Marvin meets J'onn: DC/Looney Tunes writers talk their favorite Martians

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Jun 14, 2017

What if you found out you weren't the last of your race, as you'd long thought? How would that make you feel? Would those feelings change if you found out that the new guy wanted to blow up the Earth?

This is the surprisingly personal idea at the core of the wonderfully wacky new one-shot Martian Manhunter/Marvin the Martian Special, out today from DC Comics. Along with the Legion of Super-Heroes/Bugs Bunny Special, it's the first out of the gate of the publisher's month-long wave of one-shot crossovers of their superhero characters with those animated anarchists known as the Looney Tunes.

This one-shot is an incredibly funny but surprisingly bittersweet tale, with an introspective and bewildered J'onn trying to stop the single-minded Marvin's reign of terror. It's the type of pure comic book fun that can and should be enjoyed by readers of all ages. The issue's main story is drawn by Planet Hulk artist Aaron Lopresti and is written by Justice League of America writer Steve Orlando and Five Ghosts writer Frank Barbiere, and the two scribes were kind enough to take some of my questions over the phone about this uniquely odd project.

We talked about their experiences with both of the characters as kids and writing them now, Steve Orlando's unwavering love for the Martian Manhunter, and much more. In addition to the interview, we have lots of preview pages of both the main story and the more cartoony backup throughout the article and in the gallery at the bottom.

Be sure to head to your local comic shop to experience all of the insanity for yourself, and let us know your most memorable Martian-related moments in the comments below.

This is obviously a very nostalgia-driven project. Which of these two characters were each of you familiar with first?

Steve Orlando: Familiar with, um … probably … well, no, it's unquestionably Marvin the Martian. I mean, Martian Manhunter is my favorite character at DC Comics, but I was watching Looney Tunes thinking they were current circa the 1980s, when I was younger, and I used to — rather than refer to them by a proper noun — I'd just make the theme song with my mouth, much to the annoyance of my parents. So Marvin definitely I was familiar with first, because I probably had been watching him since I had memories, along with the others. I don't spend as much time with Looney Tunes right now, but Martian Manhunter, as a counterpoint, is a guy I would step over many dead bodies to write, and my favorite DC character. So he's also incredibly close to my heart.

Frank Barbiere: I feel, like with him, that I grew up in "peak Looney Tunes." Reruns, I guess, obviously not the original airing, but we also had Space Jam, and Marvin was very prominent in that too. So I always knew who that character was and thought he was fun. But Martian Manhunter I was really introduced to more so in the animated realm, but when we were researching for this Steve sent me a lot of good old back issues. Steve, what was that run we were reading stuff from, the past Martian Manhunter run …?

SO: Oh, you're talking about [John] Ostrander and [Tom] Mandrake ...

FB: Yeah! Which, again, is fantastic stuff, and Steve showed me a lot of that stuff to get me up to speed on some of the nuance of the character, but I really do enjoy Martian Manhunter. I was mostly familiar with the animated stuff, the JLA — [laughs] excuse me, that's Steve's — the Justice League TV show. But again, he's a really cool character, and I was excited this is the pairing we got, because they're both Martians, and what that means in the DCU is very different than in the real world or even the Looney Tunes version of Mars.

So you have Marvin coming over to the DC Universe in this issue; was there ever a version of the story where it was the other way around, was that the plan from the get-go?

SO: I believe that the other story in the annual might be answering that question. We have a DCU-style story, which you're talking to Frank and I about, and then we have a Looney Tunes-style story as well in the annual. So you may be getting an answer to that question in this very book, if not from the mouths of me and Mr. Barbiere. But more to the point, yes, there was a moment when J'onn was going to be going over and visit Marvin's version of Mars, but call us crazy, we thought perhaps the readers would have more of an emotional connection to the Earth that they were on, so we brought Marvin over here to blow things up.

FB: Yeah, and we … really talked a lot about what we wanted the story to be and what we wanted to do with it in terms of thinking of J'onn as our main character, and with the story of Marvin, it just made a lot more sense to have Marvin come into our DC Universe rather than J'onn going to Marvin's Looney Tunes universe.

How did you both become involved with this project? Because I have read a bit of both of your work, and I don't know that I'd necessarily have pegged you as the ideal Marvin the Martian writers.

SO: [laughs] What do you mean? [laughs] Well, in my case, it's well known at DC that Martian Manhunter is my favorite character and that I have a bloodthirst for working with him. So when these annuals started to kind of come together, and the wonderful absurdity of them sort of began to take shape — I mean, Batman and Elmer Fudd, I think there's a sort of lethal absurdity to these books — DC sat down with me and they said, "I'm gonna tell you something, and you're gonna think I'm crazy, but then you won't be able to say no." And I said, "Mmm … Go on." And they said, "Martian Manhunter." And I said "Well, I'm with you so far." I'm not feeling crazy yet. Well, then they say, "Marvin the Martian." And I said, "Well okay, all right then."

