Justice League part 3 — the Martian Manhunter

left: the Man of Steel.  right: creepy green loser.

Superman: super-strength, super hearing, super breath.  Telescopic sight, X-ray vision, heat vision.  Can fly and travel at super speeds.
Martian Manhunter: super-strength, super breath, heat vision, can fly.  In addition, can read minds, communicate with spirits, walk through walls, change his shape.

Superman: the last surviving member of his race, the only living Kryptonian (except for Supergirl, Krypto, Streaky the Supercat, Comet the Superhorse, Beppo the Supermonkey and the entire city of Kandor — Jesus, did anybody but Superman’s parents die when Krypton blew up?).  An alien on Earth, doomed to a life of loneliness, except for Lois Lane and the billions of people who adore him.
Martian Manhunter: the last surviving member of his race, the only living Martian.  An alien on Earth, doomed to a life of loneliness.

Superman: invulnerable, except to an ultra-rare metal.
Martian Manhunter: invulnerable, except to not-rare-at-all fire.

On paper, Martian Manhunter is the more powerful figure, much more powerful than Superman and possessing a richer internal and emotional life.  And yet everyone follows Superman as a natural leader, while Martian Manhunter is the creepy guy who always stands in the back of the group photo.  Why?

In the comics, Martian Manhunter has his back-of-the-bus position simply because of seniority.  Superman had been around for twenty years before Martian Manhunter showed up, and while MM might come in handy blowing out a forest fire or lifting up a bus, the Justice League in the ’60s couldn’t find much use for his talents.  It took Bruce Timm and Co. to not only bring Martian Manhunter to life but to make him the most soulful, introspective and interesting member of the team.

The most obvious difference between Superman and Martian Manhunter, of course, is their looks.  They’re both tall (MM is actually a good six inches taller than Supes) but Superman is white and handsome with a lantern jaw and a cleft chin, gimlet eyes, oodles of charisma and a charming spitcurl while Martian Manhunter is green, sepulchural, bald, sullen, beetle-browed and red-eyed.

But apart from the looks thing, why is it that Superman leads the Justice League around the world, punches robots, melts buildings and spaceships, destroys alien menaces and makes speeches to governmental bodies about the wise use of power, while MM can be found, every day, chained to a desk at the Watchtower, administering shift-changes and delegating task-work?  Why does Martian Manhunter get no respect?

I think it has something to do with when their respective planets were destroyed.  Superman was a baby when his father blasted him off of Krypton; he has no memory of it.  All he knows is his his home planet was great and his parents loved him enough to give him a new lease on life, on a planet where he would be worshipped like a god.  Martian Manhunter, on the other hand, was already married with a child when Mars was destroyed by an alien invasion.  Superman has nothing but fond memories of his home, MM watched his wife and child murdered and his civilization destroyed before his eyes.

It’s broken him.  He can’t just fly around smashing things because he’s seen too much flying around and smashing things in his life.  It’s turned him into a scold and a gloomy gus.  He’s always staring out windows and chastising the other members for being too quick with the violence.  This sometimes makes him a wet blanket and a stick in the mud as he intones about the lessons he learned in seeing his home destroyed (in one issue of the comic, Flash, upon hearing the umpteenth iteration of MM’s origin story, finally sighs and says “Were all the Martians as whiny as you?”).

Then there’s the fire thing.  The fire thing is lame.  A shape-changing, building-lifting superhero should not be afraid of fire.

Maybe the fire thing has made MM gunshy.  Maybe, despite his awesome powers, he’s happier in his administrative position, high above the Earth, unlikely to be caught in the clutches of a supervillain who might have, say, a book of matches and a pile of oily rags.  MM stays in the Watchtower to avoid the embarrassment of a headline like “JUSTICE LEAGUE TRIUMPHS!  Martian Manhunter felled by kid with Zippo.

