I have to take a break here from the war-related posts: they are getting a bit heavy, I’m sounding too much like a caricature of some think-tank armchair general.
Over at Comics Should Be Good, Bill Reed asks why the character Martian Manhunter has generally sucked through a wild variety of characterizations and formats. He suffers, says Reed, from “Aquaman Syndrome”. Frankly, I think it should be the other way around: Aquaman is a much better-developed character with a clearer creative history who sometimes suffers from “Martian Manhunter Syndrome”.
There are a lot of ways to answer this question, and the commenters at CSBG bring up most of them. For those unfamiliar with the character, he’s actually been around in DC Comics for a long time. He was an original member of the Justice League, he’s had his own series a few times, and so on.
The first problem that a lot of people bring up is that the guy is just too powerful. He’s almost as strong as Superman, he can change his shape, he can turn invisible, he can fly, he can walk intangibly through walls, and he’s a powerful telepath. He’s vulnerable to fire, which in older stories was just declared as baldly as Green Lantern’s vulnerability to yellow or Superman’s vulnerability to kryptonite, but has been a lot harder to work out some deeper justification for in later stories.
The second problem is that the character has had a wide variety of origin stories, some of them fairly fundamentally different from each other. Writers may fiddle a bit with Batman, Superman or Wonder Woman, but the core story remains memorably the same. Not so this guy. If there’s any core, it’s that he’s the last survivor of his planet brought here by accident, but that doesn’t do him many favors, since that makes him a Superman-retread.
I think this gets much closer to the real problem, and it’s one that has implications for other comic characters. What makes a superhero character work? When there’s some conceptual alignment between who the character is and why he runs around in long underwear fighting bad guys. Batman and Spider-man are the sine qua non of superhero motivation, the most perfectly realized characters in these terms. This is an insurance policy against bad stories and creative drift in a long-running serial fiction of any kind: a character whose motivations provide many narratives, but also where they limit the ultimate fluidity of the character.
Wonder Woman and the Fantastic Four are good cases of characters where the motivation can get a bit fuzzier, and sometimes drift on target. She’s a warrior but also from a society that withdrew from war; they’re a family. Works pretty well, but plenty of room for a hack to screw it up.
Aquaman is a good example of a character who has a clear conceptual premise that limits his horizons pretty firmly. He’s the King of the Sea. Lots of swimming and fish. Unless you put something more interesting in the oceans besides fish and water, there’s not a lot that can happen to him, and his end result as a character (King of the Sea) doesn’t have a tight integration into his origin (basically a foundling/mermaid story) unless you get a writer who can really riff off some of the Arthurian (pun intended) potential in that premise.
Martian Manhunter, though? In most versions, the guy is here by accident. There’s nothing essential about his version of Mars except that they’re big and green. (Actually, even that’s not essential: in most versions, his worst enemies are the White Martians.) His powers are intrinsic, and all his people had them. Unlike Superman, who is only super because his planet blew up and his parents died and he came here.
I think the only way this character works is if he riffs off Superman in some very deep, evocative, mythological manner, because his origin echoes Superman’s. So try some of the comparisons:
1. Arrives as an adult, as opposed to Superman coming as a baby.
2. Finds human beings freaky and hard to understand even though he has intimate insight into them (telepathy), as opposed to Superman being the quintessential middle American.
3. People are freaked out by his appearance, while they think Superman is handsome and attractive.
4. He can genuinely disguise himself as opposed to just putting on some glasses.
I’m seeing something interesting here: a different kind of immigrant experience. Feeling alien, frightened, alone, in danger of exposure or mistreatment. Missing the competencies and social integration you had at home. Here by accident, forced to stay because there’s no way to go home. Having to disguise oneself.
The deep stories here are very different, darker, harder, with a different understanding of American history, though no less important or resonant. Add to that something a lot of fans have suggested, given that the character has to stay in a sort of closet, and disguise himself–you don’t have to make him gay (I think it’s more interesting when an alien character doesn’t have an easily mapped sexuality at all, honestly) but you sure as hell can riff off the iconography of the closet.
The problem then is, why does this guy run around with other people in their longjohns? What reason does he have to risk his life punching out Lex Luthor’s killer robots? Well, isn’t that part of that harder, darker story of migration, the optimistic part? The desire to still be part of community, to join in, to be part of your new place? That can work against the bitterness, the alienation, the longing.
It’s not a foolproof motivation, it’s not in the same category as “muggers killed my parents”, or even, “I was sent here as a baby by my Father in Heaven to save the human race”. Anybody who isn’t able to tap into that deeper story of migration and change isn’t going to get it right. But I kind of like the character, and he’d do ok with something like this. Better than being King of the Ocean, at any rate.