I find it harder to find comics that I want to read than I used to. I’ve basically dropped reading any new monthly titles, ever since DC cancelled The Legion of Super-Heroes and Francis Manapul left The Flash. And when I scan the solicitations for new trade-paperbacks or collections that come out each month, I find less and less that grabs my attention.
One exception to that just a little while ago was when I saw that DC had finally collected and released the first several issues of Martian Manhunter, by John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake. I thought, Now there’s something I’d be interested in buying. I am familiar with John Ostrander basically from his run on Suicide Squad, and count myself among the many who would consider that run to be all I need to make me a life-long fan of the man’s work. I’ve never read his Martian Manhunter but was curious to see the other titles he had worked on during his heyday with DC. And then, just a few days ago, it turned out I didn’t have to wait for the opportunity to buy the book (as my purchases are made very carefully and with a limited budget in mind) when I found it on a visit to the public library!
When I was growing up, J’onn J’onzz was just an odd footnote in comic history. He wasn’t appearing anywhere in DC comics at the time, and to a young fan like me, he just provoked questions of how could a character like this whom I had never even heard of have ever been a member of the Justice League? Then suddenly Gerry Conway decided it was time to give the JLA a major revamp and J’onn came back and became an integral part of what’s been referred to as Justice League Detroit. But like many fans, I didn’t stick that title out for very long, so my exposure was still limited.
My first real encounter with the Martian Manhunter was when Keith Giffen and JM DeMatties identified him as the only one truly in a position to lead the now international Justice League. It was around here that J’onn began to develop his reputation as “the soul of the League” – mainly because he was just about the only character to be significantly involved in all three iterations of the team (to that point). Later, he became a core member of Grant Morrison’s “Big 7” version of the JLA, where he was amazing (like pretty much everyone else in Morrison’s League).
It’s during this period, when (in the wake of Superman’s more active involvement), J’onn had shifted from being a “powerhouse / leader” type to a more “elder statesman” type, and where J’onn’s telepathy was being used to coordinate all the League’s activities in the midst of battle, that the Martian Manhunter series was kicked off, and thus benefits from all the residual awesomeness that it gets from being associated with that seminal run, and from frequent guest appearances by a wide variety of what I’d call a classic line-up of Leaguers – Aquaman with his harpoon hand, Kyle Rayner in his original costume, John Henry Irons, Oracle and others.
But of course, the focus is on the Martian Manhunter himself. It’s fitting that the series starts with his connection to the Justice League, as that is pretty much all that most readers of the time knew about the character. His identity as detective / private investigator John Jones is something we’d all heard of, but not really spent any time with. So Ostrander wisely takes us from the J’onn that we’ve seen before and delves into his “private life”. And what a life it is! Over the opening few standalone stories, we see that J’onn actually has a multitude of human identities, located all over the world – including one that is a criminal (a clever strategem to discover various bad guys’ plans)! At the same time, he introduces plot threads that quickly build to the series’ first major story arc, as a newly introduced old enemy resurfaces to destroy J’onn’s reputation on earth and with the Justice League. The lengths that J’onn goes to defeat this villain are amazing to see.
The comic extrapolates on all that made J’onn cool before, and combines that with new material to create a truly fascinating character. One thing that really struck me is how J’onn, more than any of his colleagues, is really a law-enforcement officer. But this is not in the limited-dimension way that Geoff Johns made the Green Lantern Corp into “Space Cops”. Rather, we get to explore the hero’s motivation in a complex and believable way – he’s not trying to inspire people, he’s not trying to strike fear into the hearts of the evil, he’s not working out of guilt or vengeance or a sense of fun – he’s just trying to catch criminals. And under the pen of someone as adept in plot and characterization as John Ostrander, that makes for some good reading.
So that first trade paperback of Martian Manhunter comes highly recommended by me as a series of stories which offer a great blend of science fiction, mystery, and character-driven superheroics, all firmly rooted in the DC Universe before Infinite Crisis reared its ugly head. It’s decidedly less flashy than what you may be used to today, but more grounded and solid. They’ve just announced that volume two is being released later this year, so that’s more good news. I don’t know if the rest of the series holds up in terms of quality, but I’m willing to give it a try.