“The Nightmare Box!”

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NOTE: This is the sixth 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.

As we enter the home stretch, with just three issues (and three reviews) left, it would seem an appropriate time to take a step back and look at this Man-Thing run from a broader perspective. Gerber did precisely this during an interview with Foom:

FOOM: It seems like everyone expects strange things from Steve Gerber.

STEVE: I read an interview with Denny O’Neil the other day and he said that the stories he didn’t like were the ones he really didn’t feel anything about. I don’t know which stories those were. I think the same can be said about MAN-THING. It’s become something more than the typical Marvel super-hero or monster book, if there is a typical book. It’s something different, whatever that is. It has to be handled differently, in my opinion.

FOOM: We were talking to Herb [Trimpe] and he was saying that books like MAN-THING couldn’t have been done six, seven years ago at Marvel.

STEVE: Absolutely. For one thing, Marvel wasn’t publishing anything other than super-hero books then. For another thing, those kinds of books, I don’t think, could have been done anywhere seven years ago. The world has changed dramatically since—

FOOM: We’re not talking about the Code [the Comics Code Authority].

STEVE: I’m not talking about the Code either.

FOOM: We’re talking about the Marvel style. It’s [now] diversified into different voices.

STEVE: It is. There’s a basic premise that the book should contain a certain amount of action. Visuals are important. Character development is important. When you had three people— Gary Friedrich, Roy [Thomas] and Stan [Lee]— writing all the Marvel books, there was bound to be more of a unified style. Now we’ve got something like twelve different writers turning out books, and each one, I think, has brought something of his own to the Marvel style. There is still a very distinct and definite Marvel style, but there are different permutations of it. It’s a little bit different, the way everyone does it. Gerry is probably the closest to the original Marvel style. He’ll agree with that, since he was brought in and trained basically by Roy and Stan. Everyone since then has changed the style a bit. Steve Englehart does something different; Don McGregor does something different. I do something different.

FOOM; Don’t you feel that’s good for the book?

STEVE: Definitely, yes. The other aspect is that the unified house style is good when you’re publishing twelve books but when you’re putting out forty new books a month and all of them read exactly the same, it would be death. I don’t think that would help the books at all. The diversification is probably what keeps the line as vital as it is. (Foom #9, March 1975, p. 30)

This issue would prove another showcase for Gerber’s idiosyncratic style and talent. And if that’s not enough to whet your appetite, just take a gander at the cover:

mt20

That all-star jam of Marvel characters (which I’m guessing was whipped up by art director Jazzy Johnny Romita, though there is no signature that I can see) would make any kid of the era flip out. The cover alone was worth the two bits!

“The Nightmare Box”

The man known to us as the Scavenger has been driven to his knees. He holds his unmasked face in his hands—a once-beautiful face now scarred by the burning touch of the Man-Thing—as Manny, Richard Rory, Carol Selby, and several motel residents look on.

Once he shakes off the pain, we expect him to be enraged. He’ll certainly go after the Man-Thing again; in fact he’ll probably tear the whole motel apart. But to our shock, he instead appears relieved.

“It– it’s over now,” he says, wide-eyed. “The curse has been lifted! I’m free!”

Carol runs over to comfort him, but when she touches her hand to his, Scavenger comes to an awful realization. “I can’t feel your touch, “ he says. “I’m still cold! I’m still– dead!!” He grabs Carol and kisses her lips—more out of desperation than desire, seemingly—only to toss her aside almost immediately.

“Nothing’s changed!” he rants. “Nothing!! Another lie! I’m still what I was! Thog lied! I’ll always be what I am!!”

Thog. That’s one hell (pun intended) of a name to be dropping, particularly for those of us who know our Man-Thing lore.

Scavenger picks up his mask off the floor and puts it back on, still in quite the state. “I hate you,” he tells the Man-Thing, “for giving me hope– hate you more than I hate everyone else–! I hate you even more than I hate myself!” Then he flies off.

Now it’s time for some Richard Rory comic relief, as the desk clerk tells him, Carol, and “that– that walkin’ pile o’ crud” to clear out. Rory complains that they haven’t gotten any sleep, but of course the desk clerk couldn’t give a rat’s ass. By the next page they’re all back in the van, back on the road.

Carol is upset. The whole world has turned upside down for her and she can’t help but cry. Rory agrees to pull over. But then there’s another vehicle coming right at them, going the wrong way up the exit ramp, and there’s a head-on collision.

