I Wupped Batman’s Ass: Why You Should Care About J’onn J’onzz
Posted August 11, 2009on:
“I’m as powerful as Superman. Why does everyone forget that?” -J’onn J’onzz: Manhunter from Mars, Green Lantern #44
Yeah. We’ve all got our pet character; we feel cool when we root for the underdog – that one underrated badass the rest of the world fails to understand the way we do. Instead of fellating myself because I “get it” and you don’t – if I do that, I’m a nerd and a dick – let’s take a minute to look at what makes some of the most successful characters so interesting, how the Martian Manhunter does it better, and why you should care.
When considering the nature of a superhero, the first factor of bad-assery is powers. 99% of comic book characters are interesting mainly because they can do things we cannot do. Things that nobody can do. Impossible odds? No problem! This guy’s got impossible powers! Smash! Bang! Problem solved. Powers-wise, J’onn is a total chameleon. As the less-than-original superhero creation of over-zealous Silver Age author Joseph Samachson, J’onzz can do almost anything. His powers include: strength on par with Supes, flight, laser beams from his eyes, telepathy, shape-shifting, freezing breath, and invisibility. Basically, this is Superman meets every X-Man ever.
Sadly, this over abundance of powers has done more harm to J’onn than good. During the Golden and Silver Ages, the only differences between characters were their costumes and their powers with little attention paid to superhero psychology. Perhaps it is for this reason that J’onn was neglected by Bronze and the early Modern Age authors. Redundancy aside, J’onn J’onzz is the most powerful and integral telepath in the DCU and still he’s written as just a random dude, arms crossed in the back of the JLA yearbook photo.
Super powers are almost always balanced with a secret weakness. They’ve all got one. Here’s where The Manhunter from Mars really shines. Who the hell even has Kryptonite? Really rich dudes named Lex Luthor and Bruce Wayne. That’s it. Joe-thug on the street doesn’t have Kryptonite. With few exceptions Kal-El is indestructible to the human race. As Batman poignantly said in The Justice League: New Frontier, “I have a $70,000 sliver of a radioactive meteor to stop the one from Metropolis. All I need for you is a penny for a book of matches.” That’s right, J’onn. The liquor store sells your kryptonite.
Ok. So, we like cool powers. But so what? We’ve had 40 years of shallow characters with bright costumes and amazing powers. The modern audience wants depth. We want to know who this person is, how they are like us, and how they are different than us. Perhaps the most popular method employed to convey depth of character in comics is tragedy. Something really really bad happens to our hero, but they overcome adversity. Heroes LOVE to overcome adversity. They make themselves better instead of wallowing in self pity. Batman saw his parents murdered. Now he obsessively strives to make the world better. His burden must never be shared. But the Batman still has Alfred. Batman still has Gotham. Batman still has Earth. “Superman!” you say, “He’s a lonely alien too!” Well yes, here’s a man who lost his whole world. Yet, here again he fails to have a perfect tragedy. Superman was raised from infancy by all-star parents Jonathan and Martha Kent. These guys managed to raise a boy so pure, and so selfless that literally the entire Justice League depends on his crystalline sense of justice. Superman also looks like us. He has Lois. He’s been raised by humans and Kryptonians are so remarkably like us that Kal-El can comfortably exist without feeling any isolation. Who does Martian Manhunter go to when he’s burdened, when he needs support? No one. His entire race was destroyed by a genocidal plague that happened thousands of years ago. This happened while he was an adult. He lost his mate and his child as well as every person and every thing he loved. Upon removal to earth he found a species of confusing people. Even as a powerful telepath, the human race remains an enigma to J’onn. The victim of a genocide and bad manipulation of the timestream, J’onn J’onzz is the most tragic of all superheros. By all rights he should be paranoid, bitter, and unstable. It’s a testament to the great love and compassion that are so central to the Manhunter that he’s a force for good- not a bitter, relentless evil.
Finally, a superhuman sense of right and wrong is at the core of what we love about these good-guys. Good and evil. Justice. What we love so much is that in this world there are powerful people fighting so the right things happen to the right people. Superman is our ultimate example here. Superman always knows what to do. His justice is perfect, it is unerring, it is constant. It is so centred and balanced that every other member of the JLA looks to HIM to set the standard. What about Batman? Batman’s sense of good and evil is intense. It’s obsessive. Batman doesn’t strive for justice, he’s addicted to it. And what of Diana? Wonder Woman, you know the other member of the trinity. The woman you’ve so carelessly forgotten like the patriarchal bastard you are?! Diana is a princess. She’s a goddess. She is not tragic and she is not alone. She may not always understand humans, but her sense of right and wrong comes from a higher place than Kal’s or Bruce’s. This can isolate her, but she can always retreat to Themyscira when she needs a breather. J’onn J’onzz has none of this. He is struggling to improve a world he does not fully understand. In a sense Martian Manhunter is the original Dr. Manhattan.
Martian Manhunter is seriously underplayed in the DCU. He’s sort of the bitch of the JLA. Allocated to the Watchtower, J’onn plays a more passive role; he’s a mother hen, and a glorified walkie talkie. Every author worth their weight in Alex Ross originals has acknowledged the centrality of the character. I believe it was in 52 that the statement was made, “There can’t be a JLA without the Martian Manhunter!” And yet the only person to take a serious stab in the Modern Age was A.J. Lieberman. Lieberman, I sympathise with you, and thanks for the cool new costume (seriously, a guy who can be killed by flames would NOT parade about in his underwear, so Thank You!), but dude – well, let’s just say the book wasn’t what I’d hoped for. Would somebody please take another go at making J’onn J’onzz the hero he really is? Rucka? Waid? Johns? Dare I ask… Meltzer? Brad, you made us love the once fading into obscurity Dibnys and the Red Tornado, surely you can do something for J’onzz. Mr. Dan DiDio, please get one of the many talented authors on your team to give us a Martian Manhunter saga we can be proud of.