Martian Manhunter – 2015 Weekly Writer Challenge: John Ostrander (Part 1)
52 weeks. 52 different writers. 2 trade paperbacks or hardcovers a week. Each week I’ll take a look at a different writer and read two different collected editions from within that person’s repertoire to help in the examination of their work.
John Ostrander may be most well known for creating the modern version of Task Force X, otherwise known as The Suicide Squad, back in 1987. Ostrander has had a plethora of notable work under the DC Comics banner, penning series for Firestorm, Hawkworld, Manhunter, and The Spectre. With his frequent collaborator Tom Mandrake, the two men brought a long running Martian Manhunter series to life back in the late 1990’s, at the height of JLA’s popularity during Grant Morrison’s run.
Martian Manhunter: Son Of Mars
Martian Manhunter, a martian native to Mars otherwise known as J’onn J’onzz, is one of the most fascinating and longest running members of the Justice League. Possessing powers that are nearly on par with that of Superman’s, Martian Manhunter fights for justice alongside other members of the League. Taking on the alias of John Jones, a deceased Chicago detective, Manhunter examines humans through several different perspectives, taking on the identities of other dead humans. When a mysterious enemy begins to strike out against the personal lives of J’onzz’s aliases and his own, he must work quickly to discover who exactly is out to ruin his life before they turn everyone, including the Justice League, against him.
John Ostrander expands on many interesting and intricate elements of Martian Manhunter with his solo series from the late 1990’s. Under Ostrander’s hand, J’onn J’onzz became a far more complex character than he’d ever been before, with Ostrander adding many intriguing new elements to him both physically and emotionally. This first collection goes into depth about J’onzz’s personal life both on Earth and his former life on Mars. While you technically don’t get a definitive origin in this series, you do get a rather strong explanation as to why he ultimately ended up on Earth in the first place.
Ostrander spends the vast majority of the story set in the “present” day, with J’onn being a proud member of the Justice League of America as well as inhabiting several different aliases to examine human life under different views. There are a few moments where Ostrander delves into Manhunter’s tragic past, showing the reader why he was initially driven off of Mars, revealing that it is was his evil brother, Ma’alefa’ak, who ultimately eradicated all of his species from the planet due to his corrupt ways. Ostrander uses these different story lines to help guide one another other, using the past to inform the present and vice versa. The payoff comes late in the story with both tales converging for a climatic battle between brothers. It feels like an inevitable clash from the first moment J’onzz mentions his brother, lacking an element of surprise but still being satisfying nonetheless.
Ostrander does a great job of making every issue accessible through his style of storytelling. Each issue is a predominately contained tale, telling you everything you need to know and usually wrapping up in a matter that feels rewarding. Ostrander does lace together a few strands of plot across a couple of issues but for the most part each story is rather independent until you reach the last few issues, which heavily rely on events that have already occurred to set up a dramatic finale.
The most interesting part of this first collection of Manhunter stories has to be the multiple aliases he chooses to use for the duration of story. It adds another layer of emotion to the character of J’onn J’onzz as you see the different walks of life he experiences. From trying to be a Chicago detective, to a Chinese businessman or even a clumsy super villain, J’onzz never really rejects the opportunity to learn about how or what makes humans unique. Exploring these difference personalities, as well as their character relationships, through the body of J’onzz is a great bit of work by Ostrander and provides equal amounts of serious story beats with great comedy to back it up at times.
As much time as Ostrander spends humanizing J’onzz for the reader, he spends a fair amount of time playing up how different he is from humans as well, giving us a chance to see how he lived as a Martian. In making the primary antagonist to the story the evil brother of J’onzz you’re immediately given a personal tale. This is what truly provides Ostrander with a springboard to jump between the past and the present, honing in on the martian life of J’onzz on Mars. It becomes an incredibly tragic tale when you learn about how he lost his wife and daughter because of his brother, making you sympathize with the character in a whole new way. The past storyline establishes why J’onzz brother is such a threat while Ostrander uses the present timeline to further cement his bad guy status. It all provides fairly rich character moments for J’onzz as the showdown between the two brothers boils off satisfyingly.
The true weakness to the series tends to be the delivery of some of the story beats by Ostrander. Although Ostrander brings a plethora of fascinating ideas to the table, some of the moments where he shifts the narrative into the past tend to fall flat. There’s one scene in particular, where Martian explains the war between the different types of his species, that is so forgettable that you might need to read it twice because you retain none of the information presented. It just feels like an out of place story beat that could have been used more wisely towards developing J’onzz’s other character relations.
Collects: Martian Manhunter #0-9
Best Character: Martian Manhunter
Best Line Of Dialogue/Caption: “I can’t think of anything more central to my being. I am the League and the League is me.” – Martian Manhunter
Best Scene/Moments: J’onnz becomes the super villain, Big Spud – Issue 4
Best Issue: Issue 6. What makes issue 6 enjoyable is that it’s your classic disassembling story for a superhero. This is the issue where J’onnz is cast in a negative light against his fellow Justice Leaguers of Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Steel, as they discover a mysterious base on Mars that is seemingly J’onnz’s new home. Inside the base it appears as though J’onnz has been conducting sick experiments on creatures. The three League members go up against their ally in a story that, although predictable, still has a concise plot with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Why You Should Read It: J’onn J’onzz is one the more well liked members of the original Justice League to never really get a strong solo series. Ostrander puts his best foot forward here in an attempt to give the character some semblance of humanity and intrigue. Working hard to integrate the character into human civilization whilst also isolating him as an oddity, Ostrander succeeds in giving the reader some depth to absorb from the Martian Manhunter. This series of stories gives the character plenty of new layers that will help you better understand who the character truly is.