Sunday, October 30, 2016

Night of the Laughing Dead: Man-Thing 5 and 6

Man-Thing #5  (May 1974)
"Night of the Laughing Dead"
Steve Gerber- Mike Ploog / Frank Chiaramonte

Man-Thing #6  (June 1974)
"And When I Died"
Steve Gerber- Mike Ploog / Frank Chiaramonte

Redartz: Good day, fright fans! In honor of the upcoming Halloween Holiday, today we will revisit an excellent 2-parter featuring Marvel's own denizen of the dismal swamps, the Man-Thing. Issue 5 was the first 'monster' book I ever bought (truth be told, at the time I only bought it for the Marvel Value Stamp- yes, they led this fan to spend extra quarters on unfamiliar comics). Upon reading this issue, and the subsequent one with the story's conclusion, I was hooked on ol' Manny, and followed his book for years...

As our story opens, we see a pretty downcast clown, Darrell, who proceeds to 'take the last train out'. 

The Man-Thing is attracted by the sound of the gunshot, and soon stumbles upon the tragic scene...

Prodded by vague memories of 'funerals', Man-Thing carries off the body. 

Meanwhile, Manny's friend Richard Rory and his companion Ruth Hart encounter Ayla, Darrell's love and fellow circus performer, along with Tragg (the strongman) and Garvey, the rather unsavory owner. 

Ayla flees the circus, along with Richard and Ruth. We learn that Darrell was devastated, mistakenly thinking Ayla had deceived him with Garvey. Ayla, fearful for Darrell' well-being, drags Richard and Ruth into the swamp , only to find his body being carried by the Man-Thing. Meanwhile, Garvey and his thug Tragg have followed them all. Unfortunately, they  wreck their truck after swerving to avoid what they thought was Darrell, dancing in the roadway. Garvey and Tragg follow the 'clown' and find the group gathered around Darrell's body. When Tragg tries to lay into the clown, Richard intervenes, and gets clobbered for it. Man-Thing goes to defend  his friend, and as he and Tragg trade slime, something distracts everyone:

At this point, Darrell's spirit rises from his body, and informs the group that they will all be actors, portraying the characters in Darrell's past life. The performance will be judged by the "critics",  who will then decide Darrell's soul's ultimate fate.


The spectral clown transforms the cast , Man-Thing portraying Darrell's 'inner demon'. Appropriately, as Man-Thing senses emotion, as opposed to understanding words, and can 'feel' Darrell's conflicts. The Spectral Darrell then directs  scenes from his past, from boyhood through teenhood, and into adulthood. 

 The reasons for Darrell's deep depression becomes apparent to everyone. However, the 'critics' decide he failed to justify his suicide and prepare to discard his soul. These 'critics' are revealed as representatives of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. At this point Man-Thing intervenes (empathetically defending Darrell and his soul), and battle ensues. But Ayla ceases the clamor with her plea for Darrell, and  the 'critics' are finally convinced. And Darrell's corpse smiles.... 


Steve Gerber (one of my favorite Bronze age storytellers) approaches this title almost like an anthology series, with each story revolving around the supporting cast (primarily Richard Rory and Ruth Hart) and the particular new characters introduced for that specific tale. The Man-Thing himself often (but certainly not always) acts as a metaphor for justice, perhaps, or fate, or as a 'deux et machina'. In this story, he (literally) acts as Darrell's inner demon, and at story's end takes action to defend the soul he had shared.

The first half of the story, in issue 5, is mainly down -to- swampy earth creepy fare, introducing the colorful cast of circus members and following their conflict with and pursuit of the unfortunate Darrell. Incidentally, when I first read this at age 13, it seemed pretty intense- suicide being such a central element of this comic book story. Gerber excels at portraying conflicted, unorthodox, even convoluted characters. Many such characters are found in his Defenders and Howard the Duck books, often with a lighter (or more fantastic, anyway) tone. But in this story these characters are 'regular people' (ghost clowns being excepted, of course), and their turmoils seem deadly serious. When the Headmen face the Defenders, there is a distinct humorous touch. Conversely, when Tragg gut-punches Rory, it's no laughing matter. 

The second half of the story (issue 6) has a very different tone. Much of the issue is taken up by the mystical performance of Darrell's life by the transmogrified cast, and by the final battle with the emissaries of heaven, hell and purgatory. We aren't told how those transformations are done- it's just accepted as part of the spiritual events of the story. Just as we accept Darrell's spirit rising from the corpse, and we accept the appearance of the denizens of the Afterlife. The whole ghostly performance is a chance for Gerber to explore some issues of Troubled Youth (something he dealt with often). The two halves of the story complement each other nicely, balancing the earthly with the spiritual. 

As for the artwork: in a word, perfect. Mike Ploog gives an almost cartoony look to the scenery and cast, just ideal for depicting Gerber's slightly off-kilter world. His Man-Thing is terrific, his Tragg suitably thuggish. And his spectral clown Darrell is beautifully creepy. Frank Chiaramonte's inks work well. Not overpowering, letting Ploog's pencils shine, and also providing some nice use of blacks and shadow. 

