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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.)
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?
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!