The DeMatteis-Badger MARTIAN MANHUNTER mini-series was the first major re-interpretation of the J’onn J’onzz character following the “Crisis on Infinite Earths” event. Certain aspects of that series are touched upon—and occasionally subverted—in the 1992 AMERICAN SECRETS by Gerard Jones and Eduardo Barretto. It was, in those days, good business sense to maintain some degree of fidelity to the most recent version of a comic-book character’s continuity, even if the visions of writers DeMatteis and Jones could not be more different.
SECRETS takes place in the decade of the 1950s, apparently not long after J’onn J’onzz, a citizen of Mars, became exiled upon the planet Earth. Thus it's also some time before he became a known superheroic presence, particularly through hie membership with the not-yet-assembled Justice League. If the 1992 story had truly been in line with the 1988 mini-series, then J’onn would have no true recollection of his real life on Mars, as it’s not until 1988 that he knows he’s lived with false, concocted memories since he began his time on Earth. Jones doesn’t overtly dispute the DeMatteis scenario, but it’s important to Jones’ narrative that the hero does remember at least his sense of communion with his vanished people, as well as being able to assume his true, “cone-headed” form when he pleases. One minor reason for this, I would imagine, was that once hardcore fans knew the “big reveal” of the mini-series, there was no longer a compelling reason not to make use of the new Martian Paradigm. This was particularly true given the different ambitions of the two writers. DeMatteis was concerned only with penning a eulogy for a solipsistic, psuedo-poetic civilization, but Jones’s intent is sociological. He explores the cultural differences between the new “DC-Mars” and the post-Crisis version of "DC-Earth"—which, by the way, had consolidated two separate cosmogonies, so that the Justice Society, which formerly inhabited another Earth, now shared a common history with the later Justice League.
The dominant impression of American in the 1950s decade has often been characterized as a time of lockstep conformity, as evidenced by such real-world events as the McCarthy hearings and the advent of the Comics Code. Indeed, once the Justice Society’s history was integrated with that of DC’s current heroes, an explanation for their inactivity during the 1950s had to be propounded: one in which the earlier superheroes, crusaders for justice during the war years, retired from the public scene due to Congressional inquiries.
It’s arguable, though, that the decade of the 1940s evinced greater conformity, and that the social codes of that era began to break down in the 1950s, resulting in a strange admixture of conformity and rebellion. The burgeoning medium of television put forth images of contented nuclear families in shows like “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver.” Yet on the margins of society dwelled the disaffected Beat poets, well represented by Allen Ginsburg’s classic phrase, “lizard-headed hipsters” (which phrase makes an early appearance in SECRETS). It was a time in which Americans set themselves up as a capitalistic bulwark against godless Communism, and yet the abuses of money-hungry gangsters resulted in the growth of Communism in Cuba, so that the tiny island became a blemish upon the escutcheon of the Western Hemisphere. And of course, in the same decade when most Americans believed that comic books were purely the province of children, EC Comics and MAD magazine commenced, forming the vanguard of what most historians deem “adult comics.” Dalton Trumbo contemptuously referred to the decade as “the time of the toad.” But through the efforts of Jones and Barretto, it’s more like “the time of the lizard,” in which the lizard, in real life a creature of instinct, becomes rather an image of alien intellect, expressed through the science fiction image of the bug-eyed monster.
Jones and Barretto structure their story after the fashion of the hard-boiled detective story, a genre that prospered throughout the heyday of the pulp magazines and lived again through the newer venue of paperbacks books, even as paperbacks killed off the old pulps. I would imagine that the authors made that choice in part because the Martian Manhunter first saw print in 1955, as a backup feature in DC’s DETECTIVE COMICS. Yet this “man from Mars” didn’t solve crimes by following clues, like the magazine’s headliner Batman. J’onn J’onzz vanquished criminals using his super-scientific Martian powers, while remaining concealed from humankind in the identity of police detective John Jones.