After Manny pulls Rory & Carol from the wreckage, there are cries from the other vehicle. Rory rushes over to discover that the other driver is… not quite human.

mt20a

Oh man, as if the Scavenger wasn’t enough, now we’ve got mysteries on top of mysteries. And we’re just getting warmed up. Believe it or not, there’s more to come. A lot more.

Rory finds a weird box nearby; clearly the box the other driver was talking about. When he turns back around, the other car has vanished completely, leaving no trace behind but the box. Now sirens can be heard. Rory gives the strange box to the Man-Thing and tells him to scram, as “we can’t let them see you.” Then there’s an abrupt shift to…

Chapter II: Dani’s Eyes

Suddenly we’re reading from the journal of some guy named Paul and he’s talking about the eyes of this woman named Dani and how he can’t seem to remember their color. Then he mentions someone named Sage, who tells him that the shifting eye color has something to do with Dani’s aura.

Sidebar: I just love these wild and bizarre tangents. And because I have so much faith in Gerber as a writer, it’s easy to just lay back and enjoy them, because I know he’s always going to take me someplace interesting.

Jim Mooney gives us three panels of Dani’s eyes, a different color in every instance. Then he shifts to a close-up of those creepy orbs of the Man-Thing, only it’s not the real Man-Thing, it’s a portrait that Paul is painting. Pull back to reveal that Sage is a rather beautiful blonde woman who is serving as Paul’s model for this portrait(?!).

mt20b

Oh how I love it. The absurdity, the madness of it; it’s just so Gerber.

The painting finished, Paul takes Sage out to lunch, where they discuss the Man-Thing, along with some of Sage’s New Age philosophy. Then they part ways, with Sage headed off to her yoga class while Paul goes to drop off his Man-Thing painting at Dani’s office. The picture is supposed to run in the Sunday magazine supplement of the Journal—the newspaper where Dani works as an editor. Paul is a freelance artist.

Dani is quite pleased with painting, mentioning the eyes of the beast specifically. Paul seizes the opportunity to ask about Dani’s own eyes. Seemingly caught a bit off guard, Dani tells him, “They’re– uh, hazel, of course.” And at that moment, at least, they are. Then she gives him the bum’s rush. But Paul, still too obsessed, barges right back into her office, under the pretext of having lost his pencil. He’s startled by what he sees.

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(The box she’s staring into, by the way, appears identical to the one Rory handed off to the Man-Thing just a few pages earlier.)

Dani can barely contain her rage at Paul’s inability to mind his own business. “I want you to leave, Paul– and never come back. Is that clear?” Her eyes are now bright red.

Paul stumbles out, shaken. “I was sure that after what I’d seen,” he writes in his journal, “someone would be out to get me. And I really didn’t want to die.”

A water main bursts just beneath him, hurtling him skyward. Paul winds up with a sprained wrist, but he gets the message. “Now that I’m done writing this– I fully intend to burn it.”

Mysteries on top of mysteries on top of mysteries on top of… where does it end? How much can one comic contain?

Chapter III: The Eternal Rectangle

A caption box at the top of the page reveals Rory’s fate. Wednesday’s paper announced that the “Florida kidnap victim” had been found; Thursday, Richard Rory was returned to Citrusville for arraignment.

Now it’s Sunday and Man-Thing is stalking the shadowed alleyways of Atlanta, still clutching that box. And he’s got company in the form of several demonic creatures skittering down the brick wall behind him. When Man-Thing turns around, they’ve assumed the forms of people he knows: Richard Rory, Carol Selby, Korrek, and Jennifer Kale. They politely ask for the box, but Man-Thing does not give it to them, as his empathic powers reveal their true nature. He turns away only to discover four more familiar faces.

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And yes, Man-Thing has met all of these gentlemen before. In chronological order:

He met the Thing in Marvel Two-in-One #1 (cover date January 1974).

He met Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu in Master of Kung Fu #19 (August 1974).

He met Daredevil in Daredevil #114 (October 1974).

And he met Spider-Man just one month earlier in Giant-Size Spider-Man #5 (July 1975).

A fight ensues. Man-Thing drops the box. The demons dispense with their disguises and seek to tear the Man-Thing apart en masse. A pair of mysterious hands grabs the box while they’re all distracted. Once the demons realize this, they go apeshit and run off in hot pursuit—out in the open, through the streets, undisguised. The city erupts in panic.

To be continued.

