The origin story for Martian Manhunter gets reinvented this week as Steve Orlando and Riley Rossmo reunite for a brand new 12-issue series based in both Mars and the Earth.
The new title, which Orlando calls a “science fiction detective story,” takes place when the character was still Detective John Jones, before he became the hero known as Martian Manhunter. But it also focuses on a murder mystery that’s connected to the character’s time on Mars, allowing the creative team to also revamp J’onn’s continuity on that planet. (In fact, it doesn’t look like J’onn was so heroic on Mars, with the first issue implying he was one of that planet’s dirty cops.)
Orlando got to dabble in writing J’onn for the Martian Manhunter/Marvin the Martian crossover one-shot earlier this year, and worked with Rossmo before on Batman/The Shadow.
Newsarama talked to both Orlando and Rossmo about the continuity they’re adding to J’onn’s history, why the comic book spends so much time retracing the character’s life on Mars, and what readers can expect next.
Newsarama: Steve, why did you want to come at Martian Manhunter from this direction?
Steve Orlando: The base idea of Martian Manhunter that has always been appealing to me is this idea of other-ness, which is not unique to Martian Manhunter, but his reaction to it is.
There are a lot of superheroes in the DCU with secrets, and there are a lot of alien heroes in the DC Universe, but Martian Manhunter chooses, in many ways, not to assimilate when he’s wearing his heroic form. There’s no question that he’s not like us, but he’s here for us, and I’ve always found that pride in still being Martian but still being part of the Earth community very moving and aspirational.
At the same time, he has a goodness and compassion that hasn’t really been explored as much as the other Big 7.
I connected with him from a young age, and DC knew I wanted to work on this character, and luckily, I got to work on him a little bit with the Martian Manhunter/Marvin the Martian story. But it just made me want to write him even more.
Then when I was working on Batman/The Shadow with Riley, we were finishing up that book, and we were looking for what we were going to do next. And I told him about what I wanted to do with Martian Manhunter and that I thought we could really give him the attention he deserves and build a whole world around him, a world that has been explored a little bit at DC since his debut but never to the extent we are, and turn his story into hard sci-fi, turn his story into one of tragedy and triumph.
J’onn’s compassion has always really fascinated me, but this is the chance to dig into it like never before.
Nrama: You mentioned that it’s hard sci-fi, and a lot of that comes from the flashbacks where we learn more about J’onn’s life on Mars. Riley, your artwork really differentiates between the present-day on Earth and the scenes that take place in the past on Mars. Was that by design, to emphasize that other-worldly locale?
Riley Rossmo: Yeah, sometimes people overlook the tools we have at our disposal as storytellers while we’re making comics. On this particular book, I really wanted to push that and push myself.
When I’m working on Mars, there’s no spot blacks – there’s only clean line art, and I introduce little things to make it distinct, like all the panels on Mars have one curved edge. To me, it makes it feel kind of spacey or something. The curves mean science fiction to me.
The thing that was exciting about it to me, and how Steve kind of sold me on the book, was that we’d be spending time in the Martian world.
I spend my days thinking about things like how Yellow Martians dress. And then I’ll send a message to Steve and say, “Is it OK if Yellow Martians dress like this?” And we’ll talk about Yellow Martian fashion for a while.
And same with just, like, the Green Martians too. They can look like anything. I think historically, they’ve been depicted as pretty humanoid. But there’s no reason for that. Well, we kind of have a reason for it in this book. Historically, there’s been no reason for it. So I like exploring, how do people express themselves and use their body as a sort of fashion statement?
Nrama: Steve, why did you want to make sure Martian Manhunter’s history was such a big part of this story
Orlando: Where he is on Mars, it’s vital to caring about why he does what he does on Earth. And that’s one of the reasons we spend a lot of time there.
When we started the book, we realized that J’onn’s story is our story. It’s a story about overcoming any type of failures and mistakes in your life and realizing that, yes, you are the person who made those mistakes, but you’re also something better.
His story, you must see him at his lowest on Mars to truly comprehend and understand how far he’s climbed, how much he’s triumphed.
It’s easy to become a nerd to comic book origin stories. But J’onn’s story is going to grip you in a new way. You won’t just see the death of Mars, but you’ll see his life on Mars too. You’ll see the weight of what he lost. You’ll see him picking up his daughter from school; you’ll see his wife being ignored because of the structures of Martian society; you’ll see a family with hopes and dreams that we know are going down a bad road. This is like Titanic. We know what’s going to happen, even if Riley and I wish it didn’t happen, now that we know these characters.
But you need to explore that past to understand what he’s lost and how much he achieved on the path to becoming Martian Manhunter.
His life on Mars ends in tragedy, and his life on Earth is on track for triumph. So when you see those stories told in parallel, you have both conflict and catharsis in every issue. And I think it’s something that’s really, really beautiful.
Nrama: The scenes on Earth – are those early in his time on Earth? Is this an origin story not only of his time on Mars, but also his earliest days on Earth as opposed to present-day DCU?
Orlando: Yes, this is early in J’onn’s career. He has not revealed himself as the Martian Manhunter yet, at all. So he’s still living as Detective John Jones. He hasn’t even added any of the other secret IDs that he’s had in other stories and other takes on the character.
The Martian Manhunter is not known to the world yet. You’ll see as his story goes on that he’s stuck in this body of Dectective John Jones.
So this story is about him making that movement from living in the life of another good man and sort of actualizing the good man he is himself, and in that becoming the Martian Manhunter, the hero we all know he’s on track toward being.
Nrama: It sounds like Steve was a big fan of Martian Manhunter. Riley, are you newer to the character? Was this a case of Steve talking you into how great the character is?
Rossmo: Yeah, Steve kind of talked me into this character. I liked Martian Manhunter, but my favorite incarnation was in The New Frontier. So when Steve started talking about it, I started thinking about the design possibilities.
And we had such a good time working on Batman/The Shadow together. He has a real enthusiasm for working on less-known characters, and it’s kind of infectious. And Steve’s take is great. There’s nothing to say no to. I could only say yeah.
Nrama: Steve, is there anything else you want to tell fans about what they can expect from Martian Manhunter?
Orlando: Martian Manhunter is a hard science fiction mystery. There’s a strangeness to it. There’s an innate weirdness to it that I think harkens back to the wild sci-fi of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but it is at the same time very modern in the storytelling and our social take on Mars.
We all know he’s going to be a superhero eventually, but we’re spending time on other worlds and in these strange mindscapes that are coning as well.
But mainly, it’s a science fiction detective story. And because J’onn debuted in Detective Comics, I like that it’s a detective story. So at its core, it’s a crime story. But it’s a crime story with a Martian shape-shifting telepath, so it doesn’t look like any crime story you’ve seen before.
Rossmo: When I’m drawing it, I feel like I’m drawing a science fiction book, but also drawing a crime book. They intersect and overlap.
Orlando: You’re going to be getting a book every month that just shows you things you’ve never seen before. We’re creating an alien world. We’re creating a new world for you. And the comic book storytelling is new as well.