One of the more quirky, fun, yet surprisingly relevant comics in the new batch of DC titles from June is Martian Manhunter, the new comic from British writer Rob Williams.
Working with artist Eddy Barrows, Williams has been exploring different facets of the alien J'onn J'onzz by literally killing the character and splitting him into various other characters — from the passionate thief Pearl, who represents J'onn's heart, to the wacky and biscuit-loving Mr. Biscuits, who is J'onn's subconscious.
With this month's Martian Manhunter #6, the main Martian Manhunter has returned, although he's fighting alongside his other aspects to defeat the evil Martians who want to take over Earth. Newsarama talked with Williams to find out more about the comic, what inspired such unique characters for the story, and what happens now that the Earth appears to be doomed.
Newsarama: Rob, when I look at what you've done with this comic, it's pretty mind-blowing — not only killing (sort of) Martian Manhunter, but you've also pretty much ended the Earth itself.
Rob Williams: Well that's what you've got to do in any comic these days! You've got to end the Earth, kill off the main character [laughs.]
No, I think going in, trying to write J'onn J'onzz, writing the Martian Manhunter, the main thing I wanted to concentrate on is the fact that he is very alien. I didn't want this to be a book about a green guy who flew around and did Superman type things. If he's an alien, let's embrace that. Let's make it kind of weird and outlandish.
Also, I think it's partly a case of — I don't know if people have high expectations for a Martian Manhunter book, so in a way that gave us the freedom to just go for it. You know what I mean? Just throw wild concepts at it, try to make it fun, try and give it a lot of energy.
And it seems to have worked. People seem to respond to it.
But I do think that, when you're pitching things like Mr. Biscuits, part of me wondered whether or not I'd ever work again, to be honest with you. It feels like a little bit of a high wire act, when you try to make people, hopefully, say, wow, I didn't expect that! It's exciting.
Nrama: I find it interesting that you said you wanted to make it clear he's an alien, and yet when I was taking notes as I looked through the last three issues again today, even though it is emphasizing that he's an alien, it's also very familiar. It's exploring his humanity, with this idea of his subconscious having these guilty pleasures in biscuits and Mall Cop 2, and his mind battling his heart. Was that the type of story you were hoping would come out of this?
Williams: Yeah, that's really nice to hear. And that's what you strive for.
I'm writing a future issue of Martian Manhunter this week, and I'm aware when I'm writing it that I can throw this wild sci-fi stuff in it, but if it doesn't have resonance to people, if it doesn't speak to something inside of them, then all you're doing is moving cool toys around the playground. You want these stories to affect people emotionally, as well as the sillier aspects, the comedy, which I love and is a big part of the book — with things like Mr. Biscuits, as you said, not getting involved in the battle because he's too caught up in watching Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. Things like that just make it fun.
But at the end of the day, this is a story about putting a character's soul on the line, and that's got major emotional resonance for all of us, I think.
Nrama: I assume that when J'onn first set up these other identities, he knew that he didn't want to be used as a weapon?
Williams: Yeah, I think he had suspicions of what was coming. I don't want to give away too much, but for instance, if you read the fill-in issue I've just co-written of Justice League of America #5, there's a little flashback to where he was just before our series started. And you'll see there that he gets a feeling, a strong feeling that something's up, and he possibly has been created to do a very bad thing, to be a weapon, and he doesn't want to do that. This is the conflict inside of him.
So him splitting himself into these different characters served two purposes. On one hand, he got to experience humanity, you know? He loves the Earth and he loves humanity. The best way to experience that was to kind of split himself up and make himself into these people who actually genuinely believed that they were human and could live human lives.
But also, as you'll find out, and as we've seen, it was also partly him protecting himself, if he was right that he was made to do a very bad thing, that he would be harder to track down if there were more parts of him spread around the world. And that process didn't exactly go entirely to plan. And that's kind of where Mr. Biscuits came from.
Nrama: Yeah, let's talk about Mr. Biscuits. To me, he's that part of J'onn that we kind of fell in love with in the old Keith Giffen/J.M. DeMatteis Justice League — that little bit of quirkiness, only you pulled it out into a character all his own.
Williams: Yeah, that's in there. I loved the Giffen and DeMatteis Justice League. It's one of my favorite comic runs; I loved J'onn in it.
Yeah, it's always weird when you get asked to take over a character, telling new stories about a character who's been around for years, with as much love as people have for him and feel they know him, you want to do something new, but you also want to retain the essence of why people loved him or her.
I think you're right. I mean, the name is a little tiny nod to J'onn's previous love of biscuits — and Oreos in particular — but it's also, it's hopefully showing something new as well.
He's more like an imaginary childhood character. He's like something out of a Miyazaki film, I always thought. There are too many influences for Mr. Biscuits. Roald Dahl and Studio Ghibli films, because I could see him being a character in either one of those.
And it was nice to try to come up with something, a character who was really left field for a mainstream DC superhero book. You know? There's all this action going on and big, broad strokes, and then you can undercut it with someone who's not of this world.
Nrama: To me, he does come across as a children's book character because he's so protective of a child.
Williams: Yeah, and I think the child protects him. This is one of the things I really like about those first couple of episodes and his relationship with Alicia. He's telling the truth — he doesn't know if he's good or bad. He says to her, I don't know whether I'm good or bad, but I do know that I love biscuits, is all he knows.
