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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Brief review of the 1988 Martian Manhunter mini-series

house ad for 1988 Martian Manhunter mini-series. Property of DC comics.

The Martian Manhunter first appeared in Detective comics #225 (1955) and was created by Joseph Samachson (writer) and Joe Certa (artist). It’s interesting to note that Samachson was an accomplished chemist (PhD from Yale) and wrote for sci-fi pulp magazines (under a different nom-de-plume) before becoming a writer for DC comics in 1942.

The Martian Manhunter began as a combination of DC’s two most popular heroes at the time: he was a nigh-invulnerable flying extraterrestrial (like Superman) and a world-class crime-solving detective (like Batman). He even became a founding member of the Justice League of America in 1960 and had a prominent role in the JLA until 1968 when Batman and Superman became more actively involved with the team. Because, honestly, two nigh-invulnerable flying aliens on your team is two too many.

The Martian Manhunter laid low from 1968 until 1984 and only occasionally appeared when a DC character had an adventure in space. He made his big return in the pages of Justice League of America in 1984 and has pretty much been a key member of the Justice League throughout the 80s. He was even popular enough to merit an action figure of himself in the 1985 Super Powers Collection toy line.

Justice League of America v1 #228 (1984)

After Crisis On Infinite Earths, DC took the opportunity to revamp origins/past history of most major characters in order to fix continuity issues. In 1988 it was the Martian Manhunter’s turn. It should be noted that J.M. DeMatteis writing this mini-series was a good fit, as he had been co-plotting/writing Justice League of America stories with Keith Giffen since the Justice League relaunch in 1987, so if anyone had a good understanding of the Martian Manhunter it would be Dematteis.

Making major changes to a comic book character with a lot of history is always tricky, as you don’t want to do anything too drastic that will upset the long-time fans (ex: John Byrne’s Superman). In this particular instance, however, DeMatteis nailed it and the mini-series was well-received.

Changes to Martian Manhunter (as per the mini-series):
  • His real name isn’t J'onn J'onzz 
  • He is the last martian. All the others were wiped out thousands of years ago by a plague. 
  • Mars is actually a dead planet. 
  • His real form is a green cone-head creature. 
  • All of his personality and memories were implanted into him by Dr. Erdel 
  • Dr Erdel never died, it was all an elaborate trick. 
  • Fire (previously his only weakness) isn’t deadly to the Martian Manhunter - it's revealed that the danger is all psychosomatic.
One of the reasons this revamp worked so well is because the character of the Martian Manhunter was never strongly defined to begin with, so there was lots of room for elaboration. Crisis on Infinite Earths essentially retconned Superman’s early involvement with the Justice League of America and it would as appear as if the Martian Manhunter was meant to fill that continuity hole (one nigh-invulnerable flying alien can substitute for the other). This leads to a few continuity problems (mainly anything to do with Martians invading earth pre-Crisis) but I’m going to overlook that since DeMatteis did an excellent job regardless.

As a Giffen/DeMatteis-era Justice League fan, I really enjoyed this four-issue mini-series. As a matter of fact, this mini is a direct conclusion to the events the happened in Justice League Annual #1 (1987). The Justice League International do make an appearance, but they only play second banana since the main focus is on the Martian Manhunter. I did not enjoy the art (but maybe you did/might). Mark Badger was the penciller and I found his illustrations too abstract/psychedelic for this type of story. I guess in my mind’s eye Kevin Maguire was the regular Justice League penciller and the only artist fit to do a Justice League spin-off mini-series such as this one.

Mark Badger art from Martian Manhunter mini-series (1988). Property of DC comics. Mark Badger art from Martian Manhunter mini-series (1988). Property of DC comics.

