Wednesday, April 15, 2009

J'onn J'onzz, International Super-Spy and Bon Vivant

J'onn gets a bad rap in most comics-- a lot of books have portrayed him as a pathetic reflection of TNG's Data, spending all his time trying to wrap his hugely-browed green head around the oddities of human nature and whining that he can't connect with anyone. Conversely, in the 2-3 years leading up to his death, he was portrayed as a hero who was sick of playing nicey-nice among the humans and was after his own brand of Martian justice in a world that would never accept him, like a green Marv with a shitty black latex costume. And that's when the writers cared to give him a personality at all-- more often than not, the Martian Manhunter was composed of the worst aspects of Superman and Batman and pretty much lived to play the role of whichever of the two just couldn't make it to the JLA meeting because he was crippled or dead or some other bullshit excuse-- a hardcase strategist who'd do what it takes to bring bad guys to justice, or a limitlessly powerful living weapon from another world. It may be unfair to say this of a shapeshifting mind-reader, but he got saddled with playing other people's roles quite a bit, I think. So it's time to lay down the law as to what J'onn is really like...

First of all, he gets humanity. It may have taken him a while to get past the idea of a race who are stuck with one form for their whole existence and who can only communicate verbally, and thus, lie, but we're all carbon-based, we share a dependence on the same star and on water; given the decades that J'onn's been here, I think it's safe to say he generally knows how any single human being ticks without even having to peek into his/her psyche. So he's not a whiner or an armchair philosopher by nature. Now, while he understands human nature, that doesn't mean he likes it. Considering how the First World (i.e. the Man) treats, well, brown people across the world, as a green guy, he hates racism, tribalism and all forms of factionalism, across the board, in almost the same way that an adult with no children hates to hear a toddler complain about being denied his favorite flavor of yogurt. The Martians were an ancient race that had hit a plateau thousands of years before J'onn was even born (btw, he's probably around 500 years old in the way we reckon time). The Pale Martians that attacked Earth at different points in the past would be, to J'onn, like Alexander the Great coming back to life, commandeering NATO and taking over the Northern Hemisphere... he knows his people when he sees them (feels them, scans them, whatever), but he was still taken aback by his own ancient history walking back into real life. Anyway, the Martians as a race, by J'onn's time, were as united as independent sentients could be. They'd evolved past ideological divisions, past expansionist interstellar colonisation. Had the plagues and fires not done them in, J'onn's people would have faded quietly into the red sands before humanity's first ships arrived there. That's where Professor Erdel's retarded super-telescope comes in.

J'onn had just bid his family goodbye as they and a handful of the rest of the Martian population fled into what we call the Phantom Zone when he was transported-- through space AND time, mind you, because when J'onn last set foot on Mars the Earth was like a fascinating nature preserve to them, with a global human population of around ten million-- to an observatory just outside of Denver, Colorado in early 1960. There's something dreadfully wrong with that picture and if J'onn ever found out what, he certainly hasn't mentioned it to anyone. Think about it: Professor Erdel was somehow so bad at repairing a radio telescope, he turned it into a remote-controlled time-laser. It's like Forge got hit on the head with a bowling ball Fred Flintstone-style and started turning Cerebro into a bong. Er, anyway.

