Monday, July 11, 2011

Martian Manhunter

So back in the Justice League entry, I mentioned how J'onn J'onzz was being left out of the initial line-up as he had other things to do. While many (me included) see him as a vital part of the League, I think automatically sticking him on the Watchtower ignores a lot of the character's history. He only really ended up in the League in the first place as a stand-in for Superman when Big Blue reduced his appearances due to oversaturation. Before that, he was a cop who was also an alien who busted crooks from this world and that. His stories were about as two-fisted as you could expect from the Silver Age, full of gangsters and creepily-eyed aliens.

One time, he even kidnapped a dude he suspected of being a crook, locked him in a shed in the wilderness, and took his identity. In order to keep the crook in the shed, Manhunter had his extra-dimensional sidekick threaten to burn him if he tried to escape. Just to be clear, this is a guy who is afraid of/drained by fire pretty much threatening his own worse nightmare on some dude he only suspects of being a thief. "Stay here," Batman said, " Or Robin will kill your parents."

That's pretty tough.

Let's bring Martian Manhunter, aka J'onn Jonzz aka John Jones, back to that. Maybe I'm influenced by his appearance in The New Frontier, but really, is that so bad? (I mean, J'onn set up Batman's best line in that whole story, if not one of his Top 10 Of All Time: "I have a $70000 sliver of a radioactive meteor to stop the one from Metropolis. All I need for you is a penny for a book of matches.") So John Jones, aka the Martian Manhunter, is a detective who with partner Diane Meade works the beat in ________, USA. I'm a bit hesitant to nail down which city J'onn is in. In the comic's he's in ever-generic "Middletown" which is kinda bleah and not worth importing into the Drewniverse. I'm thinking Star City as it's Seattle/Portland-like damp weather might appeal to a guy who dislikes open flame, although something arid in the Southwest might make him think of home. But considering that our J'onn won't be staying in town forever, it's a minor consideration.  We'll give the antennaed alien bear sidekick a miss, too, OKEY-DOKEY?

Martian Manhunter's powers and origin are pretty tied in together in the comics, so they're worth taking as a set. Initially, J'onn was pulled to Earth from Mars by accident. Some professor switches on his new Computer Brain, accidentally summons a Martian, flips out, and dies. Standard stuff in comics. For awhile, it is the machine that keeps J'onn on Earth and gives him his powers, so fiddling with the machine fiddled with the Martian, but that's soon abandoned. Besides, the writers fiddled enough with his powers. At first, he started with the basic set: strength, durability, sight, and hearing, plus the ability to turn invisible/intangible and limited shapechanging. Over time, they tossed in flight, telekinesis, increased shapechanging abilities, and telepathy. They also removed his ability to use his Martian powers while disguised as a human or invisible.

Even his vulnerability to fire was variable. Sometimes it was as Batman said, only taking a book of matches, others it was being shot directly with a flamethrower. In the early stories, the number of times crooks got away due to the happy chance of committing crimes next to a leaf fire was shameful. Whether or not fire affected J'onn in his human (or other) guise seemed to change as well.

So it looks like we have a fair bit of standardizing to do and to do it, we'll have to go back to the Fall of Mars. Remember how in the Green Lantern entries I talked about Parallax and Ion as Lovecraftian Outer Gods of limitless power and unfathomable intent? Well, if we have our Azathoths, we might as well have our Great Old Ones too. In contrast to the energy beings that the Green Lanterns secretly hunt/use to fuel their rings, these alien beings were not leftovers from the moment of creation. Still, they are so old that the difference might, at this point, be largely academic. Though they don't feed on stars or rend the walls of time and space like the Entities do, they are still pretty big deals. When they wake, they can bend entire solar systems to their whims and when they dream, they can destroy continents.

And one of them slumbered on Mars. By the time the martians figured out what threat slept beneath their feet, it was almost too late. The creature was stirring, soon to wake, its waking dreams dripping into the martian psyche, slowly twisting and changing them. Mars was doomed unless something could be done. Using strange technology and psychic weaponry, the martians fought the dragon lurking at Mars' core. This only hastened its awakening, its stirrings toppling cities, wiping entire nations off the map. When it fully awoke, the psychic backlash drove the populace mad, twisting reality, and dooming the solar system.  As a last act of desperation, the martians called in their Final Solution (a comet is a bit bigger than a fishing boat, neh?), killing the creature before it fully woke up, saving the solar system, but at the cost of the entire martian race. What was once a verdant planet sporting a thriving ecosystem became a barren ball of red dust.

