REVIEW: Martian Manhunter #1 is a twisted reinvention of a great DCU character

Martian Manhunter #1 is out 12/5.

By Zack Quaintance — Martian Manhunter is a character that the writers of superhero comics (especially in recent years) seem conflicted about how best to portray. Is he a former member of the Justice League? A current member? Some kind of willing governmental operative? These are ideas that in recent years have been put into play. What remains unchanging, however, is that The Manhunter is one of the most powerful heroes in the DC Universe, of a tier with Wonder Woman and Superman, and, furthermore, ol’ J’onn J’onzz has a compelling backstory in many ways more motivating, tragic, and formative than even Superman’s (although, suffering is relative and so is one’s response). MM is also forever in control of the same powers. Among other things, he is strong, telepathic, regenerative, and capable of shape-shifting, which is perhaps fitting given how pliant his role in the DC Universe has become.

To me this all makes for a unique character, loaded in equal parts with gravitas and narrative potential. His long list of capabilities and specifications is perhaps part of the reason writers spent the New 52 trying him in various roles, looking for a fit. One thing that’s immediately clear in Steve Orlando and Riley Rossmo’s Martian Manhunter #1 (first of a 12-part maxiseries) is this book will alleviate confusion over J’onn’s current backstory, motivations, and problems, showing us his daily life before and after coming to Earth...while also being unafraid to twist what we think we know about the character. It’s that fearlessness I find most compelling.

It’s just such a welcome dual re-invention and elucidation for a great character, and it’s one being told by an eager and capable team. The results here are strong. This first issue certainly doesn’t lack ambition. Rossmo’s art is almost revelatory, as pliant and amorphous as the shapeshifting character himself. It really made me think of MM differently, giving me a better understanding of how it must feel to maintain a constant and unnatural bi-pedal shape, which to my mind serves as a metaphor for J’onn’s entire life on Earth. Rossmo’s linework here is also quite versatile, depicting hardboiled detective scenes as well as blobby martian love-making sessions. It’s nice to see, a break with DC house style used to reflect qualities of the central character and story, much as Mitch Gerads’ recent career work did for Mister Miracle. Indeed, this issue leaves one with the sense that Rossmo and Rossmo alone was meant to draw this story, lest it suffer reductions in power and scope.

Orlando meanwhile has been at the top of his game in recent weeks. His Electric Warriors #1 was one of the top new #1 comics of November. Martian Manhunter #1 is similar, in that it is very much of the DC Universe, just executed in a way that has perhaps not been done within any of the publishers recent titles. The script and plotting for this issue checks all the narrative boxes—we know who our hero is, what our hero wants, and why he has been called to action—while also plunging us into a compelling mystery. I won’t go into too much detail, but the story also enables Orlando to write scenes that play to his regular thematic strengths: swaggering antiheroism, hidden truths, and secrets that put one’s family in jeopardy. I highly recommend this comic for all fans of the Manhunter, plus also DCU readers looking for a powerful story unafraid to delve into spaces that are hauntingly off beat.  

Overall: Orlando and Rossmo are the creative team Martian Manhunter has long deserved, and the debut issue of this 12-part maxiseries is a great one. Simply put, this is a book bent on telling readers who J’onn J’onzz is right now and why, and it’s going to take us through one hell of a mystery to get there. 9.5/10

Martian Manhunter #1
Steve Orlando
Artist: Riley Rossmo
Colorist: Ivan Plascencia
Letterer: Deron Bennett
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $3.99

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Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.