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Martian Manhunter: The alien who could teach us a thing or two about humanity

In a lengthy career, J’Onn J’Onzz has served as the heart of the DC universe.

The outsider and the glue.  The stoic who feels everything.  The down-to-Earth alien. Martian Manhunter.

J’Onn J’Onzz is a character unlike any other.  He has existed in the eyes of the DC Universe for 60-plus years, and yet remains a mystery. Many characters in the DCU began as the last of their species, most notably Superman.  Many characters in the DCU tend to be great detectives as well as great heroes, most notably Batman.  But only one character has witnessed the destruction of their entire race, lived on Earth as a detective – not to mention hundreds of other personas, each with different and unique experiences – and still chooses to fight crime as a giant green alien. Martian Manhunter lives as someone proud of who he is, even if he doesn’t always feel like a role model.  There’s a lot this 6-foot Martian can teach us about the ins and outs of humanity.

Martian Manhunter was first seen on Earth as a backup story from Joseph Samachson and Joe Certa in 1955’s Detective Comics #225, where he combined many of the aspects people loved about Superman and Batman.  He was someone not from this world, with extraordinary abilities that were never quite defined, yet frequently prioritized his sharp deductive skills as detective John Jones. In many ways, this parallels Superman’s origins and powers.  Both characters had comics that today are considered silly, with story arcs that center largely around overt coincidence, but Martian Manhunter exhibited something that Superman rarely did: loneliness.

For many decades, Superman was the hero, with the intention of boosting morale, saving the day from the morally dubious, and serving as a pillar of excellence for all to aspire toward. Sure, he had problems, but he couldn’t prove overly emotional or he’d lose that appeal.  Martian Manhunter, however, exhibited a vulnerability and loneliness that Superman rarely did.  Before he was the last of his kind, J’Onn J’Onzz consistently looked for a way back to Mars. He talked to his family when he could through various technological means. They were usually small moments, but they captured that all-too familiar longing for loved ones. It was a hint of emotional depth that would pave the way to a touching and heartbreaking future.

Martian Manhunter had an extremely early start as a team member. He was right alongside heroes like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern and Aquaman in the first Brave and the Bold team-ups, and at the original inception of the Justice League of America. J’Onn had an invaluable power set, but it was his team-first attitude that kept him on so many iterations of the Justice League. He has the least number of individual arcs when compared to any other original member, but readers could often feel and get to know the real J’Onn J’onzz when he was serving on a team.

After all, he could understand the plights of almost any other superhero. He has enough vulnerability in some of his stories to bridge the human with the superhuman. He could take care of earthly criminals and alien threats, and he could certainly understand heroes from other worlds, born of tragedy, or who value good old-fashioned detective work.  

In 1964, J’Onn’s first dramatic shift occurred. He said farewell to his life as a detective, one of the primary features that kept him grounded on Earth. He began dealing with the strange, occult-like effects of the Idol Head of Diabolu. He fit in naturally with the strange and off-kilter, but the shift took away many of Martian Manhunter’s tethers to Earth and humanity.  J’Onn largely stopped learning from humanity, and we stopped learning from J’Onn as a result.  It wasn’t long before Superman became a permanent member of the JLA, House of Mystery came to an end, and J’Onn J’Onzz largely faded from public importance for 15 years.  

Luckily, J.M. DeMatteis had the foresight to bring Martian Manhunter back in new and exciting ways, and Martian Manhunter became more and more defined. DeMatteis started to take a crack at Martian lore in his 1988 Martian Manhunter miniseries, writing about Martian language, both public and private forms, and J’Onn’s family. For awhile, Martian Manhunter existed as someone very different from who he is today, but in 1988, we begin to see how and why Martian Manhunter became the hero who could operate in fundamentally different ways while remaining true to his core values.  He is the best kind of leader who can adapt to the needs of his team members without compromise and while maintaining  an inspirational level of fortitude. A people person despite his cosmic differences.

Yet J’Onn has also existed away from humanity and other heroes through much of his tenure. It is a quality that Steve Orlando describes as “his otherness” when talking about his recent take on the Martian Manhunter. A lot of insecurities come from worrying about our own differences, quirks, or “otherness,” and it’s what attracted many, including Orlando, to the character. John Ostrander is probably the biggest contributor to the modern day Martian Manhunter, and he really latched onto that idea of J’Onn as an outsider.

Ostrander and artist Tom Mandrake take the first opportunity to differentiate J’Onn from Superman during a heartfelt conversation that takes place in Martian Manhunter volume two #0, “Pilgrimage.” J’Onn feels a sudden urge to return to Mars, and Superman tries to bond with him over their shared alienation, to which Martian Manhunter says, “I am and will always be an alien, what writer Heinlein called a ‘stranger in a strange land.’  One other thing separates us.  You did not witness the death of your people first hand.  I did.”

It’s one of J’Onn’s most honest moments because he acknowledges his position. He is proud of his form, and the way it connects him to his home planet, but recognizes that he must sacrifice truly belonging to humanity in the way that Superman blends in seamlessly. This issue also establishes the inspiration writers frequently draw from sci-fi literature, including Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.   

J’Onn’s “otherness” is further established in Martian Manhunter: American Secrets from Gerard Jones and Eduardo Barreto.  Jones really captures the paranoia and fear present in the book’s era (the 1950s) through the observations of Martian Manhunter. J’Onn is learning how to be a human detective, but he prefers to work alone because he sees most everyday interactions as superficial. He sees people afraid to trust one another and that makes him afraid to trust humans in general. This comic was less about the case Martian Manhunter was solving, and more about his journey across the American landscape. It offered something decidedly different – a look at humanity from an outside perspective. Martian Manhunter sees a world plagued by conspiracy and lacking creativity.  

