For the first year or so of the Justice League of America’s existence, the stories of DC’s premier superteam followed a fairly strict formula. Beginning with the team’s three tryout issues of The Brave and the Bold in 1959 and 1960, the tales told by writer Gardner Fox, penciller Mike Sekowsky, and editor Julius Schwartz played out according to a prescribed pattern; the team members (Aquaman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, the Martian Manhunter, Superman, and Wonder Woman — and, from JLA #4 on, Green Arrow) would come together at (or at least near) the beginning of the story; then they’d encounter or discover a menace; then they’d split into teams to battle different aspects of said menace; and then, finally, they’d come together at the end to secure their ultimate victory over the menace. Also as part of the formula, at least for the earliest adventures, Superman and Batman took no active role in the central team-up chapters, and sometimes didn’t even show up for the group scenes at the beginning or end; this was due to editor Schwartz deferring to the preferences of editors responsible for those heroes’ own titles, Mort Weisinger and Jack Schiff, who didn’t want DC’s two marquee characters overexposed. Even after the restrictions on using the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader eased up somewhat, there were issues when they were entirely absent (“on assignment” in Dimension X, or something else of that sort), and neither of them appeared on a cover until JLA #10 (March, 1962).
Of course, in following this formula, Schwartz and the rest of his creative team were simply emulating how their predecessors* had managed the adventures of the JLA’s Golden Age forebears, the Justice Society of America, in All-Star Comics. At least for their first thirty-six stories (the series ran for fifty-five issues), the JSA teamed up just at the beginning and end, with the individual members going off on solo missions in-between (single-hero chapters being practical for the JSA in a way it would never be for their latter-day counterparts, due the 40-plus page counts of 1940s comics). Even the limitations on featuring Superman and Batman had their precedent with the Justice Society, although their use in All-Star was even more constrained; from the beginning, they were referred to as “honorary” rather than full members, and they only played an active role once, in issue #36 (Aug.-Sept., 1947).
As the Justice League’s roster increased through the early Sixties, however — the Atom joined in issue #14, followed by Hawkman in #31, bringing the total number of members to ten (or, if you deign to count honorary member and “mascot”, Snapper Carr, eleven) — this formula began to become unwieldy. All-Star Comics could feature every Justice Society member in every issue, and even give each hero a solo spotlight — but the JSA, in addition to having had twice as many story pages as the JLA had, never had more than eight active members on their roster at any one time. By JLA #25 — just a few issues after the first two-part team-up between the Justice League and the Justice Society had featured a cast of sixteen heroes — Schwartz and co. appear to have decided that enough was enough. Having already dispensed with the plotting convention of always having the full team split up into smaller units for the middle section of the story (though that device would continue to be used fairly frequently), the creative team presented the first JLA story in which any of the members not named Superman or Batman failed to appear. Fox and Sekowsky’s “Outcasts of Infinity!” — notably heralded on the cover as “A 5-Star Spectacular” — found the team going into action without Aquaman or J’onn J’onzz for the first time since Brave and the Bold #28, and Green Arrow since his induction in JLA #4.
Not that there weren’t still stories that featured the whole team; there were, including the one in the very first issue of JLA I ever bought, #40, which even named all ten Leaguers on the cover (presumably because there wasn’t room for all of them to appear on it “in person”, and DC was afraid readers who were primarily fans of Atom, Aquaman, or Green Arrow might pass the book up). However, the next issue, #41, featured only eight members, while in #42 the roll call tally dropped to five. Thus, I learned early on that I couldn’t, and shouldn’t, expect to see every JLAer in every single story. By the time the series got around to issue #57, featuring a whopping total number of three superheroes, I was quite used to fluctuations in the team’s duty roster, and was probably only mildly surprised that DC had dared to dip quite that low.
All of which is offered as a rather roundabout way of explaining why, when J’onn J’onzz, the Manhunter from Mars, made his dramatic return in JLA #71 — after having been out of the book for well over a year — I might not have even realized he’d been gone.
It’s not that I disliked the Martian Manhunter, or anything like that. As I recall, I always thought he was pretty cool-looking, with his green-blue-and-red color-scheme making for a great visual contrast with the red-blue-and-yellow of the other Justice Leaguer he obviously had the most in common with, Superman.
And there, of course, was the rub. In Justice League of America, J’onn J’onzz generally came across as “just” a bald, green-skinned version of DC’s flagship character, simply due to how he was utilized in that title. This notion was fixed in my young consciousness as early as my second issue of JLA, back in late 1965, thanks to panels like this one:
One hero used “super vision” and the other used “Martian vision”, but it was the same power. Both of them could also fly, and both were super-strong, super-fast, and well-nigh invulnerable. But my then-eight-year-old self could find only one of them on TV every weekday afternoon, and in five or more other comic books virtually every month — and it wasn’t the bald, green guy.
