Pastiche Perspective is a new monthly column taking a look at pastiches of popular works, ideas, and characters in pop culture, and how they reflect back on their roots. We’re going to be exploring various works, from superheroes to superspies, and more! This first installment kicks off by taking a look at Barbalien: Red Planet by Tate Brombal, Gabriel Walta, Jordie Bellaire, and Aditya Bidikar. Part of the Black Hammer-verse owned and curated by Jeff Lemire, the mini-series explores its titular character, who is an explicit pastiche of DC Comics’ classic Martian Manhunter.
I- The Case Of The Martian Hero
“You’ve seen all sorts of detectives in action–F.B.I agents, private eyes, treasury men. But here–for the first time anywhere–is the most unusual of them all…a sleuth from ‘out of this world!’ Yes–straight from Mars comes a man who patrols the streets of Earth on a quest to wage war against crime. A man brought here by…The Strange Experiment Of Dr. Erdel!” – Detective Comics #225 (1955)
There’s something quite unusual about the Martian Manhunter.
If you go back and read those original Joseph Samachson and Joe Certa stories in Detective Comics, what you’ll find is a strange figure that’s quite different from what has become the norm for the character. He is not The Last Martian. He did not lose his family in some grave tragedy. He’s not the heartbreaking figure that he would go on to be. Not yet.
Instead, he’s something rather odd. He’s this utterly confident, almost casual figure from a higher, more elevated realm. He talks of being a brilliant scientist on his homeworld. He witnesses human death before his eyes, and wishes he had a super-serum from his home-lab to help prevent it. J’Onn looks at the Earth-world laid out before him, and finds it completely strange. He witnesses monuments to war, and is baffled, for concepts such as ‘war’ and ‘crime’ were eradicated a thousand-years ago on Mars, in what he repeatedly calls The Great Evolution. He looks at skyscrapers, and the idea of people bunched together in these small spaces is very weird to him, as is the mode of transportation we call ‘cars.’ He’s a man who can look into the future (a power most forget!), apart from his telepathic prowess, invisibility, and intangibility. He might as well be a Green Lantern, because the idea is that anything you can imagine, he can pull off, save surviving the fury of flames.
This original Martian Manhunter is not The Tragic Hero that we know, but a hyper-competent immortal. He misses his home, sure. He’d like to get back there, yes. But he can wait. Even if it’s centuries, he can wait. He’ll be fine. You’re not dealing with someone ordinary here. You’re not dealing with someone who even perceives time on the level or scale as we do. He doesn’t think the way we do, and is a profoundly odd being, from a civilization that’s seemingly solved all the problems we still suffer from.
If you go back and look, Martians in our fiction had historically, especially prior to War Of The Worlds, been an advanced species that were also largely benevolent. And J’Onn emerges from that tradition, whilst also fitting in with the obsession with Mars and Martians during the Golden Age Of Science-Fiction, with the likes of Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein cranking out work on the subject, alongside many others.
And to be sure, there is a modicum of Post-War Of The Worlds fear and horror imbued in these originals, wherein the arrival of this green being is quite uncertain. And, indeed, the shock of meeting J’Onn kills the scientist who summons him to Earth. But what is fascinating here is that J’Onn almost plays like a sort of ‘Superman by way of Dick Tracy.’ He’s very much inspired by the detectives of noir (who would go onto inspire science-fiction heroes in general, which is how we get Blade Runner), but is also this strange elevated figure that has little actually in common with those pulpy noir figures. He’s not a mess, he’s not hitting the booze or smoking hard, nor is he filled with lust. He’s…a well put together figure, an idealized super-detective. And with that angle, how he’s framed almost makes him into a sort of anti-superman.
Superman comes to earth through a rocket from the stars. He looks just like us. He has been raised here, and knows no other world. J’Onn is a figure WAITING for a rocket from the stars. He’s waiting for his people to get to a stage where they can travel to Earth, and he can return home. He looks nothing like us, but he can assimilate. He’s lived for untold years on Mars, and only knows Mars. Earth is new to him.
