Showcase Presents Martian Manhunter volume 1

By Jack Miller, Joe Samachson, Joe Certa & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1368-8

As the 1950’s opened, comicbook superheroes were in a steep decline, giving way to a steady stream of genre-based he-men and “Ordinary Joes” in extraordinary circumstances.

By the time the “Red-baiting”, witch-hunting Senate hearings and media investigations into causes of juvenile delinquency had finished, the industry was further depleted by the excision of any sort of mature content or themes.

The self-imposed Comics Code Authority took all the hard edges out of the industry, banning horror and crime comics whilst leaving their ghostly, sanitised anodyne shades to inhabit the remaining adventure, western, war and fantasy titles that remained.

American comics could have the bowdlerised concept of evil and felonious conduct but not the simplest kind of repercussion: a world where mad scientists plotted to conquer humanity without killing anybody and cowboys shot guns out of opponents’ hands and severed gun-belts with a well-aimed bullet without ever drawing blood…

Moreover no civil or government official or public servant could be depicted as anything other than a saint…

With corruption, venality and menace removed from the equation, comics were forced to supply punch and tension to their works via mystery and imagination – but only as long as it all had a rational, non-supernatural explanation…

Arguably the first superhero of the Silver Age, beating by a year the new Flash (who launched in Showcase #4 cover-dated October 1956) the series depicting the clandestine adventures of stranded alien scientist J’onn J’onzz was initially entitled John Jones, Manhunter from Mars; a decent being unwillingly trapped on Earth who fought crime secretly using his incredible powers, knowledge and abilities with no human even aware of his existence.

However even before that low key debut Batman #78 trialled the concept in ‘The Manhunter From Mars!’ (August/September 1953) wherein Edmund Hamilton, Bob Kane, Lew Sayre Schwartz & Charlie Paris told the tales of Roh Kar, a lawman from the Fourth Planet who assisted the Dynamic Duo in capturing a Martian bandit plundering Gotham City. That stirring yarn opens this first magnificent monochrome compendium which also includes the eccentric and often formulaic but never disappointing back-up series from Detective Comics #225 to 304, covering November 1955 – June 1962.

In one of the longest tenures in DC comics’ history, all the art for the series was by veteran illustrator Joe Certa (1919-1986), who had previously worked for the Funnies Incorporated comics “Shop”. His credits included work on Captain Marvel Junior and assorted genre titles for Magazine Enterprises (Dan’l Boone, Durango Kid), Lev Gleason’s crime comics, Harvey romance titles, whilst for DC he drew nautical sleuth Captain Compass and many anthology tales for such titles as Gang Busters and House of Mystery. Certa also drew the newspaper strip Straight Arrow and ghosted the long-lived boxing strip Joe Palooka. In the 1970s he moved to Gold Key, working on TV adaptations, mystery tales and all-ages horror stories.

At the height of US Flying Saucer fever John Jones, Manhunter from Mars debuted in Detective Comics #225, November 1955, as ‘The Strange Experiment of Dr. Erdel’ (written by Joe Samachson) described how a reclusive genius built a robot-brain which could access Time, Space and the Fourth Dimension, accidentally plucking an alien scientist from his home on Mars. After a brief conversation with his unfortunate guest, Erdel succumbed to a heart attack whilst attempting to return the incredible J’onn J’onzz to his point of origin.

Marooned on Earth the Martian realises his new home is riddled with the primitive cancer of Crime and determines to use his natural abilities (which included telepathy, mind-over-matter psychokinesis, shape-shifting, invisibility, intangibility, super-strength, speed, flight, vision, invulnerability and many others) to eradicate the evil, working clandestinely disguised as a human policeman. His only concern is the commonplace chemical reaction of fire which saps Martians of all their mighty powers…

With his name Americanised to John Jones he enlisted as a Police Detective and with #226’s ‘The Case of the Magic Baseball’ began a long and peril-fraught career tackling a variety of Earthly thugs and mobsters, beginning with the sordid case of Big Bob Michaels – a reformed ex-con and baseball player blackmailed into throwing games by a gang of crooked gamblers – and continuing in ‘The Man with 20 Lives’ where the mind-reading cop impersonated a ghost to force a confession from a hard-bitten killer.

