J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter:
First Appearance Detective Comics #225
This week on The Heroes, Villains and Sidekicks Show I’ll be walking us through the origin and backstory of my favorite martian, J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter. Then we get to hear about J’onn from one of the greatest comic book writers out there J.M DeMatteis, who wrote the incredible 1988 miniseries that deepened J’onn’s origins making him one of the most interesting characters in the DCU.
So let’s take a look at the origin of my favorite martian. J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, as you may have guessed is from Mars, and when he wants to be, is humanoid with green skin. I can only assume they made him green because of the whole, little green men from Mars idea that made its way into popular science fiction. But I did say he’s humanoide when he wants to be. One of John’s many powers is his ability to change his shape and look, transforming into whoever he pleases. We’ll get into more of his amazing power set later on. So how does J’onn get from Mars to the third rock from the sun. A genius scientist named Dr. Saul Erdel exclaims he has succeeded in building the robot brain of the century! With it he plans on using it to probe other dimensions, he then pushes a button saying he wonders what his robot brain will encounter when it begins its exploration. The Dr. wonders if it will travel and search out just space, or perhaps even the fourth dimension! It is then that after a lot of buzzing and clicking Dr. Erdel stands face to face with an imposing green man in a cape standing in classic hero pose. J’onn asks where he is and is told that he is on earth and J’onn explains he is from the fourth planet from the sun. The doctor is amazed and excited that his robot brain worked so well. But the doctor is suddenly crestfallen when he has to tell J’onn that he cannot immediately send him back to Mars, that it will, “would weeks, months or even years to change the thinking plot of the brain.” Now I’m not sure what that means, but Martian Manhunternot going home anytime soon. J’onn tells the doctor that he realizes he meant no harm but to stay he must change his appearance to fit in. It’s then that J’onn changes into the form of a regular earthman. The doctor is amazed, but all this is way too much for his ailing heart, and he dies apologizing to J’onn for not being able to return him. John looks out the window and talking to himself says his people are millions of miles away, but that they are working project “Star-Ride” that is a rocket that can come and get him. But he doesn’t know how long it will take, years, maybe centuries, so he dons a trench coat and fedora and heads out. He then makes a quick stop at a beach and says he is able to extract gold from the particles of earth seas. This is how he bankrolls his new life on earth. He then travels the world a bit and decides he wants to help earth out when he realizes how much crime there is. It’s then the decides to become a detective, Detective J’onn J’onzz.
J’onn appears again in Detective Comics #236 living on Earth as a human solving crimes. And here’s something I didn’t realize, he was in contact with Mars. He was in contact with his people while he was living on Earth. Now why this surprised me was that I was way more familiar with the updated retconned origin of J’onn from the four issue mini series Martian Manhunter that came out in 1988 written by the amazing J.M. DeMatteis. More on that in a minute. J’onn then continues his life of civil service, being a detective and helping the people of earth and at the same time continues his adventures as superhero teaming up with Batman and most notably Green Arrow. At one point on a mission while in his human for Detective John Jones is killed. The Martian Manhunter decides to abandon his human persona and takes up being a superhero full time. He then becomes a member of the Justice League and can also be found in the pages of House of Mystery and is unfortunately underutilized. It could not have been easy for the writers. Here’s this character that is more powerful than superman and is from another world, he’s way too close to Superman powers and backstory. So he spends a lot of time as a stand-in for Superman and is not fully developed.
But that all changes in issue #71 of Justice Leage of America when his fellow Martians finally finish building their Star-Ride and come to get J’onn and bring him home. I’ve got the page to this over on the episodes page on the site.
John bounces around and is really brought back into the fold with the DC relaunch of the Justice League of America as Justice League International. This series was written by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis with art by Kevin Maguire. This was a crazy funny series and is sometimes referred to as the BWAH HA era of the JLA. It was pretty funny, you had Batman, Guy Gardner, Captain Marvel and or course Martian Manhunter. They started giving J’onn a little more of a background and added some funny personality quirks, like the fact that he loves oreos.
