Friday, 17 October 2014

Essential Man-Thing volume 2

Okay let's deal with the usual laughter straight away. This volume contains more Giant-Size Man-Things. Pause for laughter.

[Lengthy pause.]

Essential Man-Thing volume 2 contains issues #15 to #22 of the character's first series, the complete #1 to #11 of his second, Giant-Size Man-Thing #3 to #5, plus what may be a leftover issue from the first series run in Rampaging Hulk #7, wilderness years appearances from Marvel Team-Up #68 and Marvel Two-in-One #43 and a crossover from Doctor Strange #41. That's a lot of issues so here go the credits. All the issues from the first series are written by Steve Gerber and drawn mainly by Jim Mooney with individual issues by John Buscema and Rico Rival. The Giant-Sizes are from this period and all are written by Gerber and drawn by Alfredo Alcala, Ed Hannigan and Ron Wilson. The Rampaging Hulk issue is written by Gerber and drawn by Jim Starlin. The second series is written first by Michael Fleisher and then by Chris Claremont, with one issue by Dickie McKenzie and a short back-up story in another by J.M. DeMatteis. The art is mainly by Jim Mooney then Don Perlin with individual issues by Larry Hama and Val Mayerik and the back-up by Ed Hannigan. The Marvel Team-Up is written by Claremont and drawn by John Byrne, the Marvel Two-in-One is written by Ralph Macchio and drawn by Byrne "& Friends", and the Doctor Strange issue is written by Claremont and drawn by Gene Colan. That's an awful lot of labels so naturally some have been put in a separate post.

The first series ends with leaps between the sword and sorcery fantasy that the title has often experimented with to the down to earth social commentary that Steve Gerber is more normally associated with. I've never really felt the former style is a good match with the Man-Thing and the material here continues to confirm that view, though it's less of a struggle to get through compared to the first volume. This one kicks off with a Giant-Size Man-Thing with a battle to liberate the homeworld of Korrek the barbarian from the sorcerer Klonus. In the process Dakimh is killed but the world is liberated.

The sword and sorcery is then put aside for a number of issues that instead deal with social commentary about changes in society and those who seek to resist them, starting with a tale of Sainte-Cloud, an ex-girlfriend of Ted Sallis's who persuaded him to move into more values based research. Using a hallucinogenic candle carved in the shape of the Man-Thing she seeks inspiration for her writing, leading to events becoming more real than they seem. Then there's the introduction of the Mad Viking, a forcibly retired man disgusted at what he sees as a decline in masculinity so he adopts a costume in commemoration of their perceived manliness and launches a crusade against modern "wussy" men, including slaughtering a rock singer and many of his groupies. Meanwhile a school pupil has died and his friend is about to publish his diary, revealing his loneliness and misery at the hands of bullies both at school, including on the staff, and in his family for being different and fat. The Man-Thing gets caught in the confrontations and burns the school coach to death. These events spark terror in Citrusville and a house wife decides the problem is rooted in what is taught in schools, having glanced at a text book and panicking that it discusses Communism and sex education. The result is a book burning riot outside the school where the Mad Viking is so blinded that when his granddaughter tries to stand up for the freedom of the young to make their own choices in life, he hits her so hard she falls and cracks her head, dying.

Rory has been a rare voice of reason in the town, for which he gets the sack from his radio station job, and he leaves in disgust, taking with him Carol Selby, the daughter of the town's Mary Whitehouse, and the Man-Thing, who thanks to an extended dip in chemicals is now able to move away from the swamp. The last few issues see a move to Atlanta for a more magical storyline, with Rory written out when he discovers Carol is underage, making him legally a kidnapper. She is injured in a car accident and returned home whilst Rory is arrested, leaving the Man-Thing alone for the end of the run.

Issue #22 marks the end of Steve Gerber's run on the title, a point acknowledged in the strip, and also for the series itself, which is not acknowledged in the strip, which was cancelled and revived only four years later. This was just a few months before the launch of Howard the Duck so it's not hard to see why the writer was moving on but was this also a very early example of a publisher linking a series so heavily to an individual creator that they opted to end it when that creator left rather than replace them? It was a practice that happened more commonly in later decades but I'm surprised that it could be even considered at this early stage. And it's particularly ironic given the disputes Gerber would later have with Marvel that included his removal from the Howard the Duck series and comic strip. Of course Marvel was notoriously disorganised at this stage in its history so it may be overreading the situation to assume the end of the series was linked to the end of the run. Nevertheless it's a sign of how prominent creators were becoming, with appearances moving beyond the odd scene as a nod and wink to the audience to a much greater point of participation.

