Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Martian Manhunter #5 Review and Spoilers

All In The Mind...

Written by: Steve Orlando
Art by: Riley Rossmo, Ivan Plascencia, Andworld Design
Cover Price: $3.99
Release Date: May 22, 2019

This book remains a difficult one to review. Set in the Martian Manhunter's past, it is effectively a prequel story for which very few people were clamoring. Released hot on the heels of DC's other 'MM' title, it is also implicitly a thematic sequel to King and Gerrards' Mister Miracle – or, at the very least, a cynical (or desperate) attempt to cash in on the popularity and 'critical acclaim' of that title. It is difficult to see how it can successfully do either. What we've had so far is a distinctly uneven alien noir tale whose Martian scenes are self-consciously weird but mostly feature recognizable analogs for human social ills and customs, and whose Earth-bound detective tale is simply not (yet) complex enough to be compelling. As we near the half-way point, something needs to change. Perhaps last issue's cliffhanger ending will signal a different direction. Let's find out…

Well, before we get to that, we're back on Mars to witness the Manhunters (many years in the past, remember) passing judgment on the series' current big bad guy Cha'Rnn O'Zzm. The process of flesh-freezing is rendered in a nightmarish double page spread in which Cha'Rnn's red-fleshed form is a grotesque, spindly, almost insectoid abomination – all gaping, tooth-filled mouth, bulbous eyes and thin, angular limbs. As a piece of art, it is impressive, but its power is somewhat lessened by writer Steve Orlando's dialogue which struggles to complement Rossmo's demented vision. Given the potential for horror here as well as the opportunity to present Martian justice as truly distinctive from human society, what we get is flat and disappointing. Unless the whole point is to highlight the thorough hypocrisy of the Martian authorities, in which case fair enough, I guess. Cha'Rnn's surprisingly impassioned speech (his transformation into a red monster seems to have, ironically enough, liberated him from the sniveling fear he displays on the first page) touches on this, as he declares that "[t]here are only high felons in this room", condemning the members of the Martian council for their corruption in one fell swoop.

This has the unfortunate side effect of rendering J'Onn's corruption less unique and, consequently, less remarkable. It's also an odd speech to give Cha'Rnn from a character development perspective. Rossmo renders pre-flesh freezing Cha'Rnn as a physically puny, desperately pleading offender whose fear seems genuine and apparently intended to evoke some sort of sympathy from the reader. And what happens to him is genuinely horrific and disturbing. To have him rail against this and turn on his judges from the start, however, runs the risk of alienating rather than engaging the reader, particularly as his speech here is not all that different from what he told Ashley (and J'Onn) last issue in his future. So, not only is his flesh frozen but his character is too. (Although not his telepathic powers, which we'll get to in a moment.) A wasted opportunity? Yes, I think so. If the intention is to make Cha'Rnn a more morally ambiguous character, I'm not convinced that what we've got does the job all that well.

And I know I've gone on a lot about the opening few pages, but this is our big bad's origin and, while I have no complaints about the art, I'm dissatisfied with the lack of subtlety on display here.

Speaking of lack of subtlety, back on Earth (which is in the future of the Mars we've just seen but in the past of J'Onn himself), our titular character is still being menaced by Cha'Rnn while rather disgusting-looking boils are erupting all over his body. As J'Onn himself says, "No! The curse boils!" Well, quite. This section is a bit drawn out, but it does (sort of) answer an important question from last issue. If Cha'Rnn's flesh is frozen in its current form, how could he use Meade's suspect's form to snare J'Onn? The short answer would appear to be that he hasn't. Everything that happened from the end of last issue to about half-way through this one is a result of Cha'Rnn's telepathic manipulation. Now, this is a nice idea and Orlando puts it across quite cleverly. J'Onn's journey to Earth was through time as well as space which means that Cha'Rnn has had time to hone his telepathic abilities into something far more formidable than what J'Onn is used to. Apparently, this includes tricking J'Onn's mind into believing that he's contracted Hronmeer's Curse and has horrible boils all over his body (which later cause his body to catch fire and melt). Nasty.

This scene is intercut with some Meade character development (tough female cop is in a lesbian relationship with the cute police pathologist) which, if anything, feels unnecessary. (I'm almost 100% sure it won't be, mind you.) After their enforced separation of the last couple of issues, this issue ends with J'Onn and Meade tentatively reconciling – or, at least, agreeing that they'll be better working together than working separately – and J'Onn promising to tell Meade (and us) what really happened on the fateful day Martian civilization collapsed. The last page gives us a teasing glimpse of that and it looks as unpleasant as you might expect. I guess we know what next issue's going to be about, then.

All told, this issue offers pretty much the same mix of clever ideas inexpertly delivered, overblown dialogue, gloriously garish art and dissipating sense of urgency that we got last issue. Things have not stayed entirely static, but this issue has offered us only two really significant developments – the revelations of Cha'Rnn's advanced telepathic powers and Meade's relationship with the pathologist. The first matters and is reasonably well done; the second actually makes Meade less interesting than when she was going around beating up random criminals last issue. Oh, well.

It might be worth considering the question of who I should be caring about right now. Cha'Rnn's fate is potentially engaging, but his characterization here, the revelation about his powers notwithstanding, is one-note and not terribly interesting. J'Onn is likable (him calling Meade from his ice bath is a very nice touch), but we keep on being reminded of his past failings and corruption and, particularly as he comes off worse in his confrontation with Cha'Rnn, it's difficult to see him as anything other than weak here. Orlando does a reasonably good job with Meade but her relationship with the pathologist is nowhere near as interesting (or important) as her relationship with J'Onn, and it's the former we get at the expanse of the latter. A bit unsatisfying, really. In addition, this issue's lack of Ashley (or, for that matter, iguana) means the police case that is meant to be driving this whole thing doesn't get a look in. In short…

Bits and Pieces:

Another month, another mixed bag of Martian Manhunter. I want to like this comic. I really do. Rossmo's art is inventive and, at times, truly extraordinary, but the impression of the plot going off on a bit of a wander is hard to shake this time around and Orlando's penchant for overblown dialogue kicks in at precisely the point where a more nuanced approach would be more effective. While I accept that, with a 12 issue maxi-series, you've got some space to explore characters' backgrounds in more detail, this issue's excursion into Meade's private life has the unfortunate side effect of lessening tension and making the issue as a whole something of a damp squib. That final page is promising, though.


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