It was an amazing moment when Hank Henshaw revealed his true identity to Supergirl’s big sister Alex Danvers. It was a moment of majesty and grandeur that was not only a major plot twist in the world of CBS’s Supergirl, it was also a moment that opened the hit series up to the entire DC Universe. You see, J’onn J’onzz, the superhero known as the Martian Manhunter, may not be a household name, but the green-skinned super-Martian has the distinction of being one of the most important Silver Age characters in all of comics. It can even be said without hyperbole that without the Martian Manhunter there may never have been a Justice League of America or a Silver Age of comics.
If you’re not a schooled comic book reader, you may be asking, just who is this J’onn J’onzz and what might this mean for the world of Supergirl? Well, to answer that question, we have to hit the way-back machine and go back to the year 1955. The mid-50s were a dark time for superheroes. The Golden Age was over and most comic companies were getting by on teen comics, westerns, or horror anthologies. Of the hundreds upon hundreds of superheroes that were once published during the height of the Golden Age, only Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were left (with Green Arrow and Aquaman surviving in back-up features). A few companies tried superhero revivals to the sound of crickets and the Marvel Universe was still over half a decade away. And then Martian Manhunter arrived in the pages of Detective Comics #225 (Nov. 1955).
Our favorite Martian was created by writer Joseph Samachson and illustrator by Joe Certa and one wonders if the two creators had any inkling that their creation would appear on a major network TV series sixty years later. After all, Martian Manhunter was just meant to be a back-up feature to Batman in Detective Comics. But there was something special about this Atomic Age hero, something, despite the character’s humble origins defied expectations, that was compelling and everlasting.
J’onn J’onzz’s first story is entitled “The Strange Experiment of Dr. Erdel.” This tale saw the future Manhunter from Mars pulled from his home planet to Earth by Dr. Erdel’s experimental transport beam. When Erdel got a look at the strange visitor from Mars, the brilliant scientist suffered a fatal heart attack and the poor hapless alien is trapped on Earth. Instead of lamenting his fate, J’onn J’onzz decided to help the people of his new world and took on the form of a human police detective named John Jones. And thus, the first of countless Silver Age DC heroes is born.
This was some pretty standard sci-fi stuff and could have been just another one and done pre-Silver Age sci-fi yarn but there was something special about this Martian Manhunter. For one, his unique appearance – green hued, bald headed, powerful and regal – makes him a perfect combination of superhero visual tropes and Atomic Age sci-fi fair. Plus, the character is kind of a combination of Superman and Batman. J’onn J’onzz used his brains to solve crimes and combined his Bruce Wayne-like deductive acumen with his Superman-like alien powers. In fact, back in these formative days of J’onn J’onzz, it was quite unclear on what exactly the alien’s powers were. Honestly, during those early days, it seemed J’onn J’onzz could do whatever the story needed him to do with a power-set that read like a super-power wishlist. His vast capabilities included precognitive abilities, telepathy, flight, “Atomic vision”, super-hearing, super-strength, intangibility, ESP, invulnerability, super-speed, shape-shifting, and invisibility. That’s like every major superhero plus a Skrull! Even J’onn J’onzz’s famed weakness, his vulnerability to fire, only affected the Martian when he was in his natural Martian form.
There were many stories in Detective Comics that featured the trench coat and fedora wearing detective in lieu of the more visually striking Martian. One major difference between J’onn and Superman, at least in those early years, was that Mars, unlike Krypton, was not a dead world. J’onn J’onzz made frequent contact with his people, even his parents, and as time went on, J’onn J’onzz became more of a standard superhero than a beat detective with a sci-fi bent. In the early salvos of the Silver Age, J’onn J’onzz starred in some simplistic but fun Silver Age stories, but his major historical impact took place when he began to rub shoulders with greatness.
In 1960, the Silver Age was in full swing. The Flash and Green Lantern had made their respective debuts and a new age of superhero drama arrived. Like it did with the Justice Society of America in the 1940s, DC decided that it would gather its greatest champions in one book. The Justice League of America premiered in The Brave and the Bold #28 (March 1960).