At the same time, despite coming from a literal utopia, where concepts like war and crime have been abolished, this J’Onn is never arrogant. He never looks down at Earth and humanity and goes ‘Pfft, so regressive.’ Instead, there’s a gentle, calm, accepting sensibility to the character. A sort of ‘Ah, they’re at a different stage of planetary development, let me do what I can to help’ idea pervades all he is, and all he does. He’s saintly and angelic, walking amidst us to just help out. He lacks the sort of…raw physicality and POWER of Superman, and instead has a sort of calm spirituality. Superman comics, the original ones, are all about power. It’s him breaking chains, guns, cars, anything. It’s him beating up people, throwing ’em off rooftops. It’s all a grand display of physicality. J’Onn on the other hand, for all his power, is about subdued silence. It’s more dodging and vanishing from sight, and resolving the situation with a simple hand gesture. He never has to lay a punch, and that isn’t how he operates. Which is to say, he’s more of a curious, pacifist superhero than Superman has ever been. J’Onn J’Onnz here is, arguably, much closer to a figure like Doctor Who.
All of which is complicated by the reality of the context he’s put in: He’s a cop.
Originally, he was a mere scientist on Mars. But since then the idea of a ‘Manhunter’ has been revealed as the Martian equivalent of a cop, to better match and gel with his Earth identity and role in the American Police Force. And police are anything but the angelic or saintly pacifists here to help. A fact that rings loudest and truest, particularly of the American Police, who are deeply tied to White Supremacy. They’re a fascist institution and system that does more harm than any good, going back to their roots as Slave Patrollers. One look at the world beyond, and you see what their monstrosity has wrought, time and time again. That things have gotten as loud and as blatant as an attempted Coup occurring before our very eyes, solely because the cops actively let it happen, should say it all.
Thus the framing of this almost divinely benevolent figure as Cop Hero is…troubling. Certainly, a lot of fiction idealizes cops. Cop Stories and Copaganda are not rare. Take one look at all the NCIS spin-offs and other Law & Order knocks off. They’re everywhere. Take one look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and its active ties to the American Military in its very productions, as well as its military task force heroes. Take one look at how many people Top Gun sold into becoming a part of the American Military Industrial Complex. Remember that Northrop Grumman/Marvel partnership that had to be yelled into cancellation by backlash? Think of the US Air Force’s active usage of Captain Marvel for recruitment (ala Top Gun), with targeted ads accompanying the million dollar blockbuster. The valorization, the worship, the propaganda for authority, and The Lawman that serves it is ubiquitous.
This trend however, was particularly strong in The Silver Age of comics, wherein J’Onn was born. The Martian Manhunter debuted in 1955, a precise year after the formation of the infamous Comics Code Authority. And some of their laws? Well, dear reader, let me show you:
- Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
- If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity.
- Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.
- Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation.
It comes back to a point I discussed at length last year, which is to say a specific type of hero was in fashion at this moment, if you observe the likes of Barry Allen, Hal Jordan, and Katar Hol, the new Flash, GL, and Hawkman revamps, all done as cops. It was just in fashion to make Cop Heroes, it was easy, it was less hassle, and they were saleable. This was the trend, and Martian Manhunter fits into said trend, becoming part of that history. Thus, people have built on that, and that cop foundation has never really gone away or been reckoned with/critiqued in any meaningful capacity.
So you have a narrative that is utterly contradictory, which actively clashes against itself, which isn’t resolved. Especially as time’s passed, as the companies that own their characters have been bought and reforged by bigger and bigger corporate entities, their priorities have shifted. You’re never going to get certain types of comics or narratives now from these media conglomerates the way you did, say, during the 1970s. There’s endless hoops to jump through, things to line up with. These characters are valued IP, with merchandising concerns, branding priorities, and the nature of art and narrative isn’t what’s important there. Even representation, ideas such as diversity, are tools for profit and marketing, as you’ll struggle to see or name more than a few (hard-fought) openly queer titles and characters, written by queer creators.
