By Rob Williams, Eddy Barrows, and Eber Ferreira
How do you solve a problem like Martian Manhunter? Despite standing tall as one of DC’s big 7 heroes he’s always struggled for both success and definition. A lot of that has to do with the strangeness of his origins, starting as a back-up feature during the mid-50s when weird science stories were still comic’s source of bread and butter. From there the main reason he was injected into the frontline of DC Comics was to act as a Superman stand in, hence why he faded off in usage throughout the bronze age. Still, the character has enjoyed several strong solo revivals in the past, most notably J.M DeMatteis’ redefining mini-series in the late ‘80s and John Ostrander’s ongoing from 1998 which blended pulp Sci-Fi and contemplative storytelling. Now, as part of the DC You the Manhunter from Mars is back in yet another radical reinvention of his character that has more in common with Bloodshot Reborn than any previous incarnations.
The current Martian Manhunter comic is working off a very different playbook for the character, one grounded much more in his alien nature than anything else. This Martian Manhunter, first introduced as part of the Justice League of America in the Trinity War event, is actually a one of a kind member of his species. He’s essentially a living weapon, again in the style of Bloodshot, Deadthlok, or Diehard, a super powerful Martian sleeper agent meant to infiltrate the Earth superhero community in preparation for an invasion. That’s the central premise of this solo series, Manhunter trying to derail the White Martian secret invasion while also searching for self-definition beyond simply a tool of war.
Overall that’s a pretty clever way of dealing with the problem of Martian Manhunter. Essentially the series is taking his long-standing issue with identity and pushing it out of the subtext and right into the main text of the story. There’s also a lot of cleverness in realizing J’onn’s character here, how his in story purpose is to be literally “the Martian version of Superman” neatly parallels his original purpose in real life. The comic’s biggest problem is in the pacing and the focus of the story.
Simply put Martian Manhunter’s plot is all over the map. Since issue one the series has introduced a ton of cascading plot points that seem to be taking place non-sequentially. While there’s nothing wrong with non-linear storytelling it should be executed clearly. Here, it’s highly unclear when certain events happened or if we’re just being shown sequences out of order. If this is a non-linear story there’s no apparent point to that non-linearity other than executing a very minor twist. If it’s not non-linear then that raises a whole host of other questions about how certain actions relate to one another. That’s really the comic’s biggest problem; how unclear it is. A lot of the time the writing and artwork prefers to intimate rather than explicate but that only ends up leaving key components obfuscated. Major details like a Martian secret invasion, J’onn appearing through the astral plane, and consciousness splitting are all blitzed over and the audience is left fumbling with their significance.
However, despite this relatively major plot hiccup Martian Manhunter is still a must read every week mainly due to the amazing artwork and the story beats that do land. Eddy Barrows does an incredible job on art duty with some of the best depictions of DC’s Martians to ever grace the page. There’s an opening sequence involving Martian blood magic that is absolutely killer, especially in how well Barrows blends the classic Martian designs with a more Cronenberg-esc concept. Eber Ferreira does a superb job on colors as well. The book’s palette is a peculiar blend, emphasizing wide spreads of muted colors. Ferreira finds a perfect balance between a softly toned green for the Manhunter against an even quieter blue for the rest of the world.
Where the comic’s story really works is in the characterization department. This version of Martian Manhunter goes a long way to shed the evil alien terminator character he had during the atrocious Trinity War. He’s still not quite back to the serene moral compass he was during Morrison’s JLA run but this is still the most human he’s felt since prior to Infinite Crisis. There are also heavy intimations about the introducing more of his humanity going forward, even possibly finding a way back to his portrayal during Keith Giffen’s Justice League International as sort of long suffering dad figure. It shows the creators really know their Martian Manhunter and actually get the things that make this character likable and engaging. It also speaks volumes about the dedication and energy going into the comic. It would’ve been easy to turn this into “Extreme Martian Manhunter,” making him a jaded alien anti-hero as a way of pandering to the ‘90s nostalgia craze but the comic cleverly eschews that. Instead the emphasis is kept on character struggle and a quest for self-definition and personal growth beyond one’s own origins. Combine that with the stellar artwork and this is one of the better comics of the DC You, check it out.