A Tribute to the of
In October, 1938 there was a particular radio broadcast that ignited both the imagination and the outright terror in the country regarding the possibility of alien life. Orson Welles with his airing of "The War of the Worlds" gave us the notion that "little green men" were coming and that their intentions were definitely not going to be in our best interests. Now flash ahead to 1955 and DC decided to try something new by introducing their own green man in the form of J'onn J'onzz, the Manhunter from Mars. J'onn's debut was in Detective comics #225 and there has been debate over the years as to whether he, rather than The Flash, was actually the first of DC's Silver Age superheroes. To me it makes little difference how the Silver Age began. I'm just glad it did. :-)
As you well know, Detective comics was Batman's original (and continued) stomping grounds and he has been the star feature since 1939. The players in the backup stories tended to shift from time to time and such forgettable characters as Pow-Wow Smith, Captain Compass and Mysto the Detective occupied that space as well as The Crimson Avenger and Robotman during the Golden Age. In the credit where credit is due department, this particular issue was edited by Jack Schiff and while I'm focusing on the Manhunter story, which is actually the final tale in the book, I'll include the information for all three stories. "If I were Batman!" was written by Edmond Hamilton with artwork by Sheldon Moldoff (but signed Bob Kane) and Charles Paris. "The Money that Came to Life!" was written by Jack Miller with pencils and inks by Ruben Moreira and finally J'onn's introductory tale entitled "The Strange Experiment of Dr. Erdel!" was written by Joe Samachson (a reprint of this story appearing in the trade paperback Mysteries In Space + back cover, published by Fireside Books in 1980, credits Mort Weisinger as the author) with Joe Certa in the artist's seat.
Time now to check out the first appearance of the Martian Manhunter. The opening panel of the story shows a police lineup and a hard-boiled detective standing in front, addressing another detective. Both are wearing the classic garb of their craft, to include fedoras, ties, overcoats and a smoldering cigarette. The first dick is saying, "But how do you know the suspect has a scar on his wrist--and a laundry mark in his clothes that gives him away? You've never seen him before and you've only been on the force 24 hours!" The cool reply? "It's just that I know! I can tell you no more!" Oddly enough, the second detective has a strange profile directly behind his own that shows a green, heavy-browed and hairless head. Visible only to the reader, this is obviously our tip-off that this is the Martian Manhunter.
The story begins as most good science fiction tales do, in a laboratory. Professor Mark Erdel, world-famous scientist is laboring away on his invention, a robot brain that will allow him to explore the cosmos and probe other dimensions. Resplendent in his white lab coat, gray walrus mustache and one dark continuous eyebrow, he hits the button to see what will happen. After producing a light and sound show in the laboratory, the machine abruptly brings an alien figure into the lab in a brilliant flash of light. Green- skinned and wearing a rather brief costume consisting of black trunks, blue boots and matching blue cape and a red belt with red crossed "suspenders" over his chest, we see for the first time J'onn J'onzz. By all appearances he is markedly larger than the professor by at least a couple of feet. Another interesting thing to note is that this original incarnation of the Manhunter has such a looming brow that you literally cannot see his eyes but only shadows. Long time readers of Detective and the Justice League of America will know that he didn't stay that way for long. The first remarkable trait he demonstrates is his ability to read Dr. Erdel's mind. Fortunately he speaks colloquial English and explains that he understands the professor's every thought and word. He explains that he is from the fourth planet from the sun and is a scientist on Mars. (Nifty outfits those Martian scientists wear, eh?) He gives his name and then asks how he came to be on Earth. Dr. Erdel quickly explains that it was via his new invention. J'onn politely requests that he be transported back and the doc then explains that in order to do so he would have to change the thinking plot of the brain, a process which could take years. Rather poor planning on his part if you ask me, but our new Martian guest takes things in stride and states that he will need to alter his appearance in order to keep from frightening the populace. We soon see that Mr. J'onzz has the power to metamorphasize his body into a very reasonable facsimile of an earth being. He explains that all inhabitants of his planet have this ability. Unfortunately we learn in the very next panel that the doc has a weak heart and that all the excitement has been a bit too much. J'onn suggests that he has access to a serum that could save the scientist if he could just get back to Mars, but Erdel reminds him that it would take time to reverse the thinking plot of the brain and that he has accidentally stranded the alien on Earth. He asks forgiveness as he fades away. The Manhunter can only reply with a Mr. Spock like answer. "And I am helpless."
