Steve Orlando Aims for the Iconic J’onn J’onzz Story in Martian Manhunter #1

DC Comics' Most Beloved B-Lister Finally Gets His Breakout Solo Series, Illustrated by Riley Rossmo

Comics Features Steve Orlando
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Steve Orlando Aims for <i>the</i> Iconic J&#8217;onn J&#8217;onzz Story in <i>Martian Manhunter</i> #1

Positioned in the prestigious footsteps of DC’s recently concluded Mister Miracle maxi-series, Martian Manhunter is set to examine the longtime Justice League standby and supporting character in what writer Steve Orlando has described as his “dream project.” In initial announcements and via Twitter, Orlando has teased a deeper look at Martian culture than fans have previously seen, as well as a focus on J’onn J’onzz’ double life as John Jones, police detective, in an almost Twin Peaks-ian off-kilter murder mystery. Artist Riley Rossmo, who collaborated with Orlando on Batman/The Shadow, brings his unrestrained style to one of his most fitting subjects yet, as J’onn’s shape-changing abilities and Martian heritage give Rossmo license to go (green) balls to the wall with Dr. Seuss-meets-David Cronenberg designs. Mister Miracle proved there was a healthy market for bold, relatively standalone takes on DC’s perennial B-list, and Martian Manhunter has both the leading man and creative team best poised to carry on that banner.

From the onset of the first issue, on stands today, it’s clear Orlando and Rossmo are telling a new story for J’onn. Fans of the character may be passingly familiar with his origin, but this debut chapter hints at never-before-revealed details about J’onn’s family, his career back on Mars and myriad other particulars of Mars culture. In advance of Martian Manhunter #1’s release, Orlando took some time to answer some of Paste’s burning (no pun intended) questions. We dig into what makes this origin unique, the process of creating Martian culture from the ground up and how DC’s favorite green alien may be more human than we realize. Check out the full interview below, and be sure to nab Martian Manhunter #1 from your local comic shop or preferred digital retailer today.


Martian Manhunter #1 Cover Art by Riley Rossmo

Paste: Martian Manhunter often gets criticized as “just another Superman.” What makes Martian Manhunter different from Kal and other DCU characters in your opinion?

Steve Orlando: To me, it’s all in his story. It’s often said J’onn is one of the most human characters in the DCU despite, from all outward appearances, being much more alien than the majority of his peers. And there’s a wonderful pride to the fact that he’s a shapeshifter who could choose to fit in, but he makes the decision to enter the world wearing a body that is clearly alien, which says to us, “I am NOT like you, but I am WITH you.” Which I think is beautiful.

But his story is, I think, one of the most relatable of his iconic peers. Superman was a baby when Krypton was destroyed; Batman a child when his parents were murdered. It was not their job to stop the catastrophe that created them. But J’onn was a philosopher and lawperson. Even if we know that as one man he could never have saved everyone on Mars, like many who are the sole or one of the few survivors of a disaster, he wonders what he could’ve done different; he carries the guilt and responsibility of someone who in the broadest, even irrational sense, failed to do their job. He couldn’t protect his family, he couldn’t protect his fellow Martians. It’s perhaps irrational, but it’s EMOTIONAL, and the emotional is the human, to me.

So J’onn’s story of finding pride, finding warmth and compassion in the face of that, is the same journey we all face in adult life when confronted with failure. He’s a beacon that it gets better, that no mistake is impossible to overcome, and we can all set our path towards happiness and heroism.

Paste: Your take on J’onn is pretty different from what fans might be used to from other recent appearances. This even seems like a “Year One” story for Martian Manhunter—we knew some basic details about his family and past, but you flesh out many new aspects of Martian culture and Martian Manhunter himself. Was that as intimidating as it sounds? How did you approach your world building?

Orlando: Approaching any character with a long-term legacy with readers, especially one that stretches across multiple mediums, is always intimidating. But the freedom DC gave us to build our Mars from the ground up was, even more than that, exciting! We wanted to spend more time fleshing out J’onn’s life on Mars, because forging an emotional connection to that time will only strengthen the tragedy of his loss, and the triumph of his emergence as the hero we know—the Martian Manhunter. Our approach was both simple and impossible: don’t think like a human being! Emotional concepts on Mars may be familiar, because I like to think things like love, compassion, shame, pride and more, are universal. It’s only how they express those concepts that’s different. So as we approach Mars, at every step we’d ask ourselves: are we designing this as we are because it’s right for the rules of Martian culture as we’ve defined them? Or are we designing it, are we making this choice, because it’s familiar and easy to us as humans? If there was even a question, we forced ourselves to revisit the element and make sure it matched our goal: alien on the surface, universal underneath.

