“The Scavenger of Atlanta”

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NOTE: This is the fifth 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.

With Man-Thing #19 (cover date July 1975), Gerber begins to chart a rather bold new course for the strip. At the same time, we know as readers looking back almost forty years later that this Man-Thing series is going to end with issue #22. Among the more interesting questions here, at least for me, is when was the decision made to cancel the book and why. Tangentially related, and also of great interest, is when did Gerber himself know it was ending and how involved was he in the decision to end it.

All circumstantial evidence would seem to indicate that the book’s cancellation was a decision that came about rather suddenly and relatively last minute. One example of such evidence can be found just a couple months earlier, in the pages of Foom, wherein Gerber seemed to have several long-range plans in mind for Man-Thing:

FOOM: The entire series of Man-Thing seems to be progressing. Do you have, somewhere in your mind, a final Man-Thing story, a final goal. Or for Richard Rory.

STEVE: Well, what’s going on with Richard Rory over the next couple of issues is going to boggle several minds. I don’t want to give it away. The whole thing will be explained in issue #19. That issue will also be the start of a five-part series for the book, which is something we haven’t done for a long time. Korrek and Jennifer will be back in the stories on a regular basis, possibly even the Duck here and there for a panel or two. Not really a return to weirdness, but something new. As for Richard Rory, he’s definitely growing and changing. There’s a character in the second half of the book-burning who’ll be out by the time this is published: Olivia’s daughter, Carol Selby. She will be a regular in the series. It’s changing. The relationship between them is going to be, if not a permanent thing, at least longer lasting than anything he’s had up to this point. But under very, very weird circumstances. (Department of Infoomation,” Foom #9, March 1975, p. 30)

So right off the bat we know Gerber’s planned five-issue arc wasn’t to be, as there were just four issues left in the series. Some of the other things he mentioned above would also not come to pass—perhaps as a result of the cancellation, perhaps not. But we’ll save the specifics for later. For now, there are at least a few more issues of greatness for us to savor.

“The Scavenger of Atlanta”

We kick things off in medias res, a technique that’s quite effective here. The previous issue ended with Richard Rory, Carol Selby, and Man-Thing set to leave Citrusville behind, while this issue opens with the Man-Thing walking the streets of some unknown, suburban neighborhood late at night. How did Manny end up here? This is just the first of several intriguing mysteries that are about to be introduced.

Manny stops outside a house where a woman named Colleen Sanders is preparing to leave her husband (Paul) and their two sons (Mark and Chris) as they sleep. Gerber takes us inside Colleen’s head and we hear an imagined conversation with her husband. It’s a circular argument, with Paul basically asking “why” over and over and Colleen having no real answer for him. Gerber—who was at least separated at this point, if not formally divorced—does powerful work in this sequence, drawing (I assume) from deeply personal experience.

Colleen exits the house and enters her car. Man-Thing watches from the shadows almost motionless, as his empathic nature balances the sadness of the woman with the “slumberous contentment” of the husband in the house upstairs. Suddenly a costumed man swoops down from the sky onto Colleen’s car just as she’d begun to drive away. He actually tears through the roof of the car with his hands and forces Colleen to crash into a fire hydrant. The costumed villain pulls Colleen from the car, declaring, “I want you… now… I must have you…!”

He presses his mouth to hers but the Man-Thing pulls him off. Man and beast then begin to grapple.

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Several neighbors are drawn outside by the sound of the car crash, causing the villain to break away from the Man-Thing and fly off. The Man-Thing then exits after one of the neighbors fires at him with a handgun. The neighbors then finally turn their attention to Colleen, only to find her in some kind of bizarre, vegetative state.

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Cut to a nearby motel parking lot off I-75, just south of Atlanta, where Richard Rory discovers that the Man-Thing is no longer in the van where he left him. Once again, Rory provides us with welcome comic relief as, in his panic, he begins calling out, “Man-Thing! Uh… here, Man-Thing! Manny! C’mon, Boy!” After realizing “this is stupid,” he runs back into the motel to let Carol Selby know that Manny’s gone missing, As he does so, we get a flashback that fills in the blanks of the previous thirteen hours.

After the madness of the Citrusville book burning, our three travelers got into Rory’s van to head north. First stop was the swamp to release the Man-Thing because, as Rory knew from experience, the beast could not survive very long outside of the swamp environment. Strangely enough, Manny refused to get out of the van. Turns out that going through the primary vat at the sewage treatment plant changed Manny. He was now a “self-contained ecosystem, drawing nourishment from itself, recycling its wastes, feeding on them again.”

Feeding off your body’s own recycled waste? Ewwww!

Anyway, Carol and Rory have quite the hilarious argument. She tells Rory they can’t keep it/him; he retorts rather simply “he doesn’t want to go.”

“I know,” Carol whines, “but– no offense– I mean– he smells awful!

They try to coax the Man-Thing out again when they reach the Okefenokee; still no dice. Finally they stop at this motel in Atlanta and just leave Manny in the van for the night. Obviously, Manny had other ideas and decided to let himself out at some point.

Now Rory is knocking on Carol’s door to let her know what’s happened. They need to call the police, he says, but first they need to call Carol’s parents to let them know she’s alright. Carol says they can’t do that. Rory wants to know why. She informs him that she’s actually just seventeen years old.

“So?” Rory asks. “What does– oh, no. You’re saying… I mean legally… I…”

“You kidnapped me.”

“I’m gonna be sick.”

Cut to our villain, the “Scavenger,” flying over downtown Atlanta, still on the hunt. He crashes through the front window of a donut store, seizes a waitress named Millicent Godfrey, and kisses her. The consequences of this act are a bit startling.

