Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Martian Manhunter #1 Review and Spoilers

The Chances of Anything Coming From Mars…

Written by: Steve Orlando
Art by: Riley Rossmo
Colours by: Ivan Plascencia
Letters by: Deron Bennett
Published by: DC Comics
Price: $3.99

When hearing the words 'Martian Manhunter', which three words first spring to your mind? Fire? Shape-changing? Invisibility? For me, it's probably: strength, dignity and Oreos. But that's probably just me. I've always had a soft spot for J'onn J'onnz. His tenure as a member of various incarnations of the Justice League in the 80s and early 90s included some of that team's stint in Detroit and the extraordinarily fun Giffen/DeMatteis run. Throughout, the character possessed the kind of dry, understated wit that was tailor-made for a teenage me who had just discovered sarcasm and was exploring the possibilities offered by sardonic irony. (And, yes, I was mostly insufferable to be around back then…) The question, I suppose, is what kind of Martian Manhunter am I going to find in this series? Well, we're not going to find out if we just hang around in the introduction all day, are we?

Both covers are very nice. If I had to choose, I'd probably say that the Rossmo one's my favourite. J'onn looks exceptionally tough and business-like. Very impressive. Rossmo's interior art isn't quite as successful, and we get a frankly bizarre opening page which features a distressed looking J'onn on Mars watching his fellow Martians (who are assuming a range of weird shapes in their distress) burn around him. Over these images, J'onn's speech appears in which he tells someone called Diane that the Martian Manhunter isn't a hero. Or, at least,  "not yet". Intriguing.

We then cut to J'onn's bedroom on Earth where J'onn in his earth guise is sitting on his bed in his underwear in a contemplative manner. We see him get up, get showered and dressed before heading down to his garage before heading out to work. The dialogue is minimal at this point and the page drips with a kind of noirish tone – almost self-consciously dark and brooding. The scene then shifts in time to "a few years ago" and in place to the interior of Diane Meade's house. Diane is a senior detective and J'onn's partner. When J'onn arrives and honks his horn outside, Diane inexplicably drops her pizza and goes to the car. There follows some silly dialogue about food (although the revelation that J'onn likes very sugary coffee might be a nod to previous continuity) and then the two visit the scene of a double homicide and, perhaps, an abduction to boot. The two victims are a husband and wife, but their daughter Ashley is missing along with their pet iguana.

J'onn asks to see the girl's bedroom alone in order to examine it psychically and freaks out (in a full-page splash, no less) when he detects something implausibly named 'fright foam'. Now, this is either some sort of Hallowe'en-themed celebratory substance or it's something connected with J'onn's former life on Mars. Do you know, I think I'm going to go with option B here…

Cue a plunge into J'onn's past on Mars as we get a double page spread which is clearly meant to highlight how alien Mars is, but instead falls a little flat. It seems almost churlish to say this, but, Rossmo's organic-looking visuals aside, it's all a bit… familiar. Rather than think deeply about the implications telepathy might have on Martian culture (would the Martians really need words in quite the same way that we do, for example?), Orlando and Rossmo have instead largely opted to show Mars as an analogue of Earth but populated by people with unpronounceable names who look like they're made out of partially-melted ice cream. 

Martian children suffer social anxiety about "chrysalis night" which can be assuaged by "design counsellors" who advertise their services by means that may include flying giant telepathic fish. (Or may not, actually. It's not entirely clear.) There are protection rackets and crooked cops, tribal prejudices and cheesy dialogue. ("I hope you're penetrated by H'ronmeer's holy hot fist" is my personal favourite, but "You peddle cheap valor-trances to whiteflesh who don't know any better!" comes pretty close, too.) Orlando's going for alien and weird here and he's doing his usual trick of having characters shout random snippets of background at each other (there was a Solazi War, apparently, which the whiteflesh lost and the goldflesh sat out, for example) but the syntax is all too human, the attitude is all 21st century American street culture and the effect is curiously flat.

As always with an Orlando book, there are some really interesting ideas here. Martians going through some sort of ritual in order to attain adulthood and, presumably, control over their shape-changing abilities is interesting. The idea of a 'social shape' is intriguing too, although why exactly it's required is never properly spelled out. Other elements seem somewhat hackneyed – the tribal antagonism between whiteflesh, goldflesh and (presumably) greenflesh Martians is outlined with broad strokes that, at this admittedly early point, feel forced.  Then there's the art…

Rossmo's art has always been divisive for readers and reviewers on this site. I've come to appreciate it, but I must admit that his work here is less effective than I was expecting. Some of his design choices are oddly safe and generic, while the sex scene between J'onn and his wife is, quite literally, a god-awful mess. Which is, I know, the point, but I'm not convinced it should look quite this… queasy. His human characters are okay, but I've never been a great fan of his facial expressions and it took me a third read-through to realise that, in his human form, J'onn is actually a black man. (I think.) Which makes sense for a whole host of symbolic and cultural reasons, all of which, however, are so obvious as to make it not worth doing in the first place.

The issue ends with a dramatic reveal, but I'm afraid, on the whole, I found this issue a little underwhelming. And disappointing, to be honest. I like J'onn and, while I understand the trajectory for the character that Orlando and Rossmo are setting up here, there is not a great deal of enjoyment to be had in seeing him "on the take" and experiencing marital issues with his wife. There's enough here to keep me interested, but there's also enough here to make me wonder if staying interested would be a good idea.

Bits and Pieces:

A bit of a mess. Nowhere near as weird and alien as its creators probably think it is, this book presents a flawed protagonist in a (so far) fairly standard noir-lite detective story and an alien world whose dullness and anemic familiarity break through the histrionically-delivered background and polysyllabic nomenclature used to disguise them. The book has potential, but there's some real work to do to make it shine.


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