The Martian Manhunter is a rarity in the DC Universe in that his origin has been ret-conned not once but twice (a dubious honor he shares with Captain Marvel).
When first introduced in Detective Comics #225 (1955), he was a Martian warrior who was accidentally teleported to Earth by an Earthman named Professor Erdel. The Professor, frightened by the appearance of the hulking green Martian, died of a heart attack (Much later, in Detective #500, Hawkman discovered that Erdel's computer had gained sentience and killed him but since the whole thing's been eliminated, that's neither here nor there). Stranded on Earth, J'onn adopted a name (John Jones) that was similar to his Martian name (J'onn J'onzz) and became a detective.
Over the years, more of his history was revealed: J'onn had been leading his army of green Martians into battle against Commander Blanx and his army of white Martians when he'd been teleported to Earth. Blanx's forces came to Earth in search of J'onn, leading to an early formation of the Justice League of America which preceded their official first case against the Appellaxian invaders. As the "Martian Manhunter," J'onn joined the JLA for a year before leaving the team to rejoin his fellow Martians. The Martians left to build a new home, Mars II.
J'onn would not be seen again on Earth for many, many years, though he did meet several of his old companions in space. J'onn made a return visit to Earth when the Appellaxian warriors took mental control of their old foes.
Shortly after that, J'onn came back to Earth to warn of an impending invasion by his people. A militaristic faction of the green Martians, including his lover, attacked Earth as their first step in a plan for interstellar conquest. The Martians destroyed a space shuttle and the JLA's Satellite Headquarters. J'onn fought the leader of the army in hand-to-hand combat and thus saved Earth, but he was an outcast and resumed his old life on Earth. The Martian Manhunter became a member of Aquaman's reorganized full-time JLA, eventually becoming the team's leader.
This new JLA did not reach the famed heights of the previous team, but that didn't stop the lonely J'onn from forming a close bond with many of the new members, especially Vixen and the young Gypsy. J'onn suffered a deep sense of loss when Professor Ivo killed Steel and Vibe and jeopardized the lives of Vixen and Gypsy.
The JLA disbanded and reformed again, this time with a more competent and close-knit, if dysfunctional, team. When the Justice League became the Justice League International, he was made the leader of the team.
End history #1
This first history is NOT all that exciting, and the character of J'onn J'onzz was quite dull. Basically, he was a variation on Superman. The most notable thing about J'onn was that he had a weakness to fire. Any fire. Even a small flame would cause him to go weak and lose his powers. Frankly, this was just a little silly; he could blow out the flames with his super-breath, right?
The character of the Martian Manhunter did grow with time as modern writers like Gerry Conway (JloA), Marv Wolfman (Crisis on Infinite Earths) and Keith Giffen/J.M. DeMatteis (Justice League) added some depth to who he was, but DC finally decided to give J'onn a new past.
This was done in the Martian Manhunter four-part mini-series (1988) and it is a remarkable project. Not only is it a beautiful, powerful story, but it is different from all of the other revamps of that era in that it isn't a reboot! Instead, writer DeMatteis works mostly within the established continuity.
J'onn begins suffering from a body-shifting, mind-warping illness. At first he attributes it to a sentient cell which he'd recently absorbed and then he begins seeing H'ronmeer, the Martian God of Fire and Death. Fighting with H'ronmeer in Colorado, he emerges from the flames in a tall, lizard-like body and encounters (of all people) Dr. Erdel!
Dr. Erdel tells J'onn that he has indeed been alive all this time, that J'onn's body is his true form and that the life J'onn has always known has been nothing more than a story mentally implanted by Erdel! J'onn was never a warrior. He is not this beetle-browed, muscular figure in a cape and harness. His name is not even J'onn J'onzz. Here is the true story
The Martians were a peaceful, serene people, and the creature we know as the Martian Manhunter was a poet, a singer, an artist. He had a wife and a young daughter. Their life was content until the plague.
The hideous plague swept across Mars like a tidal wave. The Martians' bodies became scarred and disfigured before finally dying, at which point the durable corpses were hastily burned in an attempt to halt the spread of the disease. As the plague grew worse, the piles of burning corpses became hills. The hills became mountains. The ghastly bonfires could be seen on the horizon in every direction, a sign from H'ronmeer that the Martian race was in its twilight hour.
