Unsuck Heroes: Martian Manhunter

Unsuck Heroes is a series about making characters who suck not suck, as explained here:

I’ve always liked the Martian Manhunter. Superman is what happens with an extrovert starting over blissfully unaware he’s the last of his kind; Manhunter is an introvert who witnessed his people’s last gasp and knows what he lost. He’s an empath whose whole existence has been a trauma, but he’s still trying to make the world better… even as he struggles to truly be a part of it. But I’m also not making the argument that he doesn’t suck. He does, most of the time, despite all of this potential.

1) Calling him the ‘Martian Manhunter’ makes as much sense as calling Superman the ‘Kryptonian Plumber.’ Sure, he’s probably fixed a toilet or two in his day, but that’s… really not what he does. So we fix that by making John… a manhunter by trade. At one point, the Oan Manhunters reached as far as Mars. While the Manhunters were marginally in charge of the sector, the Oans had discovered they lacked social graces, and sometimes partnering with locals meant that they could more easily handle cases requiring nuance and tact. Depending on the timeline, John can either be one of these who partnered with the Manhunters, or just someone brought up in the same traditions- that all sort of hinges on how old you want your Green Lantern Corps. to be. John was on one of these manhunting missions off-world, on Earth, actually, when the Martian cataclysm occurred. He returned, to try to help, but was powerless to stop it, and forced to watch his family’s demise. He tracked the origins of the cataclysm back to Earth, where an unethical scientist accidentally created the psychic virus that killed every other Martian. John wonders if he’s immune, which brings the horrifying realization that he might have been the carrier that transmitted the virus home.

2) Because he’s a second-stringer, he’s always being sidelined for Superman. But some of this inevitably comes from the fact that he’s been a second-stringer, and therefore never got his own rogues, which leads to a spiral- no archnemesis of note means no starring role and down and down we go. This is helped by the backstory in 1. That unethical scientist is a Luthor type. But unlike Lex, having his own resources to fall back on, he’s a con man- smart enough to fleece people to fund his research, and then disappear before the check comes due. This also makes it necessary for John to hunt for him- especially since his first invention upon meeting John was a helmet that shields him from John’s telepathy.

3) Fire bad. Okay… this one’s going to be a bumpy ride. Because the thing is, the one thing guaranteed to be at literally every superhero fight, is fire. He might as well be vulnerable to oxygen. But… I have a solve- courtesy of Batman. Wayne was working on new heat-absorbing panels for a next-gen shuttle; they’re meant to function like scale armor, or a phalanx’s shields, interlocking in such a way to minimize heat leakage between them. John essentially carries some of these in his body at all times, and can assemble them in such a way that he can make himself somewhat fireproof; he can’t phase them, and holding them in place would essentially require all his shapeshifting concentration, so they would greatly reduce his ability to move or pass through matter, but it means that he can at least withstand some fire temporarily. It’s not a complete fix… but honestly, I wouldn’t want one. John’s already the Superman problem times 20- he has a superpower for literally every situation and only the one, largely silly vulnerability. We have to give the villains at least a little bit of a chance.

4) Personality-wise, though… John sucks. This is honestly probably where he sucks the absolute most. Because his entire character is essentially locked in as a perpetual outsider. It’s lazy, and worse, nonsensical. He’s a telepath, skilled at manhunting, which involves at least some ability to blend into a native population. Sure, at some core level, he’d struggle as one of the last Martians. But he can read minds, he’s empathic even when he’s being portrayed as cold. I think this calls for a whole arc, frankly. John starts pissed at being alone, the last of his kind. He hunts down the scientist responsible for his specie’s near-extinction… but along the way realizes how many people are just as vulnerable and deserving of care and protection as his family. John goes from wanting to burn the world and the entire species responsible for his loss, to wanting to hold the scientist responsible according to the Earth’s laws, while working to help humanity embrace its better nature, and his own.

Unsuck Heroes

I’ve decided to write a new series of essays taking a character that sucks and making them not suck, or at least suck less. This exercise is, honestly, less about the characters under discussion, and more about understanding why they suck, and how to make your characters suck less.

Caveat: Every character has its fans. I’m not interested in arguing whether a character sucks. I’m not even saying any character sucks, actually. Think of it more like characters, over time, drifting farther from what made them interesting and unique, and growing barnacles and crud on its hull.

