Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Martian Manhunter #3 Review and Spoilers

Taking Up The Torch

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

The first two issues of this maxi-series have been… weird. And not really in a good way, either. The Mars of this series has been, on the one hand, a genuinely alien place populated by people whose customs and mannerisms the creative team have taken great care to make strange or unusual. On the other hand, it's also a place that is venal and corrupt in an overly familiar, almost caricatured, way. The malleability of Martian flesh has given artist Riley Rossmo greater freedom to express his more fevered imaginings, but the effect, at times, has been cartoony, hyperbolic and just a little bit icky. The more successful portions of the story have been those that occur on Earth, with writer Steve Orlando delineating an intriguing relationship between J'Onn J'Onnz and his detective partner Diane Meade and Rossmo's art lending itself extremely well to the more noirish scenes and the effective moments of unsettling revelation that punctuate them. So, how will this issue fare? Will we be plunged deeper into a world of nonsense-spouting flesh-stretching Martians, or will the creative team decide to give us all a break and develop the J'Onn/Diane relationship a little more? There's only one way to find out…

Well, this is better.

Having introduced her in issue 1 and largely forgotten her in issue 2, the creative team finally let us see abducted schoolgirl Ashley Adams and, well, things aren't looking too great for her. Head encased in a large fishbowl which, in turn, is connected by thick cabling to some sort of machine suspended above her, the girl wakes up in a darkened laboratory which has clearly been kitted out with items from the Josef Mengele Catalogue for Interior Decorators. At only a page, this section is very brief, but is a highly effective way of reminding us just what's at stake during the rest of the issue, which concerns itself with filling in J'Onn's past and establishing the new parameters of his relationship with his partner Diane.

And this is, for the most part, very good. Orlando seems to have found J'Onn's voice this issue. Now that the truth is out and he has to start explaining himself to Diane, J'Onn comes across as genuine and highly sympathetic. The reasons for his subterfuge are made clear, as is his respect for the fallen detective whose form he now wears. The rather improbable circumstances of his arrival on Earth are, very sensibly, glossed over in favour of showing how J'Onn comes to take on John Jones' identity and allowing him to articulate his reasons for doing so. Rossmo's art is really very good – particularly on the page in which J'Onn avenges the dead detective – and his panel progression on the pages that show J'Onn taking away Jones' body and burying him emphasises J'Onn's dignity and sense of purpose. He hasn't taken Jones' identify just because it's convenient; he's taken it because he wishes to honour his service and legacy.

There's some nice, tight story-telling around J'Onn and Meade's first case together, too. Very sensibly, Orlando does not have Meade and J'Onn reconcile straight away; instead, he raises the probability of further friction later on in the story and that is all to the good. Then, we're back to Ashley. The revelation of the big bad man who's abducted her is saved for the issue's final page and the effect is suitably garish and impressive – a fitting ending to an issue that has actually told a well-plotted – and scripted – story.

I know I give Steve Orlando a hard time on this site, but this is as inoffensive and solidly told an Orlando story as you're likely to see. By concentrating on J'Onn's arrival on Earth and his assuming of John Jones' identity, Orlando successfully portrays J'Onn as an honorable, thoughtful character, with whom it is much easier to identify now that he's not being corrupt, melting or having weird alien sex. Rossmo's art, though still dynamic, is much more subdued – as are Ivan Plascencia's colors, and the sensation of visual overload present in the Mars sections of the first two issues is consequently wholly absent. Using Ashley (who is, lest we forget, meant to be the investigative focus of this story) as the wraparound for the issue is an effective bit of storytelling and brings a sense of completion to the issue as a whole. In short, this issue is pretty good. If you've been sitting on the fence so far, you might want to check it out.

Bits and Pieces:

Containing a solid piece of backstory and a development of the Diane/J'Onn relationship which resists trite and too easy closure, this issue is the best of the series so far. Rossmo's art is effective and atmospheric; Orlando's presentation of J'Onn's dignity and sense of responsibility – to the man whose identity he has taken and to the victims of the crimes he's trying to solve – is thoughtful and engaging. This series might have just found its footing.


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