This Column Originally Appeared 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 exploring Marvel Comics collection: Essential Man-Thing Volume 2.
Daniel Elkin: Wow – I see why they call this "Essential" Man-Thing.
Jason Sacks: Man, what an amazing book, huh? The first volume only hinted at the completely insane brilliance that was right around the corner.
Elkin: No kidding -- Essential Man-Thing #2 took on some pretty heavy topics -- went some very strange places -- and (god help me) really made me think about stuff.
I love saying "stuff" by the way.
Sacks: Essential Man-Thing #2 is so full of stuff that its stuff is full of stuff - if you know what I mean by that stuff
Elkin: That was profound. So profound that you've thrown me off. Where should we start?
Sacks: Well, there are 12 stories in this book by Steve Gerber. The first has gorgeous art by the incomparable Alfredo Alcala, and the last is a crazy weird multiple personality story. Those two stories are good, but the rest of Gerber's books in this collection had a kind of operatic grandness, a vastness of ambition and execution that was kind of breathtaking.
I was a bit overwhelmed by the depth and energy of emotion in this book. It was exhausting reading several stories in order, but that's also what I loved about it - the intensity and ambition of it all. What did you think?
Elkin: I actually couldn't believe that I was allowed to read this. Gerber was going places I never would have expected for anyone to go in a comic book about an emphatic swamp dwelling monster -- especially one called "Man-Thing" -- there was some incredible pathos, as well as angry screeds against our inhumanity when dealing with others, the violence inherent in "faith", and the price of nihilism. Amazing stuff. Some of the best I've ever read. And it's in a comic called "Man-Thing" -- I just can't get over that.
Sacks: It was often like reading a diary or journal, a collection of thoughts dropped down on paper, all about Gerber's difficult childhood and problems dealing with aspects of the adult world.
You know, let's do this with a real plan for a change. Let's talk about each issue one by one since there's only 12.
Elkin: Sounds good.
Sacks: First, GSMT #3, "The Blood of Kings". Gorgeous Alfredo Alcala art and it was great to see Jennifer, Korek and Dakimh again. But it was definitely the most ordinary story in the book - a pretty typical barbarian story.
Elkin: I agree -- although the part where Korek goes home to the wanton destruction of his people -- including the slaughter of women and children -- was pretty brutal. And the tale of Ipsis and his Chariot... Wow.
Sacks: There are moments that are just wonderful: Jennifer laughing at the evil sorcerer, Korek tied to a rock like Loki in Norse mythology, the Man-Thing remembering his previous life and destroying the lab...
Elkin: The whole issue was better than a lot of stuff out there today -- although, like you said, it pretty much pales in comparison to what is coming next.
Sacks: I think it only suffers next to the issues around it, now that I think about it.
Sacks: And man, Alcala can draw a mean serpent hawk.
Elkin: And those cocoons looked like giant doobies. (Do people still call them doobies?).
Sacks: They did in '75!
Next is Man-Thing #15, "A Candle for Sainte-Cloud". This story totally snuck up on me. I didn't expect much from it – with the art by Rico Rival starting out feeling ugly to me – but his kind of grungy dreamlike qualities made this story of dissolution and the post-'60s drug hangover really memorable.
Elkin: I don't know why I reacted so strongly to this story -- but something really struck me. Maybe it was the intensity of the emotions -- the innocence of Sainte-Cloud -- the impossibility of the plot -- the anti-warmongering plea -- I don't know. Something was in this one.
Sacks: Everything in the story is so heartfelt and sincere somehow
Elkin: It certainly is. And maybe that's what was so appealing. I don't know. I really liked this story, though.
Sacks: It ends with such a great Gerber line, "You see, Ted... if you just trust your feelings..."
Sacks: Yes, so ironic and perfect for the story. There's really a sense in this one that Gerber's found his rhythm and that he's almost challenging himself to try something different - and he really knocks it out of the park.
Elkin: I agree.
Sacks: From here on there's a whole series of stories that are honestly among the best comics I've read, new or old, in a long time. We could do 1000 words on the amazing Man-Thing #16, "Decay Meets the Mad Viking."
Elkin: This is where it goes from great to fan-fucking-tastic!
Sacks: There's just so much going on in this story: Existential doubt. The beauty of nihilism. The decline of traditional manhood. Outrageous pop singers that parents despise and kids follow.
I want to quote so many lines from this one.
Elkin:"Sissy Dies! Man Lives!" "Noony Fa-Fa." "Arf, Mein Fuehrer."
