For a character that has been often described as the heart and should of the Justice League and one of the great creations of the late Golden Age*, but in the half century of so, has had scant time in a series of his own. There have been more recent attempts at giving the character the centre stage, but the fact likely remains that most likely only remember the short-lived 1990s series by John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake. Martian Manhunter without a doubt, is long overdue for a more personalized story.
Enter Steve Orlando and Riley Rossmo with a new twelve issue maxi series that is not only a defining moment for the Martian Manhunter of Mars, but also a handy retelling, and deeper exploration of the character’s origin story. For a character that has been around for as long as he has, his backstory, specifically his time on Mars is often overlooked in favour of telling the age-old pastiche of “stranger in a strange land”. Right off the bat, Orlando and Rossmo demonstrate that this will not be just another generic origin story, however. No, this is not the Chocco cookie loving J’Onn J’Onnz; this version we see may be younger, but he is more cynical, or perhaps a brutal realist. We learn that as a Manhunter on Mars, his morality and intentions are considerably less heroic. He is driven by his own ambitions, his own desires, and it serves as an interesting allegory to the real world.
J’Onn’s actions are not without consequence, and it takes a sacrifice of the worst imaginable to finally send our protagonist down the familiar path of the hero. Split between two framing sequences of time and location, the Martian Manhunter’s earliest days on Earth are chronicled, even as his martian past looms over him. While the super heroics are of decent fare, the multilayered story benefits more from the character interactions, the smaller moments and perhaps more in J’Onn’s loss and failures, than his successes or triumphs. For an alien, the Martian Manhunter has always been written as a very humanized character, and we forget that this was not always the case, and certainly not at first. It is not that that character is suddenly a villain or even an anti-hero, instead we are treated with a character that usually sees the world in moral absolutes, living and benefitting from decisions made very much in the grey. It takes an exceptional creative team, the likes of Steve Orlando and Riley Rossmo to tell such a nuanced tale.
And one should gives considerable praise to Riley Rossmo, and not as an intentional afterthought as a stunning storyteller in his own right. DC has an incredible stable of artists working on its properties at the moment, and Rossmo is certainly on that list. His art is beautifully rendered in Martian Manhunter that reminded me, without being a comparison, to the stylistic flamboyance of Mitch Gerads. If one were to compare it to the recently reviewed Mister Miracle, one would have to admit that these two-self contained stories featuring second and third tiered characters are some of the best DC has put out in recent memory. It also goes to show just how unique and exciting the DC Universe could be, can be, wants to be but still cannot seem to find outside of these few examples.
This is one of the best interpretations of a comic book icon, equal in gravitas to Ostrander and Mandrake’s run; with time, it will hopefully be just as recognized and revered by the fandom.
*Some consider the Martian Manhunter the first Silver Age creation, but a stronger argument for The Flash and Showcase #4 as more widely recognized as the “first”.
Collects: Martian Manhunter (Volume 5) 1-12