Review: Martian Manhunter: Identity trade paperback (DC Comics)

July 1, 2020


About every solicitation for Steve Orlando and Riley Rossmo's Martian Manhunter: Identity touts some version of this, that "back on Mars, J'onn J'onzz was about as corrupt as a law officer can be." It has been the most concerning thing in the run-up to Identity, and fortunately, it turns out not to be true. What is the truth is more complicated and complex in this masterwork of a book that is surely destined for greater formats than a mild, under-the-radar paperback.

For more than a few reasons, Identity reminds of Tom King's Omega Men, not in the least because, arriving outside the mainstream day-to-day of the DC Universe, there does not seem to be the fanfare it deserves — Omega Men got a deluxe edition eventually and surely Identity must, too, if not an Absolute. Dangerously, this book raises one's expectations for Orlando immensely, and not again will that writer be able to get away with the somewhat workaday adventures of his Justice League of America after the powerful, edgy sci-fi we see here. Already since Batman: Night of the Monster Men we've known anti-house-style art like Rossmo's should be DC's rule and not their exception, but this just seals it.

As many times as it's been told, Martian Manhunter's origins have never been so tragic, so moving, nor has the demise of Mars been so relevant to our times. A book like this — part Star Trek, part Hannibal — ought be on every best of the year list; one wonders, in this day and age, would we recognize the next Kingdom Come in our midsts?

[Review contains spoilers]

I was pleased to see, contrary to all the advertising, that J'onn J'onzz is not in fact mindlessly corrupt here, a characterization that would terribly contradict his previous depictions (letting alone that Identity arrives, problematically, at a time when Scott Snyder is penning his own secret history of the Martian Manhunter over in Justice League). Orlando's J'onn is corrupt, don't get me wrong, but all in the service of trying to secure his family safe escape from Mars after the government refuses to act on the danger of a growing plague, not for wealth or personal gain. (In a wonderful, extensive interview section at the end of this book, Orlando talks of trying to differentiate the Manhunter from Superman, but inevitably we see here a rougher, alternate take on the plight of Jor-El.) When tragedy strikes, it is all the more tragic because J'onn has sold his integrity to save his family and is left, in the end, with neither one.

Identity is perhaps so successful because it's so personal to Orlando. Within, Orlando is able to parallel J'onn neither being able to fully embrace either his Martian nor his faux human personas with Detective John Jones' partner Diane Meade neither fully fitting in with the police force nor, as bisexual, with the gay community. But what struck me as even more relevant was Orlando's conception of H'ronmeer's Curse, historically a telepathic plague engineered to wipe out the Martians. Here, instead, it's not even a real thing so much as a conspiratorial idea that gains enough traction among believers to ultimately infect the Martian psychic zeitgeist. It is the sci-fi equivalent of election tampering, of viral troll farm disinformation, not to mention a Martian government that withholds news of the plague for fear of starting a panic, at the cost of lives. Fiction will sooner or later catch up with current events, but here Orlando seems prescient.

This book's entire team gets credit for conceiving a Martian society who are not just green humanoids, but truly, wildly alien. Rossmo should surely be lauded, however, for crowded scenes of Mars with no two aliens alike, a scene of Martian sex and Martian childbirth that are just this side of DC Black Label, and a bunch of instances of Jones and Meade under fire as suspenseful as a cable police drama. I'm also wholly impressed with how Rossmo commits, as in his stubborn depiction of Meade with an impossible bouffant from story start to story end. At times weird and absurd and distorted and scary, Rossmo's art dares to loose the bonds of traditional superhero comic art, and it's something I want to see more and more of.

Whether Identity stands as the new origin of the Martian Manhunter is probably more in the control of other writers than Orlando; should someone have J'onn make reference to being "corrupt" on Mars, then we might assume it stands, but then again — I might have said not too long ago — how often is it really necessary for J'onn J'onzz to recount his origins any more? But indeed, of late we've seen a new Miss Martian with barely explained ties to J'onn, as well as, again, Snyder imagining a childhood connection between J'onn and Lex Luthor in Justice League. That's somewhat incongruous with this story, if for no other reason than Orlando preserves the idea — from J.M. DeMatteis' Martian Manhunter miniseries — that J'onn was transported to Earth by Dr. Erdel through both space and time. Instead, J'onn's family was contemporaneous with the Neanderthals, a modern update that explains, for current times, why J'onn wouldn't simply have flown back to Mars after being dragged by Erdel to Earth.

Support Collected Editions -- Purchase Martian Manhunter: Identity



Martian Manhunter: Identity overflows with extras, including a reprint of J'onn's first appearance, Joshua Middleton's stellar variant covers, and an unheard of 10-page interview section with the creative team. It's material like this that clearly demonstrates that DC knows what it has on its hands here, even if a paperback-first release belies that. Again, with Steve Orlando having now demonstrated himself capable of far greater things than the pick-up fill-ins he usually does for DC, I'm eager to see what he does next in the style of this book.

[Includes original and variant covers, sketches, interviews]

Comments ( 3 )

  1. I was hesitant about this since I haven't really enjoyed Steve Orlando's work and Riley Rossmo hasn't always been well utilized but your review convinced me to read it and I'm really digging it so far.

    Other similar under-the-radar minis with tenuous continuity ties that I recommend from the last few years are Gail Simone's Plastic man (which is one of the most heartfelt and funny books I've read recently) and Cecil Castellucci's Female Furies (which would have been the most controversial series of the year if anyone had actually read it). Both aren't perfect but well worth the read.

  2. This book really is Orlando at his best, and a much better fit for Rossmo's art style than anything else he's done at DC. If this isn't canon, DC should find a way to make it so.

  3. Hi Aymeric, I am so glad you mentioned Gail Simone's Plastic Man mini. It was such an enjoyable read. It seems more and more that really good books just fly under the radar.......


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