Friday, 18 July 2014

Essential Man-Thing volume 1

Hoh boy. This is the one that brings out all the sniggering.

So let's take this slowly. Essential Man-Thing volume 1 contains material from multiple titles including issues of Giant-Size Man-Thing.

Let's just pause for a moment to let everyone get the sniggering out of their system.

[Lengthy pause.]

All done? Because there won't be another break.

(But on an aside, did the term "man-thing" actually have such connotations in early 1970s America, or are the sniggers all down to latter-day use of the term or even transatlantic differences? A quick Google search is unhelpful, being dominated by the comic character, but then the term is far from the most common name for the... well you know.)

Now down to business.

Essential Man-Thing volume 1 contains the eponymous creature's earliest appearances and issues, consisting of material from Savage Tales #1, Ka-Zar's feature in Astonishing Tales #12-13, Adventure into Fear #10-19, Man-Thing #1-14, Giant-Size Man-Thing #1-2 and Monsters Unleashed #5 & #8-9. Most of these series were anthologies in either comic or magazine format, the latter not falling under the Comics Code Authority and allowing for less censored material. Adventures into Fear was previously a reprint series and then became another long-run try-out title before successful characters received a title in their own right. Bonus material includes Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for both the Man-Thing and Jennifer Kale. One notable omission is the cover to Savage Tales #1 but on investigation it seems that this is because the cover spotlights Conan the Barbarian and so presumably having lost the Conan licence Marvel are unable to reprint it even when accompanying a non-Conan story.

The Man-Thing's debut in the magazine Savage Tales is written by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway and drawn by Gray Morrow. All contribute to subsequent tales which are written mainly by Steve Gerber, with contributions by Len Wein and Tony Isabella. The art is mostly by Val Mayerik and Mike Ploog with contributions by John Buscema, Neal Adams, Rich Buckler, Howard Chaykin, Jim Starlin, Alfredo Alcala, Vincente Alcazar and Pat Broderick. As this produces many labels, some have been placed in a separate post.

Reading through this volume I've felt as though I was stuck in a swamp myself. It has been a very long and slow read and, although a variety of real world events have intervened to contribute to that, the series itself has not proved very inspiring at times. At the heart of it the series suffers two major problems. One is the complete mindlessness of the title creature, resulting in no dialogue or character development at all and making it hard to get interested in what happens to him. The other is the swamp environment not lending itself to many obvious story types and the ones that are do get used fall into a mixture of stiltedness or just plain weirdness.

There's a long tradition of swamp monsters and it's now unknown just whether the inspiration for the Man-Thing or the Swamp Thing came first. But it takes more than just a walking mound of slime to create excitement. For the Man-Thing there's an attempt to create some tragedy through his origin as we see scientist Ted Sallis betrayed to spies by his assistant/girlfriend and having to take a serum to survive, only for it to interact with the swamp and turn him into a shambling monster. As origins go it's nice and self-contained but with openings that could be used to spin off multiple further adventures. Unfortunately not too much is done in this volume with that. The monster seemingly has no coherent thoughts or memories so can neither embark on a quest for vengeance nor try to find a cure for his condition. Ellen appears again only in a special story from Monsters Unleashed as she recovers from her burns and returns to the swamp to deal with the memories. In doing so she comes face to face with what Ted has become, leading to a memorable moment as she demonstrates no fear, but in the regular series she is forgotten. The organisation Ellen works for, later revealed as AIM, don't catch on to what has really happened to Ted and come after the monster again and again. And so all we're left with is the stumbling monster wandering the swamps and influenced by the emotions of those around it.

That said the Man-Thing does demonstrate some interesting ideas such as the ability to literally ooze through any small opening and a touch that burns whenever the recipient demonstrates fear. Visually he's also a good design, even in black and white, and so makes for a series of strong images though I generally prefer Val Mayerik's depiction to Mike Ploog's. However I'm not sure how he displayed in colour - the front cover shows some very similar shades of green being used for both the monster himself and the background swamp. Fortunately the back cover has found some more distinguishing variations of green.

The character took a while to take off, not helped by Savage Tales only publishing one issue for some years. But the following year, after an appearance in Ka-Zar's strip in Astonishing Tales, which isn't particularly memorable in its own right but which does serve to thrash out some of the details of the character, the Man-Thing soon got an ongoing title in the pre-existing Fear, albeit with the title expanded to Adventure into Fear. This series had previously reprinted many monster stories from Marvel's pre-superheroes era, and the choice of this title helped to place the Man-Thing within the sense of a restoration of the non-superhero monsters. This is also reflected in the guest stars that appear or rather don't.

