I said it a couple months back, but The Martian Manhunter may be the most underrated character in comics.
When I was a kid, I barely knew who J’onn J’onzz was. Most of my childhood comic book fandom came long after the original Big Seven era of the Justice League, just following Justice League International and prior to Grant Morrison coming in, so J’onn was more or less a non-factor; just that dude who pretended to be Bloodwynd and then led the Justice League Task Force.
However, as I grew up and became a more sophisticated comics fan, I came to appreciate The Martian Manhunter to the point where he’s become among my favorite characters. He occupies a unique place in the DC Universe a living hub for so many facets, he’s incredibly versatile as far as the potential to transcend genres, he’s got a rad power set and his whole warrior poet persona is just plain cool.
There’s a great Martian Manhunter ongoing or anthology book out there just waiting to happen, and I give Geoff Johns and Pete Tomasi credit and appreciation for getting the ball rolling with detective story/sci-fi mash-up they’ve been weaving in Brightest Day.
That said, as much potential as J’onn has, it can all be scuttled by the wrong artistic portrayal. The Martian Manhunter has a unique design to say the least, one that gives artists a lot of room to play and create either something incredible or something laughable. I mean, those criss cross suspenders alone can be a pitfall waiting to happen for even the most seasoned of pros.
So here are five guys who have made J’onn J’onzz look good—and two more for good measure and honorable mention.
He only spent a few issues really on JLA before making his way over to The Ultimates, but during his short tenure, I’d say Bryan Hitch perfectly captured the raw power as well as the defining tragedy of The Martian Manhunter.
I’m pretty sure nobody has quite the tenure on J’onn J’onzz that Tom Mandrake does, having drawn his one and only ongoing series for nearly three years. I can’t say Mandrake’s take was necessarily my personal favorite, but he did lend the character a regal majesty and in many ways defined his modern look.
5. SAL VELLUTO
The 90’s were a crazy time where pretty much every iconic super hero got at least one iconic makeover, be it a mullet or a leather jacket; Martian Manhunter more or less kept his traditional costume, interestingly enough—I mean the guy does wear a red harness and blue pirate boots—instead hitting the gym a bit or the dealer behind the gym a lot and putting muscles on top of his muscles on top of his muscles. That said, Justice League Task Force artist Sal Velluto made the roided up Last Son of Mars look pretty damn awesome, accentuating his buff bod with a focus on facial “acting” that could range from goofy to intense.
4. HOWARD PORTER
As the initial artist on Grant Morrison’s JLA, Howard Porter was tasked with restoring the Justice League to a glory they hadn’t experienced in some time, which he did admirably by tapping into what made each character a legend in the first place, brought it to the visual forefront, and put a coat of polish on to bring them into a new era. When it came to The Martian Manhunter, Porter took the tested approach of using J’onn’s musculature to show he was a bad ass super hero, while conveying emotion through his face, be it that furrowed beetle brow or seemingly endless ruby eyes. Howard Porter proved that classic costumes and looks don’t necessarily need to be reinvented to make them great, just treated with reverence and enthusiasm.
3. DARWYN COOKE
In his classic DC: The New Frontier series, Darwyn Cooke brought The Martian Manhunter to the forefront of his tale of the DC Universe breaking into the Silver Age, paralleling his arrival and emergence on Earth with the birth of a new age of heroes. Cooke took great pains to not only give J’onn the depth needed to take the lead in such an epic, but he did so in every step of his evolution, from bizarre alien invader to frightened captive and finally to virtuous champion for justice with a stop as hardboiled detective along the way. As I’ve said, what makes J’onn such a great character is how many varied sides he has to him and how many worlds he walks in; Darwyn Cooke took incredible care and added such delicate craftsmanship to each facet of the Martian Manhunter that he demonstrated not just one phenomenal portrayal, but several. It’s not easy to make the squinting, grinning J’onn J’onzz of the Silver Age look as cool as he does in New Frontier, but Cooke more than pulled it off.
2. KEVIN MAGUIRE
People tend to forget, but The Martian Manhunter spent years as a cipher and unsung hero really until the birth of Justice League International, and while Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis deserve tremendous credit for infusing him with personality, Kevin Maguire should get perhaps just as much for helping that newfound character shine through. Like I mentioned with Howard Porter above, Maguire felt no need to make any drastic—or really any—changes to J’onn’s costume, he just accentuated the strong points that made it stand out to begin with, and then played to his own biggest strength, that being his status as perhaps the best comics artist ever when it comes to faces and expressions. Maguire had a lot of fun playing Jonn’s oversized cranium for laughs, conveying sadness in his eyes or putting a grimace on his mug that let you know this was one pissed off Martian. He may have been an eight-foot-tall green dude in a weird unitard, but Kevin Maguire’s Martian Manhunter also felt look he could be the guy next door (in some bizarre universe).
1. DOUG MAHNKE
I’m a little disappointed that the only piece by Doug Mahnke I could find on the entire freakin’ Internet has J’onn not in his classic costume or even normal form, but on the other hand, I think it backs my case that the current Green Lantern artist can at least lay solid claim to being the best Martian Manhunter artist of them all. Just look at those eyes: Mahnke packs a soul into J’onn J’onzz’ eyes, making him incredibly distant and otherworldly, eerily compassionate and unquestionably mysterious just with those two little orbs. Mahnke uses caricature just as effectively as detail to bring his characters to life, and from his JLA run on, he has adopted the Manhunter From Mars as one of his signature darlings; it makes perfect sense, as J’onn possesses that quirkiness Mahnke loves to twist around and create beautiful art from, but also a powerful and pure design he pays homage and respect to each time he draws him. Mahnke drew one of the very best Martian Manhunter stories in Joe Kelly’s underrated “Trial By Fire,” he was the perfect choice to lay him to temporary rest during Final Crisis, and any time he gets his pen on the character it’s a haunting and memorable visual treat.