March 1, 2012

Classic Comics Cavalcade: THE ESSENTIAL MAN-THING

This column originally ran on Comics Bulletin
As promised (or threatened) last time, Daniel and Jason are back to talk about Steve Gerber's mad genius work on the classic MAN-THING comic, this time including a sad clown, a demon bitch wife, a barbarian coming out of a jar of peanut butter, a fascist who wants to build an airport, several lesser demons, and a sprightly young witch named Jennifer.

Daniel Elkin: For whatever knows fear, burns at the Man-Thing's touch

Jason Sacks: Great tagline huh?

Elkin: I love how they are able to put it into every issue, as well.

Sacks: I think my favorite is when the gator gets burned at the touch of the Man-Thing

Elkin: Man-Thing seems to enjoy smashing reptiles against trees, doesn't he?

Sacks: You would, too, if you had to share your swamp with them. I mean, he may be a shambling mockery of human anatomy, but the Man-Thing has standards.

Elkin: Heh. Then again, Man-Thing doesn't actually "enjoy" anything, does he? Or does he? What's up with Man-Thing?

Sacks: This is probably the greatest comic book ever about a non-sentient being.

Elkin: Can you be empathetic and non-sentient? I'm a little mixed up about Man-Thing.

Sacks: Mixed up? Man, you just have to feel the emotion.Man-Thing is a living, walking emotional roller-coaster plant creature thingy.

Elkin: My Man-Thing feels the emotion all the time (I promise that will be my last penis related joke).

Sacks: I was going to ask before you started the chat--penis jokes or no penis jokes. 'Cause it's just too damn easy, you know?

Elkin: It is, unfortunately, unavoidable. It is.

Sacks: That's part of the legend of the book, I think. So, how well did you think Gerber brought the world of the swamp and all its dwellers alive considering that the main character basically does nothing of his own choice?

Elkin: I liked how in this collection they provided some of Conway's and Thomas' take on the character first, before unleashing the Gerber. It provided a great juxtaposition. Seemed that Man-Thing was destined to be sort of a B movie horror creature at first, and then the character got Gerbered and all hell broke loose.

Sacks: What we're saying is that Man-Thing is no Jon Gnarr.

Elkin: I guess I am. I have to say, Gerber really took this character into some awful strange places.

Sacks: Oh yeah, I loved that when I reread these stories this week. He went everywhere - from the swamp to New York to a floating pirate ship in the Bermuda Triangle to some crazy bizarre extra dimensional place where time is all mixed up . . . With a sad clown, a demon bitch wife, a barbarian coming out of a jar of peanut butter, a fascist who wants to build an airport, several lesser demons, and a sprightly young witch named Jennifer.

Elkin: And don't forget Joshua Kale, Dakimh, Wundarr, and (gulp) Foolkiller.

Sacks: The original Foolkiller. The first of three, all scripted by Gerber.

Elkin: Remember when I first wrote about Foolkiller? I think this version is even more wack.

Sacks: Oh yeah I definitely remember that, great article Daniel.

Elkin: Thanks. That whole Willie Loman moment in this collection, when Fool Killer walks in on Mike and the prostitute? That was epic.Gerber sure did have the opportunity to preach his politics in the pages of this comic.

Sacks: Yeah, that gives the book much more of a '70s feel than Defenders, I think. Which is . . . pretty damn amazing since his Defenders took on '70s self-actualization movements and stuff.

Elkin: Seems like Gerber was trying to work out some fundamental issues of his times in the context of his swampy character.

Sacks: That's what makes all of Gerber's stories so great for me. He's always writing about himself on some level, even when he's writing about a swamp monster.

Elkin: You have mentioned Richard Rory as being Gerber's Mary-Sue. Care to go into detail on this?

Sacks: That's not my insight, it's been talked about a lot on the web and before the web, how Rory was one of a series of characters who were sort of doppelgangers for Gerber. In fact Wikipedia mentions that in their first paragraph about him.

Elkin: Do you think Gerber saw himself as a perpetual loser?