Yes, the boat metaphor isn’t a coincidence, we’re going to start with Aquaman. There have been many attempts to make Aquaman not suck. In fact, almost every Aquaman story in the modern era has been an attempt to make him not suck. Now, I’m not knocking on the creators who have worked on him; frankly, given their caliber, I’d be a fool to. I think, in fits and spurts, they’ve likely succeeded… but also, none of these have really stuck. So I want to think long and hard about why Aquaman sucks, and really do a full tear-down.

1) Aquaman talks to fish. So did Nemo, and the Little Mermaid. It’s not that he talks to fish that sucks. It’s how it’s been used. But let’s get one thing straight. He isn’t talking to fish. He’s commanding the goddamned ocean as its king. The movie version did this by making him command a leviathan… which is okay for your climax, but I think what Aquaman needs is to use some knowledge. The sealife he has access to is a toolbox, essentially no different from Batman’s utility belt or Superman’s powerset. He should regularly have at hand an entourage to handle the day to day. He’s s superhero sovereign, so there’s always a lot on his plate. You’d obviously want a shark, sure, as his enforcer, but you’d want some electric eels, an octopus for stealthily getting into and out of tight spaces. For giggles I’d have them all named for historical pirates.

2) Aquaman is just a dude whose dad boffed a fish. I’m not one to judge, and maybe you can say there’s some shared common ancestor not that far back down the evolutionary chain… but that sounds a lot like trying to add a romantic subplot into Congo with the sign-language gorilla. All kidding aside, this puts Aquaman squarely in the ‘chosen one’ category of protagonist, who by luck of birth has powers and -abilities. And that usually sucks (it’s the reason Harry Potter is a more bland character than Hermione). This fix here is more extensive. Arthur’s mom disappears when he’s just a boy. His dad raises him to be a fisherman, working on a boat. Arthur doesn’t like it. There’s a brutality to fishing that disturbs him, and he swears when he stares into the fish’s eyes, right before the cleaver impacts, that he can feel their fear. His dad raises him on tall fisherman’s tales, some mythological, but some… feel more real. They’re stories from his mother. Arthur eventually gets a dual doctorate, archaeology, and marine biology. He embarks on a quest to find Atlantis. His colleagues mock him, and his funding is pulled at the last minute, making him desperate enough he goes into business with the Hydes, who he suspects sell stolen antiquities. They find some of the ruins he originally mistook for Atlantis, and they sabotage his dive gear, intending to keep the spoils for themselves. Instead, he discovers that he can breathe underwater. He sabotages the Hydes’ equipment, enough they can make it back to the surface, but not with any of their spoils. Jesse Hyde refuses to leave empty-handed, and he runs out of air before reaching safety. Arthur discovers that he can feel the minds of the sealife around him, and through them finally decipher the ancient Atlantean language he had only been able to understand pieces of before. This leads him to the true Atlantis, still a thriving underwater metropolis. He uses his knowledge and burgeoning abilities to retake the throne from the usurper Ocean Master, and become Aquaman. So yeah, Indiana Jones with a knowledge of the oceans that rivals Batman’s knowledge of criminal psychology… I think that works.

3) Aquaman is just a suckier Superman, powers-wise. This one honestly kind of stings, because it’s… pretty true. He has strength, and durability, just not as much. Which is fine. In some regards, Wonder Woman is just a slightly less powerful Superman. But it’s also fixable, and Grant Morrison opened the door. He said that Aquaman was durable because he needed to be able to survive at the deepest ocean depths. I think I’d lean into that, that he is the ocean’s chosen champion. It’s not just that he’s king of Atlantis. It’s that he’s meant to represent all of the ocean’s denizens, designed to protect them in all of the corners of the Earth’s waters. So he can swim fast enough to be able to shoot through the air like a flying fish and land in any land-locked body of water. I’d give him some kind of underwater propulsion; simplest might be that he can essentially suck water in through his gills and shoot it through the bottoms of his feet, though aquakinesis is also a possibility, but he should be nearly as fast on water as Superman is on land. I’d probably even lean into his weakness, that he has to stay hydrated, but that his body is pressurized, so that he’s essentially carting around a ton of ocean water at a time, which he can release in jets of water. He still wouldn’t be able to beat Superman one on one (except maybe in a prolonged battle at the darkest depths of the ocean where Superman’s photovoltaic cells couldn’t recharge), but the ways his powers worked, and the things he could do would be more interesting and unique to him.