For this new team, writer Gardner Fox chose characters from many corners of the DCU. Fox chose the stalwart holdovers from the Golden Age, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, the new kids on the block Flash and Green Lantern, and even cherry picked a few characters from DC’s best received back-up features. Rounding out the team were back-up superstars Aquaman, and of course, our strange visitor from another planet J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter. Now, as a member of the JLA, J’onn J’onzz was much more than just a supporting player to Batman; J’onn J’onzz was a hero worthy of being on the same team as all of DC’s greats. In fact, when DC became wary of overexposing Superman and Batman, J’onn J’onzz served as a stand-in for Superman in many a JLA story.
At this time, J’onn J’onzz even received his own feature in the pages of House of Mystery where the Martian Manhunter encountered some truly strange alien menaces, and even adopted a supporting cast of his own (including a Bat-Mite like magical imp of his own named Zook).
Soon, the character had grown so far from his Detective Comics roots that DC did away with the Detective John Jones identity and had J’onn J’onzz become a more mainstream superhero. He even took up the identity of Marco Xavier to infiltrate a crime cartel.
J’onn J’onzz was breaking ground in other books as well as he was featured in the very first of countless team-up stories in the pages of The Brave and the Bold. In this momentous issue of DC’s most popular team up title, J’onn J’onzz teamed with Green Arrow (DC’s go to Batman stand in) to begin the The Brave and the Bold team tradition.
Sadly, the Martian Manhunter’s heyday was not to last. When Superman became more of a constant presence in the pages of Justice League of America, J’onn J’onzz is shuffled out of the title. During the same time, his cover feature in House of Mystery was canceled after which, J’onn J’onzz’s people came for him and took him back to Mars. With this transition from Earth superhero to the leader of New Mars, the days of the Martian Manhunter as a central part of the DCU had come to a close.
The next fifteen years saw the Last Son of Mars pop up from time to time in the pages of a random selection of DC comics, but the character that was once central to the DCU was now something of an afterthought. In the mid-80s, many JLAers quit the team, leaving an opening for the Martian Manhunter to return. This time, the stay was permanent as J’onn J’onzz became an indelible part of DC Comics. Everything old was new again as J’onn J’onzz readopted his John Jones identity and was primed to once again become a major player.
That day arrived in 1987 in the pages of Justice League #1 by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire. This beloved era, colloquially known as the “Bwah-Ha-Ha” era, was a hilarious take on the current pantheon of DCU heroes. Along with Batman, J’onn J’onzz represented the DC old guard and served as a mentor figure for this younger, much sillier, Justice League. The tone might have been breezy, but within the pages of this new Justice League, the Martian Manhunter was gifted with more character development and back story than in any era previous.
This take on DC’s premiere team was so popular that a number of spin-off series were green-lit including one starring the Martian Manhunter. The 1988 four issue miniseries Martian Manhunter by J.M. DeMatteis and Mark Badger added many new elements to the legacy of J’onn J’onzz, elements that impact the character both on TV and in comics to this day. First off, the series revealed that the familiar bald, green humanoid form fans had grown so familiar with was not J’onn J’onzz’s true appearance. No, DeMatteis and Badger introduced a very unfamiliar, very alien J’onn J’onzz, a truly unsettling change from the familiar, friendly, green detective from space first introduced in Detective Comics. The series explained that J’onn J’onzz’s more familiar form was taken as a compromise between his new-found humanity and his Martian heritage.
The series also revealed that J’onn J’onzz was not only lost in space but time as well. DeMatteis and Badger established that Erdel’s beam pulled J’onn J’onzz from the distant past, a story wrinkle that gave the character of J’onn J’onzz an even greater sense of isolation and loneliness.
As the Martian Manhunter limited series made J’onn J’onzz more alien, the Justice League continued to add elements of humanization to the character. It’s hard to imagine this level of silliness inflicted upon the stern and stoic Martian Manhunter, but in the pages of this very different Justice League, J’onn J’onzz became addicted to, of all things, Oreos. And you know what, it all worked. While he munched on his beloved sandwich cookies, J’onn J’onzz played the straight man to such characters as Blue Beetle, Guy Gardner, and Booster Gold.
