Review: Martian Manhunter Vol. 1: The Epiphany trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, May 09, 2016

I had some trepidation going into Martian Manhunter Vol. 1: The Epiphany. I'm not familiar with writer Rob Williams, and Eddy Barrows's art has unfortunately missed for me (Teen Titans, Superman) more often than it's hit (Nightwing). Also, the idea -- as suggested right up front in the "Divergence" short -- that Manhunter J'onn J'onzz's origins were an outright lie didn't sit right with me.

But in the end, I recommend this book almost unequivocally. Even as I don't necessarily like that Williams drastically changes J'onn's origins, Williams spins an exceptionally interesting tale that feels to me truly like a Martian Manhunter story. It's all too easy to populate a book with new supporting characters and go terribly wrong (see Lobo), but Williams gets it right. The cast is engaging, and moreover they're charming and funny; this is a book with sci-fi action but also with laughs, and also one that's set directly in the middle of the "Divergence"/"DC You" universe. I can give it no higher praise than to say I reached Epiphany's ending cliffhanger and immediately wanted to read more.

[Review contains spoilers]

In a way kind of like Kevin Smith's Green Arrow classic Quiver, Epiphany is as much about the people who surround J'onn J'onzz -- the Justice League, but also a collection of humans and aliens "related" to J'onn -- as it is about J'onn himself. Of course, through a process of psychic gymnastics, those latter "people" are actually aspects of J'onn. This device gives Williams considerable leeway to open up the book and give it many different tones -- an FBI agent solving a supernatural case, a thief on the run, a buddy comedy with a kid and a goofy alien, plus superheroics with Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and more.

Clearly the book's breakout star is that goofy "stick insect" alien, Mr. Biscuits, and his child ward Alicia. Biscuits's malapropisms and general antics remain funny throughout the book. Amidst the drama, Williams offers legitimately laugh-out-loud schtick, like FBI agent Daryl Wessel carrying Biscuits through an airport in pieces, with Biscuits's telepathy keeping the public from seeing the insanity of the situation, and Biscuits goes, in a bag, through security ("Dark Tunnel!" "Warm X-Rays!").

That we like Biscuits makes us like Alicia and Wessel; meanwhile an equally fun sequence involving the thief Pearl, Mould (J'onn's rogue intellect), and Aquaman endears us to those characters, too. Moreover the encounter with Aquaman underscores the high regard that J'onn's former teammates have for him. That helps the audience care about J'onn and the others, too, and so even though these are new characters (unlikely to appear again outside this series), we're willing to follow their journey when we might not otherwise.

Williams posits, if I understood correctly, that J'onn is some sort of Martian weapon meant to bring about the resurrection of Mars at the cost of Earth. To prevent this, J'onn split his consciousness among these various avatars, who were never supposed to come together. The underlying conspiracy story and psychic activity, including the avatars forgetting and remembering that they're really J'onn, reads tonally as what I expect from a Martian Manhunter story and that makes all of this go down easier.

At the same time, I think the "last Martian father whose family died" origin (if not Dr. Erdel) works and differentiates J'onn well enough from "came to Earth as a baby" Superman. That J'onn might be some artificial creation -- not even the "man" in "Manhunter" -- robs the character of some of his "humanity," in my opinion. I feel the same if J'onn turns out not to be a family man. I also would have liked if Williams had delved a bit into J'onn's uncertain history in the post-Flashpoint DC Universe as to the circumstances of his leaving the Justice League and joining Stormwatch.

Barrows has a definitive style that often utilizes close-ups of the characters' faces, which adds urgency but can also lack scope; I've also found Barrows often inked too dark by Ruy Jose and others. The darkness is not so much a problem with new inkers in Epiphany, the scope too is better. Some faces are noticeably of-Barrows -- Pearl and Mould, especially, toward the end -- but Barrows does a nice job with Superman and J'onn, Mr. Biscuits, and the evil Martians as well.

At some point I expected I'd think this was a good story but not really a Martian Manhunter one, and it's to his credit that Rob Williams convinced me otherwise. In Martian Manhunter Vol. 1: The Epiphany, Williams constructs a story that makes good use of J'onn J'onzz's power set and avoids such traps as entirely imaginary "mindscape" issues. Additionally Epiphany positions J'onn as the heart of the DC Universe in the way he hasn't been for a few years now. What ends up as J'onn's origins at the end of the next volume may ultimately shade my take on this endeavor, but for the moment I'm satisfied to accept the changes in exchange for a story that acquits this important character well. I'll be looking forward to the next.

[Includes original, variant, and unused covers, sketches.]
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6 comments:

  1. I seriously can't wait to get this. That and Dr Fate, both are tingling on my interest antenna. I'm really hopeful that how you felt about MM is the same way I felt at the end of Midnighter.

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  2. I am glad that this story turned out to be a winner; I was equally sceptical and intrigued when I read the sneak-peek. :)

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  3. I too loved this take on J'ohn. Then again I am bias and love the character.

    Additionally, the new origin of J'ohn as a powerful weapon makes sense as to explain why he is so powerful in the DC Pantheon.

    Also, I think the new status quo can be altered easily by future writers. J'ohn's mixed up memories can be an effective way to cover up William's new origin.

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    1. Perhaps J'onn's new origin helps differentiate him further from Superman, but again, I think part of J'onn's key interest is that he's a father who lost his family, and his being an artificially-created weapon (is he even still a person?) negates that.

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  4. Just picked this up myself over the weekend, and absolutely loved it. Hope we see a new Martian Manhunter book in the second wave of Rebirth.

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  5. I'm going to miss these sort of creative takes from the DC You. I really like the creative teams on Rebirth, but I can't help but feel that we're losing a lot of "out there" stories just to go back to more house-style superhero stories.

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