Point of fact, J’onn J’onzz — who’d been around since his introduction as a back-up feature to Batman in Detective Comics #225 (Nov., 1955), giving him seniority over four of his fellow Leaguers (i.e., the Silver Age versions of Flash, Green Lantern, Atom, and Hawkman) — had a number of extremely cool abilities which Superman, for all his greatness, didn’t possess. Those included shapeshifting, invisibility, intangibility, telepathy, telekinesis, and precognition; but while it wouldn’t be accurate to say that Gardner Fox never referred to any of these powers of J’onn in his JLA scripts, he certainly didn’t emphasize them.
It’s been suggested that Fox and his collaborators leaned so heavily into the power-set that the Martian Manhunter shared with the Man of Steel due to the fact that their use of the latter hero was so circumscribed in the first year or two of the Justice League’s existence. Treating J’onn J’onzz as the “next best thing” to Superman meant they could still tell stories where a hero performed all the presumably crowd-pleasing feats that would otherwise have been the purview of DC’s premier superstar. That may well be true; though, by the time I started reading the series, the limitations on using Supes were pretty much over and done with, and Fox was still writing J’onn essentially the same way. Maybe he’d just gotten into a comfortable groove (or, if you prefer, rut) with how he handled the character by 1965.
In any event, my younger self didn’t have (or, at least didn’t take) many opportunities to cultivate a more comprehensive perspective on the Martian Manhunter. The hero had been shunted off from his long-standing backup slot in Detective Comics in 1964, when Julius Schwartz had replaced Jack Schiff as editor and promptly bumped J’onn J’onzz in favor of the more “modern” Elongated Man. Schiff had just as promptly made the Martian Manhunter the lead feature in a title he’d picked up as part of the overall editorial shuffle, House of Mystery. There, J’onn J’onzz got something he’d never had in Detective — namely, the cover spot. But by the time I started buying and reading comics in August, 1965, House of Mystery was no longer featuring him on the cover — the last one he graced was that of issue #153, published in July (see right) — and just a few months later, he’d lose even his headlining status, as he was once again relegated to a backup role. From issue #156 until the end of his HoM run, he’d play second fiddle to a new feature, “Dial H for Hero” — a superhero strip that my younger self never took a shine to, probably because I thought that it looked too weird. (As I’ve mentioned in a number of other posts, I had pretty conservative tastes as a kid.) In any case, I never bought a copy of House of Mystery until well after J’onn J’onzz was out of it.
And so, as things turned out, just about the only glimpse I got of the “complete” Martian Manhunter during the first few years I was reading comics was a single story that appeared in the back of World’s Finest #176 (June, 1968). “The Case of the Magic Baseball” was a reprint of the second adventure ever for “John Jones, Manhunter from Mars”; it had originally appeared in Detective #226 (Dec., 1955), and was by the feature’s original creative team of Joe Samachson (writer) and Joe Certa (artist):
This reprint was eye-opening to my younger self on a number of levels — not only did the Martian Manhunter use hardly any of the powers he shared with Superman in this story, relying instead on his shapeshifting, invisibility, precognition, and telekinesis — but he also only appeared in his superhero costume (i.e., Martian clothing) in a single panel. What was more, his alien physiognomy (which Certa routinely drew superimposed over Det. John Jones’ “human” countenance) was a good bit craggier than the entirely human facial structure I was accustomed to from Mike Sekowsky’s renderings in JLA.
While I found all of this interesting, I don’t recall that I was intrigued enough by this new side of the Martian Manhunter to want to go seek out his current solo exploits. Which was just as well — because his current solo exploits had come to an end just a few months earlier, in House of Mystery #173.** His last appearance in Justice League of America, prior to the subject of today’s post, had followed shortly after, in issue #61. Since then, a brief cameo with the rest of the League in a two-part Superman story in Action Comics had been the only time the hero’s fans could have caught a glimpse of him.
Perhaps, had Gardner Fox continued on as JLA writer, J’onn J’onzz might have eventually resurfaced within the series’ pages; but Fox himself was gone as of issue #65, and new writer Denny O’Neill was primed to shake up the book’s status quo, on a number of levels. He’d already written Wonder Woman out of the book, as of issue #69; and while that move was one made in coordination with major changes in the Amazing Amazon’s own series (which O’Neil himself was scripting at the time), the writer’s next action in regards to the League’s membership was entirely JLA-centric.
