A couple of my writer friends and I have this game we play. Every once in a while we get obsessed about our not-quite-mainstream favorite comic book characters and go on these hours-long email chain tears about what we'd do if we were ever given the reins of the character for a comic, television show, or film.
It makes me think of the brilliantly perfect column Warren Ellis wrote years ago called "Why they'll never let me write Superman." Ellis, a writer I have a lot of respect for, wrote a treatment on the Superman myth that really was a beautifully stripped down version of what the character meant to American mythology.
On a boring Thursday afternoon, this topic came up again, and somehow I latched onto the idea of what I would do if anyone would ever let me write a TV series for the Martian Manhunter. I've decided (since it is highly unlikely anyone WILL let me write the Martian Manhunter some day) that it might be fun to post the bulk of the brainstorming session and make this a regular series. (The conversation moved on to Aquaman as well, whom I'll cover some time next week, because it was so much fun to envision an Aquaman for this new millennium.)
Part of me thinks I should work some of these ideas into an Indestructibles story. We have an alien, after all, though he is not a Martian, nor a shapeshifter, and he's definitely not green. But perhaps elements of this treatment might become the groundwork for a future hero set in the same universe.
If they'd let me write a Martian Manhunter for TV
Premise: The Martian Manhunter is an entirely different take on the Superman Mythos. If Superman/Clark is the adopted foreigner, raised looking and acting like his adoptive family only to discover he is different, J'onn is the adult immigrant, who finds himself in a new country not aware of the culture or language, overqualified for any job he might apply for but unable to fit in because of his differences. The Martian Manhunter is an immigration story.
He's very much like Superman in a lot of ways: an alien among humans who could be a force of destruction or dominance but instead decides to show them by example how to be better than what they are. He's a god who takes on the face of a man and solves little crimes, changes one life at a time.
The series should play into his telepathy. He is alone in the universe, the last of his kind, but is tied in through telepathy to the human condition, a million little thoughts, good and evil and everything in between, at his fingertips whenever he wants it.
Story arc: Let's look at the first four seasons. It's an ambitious arc but each season could represent a theme in his journey as accidental immigrant to Earth.
Season 1: What does it mean to be human. How does he mask his differences. How does he use them to his advantage. How do they create a barrier to his understanding the human condition and all its beauty and darkness. J'onn explores this through taking on a private detective's life. He will need a guide, a connection to humanity to help him translate his experiences.
Season 2: Embracing humanity, he becomes an inspirational force. He shares more of himself. He becomes both Martian and Earthling, like an expatriate in another country taking on their culture and becoming part of their fabric. J'onn's heritage contributes to the fabric of the Earth the way every new culture becomes a piece of America's always-changing face.
Season 3: Humanity disappoints him. He is betrayed, by friends, by the government. Terrible decisions are made he cannot stop. War, death, crime. He starts to feel his connection to mankind slipping away. Spends more time in his Martian form, alienating himself from those who know him. Stops being a detective, starts being a superhero. Fixes bigger problems. Interfering, not fixing.
Season 4: Humanity rejects him. We do not want this green man trying to tell us how to be better. J'onn returns to the stars. Retires to Mars, alone with the ghosts of his dead kin. We feel his absence; only when his adoptive family really needs him does he return home to take on the role of both brother and protector. J'onn is called home, where he is needed. To make his adoptive home a better place.
Themes: J'onn is inherently well equipped to learn about Earth. He can read minds, he can change shapes. Martian Manhunter should be the anti-Orphan Black--where Tatiana Maslany's chameleon-like ability to shapeshift into entirely new people with the same face, J'onn's face should change episode to episode--different actors playing him with different faces, so that the Martian can experience different races, genders, creeds, colors. He will see first hand how we treat those who are different from us--not just green-skinned, but a different hue of humanity. The Martian Manhunter can be a one-character ensemble cast. Clearly there must be a central actor to be his true face, and he will have recurring personas, but it will also be an experimental role--what would an alien being with an expansive ability for empathy be like? He wouldn't pick just one face. He would choose to be all of us.
The biggest barrier to entry is his name. Neither Martian Manhunter nor J'onn J'onzz is particularly sellable. He arrives on Earth, lost and confused, and he takes the identify of a dead man, his first stolen face. John Jones. Private detective, deceased, mourned by no one. And the Martian Manhunter's first case is to find out why and how someone could die so very alone.
What do you think? This is all for fun, but I'd love to hear what readers would want to see in their OWN version of Martian Manhunter. Are you a fan of the big green shapeshifter?
Tune in next week when we tackle Arthur Curry, the DC hero who just can't get any respect.
Matthew Phillion is the writer of "The Indestructibles," part-time actor, occasional filmmaker. Currently on the lam in Salem with his trusty dog, Watson.