The best Man-Thing stories work a bit like a college house party. The party isn’t about any one person in particular, or about anything, really. Some young couple discovering chemistry between themselves, someone much older complaining about the noise, maybe someone being maudlin in the corner, feeling left out. Then the loud, sloppy drunk shows up, and suddenly the party is 100% about the sloppy drunk. Everyone gets roped into figuring out what the drunk’s story is, what they’re up to, how to get them home safe—both for them and for the people around them. Loud noises, bright lights, and sudden movements aren’t a great idea for anyone at the party, and no one—and this is very important—no one should express a strong emotion, or that drunk is going to glom on to it and ride that out for the rest of the evening. Almost no one has a nice time.
Like that drunk, Man-Thing’s a big sloppy mess, he’s not in control of himself, and he’s inexplicably wet, but all the same, he is lovable right up to the moment he wanders off into the night while no one’s looking after him. You hope he doesn’t run into any police, and god forbid he finds a car.
No one understands this sort of set-up like Manny’s best collaborator, Steve Gerber, who wrangled Marvel’s muck monster through the creature’s golden era, and whose final work on the character is collected in Man-Thing by Steve Gerber: The Complete Collection Vol. 3.
Collecting the final issues of Man-Thing’s first solo series, alongside incidental stories, a Marvel Comics Presents run, and one posthumously published story, the book is a hefty slice of incredible work. It is not, however, the greatest hits; Volume 3 feels much more like the B-Sides and rarities collection of Gerber’s time. Insightful, inspired, and sometimes much more genre-defining tracks, but perhaps just a bit too esoteric for first-time fans.
Gerber’s genius with Man-Thing was to latch on to the most absurd version of a story, to raise up the most interesting side-characters in that story, and to accentuate the uncontrollable escalation of any given situation, all while letting Man-Thing do his own thing. His own thing being, of course, reacting terribly to the situation.
In the first story collected here—and the final four issues of Man-Thing vol 1—Manny gets roped into the panel van of a radio DJ and the teenage girl he’s (quite incidentally, due to US Code § 2423) kidnapped after they fled a Viking-accented book-burning spearheaded by an old fundamentalist woman with a vendetta against sex education. These are all events leading up to our first issue. Vikings. Sex ed book burnings, accidental kidnapping, and supernatural road trips are all precedents for this story featuring a walking pile of sludge. The narrative only skyrockets from there—a beautiful man who absorbs women’s bodies, a woman with emotion-ray eyeballs, an inter-dimensional pyramid, a star-spawn demon, and his accountant are all involved in short order.
In what might be one of Steve Gerber’s most influential moves, he writes himself into the narrative in the concluding issue of the series, breaking not only the fourth wall but the very surface tension of fiction (in their book Supergods, Grant Morrison cites this as inspiration for their own work diving into the comics they wrote in the decades following).
In other hands, these sorts of off-the-wall conglomerates of concepts would fail to cohere, would spin apart and break down, which is why so many Man-Thing stories in the intervening years have either failed or (smartly) relegated the creature into a side or supporting role.
Gerber also excelled in the short-short installment format of Marvel Comics Presents, a task others did not fare as well in; in his collaboration with the horror-comic artist genius Tom Sutton, collected here, Man-Thing is thrown back into his true horror roots amidst a story concerning the US involvement in South American drug trade—it’s a weird story, by both genre and oddity definitions, but it’s an impossibly well-managed juggling act.
Alongside Sutton, the volume presents some incredible work by industry giants Sal Buscema and Jim Starlin, the latter in a black and white Rampaging Hulk backup that exemplifies Gerber’s short-form talent alongside his “Manny as B-plot” structure. Capping off the book is the indelible cartoon/photorealistic shading of Kevin Nowlan in Gerber’s final Man-Thing story, 2012’s Infernal Man-Thing. Written in the ’80s, shortly before his very storied battle with Marvel, the book was finished and released posthumously. It presents a fitting swan song for Steve and Manny’s relationship, reintroducing characters and concepts somehow more impactful when presented some 38 years after their origins.
It’s a mournful story wherein a writer grapples with the implications of his life’s work. Rendered charmingly and distressingly violent by Nowlan, it reads as a damning, reflective, and somewhat celebratory coda on Gerber’s career. While the story doesn’t end happily, the same can’t be said of the career, which continues to be celebrated as visionary.
2021 is Man-Thing’s 50th birthday, and while Marvel is throwing him a hell of a party with Curse of the Man-Thing, a book that’s much, much more suited for the modern reader. But that party has yet to find its sloppy drunk. This final volume of Gerber’s work—and, for the financially able, the omnibus reprinting out later this summer—are the better house parties to attend. It’s much more likely that the party will be about something memorable, even if that means it’s out of control.
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