[Editor’s Note: This review may contain spoilers]
Writer: Steve Orlando
Artist: Riley Rossmo
Colors: Ivan Plascencia
Letters: Deron Bennett
Welcome to the beginning of a character defining tale for Martian Manhunter! This is a timeless story of J’onn J’onzz at the beginning of his life on Earth and during his life on Mars. J’onn has not always been the purest of heart like he is so often portrayed, and his life on Mars was filled with experiences you didn’t know about… until now. Watch J’onn makes mistakes and have to deal with the aftermath alone on Earth, because as you learn what it was like to be a Martian, maybe you’ll also learn a little more about being human.
Make no mistake, Martian Manhunter #1 is a complex read. It needs to balance J’onn’s life on Mars, where we aren’t too sure of his moral character, with his life on Earth, overridden by guilt. Orlando has the not-so-easy task of having to portray entirely new aspects of Martian life while also showing how those same aspects affect J’onn and his life on Earth. There is an important and delicate dichotomy here, and I am happy to say the Steve Orlando and Riley Rossmo navigate it perfectly. Nowhere is that more evident than in the first two pages.
Page one is loud, explosive, and overwhelming, just as J’onn feels in it. He is front and center, yet at one of the weakest points we’ve ever seen the character. He is hunched over, paralyzed in fear and horror as he can feel other Martians burning. There are a large plethora of horrifically disfigured Martians (yes that can be a thing) portrayed above him symbolizing a weight that is figuratively and metaphorically crushing him. J’onn cannot escape the trauma, the fear, or the horror, as other Martians burn around him, Rossmo highlights certain images with distinct white lines and circles, almost like evidence markers. Evidence of horror and guilt maybe? Each a separate piece in his head, permanently cataloged. The art from Rossmo and colors from Ivan Plascencia are stunning and grotesque. The page could be framed and I could stare at that page for hours in awe. The only text on the pages addresses something that has never before been called into question: whether or not Martian Manhunter is a hero.
Page two could not be more different. It is calm and mundane, portraying John Jones as he goes through his morning routine in human form. As he completes these ordinary tasks, taking a shower, getting dressed, leaving for work, he never smiles and always looks down. In once again fantastic work from Plascencia, the entire page is done in cool and depressing purples, blues, and pale greens. This is someone who is ashamed of who they truly are, and someone who wants to bury themselves. Why else would he never leave his human form? Referring to Martian Manhunter, someone, presumably Diane Meade, asks, “Then what is he?” To which J’onn replies, “Something to hide.” J’onn has frequently felt alone and excluded, but this series begins with a deep sense of shame we have rarely seen out of the character. This is more than just loss for him, and Orlando wants us to see that.
We are then allowed to peak behind the world of John Jones circa a few years before present day. It was clearly a time where J’onn could at least get by. We are first introduced to Diane Meade, John’s partner, who is clearly frustrated that John has to be perfect all the time. She isn’t perfect either, craving a little more time and eating leftover pizza for breakfast. In some ways, she is the perfect partner to John. She may not be perfect, but she is sure of who she is. It is a really fun partnership straight from of any police drama. There is witty banter on the way to the case and an air of mutual respect.
The crime scene is almost as shocking as page one. It’s a horrific double homicide with blood everywhere, a missing child, and a missing dog who is probably not a dog. We see some fine detective work from Johns here, who is quickly able to spot evidence that signals that something more mysterious may be afoot. John leaves Diane to explore the rest of the house and opens his “memory induction” recall. It is a sensible ability that presumably allows J’onn to perfectly record not only his memories, but his reactions and thoughts as well. It is upon entering the daughter’s room that Orlando finally opens the treasure trove of Martian abilities, features, and characteristics he’s been waiting to show us.
It starts with emotional residue. Empathy is such a defining characteristic for Martians because they can literally feel what others are feeling. It makes perfect sense that Martians would also be able to sense lingering remains of powerful emotions that were felt in a certain location, and just like any evidence, it can be tampered with. J’onn can feel the daughter’s horror and adrenaline but can’t picture the scene because the visuals have been “scrubbed.” As he tries to identify the attacker, J’onn feels the presence of fright foam, a Martian concept only barely introduced in this first issue. Presumably, it was a weapon of sorts used by Manhunters that could instill pure fear. The detail work in this scene from the whole team is amazing. Whether it be Orlando throwing in a subtle reference to A.J. Lieberman’s run with the mention of Roh’kar, the brilliant reds Plascencia uses for J’onn’s eyes as he uses his abilities, or the green outlines to the speech bubbles that J’onn uses when he is speaking as a Martian and not as a human.
