Spotlight Sunday 9.17.17
No clear winner this week, so I’m casting the tie-breaking vote, and, of course, I have no choice but to grab hold of my…
Man-Thing by R.L. Stine
Writer: R.L. Stine
Artist: Germán Peralta
Cover: Tyler Crook
This past week we lost a legendary figure in comics, the brilliant writer and editor Len Wein. Though I didn’t know Mr. Wein personally, he was always a presence in the comics I loved most as a kid; sometimes in the form of cameos in the comics themselves, but mostly through the quality of his work.
If he had accomplished nothing else – and he accomplished so much – his place in comics’ history would be assured by two major editorial decisions he made: hiring Chris Claremont to write X-Men, and hiring Alan Moore to write Swamp Thing.
The latter point is why I mention Wein here, as he hired Moore to take over the writing of a character that – with the late, great Bernie Wrightson – he had co-created.
Appearing on newsstands more or less concurrently in the early ‘70s – though Man-Thing got there first – there are a great number of similarities between the two plant-like swamp-dwellers.
Both were scientists who, working in isolation in a swamp, developed secret formulas that, because there wouldn’t be much of a story if they didn’t, ended up causing their creators to undergo monstrous transformations.
However, whereas Dr. Alec Holland, who would become Swamp Thing, was working on developing a means to help the world through creating a bio-restorative formula that could “make forests out of deserts,” Dr. Ted Sallis, who would become the Man-Thing, was working for the Army, attempting to replicate the super-soldier serum that made puny Steve Rogers into the Nazi-punching Captain America.
(As an aside, a great number of stories and characters from Marvel revolve around attempts to replicate the super-soldier serum.)
The other key difference is that while Holland retained his intelligence – though it was difficult for him to speak – and spent much of his time dwelling on the horror and tragedy of his current state, Sallis became a truly mindless monster, incapable of speech or self-reflection.
I haven’t actually read a lot of Man-Thing stories, but that limitation on the character – not actually talking or thinking – has an obvious impact on the kinds of stories that one can tell about him; from what I’ve seen, they tend to lead to stories that happen around the character, with the focus on other characters, and Man-Thing left serving as something of a POV character who merely observes, without understanding, the action.
Frequently, those stories involve people who are up to no good, engaging in shady activities in the dankness of the Everglades that serve as Man-Thing’s habitat.
One of the odd attributes of Man-Thing, apart from his appearance and mental state, is that, in the presence of fear, he secretes a substance that causes people to burn, hence the tagline, “Whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch!”
And while Man-Thing doesn’t think, he does have a kind of sensitivity to the emotion of fear, and is drawn towards its, and agitated by it, inevitably compelled to touch – and burn – its source.
Thus, in a typical Man-Thing story, we might see some murderer on the run, hiding in the Everglades, possibly just missing an encounter with the observing Man-Thing, adding some new victims to his murderous tally along the way, and seemingly escaping from justice until, at last, the Man-Thing inevitably steps forward, like a deus ex machina – or maybe that’s deus ex muckina – to deliver some instant, smoldering, but ultimately impersonal justice.
When not in the presence of fear, Man-Thing tends to be docile and easygoing, and has often been something of a companion to other characters who spend time in his neck of the woods, which people of a certain type tend to do, given that his part of the swamp is home to the Nexus of All Realities, a mystical doohickey that connects, well, all realities.
Before I go any further, it occurs to me that I haven’t been mentioning up-front that my rambling recaps contain spoilers. But they do. So consider yourself alerted.
Given that one of the key characteristics of Man-Thing is that he doesn’t have a thought in his head, it’s strange to start off the story with some thoughts. In his head.
Yes, Man-Thing is thinking, and, as he himself notes, even over-thinking, as he faces off against some strange, wise-cracking, smack-talking monster.
As the Man-Thing claims victory over his opponent, we pan out to find that we’re on the set of a movie, and his enemy – a big centipede kind of thing – is actually several little people in a costume. So it seems that it was a trick, and that Man-Thing wasn’t really thinking, it was just an actor in a costume, right?
Nope; we soon learn that Man-Thing, through some continuing concerted effort, has actually recovered his original human personality, and, in fact, has even regained the ability to speak.
And like any swamp-dwelling, muck-encrusted monster would do, he made his way to Hollywood.
…wait, is that really what any swamp-dwelling, muck-encrusted monster would do? Maybe not, but that’s how Ted Sallis rolls.
Or tries to. Apparently, stardom for someone who is a smelly, dripping abomination who makes test audiences vomit just isn’t in the cards, and so a forlorn Ted wanders through Tinsel Town, trading jibes with the taunting crowds on the mean streets of La La Land and struggling to figure out his next move.
His next move is decided upon for him, as another Man-Thing – the old-school, unspeaking, unthinking version – appears and attacks Ted.
It’s unclear as to whether this is actually happening – honestly, it’s unclear as to whether any of this is happening – or if it’s simply a manifestation of the internal struggle between the man who was Ted Sallis and the Man-Thing he became. Is it both? Ted seems to think it is, as he realizes that the other Man-Thing is attempting to drag him back to his old life.
