Among DC’s many great heroes, the Martian Manhunter stands out for being especially underrated. His early appearances are difficult to track down in trade; he is the “Big 7” League member with the very least in the way of solo stories, and he has long been used primarily as a supporting character with few chances to truly shine on his own. Making his debut in a back-up feature in Detective Comics #225, Martian Manhunter joined the League more or less as a substitute for Superman back when DC feared that overusing the son of Krypton would weaken sales. Eventually, interest in MM waned, and he vanished almost entirely when writers had him return to Mars to be with his people once more. But let’s face it, that was never going to be the end of the road for this rad telepathic shape-shifting Martian.
Truly, you can’t keep a good Manhunter down, and after years of sporadic appearances, he finally returned to regular continuity in 1984, rejoining the Justice League in 1987. Since then, he’s been considered a mainstay of the team, but his versatility and effectiveness as a team member cuts way down on the time we spend looking deeper into his inner world. That’s all the more reason why Martian Manhunter’s greatest moments deserve celebration, because he has been with the League for a long time and he deserves the recognition!
J.M. DeMatteis teams up with frequent collaborator Mark Badger, who brings a truly wild feel to the book. The wild, sketchy linework and inventive panel layouts make it visually fascinating, and it perfectly suits the amorphous nature of J’onn’s transformations throughout this short four-issue series. The start of this story is morbid, featuring Batman solving an apparently unrelated case involving the murder of a child. When J’onn arrives on the scene with his body morphing wildly out of his control, Batman takes him to the Batcave, but J’onn insists that his presence will only endanger his friend and flees.
Much of this story revolves around J’onn on Mars, facing the Martian fire god, H’ronmeer. The series has a dreamlike feel to it, which makes it a bit difficult to gauge how much of this is really happening and how much is just a result of residual memories and trauma. His body is out of his own control and he is haunted by memories of the scientist who unwittingly brought him to earth to begin with.
Though J’onn seems to find some peace by the end of the story, it perhaps goes without saying that the death of his entire civilization continues to haunt him throughout his life. He stays with the Justice League for most of its incarnations post-Crisis, and when the book ends and a new era for the JLA begins with Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s famous run, he remains with a team of heavy-hitters as it becomes more dedicated to dealing with cosmic threats.
Even on a team of powerhouses, J’onn stands out for his reason and his strength. He faces the genocidal White Martians down and goes on to become a grounding force for a team of big personalities. These Justice League appearances are generally a lot of fun and certainly qualify as must-reads for J’onn J’onzz fans, but the nature of the JLA leaves little time for individual character development. For that, we look to his next solo series.
Martian Manhunter’s 1998 solo series is crucial when it comes to understanding his history. Rarely has anyone had the time and space to devote to J’onn, and the character definitely benefits from it. This series ran for a full thirty-six issues, making it the longest and generally most widely-referenced of the Martian Manhunter solo series, and it remains a consistently good read from beginning to end due to its insight into J’onn’s emotional journey. Writer John Ostrander obviously had a great love of the more morose, poetic side of the character, and artist Tom Mandrake does some of the best work of his career by portraying the Manhunter as both changeable and definitive. Here, we look back at J’onn’s most painful moments as his wife and daughter die of a horrific telepathic plague, and we meet his evil twin brother, Ma’alefa’ak.
This is also the series that provides the most context for J’onn’s feelings towards his past and how that ties into his feelings towards his friends in the League. The story opens on J’onn deciding to go back to Mars, but when Superman asks if he can come along for emotional support, the Manhunter gently declines. He reminds us that while Kal did not witness the death of his people, J’onn most certainly did, and there will always be that difference between them. The loneliness of J’onn comes under acute focus in this run more than ever, but there is likewise a team of friends who are fighting to meet him where he’s at. Though the League briefly doubts his innocence when dead bodies start showing up, Diana directly apologizes for it after he is absolved, and he kindly forgives them all.
After this, J’onn underwent major changes in Joe Kelly’s JLA run, such as overcoming his fear of fire and falling briefly in love, but almost all of it was forgotten or ignored by future writers. In Infinite Crisis, J’onn was captured by Alexander Luthor and believed dead. During 52, he narrated much of the WWIII mini-series, taking on the form of a child to trick Black Adam in hopes of stopping his rampage. He had another solo series, in which he finds Martian survivors and struggles both with his connection to them and to humanity as a whole. In Final Crisis in 2008, he is brutally murdered by Libra while a gaggle of other villains watch. He becomes a Black Lantern but is resurrected by the end of Blackest Night.
The Epiphany is one of J’onn’s more underrated series, and it directly interrogates his sense of self as he owns up to being used as a weapon by the White Martians. To avoid this, he separates into four different beings and scatters. Despite the fractal nature of his appearances here, we see a ton of character work as his different pieces find one another and struggle to survive while also putting their lives on the line to save Earth at every turn.
We also see more of his interactions with Superman. Here, Kal tries to take a hard stance against J’onn’s plan to separate himself into multiple identities, and J’onn angrily puts him in his place. Though the League can be a whole team of people on power trips, J’onn’s complete lack of ego is compelling, and his annoyance at being treated in any way subordinate to Kal is meaningful for their friendship. More importantly, we see J’onn’s complex inner world perhaps most acutely when he separates, and the new friends that he makes.
This is mostly out-of-continuity and not exactly the easiest story to follow, but the concept is wildly intriguing and the added context given to J’onn’s plight is meaningful. When he sees a phantom of his long-deceased wife and daughter, he thinks, “I feel like screaming. I always feel like screaming. I wonder if the humans realize that.” Again, J’onn’s heartbreaking detachment is equalled only by his incredible love and loyalty for his friends.
Steve Orlando and Riley Rossmo’s Identity is a wildly entertaining romp through all of the most painful and most beautiful parts of J’onn’s story. We delve deep into his relationship with his deceased wife, and she finally comes across as a compelling character in her own right. We get significantly more backstory for J’onn’s traumatic arrival on earth, and he shifts and expands his powerset by reaching out telepathically to new creatures. We see more of what the universe truly lost with the deaths of the Martians, not just the personal cost to J’onn. Perhaps most importantly, we witness John Jones actually being a detective, something that is strangely missing from most of his narratives.
Psychedelia mixes in with science fiction to bring us an aesthetically beautiful, astonishingly weird comic, but the character work at the heart of this story (and its art) is what makes it one to remember. It’s obvious that Orlando is a fan of the character and paid careful attention to the parts of his story that were never mentioned, and that’s just one part of what makes this story an absolute must-read for Martian Manhunter fans. For anyone looking to find a jumping on point when it comes to J’onn, there’s no better place than here.
J’onn J’onzz is an incredible character, and JLA is always a much better book with him in it. Likewise, these solo series rate among the best mainstream comics of their respective times. They’re delightfully weird and more than a little heartbreaking. As great as these stories are, J’onn’s complexity still leaves us wanting more. Here’s to a world where J’onn sees more of the spotlight, because he’s one of DC’s most compelling heroes, and there is so much of his story left to tell.