NOTE: This is the seventh part of an eight-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.
HAPPY HALLOWEEN! Thank you for spending a small portion of the holiday perusing my humble blog. Today I’ll be taking a look at the penultimate issue of the original Man-Thing series, Man-Thing #21 (cover date September 1975).
The previous issue concluded with the following teaser: “A mad accountant and his dreams of glory… the origin of the Scavenger… a wizard… a barbarian… and a broken root with terrible consequences. We call it… ‘Death on the Installment Plan!’ (But you’ll call it: ‘Wha–??’)” Once again we get a change, as the actual title of this issue ended up being “A Lunatic on Every Corner!”
Like the previous issue, #21’s got a primo cover—this one featuring the awesome talents of Gil Kane:
In truth, Scavenger does not actually duke it out with the Man-Thing in this issue. Still a great cover, of course. I must admit that Gil Kane covers like this make me ache, quite literally, for 70s era comics.
“A Lunatic on Every Corner!”
There’s panic on Peach Street in Atlanta due to a pack of demons running wild. The presence of the Man-Thing probably isn’t helping matters. We’ve got people going crazy, cops firing their guns, and cars wrapped around lampposts. In the midst of all the chaos, Man-Thing winds up hitching a brief ride on a police helicopter before getting dropped off (literally) in a park. From a distance, a woman sees the beast fall from her apartment window.
Elsbeth takes the elevator down to the lobby of the building, reflecting on the state of her marriage during the brief ride. She’s tired of being “Mrs. Duhl” both literally and figuratively. As she’s about to exit the front of the building, she remembers “the gorilla” might be out there. She fancies that the beast might kill her, assuming it survived the fall. The thought of how her dying in such a manner would irritate her husband Roland has a bizarre appeal. She steps outside and catches a glimpse of the outline of the creature, and feels strangely giddy. She actually begins to take a step in its direction when the Scavenger suddenly swoops in from above and carries her off.
We shift scenes to the office of Danielle Nicolle at the Atlanta Journal. Dani is on the phone arguing with someone about a missing box. Apparently a replacement box is ordered asap. “No!” Dani shouts. “My next one isn’t nearly full!” The other party wants to know when the next one will be ready. “I don’t know when! A week, maybe! If Thog doesn’t believe me, let him come see for himself!”
Dani’s eyes are red with rage, as the party on the other end of the line is apparently still giving her grief. “Is that so?! Well, I don’t care what his accountant thinks! GOODBYE!” She slams the phone and her eyes soon become blue from depression. She opens her desk drawer and pulls out a box identical to the ones we saw last issue. As she gazes into the box, energy appears to flow from her to it, as Gerber explains what’s happening.
Dani is a “junkie in reverse. A slave to the box. But rather than injecting poison into her system, she expels it. And far from getting a ‘high’ from the process, it drains her utterly. She’s hooked, she muses, on withdrawal. And her ‘junk’ is emotion.”
Cut to the Scavenger, who’s flying with Elsbeth in his arms up to this serial-killer cabin. There’s a mattress on the floor and he throws her down on it. Then he unmasks to reveal that his beautiful features have somehow been restored completely, without so much as a trace of the scars left from the Man-Thing’s burning touch only last issue. Annoyed by Elsbeth’s questions regarding who he is and what he wants with her, he gives a demonstration by grabbing her hands and tearing at his own face with her nails. When he starts to bleed, she begs him to stop and he pushes her back down in disgust.
“You can’t hurt me,” he tells her. “No one can. Pain doesn’t exist for me… I CAN’T FEEL!!”
The Scavenger begins to reveal his past. At first his parents thought he was merely a clumsy toddler, as his lack of a sense of touch made him prone dropping things. Then when he laughed off his first spanking, they called him “incorrigible” and “a brat.” Finally, when they discovered him cooking his own hand in a stovetop flame, they knew something was wrong. They took him to the hospital, where he was examined and tested. First they learned that his healing powers were “astounding,” as his hand was good as new within a remarkably short time. Then they realized that he lacked the power to feel.
As we know, he grew up to be quite handsome, which only proved frustrating for him. “My first kiss was a joke. Even my lips were limp, dead, unfeeling. I couldn’t kiss back!” It eventually drove him past the breaking point.
In the wake of his suicide attempt, he was committed and locked in a padded cell for fifteen years, which only drove him more insane. He literally beat his head against the walls the whole time to no effect whatsoever. Finally, Thog set him free and gave him the power to feel—of course, whenever Thog is involved, you know there has to be a catch somewhere.
Meanwhile, Man-Thing has somehow found his way into a junkyard, where two “energy cocoons” have fallen from the sky. For regular readers of Giant-Size Man-Thing, these cocoons should be familiar, as they are the makeshift prisons whipped up by the young sorcerer’s apprentice, Jennifer Kale, to hold the villains Klonus and Mortak, who were defeated by Kale, Korrek, and Man-Thing in the pages of Giant-Size Man-Thing #3. As they break free of the cocoons, they recognize the Man-Thing almost immediately (and vice versa) and a battle ensues. Klonus winds up blasting Manny with a bolt of magic that cuts right through the center of his head.
