Though J’onn J’onzz is one of DC Comics’ oldest and most powerful characters, there’s always been a way in which he’s existed ever-so-slightly out of the spotlight, save for a few solo series here and there and a number of appearances across various live action and animated television shows.
But the Martian Manhunter is a character who’s always spoken to writer Steve Orlando in a particular way that’s stuck with him. When I recently had the chance to speak with Orlando and artist Riley Rossmo about their new Martian Manhunter series, the creative team explained that as familiar as we all are with J’onn’s origins, there’s so much more to his inner depths and the history of Mars that’s yet to be deeply explored. That, they explained, is ultimately what they want to do with the new book, Martian Manhunter.
Kotaku: What’s the thing about Martian Manhunter that you wish more people understood about the character? To you personally, who is he?
Steve Orlando: I think J’onn’s otherness is something that a lot of people miss as being really important about his identity that always resonated with me as a child. As someone who’s bisexual and half Jewish, I know what it’s like to have something inside yourself that people might judge you for, but at the same time those are things about myself that aren’t always apparent — I can walk down the street and pass or hide and there’s a certain degree of luxury and privilege that comes with that.
When J’onn decides to present himself as an eight-foot-tall, green alien, it’s really a bold statement about the kind of person he is. He’s letting people know that while he’s not from Earth, he loves the planet, and he’s proud to be part of what’s keeping it safe, and I think that’s very unique.
Kotaku: Seeing what J’onn’s former life on Mars was like, it’s easy to understand the sort of karmic guilt he feels for the deaths of his family. But, seeing him run from his past the way he’s trying to do on Earth, it makes me want to ask — does he think of himself as a hero or a good person?
Orlando: J’onn wasn’t an acupuncturist on Mars, he was a Manhunter—their version of a police officer — and a lot of the guilt that he carries with him revolves around the fact that protecting people was his job. That’s really what sets him apart from someone like Superman whose planet was also destroyed. Tragic as Superman’s origins are, it isn’t a baby’s job to save the world and so there’s only but so much guilt Clark can really have about his past. J’onn, on the other hand, was very much an adult who’d sworn to serve and protect, and what you see in our series is how he wasn’t exactly the best cop to begin with, to say nothing of his inability to save Mars.
Riley Rossmo: I’d add to that the loss of his family is something that J’onn has to sit with differently than someone like Superman, because he still has a lifetime of memories about that that he’s constantly being haunted by while also trying to maintain his new life on Earth.
Orlando: Yeah, I think you’re on the money. We’ve long said that this book is J’onn’s journey to accepting his past and becoming a hero and, in the beginning of issue one, he’s not quite there just yet. The short version is that when he found the original human John Jones, he wasn’t able to save his life and John, also an officer, was everything that J’onn told himself and his family that he was back on Mars, despite that not really being the case.
Kotaku: Riley, there are so many different settings with varying vibes to them, but how would you describe the design language you wanted to really define the book? What were the kinds of ideas you wanted to convey visually that feed into the book’s themes?
Rossmo: Going into this, I always knew that because so much of the book was going to take place on Mars in the past, it was important that it felt distinct from Earth and like a fully-realised world. But more than just the planet being different visually, I wanted to do other things like play with the shape of the panels in order to really make you feel the foreign strangeness of J’onn’s old life, and how it’s something that no one else on Earth can really relate to.
But also, I wanted to make sure that the story of J’onn’s past is something that you can immediately recognise in the way that he comports himself. In his human form, you can see the crushing weight of losing his family and his planet in the largeness of his body — he’s literally bearing that weight on his shoulders, even though he might not think of it quite that way.
Kotaku: Talk to me about your decision to have J’onn present himself as a black man in his human guise. What’s the significance there and how does it factor into his human persona?
Orlando: Traditionally in the comics, Detective John Jones has been depicted as white, but there’s a strong and rich tradition of actors of colour portraying him and knowing that, it felt right not to erase that. It was important to us that we match the progress that you’ve seen being made with J’onn in other media, going all the way back to the WB’s Smallville all the way up to David Harewood’s performance on Supergirl.
Kotaku: And does J’onn’s assumed blackness have an impact on the kind of life he’s able to lead?
Orlando: Well of course it affects J’onn’s experiences on Earth. That being said, being a person of colour is something that I’ll never be able to understand. No amount of reading or talking to people can change that.
When I’m asked this question in regards to depictions of queer characters, I often say that my hope is that all people will continue to do the work of pushing for diversity in these kinds of stories, while also understanding that the important thing to do is to present these characters with confidence and care.
Kotaku: Whose idea was it to get a full page of alien sex into the first issue?
Orlando: Oh, it was my idea! And more is coming, by the way.
Orlando: I put it into the script and loosely described Martian sex as looking like a saltwater taffy machine and then I let Riley do his thing. But it’s really the little details that Riley incorporated that really make the sex scene feel distinctly human. Like, when J’onn and M’yri’ah are through, and J’onn tries to get in a little snuggle and talk, and even though she’s floating in the air, M’yri’ah’s still able to roll over as if she was laying out to basically tell J’onn “fuck off, I’m going to bed.”
We knew from the outset that if we were really doing to do a thorough investigation of Martian culture, we had to have all aspects of it and that includes lovemaking.