“A Book Burns in Citrusville”

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NOTE: This is the third part of a multi-part series of posts examining Steve Gerber’s final arc on the 1970s Man-Thing series. If you prefer to start from the beginning, you can go to Part 1 here.

The specific issue I’m reviewing this time around is one that’s rather close to my heart. Not counting appearances in house ads and such, my first encounter with the Man-Thing was either with this issue, Man-Thing #17 (cover date May 1975), or in Marvel Team-Up #68 (April 1978). It’s a close call because I know I got Man-Thing #17 in a trade around the same time I bought that ish of MTU off the newsstand in 1978. The trade was made with Gary Kahn, who was a classmate of mine at Fielding Elementary as well as a member of my Cub Scout troop at the time. (I also picked up Iron Man #69 in this swap—don’t ask me why such minutiae stick out in my memory so vividly. Gary, if you’re reading this, drop me a line!)

In any case, Man-Thing #17 was definitely my first exposure to Manny’s solo comic, and in hindsight it feels strangely appropriate that I got my start with such a bizarre issue. Gerber first previewed what he had in mind for this comic in the eighth issue of Foom:

STEVE: The one after that [“Decay Meets the Mad Viking”] is called “A Book Burns in Citrusville.” It’s gonna deal with censorship of school books and library books and that sort of thing. I think it’s going to be an important story in its own way. A controversial story.

FOOM: Think it’ll be burned?

STEVE: If people are of the inclination to burn books, they’ll burn this one. (Foom #8, December 1974, p. 24)

Last time, I reviewed the tale that preceded this one chronologically—Giant-Size Man-Thing #4, “The Kid’s Night Out!”—and shared Gerber’s misgivings over said story, which he expressed in the pages of Foom #9. At one point in that interview, he alluded to what we might expect in Man-Thing #17:

“I don’t like the last chapter of that story [“The Kid’s Night Out!” from Giant-Size Man-Thing #4], where Man-Thing comes into the gym and basically tears everyone limb from limb…. The true ending to that particular story should have been that nothing happened. Alice read the manuscript to the kids, they said, “Maybe we’ll print it, we’ll see.” She went back to the locker, put it away, and that’s the end of the story. Nothing happened. There was an alternate end to the story, and that’s what I did in the following issue [Man-Thing #17]. (Foom #9, March 1975, p. 30.)

Hoo boy, that certainly sounds ominous! Since “Kids” ended with Man-Thing bringing some vigilante-style, poetic justice to the evil-doers, the idea of an “alternate” ending might indicate that justice is thwarted and evil stands triumphant by the end of this tale. Will such prove to be the case? Let’s find out.

“A Book Burns in Citrusville”

The issue opens with back-to-back, full-page splashes. The first-page splash shows us the aftermath of Man-Thing #16, with authorities discovering the corpse of Eugene “Star” Spangler along with the remnants of his entourage. The second page recounts the events of Giant-Size Man-Thing #4, wherein Manny ran amuck at Citrusville High School. The first page begins, “This afternoon, pop star Eugene Spangler was found murdered,” while the second page begins, “The following afternoon… the miry once-man ran rampant through the corridors of the local high school.” Based on the phrasings, it would appear that even Gerber himself was having trouble fitting it all together, as far as the timeline. (Once again, I think the story arc would have probably worked better going straight from issue #16 to #17, but I digress.)

With the third page we cut back to Richard Rory working the graveyard shift at the local radio station, WNRV. If you’re reading the series from beginning to end, this is the first we’ve seen of Rory in a while. (He was last seen in a brief cameo appearance in issue #12, so he’d been M.IA. for nearly half a year.) He announces over the air that the mayor has called a town meeting for the following afternoon to address people’s concerns about some of the events that have recently transpired in Citrusville.