Following that I imagine the events of The New Frontier (minus the JLA who didn't appear til decades later) happening for J'onn- trying to fit in, mixing it up with King Faraday and the OSS/CIA, all that. But afterwards, I don't see him trying his hand at being a superhero-- at least, not often. I like the look of a green guy in a black suit-- J'onn B'ond, if you will. I can see him working as a spy for American interests throughout the '60s and '70s, up until the resurgence of supercrime that presaged the arrival of Superman. Once he appeared and the story of Krypton got out, J'onn saw a new way to be of service to his adopted world. And yet, that's not half the story. J'onn has traveled all over the Earth dozens of times, not always in service to the US. He made a good show of things for the brass in Washington, but he's been a spy for every side in every region of the world. He has dozens of identities, hundreds of contacts. It's how (as I stated above) he's grown to understand humanity so well. After all, we often forget that he's as fast and strong as Superman, as clever as Batman and as dedicated as Wonder Woman. While Detective John Jones is the identity he settled into during the Silver Age, he keeps up appearances in other hometowns around the globe, gathering information and occasionally letting the US (or Chinese, or Venezuelan, or Egyptian, or hell, the Vatican) government put it to use. Why? Is he playing all of them against each other? Using them for his own inevitable power play? It may seem that way sometimes-- cynical. Machiavellian, even. But those adjectives don't really stick. The worst word you could apply to J'onn, and this is when you really want to stretch the truth, is patronizing. He views short-lived, short-sighted, good-intentioned humans as needing protection, as well as guidance, while they work things out for themselves (at what seems like a glacial pace to a culture of telepaths who can figure out in an hour what's best for society). But really, all that that means is he's fiercely protective of a species he knows hasn't reached its full potential yet. If he could give every human the "powers" native to every Martian, he would in a heartbeat.

The fact that he's able to open his heart and mind to humanity at all in the face of his losses-- wife, child, homeworld-- is admirable. That he puts his life on the line for us every day, and is as famous and beloved in the Southern Hemisphere as Superman is in the USA is astonishing. That he still finds time to volunteer at homeless shelters, to share Oreos with children awaiting flood relief, and to rent movies with the shut-in woman across the hall in his building once a week, is mind-blowing. Like a D&D elf, he doesn't need to sleep, at least not nearly as much as humans-- an hour or two every hundred hours just about does him.

Fire is still a problem. I hate that J'onn's vulnerability to it varies from writer to writer about as much as a vampire's vulnerability to it. So how about this: Martians fear fire in the same nearly-unshakeable way that 21st-century humans fear the very mention of the phrases "nuclear warhead" or "weapons-grade uranium." And as far as naturally-occurring elements (in the ancient definition I guess, as opposed to the periodic table definition) go, again, it's about as rare. Mars's atmosphere is 95%(ish) CO2. Fire can't really exist for long there. Lava and lightning were about as close to fire as any Martian was likely to ever see. Martian culture evolved without fire-- as beings who can control the very shape of their minds and bodies, including nerve endings, they were able to control the thresholds at which they felt "heat" and "cold" as we know them. So while J'onn's physical form can adapt to both flame and radioactive elements (the use of which were a brief and shameful footnote in Martian history), the psychological reaction to fire, in particular, is a bit harder to control and defuse. Kryptonite may physically, literally sap the solar reserves from Superman's cells and render him powerless, but fire robs the Martian Manhunter of his reason, his confidence and his all-important self-control, thus leading some to believe that it literally takes his powers away. Not so. As long as he has a spare moment to collect his thoughts and recommit himself to what he's doing, J'onn can phase through a burning building to save your cat, beat the hell out of Heatwave, whatever. But he needs that spare moment, and if a resourceful villain knows not to give it to him, J'onn's going to spend a few minutes as a green, telepathic puddle.

So, to sum up: he's not the green, half-naked Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman fill-in. He's best used as a spy and/or tactician-- not because he's not great in the field, but as long as we've got Superman and Green Lantern out there, let's have someone in the background who's smarter than either of them coordinating their assault with what Batman's just figured out back in the lab. He does a lot of what Superman and Wonder Woman and GL would call "dirty work" or "spying" and what Batman and Green Arrow and Black Canary would call "necessary" or "research." On Earth he quickly learned how to hide. He reconciles the telepath (who feels sullied by lying) with the shapeshifter (who instinctively knows the value of camouflage) as he uses his human identities (he never calls them "disguises") to learn more about the human condition. He understands people, he likes people, he's good with people-- but the distance he feels from them (compared to fellow alien Superman) is the difference between "across the river" and "across the ocean". He was raised somewhere else. Had a family and a career somewhere else. And now he hangs out on a planet of smelly, murderous apes a good two feet shorter than him who can't communicate clearly to save their lives and are never more than five minutes away from turning on him and any other alien (or human) not as attractive and congenial as Superman. But he wants to close that distance. He believes that it can be closed just as the gap between any two humans can be closed. He wants Earth to be a little more like Mars. Is that a crime? J'onn doesn't think so. And after all, he's a detective.

