“Decay Meets the Mad Viking”

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Realism in Comics

One of the aspects of Man-Thing that I love most (particularly under Gerber’s stewardship) is that there is no pretense of realism in it. Oh there are aspects of the strip that are drawn from reality, surely, and there’s certainly emotional realism, but Gerber never lets any slavish devotion to literal reality get in the way of the story he wants to tell. If only more comics writers held such a philosophy. Unfortunately, it seems all too many comics writers today are obsessed with making their stories “realistic,” even if it ends up ruining the strip.

As Freud would likely agree, I believe the roots of the problem here can be traced back to childhood. You see, back in the day, back when comics were neither cool nor mainstream, most young comics fans took a figurative (if not literal) beating for their love of the medium. Comics were derided by the cool kids as dumb/retarded/gay. The basis of their critique usually boiled down to something along the lines of this: “Superheroes are dumb because no one in real life can fly; no one can walk up walls; no one can shoot laser beams out of their hands like that.” In other words, it’s not realistic.

The proper response to this should be: “You’re missing the whole point, dumbass!”

Superheroes were never meant to be realistic. But too many comics geeks on the playground allowed themselves to be goaded into this irrelevant argument. It’s my feeling that some of these comics geeks grew up to become comics writers that were dead-set on making superhero comics that were “realistic” just to shut up those louts that once gave them a hard time back in junior high. It’s a ridiculous mission, of course—but still they persisted. Their efforts usually translated into stories that were overly violent and grim. “Grim and gritty” is how this approach came to be characterized in the 80s and 90s. It is an approach has always been a fool’s errand. Sadly, most modern comics writers remain far too concerned with the literal aspects of their stories and not nearly enough with the literary.

For example, here’s another common criticism from the Philistines: “It’s so dumb that Superman tries to disguise himself by wearing glasses; anyone who isn’t blind could tell that Clark Kent is Superman with one look.” Once again, the proper response here should be: “You’re missing the whole point, dumbass!”

Yeah sure, it’s ridiculous that no one recognizes that Clark Kent is Superman with glasses on—and yet the fact remains, no one recognizes him. What does that tell you? Stop looking at it so literally and think about what it might suggest symbolically. Apparently, no one recognizes him as Superman because no one bothers to look twice at Clark Kent. This is because everyone views him as a loser and a nobody. He’s practically invisible. Have you ever felt that way? Like no one cares about you, like no one’s paying attention to you, like no one takes your opinion seriously? Maybe sometimes it’s like no one even sees you at all; like you’re invisible. Well haven’t the vast majority of us felt this way at one point or another in our lives?

Is it any wonder, then, just how Superman—and indeed, the whole superhero “secret identity” trope—got to be so popular?

Let’s take it from a more specific angle. Did you ever have a crush on someone in high school that was really attractive and popular and so out of your league that you couldn’t even get near them? Under such circumstances, there’s a good chance you might have thought to yourself, “If that person could only see the real me, who I really am inside, they would see & treat me in a completely different way. They might actually like me if they’d only give me a chance.”

The situation I just described is pretty much Lois Lane and Clark Kent to a “T.” Lois is pining away all day for Superman, never realizing that he’s actually sitting right there at the next desk. She never realizes it because she won’t give Clark a chance. She’s already made a surface judgment that he’s a loser and refuses to look any deeper. Through such a prism, a fictional situation that had been previously judged as silly and too unrealistic suddenly carries a lot of dramatic weight, no?

I feel comics truly work best (and this is certainly the case if they’re going to be criticized as art) when they’re written to be symbolic; when they’re allegorical. Thankfully, in the case of Man-Thing, the very premise of a mindless swamp monster serving as guardian of the “Nexus of All Realities” is so utterly fantastic that only a madman would attempt a literal, realistic analysis of the strip. And this story, specifically, is clearly not about a sixty-five-year-old man literally dressing up like a Viking and killing people with an axe. The character is meant to be a symbol.

The Story as Allegory and Character Study

Now the symbolism of “Decay Meets the Mad Viking” might be a tad obvious—maybe even downright heavy-handed—but that doesn’t  mean it’s ineffective. I think the whole story serves as great commentary on the generational clash, the gray mire of modern morality, and the shifting concepts of masculinity and gender roles that were taking place at that time. In fact, I don’t know that Gerber—or any comics writer, really—had ever before, or would ever again, seize a moment in time, culturally speaking, so seamlessly. Between the Archie Bunkerish Viking and the Bowiesque Spangler, Gerber captured the zeitgeist perfectly with this tale.

What makes the symbolism obvious is that Gerber flat out tells you what it is: The “ultimate perversion of the old values” that the Viking represents versus Spangler’s “new values of ultimate perversion.” Gerber reveals this directly, leaving no room for misinterpretation. But then there’s the “other” way to “view these proceedings,” as Gerber tells us on the last page—a more subtle bit of character work that Gerber pulls off quite nicely. I’m talking about the possibility that Spangler and the Viking are both “equally helpless in the grip of the unknown. Perhaps the driving force of both is insecurity . . . and fear.”

