Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Essential Man Thing Vol.1 Review

 How, oh how could I have gone on this long without covering this series? You all know how much I love muck-monsters in comics, yet rarely have I even mentioned what is easily comicdom’s third most recognizable such creature. I’ll be honest and admit that I’ve never been crazy about this character, but at the same time I’ve never really disliked anything involving him (Well, except for that awful TV movie); even the team-ups featuring the character have been surprisingly enjoyable considering that a passive character like Man-Thing would seems like he’d be most boring guest star in the world. Having just finished reading this essential collection in a record two days (Virus problems have been keeping me from using my computer lately) I was surprised at what a breezy read it was, especially considering the wealth of material on display here. We have black and white magazines, guest appearances in other character’s series, text stories, a horror anthology featuring Man-Thing as the lead, the character’s own title, as well as the two infamously named annuals that were called “Giant Sized Man-Thing”. What’s even more astonishing is that I remember reading a lot of these stories and enjoying them, but somehow I’d forgotten them. Weird, because these sure don’t seem like the kind of comics you’d just forget!

 Man-Thing is frequently compared to DC’s Swamp Thing in that both characters are scientists working on secret formulas that get attacked by spies and turned into monsters. Details of Swamp Thing’s origin have gotten woven into Man-Thing’s over the years though, with Ted Sallis, the man who became Man-Thing, transforming due to a lab explosion or because his formula was somehow connected to plants. In the original origin story though, Sallis just transforms because he leaps into a swamp after his car goes off the road, while his serum was supposedly intended to create a super-soldier (And despite being firmly grounded in the Marvel Universe, never is it mentioned that Sallis was trying to duplicate Professor Reinstein’s Captain America serum, a detail that gets mentioned frequently in Man-Thing character bios).
  Man-Thing also differs from Swamp Thing in that he’s neither an action-oriented character nor the driving force of the stories he appears in. Man-Thing is a nearly mindless being who can sense the emotions of those around him and reacts to them. Thus, all of the stories depend on other characters to drive the course of the plots. In a way, Man-Thing functions as a kind of ‘host’ character who intervenes, like The Phantom Stranger, Spectre (in some incarnations) and The Spirit. This gives the writers a lot of leeway for telling different kinds of stories, and, oddly enough, the result at times feels closer to what Alan Moore eventually turned Swamp Thing into than what Swamp Thing had been before that (That isn’t to say that pre-Moore Swamp Thing was crap, or mindless action, in fact, I feel quite the opposite in that I prefer Wein & Wrightson’s stuff to Moore’s, but that’s a rant for another time). The connection becomes unmistakable when later stories mention that the real reason Sallis became Man-Thing was because he was chosen to be a champion of the swamp by gods who guard “The Nexus of All Realities”, just like the Parliament of Trees from Moore’s ST run. I also know that Neil Gaiman was heavily influenced by some of these stories when writing Sandman.

 The series doesn’t start off quite like that, however. The first Man-Thing story highly suggests that when Ted Sallis becomes the Man-Thing that he isn’t mindless, just stricken with amnesia and/or driven insane, with no way of communicating. In fact, the ending of the first story is built upon Man-Thing reacting in horror at what he’s become when he sees his reflection, and the character’s next two appearances in Ka-Zar have him trying to protect a female scientist who he thinks can help him regain his humanity.
 Man-Thing’s infamous power of making whatever knows fear burn at his touch is also vaguely defined at first, initially seeming to have more to do with him being composed of chemicals rather than being triggered by other people’s emotions. Before long though, the premise is established: Man-Thing is a mindless creature drawn to wherever human emotion is strongest in the swamp, the bulk of the story then focuses on the human drama aspects and some kind of social commentary, and then inevitably it all ends with the issue’s baddie growing fearful, encountering Man-Thing, and thus, burning at his touch.

 Curiously enough, Steve Gerber (Who writes the bulk of these stories), a writer known for using comics as a springboard for all kinds of concepts, ranging from satire and absurdist humor, to philosophy, to social commentary, spends most of his Man-Thing stories in Adventures Into Fear focusing on a teenage girl named Jennifer Kale (Who comes from a family of cultists that worship a dead Atlantean priestess named Zhered-Na) who ends up caught in a quasi-sword and sorcery adventure involving a demonic villain named Thog (First simply called “Nether-Spawn”), a barbarian named Korrek, and a senile wizard called Dakimh. Gerber does do a few EC-like stories in between Jennifer’s adventures that play up his more well-known trademarks as a writer, but by and large, the focus is on Jennifer and her quest.
 This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, as there are plenty of Gerber’s trademark absurdist moments (In fact, it’s the epic conclusion of the Jennifer storyline that introduces Howard the Duck! He gets written out very quickly though), the storyline generates a fair amount of action and suspense, Jennifer and her comedy relief brother Andy are likeable characters, the backstory given to the Zhered-Na cult is fascinating, and you have to love how Jennifer’s Grandpa is depicted as a wise voice of reason, even though he’s the leader of a cult that could easily be the villains in a Dennis Wheatley novel or a Chick tract.
'It vaguely resembles a duck--but it seems more like something that would make for a horrible movie!'
  All things considered, the Jennifer Kale ‘arc’ is something that could have easily been told in a Doctor Strange comic without missing a beat, although part of me wonders if it inspired aspects of the movie Time Bandits.

