As a kid growing up in the 2000s, there was no shortage of TV shows based on DC characters. And I credit the Justice League show for introducing me to the Martian Manhunter. To this day, I still see him as a founding member of DC’s most famous superhero team. But this is a character whose history and development is mostly relegated to team books. There hasn’t been a lot of self-named solo series for DC’s famous Martian, and most of those that exist usually only last about a year. Today, I want to look at what is probably the longest-running Martian Manhunter solo series, written by Jon Ostrander, as it tackles a single question. Who IS J’onn J’onzz?
Let’s look at the most literal interpretation of that answer - the character’s origin. Martian society was one based on duality and opening yourself to your friends and loved ones. No one served just one role, they contribute to society in multiple ways. The role of the Manhunter is that of a philosopher and a protector of those who live on Mars. But when he was born, his twin brother (later known as Malefic) became a scientist and theologian. His research would bring the New Gods of Apolokips to Mars, which left a devastating impact on the people. Worst of all, Malefic became a servant of Darkseid. His first act was to mind rape as many as he could to find the Anti-Life Equation, an act that resulted in his memory and psionic powers being taken from him. But his hatred remained, pushing him to create a disease that wiped out all Martians save for him and his brother J’onn. Malefic was seemingly lost in a fiery confrontation with his twin, J’onn left to mourn the loss of his people, brother, wife & son. But then, he was mistakingly teleported to Earth and for many decades lived among humans. Doing what? Protecting his adopted home in any way he can.
This origin gets fleshed out a bit more over dozens of issues and we see a bit more nuance in how this origin changed him. J’onn would go on to take on many personalities on Earth. He is a former officer turned private investigator in Denver. He is also a female reporter who refutes the advances of the sleazy editor. But he is also a young homeless boy who protects other homeless children. Hell, he sometimes even chooses to be a cat who visits a random old lady. At one point, the purpose of having so many identities was to connect more to all aspects of humanity. But even J’onn comes to realize that it is a means to keep himself distant from others, preventing himself from becoming too close to another. This is why he ultimately allows the DEO to expose most of his identities, and later on, J’onn will choose to only hold onto the Denver PI. After so many years of fighting alongside other heroes, of getting to know civilians associated with his most active human personas, he has formed close connections.
The best example of this can be seen in issue 12, where the hero Gypsy falls during a battle alongside J’onn. Using his psionic abilities, he finds himself standing before the Martian deity called H’ronmeer - God of Fire, the greatest weakness for Martians. Even though Malefic created the disease that killed most of their kind, it was still named after H’ronmeer as the disease caused them to burst into flame whenever Martians telepathically connected with each other. He is the one god that answered J’onn’s call to help save Gypsy’s life, a young woman that he had taken to think of as his daughter. During the conversation between J’onn and H’ronmeer, it is clear that this Fire God is a deity who loves and cares for J’onn, and in turn, the Manhunter doesn’t see him as something to be feared. This moment can be seen as J’onn starting to emotionally recover from the trauma of what he witnessed on his homeworld. And it can be credited to his choice to go that far for someone so different from him, yet he loved and cared for deeply.
And now we begin to explore the more abstract answer to the question this series explores. There is one storyline where J’onn helps protect an alien queen from assassination. The two of them find themselves attracted to the other. But J’onn holds firm in that they are both beings of honor and duty, that their union is not one that will bring the most benefit to the queen’s homeworld. We also see during flashbacks to his early years how he interacted with a few other DC characters. He once fought alongside Abin Sur, the Green Lantern before Hal Jordan. And while the Martians weren’t the closest allies to the Green Lantern Corps and especially the Guardians that lead them, J’onn ends up viewing Abin in a more positive light. Then there was the time that he met Jim Corrigan AKA The Spectre. And when J’onn briefly became The Spectre and found himself beginning to go mad with the power he possessed, he accepted Corrigan’s help and was freed. And for years, he kept an eye on the young child from Krypton, growing in the Kent household. He feared that the young alien might choose to transform Earth into a new version of Krypton. But once he was sure that Clark Kent would never make a choice like that, he revealed himself and made a close friend with Superman.
We get a sneak peek into the far-flung future, where we listen to how different alien species have been changed and how they have grown following their interactions with J’onn and what he did to help them. When his Denver PI personality was separated into its own independent being, J’onn would be there to help his clone born with no moral code despite the PI’s lack of care to what happened to those around him. Time and time again, J’onn J’onzz demonstrates how he sticks to what he believes is right, doing what he believes he should be done for those who need help and can’t protect themselves. Bringing justice to the bad guys. All of this while he still has to deal with the emotional fallout of having to kill his twin brother for real after finding out Malefic survived. As well as fighting against those that were once Martian but inhabit the minds and bodies of humans to stay alive. All of that and a bit more on top of feeling responsible for not saving his own kind and family from the disease that wiped him out. How is J’onn able to march on?
Through Ostrander’s writing, it is put forth that there are three things that define a person - where they come from, what they experience, and what they chose to do. J’onn and Malefic are both from Mars and have undergone the same teachings. But Malefic feels like an outsider due to his original Martian name, given to him because his mom chose to give him that name due to a vision of a possible future she once witnessed. Malefic even ends up being tortured and mentally dissected by the beings of Apokolips for a time. J’onn would go on to free his brother and return him to Mars. No one can fault Malefic for feeling traumatized due to what he was subjected to. And he didn’t choose his name, which he felt was the reason others stayed away from him. But he did decide to become Darkseid’s servant, to be willing to kill his own brother in order to carry out Darkseid’s commands. J’onn has gone through more than his fair share of trauma as well. The death of his kind, watching his wife & son die in front of him, being forced to kill his own brother - not to mention the additional trauma he underwent during his time on Earth as a superhero. There was arguably an overabundance of opportunities to turn back on his beliefs and stick to himself, doing only what was needed to ensure his survival. But every day he wakes up and chooses to help others and deal with what he has gone through because he knows that it is the right thing to do. It is easy to lose empathy and to stop caring for what is happening around you, to only focus on yourself. But that will not happen to J’onn because he genuinely cares for others. He will march on in the name of justice and honor all those he has met and connected with. Because that is simply the right thing to do. This is why the Martian Manhunter is considered the heart of the Justice League because he won’t abandon those that need his help. I think J’onn J’onzz can be summed up best by the Manhunter oath…
Once begun, to walk the path, to pursue the prey, to never turn aside, short of death, until justice is done.