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Ah, the Martian Manhunter. Don’t you feel like waxing lyrical on the Martian Manhunter? I know I do. But let’s get a few preliminaries out of the way first.

J’onn J’onzz is not a terribly popular character. It has been suggested that the simmering racism of many comics readers may have something to do with it. It’s not implausible: he’s not a gift from the stars to a God-fearing couple, no “naturalised alien” but a true refugee. There may be other forms of bigotry at play, too. His power of metamorphosis suggests a lack of regard for our rigid Earth-bound notions of gender and sexual identity. Besides, J’onn is mostly depicted as a bloodless creature, largely devoid of interest in matters of the libido. All this poses serious questions like, how can the dudes root for somebody who’s not really one of the guys?

The Manhunter from Mars started out as a back-up feature in “Detective Comics”, in 1955. Left stranded on Earth by the “robot brain” designed by one Dr. Erdel, he was a “phantom detective” who fought crime armed with all the powers from the sci-fi pulps which his creators, Joe Samachson and Joe Certa, could manage to regurgitate: telepathy, shapeshifting, intangibility, invisibility, abilities more commonly associated with the shadowy bogeymen of that paranoid decade, the spies, saboteurs, subversives, fifth-columnists, invaders from Russia or outer space. Gradually, this surreptitious castaway gained the abilities of the strongman template so ably embodied by Superman. It didn’t help much. J’onn ended up an adjunct to the kind of superfolk the kids actually liked to dress up as, the guy with the heavy brow-ridge, the JLA’s wise Other. He’s been at it ever since.

It’s hardly the most profound of insights, but it apparently poses a considerable challenge nonetheless: these things get going on wish fulfilment. Be John Carter, you can marry a Princess of Mars, maybe lay an egg together. That’s the foundation. If we want the Manhunter from Mars to become the star he deserves to be, you have to want to be like him. Obviously, it shouldn’t be assumed that “you” are necessarily one of “the guys”.

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It’s not an impossible task, because there is indeed a common thread running underneath the disparate elements that define the Martian Manhunter. As it happens, he enjoys the freedom that must come when the body is a perfect –an almost perfect– tool of the will. And freedom and unbound wills, it’s almost too obvious to mention, lend themselves to the wettest of power fantasies.

Fortunately, the business of coming up with a gallery of rogues for our hero is relatively straightforward. As we’ll see, the Martian Manhunter could keep taking the field against twisted versions of himself forever. He’s the ultimate “be glad he’s on our side” kind of cape, really.

Superfolk also need places to call their own, and it is imperative that J’onn’s corner of the DCU be allowed to expand. The more relevant sources of inspiration are those that led to his creation, the pulpish retro stuff that goes back at least to
Percival Lowell and “The War of the Worlds”. The Mars of atomic horror and the Barsoom of planetary romance. UFO conspiracy theories and creepy, squeaky-clean utopias. Don’t think for a second it’s dated stuff, it’s more suggestive than ever.

But enough of the generalities, let’s have fun, throw shit at the wall and all that. Bear in mind that I will only say very generic things about characters’ “motivations”, because I proceed from the assumption that persuasive storytelling in a popular romantic genre such as superdudes tends to hinge on other stuff.

That being said, J’onn could use a supporting cast, people who fulfil the essential role of being human around him. They could be archeologists, for example, sifting through the ruins of Mars under his guidance. Cities cribbed from the imaginations of Dinocrates, Paolo Soleri or Philippe Druillet; burial mounds made for many-armed nomad kings; storehouses where wondrous transuranium elements are kept in precarious stasis; the hellish psionic enginerooms and accursed flesh-banks of the White Martians; places where lines can be gracile, baroque or austere but always forbidding; such would be the targets of human curiosity and greed. J’onn would protect the genuinely curious and strive to keep away the looters. Plot-wise, every Dungeons and Dragons cliché would come out to play and be given a sci-fi spin.

Mars shouldn’t be the only venue of the Manhunter’s adventures, but he should always return to its windswept plains, eventually. For the standards of the caped set, Mars is just around the corner, its presence more ominous than any chunk of kryptonite. I wouldn’t try to change that.

Ever since Lowell captured the public’s imagination with his vision of dry seabeds and life-bearing canals, Mars has been the original Dying World. It’s probably not a coincidence that Krypton, Almery, Urth or Sheeda Side are bathed in red light: hanging an ailing star in the sky is a convenient way to make a planet of your choice look more Martian. Obviously, the death-of-a-world genre lends itself to all manner of teleologies, theodicies, eschatologies, tales of rebirth and renewal, comforting meditations on the illusory nature of time, assurances that Death is but the final act of an ultimately transcendent ongoing Story, how did Alan Moore put it, “brave banners of romance unfurled, to blaze forever in a blazing world.” I don’t buy into any of that. I’m pessimistic by nature, and simply appreciate the desolate majesty of the setting. Whatever the case, maybe the more graceful way to tackle the Big Questions is to allow the humans who expend time on Mars with J’onn to react to the Red Planet and its tragedy in sundry human ways.

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Mars has powerful mystical and mythological connotations which, in keeping with our hero’s background, I’d tend to interpret in a Fortean, Euhemerist way. In particular, the Martian pantheon of DCU continuity could consist of “elder” Martians, mortals who had developed one of the incredible powers of their race to absurd levels. J’onn would be our last line of defence against many of them. This would be somewhat similar to Doctor Strange’s schtick, which is never a bad thing. The Martian “gods” could be a riff/pisstake on the cliché of the heroic “apotheosis”* i.e. that thing that no self-respecting larger-than-life superbloke, be it Sun-god Superman or the Swamp Thing, seems to do without. I’ll mention some of them as the need arises.

*Incidentally, J’onn’s very own brand of apotheosis is, as per DC One Million, already scheduled. He merges with the soil of Mars and effectively becomes the Red Planet. On the one hand this is a great idea, evocative of a world of inexhaustible vistas, a place shifting and canny like the title character. On the other it’s a priceless bit of –possibly unintended– ironic commentary on J’onn’s status: the Martian Manhunter as a big lump of dead rock.

