Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Martian Manhunter #8 Review and Spoilers

Too Deep?

Written by: Steve Orlando

Art by: Riley Rossmo and Ivan Plascencia
Letters by: Andworld Design
Cover Price: $3.99
Release Date: August 28, 2019

Is this book hitting its stride? It's an interesting question and one that any reviewer worth his salt should be able to answer. The short answer is "I think so, yes," but there remain nagging unresolved doubts in my head which plague my mind like a swarm of nonsense-infected gnats and I'm beginning to think that I can't see the wood for the trees. Those doubts are mostly about the overall story of this series and the time it's taken to get us to this point. Put bluntly, the creative team have dithered and dallied when a more direct approach might have been better. But, what do I know? I'm just a reviewer at the end of the day. I'm probably missing something obvious. Hmmm… Well, let's get on with issue 8, shall we?

It strikes me that with a 12 issue maxi-series dedicated to telling a single story (as opposed to, say, two six-parters or any other way in which 12 issues can be divided up into discrete story arcs), the writer has one of two choices. He can go deep or he can go long. King and Gerards' Mister Miracle would be an attempt to do the former; something like Camelot 3000 or Crisis on Infinite Earths would be examples of the latter. (Watchmen manages to win the prize by doing both at the same time. Bloody Alan Moore.) What I mean by 'deep' is a thorough (hopefully innovative) exploration of the series' subject matter. The actual story is relatively straightforward; it acts as a framework on which the writer's examination of the character or theme hangs and in a sense is secondary in importance to the book's thematic concerns. 'Long', here, would refer to a story that is suitably epic and complex. Crisis… fits the bill here almost perfectly: the stakes are immense; the story is narratively dense; it delivers extraordinarily powerful moments whose power (and this, I think, is the important thing) is rooted in the external world of the characters' (generally heroic or tragic) actions rather than in the internal world of their minds and emotions.

And, yeah, I might just be talking utter nonsense here, but I'm trying – really trying – to work out what Martian Manhunter is trying to do. Because I can't quite escape the feeling that this story should have ended about three issues ago. Or, to put it another way, Orlando's gone for 'deep' and, for this reviewer, that's almost always going to be less satisfying than 'long'.

This issue deals with Meade's relationship with the former John Jones, the black detective whose identity J'onn J'onnz has taken. As such, it constitutes a narrative lacuna – a calm, mildly diverting but mostly empty spot – in the ongoing story, although there is, to be fair, a hell of a cliffhanger at the end. And there's nothing especially wrong with the issue. Its presentation of Meade – of the fallout of her affair with a female pathologist, of her surprisingly intense and deep friendship with the original John Jones – is engaging enough, but, coming after the exciting and generally compelling events of last issue, it feels like something of a let-down.

The issue starts with an exploration of Meade's earlier relationship with a pathologist in Houma, Louisiana. This is the woman to whom we were introduced in issue 5. I'd completely missed the 'earlier' caption in that issue, so experienced a bit of confusion when she surfaced again this time around. That's totally on me at the end of the day, but it does illustrate that this series (which is, in any case, set in the Martian Manhunter's past) is engaged in a series of excavations of the main characters' histories that, even when they're being clearly signposted, end up blunting the forward impetus of the main narrative. Now, I'm not suggesting that writers shouldn't use flashbacks and memory sequences at all, but I am suggesting that here their overuse is causing some problems for the overall story. Too much 'deep'; not enough 'long'.

We do, to be fair, get some insight into why Meade is such a difficult person to get along with. She's been hurt and has her defenses way up. When it's revealed that John was instrumental in approving her transfer to Middleton, her barriers begin to crack and she ends up having an intense but purely platonic friendship with him that is based on mutual respect and acceptance. And, dammit, I like that. This is, in a sense, peak Orlando. This is his 'message'. Although he's a writer for whom social justice is clearly important, his work is refreshingly free of the aggression and moral condescension that characterizes a lot of 'SJW' comics I've read over the years. He's about people coming together, finding common ground. I can respect that. 

Although their scenes are a little overwritten, there is something refreshing about the honesty and genuineness of Meade's friendship with Jones. Of course, Jones is dead and the man who's now wearing his form is an alien from Earth's second nearest planetary neighbor. After last issue's heroics, this one sees a stabilizing and solidification of the nascent friendship between the two characters shown at that issue's end. Which, again, is very nice to see. There's even a handy explanation of the current state of play, although, churl that I am, I'd rather have had a bit of action instead. The issue ends with J'onn revealing that big red bad guy Charnn has left tiny psychic bits of himself in his victims and that means that, with a bit of work ('thoughtopsy' incoming, people!), J'onn might be able to use to track Charnn down.

Meanwhile, Charnn has a chat with Ashley Adams and, well, I'm not going to spoil the ending for you, but I will say that, although I kind of suspected it was coming a couple of issues ago, it's well delivered and genuinely makes me want to read the next issue.

So… that question I asked at the start. 'Hitting its stride'. No, the book's not quite doing that. Not yet. That Orlando has invested a lot of time and thought into his characters is clear, but creators sometimes make the mistake of letting all that investment hang out on the page or screen or whatever, and something (in this case, the main story) always suffers as a result. Orlando's made Meade, John, and J'onn come alive in an impressive manner, but it's (past) time to get on with the story. You've hooked me well enough, Steve. Now reel me in.

I haven't mentioned the art yet. Rossmo and Plascencia do a grand job of portraying the more bizarre aspects of Meade and Jones' professional partnership, but are less successful with… food. I know, that's a bit of a strange one. The script calls for the dropping of food not once but twice to indicate a character's shock or surprise. I suppose you could say that Orlando's going for a kind of symmetry here (and I'll buy that), but Rossmo gets a little carried away with the plate carrying the bacon sandwich (fried bread, too? Very nice) which hits the floor with a laws-of-physics-defying elasticity. While I understand that the jagged edges of the bacon are meant to convey the force of the sandwich being dropped, they just make the bacon look furry to me. Which is off-putting for obvious reasons. Those tomato slices, later on, look a bit odd, too. Look, shall I just say that Rossmo's close-up food is not as great as his extra-dimensional monsters or even (gulp!) his Martian sex scenes? I think I shall.

Bits and Pieces:

In Diane Meade and J'onn J'onnz, Steve Orlando and his art team have crafted a very sympathetic and well-rounded detective partnership. And friendship. All well and good. This issue's exploration of Meade's past comes at the expense of significant forward movement in the overall plot, though, and, as such, despite some warm and charming moments, I can't unreservedly recommend it.


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