Once we get past the guest appearance in Ka-Zar's strip, there are no further substantial guest appearances included in this volume (although there are some cameos). This is despite the period covering guest appearances in Avengers, Daredevil and Marvel Two-in-One which show that the Man-Thing wasn't completely isolated from the wider Marvel universe. Such a limited interaction as presented here can allow a character to strive and thrive on their own two feet without interruptions, but it can also leave their deficiencies heavily exposed with precious little to fall back on. It's very much the latter effect here and I feel the series could have seriously benefited from either some appearances by familiar faces or else a fully developed supporting cast who actually hang around long enough to make a big enough impact.

The swamp is located in the Everglades in Florida and comes with all the traditional contents of a swamp from fierce crocodiles to hillbillies, as well as being the site for a proposed airport. But it also contains some decidedly fantastical elements. There is a hidden civilisation based around a Fountain of Youth. And the swamp is the site of the Nexus of All Realities, a gateway that links it to many dimensions containing all manner of weird oddities. The Man-Thing has become the guardian of the Nexus, offering the ironic spectacle of such a great responsibility falling upon such a mindless beast.

There's a tendency for the supporting cast to only appear briefly before disappearing. The first notable case is Jennifer Kale, a young amateur witch who develops a psychic link with the Man-Thing but it is subsequently broken. Her brother Andy and their grandfather Joshua, the head of a cult that seek to defend the Earth from the demons found in the Nexus, also appear, as does Jennifer's boyfriend Jaxon, offering some broader mythology but it's not really developed here. However the Kale family would go on to be tied into the continuity of another of Marvel's horror heroes but when I last tried to read a summary of the family history all I could grasp was just how much my head hurt. Elsewhere are two distinctly strange beings who come through the Nexus - Korrek, a barbarian who arrives through a jar of peanut butter, and Howard the Duck. To my surprise Howard is killed off early on and doesn't come back within this volume but his popularity would take him to great heights elsewhere. Later on we meet Richard Rory, a perpetual loser who repeatedly finds himself in the swamp. More than once he seems to hit it off with a woman who is also lost there, only for things to go wrong. However he does land a spot as a night-time radio DJ. The first such woman is Ruth Hart, on the run from a gang, and it at first seems as though she may have staying power but it comes to nothing.

Villains range from the earthly to the fantastic. At the grounded level the Man-Thing's most persistent nemesis is F. A. Schist, an industrialist intent on building an airport in the swamp, which brings him into recurrent conflict with the Man-Thing, including bringing in the scientist Professor Slaughter. Eventually Schist's greed consumes him when he finds the Fountain of Youth and is destroyed by the Man-Thing, but his vengeance seeking widow later comes after the monster. Elsewhere is the first appearance of the serial killer called the Foolkiller, who is seemingly killed off in his first appearance but would later come back. There are also a string of one-off criminals who pass through the swamp and usually come to grief at the hands of the Man-Thing, though things aren't always great for the victims. There's an especially nasty case of this in a two-part text story from Monsters Unleashed where an unsuccessful writer flees after his girlfriend was killed by a mugger only to get caught between a mad father trying to kill his daughter. But things are not always as they seem, as shown early on when the Man-Thing encounters a black man on the run from a racist and jealous sheriff, only to discover disputing claims between them. The more fantastical foes include various magical beings from the Nexus such as Thog the Nether-Spawn, Dakimh the Enchanter and various one-off named and unnamed demons. Or there's the first appearance of the alien Wundarr, a parody of Superman and his origin. A rare trip away from the swamp bring an encounter with ghost pirates led by Captain Fate, doomed to never reach port due to a curse inflicted by a crewmember they abandoned.

Giant-Size Man-Thing may have a title that everyone laughs at, but the first two issues are straightforward serious content, with the only change from the regular series being an increased use of characters from the wider Marvel universe. The first issue sees the Man-Thing battle the Glob, previously seen in the Incredible Hulk, due to the influence of the Cult of Entropy. The second sees a bunch of cameos, most notably from Mister Fantastic, as the Man-Thing gets briefly transported to New York in a partial parody of King Kong. But otherwise these bigger issues are just expanded versions of the normal sort of story for the series, which has now settled into a pattern of some edginess and social commentary wrapped up around monster and magic tales.

Overall this volume may have some imagination to it but it's the execution that is the problem. Ultimately the central character just isn't sufficiently exciting and there's not enough going on around him to make this compelling stuff. Steve Gerber's issues do include a degree of commentary and satire, but this approach can either date all too easily or else sink if the reader does not have the cultural background to spot the targets. What we're left with is a title that begins as a latter-day monster story in the vein of an earlier generation of Marvel that gets crossed with fantasy and absurdity in the hope that something in this mix will congeal. But the result just doesn't work for me.

1 comment:

  1. The Heap was the first swamp monster in comics.


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