Man-Thing is quite possibly the strangest major character in Marvel’s extensive roster, but thanks to the work of numerous talented writers, I have recently developed a genuine obsession with this bizarre swamp monster.
After flourishing under the pen of the late Steve Gerber in a seminal run on ‘Adventure Into Fear’, Man-Thing was awarded a self-titled solo series in 1974. Gerber returned to continue the epic saga he had set in motion during the events of ‘Fear’, ultimately producing work on the character which is yet to be topped to this day.
After reading Gerber’s fascinating Man-Thing stories I needed to know where the tragic tale of Ted Sallis, man-turned-monster, would go next. The search for answers led me to Man-Thing’s second solo series from 1979, briefly headed by Micheal Fleisher before X-Men superstar Chris Claremont took the helm. Although I believe the series to be a competent exploration of the character, it failed to find an audience and Man-Thing wouldn’t headline a series again until nearly twenty years later.
I have mixed feelings about 1998’s Man-Thing run, where J.M. DeMatteis took scripting duties while Liam Sharp provided some mesmerizing artwork. The series came out of the gates strong with a fantastic first installment, but quickly lost momentum before an abrupt cancellation just eight issues later. Nonetheless, I respect the ambition of this creative team who made a valiant attempt to build an epic Man-Thing story, even if they weren’t entirely successful. At the very least this series served to add depth to the character of Ellen Brandt, Ted Sallis’ traitorous flame whose life had previously been unexplored.
While these three series were released to varying levels of success, all showed at least some level of understanding of the character of Man-Thing. He, or perhaps I should say ‘it’, is a tragic figure. The once brilliant scientist Ted Sallis is devolved into a being with no ability to speak or even think for itself. Indeed, every single action the Man-Thing takes is only a basic response to the emotions of those around him. As an empath, negative emotions such as anger, sadness and particularly fear, cause Man-Thing to experience physical pain. Thus, it has a tendency to intervene in matters it cannot possibly understand, with no real motive other than to end its own suffering.
What is so sad about this character is that no matter how much good Man-Thing does, he is destined to be alone and reviled. With no means to think or communicate, and an appearance deemed disgusting by the vast majority, the only thing that awaits this creature after every adventure is a return to the dark and lonely swamp in which it was born. Man-Thing is a cautionary tale to those who would meddle in things they don’t understand, a perverse re-imagining of the modern super-hero which can be used as a vehicle for moral lessons and explorations of our deepest emotions.
Which brings me to R.L. Stine’s Man-Thing.
The first issue of this 2017 return for Marvel’s premier muck-monster was released last month, a comic which I had awaited with great anticipation. Unfortunately, this debut could well be branded as offensively bad. Stine, who is best known for his work on the young adult horror franchise Goosebumps, seemed at first a good fit for the character but this pairing has instead proved rather toxic.
For starters, Stine has gifted Man-Thing the ability to think and speak in just the same way he did as Ted Sallis. This effectively strips the character of what made him unique, but it’s the execution of this bold decision that really burns. To start, there is no explanation offered as to how Man-Thing, after over forty years in the pages of Marvel Comics, suddenly regained consciousness and speech (particularly impressive considering the character has no mouth).
Even more egregious is the dialogue that Stine writes for Man-Thing, which shows a complete lack of knowledge or understanding of the character. In this series, Man-Thing has decided with his newfound speech and intellect to attempt to become a film star, leaving the swamp and moving to Hollywood. At no point during any previous run on the character has Ted Sallis, nor his grotesque alter-ego, alluded to a dream of fame and a career in the performing arts. It’s utterly absurd. Sallis is a man of science, whose first action upon getting his brain back would be to find a cure to his own morbid condition.
Between pathetic grumbles about his failure to achieve stardom, Sallis shows an as-of-yet unseen bitterness towards Ant-Man of all people, who he calls a “no-talent bug”. These character decisions are simply bewildering, but Sallis isn’t the only one burdened with such cringe-inducing dialogue. Stine’s Man-Thing #1 is chock-filled with awful one-liners, the likes of which would have been deemed too much during even the campiest phases of comic-book history.
The issue has little to offer in the way of plot either, with much of it taken up by a retelling of Man Thing’s origin story, which is greatly inferior to the 1971 original by Gerry Conway, Len Wein and Gray Morrow. Precious pages which could have saved this issue from being a complete failure, are wasted on an unrelated back-up story which proves to be a complete waste of time. Attempts to argue that the story was intentionally bad, and should be enjoyed as a nostalgic parody of vintage comics are misguided. The main story provides enough evidence that novelist Stine is having a hard time adjusting to the comic-book medium, while the back-up serves as a reminder why comic-books are no longer written the way they used to be.
A colossal failure on every count, I am left shocked and disappointed by Man-Thing #1. Having read the previous three Man-Thing volumes in their entirety, it pains me to say this is a series I don’t think I can bring myself to return to anytime soon.