The tantalising prospect of a return to Mars confronted Jones in the Dave Wood scripted ‘Escape to the Stars’ (issue #228) when criminal scientist Alex Dunster cracked the secret of Erdel’s Robot Brain, but duty overruled selfish desire and the mastermind destroyed his stolen super-machine when Jones arrested him…

With Detective #229 Jack Miller took over as series writer with ‘The Phantom Bodyguard’ as the Hidden Hero signed on to protect a businessman from his murderous partner and discovered a far more complex plot unfolding, whilst #230’s ‘The Sleuth Without a Clue’ found the Covert Cop battling a deadline to get the goods on a vicious gang just as a wandering comet was causing his powers to malfunction…

Detective Comics #231 saw the series shift towards its sci fi roots in ‘The Thief who had Super Powers!’ as an impossible bandit proved to be another refugee from the Fourth Planet after which ‘The Dog with a Martian Master’ proved to be another delightful if fanciful animal champion before Jones returned to crime-busting and clandestine cops and robbers capers by becoming ‘The Ghost From Outer Space’ in #233.

The cop went undercover in a prison to thwart a smart operator in #234’s ‘The Martian Convict’, infiltrated a circus as ‘The World’s Greatest Magician’ to catch a Phantom Thief and finally re-established contact with his distant family to solve ‘The Great Earth-Mars Mystery’ in #236 and saw out 1956 as ‘The Sleuth Who went to Jail’ – this time one operated by crooks – and lost his powers becoming ‘Earth Detective for a Day’ in #238.

In Detective #239 (January 1957) ‘Ordeal By Fire!’ found the Anonymous Avenger transferred to the Fire Department to track down an arson ring whilst in ‘The Hero Maker’ Jones surreptitiously used his powers to help a retiring cop go out on a high before another firebug targeting historical treasures provided ‘The Impossible Manhunt’ in #241.

Jones thought he’d be safe as a underwater officer in ‘The Thirty Fathom Sleuth’ but even there flame found a way to menace him after which he battled legendary Martian robot Tor in #243’s ‘The Criminal from Outer Space’ before doubling for an endangered actor in ‘The Four Stunts of Doom’ and busting a clever racket utilising ‘The Phantom Fire Alarms’ in #245.

As a back-up feature expectations were never particularly high but occasionally all the formula elements gelled together to produce exemplary and even superb adventure tales such as #246’s ‘John Jones’ Female Nemesis’ which introduced in the pert, perky and pestiferous form of trainee policewoman Diane Meade who, being a 1950’s woman, naturally had romance in mind, but was absent for the next equally engaging thriller wherein the indomitable cop puzzled over ‘The Impossible Messages’ of scurrilous smugglers and the marvellous tales of ‘The Martian Without a Memory’ in #248. Struck by lightning, Jones used deductive skill to discern his lost identity and almost exposed his own extraterrestrial secret in the process…

In Detective #249 ‘Target for a Day’ the Martian disguised himself as the State Governor marked for death by a brutal gang whilst as ‘The Stymied Sleuth!’ in #250 he was forced to stay in hospital to protect his alien identity as radium thieves ran amok in town, after which he seemingly became a brilliant crook himself… ‘Alias Mr. Zero’.

Issue #252 saw Jones battle a scientific super-criminal in ‘The Menace of the Super-Weapons’ before infiltrating a highly suspicious newspaper as ‘The Super Reporter!’ and invisibly battling rogue soldiers as ‘The One-Man Army’ in #254.

The Hidden Hero attempted to foil an audacious murder-plot that encompassed the four corners of the Earth in the ‘World-Wide Manhunt!’ after which #256’s ‘The Carnival of Doom’ pitted him against canny crooks whilst babysitting a VIP kid and #257 found the Starborn Sleuth committing spectacular crimes to trap the ‘King of the Underworld!’

In Detective #258 Jones took an unexpectedly dangerous vacation cruise on ‘The Jinxed Ship’ and returned to tackle another criminal genius in ‘The Getaway King’ before helping a desolate and failing fellow cop in the heart-warming tale of ‘John Jones’ Super-Secret’, after which a shrink ray reduced him to ‘The Midget Manhunter!’ in #261.

An evil mastermind used beasts for banditry in ‘The Animal Crime Kingdom’ whilst a sinister stage magician tested the Manhunter’s mettle and wits in #263’s ‘The Crime Conjurer!’ before the hero’s hidden powers were almost exposed when cheap hoods found a crashed capsule and unleashed ‘The Menace of the Martian Weapons!’

Masked and costumed villains were still a rarity when J’onzz tackled ‘The Fantastic Human Falcon’ in #265 whilst ‘The Challenge of the Masked Avenger’ was the only case for a new – and inept – wannabe hero, after which the Martian’s sense of duty and justice forced him to forego a chance to return home in #267’s ‘John Jones’ Farewell to Earth’

Another menacing fallen meteor resulted in ‘The Mixed-Up Martian Powers’ whilst a blackmailing reporter almost became ‘The Man who Exposed John Jones’ in Detective #269, after which a trip escorting an extradited felon from Africa resulted in J’onzz becoming ‘The Hunted Martian’.