Sacks: Rory was a guy who was actually pretty great but his own insecurities and complexes always seemed to get in his way. Like all super creative guys, I think Gerber embraced a lot of contradictions in himself. He was certainly full of self-confidence and happiness on some level. But at the same time most of his major characters were outsiders from normal human society, at least in the '70s era. Man-Thing was an unspeaking monster, Howard the Duck was an outsider by definition, the Defenders were weirdos who hung out with weirdos, the Guardians of the Galaxy all had body issues, Omega was literally unknown; even his Daredevil really only got good once he started fighting characters like Nekra and the Mandrill who had major body issues.

Elkin: In all this, though, at least from what I have read, Gerber seems to want to humanize everyone and make them easy to "relate" to. It seems from this collection that Gerber was really trying to make Man-Thing a sympathetic character--a "hero"--and not as much of a horror comic.

Sacks: Hmm that's interesting. I saw a lot of horror in these issues.

Elkin: There is certainly elements of horror in these comics--some of it downright fucking weird as shit (especially that bit with Darrel the Clown, or Ezekiel Tork and Dawg), but throughout all of it, it seemed like Man-Thing was there to "defeat the evil" more than perpetuate it. In this respect, it becomes more of a superhero comic than one geared toward horror. Or am I off on a tangent here?

Sacks: No, you're right that Man-Thing is more hero than monster. He always seems to choose the "right" person in all the incidents, though Gerber seems to hedge a bit by making the bad people filled with fear so they burn and are defeated.

Elkin: Then there is that whole thing with Wundarr that really complicates this issue.

Sacks: Wow, Wundarr, what a crazy issue that is! Superman with the mind of an infant.

Elkin: Is Gerber trying to make a commentary about Super-Heroes, or is he just making fun of the concept? Or neither?

Sacks: As you saw in Defenders, he has an odd sort of love/hate thing with heroism. I think in this case, though, he was just making fun of the concept in this issue, really. Riffing on a silly idea he got from a CCR song.

Elkin: Heh. Did Wundarr ever appear anywhere again?

Sacks: Oh yeah, he became a minor Marvel hero.

Elkin: Was this in the '90s?

Sacks: He ended up hanging out with the Fantastic Four, and appeared in an issue of Gerber's underrated run on Marvel Two-In-One.Also in the mid-'80s he was a major character in MTIO again in the Project Pegasus saga.

Elkin: Did Gerber get to keep the copyright on the character (He asks already knowing the answer)?

Sacks: No, but this was a minor character who was never worth anything. This was not one of Gerber's big regrets.

Elkin: I don't know--the way he was introduced in this collection was pretty fucking awesome. The character could have really gone anywhere from there. But I think we are off on a tangent. Who is your favorite artist for Man-Thing in this collection?

Sacks: Easiest question ever.

Elkin: I think I can guess . . .

Sacks: Look at that gorgeous, freaking breathtaking opening to Man-Thing #5 by the great, great Mike Ploog.

Elkin: Absolutely!!!! Ploog really captures the swampy sensibility and the inhumanity of this character.

Sacks: His stories are just alive with mood and energy and the whole swampy ooze of the world of this comic.

Elkin: His Man-Thing even seems to smell horrific!

Sacks: The man could draw a great flamingo or frog, too.

Sacks: And the issues with the real horror--they look so damn good, like the Fountain of Youth story with the walking skeletons.

Elkin: While reading Essential Man-Thing #1, I was really struck by the different artists takes on the character and how much they added to the feel, tone, mood of the issue. I mean, I LOVE John Buscema, but I don't really want him drawing my Man-Thing. That sounded wrong, didn't it?

Sacks: Hey man, you said you'd stay away from the dick jokes.

Elkin: Inadvertent dick jokes should be forgiven.

Sacks: The Alfredo Alcala issue is so freaking gorgeous. The beautiful pirate woman is so sexy. Man, she can sharpen my cutlass . . .

Elkin: Now you're making the dick jokes.

Sacks: Damn.

Elkin: Ploog drawing Dawg in Man-Thing #9 really makes the story work more than anything else, if you ask me.

Sacks: Okay . . . so this book was all over the place thematically, which to me was part of its charm. Six months from now when you think of this book, what will be the first thing that you will think of?

