Martian Manhunter: Son of Mars by John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake – Comic Review [Bellarius]
Picking up another comic devoted to a legendary Justice League figure, Bellarius examines the creation of John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake – Martian Manhunter: Son of Mars.
“An excellent introduction to the life and times of J’onn J’onzz, but suffering from failings of its era.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
No matter how famous and how outstanding the team, it’s unfortunate that many iconic figures within comics often go so overlooked by the public. When it comes to the X-Men, the majority of the characters people can name will be from their downsized numbers from the 90s animated series. When it comes to the Avengers, few people will be able to name anyone who has not had a film about them, often calling any other interpretation wrong (such as prior incarnations of Iron Man, who used to speak the English language rather than snark and cultural references.) The Justice League is the same, with few decades old characters having little pop culture status and often being overlooked at best, or known for some horribly inaccurate internet jokes at worst. It’s for these reasons that collections like Son of Mars have a place in history, delivering a definitive look into a character, his methods, and his motivations.
Set in the wake of the attempted White Martian invasion and Injustice Gang plot in JLA, Son of Mars follows the Martian Manhunter as he tries to hold the world together. Initially taking down comparatively minor threats to the league such as city destroying automata and rogue genocidal cyborgs, J’onn begins to realise something or someone is targeting him specifically. As longtime compatriots are killed with methods which mark him as the killer and crimes framing him begin to emerge, the Manhunter must uncover the true criminal before it is too late.
In just about every basic respect, Son of Mars contains everything a new reader would want in order to understand who and what the pre-New 52 Martian Manhunter was. Along with easing readers into the general world of superheroes, Ostrander goes out of his way to establish as much about the martian as possible.
While the story quickly covers his origins and history on Mars, it also spends the two initial stories as isolated incidents which establish his powers, skills and how he operates. The latter is certainly the most interesting part as, behind Batman and The Question, the Manhunter is the best detective on the team and has the best skill-set for certain investigations. Between invisibility, metamorphosis and mind-reading, it’s not hard to see why, but the comic soon pushes it further. J’onn himself has a keenly deductive mind and the comic displays him using a number of fake identities across the world, allowing him to more freely investigate certain matters and pick up information without reading the minds of others. This might sound like something basic, but the story does go the extra mile in seeing what kind of tales can be told with the Manhunter and the greater scope behind his adventures. Unlike other heroes, he’s still earthbound but not focused upon Gotham, Metropolis, Central City or the like, allowing for far more global tales.
When the story does begin to move into a more detailed arc over the initial episodic events, it builds upon the seeds already sown right from the start. As such, while the lighter and more individual tales help you get used to the character, the sudden shift into an ongoing tale doesn’t come out of nowhere. In many respects it’s similar to what many TV series to do great effect, and it really does work here, providing a bit more range and variety of stories than usual. It’s also important to note that this avoids the mistake of adding these after the big event and making them feel meaningless or tacked on; a common problem found in the likes of the Thanos Imperative and the first volume of the New 52 Aquaman.
J’onn himself is certainly a likable enough of a character despite his alien nature, and the trade does place emphasis his position as an outsider at many points along with the baggage of what he last saw on Mars. This might not be entirely clear first, but that is because of what the story has to convey. The writing has to balance the fact he has a history beyond the earth, horrific acts which have still left their scarring but he has moved past, and the fact that while an outsider he has been around humans for long enough to mostly get them. In this respect it works, but it can easily feel as if it’s not pressing far enough with its main driving events at first.
Unfortunately the same sort of kudos cannot be given to the supporting cast, as those it sets up for J’onn himself are barely noteworthy at best. There’s no definite side characters or rogue’s gallery set up beyond one admittedly menacing figure, and it instead relies heavily upon the Justice League to provide variety. While the Justice League themselves are good, they can easily feel as if they are detracting from the focus on J’onn’s world at times and it highlights a bigger problem – Rather than begin an independent series, the comic at this time was really a JLA spin-off. A vast amount of what’s present within its pages is either working off prior JLA events or requires the reader to have some knowledge of recent arcs. While understandable given the Martian related crisis, there’s no real recap of events which can leave some readers initially confused.
What also doesn’t help is that many sudden changes also go unexplained, such as Superman initially appearing as his traditional self, then again in his electric blue form, and then once again back as normal. If readers had no knowledge of that brief phase in his existence, they would be lucky to know that was supposed to be Superman or what was going on.
The final big problem is that the art more than anything else. While it’s hardly bad, Mandrake’s style does have an oddly oily appearance which takes some definite getting used to. A big part of this is due to the colouring, but shades of the more excessive elements of 90s art do show through. It’s certainly nothing Liefeldian, and thankfully never falls to such a low quality, but the different style can be off-putting. Especially if readers are more familiar with the ultra-realistic appearances Marvel and DC Comics push for these days.
At the end of the day Martian Manhunter: Son of Mars is not the greatest comic about the character ever written, but it’s none the less a very definitive introduction to his world and an excellent retelling of his origins. Those interested in the character or DC Comics of this era could do far worse than pick this out, and it remains an entertaining read.