Martian Manhunter #1
Writer: Steve Orlando
Artist: Riley Rossmo
Colors: Ivan Plascencia
Letters: Deron Bennett
Cover artists: Rossmo (regular)/Joshua Middleton (variant)
Editor: Chris Conroy
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $3.99 US
DC has clearly decided to embrace the title character once again, not only placing him in the spotlight in its new Justice League but giving him another shot at an ongoing title. What drew me to this was Riley Rossmo’s art, and his weirder, more exaggerated style suits the alien, shape-shifting nature of J’Onn J’Onzz nicely. I didn’t know what to expect from Steve Orlando’s plot; he’s been a hit-and-miss writer for me. He definitely took me off-guard with his take on the character, exploring him as a much darker, broken figure than we’ve seen before. This isn’t the pure-of-heart vision of the Martian Manhunter with which long-time genre readers would be familiar. Instead, this is the story of a man seeking redemption for past sins. It’s intriguing and challenging, but the creative team might have been a little too successful when it came to capturing and conveying alien culture, physiology and perceptions.
Homicide detective John Jones responds to the scene of a grisly double murder, and while his partner and crime-scene techs examine the scene in conventional ways, Jones — secretly J’Onn J’Onzz, the Martian Manhunter — performs a psychic scan. What he discovers shakes him to his core, as he senses something from his homeworld. And that takes him back to a time before he came to Earth, before he lost his family… and before he was a good man.
Riley Rossmo is one of the most distinct and unique visual voices working in mainstream comics today, and when I see his name on a project, it always piques my interest. His weird style is a fitting choice for this character. Orlando’s plot meanders in ugly corners of the human and Martian mind, so Rossmo’s darker leanings are great at reinforcing the tense and shameful ideas the writer is exploring. I’m subtly reminded of the late Darwyn Cooke’s interpretation of J’Onn in Rossmo’s take on him here. Rossmo’s fluid, exaggerated style works well with the Manhunter’s shape-changing powers, and he does a great job of conveying his alien nature. In fact, the Mars flashback scenes are so weird in appearance, I had some difficulty at times discerning what was going on. I did appreciate Rossmo’s approach to the panel layouts. When J’Onn is in his human guise, the borders are traditional, straight, meeting at right angles. But the Martian scenes feature curved, flowing panels, not only distinguishing them as flashbacks but also demonstrating the radical difference in culture and biology at play before one takes in the images within those borders.
Also noteworthy is the lettering by Deron Bennett. I love the green scribbles added around the Martian speech bubbles to distinguish his altered, alien communications in that form or his telepathy. I also found Joshua Middleton’s variant cover image — featuring J’Onn’s imposing Martian cop “social” form — to be incredibly striking, perhaps moreso because it wasn’t immediately recognizable as Middleton’s work. The artist has been making a real mark as of late with his many variant cover contributions at DC.
At its heart, Orlando’s concept for this series is a simple one: there are corrupt police officers in America, why wouldn’t there have been crooked cops in an alien society? And why not make J’Onn J’Onzz one of them? It’s a radical divergence for the character, but I rather think there’s some real potential in the Martian Manhunter becoming a hero (and a cop on Earth) as an effort toward penance, toward redemption. Instead of defining him by solely by his grief and gentle soul, Orlando examines him through a lens of self-loathing. He’s haunted not just by his sense of loss, but his guilt. And not just survivor’s guilt, but by real (or surreal) sins.
There are a couple of scenes in which J’Onn’s alien nature, culture and telepathic abilities are key, and they’re rather frenetic ones. The convergence of the barrage of information and the effort to distance characters from humanity makes for some confusing moments in the story. I get that Orlando is also trying to foster a sense of mystery and menace here, but he and Rossmo teetered on the edge of losing their audience in the process at a couple of points.
It’s surprising that Orlando has chosen to reimagine the Martian Manhunter as a figure haunted by his own choices and mistakes. He’s not the paragon of purity and honour we’ve seen in the past, not the wholesome heart of the Justice League he’s been held out to be. I was taken aback but intrigued by this radical shift, but what’s truly surprising is how far removed this take on the character is from the one we see in the current Supergirl TV series. That incarnation of the character reaches millions more consumers of pop culture than his comic-book version. Mind you, I’m not saying DC should have moulded this new vision of J’Onn to capitalize on a synergy with the TV audience, just that I’m surprised it didn’t. 7/10