling and terrifying. While thrillers like Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers were scaring the bajaysus out of teens in theaters everywhere, Jack Miller and Joe Certa created a hero who'd survived his world's destruction, saw the good in humanity, and wanted to stay and help them meet their potential. With powers and abilities beyond mortal men. . .well, you get how familiar this idea is. And it is painfully easy to see J'onn as a knockoff of Superman(because, y'know, he is exactly that) but the key differences to J'onn's character make him a potential gold mine for storytelling:

1) He doesn't have any dim memories of the cataclysm that destroyed Mars; he was there on the ground when it happened. Only a freak accident, a one-in-a-million-trillion quirk of fate spared him from dying with his people. He remembers his world's science, it's art and culture, it's people with a painful vividness(being of a telepathic people must mean everything new is shared and disseminated across the entire mass consciousness of a people, with maybe the option to pick and choose, a reassuring background noise inside the mind. Now it's just silence). Unlike Clark Kent, J'onn wasn't raised by humans, he arrived on their world as a refugee, a survivor who had to learn to acclimate to his new environment. That he enjoys Earth and likes its people is beside the point. He's not from here and he knows it.

2) That said, he does have the unique vantage point of being Earth's protector, as well as an immigrant who's come to this planet and become quite comfortable with it. He's a booster for humanity as well as a stalwart guardian. With his abilities he's experienced human existence from just about every point of view and enjoys their culture and art with the enthusiasm of an older brother figure. He gets frustrated with the depths humanity can sink to (militarism and humankind's genius for war strikes him very, very White Martian), but at the same time it's tinted with the knowledge that one day humanity will (with luck) inherit the stars the way his people once did. Simply put, in my opinion he's often cast as sort of DC's take on the Silver Surfer, and that isn't the best fit. He's more Doctor than Surfer in my opinion.

3) He's an alien, but he's also a hero. That heroism comes from a desire to see justice done (the Manhunters were an investigatory body on Mars) and to protect the innocent. J'onn should take that duty seriously, but also recognizing as a telepath a fundemental universal truth: doing good deeds feels good. It's giving of yourself for another, creating bonds of camaraderie and friendship. On Mars that feeling must have been even more intense, and by doing his best to help others on Earth, he's keeping the last embers of his heroic life on mars(pardon the pun) alive, while at the same time showing that he's there to help.

So there we go, some problems addressed and potential solutions suggested. Of course, as with anything, your mileage may vary, but I think we can see that the character of the Martian Manhunter has storytelling potential, and could easily carry a series(or at least a series of mini-series). What do you think?

Until next time.


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