DC might be advertising Martian Manhunter's death in issue #3 of the character's new series, but writer Rob Williams said there's more than one way to "skin a Martian cat."
What does that mean? Williams' answer to that question is a "mantra" of sorts for the author, and he repeats it often — "you'll have to pick up the book."
Acting almost as cryptic and mysterious as the character he's writing, Williams acknowledges that J'onn J'onzz appears to be dying in the third issue of his new comic, but Williams also talked about how he hopes to establish Martian Manhunter as the "A-list character" he deserves to be.
Williams, a British writer who's best known for his work on 2000AD and Megazine Magazine, is kicking off the title with a story that will question J'onn's loyalties a bit. An attack on Earth by the dangerous, shapeshifting White Martians — and J'onn's discovery that he may be part of their plans — leads to a confrontation with the Justice League in issue #2 and, according to solicitations, J'onn's death in issue #3.
So is Martian Manhunter really dying? Is he joining the White Martians, or saving Earth from their attack? And what else can readers expect from this new series? Newsarama talked to Williams to find out.
Newsarama: Rob, let's just address the solicitation for issue #3 right up front. R.I.P Martian Manhunter? That sounds as if J'onn is dying. Can you explain that solicitation at all?
Rob Williams: No! Because of Martian-shaped spoilers! But I will say that J’onn is placed in a position where the best thing for the world would be – in his estimation – that he not be here anymore.
A global terror event reveals him to be a potential weapon, and those who would use that weapon are coming after him. And the Justice League comes after him in #2.
He’s forced to make a horrible, painful choice. You’ll have to pick up the book to see where this leads.
Nrama: Rob, you do know that if your lead character dies, the comic dies with it, right?
Williams: Erm... really? OK, let me rewrite quick.
The final page of #3 does a Sopranos, with J’onn wandering into a diner to meet his family, Journey starts playing, "just a small Martian boy, born and raised in south... Mars." And then you turn the page and... black. Just black.
Nrama: I think I'd actually read that. But with this being a print interview, not really, right…?
Williams: No, not really. But there’s more than one way to skin a Martian cat. We love J’onn. It’s J’onn’s book. But we’re also introducing a core group of brand new characters with the book. J’onn’s not going to be the only viewpoint you’ll see.
We want to get below the surface of the Martian Manhunter, and so we’re coming at this from a slightly left-field approach. Again — mantra — you’ll have to pick it up to see what I mean.
Nrama: Fair enough. Let's talk about the style of this comic. The eight-page Sneak Peek had a a dark edge and mystery to it. Is it representative of the style of the comic as it launches later this month?
Williams: It is, to an extent. There’s a couple of different worlds and genres colliding here. One side is a rather noir-ish mystery with horror overtones – the Martians are on Earth, among us, and they’re trying to destabilize the planet with acts of horror and terror.
One of the themes of the book going in was: "You know all those horrible things that you hear on the news, that you can’t believe human beings could ever do? Well, what if human being didn’t do them?’"
And J’onn’s part of that, whether he wants to be or not. He was made to be part of it, as we’ll see. J’onn’s a shapeshifter, physically, emotionally. He can be a lot of things to a lot of people. And maybe he’s been looking like a superhero just so we don’t see what it really is, because it would terrify us.
Nrama: Let's talk about J'onn. The eight-page preview gave us a peek into what the character's like, but how would you describe him as we meet him in your first issue?
Williams: J’onn’s had something of an awakening. The thing he sees on the moon in our eight-page free preview issue opens a door in his mind. The "epiphany" has come. And that means J’onn’s memories and programming – that he didn’t know he had – kicking in.
He suddenly knows his purpose and why he’s here, and it horrifies him. He’s in a traumatized, scared, angry state when we meet him in #1. He’s a fractured psyche, scrambling for solidity. And now he has to make a choice – who is he going to be? And is that person good or evil?
Nrama: Yeah, in the Sneak Peek, J'onn lied to his contacts on Earth about the involvement of the White Martians in an attack. Are J'onn's loyalties divided? Or is there something more to this?