Of those mythological connotations, the most obvious is that of Mars as the war god, the macho lord of iron and blood. This stands in curious contrast to the powers of the Martians, whose intellect and fluidity of form are as “Mercurial” as it gets. The delightful crackpottery of the likes of Immanuel Velikovsky can provide inspiration to solve this riddle. According to the “secret history” of the Red Planet, it careens like a cataclysmic pinball across the Solar System, spawning different variations of the Martian template as it bounces around. The Ares of myth can be a dim memory of the ancestor hero of the Martians of the Age of War, i.e. the White Martians*. Let’s call him N’eok’onn.

*Since Ares is one of Wonder Woman’s villains, this would make the continuity clusterfuck of the DCU even more confusing. That’s OK, as far as I’m concerned.

As befits a myth for our times, the fascination with aliens begins with the flesh and blood and gristle of them. According to the UFO literature, aliens and men don’t tend to meet with an open hand but with the scalpel at the ready. This suggests a horror-based scenario, in which J’onn becomes the object of the gentle ministrations of the vivisector, maybe in some Area 51-like research facility.

These crude portrayals of slabs of meat on an operating table often go hand in hand with unimaginative spiritual aspirations. The usual depiction of J’onn’s powers is derivative of mainstream religious views of dualism, the notion that mind and body are different substances in a fraught relationship. A Martian’s body is like a magic wardrobe, the infinite shapes contained therein all available for the essential thing, the soul, to don and discard at will. The soul can even walk around “naked”, incorporeal and unseen, and touch other souls without touching them. And yet, it’s easy to argue that it is precisely the fact that our bodies are not completely subject to our wills that renders dualism plausible in the first place. Since we know that the Martians are not as alienated from their bodies as we Earthlings, dualism will not necessarily feature as prominently in their tradition as in ours.

At any rate, you can play with this stuff. Maybe it is unhealthy for a Martian to abuse her powers of intangibility, and people get back in touch with their mass with hypergravity treatments. Surely, the mind/body interaction must go both ways, and there are body shapes, perhaps standard “configurations”, that send a Martian into a berserker rage, a deep melancholy funk or whatever. Perhaps, if you grow too many new eyes you may be struck blind upon return to your fallback shape, or suffer from the Hunger of Y’umm –an elder Martian– if you grow too many mouths. Maybe the Martians, who can “see” or “touch” minds directly, think that a beautiful mind with beautiful thoughts is no less a superficial, shallow thing than a beautiful body. In that case, they would be the ultimate believers in the “road to hell being paved with good intentions” bit, and would deem actual good deeds to hold absolute primacy. More disturbingly, maybe some Martians have discovered that they don’t only possess the power of shapeshifting, but of “mindshifting” too, the ability to mimic any set of personality traits.

The power of mimicry, be it of body or of mind, can be quite frightening. The wolf becomes more formidable when it puts on a coat of sheepskin, and not only because it can infiltrate the herd. No, he who can imitate others turns the “I am large, I contain multitudes” bit into a statement of monstrous intent, appears bigger than those he imitates and owns them in a way. It’s the aliens’ turn to grab the surgical implements: imagine a “collector of shapes”, a lone, particularly obsessive White Martian who abducts specific targets and takes time to copy not just their outward appearance, but the shape of their bones, the internal organs, in loving detail, from the outside in. A “mindshifter” could work in the guise of a hypnotherapist, maybe going so far as to apply an arcane Martian past life regression technique to plagiarise whole timelines’ worth of experience. The parasitic angle can be played up too. Think for example of an eremitical cosmic being, bloated with the soul-stuff of the countless petitioners and seekers of wisdom it has sucked dry over the eons, an ancient Martian with an oversized head and a cloud of desiccated corpses orbiting it like an unholy halo, like so much space junk.

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Have you noticed how considerate J’onn is? All he ever does is take one shape at any given time, he never gives Earthlings a fright by turning into a hybrid chimera being. Other Martians may be less nice. As a child, I was scared shitless by that scene towards the end of John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, where the monster emerges in all its awful glory, mixing bits and pieces of all the people and animals it has imitated over the course of the movie. I think the horror of that image lies in the possibility that the Thing is taunting us, saying that we are pwned in more than one sense. For one thing, it displays all the Earth life forms it has conquered, the trophies it can grow from its flesh. It also lumps all Earth creatures together, lobster and dog and man, intimates that we are the same in its eyes. Stretching things somewhat, one could even say that the monster seems to mock our analytical habit –the Thing is bumping off scientists after all– of “cutting things up” into constituent parts to better understand them, by showing off its ability to rearrange those parts in arbitrary, unnatural ways. What I’m trying to get at is, a Martian does not even need telepathy to fuck with our heads.

J’onn is the JLA’s go-to guy for a good yoga session. Apart from the whole “third eye” thing that telepaths have going on, this may have something to do with the following. A comic-book shapeshifter is somebody who can become anybody and thus potentially everybody, and is therefore in a sense a graphical representation of the widespread mystical ideal of identifying with the Universe, of discovering within oneself that one contains all other things in germ. Yes, I know, it’s an incredibly coarse characterisation of many disparate traditions that can justifiably be called “mystical”, but you get the idea. To put in other words, it’s easy to imagine that in the transition between two shapes a Martian briefly assumes a primordial shape, undefined, unlimited. Now turn the idea on its head, assume that such a state is really one of primal, howling chaos, that to linger there is to court madness, and you get G’obb the Shapeless One, a big jelly monster who demands that everything be absorbed or “reintegrated” into its mass.

