Review by Ian Keogh
In the roughly sixty years the Martian Manhunter’s been around he’s remained largely a secondary character, a team member, not a solo success. The basics are he’s the last of his race, stranded on Earth with a miraculous array of powers, including able to morph into human shape, but any form of fire is life-threatening. Various writers have added depth to his background, most prominently John Ostrander and Grant Morrison, but with Identity Steve Orlando grapples with J’onn J’onzz’s past in a novel and intelligent way, while Riley Rossmo’s strange and lumpy art supplies an appropriately alien feel.
Orlando maintains the alien feel by deliberately distancing readers to some extent, dropping names and concepts without explanation, giving just enough at the start not to alienate, but leaving readers to join some dots themselves. A clever contrast develops between past and present, although the present is also in Earth’s past. As telepaths, among other talents, Martians share so much, but on Earth J’onn masquerades as police detective John Jones and can share nothing of his true self. That’s more compromised than has been seen before, as it’s revealed his Manhunter career on Mars has been one of protecting some people for the good of his family, but what good will this do when a plague arrives?
Rossmo’s art is extremely effective in creating an unsettling world where beings used to changing shapes morph frequently, and generally not into forms that are recognisably human. It’s less effective with scenes set on Earth, where Rossmo tones down the strangeness slightly, but still applies a distorted style. The hair on Jones’ partner Diane Meade is something to behold, foam sculpted rather than natural.
Unusually redemption is on the agenda for the Martian Manhunter, whose ethics both on Mars and on Earth have previously been beyond reproach. He’s not corrupt, but knows he’s bent the law, albeit from the best of intentions, and once on Earth there’s plenty to make up for. Orlando keeps the plot on the boil for around two-thirds of the book, deftly mixing the two strands, but once he’s clarified all there is to clarify about Mars part of the wonder vanishes. It’s then a combination of police procedural, albeit hunting down a vengeful alien, and J’onn coming to terms with using his Martian abilities as a superhero. While a strong emotional core remains, that’s nowhere near as interesting and the feeling is the story has been pre-determined as twelve chapters when a pacier eight would have served better.