Now I find this interesting because neither man acts cowardly at all (on the surface) for most of the story; at least not until the very end. This is why the ending is the most important part of the narrative, as I see it. We may not recognize it earlier, but the two men spend the bulk of the tale merely posturing. Only at the very end do they reveal their true selves to us.

Let’s go back to the title for a sec: “Decay Meets the Mad Viking.” Why not title it “The Star Meets the Mad Viking”? Or “Spangler Meets the Mad Viking”? (Truth be told, after my first reading I went back to the beginning of the story to check and see if “Decay” might have been the name of Spangler’s band!) The answer here, I believe, is because that moment when the Man-Thing grabs him by his hands is the first time the Viking is facing true death/decay (in the story if not life). Certainly nothing prior to this had ever threatened him—not even his initial encounter with the Man-Thing. But when the Man-Thing has him helpless in his grip, he’s facing his mortality for the first time. It’s the moment he’s finally forced to “meet” decay.

All his life, Josefsen defined himself by his values and his bodily strength—and really nothing else. So his secret fear is that when he dies, he will leave behind no legacy, as his body will be gone (obviously) while the values he’s always clung to are being tossed aside and/or trampled (at least in his own mind) by the next generation. Losing his job on the docks is the final indignity. He snaps, determined to force his values on the larger world because he’s a coward, afraid of truly facing and accepting old age, death, and the possibility of having wasted his life.

In this light, Spangler truly is the other side of the coin. Gerber characterizes his posturing as “studied indifference” on the last page, and in hindsight it’s easy to see it as such. He spends the whole story expressing his fascination with death without ever facing it in reality. In fact, as a coddled and catered-to rock star, he doesn’t dwell in reality at all. The reason Spangler betrays no fear when the Viking first comes stomping out of the swamp toward him is not because he’s courageous, but because he likely believes his flunkies will stop the Viking from doing him any harm. And even if he somehow gets past the flunkies, Spangler likely figures he’ll be able to buy him off somehow. (Remember Spangler casually walking away from the payday of the last twelve dates of his tour—more than a million dollars—at the beginning of the story? He’s able to do so because he probably already has more money than he knows what to do with.) When the axe finally does meet his chest, Spangler’s reaction is pure terror and disbelief. Up to that point, he’d just been playing games without ever seriously facing death.

Just before cashing it in, Spangler wrote: “And since the world don’t matter/Why answer when it calls?/Just laugh as you lay dying/And you’ll outlive them all.” Even in his last seconds of life, he failed to consider the possibility of truly dying. If he had, he would have realized that there’s nothing to laugh about as one lay dying; that there is no “outliving them all.” As the caption tells us, understanding is clearly not “the lot of man”—at least not Eugene Spangler.

And that’s why the title is what it is, because the story is all about Spangler facing death and the Viking facing decay. Gerber could’ve easily added a subtitle to the story, “Star Spangler Meets Death,” but I suppose this would have given away too much of the ending.

(One important reminder: The Viking merely meets decay here, not death. He may be “impotent and harmless” by story’s end, but he’s still breathing. Be assured we have not seen the last of him.)

Reader Reaction

One of the best things about Bronze Age comics were the letters pages—particularly on a book like Man-Thing, which naturally invited observations and criticism of a far more intellectual bent. Letters reacting to “Decay Meets the Mad Viking” ran in the lettercol of ish #20. Two letters were printed, along with an editorial response. The first letter was from Mark Gasper:

Dear Steve,

“Decay Meets the Mad Viking” struck a chord deeply submerged within my own psyche, and I haven’t quite come to terms with my own head (do we ever?).

I think that what you said in the story is something that has been aching to be communicated for a while now. The decay of the hippie movement, counter-culture (use any label you like) occurring simultaneously with a perversion of the values of post-Depression America have created the basis for the apathy, anger, hatred, ignorance, hostility and senseless violence which marks the 1970’s. Everyone is deadened both to the results of violence and to the need for true communication. Somewhere along the line, we have lost human sensitivity, sympathy and compassion. It seems as though throughout America people live in abject fear every waking moment. The insecurity and terror of living in some sort of siege-like atmosphere prevail.

I find it impossible to identify myself with the old morality because it has not kept pace with man’s ever developing technology and has become antiquated. The Mad Viking is an all too prevalent entity, a sort of insecure macho who fears any change at all. Then again, the necrophilia, sadomasochism, and insatiable and corrupted lust masquerading under the now defiled phrase of “free love” as represented by the trend setters and opinion formers of the 1970’s also turns me off.