While we are at it, proving (with science!) that shapeshifting is indeed the best superpower of them all, let’s speculate that Martians do not really have a “natural” shape but a default one, that the ideal of the Vitruvian Martian –you know, the famous drawing of a naked bloke by Leonardo da Vinci, but from Mars– is more about having a sound mind than a sound body. Perhaps this default Martian shape is inculcated into them at a very early age. For added exoticism and ickiness, you could even have that basic “shape training” completed during a baby’s gestation, using low-level telepathy or some such. Whatever. Conversely, it is conceivable that Martians can avoid getting old and flaccid, as long as they stay mentally alert. This would have interesting implications: for instance, the White Martians’ aggressive, fascistoid ways could be re-imagined as a way of life meant to guarantee immortality.

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Of course, since the default shape thing would be an ethical-aesthetical kind of deal, you could count on the dissent of the Martian avant-garde. H’unkk of the Many-Angled Narcissisms, for example, is known for the high levels of aggression it displays when others don’t accept its polyhedral shape as the non plus ultra of Martianhood.

Shapeshifting is the core power of the Martian Manhunter in every sense, and almost all the others can be explained away as specific applications of the ability to impose form upon pliable matter. Ultimately, it’s the best superpower in the whole of superherodom because of its sheer scope, and because this scope merits belief, since it’s an attribute of the unknown. Whatever is clouded in mystery will have a hazy, fluid outline in the mind’s eye. That’s why I think a writer should worry less about J’onn’s “characterisation” than about playing with the imagery, and with the attendant expectations of the audience.

Speaking of which, the powers that J’onn shares with Superman, super-strength and the like, are stereotypically masculine, classically Martian. A grotesque, it’s-so-gross-it’s-artful-and-back-again kind of story could involve an attack on Earth by an unstoppable horde of insectoid, reptiloid aliens in the tradition of Starship Troopers the movie or Aliens, who die in droves but prove uncannily flexible, adaptive. J’onn is reluctantly forced to shift into his avatar-of-war “body configuration”, i.e. a mountain of tumescent muscle, and wades through seas of claws and teeth in vaginal spaceships until he comes face-to-face with the “Vermin Queen”, a horribly mutilated Martian crone who’d spawned her children by slicing off bits of her body and imbuing each of them with a “subordinate intelligence”. This exceedingly dodgy set-up could be rendered palatable in a number of ways which I’ll leave to you, oh astute reader, to work out.

One thing I’ve never managed to wrap my head around is the notion of a “Martian language”. Aren’t they telepaths? Perhaps the term “language” is an approximation, apt for human consumption. Their telepathic form of communication should be image-based, basically because these are comics. Textures, patterns, designs, more figurative stuff…all is worth more than a thousand words. How do they learn it? Kids are trained to speak, and maybe Martian toddlers are trained to think in a structured way to facilitate communication. Think “parent”, it sends you to the mandala of “don’t cry”, and so on. The need to do so would be even greater than among humans, imagine a Martian baby howling in your head, assaulting you with an explosion of glaring colours. The White Martians would stick strictly to such highly organised forms of communication, their “picto-thoughts” arranged like a huge database, e.g. like hypertext (you could represent this by having any “picto-thought” in a “sentence” be surrounded by a cloud of smaller thumbnail images, indicating other “picto-thoughts” the speaker is “linking” to for added nuance). They would regard thoughts like “love” with great distrust, because when contemplated they would tend to “link” themselves to all others and thus be at best uninformative and at worst bring about a collapse of the system. The Green Martians would be more tolerant of new patterns and ambiguity, more apt to recycle images from personal experience, etc. It’s all an excuse to allow artists to strut their stuff, really.

Another story: J’onn is in the middle of a lively conversation with that hard-nosed idol of millions, the Green Arrow. Ollie says, “you know, God is supposed to be this omniscient dude… so why can’t you detect His mind, with your Martian powers?” J’onn waffles a bit on the dangers of the endeavour and offers the cautionary tale of the ill-fated cosmic telepathic background radiation observatory they tried to build on Mars once.

He is so insanely powerful that he should be able to do faster-than-light travel. I mean, why not? Speed of thought, baby. If he can pinpoint a mind across the gulf of spacetime, he can get there, no hassle. Now picture him lost, at the other end of the universe. He has to return to Earth, pronto, so it’s fourth-wall breaking time, dear reader! Think! Think hard! The Martian Manhunter stakes his life on you! But…this is not…wait…what kind… what were you thinking, what have you set free!?!?

I am so sorry.

The Martians’ weakness to fire is somewhat puzzling, which is not a bad thing. The current explanation in DCU continuity seems to have something to do with the traumatic memory of the funeral pyres of the Martian people, which has always struck me as silly. First of all, people are already sold on the idea of Mars as a dying planet, so why turn it into Krypton-lite by dispatching all the Martians in one fell swoop, with an ill-conceived “plague” or “curse”? Also, why would you try to burn Martian corpses if they weren’t vulnerable to fire in the first place? And why are the White Martians affected by it too? The idea that the aversion to fire has a psychological component is worth keeping, though. Fire could embody the raw essence of the aggressive side of Mars, and could be too much to bear. Another possibility would be that Martians actually suffer from a weird form of pyromania, that they are mesmerised by fire because it embodies perfect fluidity, purity, constant renewal. For all their eldritch power and unearthly ways, Martians should suffer from an affliction well known to their human cousins, only more acutely. Their identities should be flimsy things, transient and –arguably– illusory. But almost all of them would need and cherish the illusion. Fire would be a deeply disturbing thing to them, arousing the self-destructive urge of achieving release, of never settling for anything, unlocking thoughts of metamorphosis that consume and blow them apart. Martians could have a deep-seated race memory of an ancient enemy, advanced beings who enjoy an even greater freedom than them, who have left behind the shackles of base matter and are made of, say, pure energy. Maybe these beings are known to humans as well, going under such names as djinni or faeries. Could they be Martians as well, born when the planet had a close brush with the sun? Maybe they are actually the dwellers of another (the fifth?) dimension, which Martians cannot visit lest their atoms scatter in directions for which there are no names. These beings could try to lure Martians into their abodes with enticing siren songs. Perhaps every flame, however tiny, opens a doorway to that realm. Not unlike the many sorts of kryptonite, there could be many kinds of fire in that place, which would affect Martians in different ways. Maybe Hronmeer, god of fire, was the Martian counterpart of John Carter, a mortal who somehow married a princess of Faerie. Perhaps.