Then in 1988 J.M DeMatteis wrote a four issue mini that completely re-wrote J’onn’s backstory, really fleshing him out and changed the entire origin of the character. So like I mentioned, I didn’t know that J’onn had contact and ever went back to Mars. I was more familiar with the mini series by J.M. DeMatteis. This was a retcon that really gave the character much more depth. I can’t recall many origin retcons that upend a character’s entire origin story but also keep the core of the character true. This new origin is much darker than the Silver Age version, much darker and much more depressing. In the miniseries J’onn begins to have hallucinations of H’ronmeer who consider the God of Death and Fire, while others consider him the God of Light and Life of Mars. But this is no hallucination, this is H’ronmeer reaching out to J’onn trying to shake him from illusion that is his life.
In the original origin J’onn was brought to earth from Mars and was greeted by Dr. Erdeel, destroyed his transportation machine, and then the good doctor died from shock. J’onn then took on the guise of John Jones, detective and superhero. In this new telling penned amazingly by J.M DeMatteis doesn’t just jettison J’onn Silver Age origin, he upends it and deepens the characters history and psyche. H’ronmeer begins to open J’onn’s mind, allowing him to finally start to see what actually happened to him and his homeworld. J’onn believes he is hallucinating but H’ronmeer is real and is drawn to J’onn since he is the last of his kind. He is on earth to open J’onn’s mind to the facts behind his transportation to Earth by the good doctor’s communication device. J’onn fights these visions all the while his body is going through extreme changes, warping and twisting. J’onn sees himself on Mars, the Mars he has always believed to be true. Noble aliens warriors and poets cities of wonder. The visions then morph into a horror show. The figures are martians but they do not resemble j’onn and in them he is with his wife and child.
Their planet is being ravaged by a hideous plague that is killing the population. J’onn sees his wife dead, her body thrown on funeral pyres along with thousands of other dead people of Mars. He sees his daughter also consumed by the plague dead in his arms. It drives J’onn over the edge and he flies off half blind and ends up at a house in the country where someone is there to meet him, it’s Dr. Erdeel. It turns out he is very much alive and has been waiting for J’onn. Erdell and J’onn sit and talk, J’onn confused and tormented learns the bitter truth. When J’onn was brought to earth through the transported he was holding his dead daughter. He lost his mind and fell into a catatonic state, while in it he and Erdell formed a very personal and strong psychic bond. While in this state Erdell tried to help J’onn by filling his mind with an ideal life on Mars with no plague, no family, no horrors. J’onn even learns that his form was really just a construct of what Erdell believed an alien from Mars might look like based on old 1950 conceptions. J’onn learns his life has been a lie. He then asks Erdell to send him back to Mars via his machine. There H’ronmeer reveals the truth of the plague and how J’onn to find piece must let his family rest. He must remember and say goodbye, letting them rest in peace. He also learns one more horrible truth. The reason there is no longer life on Mars is because J’onn was not only transported from Mars but was also transported through time, several centuries. But J’onn makes peace with his past and returns to Earth in his true form, finally knowing the truth. I just really loved this miniseries.
One aspect revealed from the new origin concerned J’onn’s only weakness. Every hero has one, and J’onn’s was fire. But DeMatteis turns this basic weakness from one that was due to how fire affected his body, to one that is a construct of the martians mind. The one thing that didn’t get wiped away from J’onn’s mind was fire. The subconscious memory of his people and his family’s dead bodies being burned after dying from the plague. So the weakness was purely psychological. Just great stuff.