Interestingly enough, however, the story that would see this action implemented started off with an introductory scene featuring none other than the “New” Wonder Woman herself, the recently de-powered Diana Prince:
On the next page, a couple of “real” JLAers show up in response to Diana’s call — and Diana and I Ching abruptly (and awkwardly, in my opinion) drop out of the story completely, not to be seen again:
It’s a dramatic reveal, even if the comic’s Mike Sekowsky – George Roussos cover has already clued you in to expect J’onn J’onzz’s return within its pages; and the large, symbolic panel that dominates page 4 (effectively rendered by the series’ then-current regular art team of Dick Dillin and Sid Greene) serves somber notice by both word and image that this is not going to be a happy reunion of old friends.
J’onn’s one-panel recap of how he came from Mars to Earth is, of course, lifted directly from his 1955 debut, as originally presented in Detective #225:
This bit may have been old news to J’onn’s fellow Leaguers, but I’m pretty sure it was new information as far as my eleven-year-old self was concerned. The one reprinted Martian Manhunter story I’d read had stated that he was stranded on our world, with no way to return home until Martian scientists could “construct a rocket ship that can come to Earth” — but hadn’t explained how he got here in the first place.
What immediately follows, however, would be news to all of this story’s original readers in 1969, as well as to the JLA itself:
With this one flashback sequence, Denny O’Neil would earn the ire of a certain breed of continuity-minded fans, some of whom remain disgruntled to this day. According to John Wells’ American Comic Book Chronicles: 1965-1969 (TwoMorrows, 2014), at the time he scripted this story O’Neil had little to no familiarity with J’onn J’onzz’s background beyond his origin story, which he’d read in reprint in World’s Finest #175. Therefore, he was unaware that J’onn had made contact with his home world quite early on — as detailed in the sequence from Detective #236 (Oct., 1956) shown below:
A few years later, in Detective #301 (March, 1962), J’onn was even able to go home, after another scientist had repaired Dr. Erdel’s “robot brain”, and used it to send himself to Mars:
At the conclusion of this adventure, J’onn returned to Earth with the human scientist — but the repaired technology was left intact, and the clear implication was that the Martian Manhunter’s continued sojourn on our world would henceforth be on a voluntary basis:
So… oops, I guess. Of course, the whole notion of J’onn being stranded on Earth was in trouble from the moment he first teamed up with the Justice League, back in 1959; after all, two of his original teammates, Superman and Green Lantern, both routinely traveled to other planets. Once J’onn was in the JLA, it made no sense to suppose that he couldn’t go home if he wanted to — unless there were other, non-technological reasons for him to stay away. Thus, while O’Neil’s conception of a political exile might have contradicted the character’s prior continuity, it did at least provide a solid rationale for the Martian Manhunter’s having remained on Earth all these years.
Another element introduced in this flashback sequence, and one which would prove very important to the Martian Manhunter’s mythos in the decades to follow, is the depiction of one group of Martians having green skin, and the other having white skin. Prior to this story, all the Martians we’d seen in comics featuring J’onn J’onzz (if not all DC comics) had been green, with the exception of a single “Yellow Martian”, a criminal named B’rett, who’d made a single appearance about a decade earlier (Detective #273 [Nov., 1959]).
O’Neil downplays the racial distinction between the two opposed groups in his script, which refers only to “Desert Dwellers” and “Pole Dwellers”. But the comic book’s coloring makes that aspect of the conflict virtually impossible to ignore; and later creators of Martian Manhunter material, both in comics and in adaptations to other media, would get a great deal of mileage out of the theme of enmity between Green and White Martians.
The story never explains just why J’onn’s mind “snapped” just after his teleportation back to Earth — perhaps it’s a previously unknown side-effect of Dr. Erdel’s machine, or a result of the psychological stress of his recent experiences, or some combination of the two. Nor does it explain why J’onn, with his ability to shape-shift, would feel the need to disguise himself with head-wrappings and sunglasses, a la the Invisible Man.
But in the end, these questions hardly matter. J’onn’s temporary madness and ensuing, thankfully-brief rampage has served to provide an action-and-mystery-filled opening to our story (and also, perhaps, given O’Neil a chance to get in a plug for Wonder Woman).
This is the earliest incidence I’m aware of where a JLA story employs the notion of Batman drawing on Bruce Wayne’s vast wealth (and access to high tech) to equip the Leaguers for a mission, a la Tony Star’s bankrolling of the Avengers, the JLA’s counterparts over at Marvel Comics. Of course, it makes all the sense in the world when you think about it — but it’s not the kind of thing that had been mentioned by DC’s writers up until now.
