When I started blogging at Pronto way, waaaaay back in 2013, my first post out of the gate was about Omega the Unknown—one of the more obscure comics properties out there.
To make amends, I consciously went more commercial with my next post—that one featured Batman. (Alright, so it had a prominent mention of the very non-mainstream rock artist Captain Beefheart in it too, but the post was still primarily about Batman!) This was followed by a three-part post on Thanos (a big name in the new Marvel-movie universe), four posts on Superman (always mainstream), a post on Love and Rockets, and a post on the 1980s Ka-Zar series.
After the move here to my new blog home, I did many shorter posts of a more personal, biographical nature to go along with one exhaustive treatise on the death of Gwen Stacy. Which brings us to today.
Well, I’ve been a good boy for a while now and feel as if I’ve earned some “weird time” again.
So let’s talk about “Decay Meets the Mad Viking.”
The Most Startling Slime Creature of All!
. . . But first some background on the series star of the story in question. His/its name is the Man-Thing and this is how he/it came to be: Scientist Ted Sallis was working on a top-secret project in a Florida swamp, a project that would later be revealed to be an attempt to remake the “super soldier” serum that created Captain America at the dawn of World War II. Sallis appeared to have succeeded in this endeavor, but then spies came after him to steal the formula. Sallis destroyed his notes and took off, but not before injecting himself with the only sample of the serum that he’d made. Chased by the spies, he wound up crashing his car in the swamp. The spies left him for dead, but Sallis did not actually die—instead the serum, combined with the swamp environment, turned him into the Man-Thing.
The Man-Thing is a mindless creature, possessing no real consciousness. He’s a purely empathic being, one that takes action based on the emotional states of the people around him. The one emotion that causes him to feel the most pain is fear. If the Man-Thing gets his hands on someone in any state of fear or terror, they’re in deep trouble, because as any Bronze Age comics fan can tell you, “whatever knows fear burns at the touch of… THE MAN-THING!!!”
. . . And since this question always comes up, let’s get it out of the way up front: Was Marvel’s Man-Thing a rip-off of DC’s Swamp Thing (or vice versa)? Well, Man-Thing first appeared in Savage Tales #1 (May 1971), while Swamp Thing first appeared in House of Secrets #92 (June-July 1971). So if we go strictly by pub date, Man-Thing wins by a carrot-shaped nose. But being just one month apart, and knowing how far ahead the production schedules work in comics, it’s entirely possible Swampy was conceived first while Manny was conceived afterward and just so happened to move through the production process a bit more quickly. This makes it quite difficult to say, definitively, who came up with the idea first. Still, in the lettercol of Man-Thing #3 (Mar. 1974), Marvel made a fairly strong case for their guy. (Or, uh… thing, if you will.) In response to a query that was characterized as a “composite of several readers’ letters,” they stated:
Man-Thing did indeed come first. Manny’s initial appearance—the origin story by [Roy] Thomas, [Gerry] Conway, and [Gray] Morrow, recently reprinted in MONSTERS UNLEASHED #3—was in SAVAGE TALES #1, dated May 1971. Our competitor’s character appeared shortly afterward in a one-shot mystery story, not intended, we understand, as the start of a series. Apparently, both characters were created at almost the same time, with neither company aware of what the other was doing. But the fact remains—Man-Thing was first, if only by a few weeks, and was intended to be a continuing feature from the very start. That latter inspiration occurred to the competition at a considerably later date.
Apparently Marvel had considered suing DC at one point over the similarity of Swamp Thing, but ultimately decided against legal action. I’m guessing somebody there woke up and realized that both characters were rip-offs of the Heap and they’d be better served not making too much noise over the issue.
Fun Fact: The writer of the first Swamp Thing story, Len Wein, and the scripter of the first Man-Thing story, Gerry Conway, were roommates when they worked on the two projects in question. Both men claim that they were unaware of the other’s creative efforts at the time.
Fun Fact #2: Wein was also the writer of the second-ever Man-Thing story. He’s the one who supposedly came up with the classic “whatever knows fear” concept/tagline.
Then Came Gerber
After Man-Thing’s introduction in Savage Tales #1, a follow-up story was put together for Savage Tales #2, but the magazine was cancelled. So that second Man-Thing story wound up getting re-tooled for presentation as a part of a Ka-Zar story in Astonishing Tales #12 (June 1972). Man-Thing then found a regular comic-book home in the pages of Fear #10 (Oct. 1972). By the next issue, Fear #11, Steve Gerber took over as writer—a post he would hold through the end of Manny’s run in Fear in issue 19 (December 1973), and then through the entirety of the run of Manny’s first self-titled series, which would end with Man-Thing #22 (Oct. 1975).
