Tag Archives: Stan Lee

New Beginnings at the End of All Things: Man-Thing Vol. 3 by Emily Scott

Greetings, Legions of the Unspoken! Emily Scott here to be your guide through the weirdness that is Man-Thing. And it is weird. Look at that thing up there. It looks like the yip yip aliens from Sesame Street and the Jolly Green Giant had a demonic love child. And that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface, nor is Man-Thing even the weirdest looking character in the comic. Some characters even look strange relative to their usual strange selves, like Doctor Strange here, looking like an alien vampire:

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The Google Image search for “alien vampire” is disappointingly mundane.

As someone who did not grow up reading many comics, I had only really ever heard of Man-Thing peripherally as a cult figure and usually just to differentiate him from Swamp Thing, who would debut a few months after Man-Thing in 1971.  And while I will be conducting a search of this article when I’m finished to make sure I never typed Swamp Thing by accident, the characters’ similarities don’t much extend beyond the gist of their origin stories (scientist working on some super special formula ends up fused with a swamp).

When you sum it up, it does sound pretty darn specifically similar, but the idea of the muck monster has been expanded in many directions, as further evidenced by the fact that the same guy can do very different things with characters who bear more than a passing resemblance to each other. Steve Gerber, who created Man-Thing’s pal Howard the Duck (yes, pals, really) and wrote a beloved and definitive 39-issue Man-Thing run, also created the Ultraverse’s Sludge, a character who shares a thing or two with Man-Thing (a man-thing or two?), including a destructive touch and a less than pleasant odor, but Gerber takes that story to such a different place that drawing too many comparisons is unfair. (A story you can hear all about on the podcast Dean Compton and I did on Sludge!)

The biggest difference between Man-Thing and characters like Swamp Thing or Sludge is that Man-Thing isn’t really a character at all. He is basically non-sentient, and other characters often think immediately upon meeting him that there’s not a whole lot going on upstairs. He’s almost completely reactionary, so the characters surrounding him must by needs drive the action. At the start of our tale (Man-Thing Volume 3, which ran from December 1997 to July 1998), however, Man-Thing does something unexpected: he leaves the swamp due to an urge within himself. He is then promptly hit by a car.

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“Let’s get out of here before he IDs us!”

And what is it that makes this walking bag of weird act of its own volition? An echo, a psychic reverberation from the end point of all things, the nexus of oblivion, a place for which this creature serves as a guardian. It looks like this:

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The terminus of reality always seems to have two things in it: clocks and checkerboards.

J. M. Dematteis does some great writing on this book, but Liam Sharp frequently steals the show with his art, which often resemble what I assume an acid trip would look like if I had a better imagination. This comic often delves into some cosmic, mystical stuff, so a lot is asked of Sharp, but he delivers every time with images that are beautiful and grotesque, mesmerizingly abstract and all too real. At times when I didn’t know what exactly was going on, I was more than happy to stare at Sharp’s work till I figured it out.

And there are definitely times when I was not sure what was going on. A lot of the sentences in the notes I was taking while reading end in question marks instead of periods. For instance: “So and so happened?” as opposed to “so and so happened.” Answers were often forthcoming, but for all the things that happen(?) in this comic, it usually seems more interested in why characters do rather than what they do. While the specifics of the plot aren’t paramount (and become somewhat moot as the story progresses, as it never got its planned, published ending), some groundwork is, of course, necessary.

One thing Man-Thing’s wife (or should I say the wife of Ted Sallis, the man Man-Thing used to be) does a lot of is punish herself. Having lived for years under the burden of the guilt of betraying her husband and a face scarred beyond recognition by Man-Thing (whom she doesn’t yet know used to be her husband) Ellen Brandt exists in what appears to be a constant state of turmoil, unable to find a moment’s peace and receptive to the idea of letting oblivion consume her. No small wonder, then, when she puts herself in the path of bullets intended for Man-Thing, who has inevitably attracted an angry mob as he shambled through town.

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Talk about a bullet with butterfly wings. (Yes, I included this page just so I could make that reference.)

The magic comes courtesy of Stephen Strange, who has foreseen that Man-Thing has a critical part to play in the repair of the crack running through all realities. Strange takes them back to his sanctuary and then into what Ellen assumes is the very soul of the Man-Thing, a putrid and oppressive place. There she sees her past with Ted play out, all the way from her attempting to work through her father issues by marrying Ted through her disenchantment due to his neglecting her for work to her eventual betrayal, when she joins those attempting to steal the Super-Soldier Serum he is working to replicate. When she relives Man-Thing scarring her face and realizes that this creature used to be her husband, it becomes overwhelming, and when she must make the decision not to surrender to oblivion, she finally understands that it’s not the muck and grime and desolation of Man-Thing’s soul she is trapped in – it is her own.