At this point in the story, the majority of the heroes seem to be treating this mission as something of a lark, per the Atom’s jokey Star Trek reference — displaying a lighthearted attitude that seems rather off point, considering the dire situation on Mars that J’onn has described to them. I’m inclined to think that O’Neill — who started his comics-writing career at Marvel imitating Stan Lee, and whose earliest JLA stories feature a preponderance of humorous elements (e.g., characters like “Generalissimo Demmy Gog” and “Mind-Grabber Kid”) — was still working his way towards finding an appropriate balance between “fun” and drama in his superheroic adventure tales. Thankfully, the tone of the current story becomes more consistently dramatic as it progresses.
O’Neil may have considered J’onn J’onzz excess baggage in the JLA, due to his supposed close similarity to Superman and/or his present lack of a solo feature — but he obviously didn’t feel the same way about Green Arrow, who could easily be seen as a knockoff of Batman, and who was just as solo strip-less as J’onn, having lost his backup slot in World’s Finest Comics all the way back in 1964 (in the same editorial shuffling that saw the Martian Manhunter shunted from Detective to House of Mystery). To the contrary, O’Neil instead displayed a notable affinity for Oliver Queen, starting with his very first issue of JLA, #66, where he began to develop the “principled hothead” characterization that would soon come to define the bow-wielding hero’s persona. Just a few months later, another O’Neil story again gave Green Arrow a featured role (issue #69; cover shown at right). In this context, O’Neil’s contriving here in #71 to give GA the League’s only shot (literally) at escaping their current predicament can be seen as another preview of the major attention the writer would soon be lavishing on the Emerald Archer, both here in JLA and in Green Lantern.
Unable to pull all of his teammates out of the crimson energy band with him, GA picks the single most indispensable one — Superman, of course — and then, while waiting for the big blue Boy Scout to revive, takes a moment to muse on the irony of “we Americans” being rescued by what turns out to be a Soviet satellite. This suggestion of cooperation (unintentional though it might be) between the two opposing sides of the real-life Cold War provides a subtle, but still hopeful counterpoint to the absolute enmity between the two opposing sides in the fictional Martian conflict — which, as we readers will soon learn, is not going to end at all well.
Once recovered, Superman streaks back to Earth, locates a handy “silicone deposit”, and swiftly fashions a “super-prism” — which he then uses to break up the red radiance into all the colors of the rainbow, thereby freeing the League. And then, it’s on to Mars:
Pulling the powerhouses Superman and Green Lantern away from the rest of the team to deal with the mysterious Blue Flame is a useful plot device, as much of the action on the next several pages would probably get wrapped up too quickly, otherwise.
The Flash proceeds to enter one of the spacecraft by vibrating his molecules so swiftly that he phases through both his spacesuit and the ship’s hull; while the Atom shrinks down to sub-atomic size and then “calmly strolls through the atomic structure of the spacecraft’s interior!” (Coincidentally, this scene closely parallels one in the same month’s issue of Marvel Comics ‘Avengers, in which the android hero known as the Vision makes himself intangible to phase through a space station’s hull and open its airlock for his teammates. Of course, the Martian Manhunter, with his own power of intangibility, could have pulled off precisely the same trick; but it seems likely that O’Neil, having only read J’onn J’onzz’s origin story and [maybe] a few of his Justice League of America appearances, wasn’t even aware the character had such an ability.)
Once inside the ship, Atom and Flash make quick work of the soldiery nearest the airlock, and open the hatch to admit their fellow Leaguers. The ensuing melee is cleverly conveyed by artist Dick Dillin by means of a “cutaway” splash panel:
The panicking Blanx sets course for the surface of Mars, which now appears to be one giant ball of blue fire — but he is not unobserved:
How was the Blue Flame able to drain Green Lantern’s power in the first place? Why didn’t the ice planetoid affect the blaze? There’s no explanation forthcoming for either of those questions, I’m afraid — nor are readers ever told just how this strange Flame — “the only fire we knew!”, as J’onn put it on page 5 — fits in with the well-established Martian vulnerability to plain ol’ yellow/red/orange fire, like we have on Earth. Probably, the Flame’s very blueness is intended to signal that it’s “different” from ordinary fire, which is why the Martians can harness it and use it for fuel without any ill effects; but the story never expressly says so.
GL proceeds to peel the entire flaming surface off the planet, in the way one might peel the skin off an orange, and hurls it off into deep space. But it’s too late for Mars — it’s been transformed into “a gigantic cinder”, to use the Lantern’s phrase, where nothing will ever grow again. Still, things aren’t entirely hopeless; at least some Martians have survived, and as Superman and Green Lantern watch, they blast off in their space ark, having completed it just in the nick of time.