As noted in previous posts, Steve Gerber was the master of weird. And Man-Thing was the weirdest of the weird. Yes, weirder than Omega; even weirder than Howard the Duck. As wild as the duck’s adventures could get, Howard’s character remained consistent, which left you with at least some idea of what you’d be getting from issue to issue. But Man-Thing was almost literally a non-entity. He was a mindless creature that, as such, was a narrative spectator in his own book; a protagonist that served as a blank slate. This meant you could never be sure what you’d get from one issue to the next. The potential for creativity—and chaos—clearly suited Gerber’s vast & wild imagination.
One of the first things Gerber did was tweak Manny’s origin, giving him a more mystical background with his creation of the concept of a “Nexus of All Realities.” Turns out the swamp outside of the fictional hamlet of Citrusville, Florida (home of the Man-Thing), is where this Nexus exists—it’s a center point for every reality in the multiverse. The forces behind the Nexus actually helped create the Man-Thing so the beast could serve as its guardian. Gerber’s most famous storyline regarding the Nexus ran across Manny’s final issue of Fear and the first issue of his original self-titled series. In it, the barriers between the realities began to crack, causing all sorts of strange creatures from alternate realities to suddenly pop up in and around the Citrusville swamp. One of them was a barbarian named Korrek, who sprang forth out of a jar of peanut butter. Another was a living, breathing cartoon duck named Howard.
When considering writing a post on Man-Thing, it was certainly tempting to cover this storyline—but then again, everything Gerber did on Man-Thing was tempting because it’s all brilliant and all mad. I could have gone for any of the classic battles with Thog the Nether Spawn; or the conflict with F.A. Schist, the real estate mogul looking to bulldoze the swamp; the tale of the alien Wundarr; the introduction of Richard Rory in Man-Thing #2; the Foolkiller storyline (which I absolutely love); Darrell the depressed circus clown who commits suicide(!); “Dawg”; “A Candle for Saint Cloud,” wherein Man-Thing doesn’t really appear but Ted Sallis does(!!) . . .
Ultimately I decided on “Decay Meets the Mad Viking” for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the tale is a marriage of two of my favorite things: comics and rock music. Secondly, the issue marks the beginning of what would become Steve Gerber’s last arc on the original Man-Thing series. It started here, with Man-Thing #16 (cover date April 1975) and ended with the final issue, #22 (October 1975). Being the final arc, it naturally has built-in historical interest for comics fans, but it’s also a run of tremendous creative quality. In fact, in my own humble opinion, it’s Gerber’s best run on the entire series—which is really saying something. (In fact I’m going to try and cover the whole arc. Not sure if I’ll do it one issue/story at a time or go in bunches, but for now I’m starting with just Man-Thing #16.)
Decay Meets the Mad Viking
Steve Gerber discussed the then-upcoming story of the Mad Viking in the pages of Foom #8:
STEVE: “Decay Meets a Mad Viking.” It’s about a decadent rock star.
FOOM: Knowing you, for a minute a thought it was about a decadent rock.
STEVE: And a lunatic longshoreman. It all takes place in the swamp and it’s another profound social consciousness story. (Foom #8, December 1974, p. 24)
The story centers largely on rock idol Eugene “The Star” Spangler. There’s just a dash of Alice Cooper in him to go along with great heapings of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona. Spangler’s morbid fascination with death and dying are probably more Alice (though granted, Bowie’s album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was about the end of the world), while his stage presence, artistic obsession, and general career arc are very much Ziggy.
To wit: The issue opens with a first-page splash of “Star” Spangler performing at New York’s Radio City Music Hall on New Year’s Eve 1974. He’s just finished the show’s finale number, “Star Bed,” from the album 1999: A Space Parable. The closing lyrics:
Well, c’mon, let’s you ‘n’ me die, Babe
Don’tcha know it’s the only way to fly, Babe?
Under the earth, I find what you’re worth
Makin’ love in a cradle in the sky, Babe
When it’s over, Spangler demands silence from the crowd in order to make an announcement:
Now the parallels to David Bowie here are obvious to Bowie fans, but for everyone else: Bowie’s career began in earnest with a song called “Space Oddity.” He would also later do songs titled “Star” and “Starman” (both from the Ziggy Stardust album). And perhaps most famously, near the end of the final show of the tour supporting the Ziggy album in July of 1973, Bowie announced to the audience that, “Not only is it the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do.”