Info dumps are never easy to do without feeling clunky, but this issue goes about it cleverly by giving us a pretty thorough outline of Man-Thing’s origins, which would have obviously been helpful to a new reader in 1997 who didn’t have access to Wikipedia, while at the same time using that story to tell us things in the present about Ellen, who for all intents and purposes is the main character Man-Thing could never really be. Something Dematteis does very well in general is make the comic accessible, even when fairly esoteric things are being discussed. So when Ellen accepts that it is her fate to help Man-Thing collect the fragmented shards of the nexus, we might not know exactly what that entails or why it’s happening, but we damn sure understand why she’s doing it.

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I think 90s comic book artists must have been contractually obligated to include at least one page of art with writing you can only half read over it.

The first stop on their quest is the Roswell Sanitarium in Massachusetts, former residence of Ellen and current residence of Mr. Eric Payne, formerly known as Devil-Slayer. You can probably guess from his name that the guy didn’t sell insurance or anything before he was institutionalized. Having lost his wife and his cosmic cloak through his own actions, Payne has surrendered to his own personal demons, both figuratively and then literally when a mysterious figure known as Mr. Termineus shows up in a Santa suit to deliver them personally. (Did I mention this is a Christmas issue, since it wasn’t already odd enough?)

Termineus, who is humanoid except for the fact that he has a censor bar for a mouth, also delivers a Christmas gift to Ellen, a staff that allows her to journey to the places the nexus fragments have been scattered. On the one hand, his actions certainly aid Ellen and Man-Thing in the moment, but on the other, they cause the nexus fragment inside Payne  to amplify his pain, drawing the reality around him into it and oblivion. Further obscuring his true motives, Termineus has been visiting Job, the child of the couple who hit Man-Thing with their car when he first came out of the swamp. (We’ll later discover this child is actually Ellen and Ted’s, born after Ted’s transformation and put up for adoption. This probably seems an odd piece of information to mention as an aside, but the payoff of this storyline happens after the eight-issue run.)

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He dresses like the trumpet player in a ska band; he obviously can’t be trusted.

The expression “Whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch!” comes into play in a big way when Payne starts to rip Man-Thing apart, and Man-Thing’s not having it. Man-Thing burns the living hell out of Payne, both sort of literally and figuratively, restoring his sanity and extracting the fragment. Termineus tries to take it for himself, but Sorrow, the enigmatic lady seen cradling Payne up there, has her Glenda the Good Witch moment and turns it into a gem on a necklace only Ellen can wear. Then we all hear the quest completion video game music, and it’s off to the races for the next fragment!

That fragment is found in a delightful place, that being the insides of one Howard the Duck. Howard is brought to the swamp by a creature who promptly cuts Man-Thing to ribbons. That creature turns out to be a man going by the name Mahapralaya, who has a cult devoted to entropy. They have heard about the crack in the nexus from Termineus and believe they can speed up the destruction of the universe by destroying the nexus’ protector. If that doesn’t work, they can always cut out the fragment inside Howard and destroy it, preventing it from ever being repaired.  Man-Thing’s solution, once he re-forms, is also delightful.

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Seeing Howard the Duck vomit up Man-Thing isn’t even close to the most disturbing visual I have of Howard the Duck. Not. Even. Close.

The last fragment recovered in this run is one that belongs to both land and sea, and as such can only be accessed by one person….Namor the Submariner. (Whatever else someone might think of this comic, they’d have to appreciate the strange bedfellows this comic creates. Though now that I think about it, ducks also belong to both land and water, so maybe it’s not quite as strange as it seems on the surface…and now I’ve arrived at the terminus of all types of analytical writing: the overthink, where you get so in the habit of looking for connections that you start seeing them everywhere.)

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No jokey captions, just some really lovely art.

Namor follows Man-Thing (excuse me, Mer-Thing) down to the bottom of the oceans, to the lost former crown jewel of Atlantis, the City of the Golden Gate, where Ellen awaits with Evenor, its guardian, to tell them they can’t take the fragment because it’s embedded in the shroud of the goddess Cleito, and to disturb it would be desecration. Namor decides he wants no part in any desecration. They all end up back in time, when the City of the Golden Gate was still a utopia, and get the gem from Cleito herself. (This is a part of my notes when I used a lot of question marks, so you’ll excuse me if I’m vague on the specifics.)

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I mean, you tell me.