This could go on forever. It’s clear by now how I would like my Martian Manhunter comics to be, tightly bound up with matters of great urgency and yet too gaudy to ever think of losing their light touch. Quintessential superhero stuff. The transcript of a message, possibly from another planet, first received by two forgotten workhorses called Samachson and Certa, one day in 1955.

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The Mindless Ones would like to thank our semi-regular Doubtful Guest, The Satrap, for kicking off the second phase of our character reviews.

Cheers, Trappers. Take a bow

30 Responses to “Heroic Hype: Martian Manhunter”

  1. HitTheTargets Says:

    “These crude portrayals of slabs of meat on an operating table often go hand in hand with unimaginative spiritual aspirations. The usual depiction of J’onn’s powers is derivative of mainstream religious views of dualism, the notion that mind and body are different substances in a fraught relationship”

    Tut tut, have you forgotten already? There are no dualities. Only symmetries! J’onn may take any human form at will, but it’s his rigid sense of Martian self that makes him forever an outsider. He may be an outsider, but he knows our minds better than we do!

    If Martians’ physical powers are extrapolated from shapeshifting, then their psionic powers derive from a similar, unnamed mental process akin to Enlightment. And both of those traits owe their genesis to Martian Total Cellular Awareness. So that’s the one part of the analysis I take issue with, babies with a full complement of superpowers. Superman may have powers because he was born Kryptonian, but J’onn has powers because he lived Martian.

    Martian civilization, when there was enough of it to go around, never set out to conquer the stars. Sure, fire is nearly as common as lead is for Daxamites, but they could’ve gotten around that if they wanted to. They do not take to the stars for the same reason they do not imagine an immortal soul separate from the body. Because Martians are all about finding satisfaction where you are & finding meaning in giving one’s own life meaning. A bit of Nietzchean Zen.

    And yes, the White Martians lean towards the former while the Green favor the latter. You didn’t think the Whities were cackling, cartoon villain evil did you? No, they just have a different set of ethics, one which happens to be okay with millions of humans dying if it means White Mars somehow advances or develops. Lucky for us we have a Green Guardian who believes all life is connected & sacred.

    Fire harms Martians. The one quirk of Martian physiology is that it is also Martian psychology. So (barring an explanation that fire exists in the astral plane just as it does in the physical) if Martians can’t become fireproof, it means they cannot conceive of becoming fireproof. This is H’ronmeer’s Curse.

    It could be written as a explainable yet incurable, but isn’t the human reader more fascinated with the epithet itself and what it leaves unsaid?

  2. The Satrap Says:

    First of all, thanks a lot to the Mindless Ones for hosting my ramblings. Think of all the puppies that have been spared a kicking thanks to this little outlet.

    …There are no dualities. Only symmetries!

    That’s great and all, unfortunately most superhero comics are more likely to channel Jessica Simpson’s Christian pop than Alfred North Whitehead or Grant Morrison. Hence the griping. Griping’s good, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

    Martians’…psionic powers derive from a…process akin to Enlightment… I take issue with babies with a full complement of superpowers… J’onn has powers because he lived Martian.

    That’s an interesting and undoubtedly legitimate take –these reviews and hypes are not supposed to be definitive, in any sense of the term– but I think the issue of whether J’onn’s powers are innate (at least to a degree) or acquired is not that fundamental, ultimately. Since we’re talking about a green dude from Mars, it’s fair to say that the reader can be trusted to not take the exact placement of the MM on the nature-nurture spectrum too seriously.

    Fire harms Martians. The one quirk of Martian physiology is that it is also Martian psychology. So (barring an explanation that fire exists in the astral plane just as it does in the physical) if Martians can’t become fireproof, it means they cannot conceive of becoming fireproof. This is H’ronmeer’s Curse.

    Yeah.

    It could be written as a explainable yet incurable, but isn’t the human reader more fascinated with the epithet itself and what it leaves unsaid?

    Ambiguity and mystery are good, of course. The problem is, when one leaves too many things unsaid about a character, the character becomes a bit of a cipher. That’s the Martians’ true curse. The solution to that –the most realistic one, I guess– is to answer one question about a character’s background while simultaneously raising three new ones.

    You didn’t think the Whities were cackling, cartoon villain evil did you? No, they just have a different set of ethics, one which happens to be okay with millions of humans dying if it means White Mars somehow advances or develops.

    Actually, one could argue you’ve just provided a pretty good working definition of a kind of cartoon villain evil, whereby a very common, everyday form of nastiness is spray-painted onto a big fuck-off cosmic canvas. More generally, pulpy, romantic fiction shouldn’t be necessarily beholden to notions of “psychological realism”, whatever that means. White Martians, villains, can be allowed to be eeeeeeevil, as long as they are intriguing, as long as they aren’t obvious. If eeeeeeeevil is what it takes for White Martians to chill out in the guise of that spiffy Azathoth picture posted by our gracious hosts, then so be it.

  3. Zom Says:

    It’s not the removal of mystery that I want to see around the Martian’s problem with fire. I’m not looking for something as straightforward as a literal explanation – the science of it – I’m looking for a poetic description, the sort of thing that Morrison and Moore specialize in. Hence me loving the whole fire as the embodiment of change (time=fire is a popular mystical equation) thing. It works beautifully.

  4. Zom Says:

    Love the dude with the orbiting corpses

  5. Bucky Sinister Says:

    Love the idea of the Elder Martians. They give the Manhunter a set of natural opposite-number style villains, wouldn’t be too very difficult to work into the established history, and (best of all) enhance the simple “high concept” of the character instead of complicating it. Very elegant, and it beats the hell out of my idea for accomplishing the same thing: establishing that the Saturnians from the 1980s Jemm Son of Saturn series are actually Martians who fled their homeworld after the Martian apocalypse. That would give us three Martian races (White, Green and Red), and take us swiftly into Edgar Rice Burroughs territory…

  6. Juan Arteaga Says:

    “One thing I’ve never managed to wrap my head around is the notion of a “Martian language”. “

    An spoken language would be pretty useless for them, surely, but they would still need a written language to pass around their knowledge to future generations without having to count on just their possibly not perfect and biased memories.

