Monday, October 20, 2008

Man-Thing Returns

Ever read Man-Thing? Yeah, most didn’t, it seems. Man-Thing fits even less well into the mainstream of Marvel superheroes than the likes of Blade or Werewolf by Night. He protects this “nexus of realities” in a swamp, and "whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing's touch." His better known brother, Swamp Thing, is no less esoteric, but Man-Thing is way weirder. Man-Thing is back in the new MAX imprint title Dead of Night.

Man-Thing vs. Swamp Thing is a battle from old times in geekdom. Most recently, Kung Fu Rodeo had a wonderful piece about the true origin and “who came first” question. Dating the idea back to a 1940s short-story and the infamous Solomon Grundy, KFR explores the muddy waters of origin. And more recently, KFR pointed out that, while Man-Thing beat his DC counterpart to press by a month in ’71, two months later a Man-Thing look alike sprung from the house Superman built—oddly, too close in time for a knock off! But the swamp monster cover is a simple formula: a monstrous creature rising from or escaping into the mire, plus shocked onlookers, often disheveled young women. Less effective when paired with the red and blue Spider-Man, Man-Thing’s vibe is a throw back to horror comics of yore.

And that’s where Dead of Night picks up. Borrowing a cover and narrator cloned from the pages of Vault of Horror, Dead of Night plays on a taste for the old school (at which point one might also mention the latest Mighty Avengers for its throwback style). The left side carries a “featuring” column of three headshots, the title bannered in solid blue, a quarter of the cover, in block white letters. Digger, a ghoulish grave digger (duh), tells the tale and sandwiches the issues; introducing the issue so faithfully to the style that his fade out literally ends with “…the Dead of Night.” A perfect setting for Man-Thing: not mainstream, not fantasy: horror; “fear” is emblazoned right on the cover!

Inside, the story is a bit too much like comics of yore, and even they had a “B” story at least. Four bucks gets you 16 to 17 pages of simple plot. While most Marvel books are struggling to fit an entire arc and the action into an issue, Dead of Night introduces murderers, introduces the next victim, there’s a twist, and then Man-Thing mops up in the time New Avengers takes to get through a telephone conversation. A lot of shoe leather in the panels, doubtlessly attempting mood, but one feels it is over a little quick at about 20 cents a page.

Brevity aside, this is an adult comic, and for the wrong reasons. Truly the villains’ deeds are not for kiddies, but not themes totally unexplored in more famous titles. Apparently, the cover warning allows characters, and—clumsily—the narrator, to drop the f-bomb a few times. Plus, we get a 50 cents piece-sized panel of a character changing clothes to allow nudity that’s less provocative than some panels in the frame story from the recent Mighty Avengers annual, or one second with a certain splash page (pun intended) from the late Dave Steven’s work on the Rocketeer. One imagines old mighty Joe clapping his hands in the bull-pen and shouting, “alright people, this is the MAX imprint, let’s nude it up a bit!”

But one must appreciate the not-so-subliminal word appearing in the big twist splash page. After, the infamous New X-men issue, one spends hours peering at swamp backgrounds and Man-Thing’s carrot-nose trying to find the secret messages. So far only one confirmed, but “Cheese Dip” or “Secret Message” is definitely ruled out (buy a back issue of Groo if you’re wondering). But this careful reading will disclose what is some subtle foreshadowing in the issue. An odd candle in the background, an out of place book, and an interesting choice of domestic pet are so carefully inserted you’ll be shocked you missed them.

There’s plenty to complain about: the tawdry plot points, the oddly muscled up Man-Thing, and the fact one villain dies completely off-panel and his body is never seen, but considering the long wait most horror fans have endured Dead of Night is a gritty and gory fix. Man-Thing kills with an unnatural strength that makes a guy with a carrot nose seem a little freaky again. Considering the patchwork of awfulness that was the Man-Thing made for TV Sci-Fi Channel movie, it’s nice to see the big guy get some good treatment. Even if Marvel feels it needs a few panels of exposed flesh to sell it, Man-Thing has returned…beware!

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