The Manhunter’s origin was revisited in #271 when Erdel’s robot-brain accidentally froze his powers and resulted in ‘The Lost Identity’ before death threats compelled Jones’ boss to appoint a well-meaning hindrance in the form of ‘The Super-Sleuth’s Bodyguard’

By the time Detective Comics #273 was released (November 1959) the Silver Age superhero revival was in full swing and with a plethora of new costumed characters catching the public imagination old survivors like Green Arrow, Aquaman and others were given a thorough makeover. Perhaps the boldest was the new direction taken by the Manhunter from Mars as his existence on Earth was revealed to all mankind when he very publicly battled and defeated a criminal from his home world in ‘The Unmasking of J’onn J’onzz’.

As part of the revamp J’onzz had lost the ability to use his powers whilst invisible and perforce became a very high-profile superhero. At least his vulnerability to common flame was still a closely guarded secret…

This tale was promptly followed by the debut of incendiary villain ‘The Human Flame’ in #274 and the introduction of a secret identity-hunting romantic interest as policewoman Diane Meade returned in ‘John Jones’ Pesky Partner’ in #275.

‘The Crimes of John Jones’ found the new champion an amnesiac pawn of mere bank robbers but another fantastic foe debuted in #277 with ‘The Menace of Mr. Moth’ after which invading Venusians almost caused ‘The Defeat of J’onn J’onzz’ and a hapless millionaire inventor almost wrecked the city by accident with ‘The Impossible Inventions’

Advance word of an underworld plot forced the Manhunter to become ‘Bodyguard to a Bandit’ and keep a crook out of prison, whilst ‘The Menace of Marsville’ in #281 inadvertently gave criminals powers to equal his and a fallen meteorite temporarily turned Diane into ‘The Girl with the Martian Powers’ – or did it…?

To help out an imperilled ship captain J’onzz became ‘The Amazing One-Man Crew’ whilst in #284 Diane tried to seduce her partner in ‘The Courtship of J’onn J’onzz’ unaware of his extraterrestrial origins after which monster apes tore up the city in ‘The Menace of the Martian Mandrills!’

Detective #286 saw ‘His Majesty, John Jones’ stand in for an endangered Prince in a take on The Prisoner of Zenda before ‘J’onn J’onzz’s Kid Brother’ T’omm was briefly stranded on Earth. Only one of the siblings could return…

‘The Case of the Honest Swindler’ in #288 found a well-meaning man accidentally endangering the populace with magical artefacts after which a quick trip to Asia pitted the Martian against a cunning jungle conman in ‘J’onn J’onzz – Witch Doctor’.

When a movie was being sabotaged Diane took over for the lead stunt-girl with some assistance from the Manhunter in ‘Lights, Camera – and Doom!’ whilst a lovesick suitor masqueraded as ‘The Second Martian Manhunter’ to win his bride in #291 and ‘The Ex-Convicts Club’ almost foundered before it began when someone began impersonating the reformed criminals and pulling new jobs. Luckily J’onzz was more trusting than most…

Diane found herself with a rival in policewoman Sally Winters and their enmity could only be resolved with ‘The Girl-Hero Contest’ after which the Manhunter pursued crooks into another dimension and became ‘The Martian Weakling’ in #294, before becoming ‘The Martian Show-Off’ to inexplicably deprive a fellow cop of his 1000th arrest and ‘The Alien Bodyguard’ for Diane who was unaware that she had been marked for death…

In #297’s ‘J’onn J’onzz vs. the Vigilantes’ the Green Guardian exposed the secret agenda of a committee of wealthy “concerned citizens” before coming to the aid of a stage performer who was ‘The Man Who Impersonated J’onn J’onzz’ and then almost failed as a ‘Bodyguard for a Spy’ because Diane was jealous of the beautiful Princess in his charge…

Detective #300 unveiled ‘The J’onn J’onzz Museum’ – a canny ploy by a master criminal who believed he had uncovered the Martian’s secret weakness, whilst ‘The Mystery of the Martian Marauders’ found the hero battling impossible odds when an army of his fellows invaded Earth…

‘The Crime King of Mount Olympus’ pitted the Manhunter against a pantheon of Hellenic super-criminals to save Diane’s life whilst more standard thugs attempted to reveal his secret identity in ‘The Great J’onn J’onzz Hunt’ before this first beguiling compendium concludes with #304’s stirring tale of an academy of scientific lawbreaking infiltrated by John Jones in ‘The Crime College’

Although certainly dated, and definitely formulaic, these complex yet uncomplicated adventures are drenched in charm and still sparkle with innocent wit and wonder. Perhaps not to everyone’s taste nowadays, these exploits of the Manhunter from Mars are still an all-ages buffet of fun, thrills and action no fan should miss.
© 1953, 1955-1962, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.