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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Panel Vision - Giant-Sized Man-Thing #4

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So, as I write this one of the big cultural deals of the moment is a new Netflix series called 13 Reasons Why.  It’s a teenage melodrama revolving around the suicide of a young woman and the collection of cassette tapes she left behind explaining her 13 reasons why.  It’s gotten quite a bit of controversy, mostly from groups of actual experts on suicide prevention who are mad that the show misrepresents the actual circumstances that can lead to suicide as well as prevents a graphic depiction of the act itself.  

However, being a massive geek, this format of gritty high school realism, post-mortem messages to the living, and deconstructing the performance grief mandated in the wake of a tragedy reminded me of one of the best forgotten comic stories of all time.  Coming to us from way back in 1975, it’s an extra-long comic story under the name of The Kid’s Night Out, courtesy of one of the greatest comic book authors of all time alongside his most underrated creation- Steve Gerber’s Man-Thing. 

A little context before we dive in: Man-Thing was created in 1971 as part of a push by Marvel to diversify their brand.  The thinking at the time was that after a decade of superhero stories comic readers were getting a bit older and were looking for a more varied collection of genres, so both Marvel and DC started branching out into horror, fantasy, comedy, etc.  Man-Thing was one such character, originally a chemist named Ted Sallis whose experiment went horribly wrong and transformed him into a mute and shambling creature made of swamp muck. 

Robbed of his higher thinking, the Man-Thing stalks the swamps of Florida drawn from place to place by its empathic powers, also whatever it touches that feels fear will burn for reasons that were never made terribly clear.  Incidentally, if any comic fans in the audience think that origin sounds weirdly similar to the DC character Swamp Thing that’s because it is, that’s because Swamp Thing creator Len Wein and Man-Thing creator Gerry Conway were roommates at the time and influenced each other. 

There was rumbling of DC seeking legal action over this but neither of the characters was really popular enough to warrant that.  Swamp Thing eventually became a major success for DC when Wes Craven made him into a film prompting an Alan Moore comic revival of the character, which is part of why Man-Thing has always lived in the shadow of Swamp Thing.  That’s also part of why Marvel decided to give Man-Thing over to Steve Gerber.  

I’ll get more into this as we go on but Gerber was most well known for his offbeat comedy productions, most famous among them being Howard, the Duck.  This always made him an odd fit for the Man-Thing and a lot of his work plays as a weird kind of B-movie surrealism as if Mad Magazine was publishing a Creepshow comic- there is, however, an exception to this rule. 

Aside from Gerber’s main Man-Thing book he also put out a series of Giant-Sized special issues.  This was mainly because Gerber’s bizarre writing style had made him a sensation with college age readers, so Marvel was willing to just let him do what he wanted and what he wanted was to write more Man-Thing.   

These were extra large issues, produced with a whopping 68 pages telling bigger and more lavish stories than ever before.  Most of them continue the Man-Thing tradition of high concept weirdness played just straight enough to be funny, but Giant-Size Man-Thing #4 is such a departure from this formula you’re likely to get tonal whiplash. 

The story opens with a funeral for one Edmond Winshed, a high schooler who died of mysterious causes.  Right from the start ‘The Kid’s Night Out’ absolutely throws down the gauntlet regarding tone and content.  Previous stories were about psychedelic heavy metal glam rockers, and immortal Vikings all draped in the LSD-infused color palette of the ‘70s- not here. 

Here we swap that scene for something akin to Southern Gothic horror as the swamps of Florida are gripped in an almost supernatural storm.  The artwork has always been a huge part of Man-Thing’s appeal, and it’s positively spectacular here.  Hannigan and Wilson on pencils do a superb job capturing the vast detail of the swamp through the constant torrential rain while Phil Rache bathes every scene in a cold and dark aesthetic that fits the tone perfectly.  

The funeral is interrupted when a teen named Alice just goes off on everyone involved, only to get punched near unconscious by one of the funeral attendants.  As I said, this opening is very much about establishing the tone of the story and how much it’s not going to be the quirky comedy that Man-Thing had come to be defined with.   The gloomy mystery over the funeral is a big part of making the scene work, framing Alice as the only character telling the audience the truth.  It sets her up as an outsider to the button-downed artifice of the funeral. 