Like Cooper in Twin Peaks, but more believable.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


So I bought a bunch of non-Marvel, non-DC comics last month and I've been itching to get blitzed and give a report on them. So here goes nothing. Nothin' but a thang.

Madman: Atomic Comics! #’s 10 & 13

I don’t know what the hell’s going on here. I guess I should have tried harder to find issue 1 like I did with most of these other books, but I just went for the lowest numbers on the shelf. I remember reading the original Madman miniseries in high school, but when the character who’s just a head in a jar has a body, you know you’ve missed some shit.
C'mon Mike, I miss the '90s too, but be reasonable.
The upside? Mike Allred’s art is mind-blowing, surreal and (thanks to his wife) colorful; his characters are beautiful, simple yet iconic, better than Bruce Timm and maybe even Darwyn Cooke. Besides Frank (Madman), Joe (his girlfriend), and the Doc (the head-no-longer-in-a-jar guy), I don’t recognize any of the characters, at least two of which look like the bastard offspring of The Grimace. There are some interesting plot twists about Frank’s former life (he’s kind of a sentient zombie), and a member of the Atomics having his brain replaced, and it’s cool but nothing’s grabbing me except the art. If the price hadn’t suddenly gotten jacked up to $3.50 on issue 13 I might have gotten 14. As it is, I gotta drop it. Sorry Mike.

Mister X: Condemned # 1 of 4

Okay, opposite problem here. The concept and plot (what there is of it in 20 pages of a first issue) are interesting enough to hook me, even if I don’t really know which characters to root for, if any, seeing as how the title character is only in one panel… But the art. Damn. Apparently the first two volumes of Mister X featured art by Los Bros. Hernandez and Dave McKean, so, holy shit, but… apparently the creator, Dean Motter, has taken it upon himself to pencil this miniseries."Lang? Never heard of him."

So let’s call that Mistake #1. Possibly it takes up Mistakes 2-10, too. I really can’t stand to look at such amateur characters and pacing. The architecture looks cool, sure—it was inspired by Metropolis (Fritz Lang’s, not Superman’s) and it’s kind of the bedrock of the story—but the people and the way they move both look like shit. A guy with a really steady hand and MS Paint could do most of this stuff. Maybe he did. Dropped. Although I may look up the Archives that have the Hernandez/McKean art.

Mouse Guard: Winter: 1152 # 4-5

Neither art nor story really disappoints here. I got a smaller case of WTFitis than with Madman, in part because I was able to pick up on a few familiar medieval-epic tropes in the story, and in part because there’s little enough dialogue that I was mostly just following the action (which was about 500% better in its pacing and panel-to-panel storytelling than Mister X). So there are five or six main Mouse Guards we’re following in the course of two issues, as they fight owls and bats on their journey home from the weasel kingdom. I guess I only have one real complaint here, and that’s that it’s over too quickly. I’d like to pick this up in a collection; the single issues feel like too little at a time. I can only imagine what it’s like to actually collect this. I might pick up the next issue of this if it comes out in the foreseeable future (I’m told that that’s a problem).

"Mossflower? No. Can't say I've heard of him."

"Sorry, pal. Nobody named Mossflower here. Hope you find him."

The Mice Templar #6

Why the sudden proliferation of cute(ish) animals in desperate, pathetic, depressing and messed-up situations? It makes for cool comics, but it kind of gets to you watching mice suffer while wearing clothes and wielding weapons. Mice Templar is a little more wordy and its plot is a great deal more intricate than Mouse Guard, so they’re different enough to appeal to different people. They’re by no means in cahoots to corner the cute-animal-comics market (which probably is not really that big of a market… er, yet). Oeming’s art is different here than in Powers, but in a good way that’s probably more just the effect of him doing a different genre. I can’t remember the names of the characters and I don’t know everything that’s going on, but there’s just enough crazy epic medieval stuff to hook me. Keeper.