Serious issues such as creative censorship, the shattered image of old heroes, corruption, organized crime, and immigration are all brought to the forefront. It was one of the first times a superhero took a good look at humanity and was disgusted at what he saw. When Martian Manhunter finally saved the day, it wasn’t with his superpowers, but rather his intelligence and intuition.  His outsider qualities are once again brought to the forefront during the 2011 Stormwatch series, where he tells his team members as little as possible and often looks at humans with disdain.

Despite his qualms with humanity, Martian Manhunter’s history shows the universal need for personal relationships and lasting connection.  We aren’t perfect, but J’Onn sees what there is to be gained from connecting with others and helping them grow, and continues to so deeply immerse himself in the human experience. J’Onn is more than just a constant presence or piece in the machine – Martian Manhunter is the figure that causes everyone else to be better. He is the role model, the quiet leader, the supportive friend and more. He fits whatever role he needs to on a team so that the other members can perform at their best and grow.

Even on Stormwatch he stayed silent and let others lead despite his experiences. Many writers have tried to capture these qualities in their comics.  Geoff Johns pays homage in Blackest Night #2 when Flash says, “The Martian Manhunter was the heart of the Justice League.” Grant Morrison depicts multiple moments where J’Onn contributes to the betterment of others. Scott Snyder even made him chairman of the Justice League.  It is Peter J. Tomasi, however, who captured J’Onn’s impact best, in my favorite speech in comics (from Final Crisis: Requiem):

J’onn was a friend, an ally, a brother in arms, a confidant, and a comedian with the driest delivery you could possibly imagine.  J’onn knew most of us better than we know ourselves, and sometimes had no problem letting us know that fact when we strayed from our true north.  We were J’onn and he was us.  For a telepath, love is of the mind as well as the heart and body.  If he could read our thoughts now, he’d know how much we already miss him.   

It’s a roaring speech further magnified by the terrific artwork from Doug Mahnke, showing the entire league transcribing Martian history. We have seen a number of funeral scenes before, but this one showed each member’s anguish individually. The panels are outlined in the radiant fire deadly to Martians. Every hero from every team felt his loss and grieved in different ways. The issue is truly a work of art and a love-letter to the character.

Despite all of this raw emotion, Martian Manhunter is almost always written as a stoic for a number of reasons.  In team books such as Justice League International and Stormwatch, it was easy to make J’Onn the straight man of the team. When acting serious next to the antics of Booster Gold and Blue Beetle, Guy Gardener, Midnighter and Apollo, or a bag of chocos, Martian Manhunter can generate quite a few laughs. There’s value in Manhunter’s comedic side, but more so in Steve Orlando’s take on J’Onn’s stoicism.  That idea that it’s a buffer for when he’s feeling alone and ashamed of who he is or what he’s done.  In the past, J’Onn’s periods of seriousness have usually come after the death of others. I’d love a retrospective lens into J’Onn’s psyche to see if his stoicism was a coping mechanism.  

I’d imagine it’s hard to keep his own emotions so bottled up when he can feel those of others. As someone who often finds it difficult to understand what people are feeling, I have always been drawn to Martian Manhunter, who in some ways, has taught me to feel even more. It ties in to J’Onn’s ability to seem more human than anyone around us. In our world today, it is often hard to find people who understand us and who remain truly loyal. Despite sometimes questioning the motivations and character of humanity, Martian Manhunter has never strayed from his vow to serve and protect humanity.  

Once again in Ostrander and Mandrake’s Martian Manhunter volume two#0, J’Onn finds the dying detective John Jones almost immediately after coming to Earth, encountering boundless hostility and fear, and says, “I will serve and protect as you strove to serve and protect. Your people are mine now. And I will not fail. The guilty will be brought to justice.” J’Onn is the last to turn against those he cares about and the last to waver in his morality. Despite the negative aspects of humanity initially encountered, Martian Manhunter chooses to assume dozens of identities around the globe in order to learn more about us (as seen in Morrison’s JLA: Secret Files). In doing so, J’Onn is able to have a number of experiences that humans could never hope to have. He is all of us – quite literally. 

All of these qualities are what make Martian Manhunter the hero we know today, and the hero that attracts many readers like myself. It is extremely rewarding to see J’Onn back in the Justice League where he belongs, serving an important role in a battle of minds against Lex Luthor and the Legion of Doom. On another front, Steve Orlando and Riley Rossmo are doing astounding work with Martian Manhunter in a self-titled maxi-series that has already defined the character in bold and groundbreaking ways and serves as a pseudo-“Year One” story. It adds unparalleled richness and depth to Martian lore while giving readers a vulnerable side they have never seen before.  

As for the future, I’d like to see J’Onn’s individual and team sides brought together more. The two sides are so distinctly different, and that isn’t the case with many other members of the League. The vulnerability that we see when J’Onn is alone or with one other person can actually be a valuable leadership tool.  Reflecting upon his ability to support others may turn out to be a source of growth.

In truth, I have little idea of what lies ahead for Martian Manhunter.  In Ostrander and Mandrake’s Martian Manhunter volume two annual, Superman once said, “J’Onn, you are the league, perhaps more than any of us.” Martian Manhunter has devoted his life protecting and preserving everything we hold dear and aspire to become. He saw the pillar of excellence and achieved it. If the 6-foot Martian can do it, why can’t we?

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