And even then, those are the anomalies, as they’re not ubiquitous or here to stay, and those creators are jumping through a million hoops, dealing with a zillion departments and PR people. It’s a struggle. What we, as passionate readers, writers, and critics think or want isn’t the priority as much as Protecting The Brand. Which is to say, you’re going to get Superman paired with Wonder Woman, but you’re never going to get Superman together with Batman or a male love interest. You’re gonna have to really fight to get Diana a female love interest and do it openly, despite creators like Grant Morrison and Greg Rucka making her bisexual in their texts. You can tell a Queer Batman story, you can tell a Queer Superman story. But it will never be with those characters. It’ll be with Apollo and Midnighter. In the end, the corporation gets to own and keep those toys and narratives.
All of which is to say, the stories we tell, the stories we’re encouraged to tell, the stories that are actively supported, and to the extent which they are, and how much we must all fight to even get that bare minimum, that’s all incredibly important. In the end, Trumpers like Ike Perlmutter own more of Marvel in actuality than any collective audience. And a lot of superhero narratives are designed to service an audience in a specific manner. It’s why for all that we love superheroes, for their infinite capacity to be anything, their fundamental contradiction is that they are largely bound in a box to only be a set of things. That’s the painful pragmatic reality of it when effectively two mega-corporations ‘own’ the space.
So what do you do when those limitations and lines become visible? When the extent of the kinds of stories you’re able to tell become clear? When the ideas of possibility can only possibly do so much? You make better ideas. Which is to say, ideas which do not have those limitations. And the aforementioned Midnighter and Apollo are a good start for an example. They open up a space for stories, with the same iconography and basic DNA prevalent in Batman and Superman, while being more. But as we’ve discussed, they too fall into the pitfall of priorities at Big Two.
So the obvious answer remains: You make these better ideas, yes. But you don’t do it at Big Two. You do it in Creator-Owned spaces, wherein you own them. And there is no red tape or meetings or paperwork. You get to tell any story. You get to unlock the endless potential of the superhero, free from corporate mandates, baggage, and more.
That’s the power of a pastiche.
II- The Peculiar Existence Of Barbalien
A good friend and fellow critic, David Mann, once described The Martian Manhunter as, effectively, a Vertigo take on Superman that just came out 40 years too early. That’s always struck me as quite true, in as much as, you can imagine a classical Vertigo book, in the 90’s, about a ‘monster’ hero who is a ‘freak’ and an ‘outsider.’ A work of melancholy and poignancy, a silent meditation on humanity, assimilation, the kind of Alan Moore-esque work that feels creator-owned but in a Big Two space. Such a book never existed, obviously. But you can almost picture it. It fits. It works. J’Onn has always felt less like a typical ‘superhero’ character, and more the weird figure to star in a run of Doom Patrol or Swamp Thing. He’s not that typical ‘punch it!’ superheroics character. Not at his most interesting, anyway.
All of which is a long, long way of saying…Barbalien: Red Planet is that. It’s that Vertigo-take on the idea that never was, but done to the Black Hammerverse, as opposed to the DCU. And more than that, more than anything, it’s a story that could only really exist the way it does in the form it does. This is not a story you could tell, with any real ease, at the Big Two. This is a story that can only ever be this independent take.
It’s an unflinching, honest, reflective work about the AIDS crisis, set against the backdrop of the police brutality inflicted upon the queer community in the ’80s. And it uses the iconography, the constructs, and language of superhero fiction, to talk about all of that. It’s a book that could’ve only been written from a queer perspective, which has a level of astonishing authenticity that is pleasing. It’s a rare kind of superhero book.
I think to myself, as I read every page, could this book ever exist outside its circumstances? Could this book exist in Big Two? No way in hell. Could this book exist as its own solo work by Brombal as a debut? No. It couldn’t. The Direct Market is an industry that is largely a machine built to pump out superhero comics, yes, but the thing that is unsaid in that obvious observation is that it’s exclusively Big Two Corporate Superhero IP comics. If you wish to do ‘superhero’ fiction in any capacity, your only avenue is there. That’s implicit and understood.