Williams: His loyalties are divided. Yours would be too. He’s been living amongst us, growing very attached to Earth and its people – hugely attached. He’s become a hero and he desperately wants to be that. He wants to help and save people.
And then his world drops out from under him and he’s told that he is something else entirely. He’s a weapon. And his loyalties should be with his race, his world. A Mars that is dead, and he has a chance to bring it back. That’s a very difficult choice for him to make. We all struggle to escape our backgrounds.
Nrama: So he's got a choice to make, but he seems so isolated. The peek made it clear that J'onn is a loner. How much of a role does that play in things?
Williams: Oh, hugely. I think that’s part of the core of J’onn. His loneliness, his sadness, his tragedy as he strives to be a hero. None of those aspects change here. In that sense this is the classic Martian Manhunter. We’re adding new aspects to his mythology, certainly, but you also want to stay true to why people love this character in the first place. The heart of the piece.
Nrama: But do the other human characters in the Sneak Peek play a role in your story? Who's the supporting cast for this book?
Williams: You’re going to meet a few new characters, including Helen Demoff, the NASA scientist you met in the preview story.
Then there’s a mysterious eight-foot tall character called Mr. Biscuits, a 10-year-old street girl called Alicia, a Dubai thief named The Pearl, an FBI Agent called Daryl Wessel and a teenager suffering from motor neuron disease named Leo. They’re our core.
And you’ll see a few guest stars along the way too, most prominently the Justice League in #2.
Nrama: Yeah, let's talk about the Justice League. Martian Manhunter has a long history as an important part of the Justice League, but with the New 52 relaunch, that changed a bit. How would you describe the character now and his relationship to the "capes" of the DCU?
Williams: He’s been part of Justice League United, and Stormwatch before that. In the New 52, J’onn is one of the heroes, but he’s not been the core member of the Justice League that he was in the old DCU. There’s been an element of mystery and strangeness about him. He’s not been as cuddly, certainly. There’s more of a sense of "who, exactly, is this alien?" And that’s all coming into play here.
Nrama: You mentioned the Justice League showing up in issue #2, and the cover already revealed that J'onn would specifically come up against Superman. A lot of people compare their powers, and their origins, since they're both aliens. But how are these two characters different, and can you describe their meeting at all?
Williams: A nice thing about their dynamic when they meet in #2 is that they’re both aliens, both "spacemen" as J’onn refers to Superman. They’re both the last of their kind. So there should be a kinship.
But Superman looks like one of us, and a very perfect-looking one of us, whereas J’onn, who can shapeshift to look like anything, chooses to be this green, bald, rather jarring presence.
And then you start to ask why that might be. It’s because he can never fit in with humanity the way Kal does. He, I think on a deep-rooted level, wants us to stay clear of him. To retain his loneliness as a way of protecting us. He knows he could be something that hurts us.
And I think J’onn resents Superman slightly because of that – the ease of Superman’s transition to Earth - which comes into play in their meeting in #2. The cover slightly gives that away, with the punching and all.
Nrama: You're working with Eddy Barrows. How's it been working with the artists on this series?
Williams: Oh, Eddy Barrows has been terrific, as has the rest of the art team in Eber Ferreira on inks and Gabe Eltaeb on colors. It’s quite a challenging book inasmuch as it gives different flavors. There are big widescreen superheroics, a noir-ish crime edge, a Studio Ghibili – Miyazaki feel to certain scenes. There’s some pretty silly comedy and this big emotional, tragic core at the heart of the character. Eddy’s been delivering brilliantly on all of them.
There’s a real fluidity and dynamism to his work. I’m thrilled he’s the regular artist on the book. J’onn looks amazing thanks to Eddy and the team.
Nrama: To finish, then, how would you summarize your hopes for Martian Manhunter and what you want readers to know about the book?
Williams: J'onn's always seen as a really strong backing member of a cast. I hope people give the book a try and prove that he can be up there with the A list, where he belongs.
You look at his power set and he's one of the big players in the DC world. There's a line in the book where it's vocalized how he could "take out half the heroes in the world all by himself." Well, along the way you might see him do just that.
Oh, and Mr. Biscuits is way too much fun to write. You’ll have to buy the book to see what I mean (there’s the mantra again).