Then there’s the self-hate thing.  MM failed his family, his civilization and his planet.  In his mind he will never be free of his survivor guilt.  Maybe that’s why he chooses to look like a tall, green creepy guy.  I mean, keep in mind, the way we see MM is not how he sees himself.  MM, in his “natural state,” looks like this:

That’s right — the creepy-green-guy look is how MM changes his appearance so as to look normal and not creep people out too much.  He could look like Brad Pitt if he wanted to, but the MM look is what he chose.  (In case he’s not creepy enough for you, keep in mind that the cape, trunks and pirate boots are all artificial; that is to say, MM is actually always naked.  So when, say, Hawkgirl stands around the Watchtower with MM, she’s aware on some level that she’s standing next to, you know, a naked shape-changing Martian.)

But, point is, he has chosen to look the way he does.  He has chosen to creep people out, to stay on the fringes of the group; his choice of look throws up a barrier to anyone who might get too close to him.  Compare MM, moping around in his artificial creepy-guy state, with X-Men‘s Mystique, who prefers to strut around in her blue scaly state and only uses her shape-shifting powers to rob an armored car or bust a guy out of prison (there is the famous exchange between Nightcrawler and Mystique in X2: Nightcrawler asks “If you can change the way you look, why don’t you?” and Mystique sniffs “Because I shouldn’t have to.”)  MM is not proud of the way he “naturally” looks, but at the same time he refuses to look “normal.”  He shifts from “repulsive-looking” to “differently repulsive-looking.”  It’s as though a Jew were to flee Poland and change his name from Greenberg to Lopez in order to sound “less Jewish.”  That’s a level of self-disgust I’m not sure children should even be exposed to.

Then there’s the mind-reading thing, which, truth be told, is a burden to MM as much as it is an asset, and something he only uses when he really needs to.  Otherwise, he is exposed to what everyone around him is really thinking, both about him and about the world.  Martian Manhunter couldn’t live like Clark Kent, live a normal life with a job and friends and a love-interest.  Because the natural, everyday masks that people wear don’t work for him.  How could he be married if every time his wife kissed him good morning he could feel her resentment towards him or her subtle yearnings for the man next door?  How could he go to work and carry on a job if he knew what petty, self-involved, disgusting thoughts were bubbling under the surface of the most mundane of everyday transactions?
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26 Responses to “Justice League part 3 — the Martian Manhunter”
  1. faery_friend says:

    I have to say I have found your discussions on JLA, etc. fascinating. And I do agree with your view that MM is a much more interesting character than Supes. Actually, he’s one of both my husband and my favorite characters. I also feel that he is the moral compass of the Justice League, at least in how he has been recently written in the comics. As he tries to steer the League through the troubling times in the aftermath of Identity Crisis; which asked the question what happens when a hero does something so horribly wrong in the name of protecting the public and the people they love.

    He’s a wonderful character with so much potential. For more insight into MM’s background, his life on Mars and the deaths of his family, I would suggest that you find the MM series John Ostrander wrote about 5-10 years ago. I think the series is in graphic novel form or issues can be found in the cheap pile at a local comic store. It was one of the few times the MM has starred in his own book, though DC just relaunched him in his own titles about 3 months ago.

    • Todd says:

      I have those graphic novels. It’s a shame that the Bruce Timm show didn’t get around to MM’s life as a detective on Earth — I guess they thought two gloomy antisocial detectives was one too many.

  2. eronanke says:

    But, in the end, don’t we all recognize the “petty, self-involved, disgusting thoughts were bubbling under the surface of the most mundane of everyday transactions”, we just have the ability to read minds to get the specifics…
    And a quick side note: the comparison to Mystique, is, unfortunately, only good for the Movies. In the comics, she has been known to show up in disguise just to screw around with people – (in some cases, literally). And she’s never really being *that* indignant about mutant rights or her own identity. She does, you’ll note, go by “Mystique”, and it has only been fairly recently that we’ve found out more about her past (such as her ‘real’ name), but her modus operandi is still to keep us all guessing; I would definitely not say she was proud of any sort of heritage she had, instead, I would say she was merely exploitative of it.

