Of all the strange new places that the post-Convergence DCU has taken us, Martian Manhunter from writer Rob Williams and penciller Eddy Barrows may just be the strangest. It’s certainly the most unfamiliar. The creators are clearly very eager to either do something new with the character or just leave their own personal stamp on his legacy. Whatever the case may be, this new series, now on its third issue, presents us with a J’onn J’onzz that barely resembles the one we all used to know and love. And by that I mean he resembles him literally not at all. Everything we were told about J’onn J’onzz was a lie, concocted to cover his true mission on Earth — invasion!
Yes, at this point it’s harder to tell which is more riddled with clichés — the “sole survivor of a doomed planet lost on Earth vowing to use his powers in the pursuit of justice” story, or the “rogue government-controlled super soldier on the run to reclaim his life and identity” story. Martian Manhunter’s SOL either way, it seems.
To recap the first two issues, we’ve discovered that J’onn is not the last of his race as we believed. He is actually a super soldier engineered by the very-much-alive people of Mars to aid in their evil machinations against the planet Earth, something called “The Epiphany.” The story is careful to let us know, however, that J’onn has not been pulling the wool over our eyes for 60 years. He believed his former backstory to be the truth right up until he encountered a living Martain and then it all came flooding back to him.
This isn’t the first time that DC has altered J’onn J’onzz’s backstory — the last-of-his-kind bit was a late addition to the canon — but it is the most drastic and jarring. It had the effect in the first two issues of turning J’onn into a completely miserable, despondent individual, so horrified by his own existence that he wants nothing more than to kill himself. And that’s where we join J’onn’s story in issue #3 — with him stepping into a big ol’ sci-fi zappy machine as the Justice League do their best to get him to stop. But they fail. And Martian Manhunter Dr. Manhattans himself out of existence.
From there we switch gears to some bigger picture stuff. A dastardly cabal of Martians under the thumb of Ma’alefa’ak (whose relationship to J’onn in this continuity remains unclear at this point) make plans to regain the “weapon” that was lost with J’onn’s suicide. FBI Agent Wessel keeps watch as Leo, the Martian operative in the body of a young boy with ALS who strangled his mother to death (no… really) does his best Hannibal Lecter impression, leading Wessel to have an identity crisis of his own. It seems that J’onn isn’t the only person on Earth-0 who is not who he thought himself to be. But who is Agent Wessel? Well, we get that answer, but it’s really obtuse and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense right yet. Needless to say, it deals with J’onn’s resurrection, but it’s going to need some heavy-duty explaining as this series progresses.
Meanwhile, the United States continues to take steps toward war after the mysterious attacks on the homeland, Martian operatives in disguise as FBI agents come for Agent Wessel and Leo, and so does a hideous, gigantic beast called the Martian Man-Eater. If this summary makes the story sound really heavy and dark, that’s because it is. The sole moments of mirth come from the presence of Mr. Biscuits — a masked, gangly, eight foot-tall Jiminy Cricket-looking dude in a coat and tails who has a particular fondness for cookies (a sly reference to some Martian Manhunter stories of old, perhaps…) and whose appearance evokes memories of Mateus Santolouco’s work on Dial H from a couple years back — as well as Mr. Biscuit’s companion, a fearless little girl named Alicia.
Now, I love a good dark story as much as the next person, but this is just not what I was expecting for a character that once literally turned into the Hulk because he had an addiction to Oreos. But to be fair, it’s not the ‘80s anymore, so maybe it’s time to think about Martian Manhunter in a new way? This new series is likely following the example set by Geoff Johns, who described his version of J’onn as “the most dangerous character in the DC Universe.” With his shapeshifting abilities, strength, and — most frightening — his ability to read and manipulate minds, J’onn is a nearly unstoppable force, someone that the human race is lucky to have as a friend because we really wouldn’t like him as our enemy. A story about the mistrust that could exist between J’onn and the people he’s sworn to protect, and J’onn’s own struggles with how he might wield his power without being totalitarian and oppressive might actually be an interesting, highly relevant way to handle the character in 2015. Instead, we get a reimagining of the Manhunter from Mars that’s not only extreme, but also pretty thematically shakey.
To begin with, this story presents Martian Manhunter and the other members of the Justice League as instruments of war, as beings that primarily understand that “might makes right.” Violence, we are told in the second issue, is the way J’onn was able to relate to his fellow Justice Leaguers in the first place. Of course, that’s not how I or many others view these characters, and, I’m sorry, but I don’t think my interpretation of Wonder Woman would ever refer to a battle — particularly one against one of her former allies — as a “glorious war” the way she does in issue #2.
Then there are also the sledgehammer-to-the-head references to J’onn’s godhood. Lines like “How much pain can you take, alien Jesus? You who were sent from the heavens,” make Zack Snyder and Man of Steel seem downright subtle. I get it, J’onn is not from here and has the ability to wipe the human race off the face of the Earth if he wished, but his existence never had any kind of messianic overtone before, and it feels like grasping at straws in the pursuit of some kind of “depth” to do it now.
And finally there’s all the ways the series tries to be politically relevant, but ends up saying some pretty ridiculous things about the state of global affairs. The Martians orchestrated a series of attacks that has the Unites States placing blame on its own enemies abroad and debating methods of retaliation. Meanwhile, our FBI agents are enemy operatives in disguise. So what kind of message does this all end up sending about global conflicts? That they’re a smokescreen engineered by some shadowy masterminds to fulfill their own perfect sinister plans? Well, that’s some Alex Jones shit if I ever heard it. Now, conspiracy stories about the secret shadowy cabals in control of everything can work and be entertaining — I know I’ve enjoyed more than a few myself — as long as they don’t try to conflate their fantasies with real-world issues. Unfortunately, Martian Manhunter throws around the concept of terrorism a bit too much for that to be possible.
And let’s not forget the line spoken by child-murderer Leo in a previous issue: “You know all those bad, bad, things you see on the news each night? How you can’t believe that any human can ever do them? Well, what if humans didn’t do them?”
Well, don’t we all just feel suddenly better? It’s amazing to know that none of humanity’s problems are actually our fault, and we can stop trying to make sense of stupid things like morality and humanity’s capacity for both good and evil now. Jeez, to think of all the time and emotions wasted trying to figure that shit out.
I’m having a hard time putting my finger on the audience for this current Martian Manhunter series. Eddy Barrows does some good work with the creature designs, and in some respects situates the character in a decidedly “horror” aesthetic, so perhaps there are some horror comic fans that might find its offbeat ideas and oppressive darkness appealing. But I certainly can’t see fans of Martian Manhunter getting overly excited about it given how hugely it distorts the character. Hopefully it will pull its ideas together and give us a more thoughtful, enjoyable story in upcoming issues, rendering these first three merely a rough start.
Martian Manhunter #3
Writer – Rob Williams
Pencils – Eddy Barrows
Inks – Eber Ferreira
Color Artist – Gabe Eltaeb
Letters – Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
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Luke Dorian Blackwood lives and writes in and around Ithaca, NY. In his youth, he was obsessed with silent cinema, Leo Tolstoy, and Wagner’s Ring Cycle. These days he by far prefers superhero comics and movies with ‘splosions, leading some to speculate that he’s a psychological Benjamin Button. Which is fine. He’s much happier now.