Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Martian Manhunter #4 Review and Spoilers

Charnel Red

Written by: Steve Orlando

Art by: Riley Rossmo and Ivan Plascencia
Letters by: Deron Bennett
Cover Price: $3.99
Release Date: March 27, 2019

Last month's issue of this distinctly uneven series was coherent and fairly compelling. The story of J'Onn's arrival on Earth and his adoption of the John Jones persona presented us with a sympathetic and honorable character more in keeping with past iterations of everyone's favorite green alien than the morally compromised and duplicitous character we got in issues 1 and 2. The issue's focus on a more traditional J'Onn was decidedly welcome after two issues of partly Mars-based shenanigans; the absence of Mars and the issue's consequent tonal consistency made for a much more enjoyable reading experience and I found myself becoming cautiously optimistic that the potential for this series might just be realized. So, we're back to Mars this issue, aren't we?

Yes. Yes, we are…

Oh, look! Testicles! Well, they're not testicles, obviously, but the sight of large, veined, rather uncomfortable-looking spherical objects looming unpleasantly into view in the display of a Martian diagnostic device is somewhat suggestive. Given that H'Ronmeer's Curse is a thinly-veiled and more combustible analog of the AIDS virus, I'm not remotely certain that the resemblance is unintended. H'Ronmeer's Curse is an incurable plague for which the chief remedy appears to be to pretend that it doesn't exist. (The disease is transmitted by mental contact – arguably, a greater intimacy than sex – and to think of it is to risk contracting it, a potentially clever idea whose implications I'm not convinced writer Steve Orlando has entirely thought through.)

Potentially clever ideas aside, Mars' resolute alien-ness continues to be a problem here, at least in part because the alien-ness is mostly cosmetic, conjured by half-melted buildings (apart from the pyramids – someone's a Doctor Who fan) and people, and nonsense-peppered dialogue that obscures more than it reveals. What, for example, is a 'memetic vaccine' (the word 'memetic' is a Morrison-esque word, which non-Morrison writers tend to invoke when they want to sound cool and intellectual)? And what, exactly, is "the thought stream"? A shared telepathic consciousness? Another word for 'zeitgeist'? Or 'internet'? No. I'm not sure either.

After indulging in some alien doctoring, we then get some alien sleaze. Which is pretty much like human sleaze – just a bit more… fluid. And green. J'Onn wants to get his family off Mars and he's calling in some favors to make it happen. In the meantime, we get treated to (perhaps) a genderfluid bouncer and sleazy characters speaking what seems like plot points to one another that doesn't have any bearing on the current issue that I can see but may be important later. (Hint to the writer: If you are expecting the reader to remember this stuff later, make it, well, memorable.)

Having put in his request, J'Onn returns home and there's another bout of Martian sex, which somehow – and I must confess to being begrudgingly impressed here – manages to be even more disturbing than what we got first time around. Partly it's the dialogue ("Qyah!" is, presumably, an exclamation of pre-orgasmic pleasure); partly it's the alarmed look on the pet's face as he's watching on. Come on, guys! I'm all for spontaneity, but make sure the dog/whatever's out of the room first, eh? The J'Onnzes' moment of intimacy sours pretty quickly, however, when M'Yr'Iah realizes that, despite the chat they had back in issue 1, J'Onn's still got his 'hermitage' intact, keeping a significant aspect of his life from her. And J'Onn pulls a distinctly underhanded move by saying that he does so to protect their daughter from the curse, thus rendering a character to whom I was warming last issue much less likable here.

We're back to the 'present day' (which is really the past) and J'Onn in human guise rather unwisely leaving a message on Diane Meade's voice mail. There are one or two moments of impressive Rossmo art – particularly when J'Onn uses his abilities to scan the Addams' pet iguana's collar for psychic residue – but the discovery of the iguana seems unnecessarily rushed, almost perfunctory. That sense of the plot being in a hurry is reinforced as the issue ends with J'Onn coming face to face with the 'big bad villain' who was only introduced last issue. Maybe I'm nitpicking, but this feels too soon, although Rossmo's art is, again, very impressive.

There is, though, a number of problems here. J'Onn/John's dialogue is one of them. While he's perfectly entitled to feel surprised/horrified at a human suspect changing into a red Martian (and Rossmo's art is extremely, viscerally good), his reaction seems too emotional, too melodramatic here. Of greater concern, though, is a creature who announces that the Manhunters froze his form (and, indeed, the whole reason he's captured Ashley is to rectify that problem) managing to take on human form and surprise J'Onn with a (to be fair, very effective) bit of body horror. It is, of course, entirely possible I may have missed something or that this apparent discrepancy will be explained later, but, as it stands, it only serves to reinforce the sense that this story is in a hurry to get somewhere else and the creative team expect the reader to be carried along in the excitement. I think, in this case, they're being a touch optimistic.

That doesn't mean the issue is without merit. Ashley's an interesting character and I hope she sticks around – perhaps, with Diane, becoming part of J'Onn's unofficial 'team'. Rossmo's art is, at times, exceptional. I understand that he's an acquired taste, but, when he's given full rein to lay out a double page spread, the results are rather special.  On the whole, though…

Bits and Pieces:

An unwelcome return to the overly colorful weirdness and moral ambiguity of Mars reintroduces many of the problems I had with the first two issues, but this issue's later shift of focus to Earth doesn't quite capitalize on the great job done last month to make J'Onn a well-rounded and sympathetic character. There are some impressive, individual moments and the Rossmo/Plascencia team shows off its chops in a couple of stunning set pieces, but the issue as a whole is too breathless and wordy to conjure consistently the noirish, disturbing atmosphere for which the writer is so clearly striving.


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