Paste: You probably read a lot of Martian Manhunter books in your research for this story. What were some of your favorites? Was there anything outside of Martian Manhunter’s previous comics that had an influence on your story and the look you developed with Riley Rossmo?

Orlando: I love all of J’onn’s appearances. His first solo series in my lifetime was the [John] Ostrander and [Tom] Mandrake series from the late ‘90s. I think it has a passionate, rich approach to Martian culture, relationships and sensuality, and is a strong influence on our own approach. We aren’t doing the same thing, but we have the same lens: real, mature, science fiction. We treat J’onn’s culture like a living culture, and give it every facet that any other living culture would have. That said, we’re drawing from J’onn’s original Detective Comics appearances, his appearances in JLA, JLA: Year One, Justice League International, as well as the [Eddy] Barrows/ [Rob] Williams and [A.J.] Lieberman/ [Al] Barrionuevo runs.

Beyond that, Martian literature as a whole has been a huge influence. Not just [Edgar Rice] Burroughs, but Across the Zodiac, arguably the first science fiction novel from the 1880s.

Martian Manhunter #1 Interior Art by Riley Rossmo & Ivan Plascencia

Paste: Can you talk a bit about what Riley brings to the book and how the two of you have worked together throughout this project?

Orlando: Riley is indispensable, as are Deron Bennett and Ivan Plascencia. This book is a true collaboration—each of us working to give the rest of the team room to innovate, to reinvent our storytelling and challenge ourselves. It’s risky! But this give-and-take, looser creative style is something Riley and I pieced together across “Night of the Monster Men” and Batman/The Shadow. We, all four of us, are the co-creators of the book. Riley thinks about things in ways I could never imagine, and as a new father he brings incredible emotional weight to our scenes on Mars. As one of the most innovative artists in the comics medium, he brings a look and inventiveness to every page of Martian Manhunter that’s unlike anything you’ve seen in comics before.

Paste: The Martian Manhunter doesn’t have as many familiar foes as his other Justice League peers. Does your series revamp or revitalize any of his previous enemies, or should we expect brand-new threats to surface?

Orlando: Trick question! We’ll be revitalizing a variety of aspects of Martian culture, and in turn that could certainly lead to different and new threats in J’onn’s future. But the biggest threat to J’onn might be accepting his past, and facing his future with pride and heroism, the traits we know as those who love him that he’s destined to discover in himself.

Martian Manhunter #1 Interior Art by Riley Rossmo & Ivan Plascencia

Paste: J’onn takes on three different looks during the course of this first issue. We see him in his human form and in two separate Martian forms. How do you think that fluidity of physical identity affects J’onn (and/or John)?

Orlando: And there MIGHT be more to come, hmm… The ability to wear different bodies is a keystone of Green Martian culture in the world Riley and I have built for Martian Manhunter. On Mars, the Social Shape is a body Martians will wear in public; it’s what’s unique about them INSIDE, expressed OUTSIDE. And so, for J’onn, who is incredibly conflicted with his Martian form and what it represents to him, these different bodies, especially that of Detective John Jones, offer him a chance to express maybe not what’s inside of him, not yet, but what he WISHES were inside him. What he’d LIKE to have in there, and is working towards finding. A hero.

Paste: Before his reappearance in Metal and No Justice, it had been a long time since fans last saw Martian Manhunter. What makes this maxi-series important for the character going forward? Do you see it connecting back to what’s going on in Justice League, or is this more of a standalone journey?

Orlando: Martian Manhunter is without question a standalone story. At the same time, taking place early in J’onn’s life on Earth and before he debuts there as the Martian Manhunter, it easily dovetails with everything else you’ve seen in the current, present-day DCU. What’s coming up in Justice League is incredible! We’re working parallel to that in a different phase of J’onn’s life. This aims to be THE iconic J’onn J’onzz story, like Mister Miracle, like Batman: Year One or The Killing Joke, or Daredevil: Born Again. And we’re doing our damndest to give it to you! Can’t wait for you to see!

Martian Manhunter #1 Interior Art by Riley Rossmo & Ivan Plascencia

Martian Manhunter Concept Art by Riley Rossmo

Martian Manhunter Concept Art by Riley Rossmo

Martian Manhunter Concept Art by Riley Rossmo

Martian Manhunter #1 Variant Cover Art by Joshua Middleton