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‘Martian Manhunter #1’ (review)

Written by Steve Orlando
Illustrated by Riley Rossmo 
Published by DC Comics

 

“Moons of Mars!”

J’onn J’onzz, Martian Manhunter, has been a mainstay of DC Comics for quite some time now, and one of its most fascinating concept heroes.

The broad strokes of his origin story are well-known – at least the Earthbound portion of it is – and it’s been retooled numerous times to keep the character alive as a central concern in the pantheon of Earth’s superheroes.

Caught unwillingly in the satellite receiver of a brilliant scientific tinkerer, Martian J’onn J’onnz is pulled somehow to our planet, only to be trapped here as his civilization, along with his own beloved wife and child, is destroyed in a tragic cataclysm. With no home to return to, and an extra-pliable power set that allows him to assimilate seamlessly into our world, J’onn J’onnz becomes John Jones, homicide detective, working the beat tirelessly in the grim canyons of Gotham City, until a fateful encounter compels him to don a colorful façade and reveal his powers, using them in service to his adopted people, among a community of fellow heroes and adventurers he comes gradually to think of as family.

Outlandish as that all is, it effectively captures one of the enduring myths of 20th century Americana – the green alien spaceman – and wraps it up in a heroic package that has managed over several decades to become the very soul of Justice in the DCU.

But again, that’s just the Earthbound part.

Few writers have attempted to round out the rest of the story. Grant Morrison notably took on the history and culture of Mars all the way back in his groundbreaking Justice League run, and Scott Snyder and crew are in the process of revisiting that idea now in their own. But still we have known really remarkably little about Martian Manhunter’s life and story prior to the day he made landfall on our own planet.

That all changes now.

In keeping with the move to renew some of the most popular and enduring elements of DC lore and all the characters that embody it, DC has green-lit a 12 issue limited maxi-series devoted solely to an exploration of J’onn J’onnz, and just what it is that makes him tick.

And so far, out of the gates, it’s a tour-de-force piece of storytelling that promises to become a cornerstone of the Martian Manhunter legacy we all have needed for just a little too long now.

Really this book is just spectacular. Writer Steve Orlando and artist Riley Rossmo are brilliant collaborators, and along with the delightful colors of Ivan Plascencia and the stylish sensibilities of letterer Deron Bennett, together they have realized the world of Martian Manhunter’s past with verve and panache and nothing held back

Sorry, make that two worlds.

I can think of few people better suited to carry off a project like this than Steve Orlando. He has a knack for building out insightful and imaginative new channels of character development, with storylines that both respect what has come before, while taking things in wholly satisfying new directions.

That’s exactly what’s needed here, and Orlando does not disappoint. The series is all backstory, and so far, we appear to have a tale that is designed to bridge J’onn’s two worlds prior to his time as one of earth’s superheroes – that of his early life as detective John Jones, and his heritage and memories of Mars.

In anyone else’s hands that effort could easily end up trite and predictable, but Orlando has pretty clearly taken everything he knows of Martian Manhunter and built up from there a rich, nuanced, and very thorough vision of J’onn J’onnz’s past lives, as well as Martian culture as a whole, complete with sly references to H’ronemeer, choco cookies, a new appreciation for J’onn’s traditional costume motif, his career choices, even Martian sex.

Juxtapose this against the gritty noir of his new life on Earth, and all that it has taken for J’onn to survive here, and his story begins to take on the tone of a fall from grace. A noble soul trapped in a lower rung of heartbreak and alienation, with no others of his kind left in existence, and with no one else to share his secrets with… until now?

Good thing Orlando’s got Riley Rossmo to help him realize the fullness of all this on the page. Rossmo has a striking, tending-to-cartoonish style, that nonetheless is firmly grounded in a masterful feel for perspective, composition, character mannerisms and expressiveness, that allows for a simply superb range of storytelling, one that handles both the harsh mortality of a noir crime scene and the wonder of an alien city-scape with equal facility. His take on John Jones is particularly well-conceived. It’s almost better than his J’onn J’onzz. Almost.

As for Mars, well, what a treat. A wonderland of geometries, future-tech, oddities and citizenry unlike anything we have seen before – except not. Orlando and Rossmo weave together elements of life on an alien world in ways that are both bizarre but also weirdly normal, with enough hallmarks of civilization and otherwise humane touchstones, that no matter how many big scarlet orbs, skin colors, amorphous limbs, and imaginative social shapes Martian society may consist of, it is all still remarkably… familiar.

Except for what isn’t. Like fright-foam, a particularly bothersome psychic phenomeceutical from another world that shouldn’t be turning up in a crime scene on earth.

One with unfortunate consequences for our favorite Manhunter from Mars…

Next Issue: What mighty big red eyes you have Mr. Owl…

 

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