Detective John Jones is you. He is me, he is the burly, but gentle man you bumped into on the subway last Wednesday, he’s your fishing buddy, your most frequent diner patron. J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, is something entirely different — something alien. That alien thing is in the end as worthy of our affection and understanding as ourselves, but it is also shrouded in mystery, shockingly flexible (literally and figuratively), intangible, and defined by morals entirely different from our own. This is the core conceit of writer Steve Orlando and artist Riley Rossmo’s Martian Manhunter, and, as the real stakes and narrative hooks take hold here in issue three, it is fantastic.
What’s it about? DC’s preview reads:
Detective Diane Meade knows the shocking truth: her partner is not the real John Jones! With a gun to his head, J’onn J’onnz must explain his first horrifying night on Earth, and how he came to wear her partner’s face…but even as they speak, Middleton’s serial killer is back at his bloody work!
See? Stakes. Hooks. Arguably the kinds of things that were missing a bit from the first two issues of the series (not that I minded much) which Orlando ramps up here on several fronts. A rapidly deteriorating J’onnz begs for understanding from an increasingly disparaging human partner, several mysterious and gruesome murders, a great deal closer to understanding how J’onnz becomes Jones, and more. It’s a rapidly paced, straight-forward, and illuminating issue that should clear up any questions readers may have about where this takes place in the larger Manhunter timeline, deftly avoids all the Mars jargon that has bogged down the first two issues and delivers a series of emotional punches that hit on several levels. Is J’onnz really such a bad guy for hiding away himself from people that so clearly hate outsiders? The narrative offers up no clear answer to this difficult question, especially one to an alien who stares for hours at a dead body until remorse bubbles to the surface. It’s as grey as those little aliens that crashed in Roswell. A middle ground between heroism and something far less savory – all the better for it.
However, delivering on all of these threads also means that this issue feels a little disparate and exposition heavy. J’onnz retells the transition to Jones in this issue, and while that’s incredibly relevant to the plot as well as emotionally resonant, it’s very straightforward and by-the-numbers. Some more dialogue or even other characters reacting would’ve done a lot of working in making such an important scene more dynamic. Especially as snaps forwards and back in time, to other characters and more makes things slightly difficult to follow.
Rossmo’s artistic effort, though, is the most dynamic yet. I am utterly amazed that he still has more to offer. But he does. A sharp turn into horror – melting faces, elongated tongues, and so, so, so many teeth elevates this story from something just alien to something scary. The threat nipping at the heels of the small town Jones finds himself feels very real now after a fantastic and frightening cliffhanger, and J’onnz himself feels ready enough to handle them (wouldn’t want to meet that guy in a dark alley). A scrapbook paneling, with selective emphasis – lines, borders, and almost polaroid-like framing reminiscent of the work Sorrentino is doing in Gideon Falls also works incredibly well here. Its choreography that succeeds in conveying the pastiche of memories, perhaps selectively presented as exactly what they are – snapshots of a life selected and made, understood and then lived through glimpses without full context. A perfect pairing to a narrative about a morally dubious alien donning the skin of someone more upstanding to become something better.
All in all, Orlando and Rossmo continue to work together as well as ever and Martian Manhunter‘s third issue continues to exceed my expectations for the character and those of the superhero genre in general, even if this issue is slightly more conventional than the previous two.
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