Recently returned to Rebirth in the pages of Snyder’s “Metal/No Justice/Justice League,” the Martian Manhunter is back and ready to lead the world’s heroes. But what about before that? What about when he was Detective John Jones? What about when he was a Manhunter on Mars? What formed him into the hero he is today? And how does a dead family fit into all of this? Spoilers ahead.
Written by Steve Orlando
Illustrated by Riley Rossmo
Colored by Ivan Plascencia
Lettered by Deron Bennett
No matter what you know about J’onn J’onnz, you’re not prepared for this! The acclaimed team of writer Steve Orlando and artist Riley Rossmo (BATMAN/ THE SHADOW, BATMAN: NIGHT OF THE MONSTER MEN) reteam for a reinvention of the Manhunter from Mars in this twisted, unexpected series. Back on Mars, J’onn was about as corrupt as a law officer can be, and when a reckoning comes for his entire society, he’ll get a second chance he doesn’t want or deserve! One shocking murder, and an unexpected fragment of the Mars he lost, will change his life—and the course of the Earth—forever!
J’onn is no stranger to the retcon. It’s as much a part of his past as his life on Mars and his time as a detective. As such, it only makes sense that the team behind the Martian’s latest solo outing would ground itself in these three aspects and the genre that birthed J’onn’s human alter-ego. The smartest decision the team has made is setting this squarely in J’onn’s past; whether or not we’ll go to the present being a settled matter via word of god. This allows them to craft a story that fits in with the universe at large while not being beholden to the Manhunter’s current stories in other books.
From the first page, it’s apparent that this is going to be something special. The coloring alone, with the juxtaposition between the harsh and all-consuming reds, golds, and melting oranges of J’onn’s memories of Mars with the cold, ambient pale green and blues of John’s apartment, establishes the two modes of the story going forwards. The paneling too, going from the round chaos of page one to the square order of page two, cements the differences in the way these parallel narratives are going to play out and J’onn’s state of mind.
Rossmo’s layouts are something to behold. He utilizes inset panels to draw our attention to the most important parts of each scene, communicating not a passage of time but the many fragmentary ways in which our minds absorb a singular scene. It is also used to convey how J’onn feels the world, both on Mars and on Earth.
Again, on page one, J’onn is in his social form aka the traditional Martian Manhunter look, hunched over in agony in a half-splash. Circles with knife-like tails, beam towards J’onn’s head, highlighting the heads of his fellow Martians as they burn, some coming apart in his hand. It is apparent he is feeling them in his mind but what is crushing him is the thought circle above him, filled with, an implied, endless amount of suffering Martians.
Cut to the top of the next page and J’onn is sitting in his human form, hunched at the edge of his bed, with only the light from the shades lighting him, crushed by the weight of his memories. No words, the succinct narration only framing this memory as evidence, in his eyes, of his lack of heroism. It is these types of pages that turn this from being another retcon to something definitive and important.
However, all is not perfect in this debut. While Rossmo’s art, Plascencia’s coloring and Bennett’s lettering all mesh perfectly, crafting something stylized and unique, Orlando’s script doesn’t quite reach the same level of smoothness, particularly in the Mars segments. That isn’t to say the creativity is any less. Oh no. Orlando’s reimagining of Martian society and J’onn’s role in it works wonders to establish what will become his character arc, informing who he is as John Jones, and then turn into a source of tension in this new, strange case he has on Earth. Orlando also crafts a believable alien world that evokes enough of ours to feel familiar but the transition isn’t a smooth one.Continued below
Part of any good noir or police procedural is the lingo, those bits of dialogue and turns of phrase that are unique to the job. Many of these are baked into the genre, so they float from one work to the next, making the transition easy if you’re familiar with the genre. If one is unfamiliar with the lingo, or if the lingo is brand new, throwing readers into the deep end can be damaging to the immersion of the narrative. That is what has happened here. All the information is there, especially on the second or third read through, but it’s presented in a format that assumes we have some background knowledge on the workings of Martian life and on the slang, lobbing it at us without much context, reminiscent of the dialogue from A Clockwork Orange.
By starting us on Earth, with an earth-based detective story, and then shifting to a different style of detective story on Mars, we’ve lost the ability to acclimate to the strange and new and instead we spent most of that acclimation time on the more familiar aspects of the narrative. That said, once these first couple pages of J’onn extorting a gold Martian are over, the narrative clicks into place and the dialogue begins to smooth out and the mental friction begins to lessen. It’s a little thing but in a story as tight as this, it’s the little things that stick out the most.
Final Score: 8.5 – “Martian Manhunter” #1 is the start to the detective-noir-cop procedural comic we’ve all been waiting for from DC. Not a perfect debut but a small stumble at the start of a marathon doesn’t mean much by mile 15 and if you aren’t blown away by Rossmo’s art, then you need to get your eyes checked.