But I was boxed in because I'd really do anything to work with J'onn as much as possible. And as it happens, perhaps because I myself am an incredibly sarcastic nihilist, Marvin was one of my favorite Looney Tunes characters. Even though he would want to on occasion blow up the Earth, where I live, I was a big fan of him as well. So it was crazy, but I thought they knew I was a solid mark for this before it even came out of their mouths, which is totally fair.

FB: We are actually really good friends in real life too, this wasn't just like some weird editorial handoff pairing us up. So it did come together organically in that sense. So I know it maybe seems weird maybe on paper, but no, it wasn't that DC was like "Oh, Martians, we gotta get Frank Barbiere on that!" [laughs] So it was more of us having a good working relationship as well as us being friends that got us together to work on it.

SO: A solid 80% of the bedrock of our friendship is inane banter, so y'know, that being a solid portion of this book as well, I felt that both us kind of coming in and sort of butting heads in the right way as we worked on these two characters would only make it better. Because there is definitely a, shall we say, clash of personalities between Marvin and J'onn. And I'm not going to say who's who in this book, but … [Barbiere laughs] Suffice to say, scenes of them sort of retching back and forth about their character motivations kinda reflect life! So I think it worked out really well, and it's better for it.

So digging into the dialogue of it, when you're writing superheroes, you have a little more leeway, but with characters like Marvin and the other Looney Tunes, there's a very specific voice that those characters have. Does that change your process as far as writing the dialogue for the characters? Is it easier or harder to do because of that?

SO: I think anytime a character has an established voice … I am actually interested to see if Frank will answer opposite to me on this, which is fine … but I think it's easier. On one hand it's intimidating, because you have to fit into this rubric, but on the other hand it becomes just as important when you fit the rubric as when you don't. In this book, we get a lot of Marvin-isms into this book, certainly, because you have to give people the sizzle and the steak, but as well, he has more to his motivation for his goal of destroying the Earth in this book than in the traditional "it blocks my view of Venus." So we did step away from his lighter dialogue style in some cases, but that is to make him sympathetic because it gives a space to him, and readers probably take notice, that they probably know him better in this book than when he's just getting foiled by a carrot in the tailpipe. So I think it's easier both because it's easier to speak in-character and to say more about his character — or characters in general — when they break from the form.

FB: Y'know, I completely agree. That's why I like to work on established characters, because you're given … you know what these people act like. And we can spend more time worrying about what they're saying rather than how they say it.

Were there any Martian Manhunter cartoons [Note: I meant to say Marvin the Martian here, but to be fair, it’s a lot of M's to mess up] you went back and watched before writing this project?

SO: Martian Manhunter? Yeah, I've seen every single episode he's appeared in anywhere. As a kid I was just waiting — let's talk about the fact that I have a taped VHS of the '90s Justice League pilot, where David Ogden Stiers from M*A*S*H is Martian Manhunter. So, y'know, I've seen them all. I've watched him in Justice League Unlimited, I watched him in Smallville, in The Batman, because he's my favorite character and I'll follow him wherever he goes. I don't often allow myself to get into statue and collectible purchasing, but that doesn't apply to Martian Manhunter. I remember when Justice League first debuted, the first 'toon Justice League, to see him finally on screen, seeing the origin, was just so amazing to me, because I'd been following him since the '80s. Since I was following anything. Since I was following planet Earth.

FB: Yeah, not any specifically. We had both seen them, that was much more my entry point to the character. Comic-wise, even though it's outside of the DC continuity, I really loved the take in New Frontier that Darwyn Cooke had done. I loved that he was kind of that driver and opening to that story. I was more fascinated to see some of the kind of the Martian Manhunter greatest hits in comics since we had that shared background of seeing his show. I think he's a really interesting character that a lot of great people have explored. But in coming up with this, really thinking about "What is the best way to get these two characters together?", I'm really happy that we found a good organic reason that J'onn would be searching for another Martian. So I was really happy we could add that into the story.

He actually turns into Bugs Bunny in New Frontier, doesn't he?

FB: [Laughs] Yeah! When he's sitting watching TV! And one thing I wanted to add real quick, talking about Marvin, is a very big shout-out to Aaron Lopresti, who did the art in this issue. His ability to convey emotion with Marvin, despite Marvin having no face. Steve and I were both very glad that Aaron was on board, and when we started getting the pages, the way he was able to emote with Marvin using his eyes, and make him seem more in line with the aesthetic of the DC Universe, rather than just being a total cartoon, it was really a joy on this project. I think Aaron really nailed that, Marvin's acting.

SO: Yeah, he did an amazing job, Aaron did a great job. There's a scene where J'onn palms Marvin’s head like a basketball, which is one of my favorite things that I've seen in a long time, that is not in the script! So it just goes to show, when you give a great artist room to improvise, you get, y'know, Martian Manhunter palming someone's face like a basketball, and it's joyous. [both laugh]

Martian Manhunter/Marvin the Martian Special #1 is now on sale from DC Comics. All art by Aaron Lopresti, with colors by Hi-Fi. Back-up story by Jim Fanning and John Loter.