 Ultimately though, it’s the one-off horror or social satire stories that work best. Gerber is about as subtle when it comes to making his points about the problems in society as James Cameron and Steve Ditko; in other words, he has absolutely none. For example, a greedy land-developer who becomes the series ‘big bad’ is named F.A. Schist. However, Gerber always goes out of his way to try and depict both sides of a problem and give the villains at least some depth. One story seems like a typical “Innocent black man is on the run from a racist white sheriff who framed him” scenario. There’s a twist though, while the white sheriff is indeed a racist bastard and the black man is a very sympathetic and likeable character, the black man IS guilty of the murder he’s been accused of, and not in a “It was just self-defense!” sort of way. Going with that twist took some major balls on Gerber’s part. Not all of the stories try to be that weighty though, one story involves a Superman analog who stayed in the spaceship that sent him to earth for his entire life, and once released, has a full-grown body but the mind of a baby. It manages to be both funny and genuinely tragic at the same time.
One of Gerber's more loaded stories
  Gerber really hits his stride once Man-Thing is given his own title and the Kales are written out of the book except for a few cameos. He introduces a new protagonist for Man-Thing to ‘protect’ named Richard Rory, an ex-disc jockey with some serious self-confidence issues who falls in love with a scarred but pretty biker chick named Ruth. Having a more down to earth human character for ‘Manny’ to shadow allows for more of the types of stories Gerber really excelled at, mainly because they’re more grounded in reality and aren’t trying to become an epic like the Kale saga. Of course, I say ‘grounded in reality’ in comparison considering that they involve deranged supervillains who think they’re the new messiah, scary clowns (Are there any other kind?) and other assorted weirdness. Still, these stories still try and be meaningful, even stories based around recurring villains like Schist, and Gerber is one of the few comics writers whom it’s fun to watch try and make each story a deep meaningful masterpiece, even though he flops more often than not at doing that. At one point he even tells the reader that he’s sick of trying to be philosophical and that next issue is just going to be a lot of goofy weirdness.
The tragi-comic Richard Rory finds (short-lived) love

 Also, we get to see Gerber’s attempt at poetry:
  I know what I’m going to read out loud at the local coffee shop on open mike night, next time I’m in the mood to prank some hippies! To be fair though, in-story, that poem was written by a mental patient whose hallucinations were coming to life.

 So for making an honest attempt at to tell stories and deal with things important with him, I have to give Gerber credit. In fact, it’s when he plays around with the traditional Marvel Universe that the stories are the weakest. Those two ‘Giant Size’ issues both deal with crossovers, one involving Marvel’s other resident swamp monster The Glob, and the other has cameos by Reed Richards and Tony Stark. The Glob story devolves into a slugfest, and the Stark & Richards cameos could have been excluded easily. There’s also a bit during the Adventure into Fear run where Hulk villain Mongu the Gladiator shows up in another dimension to do battle with Man-Thing. This doesn’t quite work however, since in Mongu’s previous appearance way back in 1962’s Incredible Hulk #4, he was shown to be a communist hoax. Oh well.

 Gerber does become pretty much the whole show, but special praise should be given to artist Val Mayerick (who draws the bulk of the stories in this volume). Mayerick is one of those artists whose work can look radically different depending on whoever’s inking him, but he has a real talent for mood and facial expressions, with a sketchiness that separates his work from artists with somewhat similar styles like Ross Andru. Mike Ploog is also quite good, and seems to have become the artist most associated with Man-Thing despite not really doing that much work on the series. Ploog utilizes a very cartoony style, looking somewhat like what would happen if Jack Davis collaborated with Bernie Wrightson. Oddly enough, this gives the book much more of a horror vibe; shadows are deeper, Man-Thing truly looks repulsive, hunchbacked and slimy, and little horror references abound, like a henchman drawn to resemble Rondo Hatton. At the same time though, Ploog isn’t always the best at drawing normal people. His depiction of the bespectacled Richard Rory sometimes looks as if Rory has huge square-shaped eyes instead of glasses, and he completely eliminates the biker chick clothing and deep facial scar which made Ruth a unique looking heroine.