J’onn J’onzz was once summarily removed from the Justice League in the late 60s but now, after the Martian Manhunter’s run as straight man and de facto leader of the lightest era in League history, it was hard to imagine a Justice League without the Martian.
When Grant Morrison and Howard Porter kicked off their legendary run on their JLA in 1997, J’onn J’onzz was front and center as part of what is now known as the ‘Big 7’, the original seven members of DC’s greatest team. In fact, the first menace this JLA faced was one that was very personal to J’onn. In the first arc of the mega-hit run, the JLA took on the White Martians. This storyline added some history of Mars to the DCU and provided J’onn with some very personal rouges moving forward.
In this era, the deep dive into Martian history did not end with JLA. In 1998, writer John Ostrander and artist Tom Mandrake began work on the Martian Manhunter’s first solo series. That’s right, after all those decades, the first brand spanking new superhero of the Silver Age finally received a comic of his very own! In the pages of this momentous series, Ostrander and Mandrake did a deep dive into the history of J’onn J’onzz. The duo introduced J’onzz’s evil brother Ma’alefa’ak and also tied the history of J’onn’s people into the history of another Milky Way alien race, the Saturians.
This series also debuted the premise that J’onn had many identities the world over to go along with Detective John Jones, a story idea that exponentially increased the story potential of the character. Now, we saw a villainous version of Jemm, Son of Saturn, on Supergirl, so one must wonder if this established bond between the two alien races will be explored on Supergirl. Jemm seemed to have no love for the disguised J’onn. For that matter, one must wonder if Ma’alefa’ak will make an appearance on CBS as a protagonist to J’onn. Whatever the case, plenty of story fuel for the Martian Manhunter character could be found in J’onn J’onzz’s first solo series.
After J’onn’s series ended, the 2000s were a rather uneven time for DC’s second favorite alien hero. The character began the decade as a member of the Justice League but after that, J’onn experienced almost a decade of uneven story direction. He is killed off in the pages of Final Crisis in a rather effective story. As all heroes do, of course the Martian Manhunter came back to life but his resurrection is fraught with confusing fits and starts. There was a miniseries published in 2006 where the costume the TV version of the Martian Manhunter debuts but that series was met with fan ennui as DC seemed to lose all sense of direction when it came to the Last Son of Mars.
But things weren’t all dark for the Martian Manhunter in the 2000s as in the pages of Teen Titans, a very bright light was introduced. The mid 2000s saw the creation of Miss Martian, an ultra powered, adorable teen partner for J’onn. Miss Martian gained main stream popularity on the Young Justice TV show. Hey, a perky, positive hero that follows in the footsteps of an alien champion of justice? That kind of sounds like Kara Zor-El, does it not? Miss Martian sure would fit right into the world of Supergirl, huh?
After DC rebooted its continuity with the New 52, the Martian Manhunter was along for the ride. In this new DCU, J’onn was a member not of the Justice League but of Stormwatch, a superhero team shunted over from the Wildstorm Universe. J’onn didn’t stay with Stormwatch for long, and soon rejoined a new Justice League team.
These days, the Manhunter from Mars stars in his own fascinatingly different solo title written by the immensely talented Rob Williams. This book is a very different take on one of DC’s true greats and stands as a testament to the classic character’s malleability when it comes to story and genre.
And before we sign off, we would be remiss in not mentioning perhaps the greatest comic story ever to feature J’onn J’onzz, Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier. In this story, set in the turbulent and paranoid late 50s, a very classic Martian Manhunter arrives on Earth thanks to Dr. Erdel’s fateful teleportation beam and helps usher in a new age of superheroes in a word driven by a fear of the future.
But for now, it seems like a very classic yet very different J’onn J’onzz will appear on Supergirl. This new J’onn J’onzz will not be John Jones or any of the other identities introduced by Ostrander; this new J’onn J’onzz will be Hank Henshaw, a character with a rather fascinating past of his own. It seems like TVs Martian Manhunter will take the classic J’onn J’onzz mentor role and be a guiding light in Supergirl’s life just as he has been for the entire DC Universe since the bygone days of the 1950s. So keep watching the skies because one of DC’s unsung greats has finally arrived. Now, the rest of the world can see what a great character J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, has always been.