Today sees the release of “Martian Manhunter” #1 from writer Steve Orlando (“Justice League of America,” “Midnighter”) and artist Riley Rossmo (“Rasputin,” “Constantine: The Hellblazer”). This 12-issue maxi-series sets out to tell the definitive origin story for J’onn J’onzz and, if the first issue is any indication, it will be a suspenseful, beautiful, weird book. We had a chance to chat with Orlando and Rossmo about the project, the character, and when a certain delicacy will show up in the comic. Check it out.
I was a fan of both of your work before you started working together, but ever since you’ve begun to collaborate, I’m always slightly let down when one of you does a book without the other. There’s a really fun chemistry that emerges from your working together. What is it about your working relationship that clicks so easily? Was there a learning curve to working together, or was it a natural fit?
Steve Orlando: That’s very kind! It’s an open relationship. I think Riley and I are lucky at being into a lot of the same strange things, and similarly dedicated to challenging ourselves in our work, and each other. When it comes to wildlife, science and art, we’re on a lot of the same wavelengths of being fascinated by things that skirt the line between grotesque and gorgeous. That said, any collaboration is a learning curve, and I think that’s how it has to be! Because we are constantly going back and forth, listening and learning from each other. It’s not antithetical to it being natural – we are always finding out new things about how we make books together and it’s by design: when you push yourself creatively outside your comfort zone, that’s where you discover the new. That’s where you plant a flag in a new creative headspace.
Riley Rossmo: Thank you. I really liked Steve’s work on “Undertow” and “Midnighter,” so naturally I was really excited to do work on ‘Night of the Monster Men.’ Issue 3 of “Batman/The Shadow” was kind of a turning point in how we collaborate; it has a underwater scene I really like, and a layout that the Shadow’s body is a framing device for a 10 panel page. The layouts get more experimental from then on. 68 or 70 pages seems to be the magical amount of pages we had to finish to figure out how to make the best stuff together.
Martian Manhunter hasn’t been in the spotlight in a very long time, yet he’s one of the cornerstone characters of the Justice League since time immemorial. Why do you think he’s been relegated to a supporting role so frequently?
SO: Well, first off he had an amazing series in 2015 from Rob Williams and Eddy Barrows. That “Martian Manhunter” was such a wild future sci-fi exploration, I really loved it! But as for J’onn and the Justice League, I think it comes down to his compassion and dedication to community. As a character, there is humility and gratitude as his core, so I think he tends to sometimes move from the spotlight out of love for his friends from both a narrative and character perspective.
Riley, you get to draw a number of different iterations of J’onn over the course of this first issue. I was taken by how, throughout the issue, J’onn is hovering between states of being, and how little signs pop up of his transformations that, likely, aren’t noticed by those around him. It seems like it would be challenging to draw a character who is being pulled, physically and emotionally, in so many different directions. Talk us through how you manage to get a handle on such a fluid character, visually.
RR: The design process for all the prominent Martians is a bit intensive because I’m actually designing two characters (public and private form). I try to carry over some features from the public to private, from the shape of eyes, or body or head shape. And added to those two forms, J’onn has his human form. J’onn’s behavior changes between forms, too. In his human form, I especially try to convey the weight of his past on him. All in all, it’s a lot to keep track of, but still fun. It keeps every issue I draw fresh. J’onn’s human form took the longest to figure out; after I finished issue two, I went back to issue one and redid a bunch of J’onn’s faces. I did a bunch of character sheets for all the characters before I started the series, but until I actually start drawing pages it’s hard to say if the designs will work how I want.Continued below
Steve, you’ve said that J’onn is your favorite DC character. What is it about him that makes him so appealing? And how has your writing of him changed how you think of the character?
SO: It’s the compassion and humility I mention above, but also how he lives in the world. There’s an otherness to J’onn that I think is beautiful and special as well, and that’s something I realized in a much deeper way working on this series. J’onn can look like anyone and anything, but chooses to wear a form that’s alien. His appearance is an active statement that says “I am not like you, but I am with you. I am not one of you, but I care about you.”
The book is telling two stories at once: the story of J’onn’s life on Mars, and his early years as a detective on Earth. On Mars, you’re building some serious mythos for J’onn, and adding some brand new wrinkles to his character. On Earth, you’re developing J’onn the detective for the first time in a dog’s age. What has been each of your favorite parts of working in both settings?
SO: It’s a cop out perhaps, but both! Because the real answer is I love the interplay between them. “Martian Manhunter” offers you catharsis and conflict in every issue, as on Mars we J’onn spiraling towards his lowest point, a death of Mars we all know is coming, while on Earth, we know he’s already climbing back up towards triumph and heroism. Casting those moments against each other is my favorite part of the book, each and every issue!
RR: I like drawing the scenes with J’onn and his family. I borrow a lot from my day to day experiences with my wife and daughter in those scenes. The more time I spend with J’onn’s family, the more I get attached. I love the challenge of crafting a culture that’s equal parts heartwarming and Alien.
This book is set squarely in the past of the DC Universe at the moment. Will that change as the series progresses?
SO: It will not! We are 100% dedicated to J’onn and telling the definitive story of his debut as the Martian Manhunter to the people of Earth. This is his story, his and that of his two worlds. We love the Modern DCU and there are HUGE plans coming in it across the line, and with “Martian Manhunter,” we wanted to have room to tell our story in a way that was complimentary without being codependent, so this story of J’onn can be timeless no matter when it’s read.
The powers/skills of J’onn have changed quite a bit over the years, with certain abilities taking a backseat here or there. Steve, what does your J’onn have in his arsenal, power wise?
SO: We focus a lot on the cultural aspects of shapeshifting and telepathy. But he does have more powers, all of which are folded into Martian life. “Martian vision” is now regulated like weaponry. Phasing through solid matter means homes and vehicles have no doors. Flight means architecture need not obey traditional laws of gravity. As well, J’onn is certainly stronger and more durable than a human, though his vulnerability to fire can change all of that in a second.
Along with his skillset, J’onn has also had quite a few interesting situations in the past decade and a half or so: member of Stormwatch, the great Rob Williams/Eddy Barrows series, undercover agent, trying to bring down Checkmate. What are each of your personal favorite iterations of the character?
SO: I actually loved J’onn’s dynamic in “Stormwatch” as this being so aloof and powerful even the Justice League was wary of him. We draw on nearly every run he’s had, but to me, the first contemporary Martian Manhunter run I ever bought was the Ostrander and Mandrake series, which is always close to my heart.
Darwyn Cooke’s take on J’onn in “DC: The New Frontier” is my favorite. J’onn’s Martian form has really cool proportions and a great head shape that is just the right blend of scary and alien. The scene when J’onn watches tv and changes shapes is great, as well the glimpses we get of J’onn’s detective persona, and Batman threatens J’onn with a book of matches. There is a real warmth in the character that comes through in “New Frontier” to me.Continued below
Finally, when we will see some Oreos?
SO: Well for legal reasons you just might be seeing some CHOCOS demand mentioned pretty early on in the series…