Writer Steve Orlando and artist Riley Rossmo seem to have one singular purpose with their new Martian Manhunter story: completely redefine the character. Not an easy task, especially for one of the founding members of the Justice League. So, how do they do? More than great, largely due to a tonal acuity and tightness that is rarely tapped like this in introductory issues; they exceed all expectations.
Starting with an assertion that the Manhunter, taking the form of a human detective known as John Jones, is not a hero…not yet, the narrative bristles with a renewed energy and focus – and yes, a complexity that grows from that assertion very soundly.
There’re so many threads introduced: a complicated but friendly relationship between Jones’ human partner and himself, a grisly murder, J’onnz’s troubled but equally heartwarming history on Mars, and a threat from the past rearing its ugly head that seem disparate at first but are united, cross-pollinated, and so further complicated by the issue’s end that I went back and read the thing top to bottom immediately after finishing just to revel in its intricate footwork again.
It’s astoundingly realized – hinting at so much more to come, but also standing on its own staggeringly well due to the logical, still intriguing structure of the storytelling that Orlando reigns in at the right moments and expounds upon in others. Watching J’onnz lie, even by omission to his wife, hurts. Likewise, however, watching him go above and beyond (foolheartedly as it might be) to protect his detective partner from threats she may not even be ready to comprehend yet endears – the balance is sound and focused, complex and character-driven, and I can’t wait to see the developments of the issue’s cliffhangers play out. Sure, the dialogue here is replete with technobabble that seems forced in to feel alien for alienation’s sake (especially across the first few pages), but once it hits its stride – it doesn’t let up.
That’s all to say nothing of the art, too. Presenting career-defining work, Riley Rossmo alongside colorist Ivan Plascencia bounce between a more honed, muted (but not boring) human world and a vibrant, truly alien-feeling Mars with a surehandedness and flexibility that will recall, fondly, Moebius and other contemporaries like Kilian Eng, or even the efforts of Andre Lima Araujo on the recent Silver Surfer Annual, which I similarly loved. A scene of an alien J’onnz descending on his prey feels truly predatory and rigid, while a…melding (alien sex) scene between he and his wife feels much more free-flowing, expressive and fantastically, for lack of a better, word goopy. It’s bright, pulpy (laden with a nice pop filter) and so immaculately detailed that you just might, as I did, get lost in a single page for more than five or ten minutes.
This is all to say that Martian Manhunter’s debut is more than good, it’s borderline revelatory. A character focused, artistically experimental and realized introduction like this comes along all too little. When it does, then? It deserves all the praise in the world.