The issue is not as well known as one of Gerber's Howard the Ducks but it deploys an interesting narrative approach, presumably suggested and approved as a way to economically incorporate more events than usual in order to wrap up existing storylines whilst the writer was still on the book, rather than leaving them for another writer to take on, usually at very short notice and without any real idea as to what had been planned. But it also seeks to establish the authenticity of the stories through the appearance of Gerber himself, with much of the issue an illustrated letter to Len Wein. Jim Mooney's depiction confirms what many had suspected, namely that Richard Rory is based on Gerber himself. Within the letter Gerber explains how he wrote the series at the instigation of Dakimh, and how this continued even after the sorcerer’s apparent death. There's a summary of most of the incidents from Gerber's run and then an extended explanation of Thog's plans and methods before a final showdown in which the fate of the universe hangs in the balance. Finally Dakimh gives his blessing to the writer's departure. As an exercise in concluding the storyline in a limited space this issue works. As a comic less so, with three of the eighteen pages resorting to prose text with illustrations, a format I've never liked to see in Marvel comics. It's also not really a Man-Thing issue with the monster only coming into the action near the end, and again suggests that the writer's priorities were elsewhere. Still as an experiment that both pushes at the barriers of convention whilst also harking back to the conceit of the Lee-Kirby days, it's a sign of a willingness to do things differently and expand the frontiers of the medium.

The only non-Gerber authored issue from this period is the final issue of Giant-Size Man-Thing, in which a young Ted Sallis and his wife Ellen visit a carnival fortune teller and witness three visions of the future, all of which involve horror and despair including a cult trying to sacrifice a baby, a young couple coming to grief because of their families' disapproval and mercenaries in the swamp turning on each other. It's an interesting way to showcase what are ultimately fill-in pieces from a variety of creators but overall the issue doesn't add much.

The second series shows a title setting out to be a bit different from its predecessor but rapidly retreating into some of the old tried and tested methods and then ending in a similar way. Although the social commentary is notably almost completely absent, there's once again a book that starts off as a reasonably conventional monster series but which steadily dips into the world of magic and swords - although this time it's cutlasses. Also there's an early attempt to enhance the Man-Thing but it's largely gone by the second issue.

At the start there's a short-lived effort to stick to science and monsters, starting off with a tale as a scientist is recruited by what claims to be the CIA to restore the Man-Thing's mind in the hope of recovering the Super Soldier Serum. However before the monster can be coaxed to adulthood the FBI attack, accidentally killing the scientist in the process. At first it seems the Man-Thing has retained his rudimentary intelligence but by the second issue the effects have worn off. What's also surprising is that the nature of the group representing itself as the CIA is never explored beyond the FBI statement that they're "enemy agents". Could this in fact be a squabble between agencies? Or was that idea too radical in 1979? We then get a change of location when another scientist accidentally teleports the Man-Thing to the Himalayas, where we find the old stereotype of a party of two men and a woman with one of the men sending the other to his death and making moves on the grieving widow. Add in an encounter with a tribe of Yeti - here established as an offshoot of Cro-Magnon Man who have survived in the mountains - plus a high priest figure foretelling doom and the clichés are complete.

A crossover with Doctor Strange brings a new writer to the series and another round of magic as the Man-Thing and Elaine, the woman from the Himalayas, get swept back to the Florida swamp to find Baron Mordo's latest scheme. After this we finally get a recurring supportive cast in the form of Barbie Bannister, a spoilt rich girl who finds she has to fend for herself when her parents are killed by modern day drug smuggling pirates, and John Daltry, the local sheriff. After Daltry and the Man-Thing deal with a bunch of college students trying to destroy the monster for kicks and fame, we get the first and only epic of the series as Captain Fate returns with his sky pirates. Fate is ultimately freed from the curse of immortality but instead the curse engulfs Daltry and nobody seems able to break it leading to Barbie searching for anything to do it. After a couple of one-off tales of the Man-Things encounters with those who find themselves in the swamp, including a tragic young couple who flee their parents and give birth to a child, only to die of poisoned water whilst the grandparents confront the Man-Thing, and a isolated boy who joined a cult and then got "deprogrammed" by his parents. The latter is a short story by J.M. DeMatteis and in its take of the obessiveness of some religions it's about the only sign of social comment in the run. The main plot gears up with the arrival in the swamp of John Kowalski, a mysterious man who is the personification of Death and who offers to free Daltry if Barbie will join him.

The final issue is once again told in flashback by a writer to his editor, although this time it's done in the pub and we see not just editor Louise Jones but also assistant editor Danny Fingeroth and editor-in-chief Jim Shooter. Chris Claremont relates how he got taken away to a realm for a final battle with the force behind Daltry's curse, Thog. Once more Thog is destroyed and everyone returns home with Barbie freed from her Death obligations but the Man-Thing proves impossible to cure. Claremont announces his resignation as writer and Shooter agrees to cancel the series. As they leave we discover that once more Dakimh has been directing the writer.

This second series is brief and ultimately unsatisfying. There was clearly an attempt to do something different early on but it fizzled out and we're left with a relatively mundane series that eventually winds up wallowing in the memory of the first, as shown most notably in the final issue. It feels like it was being written by numbers and just didn't know where to go. The end of the first series included here has the reverse problem - it's trying to go to almost too many places, riding waves of fantasy and realism at the same time. But it does at least try to say something. All in all this volume and the series as a whole is rather inessential. The central problem is that very little can ever be done with the main character and most of the events around him don't easily fit the genre. This is not one to search high and low for.

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