They witness the beginning of the end of the city, and that’s about where we run out of story. The tale was continued in Strange Tales Vol. 4, but the third and fourth issue were never published. From what I can tell from various wikis, the story was summed up in a Spider-Man book and came to a rather satisfying end where you learn the fate of the Sallises and the nexus, as well as some answers to the identity and motives of characters like Sorrow and Mr. Termineus. I would feel weird summarizing a summary of something I haven’t actually read, so I’ll leave that link for the curious.

So what does it all mean? I really can’t say. Not because I don’t have my own ideas about the comic’s ideas but because they feel personal and specific to me. As I mentioned, when you read something with the intent of writing about it, you start looking for the meaning in everything, trying to hear as much as you can of what it’s trying to tell you, but the more answers I asked for, the more questions I was asked. So much of this story deals with personal demons, with the thin line between reality and invention, with having to exist inside your own head or not at all, that I’m not sure I could tell someone else what they would get out of it. I don’t know that the comic has anything especially profound to say, but the ability to make a reader ask his or herself questions that lead to profound personal truths might be the bigger compliment to bestow on a work of art.

And a work of art it certainly is. Of light and shadow. Of order and chaos. Of endings and beginnings. Of redemption and fear. There’s a saying (that I couldn’t find the origin of to save my life) that all fear is the fear of death, and another thing this comic did especially well was examine if, for many of these characters, there is truth to that notion, from the entropy cult preferring sweet oblivion to mere death to Namor deciding the end of all things was preferable to the violation of his own sacred beliefs to Ellen, having to face life beyond that fear once it’s all been burned away. And what can happen when your fear is burned away and you can embrace your fate and allow yourself a chance at redemption?

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Oh. : /

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at Man-Thing! If no fragments of reality set up shop in your psyche before next week (or even if they do), be sure to come for another exciting round of Super Blog Team-Up! Dean Compton will be back to bring you War Machine Vs. Cable, and I know you don’t want to hurry yourself toward oblivion before you read that!

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Daniel Clowes’ “Eightball” — A Personal Reminiscence : Part Five

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So — how cringe-worthy would it be if I started this installment of our ongoing Eightball retrospective by saying something like “Hey, we want some Pussey — Dan Pussey, that is!”?

I admit, I thought about — for all of about a second. Then I decided not to. Then I (sort of) did it anyway. And that, friends, is the evolution of the creative process in microcosm (even if it’s a hell of stretch to call what I’m doing here “creative”).

For a longer-running (and, obviously, better) example, might I direct your attention to Dan Clowes’ five-year stint chronicling the exploits of the aforementioned Mr. Pussey, something of a “stand-in” character for any number of “young hot-shot” comic book artists that his creator had the misfortune of having to rub elbows with at various conventions and signings over the years — and perhaps even for said creator himself,  if he’d chosen to follow only a slightly different career path and hawk his wares in service of “The Big Two” rather than striking out on his own with more personal (as well as infinitely more relevant and, yeah, better) independent efforts.

To be completely fair, I’m not sure how much of a “dear God, this could be me!” viewpoint was running through Clowes’ mind when Pussey made his first appearance in 1989 in the pages of Eightball number one, but something very akin to sympathy does begin to sink in by the time the character “dies,” in 1994, in issue fourteen. Oh, sure, there’s still something of a “shooting fish in a barrel” vibe going on even at the end, but by then Dan C. has put Dan P. through the wringer in his various occasional appearances over the years, and when he exits a future Earth broke, forgotten, and warehoused in a gigantic nursing home, there’s an almost wistful sort of tone to the proceedings, as if the author is telling his creation “sorry I was so rough on you, buddy — maybe you were, sorry to say,  too easy of a target — so let’s just end things now.”

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Lending a bit of credence to my “there but for the grace of whatever higher power you believe in go I” theory is the fact that Clowes introduces us to himself before we meet his (at least possible) warped alter ego at the outset of Pussey’s first appearance, with some windbag asshole (who later wrote a letter to the artist when he recognized himself — a letter that Clowes actually, and memorably, printed) telling a bemused “alternative” cartoonist that he has a million ideas for comic scripts and that he should drawn them for him in exchange for “a percentage of the profits” — but as the douchebag makes his departure, our artist crosses paths with another clueless dolt — and our “camera” follows that dolt to the decidedly dingy offices of the Infinity Comics Group, where he and his fellow conscripts have been recruited from the ranks of low-print-run fanzines to begin a “new era” of super-hero storytelling (with titles like “Marionette Squad” and “The Ten-Year Robot War”) being spearheaded by an octogenerian Stan Lee clone named, you guessed it, Dr. Infinity (who would later “star” in a segment of his own where he was shown to be the living personification of every shitty, despicable move made by management against the comics creators who kept them in business, from DC brass screwing Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster out of the rights to Superman to an admittedly heavily-fictionalized re-telling of William Gaines hanging his EC artists out to dry during the congressional witch-hunt against that publisher, and the industry in general, in the 1950s).