The character goes on to become a member of the JLA and is an integral part in end of the original JLA title and then part of the relaunch helmed by DeMatteis, Giffen and Maguire who flesh out the character even more and bring a touch of humor to the character that is one of the hallmarks of that title, fun little things like J’onn’s love or OREOS. They even played with that idea in the Supergirl show where J’onn is being held captive and is brought chocolate cookies that are definitely supposed to be OREOS. It was pretty fun to see this on the show. And that’s the funny thing, the character can never seem to helm a comic title that doesn’t get canceled shortly after it starts, but he is on one of the hottest superhero TV shows on now. And I have to say, how they represent J’onn on screen is just incredible. I think he’s done better than almost any character I’ve seen depicted on TV and in some movies.
Something we haven’t talked about yet is the Martian Manhunter’s powers. Well, he has a pretty impressive and diverse powerset. One that I think make him the most powerful character in the DCU. Let’s take a look at what J’onn can do.
Due to his martian physiology J’onn is able to change his mass, color, relative shape, imitating even clothing if desired, which makes me wonder if J’onn is actually walking around kind of naked.
One of the most incredible powers possessed by Martian Manhunter is the ability to shape-shift. He is able to change his body into any form, impersonating people or supers. He can form any type of clothing and even form weapons from his own body. He can shift into something as large as a building or as small as a fly. An I think because of his innate detective ability when he takes the shape of someone he is able to accurately mimic them.
J’onn his able to change his skin so that it loses the ability to reflect light, rendering himself invisible. If he concentrates he is even able to render himself completely invisible to all spectrums of light such as infrared and ultraviolet. He’s not intangible, he can be touched, but you’d need to reach him first.
J’onn is able to phase through any object by altering his body mass and density. This makes sense since he obviously has control over every aspect of his body’s cellular structure.
J’onn is able to withstand pretty much any type of bullets and or objects that are meant to harm him. He is nearly invulnerable and add that to his ability to shift into any form he is nearly unstoppable.
Martian Manhunter’s strength is on par with Superman, fighting him to a stalemate in some stories drawing blood from Superman himself.
He can regenerate from the most horrible injuries, almost any any injury. In one storyline he even regenerated from just his severed hand.
Flight and Superhuman Speed
It goes without saying, that Martian Manhunter is able to fly and amazing speeds and for great distances even being able to keep up with Superman. He also has the ability to move at incredible speeds being able to fly around the world in seconds and snatch bullets from mid-air.
To me, this is the power that makes Martian Manhunter the most powerful being in the DCU. In addition to all those other powers he is the most powerful telepath on the planet. He is able to read any mind with no difficulties and even over great distances. For example he has been seen communicating using his telepathy with someone on Earth from the Moon. He is able to not only read minds but control them over great distances. He can make a person believe what he wants and even forget what has happened to them. His mind is even powerful enough to act as a telepathic relay. While a member of the JLA he was the team communication hub. Through him all team members minds were linked and they could communicate over great distances. J’onn is also able to use his mind to move objects no matter the weight with concentration.
J’onn has a genius level intellect and is an astute judge of character and human nature. His intelligence coupled with this understand of humanity may be why his alter-ego John Jones is a police detective when he’s not out being super. And his is another reason I really respect this character. Even when he’s living his everyday life he is solving crimes and helping people. Just a great character.
This powerset is on par with no one else in the DCU. His standard powers make him formidable, the strength, speed, regeneration, flight and his martian durability. But then add in the phasing, invisibility, intellect and him being the most powerful telepath on the planet and he is arguably the most powerful being in the DCU.
Brooklyn’s own J. M. DeMatteis is an Eisner Award winning comic book writer, who has written some of the most known and loved comic book stories that include Kraven’s Last Hunt, Blood: A Tale, Moonshadow, his autobiographical Brooklyn Dreams, JLA and of course the Martian Manhunter miniseries that updated J’onn’s origin. Not only has he written some of our favorite comics but he’s also written many episodes of the animated T.V series Justice League Adventures and Batman: Brave and the Bold. In addition to comics, J.M. has penned several novels which include Imaginalis and Abadazad. So without further delay let’s listen to my interview with J. M. DeMatteis.