    • Todd says:

      Sorry, I wasn’t thinking of the comics’ Mystique, I was thinking of the Mystique in the Mystique movie that I pitched to Fox a couple of years ago. The only Mystique that matters.

      • eronanke says:

        Oh, Mr. Alcott, you’re adorable.
        And I would *so* watch a Mystique movie. The only problem is that 50% of the job would only be voice work for Romijn, (assuming they cast her again).

        • Todd says:

          In the Mystique movie I pitched, Mystique was 20 years old and in college, using her shapeshifting abilities to get backstage at rock concerts before being drafted by the government to spy on Sebastian Shaw. It was Notorious with mutants with a little La Femme Nikita thrown in. It was never declared dead but I have little hope for it at this point.

  3. thunder24 says:

    It doesn’t help that his outfit he chooses to “wear” looks like he got it at a male strip show.
    Not only is this guy big and green and creepy looking, *all he’s wearing is his underwear and a pair of suspenders…with a cape.*

    I think his basic problem is that he’s superfluous. The JLA doesn’t need him, they have Superman. He was created back in the day when everyone was given Superman’s powers for some reason to create a conflict.
    Besides, he’s way too powerful. Superman’s powers plus telepathy and invisibility and shape shifting? I mean what do you do with him? How do you challenge him? Oh wait, I get it, make him weak around fire. Right. Worst weakness ever.

    Theoretically, though, he would never have to even go near a fire. He could dispense eye beams and mental waves and f*** you up without ever leaving the watchtower.
    I think a similar character(that was derived from the MM IMO), the Vision over at Marvel has been given more depth and effort.

  4. greyaenigma says:

    I’m guessing you haven’t watched all of Justice League Unlimited yet — they do directly address some of his growing sense of alienation, causing him to leave the JLA for a for a while. It wasn’t explored to the degree I’d’ve liked, but it was interesting to see.

    • never_wakeup says:

      Indeed. This post came at a perfect time for myself, as I’ve been plowing through the series on DVD since the weekend. Your insights on these characters (“Green Lantern is a job”) are valuable.

  5. medox says:

    At one point in the comics, MM was addicted to Oreos.

    It was during the silly period of the Justice League(which I truly loved and miss).

  6. r_sikoryak says:

    I hadn’t thought of this before, but there’s something about the tone of Superman Returns that reminds me more of MM than Supes. S was awfully mopey in that film.
    Maybe I’d have cut the film more slack if it starred MM… I mean, how much would you expect from a MM movie? Also, it would have felt more like a companion piece to Ang Lee’s Hulk: another (green) superhero movie that looked really, really hard for profundity, but didn’t know how to get there.
    On the other hand, that movie probably would have depressed MM even more.

  7. robolizard says:

    It seems important to note that MM and Superman are products of thier own time and that time’s view on power. In the 1930’s power was something beautiful to be treasured, but in the 1950’s when the J’onn J’onnz came about power was almost something to be feared and not only was MM the embodiment of our paranoia, but by being able to sense our thoughts his view on humans’ dark side was either simplified due to the lack of paranoia through knowledge, or complicated because he knew what he had to fear…

    Are you aware btw, of the new Martian Manhunter retcon? He now dresses like an outerspace supervillain [or Magneto], his head is shaped in its natural form now and as it turns out he was never the last living martian. Also, another fun fact, DC was willing to kill the character off during Identity Crisis. MM never seemed to become as popular as Superman, partially because DC never seems to know what to *do* with him. When he works well, he’s one of the most beautifully done characters.

    Have you ever pitched DC an MM project? All of these ideas would seem wonderful. There’s a deep character there who goes essentially untapped.