For all that I mentioned telling these stories, via pastiches, there is a reason many don’t. For, beyond the market oversaturation, there is no support or infrastructure for these things. The newbie coming in with their queer superhero comic? They’re gonna struggle. In a Pre-Order based system and market of retailers who love issues of Batman that save the (sales) day, it’s tricky. Could I see a work like this launching, and getting the support it has, getting the eyes it has, if it weren’t affiliated with Black Hammer? Could Tate Brombal do this without the success, cache, and the brand name of Jeff Lemire in the industry? I don’t think so. Fundamentally, and especially if you’re telling these queer superhero stories, it’s quite hard to succeed or go anywhere in the Direct Market space without the backing of industry heavyweights, who already serve the primary audience. Which is all the more why I’m glad this exists.
Barbalien: Red Planet existing alone is thrilling to me. It’s wild to me. It feels like the marker in a new chapter. It feels symbolic of Black Hammer being more than just Lemire’s personal playground. When it goes beyond that to become a vehicle, structure and space for marginalized voices to come in, and tell their stories, get paid for it, and get their name out? That feels important to me. That feels monumental to me, like a great new step has been taken. And at that point, what one thinks of Black Hammer as a comic becomes almost irrelevant, as it becomes a means of viably supporting new voices and bringing them up, diversifying, beyond the Big Two eco-system, which is historically messy and not terribly inclusive, a machine not everyone can get into, or survive getting into.
That marginalized voices can now potentially circumvent that space, having to fight through and wrestle within that hard machine, and that they might now have some options? That means a lot.
III- Oh How I Love Thee, Mark Markz
But its symbolic stature, its very real presence and potent meaning by existence aside, I adore this book. And it has such a meaningful presence and impact because of its incredible contents. To loop back to section one- Barbalien: Red Planet is a work fundamentally about the central contradiction, that eternal tension, that just doesn’t make sense with the Martian Manhunter Idea.
Now, Tate Brombal, Gabriel Walta, Jordie Bellaire, and Aditya Bidikar, the creative team, aren’t diehard Martian Manhunter fans. Certainly, Jeff Lemire is, given the extent and blatant nature of his pastiche, with Mark Markz, the Barbalien, being a cop in his city, assuming the identity of a dead one. Lemire’s Barbalien, much like all his pastiche work in Black Hammer, is implicitly in conversation with what has become before, with what it is drawing on. There is a clear sense of closeness, of personal connection and intimacy there, under Lemire’s pen.
But here’s the thing: I don’t know that the conversation it was engaged in was anything striking, at least for me, until now. As I read Barbalien, what I’m impressed by is how much Brombal’s work isn’t as close to the thing it’s playing on. It’s not actively trying to be about Martian Manhunter, in the way that Lemire’s work was. It instead, takes that idea, and uses it as a vehicle to focus in on a very relevant, very real struggle for a marginalized community. Thus, the end result to me is something actually talking about Martian Manhunter, or more aptly, the idea of Martian Manhunter, without ever being insular, and about comics. It’s not about intertextuality, but about actual reality. It’s about the AIDS crisis. It’s about queerness. It’s about police brutality, and endurance of activists and communities. It’s less Comics About Comics, and more so Comics About The World, which also happens to say interesting things on the comic roots its drawing upon.
The biggest illustration of that for me is probably how critical Brombal’s script is of Barbalien. It dives headfirst into the eternal contradiction and uncomfortable core that has plagued the idea of J’Onn, exploring the idea of the kind, saintly pacifist who is also a Cop. And at no point does his script hesitate. It’s compassionate, kind work, one that is full of empathy, but it never ducks from the complacency and potential complicity of Barbalien. It instead asks us, alongside him, to take it all in. To process that, to understand what’s wrong, and thus what is right, and what is decent.
There is no hint of nostalgia here for the archetype, only considered, critical work that is as moving as it is unflinching.
The moment Mark, posing as ‘Luke’ enters a queer club, wherein everyone is open, and free, able to be whoever it is they are, is heartbreaking. And it’s heartbreaking in the rarer sense of ‘Where has this been all my life?’ It’s the answer to a yearning. The response to a call in the heart. The desire and deep-seated pain that begs for a place to belong, wherein you are not judged, but accepted for who you are. Where you get to not just exist, wandering through the days of life, but live. To truly live, and celebrate your place here. To live and love.