The Man-Thing prevails, and Ted suddenly finds himself back in the Everglades – a sudden cross-country voyage that further adds to the unreality of the situation – and while he has retained his ability to think, he’s no longer able to speak.
Throughout the story collected in this volume, Ted does a lot of thinking, mostly in the form of strange wise-cracks and one-liners.
As he surveys the familiar surroundings of his swampy home, he stumbles upon a woman being menaced by a giant alligator. The woman, whom he rescues, turns out to be an old flame of his, and a brilliant scientist in her own right. Ted attempts to convey his identity to her, in the hopes that she can help him restore his humanity (and then maybe help him put that humanity to good use once it’s restored), but before she can do that, she’s hauled away by a couple of giant pythons.
Instead of pursuing her – though it’s unclear as to why he thinks that there will be time to save her later – he realizes that there are a whole lot of strange things happening in the swamp beyond the giant alligator and the scientist-abducting snakes, and heads off in search of the Oldfather, a mystic being who guards the Nexus of All Realities and maintains the natural order of the swamp and the world at large.
Finding signs of a struggle, but no sign of the Oldfather, Ted steps through the Nexus to continue his search.
From there, he has an adventure in another world, finding himself shifting – at the most inconvenient times – back into his normal human form, in a world where the reality is even more fluid than what we’ve seen so far.
He squares off against the evil Queen Irena, who has decided to eliminate the Oldfather and sow chaos on Earth simply because she’s bored. Having turned back into Ted, Irena has him locked in a dungeon, where he tries turn back into Man-Thing, or to return home, using the little talisman he had picked up – hoping that it would somehow anchor him to Earth – from the Oldfather’s home before entering the Nexus.
Neither happens, but he does suddenly get a visitor in the form of the woman he failed to rescue back on Earth. The woman, Lily-Ann Millard, says that she had known it was really Ted all along, and she’s there to save him – after a kiss.
Of course, it’s a trap, and it turns out to be one of the giant pythons in disguise, and Ted is promptly swallowed whole. Fate intervenes, and before he can be digested, Ted transforms back into the Man-Thing, and the violence of the sudden case of fatal indigestion knocks down the wall of his cell.
Next, Ted encounters Irena, who says she’ll send him home, but first, she wants him to meet one of her minions, a guy called The Eye, who hypnotizes Ted and forces him to execute the Oldfather.
Returning to his senses after that brutal act, Ted seeks his revenge, and, grabbing hold of a fearful Irena, demonstrates why they say that “Whatever knows fear…”
Well, you know the rest.
With the Oldfather dead by his mossy hands, it’s something of a hollow victory for the Man-Thing however, but, as luck would have it, the Oldfather is only mostly dead, and isn’t about to let a little thing like decapitation interfere with his duties. Before the two can, er, head off in search of Oldfather’s body, Irena’s heretofore-unseen brother shows up looking for revenge.
Ted takes him out as well, and he and the Oldfather find the Oldfather’s body on display in a literal body shop, where, after a scuffle with some of the other headless bodies, Oldfather’s head and body are reunited and it feels so good, and soon they’re back in the Nexus and on their way to Earth.
However, there’s no easy way to navigate the Nexus, so they may end up lost for all time. Ted offers the talisman to Oldfather, who says that it will serve as a compass that will provide a path home – for him. As Oldfather vanishes, Ted finds himself still stuck in the Nexus. He sees two portals ahead of him, and decides to simply take his chances and hope that one of them leads home.
He chooses poorly, and finds himself on a world that is very much like Earth, with the notable exception being that everyone there looks just like Man-Thing.
And that’s where our story ends.
While I haven’t read a lot of Man-Thing stories, I’ve never read any stories by R.L. Stine. By the time they hit, I was already much older than the target audience for his Goosebumps books. I can’t speak to the quality of his work there, but, based on this, his first work writing comics, I don’t think I would have ever been the target audience, at any age.
In his introduction to the volume, Stine talks about how much he loved comics as a kid – particularly, and somewhat obviously, those of the horror variety from EC – and it’s clear that those comics of his youth had an influence on his work here.
Specifically, this comic is in many ways a throwback to a much earlier time, and is a solidly old-fashioned comic, filled with thought balloons, expository captions that tell you what the art is supposed to be showing you, while also providing some editorializing and cracking wise.
From something of a nostalgic perspective, it was interesting to see some of vintage, no longer in vogue storytelling techniques, particularly given some discussion I was following on Twitter initiated by writer Kurt Busiek about the impact that the loss of thought balloons and captions have on modern comic book storytelling.
In my recent rereading of “The Judas Contract,” I found myself thinking about that Twitter discussion and the ways in which captions had been used in so many comics, often filled with hyperbolic commentary and little bits of metatextual jokes that served as a contrast to and a leavening agent for the drama unfolding in the art and dialogue.
Those old storytelling devices would be extremely out of place in a modern, serious comic, but in my youth, and clearly in Stine’s much-earlier youth, they were an integral part of the overall experience, appearing in every kind of story.
