Today, Ryan M. and Ryan D. are discussing Man-Thing 1, originally released March 8th, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Ryan M: I read a lot of R.L. Stine’s Fear Street books. At age 10, they struck the perfect balance between the somewhat goofy Goosebumps series and Christopher Pike’s darker take on teen horror. Horror is a genre that needs to offer an entry point that you can latch on to. In Fear Street books, the protagonist may not be perfect (I’m looking at you, cheating hero of The Boyfriend) but you are with them every step of the way as their world gets more and more terrifying. In Man Thing 1, Stine and artist German Peralta present their take on a man turned monster, but leave a hole in the center where a protagonist should be.
Stine gives us a few angles on Man-Thing, but without a unifying point of view, it feels like a mish-mosh of styles rather than a single story. The story opens with Man-Thing being rejected by Hollywood, well Burbank, but close enough. Stine also offers an origin story, Man-Thing’s alienation from the citizens and a battle against a pre-verbal version of himself. Through his adventures in Burbank, both Man-Thing and the omniscient narrator infuse a heaping of dad humor.
That humor is missing from the origin story. Stine places Man-Thing’s beginnings in the middle of the issue, and the book immediately changes gears. Peralta’s art takes on a more gothic tone, with shadows closing in on the edges of each panel. Stine also swaps the jokes for the tropes of science gone wrong. It’s all here: the scientist who questions the ethics of his own formula, the duplicitous vixen, her henchmen with questionable motives beyond acquiring that formula, and, of course, the extenuating circumstances that force the doctor to take his own medicine with disastrous results. The narrative of this origin feels rote and expected. There are no twists to convention here but the art makes this one of the more engaging episodes of the book.
Here, Peralta’s use of the more classic imagery works for me. The image of the car descending toward the swamp, headlights still ablaze is spooky. The transformation sequence is also effective despite sharing basic elements with every man to monster story. Despite the potential pitfalls of cliche, the rendering of Ted into organic matter functions as horror. The clutching of his chest as his skin peels off, the fear in his reddened eyes as well as the glow from the headlights reflecting off the base of the swamp show a desperation.
Outside of this scene, we don’t get a lot of emotion from Ted. We see him fired, scare children, and be blocked from a club. A club in Burbank. This is enough to make anyone get at least a little upset. Ted takes it all in stride, quipping along the way. By not giving us insight into Ted’s internal life, Stine leaves us with just a hulking monster who seems to have no friends or allies. The scenes in Burbank are mostly focused on how people see him from the outside. The development executive only wants to talk to him long enough to share focus group results. The people on the street react instinctively and, mostly insensitively when they see him.
A young boy is literally made nauseated by standing next to Man-Thing, but Ted is unfazed. Instead he jokes about how ugly he is. This lack of emotion is telling as to Ted’s personality, but also makes him a weak protagonist. If Stine offered any characters who seemed to have empathy or even emotional lives, then these scene would be a bit stronger. Instead, the reader is adrift without a character to connect with. Characters don’t need to be likable or even palatable, but those offered here are simply outlines of characters, lacking depth or even humanity.
Ryan, you can probably tell that I wasn’t bowled over by this one. What did you think? Does Man-Thing offer enough to make you want to keep reading?
Ryan D: Well, let us have a think about what this title is offering us as readers. One way to explore a character’s narrative potential is placing them into an unfamiliar or unlikely location. Anyone who has extensively or casually read Man-Thing (I know the character very peripherally) knows that his home is the swamps. While writers in the past have taken it out of the marshes and put it into towns, such as Citrusville, Florida, or on teams like the Thunderbolts, Howling Commandos, or S.T.A.K.E., few places could be as alienating for this monster of a man than Burbank, CA. Home of Disney Recording Studios and thus, I would assume, housing the production of Marvel films, this city’s apparent superficiality proves to be a difficult new landscape to inhabit for Ted Sallis.
However, as Ryan mentioned, we only see small exchanges transpire between Sallis and the people of Burbank, which leaves the audience in a very passive role as the titular character’s fortunes change from bad to worse. This disengagement to the main character, however, strikes me as a very dangerous thing: with the promise of a huge monster on monster throw-down on the streets of town, the stakes of this fight dwindle because I can’t say I care about Sallis, the bullying crowd of bystanders, or the silent adversary at this point. While I know there’s plenty of precedent from the old-school Man-Thing titles to feature brawls between creature-feature attractions, I can vouch for myself in saying that the slug-fest advertised will not be enough for me to pick up the second issue.
So, how about the meta-commentary provided by a comic book regarding the rash of big budget films being produced based upon comic properties? After two pages of an over-the-top, schlocky B-Movie-style fight with the Silver Centipede, Stine gives us the original swerve that it was all just a movie fight! This reveal might pack more punch if I hadn’t seen the technique used in Jeff Lemire’s Moon Knight 6:
It seems as if the Marvel Comics Universe may share an awareness of the MCU, as is hinted in a few other titles (I can’t think of all of the references at this second, but I’m sure you can offer a few other examples). If that may be the case, though, I’m interested in how writers can exploit that fact in new ways, not rehashing the device’s use. Are there interesting things to do with Man-Thing trying to make it in show-biz? Maybe, sure!
Apparently, Dr. Ted Sallis was declared legally dead years ago, with very few people knowing the Man-Thing’s real identity. Could this be an interesting angle to play for the rest of the upcoming arc: Sallis’s old acquaintances, super or otherwise, coming to find him for closure or vengeance or otherwise? Perhaps, but I can’t say that I found myself too attached to the surviving character from the flash-back scene, the “duplicitous vixen.” Fleshing out those people would be a great start to bringing the flashback scenes closer to the present-day story, because right now, the tones of the two together seem as natural as a pairing to me as peanut butter and sardines.
The inherent charm factor which comes from odes to forlorn genres of the past such as the B-Movie or the Horror Pulp holds a dear place in my heart, personally. Plus, if R.L. Stine, via Goosebumps, hadn’t made it cool to read and collect books back in third grade, I certainly would not be sitting here writing. But Man-Thing’s original charm as a silent, mindless mass of vegetation functioned in a similar way to Frankenstein’s Monster: their actions offer us mirrors to ourselves, as they are creations of man, innately amoral. Now, we have a loquacious Man-Thing/Sallis who seems to be trying to reconcile his past — figuratively with the flashbacks and literally by fighting a version of his primitive, self — while taking steps to establish his future. But if this journey is not accompanied with the appropriate levels of characterization or high enough stakes, then no amount of loving tone or stylistic nods to its inspirations will make it worth following the next chapter of this character’s long, pathos-ridden life.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?