Flash forward to the modern age (say, .4 SU ago) and move a little to the left to bring Earth into focus. Dr. Erdel has developed a telescope that uses the background radiation of the universe to effectively peer back in time. Just like normal telescopes can only see the light that emanated from a distant star long ago, Erdel's device targets past emanations of energy. So when he points his device at Mars, not only does it lock onto the death-throes of the planet, but it somehow establishes a brief gateway allowing something to come through. The psychic backlash still roiling around the event from the death of the dragon is enough to kill the doctor, so when J'onn J'onzz comes through, there's nobody around to tell him what the hell is going on. One moment, he's dying in a psychic cataclysm of fire and flux, the next he's standing over a dead alien. What's worse, something else is coming through the connection, Something Bad. J'onn is still together enough to destroy the machine before anything else reaches the here and now, but that act pretty much uses up his last reserves of sanity. He enters a fugue state for a year or so, flitting about invisible and intangible, slowly rebuilding his own psyche, using humanity as a foundation.

This is why, once J'onn gets it together again, he decides to become a cop. He wants to help people as a person, not as one of those superhuman demigods that are soaring around all over the place. Besides, at this stage in his recovery, disassociating himself with his John Jones identity might not be the best idea. His new abilities scare him a bit too, so it'd be better if he didn't use them all the time. More a product of the reality-twisting death-throes of the dragon than any innate martian ability, J'onn is now stronger, tougher, able to turn invisible and intangible, and able to change his shape. His normal martian psychic abilities have been enhanced, but they are still unreliable. They'll settle down over time. Note that, for the moment, Martian Manhunter cannot fly. His fire phobia is also a product of the cataclysm, a psychic imprint left seared into his brain.

So that's the status quo we open Manhunter (#24/52) with. Of course, within the first Issue everything changes. We open with J'onn J'onzz having troubling, fractured dreams. Something has happened, but he can't figure out what. This sense of unease and weirdness starts to pervade his waking life, a feeling further triggered by the case Jones and Meade are assigned: a ritual murder/suicide at a big mansion in the hills. When forensics put the time of death of the victims at the same time when J'onn was awoken by his dreams, the detective knows something up and is driven to get to the bottom of it.

What is up, of course, is the Idol Head of Diabolu. Back in the original comics, the Idol Head provided a nice macguffin for the Martian Manhunter to chase after. It would crop up, spawn some weird being for J'onn to fight, and then fade away again, always two steps ahead. Such is the case here, but in the Drewniverse, the Idol Head is not just any mysterious smoking head, it's a fertilized Great Old One egg. Guess "something else" did actually make it through the connection to Mars' death - elder sperm - and it fertilized an alien ovum that had been shaped into a stone head in the distant past. Though the size of a jack-o-lantern, the Idol Head contains within it the power to destroy the world. Anyone (or anything) that could harness that power would be nigh-unstoppable, so of course there are many different groups after it. What's more, the Idol Head itself can birth untold horrors and grant weird, twisted powers to those who come in contact with it (this is how Manhunter will get the ability to fly later on).

As he tries to track down the Idol Head, J'onn J'onzz comes into contact with other superheroes and slowly starts to loosen up about the use of his powers. He also comes into conflict with new antagonists, like the mysterious Mr. Z, a man who seems intent on facilitating access to the Idol Head, a sort of weird power broker (or consulting cultist), who will be the Moriarty to J'onn's Holmes. In time, the Idol Head's threat will be removed and J'onn will be free to join the Justice League, having proved himself in a big way by helping out in a giant fight against the Head's progeny in the Pacific Ocean (shades of The Centre here).

But until then, we get a Martian Manhunter who is focused on fighting weird aliens and men with bad powers and worse intent in a noir-ish setting. Think Kolchak: The Night Stalker meets X-Files meets film noir. That should be fun, right?

Because 60s-style covers get the linkage, natch?

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