She believes in him. She helps him. And she says to him, no, you are good. And I think that's a core emotional decision. And that'll play a big part down the read. And if she hadn't done that, then he may well have gone in the other direction.
Nrama: I find it interesting that for the heart, you chose a female character. Was that on purpose?
Williams: Yeah! In part.
Nrama: And yet she's not exactly soft and mushy… I mean, she's a badass and a thief.
Williams: Yes, but Pearl really, I think she's got a good sense of right or wrong, even though she is a thief when you meet her. But I always felt like she's almost like the emotional core of the group. The other aspects of him are a little bit more all over the place, a little bit more compromised.
But when things start going south, she's the one who seems to know right or wrong, and know the best thing to do.
Yeah, I wanted to get to the sort of feminine side of J'onn as well, I suppose.
Again, he's an alien, and he splits himself into humanity. He wants to experience humanity. Well, it'd be pretty stupid for him to just want to experience the male side of humanity, you know. And so it's him embracing all sides of us, really.
Nrama: OK, let's back up a moment, because this story has taken on a whole different meaning in the wake of the Paris attacks. I know it's taking a different turn in issue #7, as we head to the living Mars. But up until this point, it's been really playing with the fear of the Martians hidden among us who are going to harm Earth. Terrorism is what scares us now, and you've definitely worked that into this story, even though it's about aliens.
Williams: Yeah, it's difficult — I really wouldn't want to make any comments on the Paris attacks. It's just such an awful thing.
But the Mars threat going back to the Orson Wells famous radio broadcast — that was all almost a reflection of a fear of Communism at the time in the United States and in the U.K. And it holds that idea of aliens being among us, and you don't know whether, the person who sat on the train next to you, if you can trust them. And that's very sadly part of day-to-day life. And now, with the election that's going on at the moment — you know, Donald Trump wanting to build a wall. These are real issues that are out there in the world.
So I think for a story to have, again, to have resonance with people and to not just be about alien worlds and alien creatures and shape-shifters. All that stuff is perfectly fun, but I think if you want to have a story that emotionally connects with people, it's got reflect with all of us the world we see outside our window.
Nrama: Now, with issue #7, the story will shift gears to focus on Martian Manhunter and friends on Mars, trying to save the Earth, right?
Williams: Yes, Issue #6 was the end of the first arc, and that's a big, game-changing moment. And the second arc, as you'll see, is on the "living Mars."
Nrama: Does that mean Earth is gone? The Martians were trying to replace Earth with the living Mars, weren't they?
Williams: As with many things in this book, the plan didn't go 100 percent as it was supposed to, and there are major complications. And major complications in issue #7 means that the Earth didn't go, and the living Mars and Earth may now be a bit too close for comfort.
But I just kind of felt like this was the next progression. The first arc took place on Earth. It's a story about a Martian. The second arc should take place on Mars.
As you found out in the cliffhanger of issue #6, when J'onn reformed — finally, we've got J'onn J'onzz back in the book, because he hasn't really been in it in his traditional sense for a few issues. But also his other aspects came through with him.
It's kind of interesting, because — going back to the origins of this book — DC said they wanted to make J'onn a bit more three dimensional. I figured the best way to do that was to have characters that would show different aspects of his personality.
And suddenly, he finds that he's at odds with these other aspects.
Nrama: That holds true for all of us though, doesn't it?
Williams: Yeah, we're all kind of, a little bit at war with ourselves at any given moment. You know, what the heart wants the head might not want. And that's something that will continue. But we're doing it in more of a traditional sci-fi setting in the second arc, although I'm always aware of… you want to kind of undercut the sci-fi tropes. And hopefully, that's what the book has done thus far, and that's what we want to continue to do.
Nrama: Your discussion about the head wanting one thing and the heart wanting someone else brings us to Mould. I was so surprised he pushed everyone in there. I feel like he's a villain!
Williams: Well, that's just it. Mould is supposed to be J'onn's intelligence. And in issue #6, Pearl, who's supposed to be J'onn's heart, fights back against the Martians and chooses to defend Earth. But then his intellect makes this very cold decision.
And there is a battle going on within J'onn in this story. It's a good old writing maxim, you know, it's not enough to put these characters' bodies on the line, you've got to put their souls on the line. And that's what's going on with J'onn. There's a battle here, and we may all get wiped out in the process.
Nrama: Interesting. We haven't talked about the art. Is Eddy sticking around on the book for upcoming issues?
Williams: Yeah, it's still Eddy Barrows, and Eber Ferreira on inks, and Gabe Eltaeb on colors. There's a fill-in arc on issue #7, with Ronan Cliquet on pencils and Marc Deering on inks. Eddy will be back on issue #8.
And this story goes to some big, epic places in the second arc. It's a lot more widescreen than the first arc, but we're going to go toward a finale which is going to be about as widescreen as comics get, I think. We'll retain the same tone and the same characters, but just tip the entire feel in a slightly different direction.
Nrama: And the finale will come around what issue? Or do you know?
Williams: The second arc finale will come somewhere around issue #12. And we'll see where we go from there. There are interesting things in store for J'onn J'onzz.