Book Review – Martian Manhunter: Son of Mars by John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake

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Martian Manhunter: Son of Mars begins with him recounting his tragic past and how he came to be the last son of Mars. But then people keep dying, and all the evidence points to crimes only J’onn could commit, yet the truth is even darker as he realizes a foe he thought long-dead has re-appeared. J’onn will have to atone for mistakes he thinks he made so many years ago.

Martian Manhunter is an odd character as it’s hard to divorce him from comparisons with Superman. They share similar origins and power sets, and in fact the Manhunter even has a broader power set including telepathy and the ability to transform his appearance and mass. And yet he’s never really taken hold as a character in his own right, I mean, even with all the casting new of Batman v Superman and the subsequent JLA movie there doesn’t seem to be anyone clamouring for Martian Manhunter to be included. In the very first chapter of this collection Ostrander attempts to examine this relationship between the Manhunter and Superman, and there are some interesting points raised here, but then throughout the book there are continual references by other characters to how J’onn is the heart and soul of the League, and this comes off as a bit forced, and it feels like Ostrander is trying to make us care about the Manhunter.

Anyway, the story begins with J’onn talking to Superman about how they differ and how he has to go back to Mars to try and come to terms with his past, as he hasn’t returned to the red planet since he witnessed every member of his species dying (this is one point that helped emphasize the tragedy of the character when compared to Superman; he was actually there when his species died, while Kal-El was streaking through space). However, this pilgrimage is presented as a big undertaking and yet by the next chapter he’s back on Earth. Seems an odd way to start this storyline. I did love how his weakness to fire was described, in that it’s not just a physical weakness but also a mental one as he is vulnerable to the flickering chaos.

Next we’re given some history about how he came to Earth and began to learn about humanity. I liked this part, and in another section he talks about his other secret identities, one being in Japan, where they have created a Manga cartoon about him. I thought this was a fun diversion and it examines the global impact of these heroes that are mostly located in America, and it’s something I’d love to see more of in comics. These issues read like an anthology that deal with different cases and they give a brief overview of what J’onn has been doing while he’s been on Earth, but then the stuff from his past comes up and we have him trying to deal with that. Which I thought was okay, it was a typical story where the hero has to take on a mirror image of himself.  There were a couple of inventive developments towards the end that I thought was quite clever. This book also has a hilarious comment by Flash where he asserts that ‘Dead is dead,’ yes Flash, of course it is.

The art is strong throughout. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the story lent itself to both grounded stories and more cosmic scenes. I also liked the focus on Martian culture and history, and the different ways in which Manhunter changes shape.

I think this is a good entry point if you want to know more about the Martian Manhunter. In some ways it does feel like a highlights package of the basic information you need to know, but after the jarring return to Earth the stories do have a through-line that connects them. But I’m not sure that it manages to definitively capture the essence of the character. So much time is spent showing how he is different to Superman and how J’onn is an integral part of the JLA that he never gets a chance to be a character on his own terms. It’s almost as if he’s so tied to these preconceptions that he’s shackled to them, and it’s a shame because it appears that he’s always going to live in Superman’s shadow.

For this reason I think the strongest parts of the book were the glimpses we had of his time on Mars. Seeing him with his family gave him an emotional grounding and the fact that he was a hero on his own world and in his own terms gave him an individuality that he simply doesn’t have when he’s standing next to Superman. So if you’re interested in Martian Manhunter I’d recommend checking this out.

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