Back to the Comic
Alright, so cut to a pretty young girl running through the swamp, terrified. She trips over a gator and screams. The gator closes in on her, but suddenly the Man-Thing appears (drawn in by the girl’s fear) and grabs the gator. It’s a stock action scene we’d been treated to many times before (and would see many times more in the future) in the pages of Man-Thing: Manny wrestling a gator in the swamp. After the conflict, as the foiled alligator crawls off, the second major player of this tale makes his appearance:
Because the madman doesn’t display fear, the Man-Thing takes no action against him. After a lengthy rant (to no one in particular) about how weaklings and “milksops” are ruining the world, the Viking retrieves his axe from Manny’s chest and stomps off.
Cut now to the former home of Ted Sallis in the Citrusville swamp; now the “House of Murders” where Spangler has taken up residence with his entourage of sycophants and hangers-on. Spangler chose to purchase the property and rebuild it to use as his artistic retreat due to its association with death. As the caption notes, it is where the presumed-dead Sallis once worked; where a government agent was killed (Savage Tales #1); where Elaine Parrish, her father, and a young writer named Christopher Dale died (Monsters Unleashed #’s 7 & 8); and also where the supervillain Death Stalker recently headquartered before burning the place down to the ground in an attempt to kill two others (Daredevil #114).
Spangler is in the midst of dictating some new lyrics to a young woman but ends up frustrated in his efforts. “The words do not cling and cloy and sicken the belly!” he complains. “You’re still dreaming of clouds trying to rise above the decay! When will you learn? There’s nothing up there! Nothing to ascend to! Godhood is a cruel joke! There is only the warm slithering mud below!!”
Spangler proceeds to throw himself down face first in the mud and slather it all over himself. Then he orders his followers to do the same—which they do without hesitation. A lyric occurs to Spangler and he notes that “the meter isn’t quite right yet,” but he’ll work on it.
At this point, the young girl from earlier in the story appears. She reveals that her name is Astrid and begs for help as she relates the story of her grandfather, the Mad Viking. Just weeks earlier, Josefsen (the Viking) was working as a longshoreman in San Francisco. Having just turned sixty-five, his employer tries to force him to retire, which causes him to snap. In his rage, he beats up nearly every man on the dock before returning home, where he defenestrates Astrid’s date. When Astrid declares she’s calling the police, Josefsen runs off.
Josefsen turns up a short time later in full Viking regalia and murders a musician right on stage with his axe. “Sissy dies! Man lives!” he declares after the awful deed. “And this axe here will carve a world for real men to live in again!” This was just the first in a series of murders the madman had planned. In fact he sent a list of all the people he’d planned to kill to the newspapers. One of the names on his list was Eugene Spangler.
Spangler is amused, and responds with a mock fable of his own about how his mother was a hunting dog and his father was a Nazi submarine commander. Then the Mad Viking appears, killing one of Spangler’s cronies with his axe. Instead of being terrified by this, Spangler somehow remains strangely amused. When the Viking threatens him, Spangler orders his minions to attack. The sequence contains one of my favorite lines of the tale when Spangler declares, “You stiff-brained, senile old fool—do you think us gentle hippies? Where have you been for the last seven years? Take him apart with your teeth, my sweet mouths!” The 60s are long over. This is the 70s now and there’s been a major shift in youth culture by this point; a very dark shift.
Inspired by the violent spectacle, Spangler grabs his notepad and begins writing again. As the caption puts it: Spangler sees it all “metaphorically, as Armageddon, the apocalypse, Ragnarok, the last battle between the ultimate perversion of the old values and the new values of ultimate perversion.”
By the time the Viking gets his axe back, Man-Thing has made the scene once more. As the Viking turns his attention (and axe) to Manny, “Spangler realizes that until now, he has merely been playing at decadence. When the sequins and spangles drop from rotting silk . . . that’s when a culture’s number is up. When the old order regains its foothold simply by hitting the unknown hard enough to knock it flat on its back . . . that is collapse, that is ruination! The metaphor is complete.”
Sure enough, after knocking down the Man-Thing, the Viking launches his axe at Spangler and cleaves his chest. Spangler’s dying words are, “Wh-What did you do that for?”
With Spangler dead, the Mad Viking turns his attention to his “traitorous” granddaughter:
. . . What a wild, wild ride of a story.