Sacks: "The degeneracy of it is total... Spangler realizes that until now, he has merely been playing with decadence. When the sequins and spangles drop from rotting silk... that's when a culture's number is up." Maybe I'm just not enough of a poet - that's more your game, Elkin - but Gerber's writing here is over my head now, let alone your average reader of Horror or Barbarian comics.
Elkin: Gerber does that, doesn't he? He tries to wrap it all in some sort of poetry: "And since the world don't matter, Why answer when it calls? Just laugh as you lay dying. And you'll outlive them all." This whole story - contrasting Eugene "The Star" Spangler with Man-Thing and with Grandpa Josefson -- it's amazing.
Sacks: The most interesting aspect of the story to me is that the real horror for Spangler is not how he meets his maker, but that he's revealed as a dilettante, as someone who fancies himself as the leader of a nihilistic movement until he's faced with true nihilism. At which point he's thoroughly humiliated and defeated by his own hubris.
Elkin: Well said, Sacks. That's it exactly. After all, Spangler's final words are, "Wh -- What did you do THAT for?" Perfect. Absolutely perfect.
Sacks: It's a novel in 18 pages.
It's interesting that you mentioned last time how you didn't like John Buscema's interpretation of Man-Thing too much, but it is Buscema who drew two of your favorite stories, this one and "Song Cry of the Living Dead Man."
Elkin: Interesting or ironic – or just further proof that I often have no idea what I am talking about.
But I guess that these stories didn't rely on Man-Thing as much. As I said before, I love Buscema -- especially his work on Rom the Spaceknight (heh) -- but I don't like his vision of Man-Thing as much as some of the other artists (like PLOOG!). But he's great at drawing people (and Spaceknights), and these are people driven stories.
Sacks: Just looking through the story, you can read every grand emotion that every character is feeling. It's great storytelling.
Elkin: Indeed. Although, in my book, it is only the beginning. Can we talk about Giant-Size Man-Thing #4 now?
Sacks: Yes, speaking of grand emotions...
Elkin: Why had I not heard of this comic before (I know you mentioned it last time we chatted Man-Thing, but...)? This should be REQUIRED reading for ... well ... all of humanity.
Sacks: It really is one of the great comics of the '70s.
Elkin: Not just the 70's.
Sacks: I've read this comic many times over the years, and what struck me the most this time is that this story starts on an amazing high note and just gets more and more intense as it goes along. I know I keep referring to these stories as operatic, but "The Kid's Day Out" really felt like grand opera.
Elkin: It is so over the top -- it comes from such a place of pain -- you can feel Gerber throughout each panel -- screaming and pleading. It is draining and head shaking and wonderful.
Sacks: Jim Valentino and I were talking about it at Image Expo last week, and he said that the story was autobiographical. You can see that Gerber is really writing from a place of pain inside himself, pleading for kids to not feel the torment and pain that he felt when he was that age.
Elkin: In this day and age where everyone is so sensitive to bullying issues (especially in schools), I don't see why this comic is not more widely distributed. The five page "Book of Edmond" is gut-wrenching.
Sacks: It's devastating. "The sad thing is, I believed Miss Hartwin - that I was a hopeless case. More than anyone, she convinced me to give up on myself."
Elkin: Aaaaah. I know, geez. You used the word "operatic" before and I think that is the perfect adjective for this. It is Wagnerian almost in its intensity, emotionalism, and reach. It just hits and hits and hits. The Man-Thing is almost incidental to the "horror" of this story, except to fuse Milner's hands together in an aspect of prayer.
Sacks: There are so many levels of horror to this story. Edmond's story, the fact that Alice is the only one brave enough to tell the truth about Edmond, the family who are blind to their own faults, the asshole uncle from the auto shop in denial to himself, and the sadistic gym teacher who delights in bullying and torturing and sadism.
Elkin: And don't forget all of Edmond's peers who just accepted what was happening -- so as not cause waves -- so as not to be social connected with an outcast which would, in turn, lower their own social standing. Nobody, except Alice (and I guess Man-Thing) is spared from Gerber's rant.
Sacks: Alice walking through school with her black eye is just so heartbreaking. She seems so alone, like such an outcast.
Elkin: It's tearing my heart out just even talking about this. Is there redemption at the end? Will it happen again? It's bleak, isn't it? Sure Milner is dead, but he's just another cog in this machine of demoralization. Whose "silent voice" is weeping at the end?
Sacks: There's no happy ending in this one, my friend. Even prayers are mocked.
As a schoolteacher, did this story hit you extra hard, do you think?
Elkin: Maybe -- but I think it hit me more as a parent of a kid who is a little different from the others, a little too smart, a little too shy. I think that is what did me in.