    How or why it evolved into a full spoken language baffles me. It can’t be useful even to talk to other species, since they can use telepathy there as well. I suppose it became spoken only for radio communication with other planets. Can’t think of anything else where it would have been needed.

    Speaking of J’onn not having a life outside the JLA, I liked the idea introduced in one of those JLA 80 page giants, secret files or secret origins books DC liked in the 90s that J’onn is actually very famous and liked in the southern hemisphere. Superman handles the north from the Fortress of Solitude in the North Pole while J’onn handles the South from the hidden Martian City of Whatchamacallit (or W’att’sha’mac’allitte’) in the South Pole.

    “He is so insanely powerful that he should be able to do faster-than-light travel. I mean, why not? Speed of thought, baby.”

    Someone once corrected me on that. The speed of thought is limited by the speed of electrons in the brain which are much, much, much slower than light.

  7. Zom Says:

    I suspect Satrap knows that, Juan. That kind of confusion is born of forgetting that minds are firmly rooted in biochemistry and aren’t cartesian non-extended in space, thinky things

  8. HitTheTargets Says:

    “Actually, one could argue you’ve just provided a pretty good working definition of a kind of cartoon villain evil, whereby a very common, everyday form of nastiness is spray-painted onto a big fuck-off cosmic canvas. More generally, pulpy, romantic fiction shouldn’t be necessarily beholden to notions of “psychological realism”, whatever that means. White Martians, villains, can be allowed to be eeeeeeevil, as long as they are intriguing, as long as they aren’t obvious. If eeeeeeeevil is what it takes for White Martians to chill out in the guise of that spiffy Azathoth picture posted by our gracious hosts, then so be it.”

    I can live with that. Some villains can get away with having no goals other than the mayhem they cause if they make up for it with suitable amounts of panache and good ol’ razzmetazz. Here shapeshifting and mind control are godsends. Heck, toss in man-eating, we are as cattle to the overmen of Mars. And mental induction of fear & despair, it makes the mind control more fun.

    FWIW, my definition for cartoon villainy comes from Captain Planet’s foes, who spill oil & hunt pandas because apparently they think it’s funny or something. Technically an alien (Other) set of ethics, yes, but not one you can believably scale up to a whole society. Again, this lack of realism is fine as long as your eeeeeeeevil villains do what it is they do with intriguing flair.

    I suppose the end goal is more about making sure J’onn is someone whose conflicts we want to see. In that regard he doesn’t need more ruminations on morality but rather fantastic battles against strange foes, preferably on sweeping vistas of a stunning red world. As a John Carter-alike, enriching the savage people of a world unknown to him, it’s more about how many skulls he needs to bust than why he needs to bust ‘em. (And teaching hot babes how to love, of course.)

    Anyway, thanks for writing this up, it’s been very thought provoking as you may be able to tell. To be honest I kind of wrote off MM after his latest miniseries sucked out all the poignancy Ostrander had given to Mars as a Dying World.

  9. Bill Reed Says:

    Dude, I would love love love to write a Martian Manhunter series– and the simple problem is focus. J’onn can be anything, and therefore there have been too many takes on him, too many historical revisions. He has no single identity– his origins involve the crashing together between pulp traditions and sci-fi traditions. He is the Fractured Man.

    I like “John Jones, detective,” and “Marco Xavier, superspy,” and “Superman of the Southern Hemisphere.” I like your ideas of elder Martians and castoff Martians and the seeming mysticism that the Martian physiology would bring about. Finding some kind of balance between all the cool Martian Manhunter elements is the hard part.

    But remember this: Superman can hear their screams, their cries for help. J’onn J’onzz can hear their prayers… and he answers them.

  10. Papers Says:

    “Finding some kind of balance between all the cool Martian Manhunter elements is the hard part.”

    Ha! Balance? Really? I think the interesting conflict, at least from a narrative standpoint, would be a lack of balance between all those crazy Martian elements. We are, after all, suffering-celebrating through a Postmodern Age, and J’onn’s whole kick is that he’s seven times more Prismatic than, you know, the Flash. Barry Allen suffers regular bouts of surrealism but if J’onn is about balance and oneness, if he’s always on the go and struggling to maintain identities he only keeps around for convenience, I can think of a whole arc for that.

    Imagine ALL-STAR SUPERMAN #10, which is your basic “day in the life” story, told from the Martian perspective. Who cares about keeping with the Planet, how does J’onn keep up with being a Gotham City police detective, a superspy, a superhero, a bartender in Houston, a guerilla in South America, a sherpa, etc? Potentially you could have him struggle with local cultures in his secret identities, simply because his lack of time/depth forces him to use stereotypical representations as shapes. If you’re everywhere, trying to learn about humanity or monitor humanity or experience the full range of life among non-telepaths, how deep can you go? How much time does he devote to each persona’s backstory, does he maintain relationships and lives for them all (interesting polyamorous implications)…?

    I wouldn’t mind one story focusing on the Elders–as an idea they’re cool but they could play out quite quickly. Who among humans gives him a run for his money?

    He’s such a Peter Milligan character, if you think about it, and Milligan shown himself to be adept at dealing with all-powerful characters (like, swoon, Shade) — J’onn is all about the fluid identity, body, mind, etcetera. I LOVE-LOVE-LOVE J’onn as representative of non-dualistic Martian culture, completely weirded out by humans and our habit of separating body, mind and soul into three categories. J’onn should have no need for astral planes or whatnot — for Martians, the world is the astral plane is the afterlife is the now.

    Honestly, imagine if J’onn is only able to use his powers–particularly telepathy, I’m thinking of–because humans make that division, and that self-delusion or perspective can be exploited by Martian telepathy.