    As for his looks, there are plenty of hideous characters [i.e.-> most of the green lanterns, red tornado, etc], but indeed the Martian Manhunter seems to be the only one who can change it. His transformation into, essentially, his version of Superman, is his way of staying himself while not upsetting to many people. The key diffirence between Marvel superheroes and DC superheroes is that DC characters seem to have some unwritten law about simply being likable, as the more ‘anti-heroesque’ ones are usually treated as though they are villains by the writer [Guy Gardner] or ‘shown the error of thier ways’, usually through death [Booster Gold]. Characters like Wolverine, Quicksilver and The Hulk on the other hand seem to live long and lead realistic [for a superhero book] complex lives. Quick side note- In ‘The New Frontier’, one of the better DC Universe books on the market where MM actually plays a key role, he does assume the form of a human, but still is on the fringes of society through the fact that all of his dialogue was cliche’ heavy, and his face more of that of a character actor, as he learnt all of his idea through television. The superhero form may be his understanding of what a human simply looks like [just like we may draw a stick figure to represent one…]

    On a side note, like MM, Plastic Man is also a character DC has no idea what to do with [which is why he is currently a guilt ridden deadbeat father]. There’s an animated pilot about him roaming the internet which is just obnoxious in its execution. Its really a shame, but his son was introduced in ’52’ recently as a superhero… so there’s that. It just seems odd when an artistic creator leaves his idea to people who simply aren’t sure what to do with it, treat it as a cash property [although The Spirit seems to be getting the king’s treatment these days. No doubt due to his author’s excellent reputation…]

    • Todd says:

      I am ignorant of 90% of MM stories. I read a couple of volumes of Justice League from the ’60s when I was working on a Justice League feature pitch for WB (a project which, years later, is back in play) and the aformentioned graphic novels, but, stupidly, I never watched the TV show, which was still on the air at the time, because I assumed it could not be as well-written as the comic books. The clarity and depth that Bruce Timm and co. bring to even the smallest characters makes them effortlessly appealing in a way that even Alex Ross could not do for me. I have a hard time even looking at the comics’ version of MM; like my five-year-old son, the Bruce Timm MM is the real MM for me: that’s where I connected with the character, that’s the version that came to life for me.

      The Plastic Man pilot that surfaced for a day seemed okay to me and true to the character, especially for a pilot. The pilot for The Venture Bros, don’t forget, feels flimsy and bloodless compared to the fully-developed show.

      I have pitched many things to DC over the years. They’ve never bit once. The one thing I’ve gotten through their works was a Justice League parody in Bizarro World, and that’s only because the artist snuck me in.

      • robolizard says:

        I remember reading that in the first Bizarro World book. It was very good, although I wondered then [I was 12 or something like that] what kind of person would have so much hate for the Martian Manhunter… and the similarities to Superman… hmm… a survivor of genocide is the easiest way to represent it or talk about it, particularly in a world where your enemy is named Captain Cold.

        Alex Ross’ art is strange in that he’s one of our best modern/comic book artists, but once you’ve seen him draw superman, you’ve seen it all the times you’ve had to see it. When he draws something new, like a story or the Alan Moore cover for Wizard its exciting yet its treated as a novelty. Bruce Timm’s drawings are never used as a novelty, just as a storytelling tool, and this is where they work. Comic drawings from most other artists in the main-mainstream are always hell bent on being epic. If someone is angry, veins still throb from his head and his teeth are gritted, people still break through walls, and in the wrong hands muscles have a creepy edge to them. Something I’ve grown to like in Timm’s stuff is the static awkwardness in the silence. There are moments when people stand around in silence, the voice work is mostly non epic [except for the Joker and Harley Quinn, who themselves are overtly melodramatic characters], and this gives the work an eeiry real world feel of politics rather then fun violence.

