Steve Orlando’s superhero stories take the wildest corners of the comic book world and use them to tell deeply human stories. Whether it’s the Justice League’s castoffs teaming up with the surreal weirdos of the Doom Patrol, or a super-science enhanced vigilante waging a one-man war against the lord of Hell to rescue his super-powered boyfriend’s soul, Orlando’s books merge the high concept with the universal in unexpected ways.
And the writer’s newest series does just that, with one of the Justice League’s most powerful members. Martian Manhunter is telling a universal story about identity and personal actualization, with a distinctly queer undertone to it.
If you know J’onn J’onzz(pronounced like “John Jones,” but with a soft G sound at the beginning, as in “genre”), the superhero known as the Martian Manhunter, it might be from the comics, or from his leading roles in shows like Cartoon Network’s Justice League Unlimited or the CW’s Supergirl. And if you do, you probably know that, like Superman, he’s the last survivor of an extra-terrestrial apocalypse. But unlike Superman, he’s a character who often feels disconnected from the human race.
Which is ironic, considering that he’s both a telepath and a shapeshifter — someone fully capable of connecting with and mimicking humanity, if he were to choose to.
Orlando’s new Martian Manhunter series will see J’onn borrowing the form and identity of a human police detective, John Jones, and attempting to solve his last unsolved case. But, as Orlando explained to Polygon, taking on John Jones’ problems is also a way for J’onn to avoid confronting his own.
Polygon: From what you’ve previously told me about this book, you’re writing Martian Manhunter as a metaphor for queer identity. Is that how you’d characterize it?
Steve Orlando: It’s one characterization, and it’s a good one. On one hand, I always want the appeal of a book to be broad, so first off the answer is yes. Obviously, I’m half-Jewish, I’m bisexual — jokingly I will say I’m half-gay; sometimes more or less than that, depending on what room I’m in and who else is in that room. Usually the bottom half. Anyway! But the point is, I understand what it’s like to have something inside of you that you have to wrestle with and come to terms with, but also maybe isn’t noticeable on the street to folks. And having something inside of himself that he has to wrestle with and overcome and eventually use to empower himself, that’s J’onn J’onzz’s journey as well.
So [with] me writing the story, it’s unquestionably informed by my experience being queer, my experience being half-Jewish. And so it’s 100 percent working with allegory to tell that type of story. And at the same time I think that if you are not queer, we’ve all had things inside that we’ve had to come to terms with. We’ve all had personal failures that we’ve had to overcome and rise above. And so one of my hopes is that my experience as a queer person can not just bring truth to J’onn’s journey, but also empower his journey and enrich his journey for people who maybe aren’t on the same path of self actualization as I was, but need that anyway, regardless of what it’s for.
What can you tell me about that duality of John’s Martian culture and his new ties to Earth?
From J’onn’s point of view — whether it’s fair or not for him to say this to himself — he was unable to save lives; he was unable to save his family [from the destruction of Mars]. And of course maybe some of that is unjust, but who among us hasn’t put unjust pressure on ourself or judged ourselves unfairly when faced with grief and tragedy?
The life of [Earthly] detective John Jones is the life J’onn wishes he had. [John Jones] has peers, he has friends and [J’onn] doesn’t have to actually own and grow out of his mistakes, because he doesn’t have to even see the face of the person who made them in the mirror. So Earth, and the town of Middleton, is a second chance for him to be a man who he really thought he was, who he wanted desperately to be.
J’onn is a good man at heart throughout the book, but the realities of his life on Mars, much like here, forced him to make compromises. He can’t give his wife and daughter the life that they deserve on what Manhunters are compensated with. He must make compromises in order to do what he feels is his duty as a parent and create a better future for his daughter. And like anyone who starts to make compromises in their morals and life, that becomes a slippery slope. And like anyone who has any type of secrets, or any type of second life, he definitely thinks he has everything in control. But anyone from the outside knows that this is one mistake away from falling apart and it’s a house of cards.
On Earth, he doesn’t have to own any of the rights and wrongs of that. He can be detective John Jones, he can be liked, he can be a man of fortitude. Which is something I would argue he always was, but he can’t see it himself. And until the events of the book force him to unify those two lives, unify those two faces, he’s very comfortable. He’s almost too comfortable.
The process of self-actualization is a painful one, but that’s the road to heroism, that’s the road he has to take, not just to save Ashley Adams, who is the Laura Palmer of the book, but to save himself, really. Because living half a life, whether it’s good or bad, is not a life. And that road to heroism that road to revealing himself as the Martian Manhunter, that’s the journey of the book.
Can you talk about Chrysalis Night?
Yeah! So Chrysalis Night is — online, I [called it a] “space bar Mitzvah.” Martian culture is very unlike Earth culture in some ways, and very like Earth culture in other ways. And much of that, I think, comes from making a statement about sentient nature. There are things that we think are intrinsically human, but are they intrinsically human? Or is it just that we’ve only ever met humans?