“We two are the last…” Presumably, Blanx assumes that all the Desert Dwellers have already been consumed by the Blue Flame — but it’s less clear why he would think he was the last of the Pole Dwellers, since there were plenty still alive on his spaceships when he’d fled, just a few pages back. Perhaps, being the genocidal, warmongering madman that he is, he’s made the assumption that the Justice Leaguers would summarily execute all their defeated enemies, rather than taking them prisoner.
In any event, J’onn and Blanx are clearly meant to be seen as the ultimate representatives of their respective cultures (and ethnicities?), waging a final, futile battle in the ruins of their civilization — a struggle which has some of the resonance of myth, invoking such antecedents as the duel between King Arthur and his rebellious son Mordred on the bloody battlefield of Camlann, the dream of Camelot already dead and rotting all about them:
“We were so close!” The cautionary moral that O’Neil is offering here might not seem sufficiently subtle for a modern, adult audience — but I think that it was pretty effective for me, as an eleven-year-old reader in 1969.
Attempting to comfort J’onn, Superman tells him about the escaped remnant of his people, the Desert Dwellers — but doesn’t mention the surviving Pole Dwellers, Blanx’s soldiers, who are presumably still alive on their spaceships up above, even if currently incapacitated. Indeed, he and the other Justice Leaguers seem to have forgotten about them — as, so I suspect, did Denny O’Neil. (Though I must admit that, to the best of my recollection, my eleven-year-old self never noticed this rather glaring plot hole.)
Continuing with the allusions to some of humankind’s best-known old stories, the Martian survivors traveling through the cosmos in their space ark — who “could be anywhere in the galaxy”, as Green Lantern puts it — evoke the image of the Biblical Children of Israel, wandering in the desert, searching for their promised homeland. And is J’onn, who now sets out on his own lonely quest to find and rejoin them, a reflection of the solitary Wandering Jew of later legend?
It’s a bleak, mournful ending to the story — probably the bleakest that had ever been seen in an issue of Justice League of America up to this time — but not an entirely hopeless one. And while virtually everything that occurs in “…And So My World Ends!” would eventually be wiped away from the DC Universe’s fictional continuity in the aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths, its impact on the characterization of J’onn J’onzz and on his related mythos would be both permanent and profound.
Before, the Manhunter was something of a good-natured dilettante crimefighter with a happy home waiting for him whenever he overcame a few obstacles and reservations on his part. From here on, he was the tragic survivor of a mostly dead race divided by civil war, with all his native loved ones wiped out in one fell swoop, who could never go home again.
With Justice League of America #71, Denny O’Neil effectively retired J’onn J’onzz as an active superhero, as well as as a JLA member — but left things open enough so that if a DC writer wanted to utilize the character in the future, they could do so. A little over three years later, a DC writer would do just that — and his name was Denny O’Neil.
J’onn’s reemergence came in the spring of 1972 — first via a one panel tease in Superman #253, then in a full-length adventure teaming him up with the Man of Steel, in World’s Finest #212. Both stories were scripted by O’Neil; in the latter, the writer reunited with his old JLA collaborator, Dick Dillin, for a story whose title — “…And So My World Begins!” — obviously positioned it as a direct follow-up to their JLA #71 tale. In this story, readers learned that J’onn had managed to track his people’s space ark to a planet called Vonn (later to be re-christened “Mars II”), only to find they’d been captured and were being used as living energy sources by militaristic alens called the Thythen. With Superman’s help, J’onn was ultimately able to free his fellow Martians and rout the Thythen, and the story ended on a hopeful note, as J’onn prepared to help lead his people in their making a new start, on a new world.
This story pretty much set the status quo for J’onn J’onzz through the remainder of the Seventies. From time to time, he’d turn up in Justice League of America, World’s Finest, or DC Comics Presents, in stories that usually found him joining forces with one or more of his old allies against some space-faring menace that threatened Earth as well as Mars II. In 1976, he even got a new back-up slot, this time in Adventure Comics; though it only lasted three issues (#449 – 451), it has the distinction of having restored the Martian Manhunter’s original, “beetle-browed” physiognomy, courtesy of artist Mike Netzer (then known as Mike Nasser).
