The character's origins, first appearing in a backup strip in DETECTIVE COMICS #225 (1955), were not much more auspicious than various other SF-themed DC characters from the 1950s, though he did get more buildup than, say, Captain Comet or the Knights of the Galaxy. If one dates the Silver Age by beginning with 1954, the first year that the Comics Code took effect, then J'onn was one of the first Silver Age heroes, though he was slow, unlike 1956's Flash, to display any "legs." His nature is not unlike Superman's, with whom he shares several super-powers, though Manhunter also has the propensity of changing his shape as he wishes. Manhunter, like Superman, also a convenient weakness to mitigate his great powers; instead of kryptonite, commonplace fire. But whereas the Man of Steel is an infant when he's rocketed from Krypton to Mars, the Manhunter from Mars is a full-grown Martian adult when the teleport-beam of Earth-scientist Doctor Erdel whisks J'onn from his native world to that of Earth. J'onn J'onzz seemed to accept this exile from his people with remarkable equanimity; for the next fifteen years, during which he briefly enjoyed a stint as a headliner in HOUSE OF MYSTERY, he hardly ever expressed a desire to go home. On rare occasions readers saw glimpses of J'onn's race still living on Mars, but the Martians were portrayed as no more than a run-of-the-mill alien people.
The findings of the 1964 Mariner-4 flyby, which convinced most people that there was no life on Mars, didn't have any effect on DC's version of Mars until 1969. By that time, not only had J'onn J'onzz lost his series berth in HOUSE OF MYSTERY, editors had dropped him from the Justice League. This fact probably contributed to the decision of the Justice League's then-current writer, Denny O"Neil, to devise a retcon story, in which it was revealed that J'onn's people no longer existed in the DC Universe. "And So My World Ends" in JLA #71 posited that at the time J'onn had been transported to Earth by Doctor Erdel, a war had broken out between J'onn's race of Green Martians and the never-before-seen White Martians. In fact, when J'onn was ":untimely ripped" from his world, he had been serving as a military commander for his people. J'onn shows up on Earth once more and involves the Justice League in investigating a new threat from Mars. The story concludes when the last Green Martian is confronted by the last White Martian.
They fight, and J'onn wins a bittersweet victory, becoming the last Martian. Nor surprisingly, later writers contravened this position, while Steve Englehart revised the O'Neil scenario slightly. O'Neil's story suffered from sloppy logic; if J'onn really had been yanked away from his planet during a crucial military situation, wouldn't he have eventually appealed to his JLA pal Superman to simply take him back to Mars? So Englehart, while not contradicting the events of O'Neil's story, suggested that J'onn had grown away from his world even before everyone on Mars had died. Nevertheless, "And So My World Ends" remains a significant near-myth, in giving the Martian Manhunter greater resonance as the last surviving Martian-- which, while not technically true, rings emotionally true.
The 1986 CRISIS series made it possible to revise all the continuities of DC comics-characters. No one was rushing to revise J'onn J'onzz for a new series, but by chance the 1987 reboot of the JUSTICE LEAGUE under Keith Giffen, Marc DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire gave the old Martian new life. Manhunter had already returned to the League as a regular member in pre-Crisis days, but during the DeMatteis tenure he became the "straight man" to the new "funny JLA." J'onn became more popular with fans, which almost certainly contributed to DC's greenlighting a 1988 mini-series by DeMatteis and Mark Badger.
True, the four-issue MANHUNTER story tailgates on a plot-development from the JUSTICE LEAGUE comic, and several JLA members serve as support-cast-- and comedy relief-- appear in the narrative. However, the life of J'onn J'onzz and his Martian heritage is given a serious treatment, albeit of the "everything you think you know is wrong" nature.
