Saturday, July 28, 2012

I can't possibly imagine what might have persuaded Marvel to finally release the 22-years-in-the-making Man-Thing: Screenplay For A Living Dead Man story at this particular point in time. It's an odd, backwards-looking move, especially as the House Of Ideas gears up towards a massive relaunch this fall (titled Marvel Now, no less). Maybe shambling muck-monsters are back in vogue these days, what with the success of DC's newest Swamp Thing series, or maybe it's connected to Man-Thing's well-received turn as a supporting player in Thunderbolts. Whatever the reason, it's a welcome sight to finally see this long-vanished tale on the racks, even if its presentation is a bit lacking.
Steve Gerber, the cult-favourite scribe who penned several Man-Thing outings during the series' original 1970s run, announced a sequel to one of his best-received stories, "Song Cry Of The Living Dead Man", around 1990. "Screenplay For A Living Dead Man" would be released as part of Marvel's line of original graphic novels, with fully painted art by master illustrator Kevin Nowlan, within a year or so of the announcement. Fans of Gerber, Nowlan, and Man-Thing waited impatiently, with only one blurry, poorly-reproduced panel of artwork in Marvel Age magazine to tide them over. Then...nothing. Until Marvel suddenly announced this Spring that it was releasing the story as a three-part miniseries over the summer, titled The Infernal Man-Thing, with art completed at last by Nowlan.
The story follows Brian Lazarus, a writer of insipid Saturday morning cartoons, who is being driven insane by visions of his animated creations. Driving out to the swamp to confront his madness, Lazarus attracts the attention of the title monster, whose empathic sensitivity draws him into the drama. The two have met before--in the original story from Man-Thing's '70s run--when Lazarus was an advertising copywriter tormented by the lies he sold for a living, which were given life as vengeful apparitions. Lazarus' living supernaturally-empowered delusions once again threaten the psychically-sensitive swamp creature, and an inevitable confrontation draws near.
Steve Gerber's work is most definitely an acquired taste, but he was undeniably one of the most unique voices in mainstream comics. The creative force behind oddball cult titles like Howard The Duck and Omega The Unknown, Gerber stood out from the pack by imbuing his comics with very real concerns about society, politics, and psychology. The Infernal Man-Thing is no different--Lazarus voices very real concerns about the garbage we fill our children's minds with, and the cost to the souls of the people who create that garbage. Like Howard Beale in Network, Brian Lazarus has run out of bullshit (having written for animated series like G.I. Joe, Mr. T, and Thundarr The Barbarian in the '80s, you get the sense that Gerber is speaking through Lazarus a lot). His cartoon tormentors are a pretty trippy lot, brought to vivid life by Nowlan, another veteran of animation. The style he employs here utilizes a combination of simple line work and vividly painted textures. His rendition of Man-Thing is pretty weird--he's pot-bellied, humpbacked, snout-faced, and sad-eyed. However, he's not really a figure of fear here, more of a reader cypher. Only the first two issues are available at the time of this writing, but as of yet the art all looks consistent--I'm not sure how much Nowlan completed back in 1990 and how much of it is new, but there's been no jarring changes in style so far. It would have been a real treat to see Nowlan's art reproduced as originally intended, at the 8.5 by 11 size the Marvel original graphic novels were printed at, but that line of books has long since been discontinued. The first two issues include a reprint of the original "Song-Cry Of The Living Dead Man" story from Man-Thing #12, with some nice classic art by John Buscema and Klaus Janson; too bad the first half abruptly ends partway through without so much as a "to be continued", and the second half awkwardly breaks up a double-page spread onto opposite sides of the same page. Arthur Adams provides covers for the miniseries, but they're little more than perfunctory (if nicely rendered) character portraits of the muck-monster.
It's refreshing to read a Marvel comic these days that's actually about something, that has a point of view and a personal ideology; as we move further and further into an editor-driven, corporate-dictated comics industry, these elements are usually only found in independent material. The Infernal Man-Thing is an entertainingly bizarre reminder that it wasn't always this way...that sometimes, like the delusions of Brian Lazarus, a creator's unique perception of the world could sometimes burst into life in the most unexpected places, be it the swamps of Louisiana or the mainstream comic book industry.