Arriving on stands less than a month after the wrap-up of J’onn’s Adventure storyline (in World’s Finest #245), Justice League of America #144 (July, 1977) also featured the Martian Manhunter, but in a distinctly different mode. With this 33-page tale, writer Steve Englehart and artist Dick Dillin (still JLA‘s regular penciller at the time) provided a sort of prequel to JLA #71, as they revealed that Commander Blanx and his forces had been responsible for the hitherto secret origin of the Justice League itself. Coming to Earth in February, 1959 with the purpose of locating and executing the exiled J’onn J’onzz, Blanx and his fellow Pole Dwellers had caused so much trouble that ultimately, virtually every character whose adventures DC was publishing in early ’59 — from the Blackhawks to Jimmy Olsen to Rex the Wonder Dog — got pulled in on their case. This rousing adventure, which anticipated Darwyn Cooke’s somewhat similar New Frontier miniseries by almost three decades, effectively played off themes of Fifties paranoia and conformity to explain why, after successfully repelling Blanx’s “alien invasion”, the heroes who’d eventually form the Justice League of America chose to wait until public sentiment had cooled down somewhat before officially launching their team, with the Martian Manhunter as a charter member.
Back in present-day continuity, meanwhile, the Martian Manhunter remained based on Mars II all the way up to 1984, when a three-part storyline beginning in Justice League of America #228 brought another major change to J’onn’s status quo. This tale (written by Gerry Conway) revealed that a militant faction of Martians calling themselves the Red Brotherhood had seized power, and — impatient with the slow process of making the barren world of Mars II more hospitable — had determined to return to our solar system and claim Earth as their own. J’onn barely made it to Earth ahead of the Martian army’s vanguard in time to warn his old friends in the JLA of the coming invasion. Thanks to his intervention, the Red Brotherhood was ultimately thwarted, but at a significant cost; the League’s satellite headquarters was destroyed during the conflict, and Aquaman — citing the failure of most of the team’s most powerful members to answer the call to arms at Earth’s time of greatest need — formerly disbanded the Justice League. Meanwhile, J’onn J’onzz, now estranged from his own people, opted to remain on Earth, in voluntary exile. That left him in an excellent position to join the new Justice League that Aquaman formed out of the ashes of the old, which was based in Detroit and included new, unknown heroes like Vibe and Gypsy alongside J’onn and other veterans.
The Martian Manhunter remained active in the JLA throughout the “Justice League Detroit” era — and when that era came to an end, and a new one began, with 1985-86’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, J’onn easily transitioned into the new Justice League that rose in Crisis‘ wake. In the League’s Keith Giffen – J. M. DeMatteis “bwah-ha-ha” period, the Martian Manhunter played the role of “straight man” to the antics of Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, and others — and though it wasn’t immediately obvious in those Justice League stories just how very much the hero’s history had changed post-Crisis, DeMatteis made things quite clear in a related 1988 four-issue miniseries, illustrated by Mark Badger. This title — the first in the Manhunter’s 33-year career in which he’d starred under his own name — did away with much of J’onn J’onzz’ backstory, while introducing a number of important new concepts. And though a number of its changes to DC’s Martian mythos would be walked back within just a few years, others would prove to have considerable staying power. Among the most significant of these latter was the revelation that J’onn had been brought to Earth by Dr. Erdel’s machine not only across space, but also through time — in the present-day DC Universe, Mars had been a dead world for millennia. Also, J’onn had had a wife and daughter on the red planet, both of whom had perished in a worldwide plague; and his long-established physical vulnerability to fire was shown to have a psychological component, associated both with the plague and with the Martian god of fire and death, H’ronmeer. Finally, the familiar form that readers had understood for the past three decades to be the Martian Manhunter’s true self was shown to be every bit as much a disguise as Det. John Jones or Marco Xavier had been — as revealed in the story, the “real” Martian physiology, though still humanoid (roughly speaking), bore much less similarity to that of Earth’s homo sapiens. (Despite this revelation, however, J’onn would continue to “wear” his familiar shape when routinely interacting with the Justice League and others, at least for the time being.)
J’onn’s first solo miniseries was presumably at least reasonably successful, as he got a second one just four years later. The three-issue Martian Manhunter: American Secrets, written by Gerard Jones and illustrated by Eduardo Baretto, returned the character to his roots, after a fashion. Set in 1959, the story focused on John Jones, plainclothes police detective, as he investigated a murder mystery that was soon revealed to be anything but mundane. Like Steve Englehart’s JLA tale of 1977, the miniseries explored themes based in 1950s history and culture, including “Red Scare” paranoia, popular fascination with “flying saucers”, and the conformity of planned suburban developments. Indirectly, it also firmly established the Martian Manhunter as having been around decades longer than any of DC’s “heavy hitters” — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al — in DC’s then-current continuity, giving him seniority over any and all of his fellow Justice Leaguers, in whatever configuration that team might take.