Hellboy: The Wild Hunt

Hrm. Seeing as how I’ve bought half of the eight-issue run already, I may well go ahead and finish it up. But if I’d only bought the first two? I’d have been out in a heartbeat. This is just my personal tastes, mind you. In general, I like Mike Mignola & Co.’s stuff. But, with X-Men as my first love, I can’t help but have a preoccupation with ensemble casts as opposed to extended stories with only one (already well-established) character. So watching Hellboy have yet another craaaazy situation foisted upon him after he’s left the BPRD because he’s tired of dealing with craaaazy situations is kind of lame. It’s like an action movie with just the tired old cop who’s a month away from retiring, with no rookie with something to prove all going in without backup. See what I mean? Premise: Evil spirits have awakened some hot naked magic chick in a red cloak. Solution: Hellboy punches giants to death. Side plot: Hellboy punches pixies and leprechauns to death. I can appreciate the Celtic flavor to it, but it feels very similar to other Hellboy stuff. I mean, don’t get me wrong, at the ripe old age of 24 I’m sick of pretty much everything—so Magneto’s gotten his powers back in the new issue of Uncanny. Jesus Christ, that’s only the fourth time since 1993 that he’s “come back”! Woooo, I’m so excited! Well, I am, but more about Terry Moore’s renditions of Emma Frost (p.s., seriously, no one else should ever be allowed to draw Emma Frost ever again, ever.) Matt Fraction, you could be doing better, and you should be. Colossus is sad? Big whoop. His Joss Whedon girlfriend died. I’d be sad if I were dating Jewel Staite or Morena Baccarin and she died to save the planet, too.
Er… anyway. I’m willing to see where “The Wild Hunt” goes, but I think they missed a big opportunity in issue one, when the leader of the wild hunt, whose duty it is to represent Herne, the Horned God (pagan big ups there), was just a guy wearing a big hollowed-out taxidermified stag’s head, instead of being some creepy mystical immortal dude with a giant stag’s head. Er, for a head. My interest in the story kind of crested and then fell right there.
But, his new goal of saving the life of his obligatory hot magic Irish girlfriend and the obligatory big reveal of the forces of good that are helping him this time is enough to keep me interested. Did I say already that Duncan Fegredo’s art is great enough that I thought it was Mike Mignola? Because it is. My only quarrels are with the story, if that says anything. Mister X is clearly a bit of a fluke. Shit, even The End League had decent art. I think. I don’t think I still have that one issue. I think I gave it back. I didn’t even want my money back. I just put it back on the shelf.

This is already a better story than the one I paid for.

BPRD: The Black Goddess # 1-3

This is a bit more like it. The cast of BPRD is a little more interesting than Hellboy, foil, antagonist. And what’s more, they introduce the characters in the first issue and then leave it to you to figure out the plot in issue #1. As a writer friend of mine, Matt Ross, and many others before him have said, if people like/care about the characters, the plot is secondary. And that’s exactly the problem with some of those “update pages” where before they start the issue they catch you up with what’s going on. Turn me onto the characters first and you’ve already won more than half the battle. Am I alone in this? Anyway. There’s some immortal reincarnated guy who’s guarded by a city full of what may be Buddhist monks who are also were-Yetis—so far, so awesome—and he’s (maybe?) holding Liz the Pyrokinetic hostage, or else she came there of her own free will. I can’t really tell from the story so far, but she’s levitating in the inner sanctum of Immortal Guy’s temple and she’s not opening her eyes or talking. And apparently she and Memnan Saa (immortal guy) are the only hope for the Earth not being overrun by frog-people. Apparently this is the second or third part in a trilogy of stories, which makes me wish that Mignola and Davis and their people would number their goddamn comics in a more comprehensible fashion. I know that limited series have their place, and every story deserves its own title, but can we have some sort of order that’s evident on the single issues, not just sequential numbers on the trade paperbacks? I’d be confused if I actually gave a shit. As it stands, the stakes seem to be rather higher in this series than in Hellboy’s current miniseries, so I feel a little more invested in it though I’m reasonably satisfied that there will be no frog-related incursions into our world anytime soon. Cue banking crisis-related joke that I’m not smart or sober enough to make here. Done.