Additionally, a point should be made about Ploog's renditions of people in general. His men and women look like 'ordinary folks', as opposed to appearing as eye-pleasing models rendered by, say, a John Romita.  Ploog's characters have wrinkles, sags, flaws. All the better to make them more identifiable and sympathetic to the reader, especially when placed in some pretty far-out situations such as Gerber creates. 

This little two-parter made me a Man-Thing reader for good. "Man-Thing" is, in a way, like Spider-Man: the supporting cast is as important as the main character. Richard Rory is one of those 'likeable losers', and his friendship with Manny is both heartwarming and quite odd. Those odd elements abounded in Gerber's books, and some worked better than others. In this tale, though, all those elements coalesced into a very eerie, very memorable, very enjoyable story. 


Humanbelly said...

Terrific job, there, Redartz.
I wish. . . I wish Man-Thing (in general) worked better for me. And while I get the whole structural conceit of the focus being on the supporting cast rather than the title character (MAN-EATING COW from New England Comics does this, as do most of the Godzilla and Gammera films, really--), it's a story-telling tool that can't hold my attention over the long run. It was attempted a couple of times in the Hulk's book over the years, even, where a new writer would come in and want to take the book in a Bold, New Direction and concentrate on the people around the Hulk, 'cause they didn't seem to have a feel for the character itself.

Man-Thing, of course, presents an almost insurmountable challenge along those lines, which always made me question the wisdom of giving him an on-going series. The character. . . cannot. . . THINK. And is devoid of, really, even a rudimentary personality. But I also get that a creative, ambitious young writer would be happy to grab that obstacle by the tail (ha--or "tale"), and by gad, MAKE a good book out of it--! Myself, though, I do prefer plumbing the depths of the true protagonist.

Golly, I wish Mike Ploog had hung around forever. I just love his distinctive art.


Edo Bosnar said...

Yep, I like Ploog's art as well (although the artists who preceded him, like Mayerik, were no slouches, either), and you can definitely see the influence Eisner had on him. And I think this story was his first work on Man-Thing.

As to this story, great choice, Redartz. When I saw that a review was in the queue, I pulled my Essentials phonebook off the shelf a few days ago to give this one another read. This is definitely a good story, one of many Gerber did during the course of his run on Man-Thing; it's not so much scary as it is quite unsettling all the way through. First there's the fact that it begins with a suicide, and then in the second part there's - among other things - the glimpse into the dynamics of dysfunctional family.
Echoing a comment I made a few days ago at Osvaldo's The Middle Spaces (check the sidebar, folks), I think Gerber's best work in the '70s can be found, besides the his better-known Defenders run, in series like Man-Thing, rather than the much-lauded Howard the Duck. In fact, just a few issues later, he would write what I consider the best Man-Thing story and just one of my favorite Gerber stories in general, a two-parter that I just call the "Dawg" story (featuring an old bitter couple living in the swamp, and their poor old flea-bitten dog - I don't want to give too much away, but the ending never fails to put a lump in my throat).
So basically, I disagree with HB's assessment of Man-Thing. Gerber did in fact work around the obstacles inherent in a character like Man-Thing and crafted some really good, often thought-provoking stories.

Martinex1 said...

I never followed Man-Thing with any regularity but I thoroughly enjoyed your review Redartz. Maybe you hit on a couple of reasons the book did not take me in back then. Like with this story I was a little creeped out by some of the storylines in my youth. It's not that they were particularly scary, but rather that they were obviously mature (when I wasn't). Tales of troubled youth, suicide, and penance seemed a bit heavy to me when I was a youngster. Sometimes my mom scanned my reading selections and I wonder what she would have said about these types of books and if my hobby would have been allowed to continue. Considering the main audience, I'm actually amazed at the freedom that the creators were given back in the day. They explored all kinds of philosophical and psychological topics - sometimes in unsettling ways. I wonder if the editors paid that much attention sometimes and if the deadline rush caused them to skate over some concepts. While children's TV was being forced to adapt a more educational and less violent tone, comics seemed to be much more free wheeling.

Having said that, I too enjoy Gerber and Ploog's work in retrospect.

Regarding some of the fringe books like this and Omega the Unknown, there is just an unsettling strangeness that Gerber injected into them. They always reminded me of some weird B Movie that you can only catch at midnight -odd interaction, strangely unsettling, not quite polished but nevertheless creepily memorable.

Doug said...

Very nice review, Redartz. I'll go along with those who a) find Gerber a bit weird, and b) think it would be tough to write a character for whose thoughts are not known to readers. I mentioned this earlier this week in regard to the Frankenstein Monster.

And ditto for the adoration of Mike Ploog's art. He was made for the monster genre. Really solid in a way that is different from the Bernie Wrightson's of the world, but no less effective.