Sacks: I can relate to that as well. It's sad, but that feeling of ostracism never really changes.
You know, every line in this one is just perfect. Not only was Gerber writing from his heart, but he was writing brilliantly. His writing just shines through like a beacon, pleading to be read. This story is a perfect example of why I love his writing so much.
Elkin: The 5 pages of uninterrupted prose from The Book of Edmond -- damn. I wish more comic book writers would do things like this (especially if they are done as well). It can be so powerful.
Sacks: Oh, and on a lighter note - I immediately noticed that the comic was lettered by Tom Orzechowski.
Elkin: Damn, you can identify a letterer in a comic from the 70's just by looking at it? What up with that? That's some mad skillz, bro.
Sacks: LOL . He's a super nice guy too.
Now, on to Man-Thing #17, "A Book Burns in Citrusville." Illustrated by my FAVORITE Man-Thing artist, bar none.
Elkin: Jim Mooney, huh?
Sacks: There's just something about Jim Mooney's art that I adore.
Elkin: His Man-Thing is pretty horrific (Hey, I made the first inadvertent penis joke of the night!)
Sacks: It had to happen eventually. You are forgiven. So anyway, Mooney's like a grungier, dirtier version of Sal Buscema. But he's so imaginative - that two-page spread literally almost brought me to tears, no lie.
I was afraid this issue would be preachy melodrama, like the horrible subplot in "Field of Dreams," but it was so much better than I feared it would be.
Elkin: This one was timeless also -- the issues raised in it are still so resonate today. Didn't we just have One Million Moms wanting to ban Archie Comics for having a homosexual character? Same shit. Books get challenged all the time. People feel the need to censor to protect their world-views. They need to shut down the flow of ideas – why? Out of fear? I had a father refuse to let his daughter read Lord of the Flies because of the scene where the boys kill the big sow with their homemade spears (which is, I admit, pretty brutal – but corrupting?).
Sacks: Wow because his kid can't find stuff ten times scarier on TV or the internet?
Elkin: Or in the bible. Or out of the mouths of politicians.
Sacks: What I really loved about this story is the feeling that Gerber is starting to tie this book together. Most of the stories before this one were more or less self-contained, but here we see everything coming together: Richard and Ruth, the Viking, the high school, Spangler and the town's growing hysteria about all the horrible events that are happening around them.
Elkin: And Gerber still gets his environmental rants in there while at the same time decimating old-fashioned morality and ideas of "being a man"
Sacks: God, what happens to Man-Thing this issue... holy crap
Elkin: He gets all bubbly.
Sacks: Richard actually cries for Manny – such a wonderful sequence by Mooney.
Sacks: They're spectacular, but at this point you start running out of superlatives.
That's five straight intense, emotional rollercoasters - each with their own tremendous depth of emotion.
Elkin: Thank goodness we then get Giant-Size Man-Thing #5 as kind of a breather.
Sacks: Only one Gerber story, and a pretty minor one.
Elkin: He probably needed to reload his Man-Thing (that penis joke, I must admit, was NOT inadvertent).
Sacks: Ahem. Yes. Reload for the - well what adjective have I not used - fucking astonishing four-part story that ends his run (plus an epilogue).
Elkin: I think we need to start just using the word "Gerber" to stand in for every fucking superlative from here on out. Yea, issues 19-22 are pretty fucking Gerber.
Elkin: I got two words for you, Sacks: The Scavenger.
Sacks: As our villain says, "I've spent all my days learning the words for what I am: plunderer... pillager... ravisher... spoiler... scavenger!!"
Elkin: The Scavenger is twelve times the mind-fuckery of Foolkiller. Seriously Gerber.
Sacks: Mindfuckery is really the perfect word for him. The Scavenger rapes your mind.
Elkin: Creepiest Freakiest Gerberist character – really unhinged, really disturbing!
Sacks: You can imagine him going to the same high school as Edmond and Alice, gleefully glorying in their torture.
Elkin: And then there is his sister, Dani. Who were these kid's parents?
Sacks: The woman so full of rage she destroys furniture.
Hmmmm... That's a really interesting insight, I think, Daniel. Gerber and parents. There are almost no parents in any of these stories, and of the ones that we do see they are horribly dysfunctional, pathetic horrible people. There's a whole lot of "substitute parents" of a sort, or short-lived families like Rory and Carol. But there are almost no parents in any of Gerber's great comics. The only Defenders who have parents are Val/Barabara, who's completely estranged from them, and Kyle, whose parents are unfeeling. And wait till we get to Omega and parents... just wait for that mindfuck.