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Cut back to Richard Rory and Carol Selby at the motel for some more priceless black comedy:

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The scream comes from the front lobby—Man-Thing has just found his way “home.” The desk clerk is so terrified that Manny’s on the verge of giving him the burn treatment when Rory stops him. To the amazement of the clerk and other motel residents present, Rory seems able to control the Man-Thing. Just as he’s about to coax the beast back outside, however, we have a party crasher in the form of the Scavenger, who literally comes crashing through the front-lobby window.

The Scavenger comes in ranting at the Man-Thing like a madman. One is left with the impression that Millicent Godfrey was somehow a much less satisfying “meal” for him than Colleen Sanders would have been. At one point he even lifts the Man-Thing above his head before throwing him down to the floor. Rory tries to whack him with an ashtray stand from behind, but Scavenger spins around, knocks the makeshift weapon from his hands and tosses him aside.

“Fool! Clown!” he screeches. “Do you want to see what I am? Sure you do! Everybody does! They all wonder what terrible ogre hides behind this mask!” And so he unmasks:

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Returning to his rage, Scavenger leaps back at the Man-Thing, only this time he’s the one thrown to the floor. Scavenger is suddenly disoriented; confused. He begins scrambling to find his discarded cowl, mumbling, “Where is it? Must hide my face to be strong…!” He begins to feel fear, and you know what that means by now, I hope. Let’s sing it all together, kids: Whatever knows fear—BURNS at the Man-Thing’s touch!!

Manny grabs his face with both hands, burning Scavenger’s gorgeous mush. “The Scars on his face will last forever… ten long tapered lines seared into the flesh of his cheeks. But inside him dwells a mystery etched even deeper. The secret of his origins… the roots of his madness…!”

And so it ends, with Scavenger holding his face with both hands, smoke wafting up between his fingers as the residents of the motel look on in horror and shock.

All the Pieces Matter

I know I don’t need to explain this to my fellow old-timers, but for all you young’uns out there, we really had to put our comic collections together in piecemeal fashion back in the day. As I mentioned a couple posts back, I got my hands on Man-Thing #17 in a trade back around 1978. Finding issue #18 was a chore. I actually found this issue, Man-Thing #19, before #18. In fact, I think bought the last four issues of this series (19-22) all at once at a Flea Market down around Wildwood in the summer of ‘80 for cover price—that’s 25¢ a pop; four whole issues for one U.S. dollar. (Yeah, it makes me wanna cry too when I think about it now.)

In this issue’s flashback, it does reveal that Man-Thing killed the Mad Viking in the previous issue, but it doesn’t get very specific regarding how Manny survived that bath in the primary vat of the sewage treatment plant. I don’t think I found the answer to this mystery until I actually got my hands on issue #18 (which I believe was circa ‘82-’83 at the old, original Quality Comics store in Somerville, New Jersey). But the mystery of the Scavenger that began here was so damn gripping it didn’t really bother me all that much. I firmly believe this tale was originally meant to be part a much larger, more epic puzzle that could have been breath taking had circumstances allowed Gerber to assemble it for us. What we ended up getting is still pretty damn good though.

To Boldly Go Where No Man-Thing Has Gone Before!

I mentioned Gerber’s “bold new course for the strip” earlier. What I was referring to was the decision to take Man-Thing out of the swamp. It was a dangerous gamble because I’m not sure how the character works outside the swamp—and perhaps it would not have worked over the long term, but it sure went over like gangbusters in this issue.

One aspect that helps the story (at least it helped a lot for me when I first read it as a kid) is that the Scavenger at least has the look of a traditional comic-book supervillain. He also engages the Man-Thing in superhero-style fisticuffs in two different scenes. This helps give things a more traditional comics feel, even if the story is, at its core, anything but your traditional comic book.

The Rory kidnapping twist also comes as a great surprise, while at the same time being a perfectly logical one, and Gerber gets a lot of comedic mileage out of the situation. Once again, Richard Rory’s comic relief overall this issue is both welcome and sorely needed. Just imagine how dark a story this would have been without him.

And then there’s Jim Mooney. As I’ve discussed, Mooney made his reputation at DC in the 60s drawing Supergirl and Tommy Tomorrow, but he also did do a few House of Mystery stories back then as well. His versatility as an artist is reaffirmed here with that macabre scene of Millicent Godfrey being reduced to a skeleton. Another great job by Mr. Mooney.

A Whole New (Final) Tangent

In the issue’s lettercol, this latest story arc was discussed and readers were offered a glimpse at what they might expect in the issues to come:

As you’ve probably realized. Steve and Jim are off on a whole new tangent, one that began with the Viking story back in #16, and just where it’s going to take them—well, even they’re not quite sure.

But MAN-THING #20 will reveal more about the mysterious Scavenger; it’ll feature the return of Korrek and Jennifer to the strip; it may or may not concern someone named Dani; and it will definitely drop the Nightmare Box squarely in Marveldom’s collective lap. So be here. And meanwhile, let us know what you think of our new weirdness. The address is at the top of the page. And we read every letter.

Again: Some of what was teased here would come to pass; some of it would not.

In any case, Gerber and company extend the winning streak with “Scavenger.” I remember being genuinely shocked at the reveal of Scavenger’s handsome face the first time I read it, only to be still-further shocked at the scarring of that face via Man-Thing’s burning touch just one page later. In the wake of all of it, I couldn’t wait to discover what this guy’s story was.

In addition, we also had the prospect of Richard Rory going to jail for kidnapping, which absolutely floored me, and the cherry on top of it all was the future of the Man-Thing—now that he was no longer tied to the swamp, where would he go?

And the ending was so strangely, compellingly abrupt. Scavenger’s holding his now-scarred face in his hands while Man-Thing, Rory, and the others just look on… what the hell was going to happen in the following issue??

Next: The Nightmare Box!

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