 Speaking of inconsistencies, these stories are hilariously little inconsistent as to what Man-Thing can and can’t do. The origin leads us to believe that Sallis’s body was mutated to adapt to his new swampy environment and that Man-Thing isn’t really made of plant matter, just coated in it, but other stories show him displaying plant-like regeneration qualities. Even further, some stories treat him as if he’s made out of the slime itself, and he reacts like an amoeba (Or Plastic Man), slithering through cracks between crates and absorbing cars and tanks. Man-Thing’s reaction to fear also changes to meet the demands of the plot. There are a few suspenseful sequences where the good guys become frightened and Man-Thing almost burns them (Usually for the character to be saved by a distraction), but there are several stories where the heroes are obviously very, very afraid and Man-Thing does nothing. The amount of fear required to invoke Man-Thing’s wrath also changes. Sometimes just being startled will do the trick, other times someone has to be screaming their heads off or stricken with a full-blown panic attack. Several characters save themselves by overcoming their fear, while others are still pursued by Man-Thing even after they’ve lost their fear. In more than one story, the villain displays no fear whatsoever but still falls prey to Man-Thing because they were a coward in the moral sense. Man-Thing’s own ‘morality’ also changes. Sometimes he acts as a straight-up defender of the helpless, other times he cannot be goaded into action until he senses the evil or fear of the villains. In some stories he seems dangerously territorial, and in others, he’s so passive he’ll take any abuse thrown at him until he senses fear. The motivations of the villainous Schist, as well as Jennifer Kale’s age, also could have been better defined.

 Oh, and just a side note on the subject of Jennifer Kale’s age. Women and old-timers who complain about the scantily-clad heroines in modern comics and think this is a new phenomenon or one only limited in the past to black and white ‘adult’ comics like Warren’s Vampirella need to see Jennifer’s priestess outfit (Which appeared in full-color, CCA approved comics). The back of this volume includes bio pages of Jennifer and Man-Thing from Marvel’s A-Z list of characters which was published in the mid-80’s, and Jennifer is still listed as a minor (Meaning she’s even younger in these stories). How many of today’s supposedly sexist-to-the-max modern comics would put their teenage heroines in costumes like this?
"We'd like you to take a seat Mr. Dakimh..."
  I don’t want to give the impression that these inconsistencies affect the entertainment value of the book, but it would have been nice to have seen some set rules. Then again, considering how formula-driven this series is, being willing to play around with things was probably a good idea on Gerber’s part. It just would have been better to see more instances where Man-Thing’s wrath didn’t just happen to conveniently drive him to only go after the bad guys. That may have been done because of the Comics Code though. That said, for a code-approved comic, there are an awful lot of scenes of Man-Thing breaking people’s necks and burning them alive! Gerber can get surprisingly graphic in his descriptions of charred flesh (although the art never shows anything). Sure, all of the people who get killed by Man-Thing are bad guys and there’s nothing in these stories that wouldn’t be allowed in a PG-13 movie, but I can see why there’s a ‘Parental Advisory” warning on the back of this volume which few other volumes in the Essentials series have (Jennifer’s costume may also have played a role in that).

 Man-Thing also doesn’t just kill humans in these stories; he also kills so many gators that a whole montage could be done of it!
In your face PETA
  Inconsistencies aside, I really enjoyed this volume a lot more than I thought I would, and it was fun having my memory jarred on stories I’d forgotten. I actually have a desire now to revisit more Gerber comics (I haven’t read anything by him in years) and to seek out more Man-Thing compilations. What more can you ask of a volume than to leave you wanting more?

"Huh Huh Huh. He said "Giant-Sized Man-Thing".


  1. That's a really good review.
    While I have this thing for the non-sequitur-like Omega The Unknown, I would probably recommend his Defenders issues first. He wrote the book from #20-41 and the Giant Sized
    issues of the time, with a quick storyline wrap up in King Sized Annual #1.

    This was a good volume and an invaluable starting point for reading Steve's work, but the next one-while only half populated by Gerber stories-really burns at the writer's touch! Existential pathos and social commentary through a most weirdly refracting glass, they are.
    I think Fool Killer was the most awesome concept in these stories, on whole. It's strange how they only add a bit to the fringe of the Marvel Universe, but they endure like almost nothing else from that decade. I enjoy DAK's Defenders run and Starlin's Warlock stories, too- and you may know how involving Tomb of Dracula became after a year or so into Marv & Gene's run.
    My post on Giant-Sized Man Thing on Valentine's Day probably gets more views than anything this side of reviews of the movies. I don't want to think about how some of those clicks got there...