Train Keeps A-Rollin’

Gerber continues on an all-time roll with this issue. Most comics nowadays can be read in five to ten minutes, but this one would likely take a good half hour—maybe more if you took your time to really savor each panel. It’s just so packed with material. And no filler either, it’s all juicy stuff; stuff you can really sink your teeth into.

We get some hints as to the Scavenger’s unique condition. We get a strange being carrying a strange box. We get Rory going to jail for kidnapping. We get mentions of Thog at several points. We get a strange woman with shifting eye colors named Dani who is somehow connected to the box/boxes. We get packs of shape-changing demons in service to Thog attacking the Man-Thing in an effort to retrieve one of these boxes. How is it all connected? Well it’s a safe bet Thog’s at the center of things, but the finer details remain a mystery.

I suspect that the main reason this issue is so packed is because between the previous issue and this one, Gerber learned he was going to have to wrap things up on Man-Thing sooner than expected. So he was trying to squeeze in an inordinate amount of plot—but amazingly enough, the issue does not feel over-packed, nor does the pace feel rushed. Still, we do wind up missing out on some potentially great material.

For example, in my previous post I brought up Gerber’s original vision for this arc—which included Carol Selby becoming “a regular in the series.” He also said that her relationship with Rory would 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.” Well the relationship comes to a screeching halt here after less than two full issues. I’m guessing the original idea behind the “very, very weird circumstances” that would have kept them together was Rory’s dodging the kidnapping charge. Obviously Gerber had to tie up that plot thread much earlier than anticipated, which is a shame, as I would have really loved to see the situation play out over a longer stretch of issues.

I also get the feeling that the artist, Paul, and maybe even Sage would have received more face time had we gotten the full five-issue arc Gerber originally envisioned. In fact, the arc itself may have wound up lasting a lot more than five issues had the series kept going with Gerber at the helm. There are just so many concepts getting thrown out here, and all of them so very intriguing; all of them begging for deeper exploration. (And there will be still more new things to come in the next issue!)

Among my favorite touches this issue were the demons disguising themselves as Manny’s friends and former allies. Not because it was fun to see Manny fighting Spider-Man and company (though it was), but the way it appeared there was one consciousness speaking across multiple bodies—that lack/loss of individual identity is something that I found to be particularly creepy.

Another nifty piece of work was the sequence featuring the car accident. One of the more important gifts of a great comic-book writer is knowing when to shut up and let the pictures tell the story, and Gerber does that here to great effect. He must have been in a few fender benders in his time, as it captures the way a car accident feels—like slow motion. You can see the accident as it’s about to happen and there’s nothing you can do to stop it, causing time to feel like it’s slowing down. The event also feels so random and sudden and unexpected (much like real-life) that it comes off as even more terrifying.

There were fewer opportunities for Jim Mooney to show off in this plot-heavy issue, but he still has his moments. As there are a number of twists and shocks, most of the heavy lifting, artistically, comes from the rendering of facial expressions in reaction to the various circumstances. From Rory’s look upon realizing he’s likely to be carted off to jail, to Paul’s shock when he sees Dani and the box, it’s all very well done.

And of course, there are Dani’s eyes.

daniseyes (900 x 870)

Given the cheap, primitive nature of the comic-book printing process at the time, Mooney’s art has no business looking this good. But those eyes, both Dani’s and Manny’s, came out looking downright soulful.

Humanism and Fantasy

The lettercol of Man-Thing #20 printed reactions to issue #16, which I reprinted in my review of said issue. It also included some editorial examination of the general direction of the strip overall and what Gerber was seeking to accomplish at this time:

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.

But have we gone too far? The current cycle of stories (beginning with “The Scavenger of Atlanta”) has been Steve’s attempt to blend the strip’s humanist themes with a more fantasy-oriented storyline. Do you like it? Are we still depressing you? Or have we gotten too light-hearted about it all? (That’s our typically understated way of asking you to WRITE!!)

The Scavenger’s origin appears next issue, and we can virtually guarantee you’ll be stunned to learn who and what he really is. And there’s another major development in MAN-THING #21, too— a monumental turning point in the murk-dweller’s eerie existence. We urge you not to miss it.

It should be noted that this issue’s lettercol was the last of the series, so this is the last bit of insight that we’ll be getting from the letters page.

To answer the question myself though, I absolutely loved this humanist-fantasy blend. My only regret, obviously, is that we wouldn’t get much more of it.

Next time: “A Lunatic on Every Corner!”

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