Martian Manhunter’s first issue from writer Steve Orlando and artist Riley Rossmo, assisted with stunning colors by Ivan Plascencia was explosive, earnest, and surprising in its sincerity as well as its slightly sinister inclinations. So much so, that I was convinced that the second issue couldn’t possibly live up to the promise of the premise laid out for it. I was wrong, the second issue is as equally good, if not even better.
What’s it about? DC’s preview reads:
“Return to Mars in the days before its doom to see the love affair of J’onn and M’yri’ah…and a Martian coming-of-age ritual you’ll NEVER forget! All of these painful memories J’onn carries with him to his new life on Earth…but first he’s gotta survive the pain of a car crash, being set on fire and accidentally revealing his true form to his detective partner! Did we mention she’s heavily armed?”
A concise preview, and one that’s not inaccurate by any means, but also one that doesn’t fully capture what I find so enthralling about Orlando’s writing, and by extension J’onn’s story this far: the stunningly smart narrative interweaving. This issue is no exception. Snapping between a story of J’onn and his family on Mars, and detective John Jones and his (now terrified) partner on Earth is no easy feat! Orlando makes it seem so. Especially, because it’s all unified by an important, precise message about our bodies and images that elevates not only the narrative at hand but Martian Manhunter beyond what I thought was possible.
J’onn, still at best amoral here and at worst criminal as introduced in the first issue, hides himself from people. He becomes John Jones out of a sense of pride and duty, sure – but also out of fear – and that fear extends to the people around him, most notably his partner now but also in small ways in these thoughtful, quieter moments on Mars. Those moments, which yes have too high a lexicon bar for entry, focused around “social forms” (a body changing ritual on Mars where each individual chooses a form to present to the rest of their kind) and the reasons they do these things is staggering. Is it a commentary on coming out for the LGBTQ+ community? Is it a look at the ways society shape who we think we ought to be versus who we really are? Is it more or less? It’s anything to anyone because our bodies are so deeply personal…and scary. This narrative, only two issues in, hits that note so well between this back and forth that it’s hard to fault anything here at all. I want and need more.
Similarly, Rossmo and Plascencia’s art is thoughtful, precise, and realized in this unique way that matches the narrative perfectly. Bodies mash, melt, change and shift in ways that feels truly alien and complimented by a pallet of peculiar pinks and greens it feels new, too. One scene of Jones desperately trying reshape his human form at the end of the issue highlights this perfectly: his face riddled with bumps reminiscent of mold or the craters of Mars itself, Jones begs for his partner to take a moment to understand – she returns with looking on in horror, gun drawn. It’s tense, strange, and all the while disarming while other scenes are sweet, sincere and sorrowful. A near perfect balance.
All said and done, this issue stands among the best sophomore issues I have ever read. It picks up all of the threads from its predecessor with little lag, it hits a stunningly sharp philosophical point, and it looks good doing it. There’s next-to-nothing to fault.