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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”.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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

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