The first three issues of writer Steve Orlando and artist Riley Rossmo’s Martian Manhunter were singularly fantastic. Evocative, emotive, mysterious and engaging this story has teased worthwhile character-focused angles out of the alien detective and most criminally overlooked member of the Justice League in ways I couldn’t have expected but have loved whole heartedly. Unfortunately, an erratic and slightly confusing fourth issue doesn’t hit the same highs.
What’s it about? DC’s preview reads:
“There’s only one witness to the murder of the Addams family, and the disappearance of Ashley Addams. Good news: master detective John Jones has tracked the witness down! Bad news: the witness is… an iguana. Can even John’s Martian telepathic mind withstand contact with a primitive animal? And in his past on Mars, the fiery plague of H’ronmeer’s Curse is creating a desperate situation… how far will J’onn J’onnz go to keep his family safe?”
A couple of worthwhile leads in what seems to be a frantic search to identify the source of the noose tightening around J’onnz from every angle! And yes, you read that iguana part right.
First and foremost, Orlando does a fantastic job of advancing a couple of very important plot threads here, and in satisfactory ways. A clearer picture of the insanity that played out on Mars as the fear around H’ronmeer’s Curse grew is appreciated, and hints of exactly what J’onnz did to get away from it even more so. This story succeeds in exploring the moral greyness of early Martian Manhunter, and the ramping reveals here feel earned, worthwhile and natural. In turn, the exotic elements feel equally outlandish.
None more so than a trip into an iguana’s mind – the single best twist in any of the issues of this maxiseries yet both narratively and artistically. I’ll admit that I didn’t expect a full-on lizard mind tap in this story, but after Martian body-melting sex, J’onnz being reconstituted by burgers, and more I really should’ve been more accustomed to Orlando giving me not what I want, but what I need. Psychedelic lizard detecting (with a surprisingly somber emotional twist) is it. The perfect encapsulation of the serious and silly extremes this book walks.
That being said, this issue struggles a bit under its own weight. If a flashback to Mars and lizard shenanigans were all that were here, it would fare much better. But it’s not. There’s a side story dedicated to John Jones’s partner, the missing Ashley Addams, our scary semi-transparent villain, and more. It’s simply too much for one issue, and interspersed with made up words and places that Orlando can’t seem to totally divorce this story from, it’s frustratingly hard to follow.
Similarly, and for the first time in the series, Rossmo’s art feels less-than-focused. Primarily in the paneling and choreography, as the story goes from rounded panels, to hard lines, to expansive double spreads in an attempt to convey time and place but misses the mark and instead obfuscates a lot of scenes and makes things feel overly tuned and manufactured. The double page spreads where J’onnz communes with our iguana friend – strange, uniquely alien, maybe even a little spooky- are the series at the best, as is the semi-transparent zip-a-tone of the main villain, but they feel frustratingly framed in a weird erratic hodge podge of forms that I can’t shake feeling offput by.
Ultimately, Martian Manhunter at its worst is still better than most comics, especially most superhero comics out today. However, this is still the series at its lowest, and I hope that future issues tighten up just a bit to get things back on track.