And indeed, in 1997 the Justice League of America moved into a new configuration, which was… pretty much the same one as the team had debuted with back in 1959, save for the fact that the Flash and Green Lantern identities now belonged to two different guys. Otherwise, it was “The Magnificent Seven Rides Again”. In launching their new JLA series, writer Grant Morrison and artist Howard Porter made a substantial new contribution to the Martian Manhunter’s modern mythos, as the first menace faced by the new/old super-team was an updated — as well as more sinister and formidable — iteration of the White Martians. And as the series progressed, J’onn’s seniority among his fellow heroes, along with his status as the only one of them who’d stayed with the team consistently ever since the “Justice League Detroit” days, combined with his innate noble bearing and natural gravitas (his “bwah-ha-ha”-era
Oreo Choco cookies addiction notwithstanding) to give the character the kind of stature that would soon have both his teammates and the comic book’s readers routinely referring to him as the “heart and soul” of the League.
The immense success of the new JLA soon led DC to award J’onn J’onzz his own ongoing title, for the first time in his four-decade career. Launched with a “zero” issue in August, 1998, this series — mostly written and illustrated by John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake, respectively — further refined and elaborated on the Martian Manhunter’s post-Crisis history. Readers learned that J’onn had been a law officer (a “Manhunter”) as well as a philosopher on Mars; that the plague that had killed J’onn’s wife M’yri’ah and daughter K’hym, along with virtually every other Martian, had been engineered by J’onn’s own twin brother, Ma’alefa’ak (aka Malefic); and also that since his advent on Earth, J’onn had, over the decades, created and maintained a variety of identities all over the world, and that these varied in profession, race, gender, and even species (one of J’onn’s alter egos was actually a cat in Venice, Italy).
Martian Manhunter ran for thirty-six issues, a decent run, before succumbing to weak sales in the fall of 2001. Afterwards, the hero continued to be active in JLA and related spin-offs for the following half-decade, until, in 2006, he got a visual makeover (in which he took on a more alien form, as well as a new costume), and yet another miniseries. This one ran eight issues, and involved J’onn’s quest for other surviving green Martians. Following this solo turn, the Manhunter briefly joined the Outsiders, and then, in 2008, he appeared in the first issue of writer Grant Morrison’s new crossover miniseries, Final Crisis — in which he died, murdered by an obscure 1970s Justice League villain named Libra.
That’s right — J’onn J’onzz died, and was buried (on Mars, with most of the DC Universe’s heroes in attendance). But the desert sands of the red planet had hardly settled on his grave when the Martian Manhunter (along with just about every other deceased DC character) returned as a zombie “Black Lantern”, in DC’s next major crossover miniseries/event, 2009-10’s Blackest Night. Thankfully, J’onn was among those restored to full, non-zombie life (and his old customary appearance to boot) by the power of the White Lantern Entity in that series’ final issue. He went on to a major role in the immediate (and perhaps inevitable) follow-up, Brightest Day…
… and then, in 2011, everything that had happened in Brightest Day — indeed, everything that had happened since Crisis on Infinite Earths — actually, come to think of it, just about everything that had happened since before Crisis, as well — got wiped from DC’s fictional history with the miniseries Flashpoint. In the rebooted, “New 52” continuity that followed that crossover event, J’onn J’onzz had never been a member of the Justice League of America; instead, he’d been a member of the secretive organization Stormwatch — a super-team that had been part of the WildStorm Universe prior to the “New 52”. What’s more, as revealed in yet another Martian Manhunter series (begun in 2015, and apparently intended to be an ongoing, but ultimately wrapped up after twelve issues), J’onn had actually been born on Mars not hundreds, or even thousands, but millions of years ago; and he had come to Earth, not by way of Dr. Erdel’s “robot brain”, but by being flung to Earth by a great Martian cataclysm.
But in the same month that the twelfth and last issue of this Martian Manhunter series shipped, DC launched its “Rebirth” initiative — a sort of “soft” reboot, or course correction, if you will, in which a number of the “New 52″‘s more drastic alterations to DC’s continuity were effectively rescinded. Three years after the commencement of “Rebirth”, it’s still not entirely clear which parts of the DC Universe’s pre-Flashpoint history have been restored, and which haven’t; but it seems evident that as far as J’onn J’onzz’s biography is concerned, much of what was lost has been regained. In current continuity, he both was previously a member of the Justice League, and now is, again — indeed, he’s currently the team’s leader. And, as before, he arrived on Earth courtesy of Dr. Erdel — although the current creative team on Justice League have recently added a new wrinkle, establishing in the current series’ 16th issue that, years prior to that event, J’onn was temporarily brought to Earth as part of a secret scientific project, at which time he was befriended by a young Lex Luthor (!).