"J'onn J'onzz" watched his beloved wife fight the pointless battle against the disease. In the end, as he knew he would, he carried her twisted body to the pyres and watched her corpse burning amongst a sea of flaming skulls and gnarled limbs. Horrified, he flew home to find his daughter also lost to the disease. The Martian leaders arrived to ensure that her body was burned as well. Unable to stand the thought of losing his daughter to H'ronmeer, "J'onn" fought them off and flew away with her corpse. Pursued by the others, who telepathically begged and pleaded with him to be reasonable, he flew until he collapsed from exhaustion. The other Martians surrounded him and then he disappeared.
On Earth, in the mid-1950s, a large green lizard-like humanoid appeared on the teleporter platform of Dr. Saul Erdel, a brilliant scientist. The terrified Martian made a telepathic link to Erdel and the two exchanged information. Erdel offered to send the Martian back. The Martian flew into a rage and smashed all of the equipment in the room. When Erdel emerged from hiding, he found the Martian on the floor in a sort of mental fugue.
Erdel buried the dead Martian child. Then he formed a mental bond with the telepathic alien. Understanding the intense amount of trauma which J'onn had endured, Erdel decided to wipe out the Martian's tragic memories and replace them with stories from the old pulp sci-fi books he used to read. He removed the Martian's beautiful but unpronounceable name and replaced it with "J'onn J'onzz," a play on the Earth name John Jones. J'onn's body even changed shape to match Erdel's mental pictures. Finally, Erdel planted a memory of his own heart attack so that J'onn would have almost nothing reminding him of his old life.
Now understanding his true nature, J'onn used Erdel's machine (finally rebuilt) to beam back to Mars. There he found the spirits of the Martian people waiting for him. It turns out that Erdel's machine had pulled him across space and time, and the spirit of his wife had been waiting for him for 40,000 years. The Martian ghosts left for their final rest, and J'onn sang a song and danced in a memorial to them.
WOW, that's a great mini-series. Powerful, beautiful, intelligent and well constructed. It did away with that silly "Martians are vulnerable to flame because Mars is cold" rule and instead broke new ground. J'onn became a lonely, solitary figure and we understand why the League has become such an important pseudo-family for him. Indeed, this worked well to explain why, in hindsight, Vixen and Gypsy were so precious to him and why the deaths of Vibe and Steel hurt so much.
Martians have never been vulnerable to fire, although fire could destroy the dead bodies of Martians (hence H'ronmeer's representation of fire AND death; fire=death in the culture of the Martians). J'onn was not physically vulnerable; rather, the flames caused a severe psychosomatic reaction. Though he didn't understand why until recovering his memory, the flames were a reminder of the deaths of his family and his race. As time progressed following the mini, J'onn began to confront his fear of fire.
This mini required only one ret-con to work, and that is the removal of all past "other-Martian" stories such as the JLA's first meeting, J'onn's leaving the JLA, etc. Given the absence of Superman from the current history of the JLA, J'onn fills the void admirably. The only essential story is the war that destroyed the JLA satellite; we've never been told what happened in its place.
The remainder of J'onn's post-miniseries history goes like this:
J'onn left, taking the guise of a human and studying our culture via television. Through mental plants in other people, he assumed a job at a local police force and became Detective John Jones. (Revealed in a "Private Lives" story in a JLA annual.)
When the Appellaxians attacked, he was forced to go public. He became a member of the JLA and has always been a member of the team (as there are no other Martians, he never departed). (Revealed in the JLA's "Secret Origins".)
End History #2
The only problem with the mini is that a lot of people didn't read it. And I'm betting a list of the names of people who didn't read it would include some of the comic book writers at DC, as there have been a bevy of mistakes and outright contradictions. Many seemed to have read J'onn's new origin in Who's Who but not understood that he did not learn any of it until the time period of the Justice League International's formation! Up until then, he assumed that he was a warrior and that his people lived on Mars where he couldn't reach them. (I'll admit, this does open up plenty of questions as to why he wouldn't have returned before, given the means the JLA has at its disposal.)
Just some of the goofs:
I think that John Ostrander was probably trying to reconcile some of these contradictions into a new unified origin when he wrote issue #0 of his new Martian Manhunter series.
J'onn J'onzz (his name) was a philosopher as well as a "Manhunter" (a type of police officer). The Martian shapechangers assumed numerous forms as befitted the situation, from the soft, lizardlike form to the muscular, beetle-browed shape. The pyrokinetic plague "H'ronmeer's Curse" was passed telepathically; in order to survive it, J'onn had to close himself off from the rest of his race, even his family. He watched as his wife (M'yri'ah) and daughter (K'hym) were consumed by flames, leaving him as one of the last of the Martian race.
