Why Does the Martian Manhunter Suck?

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.

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15 Responses to Why Does the Martian Manhunter Suck?

  1. emschwar says:

    Two things about the Manhunter vs. Superman:

    1) Superman was sent to Earth. J’onn was dragged here against his will. This feeds further into your theme of alienation. True, every now and then someone will remember Supe’s an alien, but by and large, he’s just a really great guy. J’onn is alien in every sense of the word– when he’s most himself, he’s most unlike us.

    2) Both characters vary greatly depending on who’s writing them, but J’onn has always been more of a philosopher, probably because he’s so alien. If you ask me, that’s why he fights crime; he knows that any society needs as stable a base as possible to enable all the other stuff (economy, sports, art, etc.) to happen. He has the ability; under what philosophy (save perhaps a Randian one) would be be justified in witholding that ability?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    2) is the problem. Because he was dragged here by accident, we really don’t know what kind of “person” he is, or at least, his character as a character is completely dependent on whomever is writing him. Pick a human being at random and teleport him to an alien world. If he’s a responsible, stand-up family guy, maybe he’ll try to act that way elsewhere. If he’s an inventive, courageous guy, maybe he’ll be Adam Strange (another useful Martian Manhunter foil, but he’s never been used that way that I know of). But there’s plenty of humans who would freak out, hide, act like jerks, whatever, even if they had powers that made them mightier by far than the aliens.

    With the Martian Manhunter, there’s no necessary prior reason why he should be a good guy, and the character’s “origin” doesn’t encode that (it has to go back to the kind of person he was on his own world).

  3. emschwar says:

    True– I think some of that is meant to be encoded in the “last of his race” shtick, but:

    A) There’s no inherent reason the last of any intelligent species wouldn’t be a complete jerk, because what’s it matter? When he’s dead, it’s all over.
    B) The origins stories are inconsistent enough that I’m not sure if there are any more martians at this point.

    So maybe that’s what we need to rescue J’onn as a character. I am the last person, normally, to be asking for Yet Another Origin Story, but YAOS is exactly what he needs– except this time we need an entire series, I think, to do it justice. Start off with him just kickin’ it as a Martian doing what Martians do– maybe he’s a cop, or a university professor, or even perhaps a soldier of some sort. Go into some detail about Mars– I’m imagining a global war, maybe with nukes. If you want to be all relevant ‘n’ stuffs, make it a fight against terrorists, I don’t care. J’onn tries to stop the impending global catastrophe, but at the moment of crisis, just as he’s about to shoot/arrest/expose the bad guy, he’s sucked into a time/space portal. One quick look at a telescope later, *poof*, he’s the Martian Manhunter.

    A failed guardian would go a long way to explaining who he is today– he’s the guy that could’ve stopped Bruce Wayne’s parents’ killer, but failed. Or maybe (ooh, I like this one) he’s Ozymandias, from Watchmen, only the plan failed, and he lived to realize it. Either way, he’s been given a chance to redeem himself.

    But yeah, it would be much better if somebody at DC actually did something about it, instead of just letting him flounder about.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, that works really well–he needs to have a REASON why he’s the last guy. And the last, lonely guardian who tried to hold the line against maniacs or whatever is a good one. It’s close to a few of the retcons they’ve tried–I think in Ostrander’s version, he was the last survivor of a plague.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Though now that I think on it, being sucked away just as he’s about to stop the Martian maniacs is not good at all. I mean, I would pretty much go Hulk-a-smash on Earth if some dumb scientist pulled me away just as I was about to save my planet. I think it’s got to be that he *failed* to do on Mars what he *wants* to do on Earth.

  6. emschwar says:

    Right– the Earth is his shot at redemption, and Mars is a symbol of his sins. Now all we need is a Christ figure (Superman?) to forgive him, and you’ve got one hell of a powerful story.

  7. emschwar says:

    Anyway, now that I think about it, the decision to Hulk-smash or sink to the floor in despair may be exactly what defines J’onn as a character.

  8. withywindle says:

    Nothing to say about MM–never much read comix with him–but your post did inspire a comix-related post and link over on my blog that you might enjoy. Among other things a tip of the hat to you for introducing me to Dave’s Long Box.

  9. JasonII says:

    could it be that one reason he hasn’t done well is that his costume really sucks? ditto for aquaman? (although you’re spot on about AM’s limited story possibilities). strange that so much has been done with the flash whose only power is running really fast.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, that is interesting. Though to some extent, the post-Barry Allen Flash stories have been almost entirely about legacies, while Barry Allen proper actually did have some conceptual problems that ultimately led to them killing off (and later reviving) his wife Iris. Nice suburban middle-manager guy + accidental powering up. You could do some fun things that would be about “boring old Barry Allen” and “exciting, sexy Flash” and every once in a while the BA Flash stories riffed off that, but in minor ways. That’s a bit of what Mike Baron tried to do with Wally West, but Mark Waid’s WW Flash was a lot more interesting.

    You’re certainly right about MM’s costume, which is ghastly. It looks like he was a member of the Martian version of The Village People. The new costume is ok, except that they’ve decided to give him a skrully sort of chin, which I don’t get.

  11. JasonII says:

    yeah, i haven’t read flash since the barry allen days. i used to have the comic where the reverse flash killed iris–at a costume party–no one suspected he was really the villian. maybe part of the flash’s appeal was his rogue’s gallery. i would say his was second best in the dc universe (next to batman’s). maybe that’s what MM needs: better villians. villians certainly have a way of highlighting the heroes.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, that’s really true: the Flash had a great Rogues Gallery. The Martian Manhunter has really had almost none, though again, John Ostrander made a good try at giving him some. The problem is that developing enemies for a protagonist is hard if the protagonist doesn’t have a clear identity of his own. Good enemies riff off of or contrast against the hero. I suppose that isn’t entirely the case with the Flash, except that his enemies were colorfully weird as opposed to his relative personal blandness.

  13. moxmas says:

    Actually, I think his character was defined pretty clearly by Giffen and DeMatteis in their Justice League run: He’s the Good Dad.

    Superman is the perfect is the perfect specimen that no one can relate to, like the star quarterback. Sometimes, he may be a bit of a doofus, and some people react badly to his earnestness. But the Manhunter is the guy that everyone likes, wants to be around, and trusts. I don’t think Batman has ever considered stockpiling kryptonite in a purely defensive, paranoid, Frank Miller move. (Then again, it’s pretty easy to create a fire…)

    In many ways, both characters are paragons, kind of like Captain America. But where Superman has the “everyone admires him” aspect, the Manhunter has the “spine of the team aspect”, except for the Justice League instead of the Avengers.

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    Right, but that’s not an especially permanent kind of characterization, the sort of thing that anchors a character deeply. It’s got nothing essential to do with his origin; in fact, it contradicts it in some ways. It’s got nothing essential to do with his visual characterization or powers, except maybe the notion that his telepathy is one thing that makes it possible for him to relate soothingly to everyone. Well, also his alienness I suppose–when I’ve worked as a temp office worker, the weird thing I’ve found is that everyone trusts you more than they trust the people they’ve worked with for years, because you’re outside the established office politics and aren’t seen as having any stake in them. You could argue that MM becomes the Good Dad because he’s seen as asexual (so never any issues there), because he doesn’t threaten any of the men as a rival, and so on. But still, it doesn’t seem to be a characterization that could survive any single group of creators settling on it–he could just as easily be “freakish and unpleasant” in his next iteration, as perhaps he’ll be in The Outsiders soon.

  15. VanessaSaunders says:

    ehmmmm i want to meet with supermen, i hope it will realize

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