However, in AMERICAN SECRETS J’onn/John must follow the pattern of the hard-boiled detective story. Like the private dicks of earlier days, J’onn has to learn how to follow instinct rather than logic, operating from “a word here, or a hunch there.” A club for Beat poetry leads J’onn to investigate a nationally popular television quiz show, “The Big Question.” In the process of asking his own questions, J’onn crosses paths with one of the performers, child-star Patty Marie—and minutes later, J’onn sees another performer seemingly murdered during the show’s on-air broadcast. The Martian watches in disbelief as the show’s producers soothe the audience by claiming that the murder was a technical illusion. Another chance encounter at the studio leads J’onn to investigate a record promoter, and that encounter leads the Martian to meet a country-boy singer named Presl—er, Preston Perkins. Then Preston directs the curious alien to an encounter with a crazy artist who makes books about “lizard-headed conquerors,” and this encounter eventually leads the manhunter—accompanied by both the well-coiffed singer and the distressed child star-- to hunt down the heart of the conspiracy, with the help of comic books.
The preceding paragraph covers only the most basic aspects of the first of the three SECRETS installments, and leaves out a lot of stuff, like lizard-headed cops and men who burst into flames whenever J’onn gets too close to the truth. J’onn himself is the only unifying agent that links all the pieces of the puzzle, for only he, the alien under cover, can discern the little differences in human culture, the differences that might seem like ordinary human conservatism to other humans, but which stand out to the real alien as indicators of extraterrestrial influence. The investigation also allows Jones and Barretto to satirize the real-life aspects of American conservatism, all of which, so far as we know, were not managed by aliens.
One of these was the growth of the suburb, the closed-off community separated from the city proper. Certain early suburban communities were called “levittowns,” and Jones spoofs these with a suburban division named “Leavitzville,” which also puns upon the title of TV’s family-comedy “Leave It to Beaver”—although the too-perfect family J’onn encounters sports the name of “the Andersons,” a borrowing from “Father Knows Best.”
A second aspect is the position of comic books in American culture. In Leavitzville the Martian meets a publisher of comic books, one Melvin Keene, who is a conflation of two major real-life individuals. Predominantly Keene is a fictional version of William Gaines, for Keene, like Gaines, published a line of boundary-pushing comic books, lost his business due to societal and governmental pushback, and survived only by continuing to publish a satirical comics-magazine (MAD in the real world, NUTS in the DC Universe). Yet Keene is also his own father, for the fictional figure is also William Gaines’ famous father, Maxwell. Maxwell Gaines in effect gave life to almost every major DC hero who wasn’t Superman or Batman, as well as bringing a bunch of the superheroes together as the aforementioned Justice Society. Maxwell’s contentions with other DC personnel resulted in a buyout, after which Maxwell briefly published “Educational Comics”—and upon his death, William inherited the company, changed it to “Entertaining Comics,” and made pop-culture history. When the EC line failed, William Gaines had to have MAD distributed by American News, the same company that distributed the comics of his father’s old partners, and later Gaines was obliged to sell MAD to a company that became part of the Time-Warner empire.
Finally, the Martian has his first encounter with the Golden Age, when he finds that even the heroes of the Justice Society have been subverted by the conspiracy. Or have they? One of the heroes discloses a nonsense-word—itself a distortion of one that appeared in various MAD spoofs—and makes it a vital clue that leads the Manhunter to his quarry. And it’s at this point that J’onn J’onzz experiences the quintessential 1950s irony of “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Almost everything in SECRETS works on the same level as the best hard-boiled fiction: as a sort of existential thrill-ride. The only exception is a sequence in which Jones gilds his lily a bit too much. Most of the conspirators believe the same illusion that they project upon the masses, but one exception is “Whitey.” This kid-actor plays the titular boy-star of Jones’ imitation “Leave It to Beaver” teleseries, but Whitey isn’t a believer in the cult of niceness and decency. The boy--assuming that he’s a real kid, that is-- uses his stellar position to get lots of adult privileges—smoking and getting laid. He even tries to get familiar with Patty Marie, who, whatever her character’s age, is still a child in spirit. I wouldn’t have a problem with depicting this type of scuzzball character in a story where he fit the prevailing concept. But in this story Whitey’s just an indulgence, a needless red arrow to point out how bad the bad guys are.
SECRETS is not one of the better known graphic novels of the nineties, possibly because its appreciation hinges on the reader’s knowledge of DC cosmology. Additionally, its theme diverges from the academically dominant pronouncement of elitist critics: to the effect that “adult comics”like EC were true art and that superhero comics were merely meaningless “commodity art.” Jones’s theme celebrates creativity in any form, and thus SECRETS is—perhaps appropriately—in disagreement with the current ruling class.