        Have you read any of Cooke’s? His stuff is very similar to Bruce Timm’s in thier inert ‘Golden Age’ simplicity. Its good stuff…

        Actually, there was actually a pilot for a live action Justice League show, with the Atom and Aquaman as major characters, and its constantly floating around on the internet. I haven’t watched, but suppousedy the idea was to pair DC with the mainstream, in this case friends, where the superheroes spend most of thier time whining about thier lives. They kind of achieved the mainstream pairing with Smallville.

        The Plastic Man pilot felt odd, because unlike the Venture Bros. it was a version of someone else’s creation, like someone else doing the Venture Bros. years later, but without Brock. Woozy Winks wasn’t there, nor was Plastic Man’s chief. But it was the pilot, and Tom Kenny is producing it, so the pilot probably was a rough idea, and over the top to see how much of the character people would accept. [Besides, WW has a fun origin story which is probably going to be explored…]

        • Todd says:

          I consider Alex Ross the Norman Rockwell of our time. So much talent, so much skill, technique gushing from every pore — and after you’ve looked at the 572nd gorgeous painting of superheroes locked in an epic battle, you start to think “Really? Is this all he wants to do with his life?”

          The comics I read are limited to things I read to my kids, primarily Justice League Unlimited and the Marvel Age line. The joy to be found in the JLU comics, for me, is to see if the artist can bring the same kind of smoothness and clarity to the characters and their actions as Bruce Timm did for the TV show. Can they bring style and have it be true to the original designs, and can they add to it somehow without making it stick out? Can they draw the issue and make it seem joyful instead of a constrictive chore? When I find a drawing of Wonder Woman or Ice or Atom that refines the original design or shows an aspect of the character I hadn’t found before, it makes bedtime stories a much happier time for me.

          I have seen clips of the Justice League live-action pilot. It seemed pretty earthbound to start, but the second they took off their costumes it fell like sack of doorknobs.

          • papajoemambo says:

            I second ‘s recommendation to check out Darwyn Cooke’s DC COMICS – THE NEW FRONTIER. Top notch writing of classic icon DC superheroes abounds there.

  8. kornleaf says:

    a. in one episode, MM gets so upset with the ambient human pettiness that he is picking up in the world that he just runs off to “find himself”

    b. Superman has always been seen as kinda a jewish allegory (golem + assimilation) but I always saw MM as more of an assimilation story; he litterally changes his physical self to fit in, YET instead of being brad pitt as you point out, he retains someof his martianiness.
    Thin line between keeping his culture and fitting in.

  9. papajoemambo says:

    I think it’s important to remember that before the Justice League cartoons of recent years, J’onn J’onzz was treated a lot more like Superman and a lot less like a telepathic version of The Vision over at Marvel.

    I was once told by someone who worked with Bruce Timm that he often takes character traits found in similar Marvel characters (who many people see as having more character in that they are actually flawed heroes and a little less iconic), and applies them to the DC comics characters he’s working on to give them a hook as he’s writing them.

    It wasn’t until after the JLA cartoon that J’Onn started going into his loneliness in depth, as I recall – although there was one mini-series that established his “Martian look” and this aspect of his character in the 1980’s, some 20 years after the character had already been around.

    That being said – love what you’re coming up with concerning the character the way he’s handled *now* and it’s all very apt.

    • Todd says:

      I’ve been noticing that Timm seems to borrow a lot from Marvel for his DC characters. For his version of Flash, I searched in vain to find comics that had the same goofy, flippant tone as his version, and then realized that the whole “guy who seems to know he’s on a TV show” idea comes from characters like Spider-Man and Johnny Storm, who, no matter how dire the situation is never seems to be at a loss for an offhand quip.

      • papajoemambo says:

        Yeah it’s that sort of Flash-as-Johnny-Storm thing that I’m talking about. This is the Wally West Flash, who’s been *only* played on the JLA cartoon this way – if you go back to the comics and the character the cartoon is based on, Wally is a bit of a hand-wringer (in the later Teen Titans run and his own stretch in the Flash comics) when he isn’t completely bland and character-free as “the Robin who can run real fast” in the earliest Flash stories where he is literally called Kid Flash.