Elkin: Do you know anything about Gerber and his relationship with his parents?
Sacks: Nothing at all.
Elkin: Time to start researching. I would be first in line to buy the Gerber biography.
Sacks: It's very tempting to analyze a writer chronically full of existential doubt whose stories are full of absentee parents... Huh, even his last series, Hard Time, has ineffective parents... Might be something interesting to pursue.
Hey Elkin, am I sensing that you're running out of steam?
Elkin: Don't worry, Sacks, I'm just holding it all in until we talk about issue #22.
Sacks: Wow, issue #22. What a perfect ending to an insane series, huh?
Elkin: Absolutely. I don't even know where to start.
Sacks: I suppose it's no spoiler to say that Gerber writes himself into this final issue, revealing that the wizard Dakimh set Gerber to work transcribing all of Man-Thing's stories.
Elkin: A comic book writer writing about how the characters in his comic book have asked him to write a comic book about them, therefore branding himself not as a writer of comic book fiction. How many years did this come out before Morrison's Animal Man?
Sacks: I almost called this the "Grant Morrison" issue. Man-Thing #22 was 1975 and Animal Man #26 was 1990.
Elkin: Something about when the kids get in their 20's, I guess. They go all meta on us.
Elkin: And then he literally gets sucked into his own story.
Sacks: With a full Gerber Text Page (tm).
Elkin: It's so unbelievably GERBER. His sign off at the end? "Take Care. See You Soon." Perfect. Classy. Gerber.
Hey Sacks, do you know why Gerber actually left Man-Thing? Was it to take on the Duck full time?
Sacks: I think so, and also declining sales as the monster boom receded.
Elkin: You mean his Man-Thing receded?
Sacks: Well done, sir.
Elkin: I'll be here all week. How many other writers had done this before in comics, I wonder? I mean in Master of Kung-Fu #17, Englehart puts himself in the comic, but not in this way -- where he draws full attention to the artist creating the art.
Sacks: Like this, in a mainstream comic? You can count them on one hand, I think.
Elkin: Although 70's Marvel seemed to like to have its creators show up in their comics. Still. Not like this. Not so blatantly. It is awesome. It is Gerber.
Sacks: It is definitely Gerber.
Elkin: He even has his characters thanking him for writing about them - priceless.
Sacks: So, reading these comics for the first time, what was your overall impression? Any thoughts on Gerber after reading about 1000 pages by him?
Elkin: To tell you the truth, Sacks, Gerber has totally reinvigorated my sense of why I love comics. His work has helped me to better see the possibilities of the medium. It has also helped to raise my ire as to the current state of mainstream comics -- how far they have gotten from this sort of experimenting -- this sort of story-telling. Gerber was a genius. A master-storyteller. An emphatic creature that reviled negative emotions. A hero who wanted to see the injustices of the world stopped. Gerber was absolutely fucking Gerber.
Sacks: Wow, that's really high praise.
Elkin: That's because I'm high -- on Gerber's talent.
Sacks: Ha ha ha way to fake me out
Elkin: At least I didn't say, I can't get enough of Gerber's Giant-Size Man-Thing
Sacks: Hey now.
You know I've loved his work since I was just a little kid. It's impressive to come back to the work again and again and always find interesting philosophical and biographical aspects of his work that really jump out at me after all this time. The idea of Gerber and parents didn't even occur to me till you hinted at it. He was a truly under-appreciated talent, one of those rare writers who was both inside and outside of his own time, if you know what I mean.
Elkin: I can only hope that posting these chats on Comics Bulletin will cause others to give Gerber a chance. He deserves a wider audience.
Sacks: Several friends mentioned to me at Image Expo that they read these pieces, including my pal Valentino.
Elkin: That's great, but they were probably already fans of Gerber. We need to spread the word to the neophytes. Make new Gerber babies.
Sacks: Indeed. You should assign this series to your students.
Elkin: Damn Right, I should!
So, Sacks – I think I'm ready. You handed it to me at Image Con -- Can we go Omega the Unknown next to finish up our Gerber-thon?
Sacks: I know I said this at Expo, but Gerber's work on Omega is probably my favorite comic ever.
Elkin: Then that's where we should go.
Sacks: It has everything that makes Man-Thing great in eight perfect precious issues. I can practically recite the first issue. "Are you in pain, James-Michael?"
Elkin: I have enormously high hopes that I will have my mind Gerbered to the point of inspiration!
Sacks: Can't wait, Daniel!
Elkin: Neither can I.