Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Dirty Trader- Martian Manhunter: American Secrets #1-3 (1992)

The second solo Martian Manhunter mini-series arrived in the form of three prestige format issues in 1992. Gerard Jones crafted a paranoid tale of Cold War era intrigue, filtered through J'Onzz's very alien perceptions. It was an odd and challenging piece, overlooked and unrecognized in its time and to this day. It honestly took me a few weeks after reading the story to sort out my feelings about the series. I finally came to the conclusion that American Secrets was one of the most impressive comic scripts I'd ever read, truly capturing an otherworldly feeling throughout the story. The influence of David Lynch (especially "Blue Velvet") was strong here, and indicative of Jones' surrealistic approach for what was left of his time working in mainstream comics. Truth to tell, its cerebral nature and the psychodrama that came with it likely played a part in his being pushed out of the industry.

Lending a period flavor to the book was the art of Eduardo Barreto, by my estimation the best work of his career. The landscape of this world was fully realized in Barreto's illustrations, with the rich inks and colors the quality paper stock allowed for giving the series a sumptuous look. While Barreto's style is often anachronistic when applied to modern stories, here the man evoked an entirely appropriate 50's noir feel.

American Secrets is disputably the greatest story ever told with the Martian Marvel. The tale's sophistication and dark undercurrent could have easily qualified it for Vertigo status, had the title not arrived a bit prior to that line's launch and outside its "Goth" scope. Gerard Jones' setting of late 50's/early 60's America remains fairly unique for modern comics, arriving after the McCarthy period and before the Love Generation had really gotten into gear. This period is underrepresented and fascinating in comic form, though I shed no tears for having missed it first hand.

I will point out out that many have complained about the odd continuity complications over this mini-series. John Jones does buy Oreos a half-century before Captain Marvel introduced him to the product in the pages of Justice League, and the early appearance of the natural Martian form does not jibe with the 1988 mini-series. Personally, I see these as incredibly minor flaws in comparison to the title's graces, mostly explainable by the "No-Prize" minded.

Fans who take issue with J'Onzz excess powers might be pleased to note that only his most common 50's abilities were on display here: enhanced strength, flight, invisibility, and shapeshifting. I'm very fond of intangibility, telepathy and some of the cooler applications of Martian Vision (laser specifically,) but it goes to show you can tell a perfectly grand story without them. Truth to tell, I hardly noticed.

Whether the $4.95 price tag or other elements were off-putting, the series was little read. Capitol City Distribution reported selling 13,750 copies of the first issue, 10,600 of the second, and 9,600 of the third. I don't recall if the series made it to booksellers, but if you double Capitol's numbers to account for Diamond Distribution, the circulation was still depressing. In today's market, those numbers would only be slightly underwhelming, but for 1992 they were tragic.

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