An Epiphany: DC Comics’ “Martian Manhunter”
Rob Williams (Script), Eddy Barrows, Diogenes Neves (Pencilers), Eber Ferreira, Marc Deering (Inks), Gabe Eltaeb (Colors), Tom Napolitano (Letters)
June 2015 – Present
I’ll be totally honest with you, when I picked up the newly launched Martian Manhunter book, I had no idea what to expect. I knew nothing about it. My context for J’onn has, historically, been almost entirely exclusive to old Blue and Gold gag bits from JSA books and cartoons like Young Justice. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into.
Turns out the book I’d been sleeping on is a shockingly hilarious, complex and engaging sci-fi thriller. Who knew? Clearly not me.
Martian Manhunter finds its strength in its ability to immediately and poignantly make an emotional connection with J’onn J’onzz. For those of you who have only a passing familiarity with the character, like I did, the crux of the problem boils down to this: J’onn essentially has all the powers of a metahuman like Superman, combined with shapeshifting and telepathy. He’s virtually indestructible, can make himself look like anything he wants, can influence the thoughts of the people around him, and so on.
Basically, he’s the greatest hits list of characteristics that make superheroes challenging for readers to relate to. Add to that the fact that he is as physically and emotionally alien and you basically get the Clark Kent-As-Immigrant metaphor taken to it’s most extreme conclusion.
J’onn is a character that can very easily be pushed one of two places. He’s either going to be the stoic, level headed leader or the awkward and distant punchline to more rambunctious character’s jokes (like Booster and Ted). Those were the J’onns I knew and expected.
The book circumvents this issue almost immediately by addressing it flat out within the first few pages of the first issue. For context, we have J’onn being sent on a mission to recover a hopefully alive, but probably dead team of astronauts on the moon who have lost contact with mission control.
“I very much want to scream.” This is the line that really stood out to me here. This was a side of J’onn I’d never seen and honestly, didn’t think existed at all. This is the moment that sold me. I’m a sucker for this particular brand of existential melancholy.
Don’t worry though. If this sort of introspection isn’t as up your alley as it is mine, it doesn’t last for long. We’re given just enough complexity and angst from J’onn to really quote-unquote “humanize” him before the book’s superhero-sci-fi-action DNA takes the wheel.
The broad scope premise of the book is relatively simple. J’onn has always believed himself to be the last surviving Martian. This, as it turns out, is not the case, but a falsified memory implanted in J’onn’s head by a cabal of surviving Martians. They sent J’onn to Earth with the intent of using him as a sleeper agent who will be instrumental in destroying mankind and making room for the rebirth of “living” Mars in place of Earth, where Martian society can flourish once again.
Unable to reconcile the truth of his existence with his emotional attachment to Earth and capacity to do good, J’onn sets out to kill himself by way of an experimental matter transporter that has been known to break down test objects into their most basic chemical components. It’s a bleak scene and an even bleaker resolution. I don’t particularly like suicidal martyrdom as a plot device in superhero comics, but the setup (and later the payoff) of this act resonated with me.
The entire first issue is directly addressing the idea of J’onn being fundamentally different from other superpowered metahumans, like Superman, and this moment really cemented that for me. As he stands poised in front of the transporter, ready to take his own life so that Earth may survive, the Martian Manhunter is as far from Superman as someone can get. And that is oddly, if not a bit, uncomfortably poetic.
Obviously, this suicide attempt does not go as planned. In fact, it could be argued that it has the opposite intended effect. Rather than destroying himself completely, J’onn’s body and mind are splintered out into four distinct beings, each with their own bodies, autonomous thoughts, and invented histories.
It’s a bit like that Netflix series Sense8, for the sake of comparison. These J’onn fragments do not know that they’re J’onn fragments, nor do they know each other, but they slowly begin to exhibit strange powers, which in turn draw attention from strange enemies, and eventually to each other.
It’s a complicated, but very engaging premise. J’onn is the main character, but after several issues exploring these individual fragments, I’m left feeling unmistakably melancholy at the thought of losing these new characters for the sake of the proper J’onn coming back. And the book finds a great deal of strength in playing with that melancholy.
I don’t usually pick up a cape-and-cowl style superhero book and expect to think with any sort of depth on the nature of identity and self, but it’s a pleasant surprise in Martian Manhunter. And a refreshing one at that. I mean, sure, book after book has taken a stab at the idea of “high concept” narratives about things like “who is more real, Batman or Bruce Wayne?” But those stories lack this level of nuance to me. The very literal element of J’onn’s fragmentation not only gives it depth, but also raises the stakes. These people might not be real, but they earnestly believe that they are, the same way J’onn himself earnestly believed he was the last of his kind.
Writer Rob Williams excels at introspection and surprising humor, but if I have to offer up one critique it would be about the pacing. The plot is complex, and the book really makes you work to understand it. The meat-and-potatoes action bits can get a little unruly if you’re not paying close attention at all times. It bounces between characters as frequently as it hopscotches between past and present, or Earth and Mars.
However, any issues I may have had wrapping my head around the complicated gears of the action were won over by Williams’ ability to really nail emotional beats. One of the J’onn fragments—the least human of the lot—spends most of the arc in the company of a young girl who looks at him like a sort of surrogate nanny-meets-imaginary friend. That dynamic alone pretty much sold the whole story for me.
The art team (made up of Eddy Barrows, Diogenes Neves, Eber Ferriera, Marc Deering, and Gabe Eltaeb) does an amazing job of creating distinct and recognizable characters in such a large and diverse cast. The book looks gorgeous, the action never becomes muddled on the page, and the occasional burst of physical comedy and/or body horror makes for a very unique, if sometimes disturbing, read.
Overall, Martian Manhunter is a strong showing from DC and a bold new look at one of comics’ least understood icons. It really embodies much of what the DCYou imprint was boasting from the start: an incredibly diverse cast (of the main and supporting characters there are only two white men!), an interesting angle on an old character, and an accessible starting point for new fans.
I can only hope that DC will continue to let J’onn J’onzz evolve and grow in ways like this after the Rebirth reboot/relaunch/rebrand/re … whatever happens later this year.
Martian Manhunter, Volume 1: The Epiphany is scheduled for release on March 1st. You can pre-order your copy and purchase single issues of the book at your local comic book shop or on comixology.