We are then shown an extended flashback of Mars, the most revealing part of the issue. The scene opens with an exquisite drawing of a bustling Martian city. It has an astounding level of detail comparable, in many ways, to Liam Sharp’s rendition of new Oa in The Green Lantern #2. Both beautiful metropolises bustling with life. We then zoom down into the streets of a slum and shown a mind-blowing whirlwind of interactions and cultures. It’s not unlike the feeling of lively chaos we experience when we are first shown the streets of Mos Eisley Tatooine. There is more Martian culture defined in this scene than in any run prior, save perhaps for John Ostrander’s. Martians have a private shape, one only revealed to those closest to them, and a social shape, one that is chosen during adolescence on Chrysalis Night as an expression of oneself. It’s a beautiful addition and a perfect use of the shape-shifting ability as Martians are shown to come in all shapes and sizes. Martians have always been portrayed as humanoid, but that doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t, be the case. A lively conversation is taking place that is revealed to be between J’onn and a Goldflesh. Despite being a chief hunter, J’onn is clearly on some sort of take, reporting to “bosses” instead of any sort of institution. This scene is a drastic departure from any portrayal of J’onn we have ever seen before. He is intimidating, ruthless, easily bothered, and quick to threaten. He is quick to extort money out of the Goldflesh and leaves. Orlando has suggested that the goldflesh are, in fact, Yellow Martians from pre-crisis Wonder Woman who remained neutral during the conflicts between the White Martians and Green Martians, and are now being punished for it. Their inclusion showcases Orlando’s phenomenal world-building capabilities.
Orlando also nods to Ostrander’s run with the reference to a B’ool Sporath, a dangerous alien species from Mars that has been corralled for some sort of underground fighting ring. This Goldflesh seems to know more about J’onn and appears to launder money for him. One thing is made clear: J’onn J’onzz was not the perfect manhunter we thought him to be. That, however, what J’onn’s family life would suggest. J’onn and his wife’s private shames are more humanoid than most, J’onn’s being a more innocent form of his social shape. Their daughter is just a floating blob, too innocent to have chosen a social shape yet. This entire scene takes place right before the end, as J’onn’s wife dismisses the idea of H’ronmeer’s curse, the plague that wiped out the Martians. As they finish dinner and little K’hym goes off to study, one of the strangest, yet most beautiful scenes in DC comics begins.
Martian sex is shown in all its glory, and boy is it something. Orlando and Rossmo show detail in every page of the issue, including this one. As their bodies meld together, so too do the colors of the outlines of their respective speech bubbles. It is a somehow captivating display that Orlando described to Rossmo as “a saltwater taffy machine.” In that state, everything is shared with each other. Its something that most may wish they could share with their loved ones, and maybe it would make us better spouses and better people. M’yri’ah, his wife, can even feel a small urge of J’onn’s to create another child, yet, as the flash back comes to a close, we are given our last remnant of Martian culture more proof that J’onn has something to hide. All Martians share a thoughtstream, meaning everyone can feel a part of everyone else on Mars, except for a Martian’s hermitage, a corner of their mind containing private thoughts only to be shared with those closest to them. In many ways, it comes across like an alternative to social media today. So much is visible to everyone else, but its still possible to remain private and closed off. J’onn, however, keeps his hermitage closed off to even M’yri’ah, signalling that he has something to hide he can’t trust her with.
As we return to earth for the final scene, J’onn and Diane are returning from the crime scene. Diane just wants to make small talk, but J’onn is clearly ill and disturbed. He’s trailing off and can’t keep his eyes on the road. Even the suggestion of a choco-pie doesn’t perk him up. It is here I must compliment Deron Bennett’s lettering, which is phenomenal throughout the issue, but especially in this scene. The Onomatopoeia he letters seem like they are from another planet, I have never seen lettering in situations of extreme emotion like Bennett’s in this issue. The letters while in the throes of passion make it seem like J’onn and M’yri’ah are so enthralled that they are literally having blurry vision. As John starts to become more and more fatigued, Diane’s voice becomes cloudier and shakier. It’s like you are experiencing the double vision and floating in and out of consciousness with John. It is Bennett here that truly keeps you in this moment.
Finally, a hallucination cause John to lose control as the car veers off the road and into a tree, catching on fire, revealing on the final page J’onn’s true form to Diane. We will have to wait until next issue to see how she reacts. At first, I found it interesting how the title of this issue was “The Prisoner,” but it really fits with the themes Orlando is going for. J’onn was an officer of the law on Mars and is one on Earth, someone who catches criminals and punishes those who commit evil acts. Yet J’onn was not a lawful man and was clearly mixed up in some shady business, and some part of him was always held prisoner. On Mars, it was only his deepest thoughts, held prisoner by his conscious mind against even those he loved most. On Earth, its his entire being. J’onn is punishing himself relentlessly, pushing who he is further and further down because he is so ashamed of his past and of himself. Both worlds are integral to his character, and that is why all of the transitions between the two are done mid-sentence. He is a prisoner of his own guilt and shame, but something evil is coming that is already forcing his true self into the open.
My only negative is that Rossmo’s art may be a little too loud at times. I had to look at the splash pages for a long time just so the images would settle and I could understand what was going on. Ultimately, I truly appreciate the attention to detail, but I can see those who are new to the character being offput by some of these seriously Jarring images. That being said, I truly appreciate the experience of reading this comic.
Orlando and Rossmo pull off a brilliant introduction to a character-defining origin retelling centering around the importance of being true to who you are. J’onn J’onzz may not be from Earth, but this series will make us all a little more human.