    I love the New Frontier’s J’onn and his understanding of culture coming from TV; I think it’s probably one of the most accurate portrayals of him to date. Accurate = interesting, of course, it’s all mercurial like the (wo)(hu)(being)man zirself.

  11. Zom Says:

    It would be fun to find way of narrativising J’onn’s non-dualistic philosophy; It’s a great idea.

    Fun but hard

  12. The Satrap Says:

    Thanks to everybody for the comments, I’m really excited at this chance to do exciting things, new things, like talking to people and such.

    An spoken language would be pretty useless for them, surely, but they would still need a written language to pass around their knowledge to future generations without having to count on just their possibly not perfect and biased memories.

    I would implement Martian script by resorting to some sort of telepathically charged “psycho-runes” bullshit that allows a trained Martian to see a kind of telepathic video reel. These runes could fuck with the head of an unwary human archaeologist in a major way.

    The idea of Martian telepathy as a purely graphical device would be terribly unpractical, but it would be in line with an obsession of mine, the ability of comics to convey meaning in surprising, ad hoc ways.

    The speed of thought is limited by the speed of electrons in the brain which are much, much, much slower than light.

    I just wanted to poke fun at the overuse of meta-narrative conceits in comics, by allowing a shokushu goukan monster its own fourth-wall-breaking moment of glory.

    …I kind of wrote off MM after his latest miniseries sucked out all the poignancy Ostrander had given to Mars as a Dying World.

    Ostrander’s run was not bad, if a little po-faced for my taste. I thought it was marred by Mandrake’s art, who’s a good artist but a terrible mismatch for the title in my opinion. It was a mess of mostly black panels, where the subject-matter demands colour. He paid little attention to the backgrounds, which are essential in most superhero comics and in particular when dealing with a character whose softness of form seems to require solid, strong lines around him. Finally, I didn’t like his “ethereal” depiction of J’onn’s powers, it reinforced the impression that I was reading a Christian allegory. If I had my way, J’onn’s body would go “splurtch, plokch, skwitch” when it changes, much like Moore and Totleben’s Swamp Thing when it re-grows a limb.

    … the simple problem is focus… Finding some kind of balance between all the cool Martian Manhunter elements is the hard part.

    Focus, balance, that’s all shorthand for a creative team’s idiosyncratic vision, no? I’m with Papers on this, I’m onboard with a character that can accommodate pretty much anything.

    For example, this:

    Imagine ALL-STAR SUPERMAN #10, which is your basic “day in the life” story, told from the Martian perspective. Who cares about keeping with the Planet, how does J’onn keep up with being a Gotham City police detective, a superspy, a superhero, a bartender in Houston, a guerilla in South America, a sherpa, etc?

    could potentially rock quite hard, though it’s not the kind of story I’d imagine myself writing. That being said, I cannot agree with this bit:

    I wouldn’t mind one story focusing on the Elders–as an idea they’re cool but they could play out quite quickly.

    I don’t think that ideas ever “play out”. Some people may grow bored with some of them, which is fine of course. I personally would love to come up with a catalogue of fucked-up Martians for J’onn to tangle with, a compendium of fiends with silly names like Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal. G’rinn of the Cracked Countenance; R’ott, on whose tattered cloak flies gather to die; L’uxx the Green Lantern of Mars, his mummified frame filled with an sickly green glow.

    I sound like a broken record, but it all has to do with my willingness to eschew “realism” in superhero comics. If it’s done well and knowingly, one can write about people without ever depicting people, if you know what I mean.

    He’s such a Peter Milligan character

    Milligan on form would be great, indeed.

  13. Papers Says:

    Oh, I don’t mean to suggest that crazy mummified Martians aren’t a good idea — particularly L’uxx — but the idea of Martians who have each developed one ability to the apex seems a bit off with what we’ve been talking about with regard to Martian culture, but that’s just my reading.

    How -does- one differentiate Martians beyond skin colour, actually?

    And why skin colour, anyway? Why did they *choose* to differentiate like that when colour is mutable as everything else? Is green meant to complement the red sands of Mars? Does white equal death or starlight or something?

    Oddly, if you had twelve or so humans who banded together and used “science” to each develop a Martian power and then get better at them than J’Onn, for some reason that interests me. Jack of all Trades versus specialists.

  14. HitTheTargets Says:

    You could answer a handful of those questions by introducing a Martian protoculture that was neither green nor white. To avoid being overwhelmed by the chaos of five billion shapechanging mentalists yadda yadda yadda… two strict philosophical disciplines emerged. And since the Martian body is a tool of the mind, those with similar beliefs maintained similar forms.

    And at the same time, certain individuals embraced neither school of thought (school of form?) and instead pursued a personal evolution (education?) into a species of one. Going by this explanation, the gods would be crazy by default. Which is more interesting than evil, because crazy can be harmless.

  15. Zom Says:

    I think the thing that we need to keep in mind here is that we’re not talking about philosophy, we’re talking about entertainment. Some of Satrap’s suggestions might be tricky to justify on the basis of the Martian philosophy he’s described (tricky but not impossible), but more importantly they sound like *fun*

  16. Papers Says:

    Entertainment can not be philosophical?

    Philosophy can not be fun?

    Straw man arguments aside (See? I’m lighting them on FIRE because FIRE repels MARTIANS, who scare me!), I have no problem with stories about the twelve elders or whoever and do like the idea. I’m just curious, given how fractured J’onn is as a concept, how many different stories and villains can be grafted onto his mythos. How does him being the Superman of the Southern Hemisphere affect his villain base, for example?

    I also think it’s worth arguing about the mechanics because in the context of these rogue’s reviews and heroic hypes it’s fun to argue over the philosophy and mechanics of the ideas.

    For some reason, I see a very 1950s anti-communist Red Scare fanatic as a villain could be a lot of fun, though I’d need some time to figure out how not to make him or her a stereotype…

  17. Faisal Says:

    Hey guys, great post as usual.