It’s the moment where his dull, drab world explodes into a universe of color (god bless Jordie Bellaire), as a double-page spread kicks in. And there he is, Mark Markz, unable to even comprehend it, as those next to him understand, having been there, assuring him that this needn’t be a fleeting moment. This can be real. This is who we can be. This is who we are, this is what they can never take from us, and it’s what we fight for. It’s the first time a place of hiding isn’t just that of bottled up shame and uncertainty and self-loathing, it’s the first time he isn’t met with disgust and hatred, but loving acceptance. It’s the first time he gets to truly revel in that which he has been forced to hide.
It’s beautiful, and that’s why it’s so heartbreaking.
It’s not a superhero book about other superhero books, of which we have plenty of. It’s not just interesting idea-splicing and conceptual work, although that is present in it. It’s a book firmly about queer culture, utilizing the mechanism of the superhero story, and in this case the Martian Manhunter archetype.
And what makes it resonate even stronger is that – while it does star a white-presenting lead in Mark – it’s a work that very consciously centers the story of people of color, with both Mark’s partner and love-interest, the passionate activist and leader Miguel (pictured above, hugging Barbalien), and the drag queen Knight Klub, whose history stretches back to Stonewall. As well as even in-universe superhero legacy heroes of color such as Dr. Day, who treats queer people who nobody else will. It’s about how a vibrant community endures, survives, thrives, even with the boot of fascism threatening to destroy it. It’s not just about queer trauma and horror, but survival, power, and possibility. It is, like the moment above, a celebration. Heartbreaking, painful, angry, passionate, but kind, compassionate, and moving.
It’s a story wherein Mark Markz witnesses the horror of cops, the job he does, what that means, how it hurts others, especially those like him, particularly his community, and what he must then do, once he recognizes his complacency and complicity. It’s not a work centered on the guilt of whiteness (which, again, is adopted by Barbalien here) as much as it is reflection of the damage inaction can cause. Barbalien has a privilege that Miguel, that Knight Klub, that Dr. Day will never have. And his fellow cops? They’re happy to have any excuse to brutalize people who aren’t just not white, but also queer, ticking off two squares in their hellish bigotry bible.
It’s a book about how bigotry is learned, and how culture and people around us can make us into who we are, as you have characters like BARBOUNTY HUNTER, who chases after our lead. And it’s also why the opposite of that, that the hatred that you’ve internalized, the culture you’ve been forced to listen to, the people you’ve been around, you can move away from all that, and truly find yourself, as Mark does here. That it’s not too late. It’s never too late. You can always change, you can always learn and be better, and become the best you that you have ever been. That self-actualization is impossible, even in the face of a horrific world dead-set on getting in your way.
It’s a work that celebrates queerness, queer history, against the backdrop of one of the most painful moments in our history, whilst never making the mistake of excluding people of color. That applies both on-the-page and off the page, too, as the fact that the work is lettered by a queer man of color, Aditya Bidikar, is also incredibly important. It’s an inclusive jam-session, with Gabriel Walta bringing an utter tenderness, an emotional honesty and sincerity that just destroys you, while Bellaire’s colors capture both the beauty and horror of every moment with striking clarity.
This is the kind of superhero comics I’m thrilled to see. Comics that are made beyond the confines of Big Two, which can truly do anything, and that…for once actually do. Barbalien is a superhero comic unlike any I have ever read. It’s one that could only exist in the way it does, in the space it does. It’s no more subtext and ‘teasing’ and dancing around what can be said, lest corporate disapprove. It’s a work of blunt, honest truth. It steps up and loudly makes its presence clear, and it is superhero pastiche done with impeccable skill. It opens up its hands to an audience that has historically been underserved and marginalized, and welcomes them in. It says ‘This is for you’. It screams ‘We can make bloody beautiful art, like there never was!’ at the top of its lungs. It’s joyous, it’s heartbreaking, and I cannot help but be moved.