Comics / DC Comics History

DC Comics History: Martian Manhunter


By Deejay Dayton
Apr 21, 2017 - 10:44

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The debut of the Martian Manhunter is one of the commonly cited points at which the Silver Age began. The character was an interesting blend of a crime series, a science fiction series, and a super hero series. In his earliest stories, J’onn J’onzz was rarely seen in his alien form, and the stories felt more like an intriguing variation of a detective strip. By the end of the period 1955 – 1959: Dawn of the Silver Age, the Martian Manhunter had taken on most of the attributes of a super-hero strip.

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J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, debuts in Detective Comics 225. Joe Samachson and Joe Certa create an extremely powerful character in a really underplayed series. Dr. Erdel creates a teleportation device, aims it at Mars and lets fire, bringing J’onn to Earth. J’onn has barely started demonstrating his extensive powers, showing off his ability to shape change by taking on a human form, when Dr. Erdel suffers a heart attack and dies.  Dr. Erdel is pretty much doomed to appear only in flashbacks and retellings of this scene, but in the 80s they start fleshing out his corpse.

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Erdel’s death leaves J’onn trapped on Earth, until he figures out how to make the machine send him back home. His ability to turn invisible and intangible gets the best visuals.  His various other powers only get shown in later stories.

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He decides to adopt the name John Jones, and get a job as a policeman to help deal with the crime he sees running rampant on Earth.  His ease in doing so, with no proper identification, implies his mind-control powers, as would later be explained. The fact that he so rarely appears as a Martian in this story helps keep it solidly a “detective” story, yet there is clearly something going on here unlike anything being published at this time. 

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J’onn gets involved with gamblers wagering on sports in Detective 226. Throughout this, and most of his early stories, J’onn is almost always shown in human form, with an aura of his Martian self added when he is using his powers.  J’onn learns of gamblers insisting a pitcher throw a game, and decides to make sure his team does not lose.

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This involves using his powers to affect the players and the ball, effectively throwing the game for the side the gamblers were wagering on.  After this, he rounds up the gamblers.  But, you know, he actively controlled the results of the baseball game! I guess this can sort of be excused by his unfamiliarity with Earth ways, although he knew it was important enough for people to bet on.

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In Detective 227 J’onn is put on the case of a killer, and uses his mind reading abilities to “view” the murder, and then pretend to have some eye witness details. The man thinks nothing of having John Jones run down by a car, which of course J’onn survives. He spends the rest of the story tailing the man, using his intangibility to “haunt” him and survive further murder attempts, until the killer finally turns himself in.  Quite a dark story, and so effective as a detective tale, as opposed to a super hero one. But that would begin to change quickly.

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John Jones is tracking a thief, who winds up stealing Dr. Erdel’s machine in Detective 228. J’onn also displays x-ray vision in this story, as he follows his prey. The villain figures out how to send people to Mars using the machine, and J’onn is torn between going home and stopping the bad guy. 

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Dunster breaks the machine before it can be used, adding a sad note to this story. In re-tellings of J’onn’s origin, the machine is always destroyed the same night J’onn arrives and Erdel dies.

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The Martian Manhunter has his abilities clearly catalogued for the first time in Detective Comics 230.  His shape-changing, telepathy, invisibility, intangibility, x-ray vision, super-hearing and strength are all listed and shown.  His weakness, fire, is not mentioned in this piece, but has been referred to in earlier tales.  I only just now realized that he does not seem to have the ability to fly at this point. After the catalogue of powers ends, John discovers he is powerless, the effect of a rare (never seen again) passing comet. So John proves his mettle by solving a case as a human, without any powers, though they return at story’s end anyway.

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In Detective 236 J’onn fights crime on two worlds, and he is shown in Martian form for the bulk of the tale. Thanks to solar flares affecting radio waves, J’onn is able to communicate with his parents back on Mars.  They tell him of thieves using the canals for their thefts, and as John Jones, he happens to be investigating a similar case on Earth. J’onn realizes that in both cases the thieves are attaching themselves to things (fish or ships) traversing the canals, and while he stops the bad guys on Earth, his father passes on the info and the Martian thieves are caught as well. This story also sets up a possibility of a rescue mission for J’onn, as now his parents, and other on Mars, know where he is and what has happened to him. But as later stories would make clear, the Martian Manhunter is no longer desperately trying to get back home.

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The story in Detective 267 makes that clear. John Jones receives reports about aliens being seen, and investigates. He discovers that the reports are real, and that the crew of the ship are benevolent Jovians, who have come to Earth pursuing a thief from their world. J’onn is more than happy to help catch him, especially when the crew agrees to drop him off on Mars on their way back to Jupiter. J’onn captures the renegade from Jupiter, but at the last minute discovers that he has left a bomb behind, and J’onn stays on Earth to defuse it. 

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Still, his smile in the last panel seems to indicate he is not too broken up by this.  Early in the story he had shown some reluctance to leave Earth, so it’s safe to say that returning to Mars is no longer the driving goal it was once for the Martian Manhunter.

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Similarly, in Detective 273 a Martian criminal, B’rett, lands on Earth, escaping justice on his home planet. J’onn tracks him down, and the two wind up in battle, in public view.  In order to bring B’rett down, J’onn exposes him to fire, again in view of the police and crowds.

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At the conclusion of the story, the Martian Manhunter formally meets the men he works with as John Jones anyway, but now the world at large knows he exists, and the Martian vulnerability to fire. Also notable is that J’onn has the army shoot a missile to Mars, carrying B’rett, but does not ask for the same thing to be done for himself.

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Diane Meade, a rookie policewoman, makes her debut in Detective Comics 246. Her primary function in the story is to make life difficult for J’onn, who is not able to use his many powers on the case, simply because she is there and would see what he was doing.  Much better than having a comet take away his powers for a story.

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Diane was likely intended as a one-shot character, but her usefulness, as well as the lack of supporting cast in this strip, were probably responsible for her return.

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Diane Meade returns in Detective 275, becoming John Jones’ partner. Now that J’onn is openly a hero, he takes on the secret identity problems that provide soooo many stories their plots. 

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Diane is thrust into the Lois Lane mould of always questioning John about being the Martian Manhunter. The crime plot is merely there to hang the secret identity one onto. Though he disproves her suspicions in this story, they rise again in later ones.

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Most of the enemies that the Martian Manhunter faced during this time were one shot characters, but two would make returns, though not in this series.

The Martian Manhunter faces Monty Moran, the Getaway King in Detective 259.  He has built a number of getaway vehicles for his men, so he is more of a behind the scenes villain than a player. Largely Monty Moran stands around watching, while J’onn deals with his men.

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And since, in this story, J’onn takes a lot of action while invisible, shown by having a green glowing aura around him, it’s an oddly static outing. Nevertheless, this is the first foe J’onn would face who would return, in an early issue of Justice League of America.

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J’onn goes up against the Human Flame in Detective 274, an arsonist with a suit that sprays fire out of his nipples. The Martian Manhunter displays yet another amazing power in this issue, creating sonic waves by snapping his fingers.  This would not be a normal part of his repertoire.

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J’onn avoids the fire by burrowing undeground and lifting the Human Flame and his associate, and the very ground they are on, hauling them all off to prison. The Human Fame stayed in prison for a very long time, emerging just before Final Crisis.

The Martian Manhunter continues in the next period, 1960 – 1964: the Silver Age.

Martian Manhunter: Detective Comics 225 – 275 (Nov. 55 – Jan. 60)

Next up – Daniel Boone!

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Last Updated: May 15, 2017 - 12:13

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