Martian culture is based a lot around self-expression, especially Green Martian culture, because of their shape-shifting. Every one them has a private shape and a social shape. Your private shape is essentially being naked, and it’s what you only reveal for those closest to you. Your social shape is what you wear in public. And when you’re young, up until your adolescence, you only have a private shape. That’s why K’hym [J’onn’s daughter] basically looks like a cute jelly bean who can float around, because she hasn’t gone through Chrysalis Night yet.
And this is a time when you pass through a gate and you go in as your adolescent shape, your private shape, and you come out debuting your social shape, a form that is the ultimate expression of yourself. Because it’s not like here where you wear clothes or glasses or you cut your hair a certain way, or you have tattoos or piercings to express who you are. Your entire body on Mars speaks to who you are, and it’s individually designed by you to say “This is me, this is what I’m about, this is how I truly want to look and feel.” And so Chrysalis Night is when all Martians debut that shape, it’s when John debuted his social shape, it’s when [J’onn’s wife] M’yri’ah did it and if K’hym makes it through the next megacycle, it’s when she’ll do it. Of course, we all know the tragedy of that.
How connected to the wider DC Universe is the series?
We want to tell a timeless J’onn J’onzz Story, but that said, I don’t think [it will contradict current continuity] either, which is sort of ideal. We want to tell a story sort of like what [Tom King] did in Mister Miracle. And that doesn’t just mean the maturity and the artistry and the creative freedom, though those things are great. It’s a story that will definitely be able to fit into the world of DC Comics if you squint at it, but also is truly something powerful unto itself.
Maybe you disagree with this, but I feel like writers have struggled for a while to make a solo J’onn J’onzz story. He can be the glue that holds the Justice League together, but there’s a lack of the quintessential J’onn J’onzz story.
Well, certainly we want this to be the J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter book. I agree, but I think a lot of that... [pause] His character is intrinsically linked to the Justice League, but at the same time a character can’t be defined by his relationship with other characters. And so to me that’s an opportunity.
I think there’ve been beautiful J’onn J’onzz stories told. I talk all the time about Martian Manhunter #11 from like 1998, is a one-off that was drawn by [jokingly] little-known up and comer Bryan Hitch [The Authority, Hawkman, Justice League]. It’s a beautiful one-off story about what J’onn means to different cultures that he’s saved in the future, going into DC One Million. But I think that the fact that he has largely not had these evergreen stories is an opportunity for us to show people the things that have always been there with him.
And they’ve always been there with him in other books. They’ve been there with him in his role in Justice League International. They’ve been there with him in his role in [Grant Morrison’s] Justice League, they’ve been there with him in [Scott Snyder’s] Justice League right now. But here’s the time for us to pull all those elements together and put it in his own book and show people the road to that character, the road to that hero. Really, [to watch him] as he digs up the hero that’s always been there, but he was maybe too lost in his own past to see.
Riley Rossmo’s art is already so stretchy and pliable and gooey it just seems perfect for a shapeshifter. How did he get involved in the project?
We knew from day one, because honestly Riley and I were looking for a character to work on after Batman/The Shadow. We had loved our partnership in that book and we loved our partnership on Batman: Night of the Monster Men. Honestly, I came to him and I sold him on Martian Manhunter. I said “This is the opportunity to really have a book where you can” — even more so than Batman/The Shadow, because those are huge, iconic characters — “make it your own.”
And he has [made it his own], he has two completely different art styles, one for Mars and one for Earth, and one is very stretchy and gooey and the other one is very noir-ish and heavy and textured. It’s going to be a beautiful book. He’s taken an open canvas and he’s torn as much from that as he can and you guys are very, very lucky to have him on the book.
What’s the one thing you want people to know going into the series?
This is one of the richest science fiction books that DC will have ever published. The world-building we’re doing with Mars is unlike anything I’ve ever had the opportunity to do.
At the same time, what you have to know is that this is also the most human representation of J’onn that we’ve ever done, because he is a person who can get wrapped up in his own emotions and not see his positive qualities because he’s too worried about his negatives. For longtime fans, I understand the desire to be worried when they hear that he’s not perfect at the beginning. But we should be excited about that, because he is on the road to having one of the most human and one of the most empowering roads to personal victory that any superhero that DC Comics has ever had. And that’s what he deserves, that’s what we deserve.
We deserve heroes that show us that it’s not always easy, because in real life it isn’t easy. Sometimes it takes weeks, sometimes it takes years. And I want heroes that remind people that they don’t need to look at an idealized version of a personal struggle. Their personal struggle, no matter how hard it is, is vital and it’s real, and there’s a sense of heroism to that too.
That’s what J’onn J’onzz is here to show us, what’s human in all of us, and that’s that we overcome these struggles ourselves. So yes, he’s going to struggle. Yes, he isn’t perfect as the book starts, but so are we, and we all can take the journey that he’s taking in this book.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Martian Manhunter #1 hits shelves on Dec. 5, from DC Comics.