Justice League fans of a certain age (namely mine) often believe that J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, is the heart and soul of the Justice League. A hero who’s been involved in every incarnation of the League, J’onn is the wise father-figure, the mentor, the strategist, and the backbone that holds the Justice League together.
Sadly, it’s not quite true. While he was one of the original founders of the team, he was also the first to leave the team to do other things for a while. Whether it was due to redundant powers next to Superman or just the fact that he’s generally been one of the few major Leaguers to not hold down a solo series for very long, J’onn has been removed from the League more than once, and may be just shy of iconic for many fans were it not for his appearance as one of the founders on the Bruce Timm-produced Justice League animated series.
J’onn J’onzz started off as a sci-fi crime fighter in the pages of Detective Comics in 1955. Originally looking like a bald green ape of some kind, J’onn was zapped to Earth by a scientist who promptly died on the spot. Stranded, J’onn took a human form and, calling himself “John Jones,” hunted down criminals while using his superpowers in complete secret.
Like many characters of his time, J’onn basically had any superpowers he needed at the start, and his basic power-set was invisibility, intangibility, telepathy, shapeshifting, and everything Superman could do. His first few appearances, he’d just turn invisible and use his other powers to bring in the bad guys. He didn’t even take his Martian form too often. And, like other DC heroes of that era, he had a silly weakness. Next to Green Lantern’s inability to do anything about a primary color, J’onn’s may have been the silliest. He was made weak by fire.
J’onn continued to operate in secret. I read his Silver Age adventures in black and white, all of which were back-up stories in various other comics, and they had some weird stuff going on. His ape-like appearance gradually softened until he looked more like a green, bald man. The shapeshifting meant he could assume the powers of anything he turned into, and if it was something that breathed fire, that could be a problem turning back. At one point, he even got hit with a chemical used on Martian criminals that made it impossible to use any of his others powers while he was invisible. This caused him to reveal his existence to the local police who…had no problems with the guy, actually. He even got a weird alien sidekick, Zook, who wasn’t completely useless.
But most importantly, he was a founder of the Justice League alongside Aquaman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Superman, and Batman. Early JLA adventures often had Batman and Superman too busy to help out, so the others went off and fought evil, bringing in the two big names only as needed. Now, J’onn’s inclusion was probably a lot like Aquaman’s, in that the League’s creator Gardner Fox always claimed he included Aquaman because they really didn’t have any other superheroes, and the point of the League as far as DC was concerned was to promote their lesser heroes, not do an all-star team. The more Superman and Batman were used, the less J’onn appeared at any rate, until finally he was written out of the series.
See, while most fans today assume J’onn is, like Superman, the last of his kind, that originally wasn’t true. There were plenty of Martians. J’onn’s parents were spotted once or twice when he “called” home, and one Silver Age story showed he had a kid brother named T’omm J’onzz. That’s not a joke, by the way. He really did have a kid brother by that name. J’onn was removed from the League when a massive catastrophe occurred and nearly wiped out the Martian race, forcing them to move to another planet to rebuild. J’onn went as their leader, and he appeared only sporadically after that until the “Detroit Era”, when Aquaman disbanded the big name League, moved the team to Detroit, and recruited a bunch of new heroes. Those new heroes’ most memorable member was originally Vibe, one of those guys who was memorable for all the wrong reasons.
After that, J’onn was basically back to the League to stay. Post-Crisis was the biggest boost to the character’s visibility. His “Martian form” was changed, he had lost his wife and daughter to a near extinction-level plague on Mars, and he was addicted to Oreos. Plus, he was included in the JLA’s Bwa-ha-ha period, often as the straight man who got headaches dealing with the jerks and jokesters of what had once been a mighty and proud organization.
J’onn’s role as the frequently exasperated leader of the team, someone who remembered what it used to be like when the team just did great deeds, showed off an occasionally marvelous deadpan reaction to things that happened with this bunch. One of my personal favorites, one I will quote when appropriate, happened when Captain America-expy General Glory was confronted by his old (literally old) arch-nemesis.
GENERAL GLORY: It’s my archenemy, the Evil Eye!
J’ONN: Of course it is.
Even changing the tone of the team didn’t leave the Martian Manhunter behind, as the humor era eventually gave way to the Grant Morrison era, and J’onn would be the only one of the Big 7 who didn’t have his own series at the start (he would eventually gain one). Morrison and later writers like Joe Kelly got to do a lot with J’onn since his lack of a solo series gave them more free reign with the character.
Then after the Infinite Crisis, novelist Brad Meltzer took over writing duties…and left J’onn off his new team. Meltzer was a longtime fan of the 70s satellite era of the League, when J’onn was not a member, so J’onn was left off the new line-up. Morrison would remember him when the Final Crisis came around…and it did not go well.
So, J’onn died, but didn’t stay dead for long.
That was one of the good things about the occasional “J’onn goes bad” stories like with Blackest Night and the “Burning Martian” storyline in Joe Kelly’s JLA run: those were about the only times writers remembered just how freakin’ powerful J’onn was, when he was the bad guy. That panel above? Taken from a Blackest Night crossover issue of Green Lantern where J’onn uses all his powers to make Hal and Barry look like a pair of chumps.
J’onn was one of a lucky group of characters, including Aquaman, who were allowed to return to life when Blackest Night was over. He still didn’t quite get back to the Justice League, but then Flashpoint led to the New 52, and the League’s history was rewritten yet again, and J’onn was replaced by Cyborg as one of the League’s founders. He still was hanging around, but apparently, his one time on the main team was summed up in a single panel:
So, J’onn went from founder, to forgotten member, to heart of the team, to forgotten member again. He’s been featured on various animated series, always as a member of the League, and even appeared on Smallville. He’s still bouncing around the DCU, and even serves as a member of one of the various current Justice Leagues, but it does seem the guy may not get as much respect as a lot of his fans thinks he deserves. It’s almost as if DC can’t decide if they want to remember a character who’s been around that long, had a history that exhaustive, and been a vital presence for many memorable stories.