The Umbrella Academy: Dallas # 1 & 2

Is this supposed to be funny?
I realize that’s usually a high school principal’s line, but I’m honestly uncertain after a quarter of an average human lifetime spent reading DC and Marvel comics—are these talking, dancing chimps juxtaposed with ruthless hitmen in cartoon-character masks, hardboiled vigilantes and esoterically-powered heroes supposed to be funny, or not? That makes all the difference for us critics of literature between Larry Hama and Larry the Cable Guy, between Frank Miller and Frank Capra, between R. Kelly and Tim & Eric. Without that simple declaration of intent, for every ten of us that declare it a work of absurdist genius, another ten will decry it as absolute junk.
As of right now, I’m a little lost. The idea is that a rich old s.o.b. named Hargreeves adopted seven superpowered children in the ‘60s, and today they’re barely-functioning psychos who can manage to keep it together long enough to save the planet but can’t get along with each other to save their lives. I’d love to give the creators behind Frisky Dingo a crack at this premise. Maybe they’d make it workable, but even then that’s a lot of pressure to put on them. It’s just that I can’t think of any other work of fiction with such a retarded premise that managed to make the plot work for the characters. And Frisky Dingo was hilarious. This is… well… crap. I hate to dump on a critically-acclaimed musician, but I bet if Elvis Costello tried his hand at Green Lantern Corps, he’d suck, too. I think Umbrella Academy was better off in Gerard Way’s head where it made some kind of goddamn sense to anyone who didn’t get to read the first five issues! See, this is what I was talking about with BPRD—describe the characters and let us pick up on the story as it goes! Not the other way around! So Number Five has been missing for years and Spaceboy is stuck in a giant monkey’s body! So what? If you can’t make me care about those characters, and make me care really damn fast, I’m going to go waste my money on yet another book full of Dawn pin-ups instead! At least then I can jerk off and have something to show for the money I spent! And P.S., what is your preoccupation with apes? What are you, eight years old? I thought The Black Parade was all about accepting death or some grand, noble theme like that; where does a chimp in a tuxedo fit into that equation? I haven’t found monkeys in human clothes to be so damn endearing since I started understanding all the dick jokes in Mallrats.
Okay, I’m rambling, but seriously, if this is supposed to be funny then this is some Andy Kaufman shit, as opposed to say, Andy Samberg. I was happy to find that the second issue made a bit more sense than the first, but I still found myself liking the ruthless killers in cartoon-character masks more than the supposed heroes. If this was an issue of Uncanny X-Men I’d have issued a jihad on Matt Fraction by now. Unless your name is Alan Moore or Warren Ellis, either write superheroes, or don’t. Stop fucking around. Mark Millar, I’m talking to you, too.
NOW do you see why story has to come before art? NOW will you listen?!

Haunted Tank! # 1 & 2

Speaking of absurdism, the fact that this isn’t a retcon, that this was actually a comic book in the fifties, is in itself a triumph for human art. Some guy in the ‘50s wrote WWII stories about a tank commander whose tank is possessed by the spirit of JEB Stuart the CSA cavalry general. No lie. And now some dudes at Vertigo are retooling the story with a black tank commander named Jamal Stuart dealing with a 150-year-old ghost while trying to make it through the deserts of Iraq. The surreality of a man speaking in a no-nonsense tone to a ghost, about why saying “darky” is inappropriate, all while laying waste to a battalion of Iraqi freedom fighters and calling them towelheads, is (contrary to the Umbrella Academy school of humor) obviously hilarious on multiple levels. This is not winning any Hugo Awards or anything like The Sandman, but I’m enjoying myself. Keeper.

Our boys at Normandy did not die in vain.