Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Martian Manhunter #6 Review

Up In Flames

Written by: Steve Orlando

Art by: Riley Rossmo
Colors by: Ivan Plascencia
Letters by: Andworld Design
Cover Price: $3.99
Release Date: June 26,2019

The Martian Manhunter series is at its half-way point, so it's probably about time for a proper origin story. The exact details of what happened on the day Mars burned and J'onn J'onnz became the last Martian have been teased throughout the last few issues, but now it's time to get the full story. Will writer Steve Orlando have some surprises for us? There is, as ever, only one way to find out…

**Spoilers Ahead**

This issue is bookended by a scene in which J'onn in his human form is confiding in his human detective ex-partner, Diane Meade. Both the first and final pages have a perfunctory business-like quality that doesn't especially appeal to me. Fortunately, the bulk of this issue takes place on Mars and provides a reasonably skillful tying up of a range of plot threads introduced in previous issues. In a way, Orlando is telling us a story that we kind of already know. We already know that J'onn is the sole survivor of H'ronmeer's Curse, a lethal telepathic plague that causes its victims to burst spontaneously into flame. We know that J'onn has cultivated his links with an organized Martian crime in order to help him and his family get off-world when the time comes. We know that J'onn has been hiding those links in order to shield his family from the sordid details of his double life, as well as protect himself from the shame of knowing that he has betrayed his fellow Manhunters and sacrificed his own integrity in the process. The mystery, such as it is, lies in just how all the above is going to play out for our titular character.

First, though, we get to witness a Martian birth. Well, we've already seen Martian sex twice. Why not its logical outcome? What any individual reader makes of this is down to a number of factors: how much do you like Riley Rossmo's art? How sanguine are you at seeing human births, let alone alien ones? How strong is your stomach? It's hard to work out exactly what's going on in terms of timing here. The progression from page 2 to page 3 suggests that, having decided to make a baby, J'onn and M'yri'ah move on from procreation to birthing K'hym pretty much straight away. This apparent lack of a gestation period is… well, odd. We don't have much time to contemplate its oddness, however, because soon the weird six-legged birthing chair, itself a merging of My'ri'ah and J'onn's bodies, is doing its job and little K'hym pops out – apparently on a tabletop whose surface the two new parents couldn't even be bothered to clear – or clean – properly. There are no medical professionals present that I can see, no midwife. It's all very… organic and impromptu. Good job there were no complications, eh?

Leaving aside my misgivings about the representation of Martian labour, I'll readily admit that these two flashback pages do act as an effective contrast with the issue's first double page spread, which depicts a desperate J'onn, along with his family, driving through a hellish cityscape, populated by Martians in various stages of immolation. A word is probably required about Rossmo's art here. He is, to my mind, very much a 'Marmite' artist – you either love him or hate him. My perspective is that, in terms of his page layouts, character designs and general storytelling, he is an excellent artist, but his work is not always suited to, in particular, the superhero genre. If you want to present an alien apocalypse mostly comprising burning shapechangers flinging themselves off buildings or, presumably maddened by their agony, brawling with one another in the streets, though, Rossmo's probably your man. If someone gave Rossmo the task of illustrating Dante's Inferno, I'd probably buy it. Although I'm not sure I'd actually read it. There's something profoundly unsettling in the images of desperate Martians, their limbs contorted and flesh ablaze, screaming their pain out of the page at you. Free from the requirement to portray figures in naturalistic human poses, Rossmo cuts loose and the results are really rather extraordinary. His long-time collaborator Ivan Plascencia does sterling work on the colors, too. The flames, in particular, have an almost liquid quality to them.

And Orlando's script does an almost uniformly good job of conveying the spreading panic. J'onnz drives his hover pod past a couple of Manhunters (who are themselves showing signs of the curse) who telepathically call out for his help in containing the riots. When he ignores them (and starts using spoken rather than telepathic communication for good measure), this proves too much for My'ri'ah who begins to question what he's doing. Her suspicions grow when J'onn takes them to his illegal planet-jumper and they're met by some of the ne'er-do-wells he's been working for. His plan is to trade information on undercover Manhunters who are embedded in organized crime networks in exchange for passage for him and his family off-planet. To say that this doesn't go well is an understatement. To Orlando's credit, though, there is real pathos here. J'onn is too blinded by his desire to protect his family to realize the obvious (on a world going up in flames the crime bosses don't really need that information from him) and his failure to inform his family of his plan ultimately hastens their destruction. Which is rendered in unflinching horrific detail by Rossmo.

J'onn has a brief moment to grieve (and his "You can't go… Not without me!" tugged on this jaded reviewer's heartstrings) before he's whisked away by the mad Earth scientist we met a few issues ago. And then we're back to the conversation between J'onn and Meade which continues to be a bit awkward and exposition-heavy. Hey-ho.

Perhaps because it kept its focus firmly on a single story thread, this issue really worked for me. While the first few pages are a bit odd, they do portray a moment of family love and purity that contrasts rather disturbingly with the corruption and death that follow. Mars in its final hours could have easily been a bizarre nonsense-fest, but Orlando sensibly keeps his focus on the relationship between J'onn and his wife and child and, dammit, it works. My'ri'ah's confusion and then horror at J'onn's actions; Khym's fear; J'onn's desperate hope that his plan will work: all are portrayed very effectively and the tight focus on the characters' interactions means that the issue ends up delivering an unexpectedly powerful emotional punch. I give Mr. Orlando a lot of stick on this site (and on the podcast), but not here. This is good writing and I'd very much like more of it.

Bits and Pieces:

Steve Orlando and Riley Rossmo arrive at the half-way point of the series and deliver its strongest issue yet. This is largely because it features the relatively straightforward story of a man in desperate circumstances trying to save his family. The tight focus on J'onn, his wife and young child means the ending packs an emotional punch and, although there are some missteps here and there, the issue as a whole is very enjoyable.


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