As a frequent Justice Leaguer, J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, is well known to fans of comics and animation. But until his ongoing series was announced last spring, it had been many years since he had anchored his own comic. Now on its fourth issue, Martian Manhunter has been a surreal sci-fi blast, featuring a high-stakes storyline by Rob Williams that finds J’onn straddling the line between hero and villain and powerful, often frightening art by Eddy Barrows, Eber Ferreira and Gabe Eltaeb.
We recently sat down with Williams to find out how he arrived at his unique take on the character and to see if we can uncover the story behind one of the more unique characters we’ve seen in the DCU in quite some time—the whimsical Mr. Biscuits.
Martian Manhunter is your first DC ongoing. Is J’onn J’onzz a character that you’ve always been interested in?
I’ve always had a soft spot for him. One of my favorite comics is Justice League International, and J’onn J’onzz was such a major part of that. I loved the way that Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis wrote him. I think a lot of people have a soft spot for him. He hasn’t had an ongoing book for many years. So that soft spot maybe hasn’t translated to him being more prominent within the DC Universe, but I think it’s there.
When I was offered the book, I definitely felt inspired and that he was a character that I could have some fun with. I think it’s the alien nature of him as well. One thing that I was very keen to show was that he’s not just a green version of Superman. He’s a different kind of alien. I wanted to show that in his thinking and in the disparate nature of the book, with the different voices and characters we put in the book and how outlandish they can be. Characters like Mr. Biscuits—he’s definitely not the norm! I like that type of stuff. I think it brings an energy to the book, and it hopefully makes it seem different from many of the other books that DC is putting out.
J’onn has had so many different powers throughout his comic book history, and if you maintain that power set, he’s an extremely powerful character. Arguably even more so that Superman. How do you decide which abilities you’re going to focus on and then actually come up with challenges for Martian Manhunter when he has just capabilities?
Well, I think—and this is true for any character you write—that it’s not enough to put their bodies on the line, you also have to put their souls on the line as well. I think for J’onn, one of the things I’ve wanted to do, and the reason the Justice League was in issue #2, is to show how much of a heavy hitter he is. One thing I liked about how we resolved that is that he could have beaten the hell out of them if he wanted to, but he’s a hugely powerful telepath as well. So all makes them think they’re having this battle with him, when all they’re really doing is standing around. I think that’s part of the threat of the book. There’s an awareness that if he turned bad, he could take out half of the DC Universe probably on his own. He’s that big of a force.
So because he is so powerful, in the book we’ve made him a weapon that the Martians have created and sent to Earth to do their work for them. But he’s hugely conflicted. He wants to bring Mars back. It’s his planet. But he’s also grown very fond of Earth. He doesn’t want to be a monster. That’s the battle within him. And because he’s such a threat, it creates some big stakes for the book.
So where did the idea of Mr. Biscuits come from?
I was at the writer’s conference that DC hosted last February and one of the nice things that came out of that was an encouragement to just “go for it.” They told us to go with our imaginations. So afterwards I was sitting at the airport, and I think Mr. Biscuits just sort of popped in. I could see him and what he’d look like immediately. He was this really tall figure wearing this sort of weird jazz suit from the 1920s. I’ve been watching an awful lot of Studio Ghibli movies with my kids and it almost feels like he belongs in a Miyazaki movie. I wanted a sense of an imaginary childhood friend come to life. I think that J’onn’s sweet nature is in Mr. Biscuits. When the other aspects of J’onn might be showing you some of his more unpleasant sides, you see this sweetness in him with Mr. Biscuits.
I’ll be honest, when I pitched it, I thought I might never work again! You don’t know with that sort of stuff. You feel it’s so askew and outside of the norm. But then that’s often the stuff that pops off the page the most. Immediately, when I started writing his dialog, I knew he was working. People do seem to have really connected with the character.
Where does the story go from here? What’s ahead?
At the end of the first arc, there’s going to be a big game changer. As we know, J’onn J’onzz was sent to Earth as a weapon by the Martians, but he’s gone on the run. He split himself into different personalities, so the Martians can’t use him as a weapon.
J’onn’s effectively the MacGuffin in the series. He’s the goal that the Martians are trying to obtain. So what you’re going to see is these different aspects of him—these different characters being introduced and sort of going on the run together. There’s a lot of fun in that. We’re bringing Mr. Biscuits and the other characters together in one place. It becomes like a very dysfunctional family very quickly, which leads to some really funny moments. We have Mr. Biscuits going through security in a major U. S. airport. It’s a lot of fun.
But then we’ve got a big culmination at the end of the first arc in issue #6. It’s going to put J’onn in a position where he really has to make a decision—Earth or Mars? That’s the choice, and it’s a horrible position for him to be in. He’s given the chance to bring a race, his race, back to life, but the cost of that would be appalling. You feel bad for what you do to these characters sometimes. You put them in the most horrible situations, but that’s where the drama comes from.