And so begins Dan Pussey’s “alpha,” but there were a number of quite entertaining, incisive, and sometimes even poignant moments to enjoy in the “on-again, off-again” appearances he would make over the years before getting to the “omega” we already mentioned. Like his ultimately-fruitless quest to find an authentic artistic “voice” of his own Eightball number three — his pathetic, superheroine-based masturbation fantasy in number four — his dalliance with the “gallery world” in number nine — the flashbacks to his pathetic childhood in number twelve — so many memorable tales of haplessness to be had.

It may sound — okay, it does sound — corny, but re-reading all of these again in The Complete Eightball Issue Numbers 1-18 (note that the Dan Pussey stories have also been collected, by themselves, in the Pussey! paperback collection issued by Fantagraphics and pictured at the outset of this write-up) both brought a huge smile to my face and threw into sharp relief the more considered — and less caustic — tone that Clowes took toward his hard-luck “hero” as the stories unfolded.

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Of course, then-current events in the “comic book landscape” made their way into the Pussey narrative, as well, with Dan functioning as a doppleganger of sorts for the Image creators who were at the “top of the heap” at that time, but Clowes had the good sense to foresee the inevitable collapse their glut of garbage would have upon the industry, and that scenario plays a large part in, as the character himself  claims it’s pronounced, “Poo-say”‘s demise, so this series of strips — in addition to being the only holdover between “phase one” and “phase two” of Eightball, as we’ve previously discussed, gets bonus points for being eerily prescient, as well. Clowes not only had his “finger on the pulse,” he knew what would happen once he pressed in.

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And so it is that the wonderfully sporadic misadventures of Dan Pussey probably have the greatest amount of sheer nostalgia value of anything in the pages of Eightball. Everything Clowes depicted either had happened, was happening, or would happen soon enough (in relative terms, of course — by now, it’s all happened), and while it would be a definte reach to say that the real Dan ever lost his contempt for the fake Dan entirely, by the time it was all said and done you could definitely sense that he viewed him as something of a tragic, rather than a purely sickening, figure.

Such a process of “warming up” to his characters would play an ever-greater role in Eightball as a whole, and we’ll delve into that more deeply next time when we take a look at the modern masterpiece that is “Ghost World.” Looking forward to seeing you then!

 

 

 

Dainel Clowes’ “Eightball” — A Personal Reminiscence : Part Two

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What were your comics reading habits like in 1989? I was still in high school, but man — was I ever in the mood for something different. At that point, Watchmen was hardly the distant memory it seems today and the reverberations of what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons had done were still being felt far and wide across the mainstream super-hero landscape. Yes, the superficial trappings of that already-seminal-by-then  work had been effectively cheapened and co-opted by “The Big Two” almost across the board — most books were suddenly much “darker” and “more realistic” — but by and large it seemed like DC and Marvel were in the early stages of trying to figure out “okay, where do we go from here?” now that their entire formula had been so successfully deconstructed right in front of everyone.

I would argue, in fact, that they’re still trying to answer that question some three decades later. Grant Morrison was doing his level best to respond to it in Animal Man (and would soon do the same with Doom Patrol),  while Neil Gaiman was successfully building upon the classical- literature foundations of Moore’s prose in the pages of The Sadman, but for the most part it seemed like no one was willing to pick up the gauntlet Moore and Gibbons had thrown down. Vertigo was still just a pipe dream in Karen Berger’s mind and the publishers still had nothing like a firm grasp on what a “mature readers” comic really meant even though they’d just published one that, essentially, blew the doors open and should have resulted in a veritable onslaught of genuinely good and interesting titles.

Rather than embrace this new reality fully, though, DC and Marvel opted to do what they pretty much always do — batten down the hatches, keep pumping out more of the exact same shit they’ve been doing for decades, and hope to dumb everybody back down to the point where predictable dross seems normal. Sadly, it worked — and it continues working to this day.

