While the previous issue of writer Steve Orlando and artist Riley Rossmo’s Martian Manhunter had the best scene of the maxiseries so far, with a telepathic deep-dive into the mind of a crime-witnessing iguana, it struggled under an erratic, misplaced plot that left a lot to make sense of.
Thankfully, the fifth issue — a bombastic, tense, personable and intriguing issue on par with the series’ engaging debut — makes no such missteps. Instead, it picks up the slack of a handful of disparate narrative threads, introduces new stakes for our eponymous hero and the supporting cast, and catalyzes a course for the rest the story deftly (to say nothing of how fantastic the art and design is).
What’s it about? DC’s preview reads:
J’onn J’onnz is no longer the sole survivor of the planet Mars! The vicious criminal Cha’rnn somehow survived the epidemic of H’ronnmeer’s Curse–and now he’s here on Earth! To survive his attack, J’onn will need Diane’s help–but even after he told her everything, what secrets is she hiding?
With the reveal that Cha’rrn (subtle name) is not only of Mars, but also the progenitor of the burning plague that destroyed J’onnz’s life, home, and family, Orlando is finally granted the opportunity to really explore the moral ambiguity that this story has been reliant on in the kaleidoscopic milieus it is due. He runs with it. Deservedly so, as this has been the strength of the series thus far (the overly verbose and alien for alien’s sake language is still a problem) and exploring the depths of not only how J’onnz feels about himself in his most morally grey, but also how others feel about him, is not only worthwhile but surprisingly exciting for something largely reliant on dialogue.
Not only is J’onnz a liar, but maybe the entire legal system the good parts of him seem due to are also morally bankrupt — what good is a panel that has sentenced thousands to eternal torture, even if they are presumably guilty — when they can’t remember their victim’s names? What about Diane — how can she judge when she seems to have just as much to hide? Is literal xenophobia justified when you’re working with an identity stealing alien? And Cha’rrn himself — does a seemingly unjust punishment justify everything he does in return — damning an entire planet to disease? There are no immediate answers. Nor should there be. What there is, however, is not only a fantastic externalization of the inner turmoil that J’onnz is going through, but also a great re-contextualization as to how he’s gotten there, why it matters, and what that same turmoil looks like for others (literally for Cha’rrn, as he utilizes J’onnz’s nightmares against him in a fantastically tense body horror segment).
The fact that these complex moral issues are written in a largely approachable, digestible way that also moves the plot forward sensibly and organically is a testament not only to Orlando’s sense of pace, but also to the sincerity with which the world and characters here are crafted. Not often is one character as emotionally rich, deep, and expressive as our titular “hero” by a fifth issue, and to do the same with a whole cast of characters alike at just the right moment is really compelling and unspeakably difficult.
Similarly, Rossmo’s attention to how those elements play out in the visuals is unparalleled. With assistance on letters from Andworld Design, a fantastic scene where Cha’rrn and the Manhunter are telepathically conversing, J’onnz’s dialogue bubbles wrapped in a green static and Cha’rrn’s in a red, feels uniquely tailored for the world of this book. Cha’rrn dances around a panicking, hallucinating Manhunter (whose mind is deteriorating as he imagines his skin does the same) taunting him and threatening him until the best lines in the issue: “Remember this…you were inches from my face, and no closer to catching me” are delivered as the book starts to, appropriately, lean harder into horror than the traditional weird sci-fi fare its been conversant in up to now. And that’s only one scene!
Truly, Martian Manhunter is unlike any other book on stands today. It’s emotionally rich and resonant, morally complex and revelatory, and still bombastic and comically fun in a traditional sci-fi sense that rings true with near to no missteps to be seen. With the release of every issue I’m both saddened by knowing it’ll end with the 12th — wanting it to last forever — and immediately eager for the next month’s release. And, as Manhunter steps into the halfway point, it seems self-assured, righted, and ready for anything. All the more empowered by the true rarity of writer and artist working so seamlessly that a world so removed from our own feels real, vital, and important even at its lowest, most difficult to look at, and upsetting from here to Mars.