    My idea of the Martian Manhunter has always been dictated by the first comic book that I ever bought. Its something that you might be interested in, Papers, since it is pretty much exactly what you asked for.

    THere was an issue of Secret Files I think that came out during Morrison’s run on JLA that was written by Morrison and Millar if i remember correctly. It had a great, Batman-Batman-being-cool-and-mortal intro short with Starro, and then there was a cute little day in the life interlude where the Manhunter stops a tornado and does, drives a cab, and performs other such acts of unadulterated heroism. I really liked the relaxed pace of it, and is to my eyes the quintessential depiction of J’onn.

    I think it is followed with an interview with him where he’s accused of being Bill Clinton. My childhood brain reeled at the possibilities.

  18. Zom Says:

    Of course philosophy can be entertaining, etc… it just seemed to me that the discussion was veering away from that.

    Mind you, you make a good point about the funness of arguing over the philosophy and mechanics

  19. The Satrap Says:

    … the idea of Martians who have each developed one ability to the apex seems a bit off with what we’ve been talking about with regard to Martian culture…

    … Some of Satrap’s suggestions might be tricky to justify on the basis of the Martian philosophy he’s described (tricky but not impossible)…

    The trick would be in that famous quote by Cicero, that there’s nothing so absurd that some philosopher has not already said it, or words to that effect. There would be a default Martian culture or a couple, much in the same way that one can say that there’s a default “western” culture (consumerist, mostly urban, democratic or at least interested in political football and voting every four years etc.), and a quintillion kooky individual aberrations. Which, funnily enough, will have proved more survivable than the default settings.

    What Hit the Targets said, basically.

  20. The Satrap Says:

    I’m just curious, given how fractured J’onn is as a concept, how many different stories and villains can be grafted onto his mythos.

    I guess all of them, as long as the comics stick to a series of aesthetic guidelines, the alienness, the pulpy sources etc.

    Let me inflict upon you a few of the wanksome ideas that didn’t make it into the Hype. I think the fact that Batman is regarded as the most “human” superhero has less to do with his alleged absence of powers than with the fact that many of his villains are based on “gimmicks” that are very culturally specific. What would the Riddler do without a common language and cultural references (nursery rhymes, etc.) shared between him and the society he preys on? That’s part of the appeal of the fuckers, they sow chaos by playing by the cultural rules, only ‘arder.

    So, yeah whatever, imagine a vicious killer, a bit like that MM analogue in Alan Moore’s excellent “Top Ten”, what’s-her-name from Venus, killing in a seemingly random manner, until the Manhunter discovers that it’s actually a confused Martian frustrated with the Earthlings’ inability to understand his Martian “gimmick”, his alien nursery rhymes. Being effectively uncatchable, J’onn settles for turning him into a harmless Silver-Age kind of villain by playing according to the rules of his game.

    The result would be that the Martians are perceived as aliens precisely because they do the exact same things that the Earthlings do. This, given the limitations and strengths of the superhero genre, could be a more effective commentary on the plight of immigrants in our “open” Western societies than the more realistic takes that are perhaps better dealt with in a slice-of-life comic.

  21. The Satrap Says:

    Gosh, I’m loving this talking to people thing. Tell me, is one supposed to stop at some point?

    if you had twelve or so humans who banded together and used “science” to each develop a Martian power and then get better at them than J’Onn, for some reason that interests me.

    Easy. A secret society (the conspiratorial element being of the essence) of telepaths, meeting in a basement in Switzerland, manipulating the world’s supply of gold or something, Illuminati-style.

    Maybe a bunch of physicists, driven mad by their attempts to ascertain the true topology of the universe, who have concluded that it’s actually the body of a primeval giant, a Purusha or Adam Kadmon, who happens to be a shapeshifter and known to the Martians. They think that by reading Martian scientific texts they can unlock the power of metamorphosis, and although they are ostensibly nuts, it seems to be working.

    The clandestine outfit I’d have operating on Mars would be some sort of agency hiring freelance treasure hunters, headed by an Osamu Tezuka inspired guy, you know the tall slender type with a duelling scar. He would send gung-ho imbeciles to their deaths in the catacombs of Mars for a fee and a share in the loot.

    If humans are to be featured heavily, I think one should go easy on the fire weakness. Fire may kill J’onn, and a shot in the face may kill Batman, but it’s not going to be a constant danger. Martian hunters should bring some serious zap guns to the table.

    Use all the humans you want, as long as the stories are as preposterous as the title character, I’m in.

  22. Papers Says:

    Preposterous is the name of the game! I think I like the mix of humans, Martians, Saturnians, Durlans, etc. I want to read about that time the Legion of Super-Heroes came back in time to invite the guy who inspired them, J’onn J’onzz, to join the club and he had to reconfigure himself as a teenager because they have rules until Brainiac 5 calls him on it and they have a rivalry.

    I want J’onn J’onzz and the Phantom Stranger standing ankle-deep in the shifting sands of Mars, J’onn wondering if his entire culture had ever existed. Trying to convince the Phantom Stranger that it did. I want a story based on Ray Bradbury’s Martian asylum story from the Chronicles.

    Or a collective of mummified Martian undead setting up a cultural oasis in the middle of New York, some kind of Little Mars.

    Really want a supporting cast; I think that’s the main reason I love the “exisential fortress of solitude” that is having multiple secret identities–the opportunity to build up recurring, rotating casts that depend upon what cover identity the story arc at hand might focus on.

    So, yeah whatever, imagine a vicious killer, a bit like that MM analogue in Alan Moore’s excellent “Top Ten”, what’s-her-name from Venus, killing in a seemingly random manner, until the Manhunter discovers that it’s actually a confused Martian frustrated with the Earthlings’ inability to understand his Martian “gimmick”, his alien nursery rhymes. Being effectively uncatchable, J’onn settles for turning him into a harmless Silver-Age kind of villain by playing according to the rules of his game.

    YES! I love this idea.