Fortunately, there was a burgeoning “alternative” comics scene that started to blossom in the early ’80s,  thanks in large parts to the efforts of brothers Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez (and, early on, third sibling Mario) in the pages of their magnificent Love And Rockets, and these guys felt no need to tap into the current zeitgeist of superhero comics because, well — they just plain didn’t give a fuck. Soon, their ranks were buttressed by the likes of former Weirdo editor Peter Bagge, who unleashed his first “solo” series, Neat Stuff, in the middle part of the decade,  and one Daniel Clowes, whose early “professional” work saw print in Weirdo (among other places —including, would’ja believe, Cracked, during the legendary editorship of Mort Todd). This new generation of “non-mainstream” cartoonists was far more influenced by the likes of Robert Crumb and his wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, as well as by Kim Deitch, Mary Fleener, S. Clay Wilson, and assorted other underground luminaries, than they were by, say, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, or any of the other (sorry, but it’s true) second-rate, highly-derivative superhero comics creators of their youth. You know who I’m talking about — the guys who drove the bus into the ditch that Moore and Gibbons had just tried to pull out of.

Weirdo gave these artists and others (like Clowes’ good friend, the criminally-underappreciated Rick Altergott) the chance to rub elbows, metaphorically speaking, with a number of the great just-referenced underground cartoonists of years past  by putting all their work side-by-side in the same magazine, but by the late ’80s many were certainly looking to spread their own wings a bit further than a standard multi-creator anthology series would allow. The Bradley family had proven to be popular characters in Neat Stuff, and Bagge soon sent eldest brother Buddy off on his own to join (and in some cases to invent significant parts of) the nascent “Generation X” or “slacker” scene just underway in Seattle in his own solo book, Hate, while Clowes created Lloyd Llewellyn, a magazine-sized series starring a perpetually-disinterested, “too-cool-for-school,” proto-aging-hipster named — well, you guessed it.

It went just about nowhere. After seven issues its publisher, Fantagraphics Books (pretty much the “go-to” publishing house for independent cartoonists at the time, with Drawn + Quarterly still a few years away from bursting onto the scene), lowered the boom on poor old Lloyd citing poor sales, but head honchos Gary Groth and Kim Thompson, who had maintained a somewhat tight editorial control over the just-failed series, were amenable to giving their writer/artist more free reign with his next project. He’d played things their way and it didn’t work. What harm could there be in trying things his way this time?. Forget commercial considerations, Clowes figured, they’re hardly relevant in the world of marginally-selling indie comics, anyway (or at least they weren’t at the time). If he was only going to get one more crack at this whole thing,he was going to do what he really wanted to do .

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What he really wanted to do, as it turns out, made its debut in Eightball #1, cover-dated August of 1989, and it was a book with no real set “format” — just a loose collection of stories that were in no way affiliated with each other apart from coming from the same mind and pencil (and, okay, pen). Clowes’ intentions were clear — he’d  be making it up as he went along, following his own muse, and the publishers could either take it or leave it.

They took it, and we should all be damn glad they did. In the first issue alone we got the opening salvo of the surreal David Lynch-ian nightmare that was “Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron,”  we met uber-stereotypical “young hotshot” comics creator Dan Pussey (and his boss, an octogenarian sleazeball named Dr. Infinity who was obviously based on Stan Lee), we were treated to the Jack T. Chick-on-crack religious fanatacism of “Devil Doll?” (later reprinted in  traditional tract format for inclusion inside a Jello Biafra spoken word album), and hey — Lloyd Llewellyn even made a brief return appearance to help bridge the gap.

It was amazing. It was astonishing. It was every other time-worn superlative my brain can’t think of right now. And you know what? It still is.

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Oh, sure, Clowes didn’t invent the single-creator anthology by a long shot — there were, in fact, several others running at the time — but he absolutely got the balance exactly right here. The long-form narrative grounds the book and ensures readers will be back for more. The shorter works take aim at easy and popular targets (Christian fundamentalists, the comic book industry) with as much flair and panache as they do well-deserved venom. Toss in a couple of one-or-two-page gag strips to keep the old-school underground fans happy (I particularly loved the visual adaptations of interviews with nursing home patients that Clowes cobbled together from David Greenberger’s Duplex Planet ‘zine), and you’ve got a winner.

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Okay, make that a modest winner. Eightball #1 wasn’t exactly the talk of the comics world when it hit, but it sold out its initial run of something like 5,000 copies and went back to press no less than five times. Good luck finding a first printing at anything like a reasonable price these days (still got mine! Hah!) No earth-shaking tremors reverberated out of it, by any means, but   it definitely went some way towards cementing the idea that, while the mainstream was definitely moribund on the whole, there were interesting things happening in comics at the margins. And they were about to get exponentially more interesting pretty quickly.

I talked in our first segment about the four creative “phases” Eightball went through in its 15-year history, and “phase one” began right here. For lack of a better term we’ll call if the “Velvet Glove Phase,” and we’ll take a nice, long look at the story that was at the heart of it in our next segment. Hope to see you all back here then!