Finally, and more-or-less concurrently with the latest revelations in Justice League, DC has launched a new twelve-issue Martian Manhunter miniseries, written by Steve Orlando and illustrated by Riley Rossmo. The story of this series moves back and forth between Earth in the “present day” (actually, it’s probably at least a few years before J’onn’s current adventures with the League, and perhaps even before his first joining the team) and his past on Mars before he was pulled to Earth by Erdel’s machine.
Orlando’s script gives every evidence of his having read widely and deeply in the Martian Manhunter oeuvre, including such grace notes as having John Jones’ partner on the police force be Diane Meade, a supporting character from the Detective Comics days, and the inclusion in the Martian scenes of Bel Juz (or “B’ell J’uzz”), a villainess from the rarely-referenced “Mars II” days. There are even Yellow Martians, as well as the expected Green and White varieties.
There are also departures from comics tradition, of course. “John Jones” is now a black man — an understandable and even natural development, considering the hero’s abilities and history, as well as the precedent that’s been set by the portrayals of the Martian Manhunter in both animated and live action media adaptations. And Rossano’s visualization of Mars and its inhabitants, while nodding to the illustrators who’ve come before him, is truly something we’ve never seen before — a world of the artist’s own vivid, expressive imagination, that feels truly alien while still being relatable.
But there’s also this. To quote from DC’s solicitation copy for the first issue of Martian Manhunter: “Back on Mars, J’onn was about as corrupt as a law officer can be, and when a reckoning comes for his entire society, he’ll get a second chance he doesn’t want or deserve!”
J’onn J’onzz a corrupt cop? That sounded so wrong to me when I first read it, six months or so ago, that it soured me on the whole idea of the project. Everything that I’ve ever understood about the Martian Manhunter in over fifty years of reading about him, in whichever version of DC’s comics continuity might hold sway at any given time, points to his having been a noble and selfless man since before his coming to Earth. His exile to our world gave him the opportunity to be a hero in a way he might not have ever been able to be on his home planet, but the right heroic “stuff” was always there.
But, having decided that this blog post about Justice League of America #71 (remember it?) would include an overview of J’onn J’onzz’s career, I figured I needed to give the new series a quick look, at least. Now, having read the first three issues (all that are available as of this writing), I’m not quite sure what I think. Clearly, the Manhunter that we see roughing up citizens in Mars-set scenes like the one shown at left is morally compromised. But there’s also a mystery here; a sense that more is going on than meets the eye, that J’onn’s actions are being driven by more than simple venality. Adding to the intrigue is a suggestion that this mystery may be related to the one “John” is currently investigating on Earth with Diane Meade — and that both may be connected to the plague, “H’ronmeer’s Curse”, that doomed Mars. This complex of interlocking mysteries, combined with everything else that I find appealing about this comic book, is enough to keep me reading. Perhaps I’ll regret this decision nine months down the line (or even sooner), but for now, I’m in.
And that’s about it for today’s (very lengthy) blog post. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! Honestly, I had no idea when I started writing this one that it would take such a vast amount of wordage to provide even a high-level summary of the Martian Manhunter’s 54-year career; though, in hindsight, perhaps I should have guessed that a shapeshifter as adept as J’onn J’onzz would be hard to pin down to a simple, straightforward through-line.
However, if by any chance you’re such a huge J’onn fan that you wish the post had been even longer, and are annoyed that I left out your favorite storylines and/or characters (any Scorch fans out there? How about Cay’an, or D’kay?) — or that I barely touched upon the Manhunter’s appearances in other media — well, all I can say is that I’m writing a blog, not a book. Though, maybe, someday…
On the other hand, if you’re wondering how a simple retrospective on a fifty-year-old comic book got so incredibly out of hand — well, you can console yourselves that at least I didn’t take the time to tell you all about Zook.
That’s gotta count for something, right?
*These “predecessors” actually included both Schwartz and Fox among their number, as both had worked on the JSA feature in All-Star, though at different times.
**In truth, even if I’d wanted to check out J’onn J’onzz’s solo adventures earlier in my comics-reading career, I’d have been out of luck regarding the sort of straightforward, crime-busting stories that were exemplified by “The Case of the Magic Baseball”. The Martian Manhunter’s plainclothes police detective identity of “John Jones” had been retired when he left Detective for House of Mystery, just before I started buying comics; he’d gone on to spend the first part of his HoM run fighting the evil spawn of the Idol-Head of Diabolu, and the latter part working to thwart the nefarious crime cartel VULTURE, usually in the guise of “Marco Xavier, internationally-known playboy and man of mystery!” If you’re interested in further details, I am happy to refer you to The Idol-Head of Diabolu: A Blog for J’onn Jonzz, a great source of information on all matters Martian.