Monday, July 23, 2012


There was a short-lived TV show called Journeyman a few years back that dealt often with the impracticality of time travel. The show's hero, played by Rome's Kevin McKidd (my girlfriend Hillary still had a crush on him from his tenure as Lucius Vorenus, which is the chief reason we watched this new show) fell victim to a seemingly random, and decidedly inconvenient, form of temporal displacement--he was always being whisked away into another time zone at the most inopportune moment, and as such was always finding himself without the proper currency of said zone, or the proper clothing, or the proper knowledge of the area's geography, or what have you. There was more to the show, of course--a larger conspiracy involving the mysterious forces that kept sending this poor guy bouncing around through time--but it did spend a lot of each episode showing McKidd's character having to adapt by doing things like accumulating big wads of money from years past in the event that he was suddenly sucked back to 1969 or something. Stephen King's 2011 novel 11/22/63 deals with time travel in a similar way. The book's protagonist can't just hop into a souped-up DeLorean and zoom back to Dealey Plaza just in time to save President Kennedy from Lee Harvey Oswald--he's at the mercy of time travel itself. This means he has to play by the phenomenon's peculiar rules, which include the notion that he can only travel to one particular point in time, then wait around to accomplish his chosen mission to save JFK. Depending on your temperament as a reader, this approach to time travel may be either tedious or fascinating, but that's the game King is playing here. Recently-divorced English teacher Jake Epping is stunned to discover that the owner & proprietor of his favourite diner, who only yesterday was perfectly healthy, is now suddenly in the final stages of lung cancer. Jake learns that Al, the diner owner, discovered an unusual naturally-occurring phenomenon in his pantry years ago: a portal that leads always to the same sunny morning in 1958. For the longest time, Al used this portal--which always returns the user to a mere two minutes after they left their own time--to buy deli meats at 1958 prices (leading to lots of local speculation that the only way he could charge so little for his food was to serve roadkill sandwiches). However, after awhile, Al decided to use the portal for a much nobler purpose: he would make his home in the past for the five years required to locate and kill Lee Harvey Oswald before he could assassinate John F. Kennedy. After all, once the deed was done, he could return to 2011 as though only two minutes had passed, and see the (hopefully positive) changes his heroic act had wrought. Unfortunately, while he was waiting around for that fateful November afternoon, Al contracted lung cancer, and no choice but to return to 2011 and pass his mission on to someone else. Which is where Jake Epping comes in. After a few test runs, where we learn some other rules of time travel (for example, each new trip through the portal is a hard reset, undoing the work of any previous jaunts), Jake is ready. Armed with a nest egg of 1958 money and a sports almanacs with which he can place winning bets on any number of World Series and Superbowls to accumulate further funds (shades of Back To The Future II here), Jake kisses 2011 goodbye and sets up shop in the past. Along the way, he undertakes a few other altruistic missions of personal significance, which brings him to the town of Derry only a few years after the in-flashback events of King's 1986 novel It (and allows for a welcome cameo by the now-teenaged Beverly Marsh and Richie Tozier). As he closes in on Oswald, trying to determine if he really was the lone gunman in Dallas that day, Jake resumes teaching, falls in love with a school librarian, and draws the ire of a vengeful bookie who can't help wondering why this mysterious stranger always bets so successfully on such long shots. 11/22/63 isn't a horror novel, as you may have guessed by now. It falls into a more unique category of suspense ringed with science fiction. The SF angle merely provides the What If? scenario, while the suspense comes from wondering how Jake will actually survive long enough in the past to achieve his objective (since he narrates in his own tale, the odds are pretty good). The past, it seems, doesn't want to be changed, and keeps throwing obstacles in Jake's way. There's also the possibility that if Jake does succeed, the world of the future may actually be changed for the worse by his actions. And there's the larger question of what effect all this tinkering is having on the fragile tissue of the space-time continuum. At nearly 900 pages, readers will have lots of chances to discover for themselves if King's approach to time travel is their cup of tea--like Jake, the reader may start to feel like years really are going by. Jake is problematic as well. He's little more than a cipher for the reader in this particular "what would YOU do?" type of problem, and as such, he's not particularly interesting. But his predicament is, and as November 22, 1963 got closer, I found myself turning the pages faster and faster. Time flies when you're having fun, I suppose. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012


When my pal and fellow monster enthusiast Ben Jeddrie admitted to me a few weeks ago that he’d never seen The Creature From The Black Lagoon, I was stunned, but also thrilled, because that gave me an excuse to watch Jack Arnold’s 1954 classic again. The 1980 Roger Corman-produced offshoot Humanoids From The Deep came up in conversation around the same time, and the idea for a double feature was born.