Somehow the rupturing “black gum” causes the consciousness of Ted Sallis to stir, compromising Manny’s empathic powers in the process. Dazed, he is easy prey for Mortak, who impales him with a metal pipe. Klonus then zaps the pipe with lightning, bringing the man-monster to his knees. This, at last, causes the master manipulator behind it all to step out from behind the figurative curtain: Thog the Nether-Spawn arrives in a full-page-splash cliffhanger.
“At last,” the fiend gloats, “after eons of scheming and striving—I SHALL BE VICTORIOUS! I—lord of the dark domain—shall be LORD OF THE COSMOS!!”
Gerber and the Black Gum Factory
Okay, it would seem obvious that Roland Duhl was so named to evoke Roald Dahl. (For those unfamiliar, Roald Dahl was a famous author of children’s fiction whose works include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, and Fantastic Mr Fox.) What’s not so obvious is what was intended by the evocation. It may be as simple as Gerber wanting to name the accountant some variation of the word “dull” and Dahl sprung to his mind. Or perhaps Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was on TV when he was writing it. If there’s a deeper symbolic meaning intended, I’ll admit it went over my head. Perhaps a greater familiarity with Dahl’s work would be required to pick up on it. (Anyone possessing such knowledge, feel free to comment.)
Whatever the case, Duhl appears to be an intriguing character. The way he verbally assaults his wife with such vivid and arresting imagery (“Did its body tear open? Did its insides spill over the grass?”) is peculiar, to say the least. And then we get the rather unexpected “in the name of Thog” in place of the traditional declaration, “in the name of God” to end the sequence. The fact that it’s spoken in such an offhand manner makes it all the more chilling somehow.
I’m sure in Gerber’s original conception of the storyline, Roland Duhl would have loomed much larger over the proceedings. The previous issue’s teaser promised “A mad accountant and his dreams of glory,” but we really didn’t get more than the barest hint of that. Even the original title, “Death on the Installment Plan,” would suggest Roland Duhl was originally intended to play a much bigger role in this story, but he only appears on one page. Even so, that one page did paint quite the picture.
The scene that follows, with the upset wife (Elsbeth) walking out on her husband (Roland), probably echoes the one from issue #19 a bit too closely—all the way down to Elsbeth getting attacked by the Scavenger just after she’s left her home. But this is a minor criticism in the larger scheme of things. Elsbeth’s interaction with the Scavenger afterward is certainly more informative, as the villain’s backstory is finally revealed to us.
For some of the more jaded, modern readers, Scavenger’s origin might feel a bit too much like an O. Henry-esque, Rod Serling-ish cliché, but I love it. When I read it for the first time as a kid, it totally knocked me out. So for me, this one is another clear winner. That makes six issues (Man-Thing #’s 16-21) of greatness in a row. A superb run.
Gimme Mooney—That’s What I Want!
There’s still one more issue left in the series, but this is the last one where Jim Mooney will get to properly strut his stuff, artistically. (We’ll get into the reasons for this next time. Suffice it to say that it’s certainly not Mooney’s fault.) It would seem, then, to be a good time to reflect on the man’s career, particularly in regard to Man-Thing.
As discussed before, Mooney is perhaps most famous for his work at DC in the early 60s drawing Supergirl, but he confessed during an interview with Comic Book Artist in 1999 that, “I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about the nine years I spent on ‘Supergirl.’” (Comic Book Artist Collection Volume 3, p. 48). Apparently Superman editor Mort Weisinger insisted that Mooney maintain a simplistic art style and on those few occasions he tried to be more illustrative or detailed, he’d get flak.
When Mooney got to Marvel near the end of the decade, it was a very different atmosphere. “I actually became quite enthusiastic about a lot of things I was doing there,” he said, as the Marvel Method of collaboration gave him “a feeling of being involved, and being a part of it.” (Ibid., p. 51). Mooney also declared that Man-Thing “was one of my favorite strips, by the way. In fact, my all-time favorite.” (Ibid., p. 47)
Mooney gives us several good moments in this issue. I like the way Duhl remained largely enveloped by darkness, with the exception of that one moment he’s lashing out at Elsbeth. I think Mooney did an excellent job capturing the depths of Scavenger’s madness in those flashback scenes. The way he illustrated the Man-Thing’s head wound, with the dribbling black ooze, was appropriately grotesque.
I also really like the juxtaposition of Elsbeth’s death scene with that of Millicent Godfrey from issue #19. In the earlier scene, Scavenger wipes his lips with a look of regret as he views the results of his lust. But in this scene, he looks like he’s in ecstasy as he lay next to the skeleton of Elsbeth. It’s subtle, but I think it’s meant to show us just how much of the Scavenger’s soul has been lost in the interim—particularly since he gave in to despair so totally at the beginning of issue #20.
Next: It all ends. Bring some Kleenex with you, as there will be much to mourn and even more to regret.