Enraged, he flew off to confront the man responsible. The mad priest/scientist Ma'alefa'ak had created the virus, and the two waged a furious battle. J'onn left him buried beneath the volcano known as Olympus Mons.
J'onn wandered the planet, lonely and isolated, for an indeterminate period of time. Martians are, apparently, nearly immortal, so he could have wandered for centuries. Then, one day, he was teleported to Earth by the teleportation beam of Dr. James Erdel (who doesn't appear to be a genius). As soon as J'onn arrived on the platform, the machine exploded and the building was consumed in flame. J'onn saved Erdel from the fire, and Erdel revealed that he was an archaeologist who had discovered the teleporter buried in the ground. J'onn examined a piece of it and found it to be a Martian device. Erdel died.
J'onn saw a police detective named John Jones. When Jones was killed during a mob hit, J'onn adopted his life. It is not known what decade this was, but John Jones appears to have not aged much since then, so it's unlikely that he's been here since the 50's (or even "35 years ago" according to the sliding timeline).
J'onn joined the Justice League of America and has been a member almost continuously ever since. Oddly, he has never returned to Mars despite having access to space travel (via Green Lantern and other means) for most of a decade. When he did return, Ma'alefa'ak was watching him (which means either J'onn was only pulled across space, not time, or the Martians are indeed immortal and Ma'alefa'ak has been waiting for tens of thousands of years!).
If One Million's future is to be adopted as canonical, J'onn will live for millennia. He will meet the Legion of Super Heroes and fight a deep space war that will last for centuries. He will finally merge with the red sands of Mars and become a living planet.
End History #3
I've got to say, I'm not entirely happy with this new history. It contradicts the DeMatteis series in many areas, often for no reason than to put John Ostrander's stamp on it. And I LIKE Ostrander, I really do! There's no anti-Ostrander sentiment from this quarter. I simply feel that Ostrander could have introduced many of his unique elements while making them jibe with the current continuity (or I guess I should say previous continuity, since Johnny O's the official MM scribe and that makes this new story canonical.
I liked the whole false memories bit. I enjoyed J'onn finding out that this whole muscular warrior schtick was just a fantasy made up by a guy who read one too many pulps, and that his true story was much deeper. I loved the revelation that the Martians were actually a peaceful, pacifistic and religious people. This made for a wonderful duality in J'onn's character as he tried to reconcile 35 years of violence with the peaceful soul that he truly is at heart. J'onn's "adoption" of Justice League members without knowing why until he discovered his hidden psychological yearnings was also a poignant part of his character. His reunited friendship with Professor Erdel was also an added facet of the new origin, and I'd been looking forward to seeing him as a supporting player in the new series; unfortunately, he's now been re-retconned to have died after J'onn first arrived.
I really liked the true reason for his "vulnerability" to fire. The imagery of the mini-series is quite haunting, and it's easy for us all to put ourselves in J'onn's place. This new version of the plague (spontaneous combustion) isn't as moving as the lingering, scarring illness ending on a funeral pyre of thousands of bodies.
John Ostrander's made numerous changes, many of them putting old elements of the original origin back. J'onn is the Martian's true name again. Erdel is dead. J'onn arrives alone. Fire is indeed lethal to Martians, albeit in a sort of telepathic way so that he can mentally tune it out. The Martian society isn't as "alien" from humans', in that they have modern homes, a police force, scientists with advanced technology, very human conversations, etc.
Of late, there has been an outcry to put things back the way they were. The success of such projects as JLA has been due to the honoring of the JLA's past and the iconic characters in it. DC has begun to see that fans want their old characters back and, while not admitting that they ever made a mistake of any kind, has started giving us what we want. In many cases, DC tried to re-invent old characters and sacrificed far too much of what made the old characters FUN. The Metal Men and Hawkworld (Hoo boy, that's one of Ostrander's too; John, if you're listening, I'm a lifelong Suicide Squad fan! Really!) being two of the more extreme cases.
But in the case of J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter, the 1988 mini-series was a dramatic improvement on the old character, and I hate to see so much of it being chucked away. The years following J'onn's discovery of his true identity were some of the best in the characters' history (the people who say there wasn't any depth to the JLA during the Giffen years must have been reading a different comic!). This may be a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and then pouring the old bathwater back in.
I should mention that, needless messing about with the origin aside, the new Martian Manhunter series is very well written and is already filling the space vacated by Chase. Tom Mandrake's artwork is stunning, and this series is on its way to establishing the Martian Manhunter as a major character in his own right.
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