Meanwhile, out in the night, packs of vigilantes with dogs and guns hunt for the Mad Viking. At first this might feel reassuring to us; a sign that the residents are unafraid and determined to capture this vicious killer. When they finally do catch up to him though, one of the men raises his shotgun and declares with sinister glee, “Watch me peg ‘im!” Sure enough, he nicks the Viking in the shoulder. We should be at least somewhat pleased at this, as the Viking certainly has it coming, yet that glee the shooter expresses, the way he treats it like a sick game, it’s more than a bit… discomforting.

Cut to the bedroom of one Olivia Selby, who’s reading her daughter’s high-school biology book—apparently for the first time, as she is shocked by what she sees. “It’s about SEX!!” she howls. It’s three o’clock in the morning and her poor husband just wants to get some sleep, but Olivia is enraged. “Don’t you see?” she implores. “We brought all this grief on ourselves—the whole town did—by failing our duty as parents… by failing our duty to God. They’re gonna hear from me at that town meeting tomorrow!”

Quick cut back to Rory at the radio station taking a call from one of the vigilante squad. Then another quick cut to Astrid Josefsen, the Viking’s granddaughter, at a boarding house, unable to sleep.

Finally, cut to the swamp and our title character. (Outside of the flashbacks on the opening splashes, this is the first we’ve seen of the Man-Thing here, and we’re eleven pages in.) The poor beast is in a state of physical paralysis as a result of the emotional overload suffered by his empathic psyche in recent days. He’s so statue-like in his stillness that we see a bird temporarily take perch on his finger. Artist Jim Mooney illustrates the beast’s broken, internal state in superb fashion with a partial two-page spread:

manthing-17-a

The hunting party that discovers the Man-Thing after his collapse fires several rounds into his prone form as it floats atop the water, just to be sure he’s no longer a threat. Then they get the seemingly lifeless figure into their jeep and take him to the local sewage treatment plant. “I figger if we dump it in the primary vat,” the head yokel says, “the chemicals oughta dissolve it… along with the rest o’ the gunk.” And that’s exactly what they do: dump Man-Thing into the primary vat of the treatment plant.

The call comes in to Richard Rory at the radio station with news of the Man-Thing’s destruction. Another great job by Mooney here, as we slowly zoom-in on Rory while simultaneously zooming out on the Man-Thing as he dissolves in the vat:

manthing-17-b

Thankfully, we get some comic relief from this dire tableau in the person of the radio station owner, who bursts into the men’s room and starts giving it to Rory, J. Jonah Jameson style. Turns out he expects Rory to cover the town meeting tomorrow, regardless of the fact that Rory would be working without the benefit of a full night’s sleep.

Cut to the town meeting, which Olivia Selby and her “Mothers March for Decency” quickly hijack. Olivia takes the stage and whips the crowd into a state of near hysteria when who should show up but… no, not the Man-Thing, it’s the MAD FUCKING VIKING. And guess what? He couldn’t agree more with what Olivia Selby is selling the crowd. “I tried to tell you that!!” he bellows from the back of the auditorium. “There are no men anymore! Only sissies! ‘Cause the stinkin’ schools an’ the stinkin’ music made ‘em that way! I only killed what you had no courage to kill!!”

After the briefest moment of silence, the crowd breaks into applause as the Viking makes his way to the stage. Richard Rory is absolutely stunned.

Selby rhetorically asks the assemblage what they should do; are they going to allow “filth” to be taught in their schools? Cries of “No!” come up from the crowd. “Burn the filth!!” screams the Viking. When someone passes Selby a lighter and she starts to set fire to the book in her hand, Rory is finally moved to act.

manthing-17-c

I just love the quick-cutting on this page between the Man-Thing in the vat and the town meeting. I’m not sure who deserves credit for the original idea of the visual presentation here, but even if it was primarily Gerber, Mooney’s execution is flawless. And I don’t think I can even begin to put into words how grossed out I was as a kid after seeing Manny’s eyeballs floating apart like that in the last panel.

