The character of J’onn J’onzz is in a strange place right now in the public consciousness. On the one hand, he’s never been more prominent, being played by David Harewood on the live-action Supergirl series. On the other hand, he’s never been more of a mystery in the world of comics, following a revamp in DC Comics’ New 52 reality that left him outside of his usual wheelhouse as the linchpin of the Justice League. It was only recently, with Scott Snyder’s takeover of the Justice League comic that J’onn was restored to where he should be, in a leadership position among the World’s Finest heroes.
Enter Martian Manhunter #1 – a mini-series which promises to restore J’onn J’onzz’s classic origins while explaining who he is in the modern day. And while that somebody is the last of the Green Martians, those who only know J’onn from Supergirl may be quite surprised by this book.
The story is split between three points in history, with an opening narration on the first page looking back to two earlier points – J’onn’s days as a police detective in Middleton, Colorado “A Few Years Ago” and his life as a peacekeeper on Mars “Before.” The scenes on Mars are rendered as a flashback within a flashback, as J’onn thinks on his family while investigating a crime scene.
Steve Orlando’s script does a fantastic job of establishing J’onn’s character. He is affirmed to be a fantastic detective, noting details which other people miss even ignoring his enhanced senses. He is also established as being aloof and not entirely personable, ignoring his partner’s need for a full breakfast because he can get by just fine on coffee and grit. There is, however, a nice mythology nod to the classic JLI comics and J’onn’s love of Oreos, as his partner notes that she knows he loves the Choco-Crust pie at a certain diner.
The one decisive point in the script is also its most memorable, at least for those fans already familiar with J’onn’s character. The flashbacks on Mars suggest that J’onn might have been a dirty cop, as we see him shaking down a Gold Martian drug-dealer for protection money and then admonishing one of his contacts for calling him outside of designated work hours, because he does not want his family hearing anything of his work. It is a little difficult to work this out, however, as Orlando elects to interject a lot of Martian words and slang into the dialogue. (“You peddle cheap valor-trances to Whiteflesh who don’t know any better!”) It’s a valiant attempt to try and develop the Martian culture in a subtle way, but it doesn’t entirely work.
The same might be said of Riley Rossmo’s artwork, which is an acquired taste for some. Personally, I love Rossmo’s style and have been a fan of it since Constantine: The Hellblazer. Rossmo has a unique aesthetic that is well-suited toward depicting the alien and the grotesque and I can think of no better artist to tackle the unique challenges Orlando’s script requires like designing a Martian City or drawing two shapeshifters in the act of coitus. (Don’t worry, parents. It’s all quite PG-13.) Yet Rossmo’s human characters sometimes look as inhuman as his aliens and that’s certainly the case here with J’onn’s partner Diane sporting a bouffant hairstyle that would not look out of place among the extras in an episode of The Real Ghostbusters.
While this quirky little series may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I personally loved Martian Manhunter #1. It has some flaws but there is far more wrong than right and more than enough good to encourage continued reading, even ignoring the explosive cliffhanger ending.