This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on October 8, 2015.
Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Why is Martian Manhunter the fucking worst member of the Justice League? They already have an alien, a detective, and a green guy! He’s so redundant.
Sometimes I forget how young you are Mark, that you grew up with the New 52 being your DC Universe. Based on that it’s not hard to understand how you would think Martian Manhunter is the worst member of the Justice League because he has barely played a role in that organization and has received treatment that is mediocre at best elsewhere (read: Stormwatch). However, Martian Manhunter’s quality as a Leaguer isn’t based on his quality as a character. He’s actually a barometer for the quality of a Justice League story. When the Justice League is at its worst, J’onn J’onzz is pretty crappy or non-existent, but when the Justice League is at its best, the Martian Manhunter is the absolute best member of the best superhero team in comics.
You raise three objections to J’onn’s place in the league referring to him as being a redundant alien, detective, and green guy. I think those three objections actually help to explain why he’s such an integral member of the organization and fantastic character though. Let’s tackle them one at a time.
The other notable alien on the league also just happens to be the greatest superhero of all time, Superman. These two do have a lot in common. They are both sole survivors (give or take a bottled city and some distant relatives) of alien races who have made Earth their home. They are also both in possession of enormous power based on their alien heritage. The key difference between the two doesn’t come from J’onn’s shape-shifting or telepathy though. It’s based in his origin.
Superman was sent to Earth as a baby knowing nothing of Krypton. J’onn is a refugee pulled from a war-torn Mars that had ripped his family, his home, and his heritage from him. He already possessed everything Superman first found on Earth, and lost it all. That’s so important because he is an outsider to Earth, something no other regular member of the Justice League can claim. He is the immigrant who made the choice to live and stay on Earth, and do everything in his power to protect it. That choice is something no one else can claim.
That choice also factors into why his role as a detective is different than that of Batman. Batman is a character driven by a singular tragedy. Without the murder of his parents, it’s highly unlikely that he would have joined the GCPD to solve cases. He’d still be a smart cookie, but probably not a detective. J’onn could have done anything on Earth in his John Jones alter-ego, but he chose to be a detective. While J’onn also lost his family, there’s no connection between that tragedy and his choice of profession.
J’onn’s choice to be a detective is driven purely by altruism with none of the rage and guilt connected to Batman’s origin. There’s a great scene in DC: The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke where J’onn is flipping through channels to decide upon his identity. When he encounters noir detective Mike Hammer something clicks. Here is a very private guy who tries to help people by solving problems, and J’onn possesses a set of skills that make him uniquely suited to do just that. It is a way for him to help people on his adopted planet that isn’t just waiting to punch the next big threat.
You also mentioned a green guy, and I’ll assume you’re referring to Hal Jordan. Well, J’onn has the benefit of being an interesting character unlike this cardboard cutout of generic heroism. Even briefly considering how he relates to other characters like Superman and Batman reveals someone with a rich origin, place in the shared universe, and inner life. He’s a character with every bit as much storytelling potential as other classic Leaguers, while Hal is a guy that uses the most powerful weapon in the galaxy to make a big, green fist.
J’onn’s placement in the league isn’t just proven because he’s not redundant to Superman and Batman, but because he’s a necessary inversion of these characters. Superman and Batman are two of the biggest superhero characters ever. They were designed to work as solo stars and have 3-4 titles featuring them as such at any given point. They aren’t inherently team players; J’onn J’onzz is. Unlike Superman, he is the alien who chose Earth and wants to protect it from the same fate of his original home. Unlike Batman, his motives are purely altruistic and he wants to help others because he can’t imagine doing anything else with his life. Batman could be described as the brain of the Justice League and Superman could be its heart, but Martian Manhunter is its soul, the piece that defines what this team is about and what it can be at its best.
Earlier I mentioned that the best Justice League stories show the Martian Manhunter to be one of the best Leaguers. If you’re talking about the best, you should start with the best, and as we discussed last time Grant Morrison’s JLA is the best Justice League series ever. Just take a look at the cover for JLA #1, it’s no mistake that J’onn is the only character centered and that he’s both standing behind everyone, but barely covered by their forms. Howard Porter knows exactly what this comic is about and what he’s doing on the cover. Morrison and Porter even set their first JLA story within J’onn’s origin by having the League face off against the White Martians that led to the destruction of life on Mars. He is set at the very heart of the team from the beginning of the story and never leaves.
Another story that comes to mind isn’t technically a League story, but it centers around the greatest superheroes working in teams to save the galaxy, so I’ll count it. That story is Cosmic Odyssey by Jim Starlin and Mike Mignola. The plot is pretty basic in that four pairs of heroes have to prevent the destruction of four separate planets. J’onn is teamed with a much more interesting Green Lantern, John Stewart. Stewart feels he can handle it on his own though, holds J’onn in a force field, and fails to save the planet. So the two heroes are left floating in the remaining rubble of a planet, hoping their friends can save the day. What comes next is one of the greatest Martian Manhunter moments ever created though.
John Stewart is understandably suicidal after what happens and is confronted by J’onn when he has taken off his ring, picked up a gun, and prepared to shoot himself. J’onn dresses him down, touching on the terrible responsibility they hold as superheroes and what they must do everyday. He ends this by saying “You are obviously not strong enough to handle such responsibility. You are flawed. So do everyone a favor and finish with this grisly act of self-destruction.” That is about as harsh as it gets in superhero comics.
In two almost entirely silent pages, John pauses, drops the gun, calls up his ring, and says “Screw you, J’onzz” before walking away. The last panel is the most important one to look at though. J’onn smiles as his friend storms away angrily. He never wanted John to kill himself, but knew that he didn’t need consoling or excuses. What J’onn said was cruel, but it was exactly what John needed to save his life and get him to move forward. J’onn’s words are motivated purely by altruism (there’s that word again). He doesn’t care how what he does reflects on him, but that it helps another person in their darkest hour. That’s why he is left with a satisfied smile.
These are far from the only examples of J’onn being a great leader, teammate, and hero. Pick up any of the classic Justice League stories that feature him and you’re bound to find something to love. The Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis run on Justice League in the early 80s and 90s take a decidedly more humorous tone than JLA or Cosmic Odyssey, but still places J’onn at its center providing the core morality and wisdom for the team, like the best sort of sitcom dad. Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn’s JLA: Year One puts him at the center of the team, an outsider who brings together Earth’s greatest heroes and teaches them why it’s worth working together to protect his planet. That’s also what happens in the Justice League cartoon, probably the best superhero team cartoon to ever air.
Hell, it’s no surprise that the most obvious gap in Geoff John’s current run of Justice League is Martian Manhunter. It’s a series about a bunch of assholes dressed up as superheroes who spend more time fighting one another and failing to prevent international incidents than accomplishing anything. The brain and the heart may still be there, but the series is ultimately soulless.
So why would someone say that Martian Manhunter is the worst member of the Justice League or redundant? Well, the only plausible explanation is that they’re reading bad Justice League stories. J’onn is more key to understanding what the Justice League is about than any other character. He’s the ultimate team player and altruistic superhero. He’s the guy who lost everything, but chose to start over again. He’s the guy with no inherent connection to Earth, but chooses to dedicate all of himself to saving it. He’s the guy who always does what is best for others and for the team.
So if you think Martian Manhunter is the worst, it’s time to keep reading. When it comes to heroism, J’onn J’onzz is the first among peers in the DC Universe.