Beyond the anachronistic storytelling style, the other aspect of the book that makes it feel old-fashioned is in the constant barrage of jokes, one-liners, barbs, and insults spouted by every single character. While Stine mostly avoids the kind of horrible puns of the Crypt Keeper, the jokes tend to be very much in the spirit of the old EC horror-comedy style. Despite their content, with modern-day cultural references to things like Netflix, or the meta-commentary on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, complete with a joke about Ant-Man, they just have an old-fashioned structure.
Setting aside the pop culture references, they seem like the kind of jokes that would have killed in the Catskills back in the ‘50s.
(It’s worth noting that, unlike me, Stine doesn’t work blue; he avoids the obvious, overused “Giant-Size Man-Thing” jokes.)
It makes sense; I’ve long believed that there is considerable overlap between the comic sensibilities of modern-day children and the audiences of the stand-up shows of yesteryear. (With no insult intended toward either.)
If I were a kid reading this…well, I probably still wouldn’t like it that much, as it just isn’t the sort of thing I liked when I was a kid, but I can certainly understand why Stine has had such success writing for children who aren’t like me. Or like I was as a kid, I guess.
While I wasn’t particularly taken with the story, I did enjoy the artwork by Germán Peralta. I found it reminiscent of the work of Butch Guice, albeit someone cleaner and more simplified.
The art conveys a kind of dampness and humidity that really pulls you in to the setting.
In some areas, the storytelling is a bit, er, murky; there are some panels in which the captions describe the action, but absent the captions, what’s described wouldn’t have been my takeaway from looking at the art.
That is, perhaps, a result of the overwritten nature of the comic, which may have, er, muddied things.
(I’m sorry, but the swamp-related puns aren’t deliberate and are difficult to avoid.)
The book is rounded out by a collection of short stories – which I assume ran as back-ups in the individual issues – from “R.L. Stine’s Chamber of Chills,” with the art chores taken on by various artists.
Like the jokes throughout the main story, the stories contain some modern references, but feel very old and tropey, and remind me less of the classic EC horror stories and more of the “Scary Door” segments on Futurama.
There’s one story that has potential – about a member of a neighborhood watch group in a town beset by “werewolf” attacks – but the potential satirical bite is a bit blunted by the brevity of the story. A member of the watch, on edge as he’s on the lookout for a lycanthrope, inadvertently kills an innocent man. To cover up his crime, he mutilates the body and passes it off as a werewolf attack. Later, he encounters another member of the watch who has uncovered another victim, and, unable to live with the guilt, confesses his crime, only to learn that he’s not exactly in the minority; that exact scenario is what’s been happening all along. There never were any werewolves.
Like I said, there’s potential for a stronger bit of commentary on the current state of things, but here, the story pulls back a bit and ends without providing any deeper exploration of the real-world paranoia and racism that could serve to make this a stronger parable of our times, adding an extra level of horrifying verisimilitude.
Another somewhat-decent story, “The Perfect Boyfriend,” features a young suitor being tortured by his paramour’s father, and has a twist ending that is more suited to a gag in MAD than a straightforward horror comic (though given that MAD was originally an EC comic, that seems appropriate).
Overall, art aside, this comic was very much not my thing, though I will admit that I am tempted to pick up the collection of older Man-Thing stories by the late, great Steve Gerber that is advertised on the inside front cover (see Recommended Reading below), so it’s got that much going for it.
It’s not a bad book, certainly, just not my (man) thing, and others, who have more of a penchant for non-stop wisecracks and a loose, freewheeling narrative style might enjoy it more.
Man-Thing by Steve Gerber: The Complete Collection Vol. 1 – Marvel’s melancholy muck-monster, by the man who knows him best! With the Nexus of All Realities as the ultimate staging post,prepare for the wildest journeys of your life in this first volume of a complete collection of Steve Gerber’s Man-Thing tales! Join the most startling swamp-creature of all in encounters with the Thing, sorcerers Dakimh and Jennifer Kale, and the most far-out fowl ever created, Howard the Duck! Plus existential angst, clashes with the modern world, and the death of a clown!
Swamp Thing: The Bronze Age Omnibus Vol. 1 – Now, all of the Swamp Thing’s early adventures are collected for the first time in SWAMP THING: THE BRONZE AGE OMNIBUS. This hardcover edition features work from comics legends Len Wein, Bernie Wrightson, Nestor Redondo, Martin Pasko, Tom Yeates, Stephen Bissette, John Totleben and more!
The EC Archives: The Vault of Horror Volume 1 – The terrifying opening of the Vault of Horror! This ghastly grimoire collects issues #12-#17 of the classic horror series, including unforgettable stories from the all-star artistic lineup of Al Feldstein, Johnny Craig, Bill Gaines, Johnny Craig, Harry Harrison, Wally Wood, Harvey Kurtzman, Graham Ingels, and Jack Kamen. Featuring a foreword by legendary horror writer R.L. Stine.
That’s it for this Spotlight Sunday. Thanks to everyone who voted, and be sure to come back for the next Weigh In Wednesday.