After the professor's passing, J'onn gazes toward the stars and muses that on his home planet they are working on a project that will carry passengers between worlds, but that it's completion date is uncertain at best, ensuring his being marooned for the foreseeable future. Deciding to accept his fate and make the best of things, he dons an overcoat, assesses his appearance in the mirror and decides that his native name of J'onn J'onzz is close enough to John Jones to be an apt alias. How he knew about common earth names is anyone's guess, though he did mention his mind-reading ability at the beginning of the story, so maybe he did a little covert research. So, satisfied with his new guise, he goes forth to explore this new planet. His first stop is at the seashore where he shows us yet another remarkable talent, which is the ability to extract gold particles from the ocean by concentrating his mind over matter skill. Now that he's got some walking around money, he does just that and over the next few days our new resident alien visits some of the major landmarks including the skyscrapers of what I presume is New York City and the Arch of Triumph in France. Later he is walking through the streets and marvels at the "ancient wheeled vehicles" when one of them bears down on him but passes directly through. Another power. John Jones had been unconsciously walking around in his extra-terrestrial form, making him phantom-like. He was both invisible and without substance. Regaining his corporeal presence, he notes that Earth still suffers with social problems that have long since been eradicated on his home planet of Mars, particularly crime. This inspires an idea in the creature from another world. He decides to become a crime-fighter while he waits for a way to return to his home. Entering the local police precinct, he simply asks to become a detective. The desk sergeant agrees to send him to see the Lieutenant and begins to light up a smoke. J'onn then reveals, via another handy thought balloon that as a Martian he is vulnerable to fire, their sole weakness. In the final two panels of this short, six-page story, John is in the office of the Chief of detectives who agrees that he's qualified to become a detective and that he'll officially be on the force tomorrow. What J'onn used as credentials is a mystery, but obviously it was enough. The reader is then invited to join the Martian Manhunter in the next issue of Detective Comics as he tackles his first official case.
So there you have the first appearance of the Manhunter from Mars, the soon-to- be regular backup feature in Batman's flagship Detective Comics. While J'onn J'onzz succeeded where many of his predecessors failed, he never did get a magazine of his own. Still, he was in Detective comics for a long period of time before being shifted over as the regular back-up feature in House of Mystery comics. He was also a founding member of the Justice League of America and could be seen doing guest spots in the Brave and the Bold title (particularly with Green Arrow, one of my prior reviews here at the Sage) and at least one team-up with the Flash among others.
One of the interesting contrasts between J'onn and the other alien heroes of the era was his need, due to his vastly different physical appearance, to operate in secret. Kryptonians and refugees from Thanagar looked exactly like earthlings, so they could function openly, but poor ol' J'onn didn't have that luxury at least until quite a bit later. Another thing that I found of interest was that this character was introduced, right from the get-go with a large variety of powers and skills, but in most of the later stories I've read, to include his feats in the Justice League, you would think he had only a few. The ability to fly, above-average strength and the vaunted Martian breath. So what you often had was a super-strong flying blowhard, which kind of bothered me. On reflection he's almost been placed in the position of being a poor man's Superman. It seems to me that the writers often diminished a pretty good character with plenty of potential by making him just an auxiliary member of the JLA and/or another self-appointed guardian of a city with a silly orange-colored alien sidekick named "Zook" taking on either campy, Dick Tracy type villains (witness the over-sized cranium on Professor Hugo, for instance) or thugs from Mars. I don't think J'onn was allowed to develop as much as he could have and perhaps that was a contributing factor to his never having a title to call his own.
Be that as it may, the Martian Manhunter has had staying power, despite what would appear to be a stacked deck. J'onn J'onzz was a groundbreaker for the Silver Age and he has been woven into enough titles and storylines to be a memorable and important character. I rate this debut with a solid 9. As always I'm interested in your opinions and thoughts, too, so feel free to send them to me at email@example.com. If your notions are of the briefer variety, I'd invite you to visit the guest book and you can always sign up for the free mailing list so you are notified of my next effort. See you again in about two weeks with the next edition of the Silver Age Sage.
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