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.

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