Happy Halloween tomorrow, everyone.


Karen said...

Clowns...why did it have to be clowns??

Seriously, although I love me some Ploog, it's hard for me to look at the pages with the clowns. But for Ploog, I will risk all.

Gerber was never my cup of tea -I think he was just too much of a downer for me most of the time. But I can recognize his talent certainly. I do think Man-Thing was one of the more difficult books to write, and Gerber was probably one of the few writers who could really handle it, and do it well.

The Prowler said...

If I get the premise of Man Thing correctly, he was a scientist who's experiment went horribly wrong? Was he also the guardian of a Nexus point located in the swamp? Is that correct?

Okay, so bare bones, this is The Devil And Daniel Webster. A man's soul is on trial. As the participants act out the dead man's life, his soul hangs in the balance. (Hey Karen, it's not a Killer Clown, it's a Killed Clown!!!)

Second bone, we have a girl who runs AWAY from the circus!?! What a plot twist!!!

Third bone (the ham bone?), concepts become personified. Heaven, Hell, Purgatory take on physical form to literally fight over his fate. That should make a movie where long help concepts take on physical form and interact with people. You could have Death and Love and Time. Nah, Hollywood would never go for it.

Hey, HB, speaking of the entertainment industry, why is everything I watch Canadian?

If I ever found time to read new stuff, I'd probably read this stuff....

(All I do is win, win, win no matter what
got money on my mind I can never get enough
and every time I step up in the building
everybody hands go up
and they stay there
and they say yeah
and they stay there
Up down, up down, up down
'Cause all I do is win, win, win
and if you goin’ in put your hands in the air
make them stay there).

PS: Robot waving goodbye....

Redartz said...

Thank you for the terrific comments, everyone!

Edo- I read Osvaldo's column about Howard the Duck, and feel you and he both are right- Gerber was stronger on other titles, in retrospect. Howard got loads of attention, but his Defenders and Man-Thing seem 'meatier'. Edo, that "Dawg" story sticks in memory, but deserves a reading anew. Might look for that volume you have, but actually, the original comics are still pretty inexpensive...

Martinex1- excellent point about the mature subject matter in this book. There were numerous Gerber stories that struck me hard as a kid, but upon rereading as an adult have even greater impact. My Mom never knew about the contents of these books, and like yours, probably would have had concerns. It really shows the extent of creative latitude there was back then, for awhile.

Karen- sorry about the clowns! Both my sons would have had issues with this story in that regard, as well. At least, as Prowl noted, it was a 'late' clown...
and yes, Gerber was definitely in his element on this book.

Prowl- think you're correct- Manny was the guardian of the Nexus of Realities. Seems a pretty safe role, for a creature unaware of his role as such, and incapable of contemplating it. Not too likely to exploit his position for his own benefit!

Humanbelly said...

Heya Prowl- Do you mean: Why are so many US shows filmed in Canada? ('Cause man, there are a BUNCH!) Although it's not really my neck of the entertainment woods, I believe there are some major tax-break advantages for the production companies. I've also heard that the Canadian arms of SAG/AFTRA aren't as expensive to employ (but that may just be rumor).


dbutler16 said...

Doug, I'm glad to hear that this story made you a Man-Thing fan for good. Now that I'm moving from upstate New York (where I've spent my whole life) to Florida, I figured that made it a good time to catch up on one Bronze Age character I've totally neglected, Man-Thing. So, I'm putting my Marvel Unlimited subscription to good use reading his adventures, having gone from Savage Tale and Astonishing Tale, I'm not into Fear, then his eponymous title is up next!

Doug said...

dbutler --

Thanks, but your praise goes to Redartz, who authored today's review.


dbutler16 said...

Whoops, sorry Redartz!! Boy is my face red, and it's not even part of my Halloween costume!

Fred W. Hill said...

Another belated response. As a kid, I picked up a few of Gerber's Man-Thing issues (including a couple issues 17 & 18 of Fear) and although I liked them, when I had to make the choice between spending my few sheckels on typical superhero fare or monster mags circa 1973 to '75 or so, I more commonly went with the folks in colorful tights. Around 1976, having a bit more cash, I expanded my fare, to include Tomb of Dracula, Master of Kung Fu, and, oh, yeah, Howard the Duck, starting with issue #4 -- instantly loved that! By the time I was 14 I'd come to love Gerber's sense of humor, outrage at injustice and overall weirdness and in my 20s I mostly filled in the gaps in my Man-Thing collection, including Ploog's all too short but magnificent run. More than with most other mainstream comics writers, Gerber's personality came through in his writing and while it was likely off-putting to some, it appealed to me. While much of Gerber's work had bleak aspects about it, he also usually left some touch of hope as in the conclusion to this dead clown's tale.

Redartz said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Fred! You make a solid point regarding the (sometimes subtle) optimism found in Gerber's work. I quite agree. In Gerber's world, we have a monstrous aspect; but we are not beyond redemption...

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