There’s a lot of visual storytelling here that’s just wonderfully realized, especially the core metaphor of holding this funeral full of liars and monsters crying crocodile tears in the midst of a raging Florida swamp storm.  It creates a visual split, with the funeral tent as a little pocket of self-delusion amid the harsh truth around them.  So when Sam Pinder, the late Winshed’s uncle, leaves to “deal” with Alice he turns into a brutish thug almost immediately- his true nature laid bare as he’s forced to leave his island of elaborate self-delusion. 

This is probably the strongest through-line between comedy Man-Thing and this one dark story, that anti-society/conformity push.  Gerber’s unique style of grungy, underground comedy always spoke to the disaffected college set during its run.  That’s part of how his Howard the Duck stories became such a big hit, they were so laden with a “screw the world!” vibe that they became instantly ingratiating to a generation of 20-somethings who’d come of age with Watergate. 

‘The Kid’s Night Out’ is the less fun version of that same idea, splattering a thick coat of realism onto the optimism of the ‘60s hippie movement.  There was a lot of that at the time: in the ‘60s authority figures were old and lame while socially unfettered human freedom was noble and spiritual while in the ‘70s figures of authority were sadistic monsters and unfettered human freedom was a gateway to man’s brutality. 

Both of those forces are represented in this story, with Man-Thing as our gateway to natural brutality unchained and a collection of adults from Edmond Winshed’s life as our sadistic figures of authority.  This all comes out in the story’s second chapter (it’s split into 3 parts,) where we hear from Edmond himself through a series of journals he wrote before his death.  This is easily the strangest part of the book as it drops the entire comic format for a series of long, handwritten monologs punctuated with thematic art rather than sequential. 

It’s a fascinating account too about Edmond’s tortured life as an overweight teen in rural Florida.  We learn about how pretty much everyone in his life is an absolute monster, most especially his gym teacher and uncle.  Most notably now is how much Edmond reads as gay character.  I’m not sure if this was intentional, in fact, it’s shockingly hard to find writer Steve Gerber speaking at all about this issue, but if you read between the lines it’s pretty easy to make the connection given conceptions of gay people at the time.  

Stuff like Edmond not fitting into any classically masculine pursuits and mostly having women friends because they made him feel less different.  Like I said, it’s subtle enough that it might not have been intentional, but it definitely adds a greater dynamic to the story. 

Eventually we do learn the details of Edmond’s death, that the gym teacher basically ran him around the track till he had a heart attack then screamed insults at him as he died on the field which is about as brutal as you could expect things to get in a mid-'70s comic.  At this point, the story enters its inevitable third act, in which the Man-Thing is compelled by Edmond’s spirit to enact brutal revenge on those who’d ruined Edmond’s life and eventually helped kill him.  

It’s an intensely satisfying and brutal sequence given how detestable the comic makes the various adults out to be.  There’s also a seriously ironic bent to the different acts of vengeance visited upon them that’s reminiscent of the DC character the Spectre.  The only difference is that DC’s avenging ghost hero wouldn’t be doing these kinds of ironic punishments until about 10 years after this story was published. 

I was tempted to say this comic was just an offbeat oddity for fans of obscure Marvel arcana, but honestly, that’d a bit disingenuous.  That’s mostly true for the rest of Gerber’s Man-Thing run but I read this particular story once several years ago, and it stuck with me to this day, to the point that as soon as I heard the plot of 13 Reasons Why I immediately thought of this book.  It’s just such a complete departure from both the style of Man-Thing and the structure of most comics of the time. 

Nowadays rape, murder, and teen frankness are somewhat more common in comics but back in 1975 you just didn’t see stories like this and chances are if Gerber hadn’t been an established success he wouldn’t have been given the leeway to write this.  But he was and he did and the results really are something special.  A lot of the time comics that pushed the envelope on harshness end up weak in retrospect like Killing Joke but not this one, in a lot of ways this story still feels fresh, modern, and relevant 40 years later. 

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