How come it seems like there’s no love for the Martian Manhunter out in these streets? The Martian Manhunter, aka J’onn J’onzz, is one of the core members of the Justice League, yet J’onn seems to be severely underrated. I’m not completely sure why, since J’onn is probably one of the most compelling DC superheroes in the pantheon. But to me, it would seem that DC Comics isn’t paying attention to a goldmine of an opportunity.
Currently, DC Comics is killing the game on television, with The CW’s Arrow and The Flash relishing in thriving fan communities. CBS is also about to get in on the superhero action with Supergirl, and TNT still has that rumored Teen Titans show in the works. But there’s something in common with all of these shows; they tell the story of being an “other” from a white cis perspective.
“But Supergirl’s an alien!” Yes, Supergirl fan, that’s true, but she also passes as white and is accepted by American society as a white woman. So, even with Supergirl’s alien background, she still inhabits a role of societal privilege that doesn’t address much of what a large population of Americans experience on a daily basis.Having a Martian Manhunter show would be an exciting and entertaining way at taking a look at the superhero story from new eyes. It’d be telling the superhero story from the perspective of The Other.
America is changing fast. In terms of demographics, white Americans will be a minority in 2050. That’s not too far away, and the rise in movie stars, TV stars, and fans vocally proclaiming that Hollywood showcase their points of view reflect this new demographic trend. Another trend showing audiences wanting to see different people on screen is the rise in non-white actors getting cast in what used to be traditionally white roles, especially when it comes to comic book characters.
For instance, Iris West, a white character in the comics, is played by Candice Patton. Jimmy Olsen, Superman’s white sidekick and news office co-worker, is portrayed by Mehcad Brooks. Hawkgirl, who is also an alien but is generally perceived as white by society, is portrayed by Ciara Renee on the upcoming CW show Legends of Tomorrow. (I should also mention that Maria Canals-Barrera voiced Hawkgirl in the Justice League cartoon series, making this the second time a non-white actress has portrayed the character.) The list goes on and on, what with Marvel’s Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson), The Kingpin (originally played by Michael Clarke Duncan), and Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan).
Just recently, Marvel introduced a new Hulk to the mix, Amadeus Cho, a Korean-American character created by Greg Pak, who will be the main character in Marvel’s new comic, The Totally Awesome Hulk. Even J’onn himself has been portrayed several times by non-white actors with Carl Lumbly voicing him for Justice League, Kevin Michael Richardson providing the voice on Young Justice, and Phil Morris playing him in human form (and briefly as a Martian) on Smallville.
The altering landscape for comic book casting is indicative of many real world changes throughout the country. Interracial relationships are becoming more commonplace, which is especially indicative online. A large handful of some of YouTube’s daily vlog channels include interracial couples, such as Maze + Lee, The LaVigne Life, and GabeBabeTV. There’s also a myriad of Facebook groups and websites dedicated to interracial relationships (whether some of those sites engage in exoticism is a case that could be argued for or against in another post). There are also many families that are transracial, as in they consist of parents of one race with adopted children of another.
These two factors, along with children growing up in an increasingly racially diverse environment and having friends of different backgrounds, are causing America to wake up in how to approaches its imagery of superheroes (and characters in general) in entertainment. In short, the more people identify with others of different races, the more they realize that their friends, family and co-workers aren’t being represented as much as they should.
The Martian Manhunter would be a great superhero to showcase on television for these reasons. J’onn is an Other in every sense of the word. He’s an alien that can’t pass as white in his natural state since he’s green and inhuman-looking. He can change his physiology to gain a human-like appearance, but still, he’s naturally green. At the outset, J’onn can be scary because of his outward differences.
Unlike his other Justice League counterparts, J’onn can delve even further into the Other experience because, through the same shapeshifting ability he can use to take on a more human-like form, he can also change his racial and sexual appearances as well. This ability could be the selling point for a Martian Manhunter show, since each week, the audience wouldn’t know what form he’d take on next. The ability can also be used to examine the original look of the Martian Manhunter in early comics when J’onn’s human form was that of a white man.
But now that we’re out of the ’40s and are more sophisticated as to how we view race (or, at least we’re supposed to be), should J’onn’s main form still be that of a white man, just because he was “traditionally” drawn that way? Why would J’onn, a green alien, even identify with a white man first, despite the diversity of life on Earth?
If a Martian Manhunter show was to exist, keeping J’onn as a white man puts limits on J’onn’s own abilities. If a show starring the Martian Manhunter was to happen, J’onn would have to be able to transform into different people; keeping him as a white man wouldn’t make sense in terms of his character and his story.
A series focusing on J’onn’s life on Earth, including his career as a detective, could not only be an intriguing examination of America’s tumultuous relationship with race and privilege, but could also provide a surprisingly brutal look at how stereotypes and privileges that are associated with race, gender, and sexuality influence the police’s reactions to certain crimes and suspects. The audience’s way into the lives of those accused or threatened would be through J’onn’s own eyes; as a character who can (and probably has) lived as everyone at some point, we would be able to see through J’onn’s own experiences how different life can be for a person based on the factors they’re given at birth.
It might even make some viewers pause and examine how they have treated others. Seeing how we’re at a tipping point with racially-tinged police-involved shootings, disproportionate harassment by police on black and brown people, and an epidemic of transgender women of color being killed for being themselves, a bit of a reality check mixed in with some entertainment would be a welcome addition to the TV landscape.
I’m a huge proponent for J’onn to get his own show. Out of many of DC’s cast of characters, I feel J’onn has the ability to affect the most change. His ability to shapeshift gives him a viewpoint on humanity not many superheroes can tap into. Using his viewpoint as the basis for a TV show would help us as viewers tap into our humanity as well.
Monique Jones is the owner an editor of COLOR, a website that offers something to get through your television and film viewing; a guide to where the rest of the rainbow is. A singular place where you can find out more characters who look like you. In addition to COLOR, Monique has written for Entertainment Weekly, Antenna Free TV, Black Girl Nerds, Racialicious, and many other outlets. Follow her on twitter at @moniqueblognet.