Back to the story: Sadly, Rory’s attempt to restore sanity to the proceedings is cut short by the Viking’s fist.

manthing-17-d

…And so the issue ends, with a ghostly apparition of the Man-Thing straddling the skyline above, looking down helplessly at the angry mob below, powerless to stop any of it.

“The Most Pessimistic of All Gerber’s Stories”

What a bleak ending. Marilyn Bethke summed it up rather well in a review of Gerber’s oeuvre from The Comics Journal: “The Mad Viking sets out to obliterate the people he thinks have undermined the concept of ‘masculinity’; his ‘courage’ to murder a decadent rock star makes him a hero to the people of Citrusville who, led by Olivia Selby and the ‘Mothers March for Decency,’ intend to purge their school of ‘communism, atheism, sex’ for ‘if we’re to control what our children think—we have to decide what they learn!’ This is perhaps the most pessimistic of all Gerber’s stories.” (Marilyn Bethke, “An Introduction to Steve Gerber,” The Comics Journal No. 41, p. 26.)

For me, the ending is very reminiscent of The Empire Strikes Back, where Han’s left frozen in carbonite while Luke’s just had his hand chopped off by Darth Vader, who has also just revealed himself to be Luke’s long-lost father. Bleak, yes, but damn powerful, too.

Jim Mooney

Back in my inaugural blogpost, I discussed the Gerber-Mooney team and how much I enjoyed their work together. Well this is the issue where it all started, and what a grand beginning it is.

Prior to this, Mooney’s artistic approach was often simplistic; never anything too fancy. (I’m talking about his DC work, particularly on Supergirl.) But here, his work is downright cinematic. Seriously, the experience of reading this comic feels very much like a movie—one that is paced and directed brilliantly. From the back-and-forth cutting, to the tempo, to the angles Mooney chooses, it’s all just brilliant.

Mooney’s Viking would also seem to better match Gerber’s original intentions. While still crazy-scary, he cuts a much less imposing figure than he did under John Buscema in issue #16. The hair and beard aren’t quite as full, making him feel much less virile and powerful, and he generally looks more sad & pathetic. (Go back to the first panel of page 30 and look at him as he stands behind Olivia Selby and you’ll see what I mean. He’s more a figure of insanity than of terror.) If Mooney had drawn the previous issue of Man-Thing, Gerber might have gotten more of the comedic effect he had originally been looking for with the story.

Jim Mooney would close out this Man-Thing series and then jump right into Omega the Unknown with Gerber and Mary Skrenes. The whole run was easily the height of Mooney’s career, imo.

The Dying of the Light

Those blank, soulless, crimson orbs that serve as the Man-Thing’s eyes, slowly drifting apart as he dissolves away into nothing…. Brrrrr! Still gives me the willies to this day!

And what a cliffhanger! Now any experienced comics reader knows that the protagonist is going to somehow survive by the next issue, no matter how impossible the cliffhanger may make this seem. The real suspense is usually more in the “how,” than the “if.” But this tale is so well done it really does make you question the “if.” I mean, the Man-Thing doesn’t merely die—he dissolves. Where can we possibly go from here?

Try and imagine what it felt like as a kid to read this story. A kid very much used to your standard formula superhero-action comic. It’s a big part of what makes this issue so bizarre, and why it left such an impression on me. Looking back, the sum total of the Man-Thing’s actions in this issue are that he keels over and dies. Really, that’s it. To say this was an atypical Marvel comic at the time is the height of understatement.

And then there’s the issue of censorship and book burning. Selby’s motives might appear pure on the surface, at least at first. Certainly, the way she explains it sounded reasonable to me as a kid—she just wanted to protect her daughter, right? But at the same time, there was just something about her that made my skin crawl. The whole story left me deeply disturbed, in ways both terrifying and awe-inspiring. A truly complex and nuanced comic that boggled my young mind (and still kinda boggles my old mind).

Next time: “School’s Out!” Not for summer, but maybe forever.

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