I was tempted to hold off on revisiting Black Lagoon until this fall’s forthcoming Blu-Ray release (as part of Universal’s Classic Monsters 8-movie set), but we’re talking about the Gillman here! Who can wait? By today’s standards, this film’s pacing is pretty stodgy, but as far as old school monster SF goes, you can’t really do much better. It has all the hallmarks of the period—lots of casual smoking, healthy yet occasionally fisticuffed debate amongst two leads (one who wants to study the newfound Creature and one who just can’t wait to jam a harpoon up its ass), lots of local flavour from the ill-fated South American guides and the jolly captain of the Rita, a gorgeous Julia Adams on board for eye candy, and, of course, one of the still-coolest monster designs ever put to film.
The Gillman was designed by an uncredited Millicent Patrick and constructed by Bud Westmore, and man, is he ever cool. He’s definitely one of the more sympathetic monsters in the classic Universal lineup—he’s just doing his lonely, evolutionarily-impossible thing in the jungle, and these science jerks show up and start trying to poison and harpoon him all over the place. The three-note theme music that accompanies his appearances is pretty nifty—a brassy “Bwa-bwa-BWAAAAAA!” that is the audio equivalent of someone walking up behind you, grabbing you by the shoulders, and shaking you back and forth violently. The underwater sequences are striking and beautiful, especially the scene where Julia Adams goes for an afternoon dip, not realizing that the Gillman is watching, fascinated, from the murky depths, mirroring her swimming moves. Despite his tragic end here, the Creature showed up for two increasingly-ridiculous sequels—1955’s Revenge Of The Creature (notably mostly for featuring one of Clint Eastwood’s earliest screen appearances as a lab assistant), and 1956’s The Creature Walks Among Us, which sees the poor guy trade in his gills for a sensible pantsuit.
A couple of side notes—if you dig the Gillman as much as I do, you owe it to yourself to visit comic writer Steve Niles’ Tumblr, which is jam-packed with cool old monster images, and is possibly the greatest resource for Black Lagoon ephemera on the web. Also, feast your eyes on Francesco Francavilla’s stunning Creature poster, previously available as one of those beautiful but super-limited edition prints from Mondo.
Keeping in mind the Gillman’s amorous advances towards Ms. Adams, 1980’s Humanoids From The Deep takes the idea to its more logical, but icky, conclusion. The mutant fishmen of Barbara Peeters’ exploitation classic (available in an extras-packed DVD or Blu-Ray from the good folks at Shout! Factory) have only one thing on their mind—sexy dames and plenty of ‘em. Oh, sure, they’re just as happy to rip the faces off the unsuspecting men of the small fishing village of Noyo, but what they really want is to procreate.
This is a movie that lets you know right off the bat what you’re in for. A small child is the first victim (thankfully, he only gets eaten, we assume), but with that as its opener, Humanoids establishes that nobody’s getting off easy here. A small army of aquatic beasties rises up from the waters around Noyo, the supposed result of kooky science experiments conducted at the local cannery or something. Director Barbara Peeters wasn’t interested in depicting merman rape in her film, so the always-devious Roger Corman had another director shoot additional footage of the attacks--pretty unpleasant stuff. On the other hand, there is some very weirdly funny stuff going on here too; there's a scene involving a horny would-be ventriloquist and his dummy that provides the movie's biggest, strangest laugh. The story culminates in a nighttime assault on the crowded boardwalk during a festival, where the townspeople go to war against the Humanoids in a chaotic finale filled with good, gory fun.
The cast, led by a large-faced Doug McClure, is pretty uninvolving, but Vic Morrow’s permed, mustachioed performance as a racist jerk livens the proceedings up a bit. The real reasons to watch are the Humanoids, created by an extremely young Rob Bottin (who would have been around 19 at the time). The impossibly-long limbed, slimy, shaggy, toothsome creatures look like the love child of the Gillman and the Metaluna Mutant from This Island Earth, with a bit of Audrey Two from Little Shop Of Horrors thrown in for good measure. James Horner contributes a cool, creepy score, and the hand-puppety finale is worth sticking around for. Definitely not for everyone, but a must for fans of vintage 80s monster cheese.