        It’s fairly obvious that the JLA cartoon’s Aquaman is Namor the Sub-Mariner, all vengeful, angry and dubious of the surface world, when the DC Comics Aquaman was initially all smiles and howdy’s until well into the 1990s when they started writing him as a kind of nice-guy-with-a-grudge as an attempt to harden him up a little. If you see the episode where they have Dr Fate, Solomon Grundy, the reformed Amazo-bot and Aquaman together it becomes very obvious that they’ve taken the original Marvel comics Defenders team (Dr Strange, The Hulk, the Silver Surfer and Sub-Mariner) and done a rather clever tribute/pastiche of that stuff.

        I personally don’t see anything wrong with applying a kind of overlay characterisation to characters who were kind of left without if it improves a story and folks watching can kind of see the gag, and this person mentioned that Timm was very aware of the fact that he was doing it. The unfortunate thing is that most of the characters that DC comics has in the books they’re publishing these days seem to have had a lot of the fun beaten out of them outside of the JLA Unlimited comic that’s intended for young readers. They seem to be embarrassed of the fact that they were approachable before now. If you can find Ty Templeton’s BATMAN ADVENTURES comics from the 1990’s and a second run from a few years ago that he did with Dan Slott (another really fun guy who can right a great kid-friendly comic that doesn’t come off as dumb), I think you’ll find a batch of stuff that Sam will really like. Rick Parker over at Marvel doing their Marvel Age:Avengers comic is really good that way too.

        • papajoemambo says:

          and while I’m here let me apologise for teh cold medication that had me write “right” for Write, making me look like a total illiterate.

          Oh god, let the sneezing stop.

        • Todd says:

          if you go back to the comics and the character the cartoon is based on, Wally is a bit of a hand-wringer

          Yeah, I was just at Meltdown last night looking for Flash comics and all the gns had pictures of him looking really anxious about stuff. Whereas Johnny Storm is, bar none, Sam’s favorite Marvel character.

          It’s interesting, I constantly marvel (no pun intended) at how Timm gets us interested in characters who we always thought of as lame: Aquaman, Clayface, Grundy, Amazo (Amazo!), the list goes on and on. It never occurred to me before that his method is not to “find something interesting” about them, but rather to simply meld them with their Marvel equivalent! Aquaman = lame, but Aquaman + Namor – hand = cool!

          His success with this scheme is stunning. Every time I think “well, I don’t have to watch this episode, he can’t possiby get me to care about this guy, (ie Despero, Darkseid, Shade, Red Tornado, Booster Gold, Hawk and Dove [Hawk and Dove! They did a whole episode about Hawk and Dove! And it was cool!])” that’s exactly when the show becomes so fascinating.

          And I was never even a geek as a kid! I’d never heard of half these people! Starman? Mr. Miracle? Mr. Terrific? Bwana Beast?!

          The Batman Adventures stuff is hard to find and still a little too psychologically complex for Sam, although the Superman Adventures seem about his speed, and the Marvel Age Avengers issues he loves — anything with a lot of different guys in it, so he can point to them all and name them.

          • papajoemambo says:

            The Bwana Beast episode was a lot of fun – as was the Hawk and Dove one. I absolutely love the relationships they’ve developed between Batman and Wonder Woman and The Question and The Huntress. Both of these relationships were further explored in the comics.

            Actually, if you can find the Justice League International comics from the late 80’s and early 90’s it’s a hoot – Giffen and DeMattheis loved the characters enough to let them be a little goofy and Booster and the Blue Beetle are an amazing classic buddy-team out of classic TV sitcoms. J’Onn J’Onzz devellops a crack-like addiction to Oreo cookies. It’s great.

  10. Anonymous says:

    martian manhunter

    which episode shows his family in it.