Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

Return with me now to the thrilling days of 1964!

1964 was a big year for green people at the Big Two.

Hulk, after a couple of years bouncing in and out of various Marvel books, got his own series again as a backup feature to Giant-Man. It began Jade-Jaws’ rise to stardom: after just a few issues, Giant-Man was out and Hulk shared the book with the Sub-Mariner. Four years later Tales to Astonish became Incredible Hulk and Namor left for a comic of his own.

Of course that was nothing compared to the stardom that awaited J’Onn J’Onzz, Manhunter from Mars when he left Detective Comics and jumped over to House of Mystery for a two year battle with the Idol-Head of Diabolu. Is there anyone reading this who hasn’t heard of that epic struggle, one of the high points of the Silver Age?

Okay, nobody’s ever claimed that, including me. But reading it over, I can’t help thinking that if J’Onn had a quality creative team — an editor like Julius Schwartz, a plotter/artist of weird tales like Steve Ditko — those two years could have been classic. As the creative team, however, was writer Jack Miller, artist Joe Certa and editor Jack “my brand is to be as ‘meh’ as possible” Schiff it was anything but.

It was, nevertheless, a clever way to transition the Manhunter from Detective Comics — with Schwartz now editing it, Elongated Man had the backup slot — to being the lead in House of Mystery (backed up, like Ant-Man and Thor in their early appearances, by undistinguished anthology stories). In Detective Comics, J’Onn’s home since his 1955 debut, the stories emphasized his day job as John Jones, Middletown police detective. As an alien detective he was just a weirder variation on backup strips such as Mysto (magician detective), Roy Raymond (TV detective) and Captain Compass (seagoing detective).

In Detective #326, “The Death of John Jones, Detective,” a petty thug gains strange powers from a stolen Babylonian artifact, the Idol-Head of Diabolu. In the course of stopping the crook and the creature that emerges from the Idol, John Jones apparently dies. When J’Onn learns that every full moon the Idol unleashes some kind of evil monstrosity on the world, he decides it’s best to give up his mortal identity rather than come up with a ruse to explain Jones surviving. That way he can devote his full time to tracking down the Idol-head, which was not recovered when he banished the monster and busted the crook.

That fit perfectly with his new Schiff-edited home Instead of Diane Meade, Jones’ human partner, J’Onn had his wacky alien sidekick Zook. When he appeared on the cover, images like this——didn’t look that different from the regular monster covers like this——or this.Except of course that the cover for “The Doom Shadow” was drawn by Joe Cerna and the other HOM covers were by the vastly superior Dick Dillin. While the idea of a two-year battle against a running foe was novel for the time, in practice the strip was just one weird monster after another. No surprise that the deadly menace of the Idol-head vanished into obscurity five minutes after J’Onn finally destroyed it. Then he jumped into a new secret identity in HOM #160, becoming playboy Marco Xavier to battle the international crime syndicate Vulture. Now, rather than imitate the Schiff monster books, the Manhunter was knocking off James Bond. But why not? With Robby Reed, the original Dial H kid, as the lead feature it was obvious the old HOM formula was out the window.

I can’t say I’m deeply distressed the Idol-head never returned, but at least now you know it existed [UPDATE: So do current Action readers, see the comments]

#SFWApro. Top cover by Jack Kirby

4 Comments

  1. kdu2814

    As a Martian Manhunter fan, I remember these stories, although it has been a while since I read any of them or purchased a House of Mystery issue. Maybe I will fix that at Heroes Con this year.

    “I can’t say I’m deeply distressed the Idol-head never returned, but at least now you know it existed.”

    You are not reading Action Comics, with Martian Manhunter as the back up, are you…

  2. kdu2814

    Action Comics 1037 is the first Martian Manhunter back up, and

    S
    P
    O
    I
    L
    E
    R
    S

    He starts out investigating the theft of some ‘fragments of an ancient artifact’ from the Metropolis Museum. The fragments are pieces of the Idol Head. One of his old enemies shows up in part one, too.
    Part two has Zook II..
    Part three has another returning villain…

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