In the JLA story, J'onn ingests a spore in order to save humanity from the spore's effects. Then he begins seeing a strange fiery specter that he originally takes as a hallucination brought on by consuming the spore. But it's soon evident that others can see the specter, and that it can wreak real-world effects. Moreover, the entity claims to be H'ronmeer, one of the gods of Mars, and for a while one wonders if the god is trying to claim worship from the Martian, as the assertive deity of Francis Thompson's "The Hound of Heaven" pursues the poem's narrator.
|I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;|
|I fled Him, down the arches of the years;|
|I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways|
|Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears|
|I hid from Him, and under running laughter.||5|
|Up vistaed hopes I sped;|
|And shot, precipitated,|
|Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,|
But in time it's evident that H'ronmeer has something else in mind. He spirits the Martian away from his allies, and drops him off (J'onn spends a lot of time falling in this story) in the company of none other than Doctor Erdel. Not only the Erdel in this continuity not dead like his predecessor, he also teleported to Earth a Martian suffering from a massive trauma. In his true Martian form, J/'onn is not a muscular, beetle-browed green humanoid, but a green humanoid whose limbs are almost impossibly attenuated.
While giving aid and comfort to the exiled alien, Erdel talks him into using his shapeshifting power to take his beetle-browed appearance, in order to look less alien. Erdel even used hypnosis to reprogram J'onn so that the Martian thought Erdel had died. J'onn was so traumatized by the events on Mars that he even destroyed the teleport-apparatus, which is DeMatteis' explanation as to why the character never tried to travel back home.
And what were those events? O'Neil followed the standard association of the planet Mars with the God of War, but DeMatteis makes his Mars a place of mystic peacefulness, with not a White Martian in sight. J'onn, as he undergoes the katabasis of his repressed memories, thinks:
"Was there a time when Martians murdered each other? Once, perhaps, in the dim past-- but violence was an aberration among us, not a natural state. We were a race of poets, mystics, seers and dreamers."
When the Martian race perishes, it doesn't come about from the influence of War, but from his old fellow horseman Pestilence. Plague takes the Martian race, and J'onn has spent years repressing the hideous memories, particularly of the deaths of his wife and daughter. Further, it's revealed that the Martian's supposed vulnerability to fire is psychological, not physiological. In the last years of the pestilence, the Martians tried to avert the sickness by burning the carcasses of the dead, a strategy which DeMatteis probably borrowed from real-life practices during Europe's Black Plague. Thus, Erdel snatched J'onn away from certain death alongside his people, though J'onn's "survivor guilt" caused him to want to bury the memories-- as well as, perhaps, motivating him to be a hero on his adopted planet Earth. Even H'ronmeer's fiery appearance is the result of J'onn's phobia toward fire: originally he was a god of life, not of "fire and death."
Finally, the life-god's motivations are revealed. Even though J'onn did not remember the true fate of his people any more, somehow his repression caused the massed spirits of the Martians to remain tethered to the planet, rather than ascending to what DeMatteis calls "heaven." Once J'onn has made peace of the "warring" sides of his being, he's able to bid farewell to his people, and truly accept his new home on Earth.
Significantly, the story concludes with an encomnium to "the man who discovered Mars, Ray Bradbury." It seems likely that DeMatteis seized upon the renewed interest in the Manhunter character to rewrite his origins to something more poetic than the O'Neil revision. In terms of both myth and poetry, DeMatteis is not able to reach any of Bradbury's heights, and if I were judging only that part of the story, I would consider MARTIAN MANHUNTER a "null-myth."
Over the years, though the O'Neil and DeMatteis versions have contributed to the established character of J'onn J'onzz. White Martians made a return to DC's continuity, and since they like J'onn have proven to be vulnerable to fire, it's a given that DC writers chose to ignore the psychological angle re: the Manhunter's weakness. However, though DeMatteis's take on "mystic Martians" is not very deep, he contributed much to the image of J'onn J'onzz as the "wise shaman" figure, to whom the Justice Leaguers often turn for guidance. I believe that the idea of his "true form" persists as well, and that the extinction of the Martians is now something of a conflation of both the O'Neil and DeMatteis stories. It's not a very deep myth, but it has had over the years some compelling moments, especially for a "C-list" character.