You Could Remake Wings of Desire. Or Not.
The Martian Manhunter, beloved by many comic fans and ignored by the general public, has a miniseries out now that’s supposed to redefine and reinterpret the character. This isn’t a big deal. J’onn J’onzz has been redefined and reinterpreted a half-dozen times. What reviews I’ve read of the miniseries have been negative, and that this revision of J’onn (a grim, X-Files-esque grim-n-gritty conspiracy character) is wrongheaded.
Superman is considered a challenge to write by many because of his vast powers and strength. What can give the Ultimate Man difficulty? The Martian Manhunter possesses that challenge squared.
J’onn’s powers range so widely, it’s hard to make a comprehensive list. To begin with, he has the “Superman Package:” super-strength, flight, invulnerability, “Martian Vision” (a sort-of heat vision), and the now-ignored super-breath. He doesn’t have these powers at the same level as Superman, but he’s not that far off.*
Then there’s his telepathy, shape-shifting, intangibility, and invisibility powers.
I’m probably forgetting a few.**
The Martian Manhunter has been around since the mid-fifties and has never been a major player. In all likelihood, he’ll never be one. But consarn it, the character can be a good one, and I’d love to see him carry an ongoing series again.
Because ideas are cheap and easy, and so am I, here are a couple of ten-cent ideas out of my four-color brain for a workable ongoing Martian Manhunter series.***
Beetle-Brows of Desire
The Logic: J’onn can read minds, travel invisibly, and become anyone. He is also the last of his kind, a lone Martian among billions of humans. More than any mainstream superhero, J’onn could transition to a Vertigo title. The “alienated outsider moping” potential for a Martian Manhunter series is enormous.
The High Concept: Wings of Desire meets The Fugitive. An invisible protector and agent of change, the Last Martian rights everyday wrongs among a group of unhappy people and seeks his place in a world where he does not belong.
You can just smell the clove cigarettes and coffee, can’t you?
“I walk among them unknown. I am with them, but never of them. Alone, forever and ever, to know them to the depths of their souls and yet never truly know them.” And so forth. Anguish! Angst! Arty-fartyness!
A doomed love would be a necessary component to the series, I’d imagine.
Soundtrack by Morrissey.****
The Hunter of Men
The Logic: Most efforts to shape interest in J’onn as a solo character stress his Martianness. But that’s only half of his name. Put the accent on the second half: Manhunter.
J’onn has had flirtations with detective stories throughout his history, and a brief superspy career. During the James Bond Era of popular culture, also known as the mid-sixties, the Martian Manhunter infiltrated, fought, and brought down the eeeevil criminal conspiracy V.U.L.T.U.R.E.
Given J’onn’s less common abilities (telepathy, shapeshifting, etc.), espionage is a genre for which he’s well suited. Particularly comic-book espionage, with its orbital laser platforms, mad scientists, killer robots, and so forth.
The High Concept: The Human Target meets Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, with a hint of Superman. J’onn joins Checkmate, the superspy organization. They may or may not know who he really is. The Manhunter infiltrates and thwarts threats to humanity ranging from the globe-spanning Cult of Kobra to a handful of disaffected soldiers causing trouble in Mexico City. He can uncover anyone’s secret, reach any spot on the planet, and has the power to obliterate whatever stands against him. He was made for low-profile work.
Also, conspiracy masterminds make more sense as foes for J’onn than most villains. With his ability to read minds, the only way to keep him from discovering your plans is to make sure that the people you send against him don’t know your plans. Or know the wrong plans. Or use robots. Y’know, mastermind stuff.
My Three J’onzz
The Logic: The Martian Manhunter has been on Earth since the nineteen-fifties. He’s from a highly advanced civilization that was dedicated to both science and spirit. He’s been reading our minds and living among us for sixty years. In short, despite being a Martian, nobody knows the human heart half as well as J’onn.
Moreover, he’s well-known for being kind, loving, and compassionate. He was a family man on Mars, and he has close bonds with many humans. Due to his great losses on Mars, he appreciates the value of those bonds.
The Manhunter’s greatest success as a character came when he acted as the “heart” of the Justice League, especially in its comedy years. J’onn the kindhearted ringmaster of a loopy circus was a character readers loved.
The High Concept: The Brady Bunch meets Runaways meets Explosiones Grandes en Cuatro Colores. Plus jokes.
Cast J’onn as the patriarch of a clan of orphaned and/or abandoned superhumans. The children of fourth-rate supervillians, like in Runaways, or maybe just random kids. They range in age from ten to eighteen, and include Cindy Reynolds, also known as “Gypsy,” a teenage superheroine towards whom J’onn has felt paternal since her days in the Justice League, oh so many years ago.
The kids can vary in personality and be downright loopy. I figure there'd be about four of 'em, each with different whacked-out powers. A robot dog would be mandatory, as would Oreos. Lots of Oreos.
The Martian Manhunter knows that to keep the kids safe, they have to pretend to be a normal human family. The kids may or may not put up with this at any given moment. Also, since they’re the only superhumans in the greater Denver area, they’re also called upon to act superheroically on occasion.
To round out the family, J’onn and the kids share the house with Elaine Cannell, a character I just made up. Elaine is an ordinary woman with an ordinary life, despite being a telepath. She hides her power, since it freaks people out. Her telepathy is remarkably similar to the Martian flavor, which captures J’onn’s attention. She’s also warm and groovy. They fit together perfectly, and dadgumit if J’onn doesn’t have a love interest.
J’onn helps support the family through detective work with his old partner, Diane Meade. When not on the job, he trains and protects his proteges, as irritating as they can be. And, when the need arises, he leads them into big ol’ super-fights.
The series would have to be kept light and fluffy, with the occasional dip into Big Scary Drama. Sibling rivalry with superpowers! Date night drama! Lex Luthor has sent an army of Bizarros to attack, and they’ve torn up the vegetable garden! The world is ending and Gyspy has a term paper to finish! One of the boys has built nine robot dinosaurs and is attacking the school!
* Also in the Superman vein, he has a signature weakness, in the manner of kryptonite: fire. For most of his career, he’s been pretty much a Superman copy with a stronger emphasis on the alien side.
** Ye gods. It’s almost easier to make a list of things he can’t do. I’m pretty sure he can’t speak to fish. Though I suppose he could talk to fish if he applied himself…dammit, this is hard. He can’t time travel! There ya go.
*** Please note that all of these are “continuity lite.” No retroactive changes, but also not a lot of attention paid to the past. The brief ongoing Martian Manhunter series often got bogged down in explaining old storylines or retrofitting assorted junk into a more coherent shape. As a fan, I appreciated the effort to sort out the past, but it didn’t help the series. As far as these proposals are concerned, the Ostrander/Mandrake interpretation of J’onn J’onzz’s history is just fine.
Comics that exist only to clarify how old comics fit into new comics makes me sad. Infinite Crisis depressed me.
**** I date myself by my musical references. For you kids today, replace "Morrissey" with "Dashboard Confessional."