Spoilers ahead for this week's Martian Manhunter #6.
In this week’s Martian Manhunter #6, readers learn the “Rebirth” version of the day Martian civilization burned, causing J’onn J’onnz to travel to Earth.
It’s an event that series writer Steve Orlando calls J’onn’s “lowest point, his ultimate tragedy.” And the character’s role in the event greatly informs the story as the 12-issue series heads into its second half.
Featuring art by Riley Rossmo, Martian Manhunter has been exploring two different eras of the life of J’onn J’onnz — his life on Mars before his society’s destruction, and his early years on Earth as a police detective.
One of the more surprising elements of the story has been that J’onn was a corrupt “Manhunter” on Mars. As Orlando describes it, his time on Earth is giving him a second chance after the disastrous events that led to his civilization’s collapse.
Newsarama discussed the half-done Martian Manhunter series with the writer as it establishes a new version of the destruction of Mars and rounds the corner of the story’s halfway point.
Newsarama: As you reach the halfway point in Martian Manhunter, how does the series change going forward? Is it still what you’d call a “science fiction detective story”? Or has the revelation of the last issue made the story switch to a different direction?
Steve Orlando: It's without a doubt still hard sci-fi, certainly still a science fiction detective tale. But the picture is becoming more clear now that it's truly a story about personal tragedy and personal rebirth.
Martian Manhunter #6 is J'onn's lowest point, his ultimate tragedy. And now we see that the two stories, Earth and Mars, have been traveling opposite paths, one to J'onn's worst moment, and one to his best.
As we build to the conclusion, things are only going to get stranger, but we'll also see how J'onn's life on Earth is his best life, how the people he didn't think he could trust, like Meade, are his greatest asset, and how in realizing all that and rescuing both himself and Ashley Addams, he becomes, finally, the Martian Manhunter.
Nrama: One of the more surprising parts of J’onn’s past is his corruption, for which he pays dearly in this issue. Why did you choose this approach to J’onn’s life on Mars, and how will his evolution from then to now inform the story as it moves into the second half?
Orlando: The corruption on Mars, and likewise J'onn's compromising choices, were chosen to deepen and make more real our vision of Mars before it's lost. There is no one mindset or moral code on Earth, and likewise there shouldn't be on Mars.
Earth is J'onn's second chance at life, so it is now also his second chance at being the hero he always wanted to be. He's learned from his loss, from compromising himself for the good of others, when in fact he should provide that good and safety without selling his soul. He knows now he has to work harder, and if he'd never made mistakes on Mars, he'd have nowhere to grow.
Like us, J'onn is becoming a hero, and like us too, finally, he'll have earned it through hard work, personally, emotionally, physically, and mentally.
Nrama: In this issue, readers find out what really happened on the day that Martian civilization collapsed. It seems particularly tied into the story you’re telling in this maxi-series.
Orlando: Issue #6 shows the worst day of J'onn's life – the Death of Mars. And it's intrinsically tied to our maxi, this is the moment J'onn thought he could never come back from, thought would be his narrative forever. It's also the moment chance intervenes, and he gets the second chance we all wish we could get.
J'onn's failure on Mars is the moment he's been digging himself up from since issue #1 in the present, it's why he can't give up being John Jones, and it's why it will be such a victory for him when he finally finds the hero inside.
Nrama: We’ve learned more about Charnn’s background. How did you come up with this origin for the character, and what does it say about his actions now on Earth?
Orlando: Charnn is a reflection of Martian Culture and Martian Flesh. Previously, we've looked at a telepathic, shapeshifting culture, and built J'onn's adversary by pivoting on the mind: this was the case with Ma'alefa'ak. But as we discussed J'onn's own journey in this book, overcoming what's trapped inside him, claiming his Martian flesh and identity as his own, Charnn arose as a mirror of that journey.
Here was someone from a culture who could look like anything, whose flesh has always been inconstant, punished by making that flesh constant. His own body is a prison, literally, in the same way J'onn's is emotionally and thematically.
Charnn is literally the nightmare J'onn sees himself as, and so likewise his actions on Earth, his disregard for humanity as anything but a means to an end, reflects J'onn's fears about how Earth would view him were he to reveal himself as an alien.
Nrama: The flesh freezing scene last issue was particularly gruesome. How much did your collaboration with Riley Rossmo inform the direction that Charnn’s story went?
Orlando: A huge amount! Riley and I work a style that's very open and allows us to innovate, improvise, and provide some of the freshest storytelling in comics. This scene could've never happened with someone else, because of how well Riley and I know each other after two other projects and some change ("Night of the Monster Men" and Batman/The Shadow – get them!).
When we approach a scene like this, we'll talk about the emotional resonance it has to have, what it means, and then we'll talk about artistic, comic, and film influences on the scene to give the flavor. Once we've worked that out, it's all down the trust and respect for my collaborators.
And I always know Riley, Ivan, and Deron will overdeliver.
Nrama: Now that we understand Charnn’s history with J’onn, the story seems to be relatable because it speaks to overcoming mistakes of the past. Was that one of the themes you wanted to explore?
Orlando: Absolutely! The adage has always been that despite J'onn being an alien, he's one of the most human characters in the DCU. With this book, we wanted to truly dig in to what that means, and that meant putting him on a hard sci-fi version of the journey each and every one of us takes in our own lives.
Nrama: You’ve introduced several new characters to the Martian Manhunter mythos. Have any of them emerged as favorites? And will there be more new concepts and characters in the second half of the series?
Orlando: There absolutely will be! With an honorable mention to Spaceman the Iguana, I have to say that what's coming next is probably my favorite as characters go, and the upcoming ventures in the mindscapes of the living and the dead are some of my favorite as concepts go.
Not to mention, Meade's backstory in issue #8 is probably one of the most emotional issues of a comic book I've ever been part of. She and John Jones were heroes long before J'onn J'onzz arrived.
Nrama: Anything else you can tease about upcoming issues? Even though we’ve seen the end of Mars, will we continue to see scenes from the past?
Orlando: We'll see what Charnn's been up to since he got to Earth, and he's been here a while! We'll see “Jones and Meade: Year One"! And we'll see J'onn go face to face with the “Three Beasts of his Despair”. The series is only getting wilder!
Nrama: Then to finish up, is there anything else you want to tell readers about Martian Manhunter?
Orlando: This is the Martian Manhunter story, paying love to all his previous incarnations and as a standalone, welcoming science fiction fans who've never been familiar with J'onn J'onzz before. Sweat and heart goes into every issue, and this is without a doubt the work of Riley's career as well as my own! Hunt it down, and see why J'onn is the icon I've always known he is, and have waited my entire life to introduce to you!