Martian Manhunter: American Secrets
(1992 - 3 issues, prestige format, published by DC Comics - mild mature readers)
Writer: Gerard Jones. Artist: Eduardo Barreto.
Set in 1959, American Secrets takes everyone's favourite "green Superman" and mixes nostalgia and a conspiracy thriller with the super hero genre. Detective John Jones (a.k.a. J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter) is in New York for a police convention when he overhears a murder victim's dying words that leads him to investigate an unbelievably far reaching conspiracy -- one involving lizard-headed aliens, rigged TV game shows, an Elvis Presley-like rising rock n' roll star, the rise of suburbia and more as writer Gerard Jones conjures up every touchstone and icon from the era to work into the story.
One suspects that American Secrets is trying to be funny and serious...all at the same time. Jones lathers on so many references, allusions, homages, pop trivia and more it can't help but seem tongue-in-cheek...even as he still wants it to be a serious thriller, touching on serious themes of repression and conformity. But the result is it can't entirely shake the sense of being one big in joke. Particularly because Jones is trying to work in so many things -- leaving no cliche of the 1950s un-utilized by his conspirators -- it can all seem a bit muddled, like he's more concerned with working in references than how they relate to the plot. Even the conspiracy itself is just so vast that it can be a bit vague. There's a scene where a game show contestant is murdered for asking the wrong question but, given later revelations, one can't help think Jones' should've reversed what she said and what she was instructed to say.
Threaded through are themes of "cold" and "warmth" and personal connections. It doesn't fully pull them off, but the ideas are there. There's no doubt Jones is sincere in his social and political subtext...even as he's not really saying anything that hasn't been said in a zillion other stories.
Still, American Secrets is briskly-paced, zigging and zagging as it goes. At first glance, J'onzz might seem an odd fit for the story, as conspiracy tales works best involving a relatively "average" hero -- not a guy who can throw the opposition around and fly. But Jones (the author) does generate a certain sense of helplessness, of J'onzz (the character) being up against a conspiracy of such scope, even with his powers he might not be able to fight it (a scene with J'onzz in his room while somebody pounds on the door is particularly effective). And by setting the story in the 1950s -- between the super hero eras DC's modern mythos now identifies -- this is a Martian Manhunter largely on his own, with no other heroes he can turn to for assistance.
Like a lot of DC projects in the last few decades, I'm not sure how strictly "in" continuity this is supposed to be. Is J'onn J'onzz really supposed to have been around since the 1950s? The story works in references to the 1940s super heroes (with one of them even showing up for a cameo at one point) -- yet are we really supposed to accept the "revised" explanation for their retirement as presented here? Although, I guess with a story like this, you aren't really sure by the end how much of what J'onzz was told is the truth, and how much another lie! And like with many second string characters who maybe don't have a "definitive" interpretation, one could quibble about the portrayal of J'onn himself -- who seems a little more hardboilded than some writers portray him. And published in the "prestige" format, it flirts a bit with a "mature readers" tone...but not by much.
Anyway, by inserting a conventional super hero into this other genre (the conspiracy tale) there can be a certain freshness generated, but it's still pretty familiar -- it's atypical for a superhero tale, more familiar for a conspiracy/alien invasion tale. And like I've complained about with so many comics, Jones has trouble fleshing out the supporting cast. Even though J'onzz teams with the rock-a-billy star, Perkins Preston, he never quite shakes his Elvis-homage persona to become a real character we care about. Likewise is true, albeit to a lesser extent, of a little girl.
The art by Eduardo Barreto is, as to be expected, quite good -- Barreto being an artist particularly suited to period tales, both with his eye for historical detail, and for his style which evokes shades of Old School masters like Milt Caniff . I'm a fan of Barreto but, if I were to quibble, I might wonder if he wasn't the best suited to this tale. Yeah, I'm contradicting myself. But in a conspiracy tale, with its undercurrent of creepiness, maybe a more eclectic artist who could play around with composition and shadows might have accentuated the tones Jones was going for better. Still...I'd rather look at Barreto's work than a zillion other artists'. Though it's funny that each of the covers of the three comics feature a pretty woman...yet there are no pretty women with major parts in the story!
In a way, it's too bad this series didn't have a higher profile among fandom. Because fans have been know to post on-line annotated guides to their favourite comics, and this series, full of thinly disguised homages, coy "in" jokes, and out-right references to historical events, could really benefit from someone mapping out all the references with which Gerard Jones peppers it. (I'm particularly curious about a reference to a newsman making a "slip" about a presidential election).
I read this a while back, but didn't post my review until I had read it twice. In the first draft for my review, I speculate that a second reading would either raise it in my estimation (as I see how it all holds together) or lowers it (if I realize it doesn't). And after a second reading...well, I still feel it doesn't quite hold together. It's a reasonably enjoyable romp, off beat (for a super hero story) and it's one of only a few Martian Manhunter projects around. So, in that sense, it's enjoyable.
But in the end, top heavy with homages and references, it seems to be trying so hard to be a homage to a conspiracy thriller...it doesn't fully succeed simply as a conspiracy thriller.