I find myself like Astrid tiptoeing on a thin wobbly tightrope between the two conflicting philosophies. Occasionally (I don’t see how you can avoid it), I fall for a period of time into the clutches of one or the other and after such a period I invariably get very depressed and introspective.

The Man-Thing is the only being capable of comprehending the sameness of the two supposedly divergent characters. He reacts on a pure emotional gut level (the proverbial hunch) and thus the facades so prominently displayed by both characters are ineffective and do not in the least deter him. Whereas in comparison Astrid is unable to see the similarity of the two characters.

Astrid (representing innocence, the status quo and untainted youth) cannot see beyond the violence for she has not yet become numb to it. The violence is shocking and real to her for her illusion of the prosperous nation and people which history books speak of has been shattered convincingly with an air of sickening finality. What is to become of Astrid? Will she become immune to the effects of violence and become an apathetic observer to the death and turmoil or will this experience impress upon her how important it is to feel and live and not simply exist? I suppose time can only tell.

. . . The second letter was from Bill Mills:

Dear Folks,

A year or so ago I wrote a letter to MAN-THING which [sic] criticized one story in particular and the series in general. I made a few points which [sic] I thought were quite valid. I also made some rather pompous, ill-advised statements. Can’t win ‘em all. Anyway, I changed my mind about Man-Thing a little during the months following my letter. The characters in the stories seemed a little more upbeat, and the atmosphere of despair was no longer so thick.

MAN-THING #16 set me back a lot. The very fine art was negated by the very depressing storyline. Evidently Steve G. aspires to be the Harlan Ellison of comics. He likes to try different things. This is fine—but he seems absolutely determined to explore the worst side of humanity. I often hate to read his stories thru to the end. It is questionable whether [or not] the spirit is advanced by this sort of thing. . . . Steve apparently wanted to show the absurdities of both the old and the new cultures, and he did—at least to some degree. But that’s all there was here, exposure of decay. No exposure of decency. The only character who might have had that trait—the Viking’s granddaughter—never got her character past the one-dimensional stage. Although it will inevitably sound condescending, I must say that I worry about Steve when he dwells so—lovingly?—on the dark side of life.

In my first letter, I said Marveldom could do without Man-Thing. I was wrong to say that. If I can get it on with the Vision, Conan, Dr. Strange, etc., I guess others can do the same with Man-Thing. Steve replied that the world needed, or at least could use, this book. In light of stories like this one, I wonder if he was a little wrong too.

. . . The editorial response:

In all honesty, we were astounded by the intensity of the reaction to “Decay Meets the Mad Viking,” for while it’s true Steve was attempting to deal in that story with the concepts of changing sexual roles and our decade’s seeming numbness to violence . . . he never, really intended for the story to be taken seriously!!

Far from being depressing, Bill, Steve actually thought the story was funny. It was meant as satire, black humor, not a literal representation of the world.

Steve is particularly concerned himself these days about the downbeat quality of the MAN-THING strip. His own feeling, frankly, is that ignoring the problems and questions that seem to plague all our lives today—whether those problems be communal, as with the book-burnings, or interpersonal, as with Edmond Winshed or Sainte-Cloud—is no way to solve or answer them. Even if the view is depressing, it’s wrong to close our eyes.

Reaction to the Reaction(s)

I can almost kinda see where Gerber is coming from. Yes, the idea on paper might actually have sounded funny—and perhaps would have been funny had the Viking been portrayed as a bit more meek and/or ridiculous, as opposed to the very real mortal threat he posed to the other characters in the story. Also keep in mind that John Buscema drew the art assignment here. When you ask Big John (who drew the adventures of Conan the Barbarian for over a decade) to give you a Mad Viking, he’s going to give you a badass shitkicker of a Viking.

So no, I don’t agree with the idea of this story as funny, not even through the lens of black comedy, though it does still have some funny bits in it. I’m on the readers’ side in that I see this as a very dark tale. Not contrived-dark like those hack “grim and gritty” comics authors offer us—not darkness for darkness’s sake—but an honest exploration of the modern human soul. And what Gerber honestly saw there was darkness.

And this is the key distinction. The grim & gritty hacks start out saying to themselves, “I’m going to write something dark because dark is cool; dark is what sells.” The results end up feeling contrived, insincere, and utterly soulless; thus they invariably fail—artistically, at least, if not commercially.

Gerber started out looking both within himself and at the world outside his window, and wrote what he truly saw and felt. He didn’t start out saying, “I’m going to write something dark”; nor did everything he write come out dark (see most of his stuff on Defenders, Howard the Duck, and Guardians of the Galaxy). Ditto Frank Miller and Alan Moore in the decade that followed.

In other words, Gerbs was just calling ‘em like he saw ‘em. And the product of this was an absolutely mesmerizing story. I wonder if he knew at the time that it was the beginning of the end of the Man-Thing strip?

Next time: “The Kid’s Night Out.” Be there or be square.

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