Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Showcase Presents: Martian Manhunter, Vol. 1

Showcase Presents: Martian Manhunter, Vol. 1 collects the Detective Comics Martian Manhunter stories from his first appearance in #225 (Nov 1955) to #304 (Jun 1962), as well as a story from Batman #78 (Aug-Sept 1953) called "The Manhunter From Mars!" which featured Batman and Robin teaming up with a bad martian to capture a good one. The Martians in that story don't have much in common with the Martian Manhunter though. It seems like they just threw it in because they thought more people would buy a book with Batman in it.

The first Martian Manhunter story has "world-famous scientist" Dr. Erdel create a "robot brain" to explore new frontiers in science. Despite being the one who built it, he somehow doesn't know what it will actually do, so he is startled when:

Not just his thoughts but his worrrrds. Wait, what?

Dr. Erdel can't send him back because it would take time to "reverse the thinking plot of the brain." The Martian, J'onn Jonzz, takes the fact that he is indefinitely stuck on an alien planet pretty well, and immediately assumes human form. It's too much for Dr. Erdel though, who promptly has a heart attack and dies. J'onn J'onzz sets out to explore his new home and finds that:

I guess the "Great Evolution" must not have been permanent, because Martian criminals make multiple appearances throughout these stories.

J'onzz decides that while he is stranded on Earth, he might as well do what he can to fight crime. Walking into a police precinct, he is seemingly hired immediately, and begins his career posing as the human detective, "John Jones."

The plot holes, gaps in logic, and skipping directly from one plot point to the next are pretty typical for the stories in this volume. It's to be expected when the stories are only six pages long for the majority of the book. About two-thirds of the way through, they gain a page, then jump up to twelve pages for the last few, but by then the formula is set. All the stories except the Batman one are written by Jack Miller and illustrated by Joe Certa.

A typical story will involve either John Jones tracking a criminal, or investigating something else that inevitably leads to the discovery of a criminal scheme of some kind. He then uses completely ridiculous tactics to dispatch the evildoers. As with the Superman books, a lot of story ideas are repeated here, like Jones losing his powers, or humans gaining Martian powers. In fact, there are two stories involving a comet passing between Earth and Mars cutting off Jones's powers. The first says the comet "travels between Earth and Mars, once each century, for a full 24 hours," and the second describes an "annual two-hour period," while just eight months passed between the stories in real life.

Speaking of inconsistency, among J'onzz's powers are flight, invisibility, intangibility, shape-shifting, "Martian vision" (which let's him see through objects, among other things), and countless other abilities that change depending on the requirements of the story. He is particularly fond of tunneling underground to get ahead of others without them seeing him. Sometimes he can simply will himself from one place to another, which raises the question, "Why can't he just will himself back to Mars?" Early on, he can even control matter around him through sheer willpower, which seems like it should also provide a way back to Mars if J'onzz would just stop to think about it. Among his most absurd of powers is his super-breath:

The only thing that might beat that out is his "Martian angle vision," a power that only pops up once, makes no sense, and is pointless anyway because he can already see through walls:

Initially, he can only use his powers when invisible, which means no one is even aware of the existence of a Martian on Earth for a large portion of the book. However, Jones does go from visible to invisible and back right in front of people all the time:

I love the fact that he just doesn't care if people are around to see, or how he'll use his ability to walk through walls to capture criminals and just leave them baffled as to how he did it.

It isn't until a criminal Martian arrives and begins wreaking havoc that J'onzz is himself revealed:

The bad Martian's name is B'rett. In another story, J'onn's brother, T'omm, shows up. I like to think his parents were named D'add and M'omm.

It's probably not a coincidence that this story came out shortly before the first appearance of the Justice League of America. It would have been weird having J'onn J'onzz have to be invisible all the time while working with the rest of the team. As usual for individual characters' stories of the time however, there are no references to the League whatsoever.

On the writing side, there isn't a lot of characterization here. J'onn J'onzz occasionally bemoans his fate and longs to return to his home world, but if anything, he has even less character than typical superheroes of the time. The same goes for his superior, Captain Harding, who appears in almost every story.

There is one other character that makes return appearances: Diane Meade, the police commissioner's daughter, who just happens to have a thing for Jones. She first shows up fairly early on, but doesn't become a recurring character until later, and proves to be J'onn J'onzz's unintentional nemesis. In fact, her debut is in a story called "John Jones' Female Nemesis," and her next appearance is called "John Jones' Pesky Partner." 

Here she is trying to beat another policewoman to a medal: 

What a bitch, right? But it gets even better:

That is just golden.

Her being around only makes Jones have to be extra careful to keep his powers hidden, but of course she eventually tries to prove her suspicions that he is the Manhunter from Mars. It seems to me it would actually be easier for Jones to simply reveal himself to the public, but '50s-early '60s DC comics aren't known for breaking tradition (or for logic). Luckily, Jones's powers can cover for pretty much anything, no matter how ridiculous:

You may have noticed the reference to fire as a Martian weakness. Before reading these comics, I thought that was a lame weakness, because of course fire would be harmful. It would be like saying Spider-Man's weakness is being shot in the face. But it's a lot more than that--even lighting a match is enough to send J'onzz into sweating, shuddering paroxysms of fear. Hell, look at this:

On the art side, things are serviceable. There's probably more detail put into the backgrounds than these stories deserve, but characters floating in front of blank white space would be boring to look at. As you can see from the panels above, Joe Certa's style is somewhat cartoony, which fits with the goofy nature of the stories. He has a tendency to give characters huge chins when drawn from the side, which is a bit strange. 

J'onzz's Martian appearance changes gradually over the course of the book. Early on, he has a more alien, almost ape-like, face:

Later, he, and any other Martians that appear in the stories, become more human looking, as seen on the cover.

At this point, I'm going to introduce a new section to these reviews, called:

Monster watch

Being that I am obsessed with monsters and dinosaurs, here I will showcase any creatures that appear in these books.

Unfortunately, there's not much to talk about in this case. We do get a story where J'onn J'onzz gets sucked into another dimension and comes across this rhinosaurus-thing:

Later in the same story, we have a pack of dinosaurs:

And that's it for the cool stuff. Elsewhere, uh…there's these "Martian mandrills," struttin' their stuff like they own the place:

And another story gives us these robot replications of Martian creatures:

And to avoid too much disappointment in the first entry of Monster Watch, here's J'onn J'onzz beating up a lion. Doesn't quite fit in with those others, but I'll take what I can get:

Hopefully next time's Monster Watch'll be better.

While there is quite a bit of goofiness to be found in this book, it doesn't compare to the Superman volumes, and with nothing historically important outside of the Martian's first appearance, there's really no other reason to recommend it. Unless you're a die-hard Martian Manhunter fan for some reason, you won't get anything more out of this one than a few laughs.