  23. Duncan Says:

    Gosh, I’m loving this talking to people thing. Tell me, is one supposed to stop at some point?

    Not you, ‘trappers, not ever. Useful things to add? I have none, but this was super-inspiring to me.

  24. Comics Should Be Good! @ Comic Book Resources » Sunday Brunch: 4/26/09 Says:

    [...] MISTAKES, MISFITS DEPT: The Mindless One hit us up with a Heroic Hype that tackles the Martian Manhunter and re-evaluates the character for a cooler setting and stories. [...]

  25. Triplets Says:

    A read some constructive fanwank/speculumation a while ago John Jones and his weakness to fire. It said that Martians can move through three material states: solid, liquid (the malleable body) and gas (intangibility and, let’s face it, telepathy) but not plasma. This is why they’re shit scared of it. It represents something just out of reach but always lurking on the limits of bodily possibility. The ultimate existential unknown. Perhaps Martians can attain “fire-nature” but it leaves nearly all dissolved or insane. A Martian who could master ‘form of a thousand flames’ would be akin to a red planet boddhisatva.

  26. The Satrap Says:

    That’s not bad fanwank at all, it’s actually quite similar to what I was shooting for.

  27. grant Says:

    I have two kind of rival feelings about this character (who I really first got to know in that de Matteis miniseries in the 90s, which was all New Agey and introduced the fire-as-fear thing).

    Feeling 1: the stories best suited to him seem to be the King Incognito stories – this weird stranger you meet in the diner (or your llama pasture or mud hut or wherever) turns out to be awesomely powerful. And, probably, messed up with some weird dudes that no human wants any part of. More Phantom Stranger than Doctor Strange.

    Feeling 2: He’s really something of a ghost, isn’t he? Not quite substantial, invisible, reads minds… and from a dead world. So there’s another avenue for stories. Ghost stories. Except all the supernatural trappings – graveyards, exorcists, channelers – should be imbued with the exalted aromas of SCIENCE.

    Both those narrative avenues have his unseeability as a thing. If your Elder Martians are interacted with like Lovecraftian beasties, then I think either of these (or both) could work in your world. Alien, after all, was a ghost story, too – the haunted ship. Just scienced up.

  28. BuzzLove Says:

    In the ‘what if’ category:

    From the previous mini-series (2006-2007), the Cy’Ann character (aka ‘Spice Girl’ -ha! ). What if she began altering humans to become green martians? Her plan being interrupted before supplanting the original humans’ personality with that of a long dead compatriots.

    J’onn would be faced not only with the obvious internal conflicts, but the rejection of the human victims.

  29. The Satrap Says:

    He’s really something of a ghost, isn’t he?

    I don’t think so, really. For starters, I don’t trust your average literal-minded comix scribe to write a good ghost story any further than I can throw him or her. More importantly, I’m not willing to overlook such things as the fact that J’onn presents himself to the world as a big honking penis of a man, hulking and veined in a revealing fetish outfit.

    The “pseudo-ghostly” approach to the character is in a sense the prevailing one already (see e.g. the Ostrander run mentioned upthread). I see there a kind of longing for a quickie brush with transcendence –horrid though it may be– that reminds me of the teleological, eschatological larks that are a staple of the Dying World genre. It can be done well (Gene Wolfe writes languid Catholic parables like nobody’s business), but I’m interested in something else, a more open-ended and ultimately less comforting approach.

    To say that Martians are really ghosts is to imply that though they may haunt a ruin (i.e. Mars) there’s a possibility of release, of moving on to higher spheres. Of course, a less literal take is possible, but this implied dualism is going to be the default. Personally, I wouldn’t be so cavalier about providing assurances that it is within the Martians’ ability to escape the battered red orb that circumscribes them.

    I studiously avoided the word “Lovecraftian” in reference to the Elder Martians, because there should be something very helpless and human about them. Some of them would choose to behave like the invisible ghosts you favour, some would revel in their physicality. At any rate, they would all be highly individual, each a world unto itself and an end in itself. Each would be tempted to see in its form the pinnacle of Martianhood and think that its existence redeems the death of a world entire. Each would be unhinged by the tug-of-war between their unique Martian freedom and the effects of the inexorable “secular cooling that must someday overtake our planet (and) has already gone far indeed with our neighbour” (that’s Wells, of course).

    They would be unhinged, and it would be hard to blame them. The idea is again to spray-paint our humanity on a big cosmic canvass, to wonder whether coping with tragedy is to lie to oneself, and see what happens when the lies have to answer for the extinction of a world.

    Perhaps I should have been a tad more explicit about the tension between these two conceptual pillars of the Hype, but I felt that the piece was already soaked in my overly melodramatic, ponderous agnosticism as it was, and that I would render it entirely useless as a “toolbox” for writing the MM if I pressed the point further.

    Alien, after all, was a ghost story, too – the haunted ship. Just scienced up.

    I’d say “pulped up”. And that “just” makes a world of difference, as far as I’m concerned. Alien is about the brutal, face-hugging, thorax-bursting life-cycle of a drooling predator. An Alien-style yarn can be a ghost story, and it can also be about the humanity of making a ghost story out of it.

    This is in part why I’m so fond of the idea of Martian cryptoarchaeology. Before I worry about the ghosts of Mars, I want to see the hard, impossible angles of its catacombs, their dusty, tessellated domes. To never let go of the suspicion that the hauntings are an adjunct to the haunts. To worry less about the banshee’s wailing call than what she’s wailing over. All under the guise of “Tomb Raider in space”, of course.

    BuzzLove: good idea, Earthlings mistreated as useless meat-things, only fit as vessels for a Martian upgrade. The gribbly horror of the premise would have to be worked out in detail, but it’s a good starting point, the motif of daemonic possession rejigged and repurposed.

  30. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Rogue’s review: Mindless hordes Says:

    [...] that takes a heavy toll on the spirit and –since these are superheroes– the body. In this lasersharking fest of a post, I considered the possibility of a Martian villain that cuts bits off his or her body and animates [...]

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