Michel Fiffe (creator of COPRA) interviewed Mark Badger in early 2010. Fiffe was kind of enough to share an unpublished excerpt from the interview with us about Badger's work on the Martian Manhunter mini-series:

Michel Fiffe: "You had worked on the Martian Manhunter mini-series with J.M. DeMatteis. That seems to be the story where you began loosening up. The entire series works really well as one piece, actually, not just as a string of pages telling a story but as a visual whole. Was there a complete script or did you visualize the entire thing without outside direction?"
Mark Badger: "Plotting of Martian Manhunter was basically done in the basement of 666 5th Ave with Andy Helfer and DeMatteis over pastrami sandwiches. There was no grand plan, it was just screwing around and trying to do something fun. Comics hadn’t become big biz yet where writers and editors mastermind these crossovers to death. I think full scripts really do hurt the visual inventiveness of comics because in a movie, you can extend the time, and storytelling can be carried by sound and suggestion in a way that comics just can’t. On one hand, I understand artists no longer think in terms of storytelling but that’s because editors hire artists who don't think of storytelling. And then no one has the ability to teach anymore. Teaching demands not just saying “this is the right way to do something” but a loop of feedback where you assess what the person is doing to see if they understand the concept and then re-phrasing it and evaluating how you said it. Jim Shooter was a good basics teacher. He laid out a fundamental set of rules but he really had no way to talk about anything after those basics. So at one point, Marvel was buying all the white Zip-a-tone in NYC to cover up blacks in the background to provide depth in their comics. But the idea of atmospheric perspective conflicts with the idea of using black for composition ad spotting a figure against a black backdrop so they stand out. They’re both Renaissance ideas in composition and sometimes you need to have done the craft to juggle them when appropriate."
"I picked up from Walter Simonson, who laid stories out on a typing page with 24 boxes first, using words and maybe thumbnails. I stole that. So I was always thinking of the whole story first, not the one image of the story I can sell. When I started to learn how to code it, was able to see the overall structure of the project that made me successful, more than any math skills. (I spent 8th grade algebra drawing Conan after all, so I should never be able to code.) But at Parsons, we always thought in terms of the overall work and the project, not just the one painting. They were constantly pushing you to have this approach because you were building a body of work not one image to sell. Sometimes I get jealous of people who can think of cool drawings and that slick “I’m a tuff guy” illustration look to all their characters."
"I based the new Martian Manhunter on a David Smith sculpture. I figured if you’re a character capable of morphing into shapes, why in god’s name would you look like a body builder? I just felt like the ability to change shapes meant you would make beautiful Art Nouveau and abstraction, not guns. If you manipulate form, wouldn’t you be fascinated in what you can make? Then I had been reading about grid systems for graphic design, so I made up a small grid and then overlayed that on the Kirby six panel grid to split up the pages. So that drove the layout. Then there was a Roy Lichtenstein show of abstractions at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) while I was working on the Manhunter. So at the time I would go there look at the Lichtensteins, go up to the Henri Matisse room and look at the swimming pool cut outs and then go turn in pages."
"At some point I had been looking at one of the more generic artists at Marvel because they sent us all the comics in those days. I couldn’t understand what the heck the drawing was, it had no relation to the human form but it was a comic. When you looked at comic book drawing in those days it was really weird and comic booky, not the photo realism of today. I thought: man if you can draw that weird, I can draw any shape I want and it will work as a figure. Boy, was I dense! Comics drawing is built on a long tradition. Saying that Matisse is a justifiable part of that tradition is weird. Matisse’s approach to form is so much based at looking at the world and not drawing icons. Matisse would actually just let his drawing be based on the emotion of drawing. I think there was a show of Matisse drawings at MOMA that where charcoal line drawings, not just one line but grey pages where he had changed & changed & changed the drawing to finally get to one line. SO I was looking at those and thinking this is proper drawing. In comics, that’s not proper drawing and I didn’t understand the distinction. So that’s all the stuff I was looking at and trying to pour into my comics."
[If you want to credit any of the interview above, please credit Michel Fiffe]

Two great sources if you're looking for more info on the Martian Manhunter:

You also might enjoy Mark Belkin's interview with J.M. DeMatteis (he briefly mentions Martian Manhunter, but talks about a lot of the other DC projects he worked on during the 80s.)

This article first published on the DC in the 80s tumblr in Aug 2013.

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