Elkin: I'm not sure. So much to choose from. I'm thinking it will either be the Dawg story, or the whole issue dealing with the character Brian's stress demons manifesting themselves to torment him (of course there is also Foolkiller and Wundarr--hmmm). It think, though, that really the thing that stood out the most WAS the stress demon issue. Man-Thing #12, "Song-Cry of the Living Dead Man". Even though it was drawn by Buscema . . .

Sacks: The art is more Klaus Janson than Buscema.

Elkin: That two page splash of every fucking little daily stress manifested and coming to kill is awesome.Elkin: And that stream of consciousness manifesto . . . man.

Sacks: Yeah, that story really stands out for me for its emotional depth and fantastic character arc. It seemed the most "literary" to me (and not just because it features one of Gerber's trademarked pages of typeset text) but because of the terrific character arc and the fact that any schlub who ever felt oppressed by the minutia of everyday life could empathize with Brian Lazarus.

Elkin: Welcome to my life . . . Heh.

Sacks: "We own you! Every part of you! Your brain! Your loyalty! Your money! Your body! Your soul! Your time!"

Elkin: "You can't be the Walrus if they want you to be the system. THEY ARE I!!"

Sacks: You couldn't write something like that unless those are your thoughts on some level.

Elkin: Damn straight. And I don't think it would have the same sort of emotional impact while reading it if you didn't experience it on some fundamental level--and WE'VE ALL BEEN THERE--am I right?

Sacks: Oh hell yeah. That's just fucking life, man.

Elkin: Which is why, I think, this part stands out the most for me. I wonder what ever happened to the characters Sybil and Brian . . .

Sacks: Yeah, I could relate on some level to the clown's story and I've felt the dislocation from the world that Gerber writes about in Fear #19/Man-Thing #1, but this was completely unmasked emotion, raw human feeling out there on the page, and anyone who has ever felt trapped by any aspect of their life--mad at the spouse, rotten job, too much debt, whatever--you can see yourself in Brian. I don't think Sybil and Brian ever reappear.

Elkin: I don't think their relationship probably lasted too long . . . Too much baggage. Heh. What you said about all this though is spot on. It is amazing that Gerber is able to pull all this off in the context of a B level horror comic. He has grown even further in my esteem.

Sacks: Great as it is, this is generally not considered to be the best Man-Thing issue though; if we get to vol. 2 we'll read the issue that's considered by most everyone to be the best ever, "The Kid's Day Out."

Elkin: Wait . . . there's more of Gerber's Man-Thing (inadvertent dick jokes must be forgiven)?

Sacks: Which is amazing because "Song Cry" has so much depth and fascination in it. He wrote up to issue 22 and 3 more Giant-Size issues. Around a dozen more Man-Thing stories.

Elkin: Giant-Size Man-Thing? You're right, these jokes do write themselves.

Sacks: GSMT #4 is one of the great comics of the '70s. The first solo Howard story is the back-up. Oh, I wanted to say too . . . One issue Sybil is kidnapped by--well, no spoilers, suffice it to say she is traumatized by her kidnapping, then the next issue she can actually say to a man named Lazarus that "I've always been a pretty happy person, myself." That's pretty incredible characterization. Sybil is a person who I would love to be friends with in real life. Her optimism and happiness in the face of true horror literally raises Lazarus from the living dead.

Elkin: She even takes a punch from the Man-Thing for Brian. Behind every great man.... So, I think our course is charted, Sacks. Essential Man-Thing #2 is it?

Sacks: Yes!

Elkin: Awesome!

Sacks: Featuring the return of Jennifer Kale, Daminh and Korrek

Elkin: Oh crap... We forgot to talk about the Golden Brain. "Entropy, Entropy, All Winds Down!". That's probably for the best, though . . . I'm hot for Essential Man-Thing #2. (That came out wrong)

Sacks: More Alfredo Alcala art, more Richard Rory, and an amazing guest appearance that will have us discussing Grant Morrison comics.

Elkin: Looking forward to it! Until next time, then!

Sacks: Can't wait!

Elkin: Whatever knows Fear, Burns at the Man-Thing's touch.

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