Monday, August 14, 2006

Martian Manhunter #1
by A.J. Lieberman and Al Barrionuevo

The most curious thing to me about the latest installment in a seemingly unending series of Martian Manhunter relaunches is why I am reviewing it at all. If that sounds unusually harsh, allow me to explain: I do not often receive packages in the mail from DC Comics. To be perfectly honest, I do not even know how the people at DC got my address. There was no promotional material included with this comic, just the book itself in a simple brown envelope (for future reference if whomever at DC is reading this, please put some sort of cardboard insert inside the envelope or send the book in a thicker package, because the book that reached me looked as if it had been mangled by the Samsonite monkey). I don't know who in the DC organization thought it would be a good idea to send me this comic -- which is slightly disconcerting, as I like to know just who is sending me things. For all intents and purposes this copy of Martian Manhunter #1 materialized out of thin air when the UPS man put it in my hands. I like getting free stuff, I don't want to give you the wrong idea, but I am simply at a loss to understand why this comic in particular is being promoted in such a manner.

You would be hard-pressed to find a major character from either major company who has been so consistently mismanaged as the Martian Manhunter -- all the which is more curious when one considers that he has also been an almost-constant presence in the books, unlike folks like the Red Tornado and the Atom who have a habit of simply disappearing for years at a time when no one has any use for them. Aside from a brief spike in interest around the premiere of his last solo series in the late 90s (produced by the Spectre team of John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake), the character has never carried a successful solo vehicle. He's been a mainstay of the Justice League for the past thirty some years (he sat out much of the team's Bronze Age adventures but has been in almost every other League), and it is in this capacity that the character is most fondly remembered. Every few years someone has launched some kind of All New, All Different Martian Manhunter vehicle, and every single one has disappeared into the shifting Martian sands. I am not an expert in the character's history, but it has seemed at times as if every new writer to put his stamp on the character has only succeeded in muddying the waters further by adding new elements which, at times, flatly contradicted previous interpretations. It doesn't help that the character's origin was convoluted from the get-go, and succeeding generations of creators have only made matters worse. Even Captain Marvel, for all the apathy that has greeted the character's modern-day incarnation, can point to Jerry Ordway's Power of Shazam revamp as having provided a semi-successful update for a notoriously difficult property. They were able to successfully revive Hawkman, for God's sake -- for those young-uns in the audience who may not remember, there was a time when merely the word "Hawkman" was synonymous with unrelenting failure.

It's not as if the Martian Manhunter couldn't be cool. Fittingly, his character was one of the highlights of the recent Justice League cartoon. As they had done with so many other characters, the folks behind the cartoon managed to sift all the unnecessary crap from the character and stick with only the crucial elements: an alien alone on earth, immensely powerful but preferring to use stealth and intelligence over brawn and bluster, as strangely at home in low-key urban settings as space-opera adventure. Why has the really cool J'ohn 'J'onzz from the cartoon been such a difficult beast to pin down in the comics themselves? Is it simply that the character only really works in a team milieu, and any attempt at placing him in a solo setting is doomed to failure?

I don't believe that to be the case, but the new Martian Manhunter series is not going to change any minds in this regard. This is, in almost every way conceivable, as mind-numbingly mediocre a comic as can be imagined. In no way is it bad, merely aggressively average. This is apparently part of a promotion involving a post-Infinite Crisis sales initiatives called Brave New World. I didn't read the loss-leading promotional book that they released ahead of the new launches, so I don't know whether or not the Manhunter story in that volume was a separate prelude or merely an excerpt from this book, but I would be willing to bet it was a new story. Because I'll be damned if reading this comic doesn't sometimes feel as if I'm coming in during the second reel of a movie, with some small but crucial details being unfortunately left out of the information on display. Would it have made more sense if I had read the Brave New World material? Maybe, but I doubt it would have made it any better.

There's some sort of shadowy pseudo-government conspiracy involved in something sinister concerning another member of the Manhunter's long-dead Martian race. There are people who I do not recognize doing things for which I cannot ascribe motivations other than those which spring to mind merely by dint of having read almost-identical characters in almost-identical circumstances in literally hundreds of other books. The Martian Manhunter himself shows a bit of interesting characterization in the story -- he's obviously been shaken by recent events in the DCU, enough so that his whole attitude towards humanity has changed, along with his appearance. I remember a story from an old JLI-era annual where it was stated that the Manhunter's true Martian form was something he kept very private and only showed to his closest confidants, so seeing him in his martian form is a good clue for long-time readers that the character has actually undergone a significant change.

But unfortunately, there's just not enough reason given to really care what these changes were. There are elliptical comments made and some fuzzy references to recent crossover events, but as is so often the case with these things, any real character work gets pasted over by fait accompli. The goal is, I would guess, not to explore how or why the character feels what he feels but merely to put the slightly-altered character through his paces, establishing a new status quo for the property without really exerting themselves. That's to be expected, but it is also pretty damn unimaginative. It's foolish to compare a book like this to the Platonic ideal in our minds of what a perfect Martian Manhunter comic book would be, but the temptation is strong in this instance because it is hard to imagine any hypothetical book that could make a less imaginative use of the Manhunter's unique backstory and character.

I doubt I can really lay the book's failure at writer A.J. Lieberman's feet: a book like this is most likely the result of editorial fiat as much as creative inspiration. There's just nothing interesting here, none of the individual quirks or temperamental discrepancies that can make even the most formulaic superhero books enjoyable in the hands of a wily practitioner. Barrionuevo's work brings to mind nothing so much as the phrase "Not Quite Ready For Prime Time". The pages are filled with the kind of exasperating shortcuts and obfuscations used by journeyman artists to cover up a basic lack of craft. All of which points to a book that, far from being a linchpin in a major promotional initiative, appears to have been shuffled into existence because someone thought that there needed to be a Martian Manhunter comic book at this particular time.

Which brings me back to the basic question at the beginning of this review: why did they send me a copy of this comic? Logically, you would expect any comic received in such a manner to be significant in some way -- why else would they want to send it to a blogger if they didn't think there was something about which it was worth it to get the word out? Obviously the book met some sort of internal quality standards or it wouldn't have been published, but it plateaus at a level of basic competence that just scream indifference -- hardly the type of product you would expect to receive a big push in the fickle world of comic book blogging. While the blogosphere has proven valuable to certain indie publishers as a means of attracting crucial buzz for small-scale product launches, it has proven almost negligible in terms of providing any kind of support for underperforming mainstream titles -- else Sleeper and Manhunter would be outselling Wolverine by a factor of ten. I suppose sending a few dozen copies of the book in question to a group of bloggers could never hurt, but I am still left wondering, why? If DC was going to randomly send me a copy of something, why not something I might actually enjoy and want to get behind? Like the owl licking the Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pop, the world may never know.

No comments :