“Pop Goes the Cosmos!”

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NOTE: This is the eighth and final installment 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.

…So this is the way it ends: not with a bang but a pop.

As mentioned last time, there were no letters pages in the last two issues of Man-Thing. There was never any official announcement of the strip’s cancellation in the mag itself. Even in the pages of Foom, which had been very informative in regards to Gerber and Man-Thing up to this point, news of the title’s cancellation was delivered in a curiously terse two sentences:

This feature is cancelled (much to the dismay of Steve Gerber and Jim Mooney) with ish #22 as “Pop Goes the Cosmos!” True Believers won’t want to miss this one, ‘cause it guest stars none other than… Steve Gerber? (“Department of Infoomation,” Foom No. 10, p. 28)

Which brings us to this—one of the odder issues of Gerber’s comic career.

“Pop Goes the Cosmos!”

We open on Steve Gerber sitting on the floor in the shambles of his Hell’s Kitchen apartment, where he is composing a resignation letter to then editor-in-chief, Len Wein. In the letter, Gerber reveals to Wein that all of the Man-Thing stories he submitted over the previous three years were not fiction, but real-life events as dictated to him by Dakimh the Enchanter.

mt22a

Gerber spends the next couple of pages recounting Man-Thing’s past exploits, up to the “death” of Dakimh, which took place in Giant-Size Man-Thing #3. It’s at this point he reveals that this event is what allowed Thog the Nether-Spawn to escape his imprisonment from the extra-dimensional realm of Therea (where he had been held since the conclusion of Man-Thing #1). Once free, he began a complex series of machinations involving the Scavenger, Danielle Nicolle, Roland Duhl, and the Nightmare Boxes.

mt22b

Clearly, Gerber is tying together every plot point of the current arc in the most economic fashion possible.

So as we know, somebody grabbed one of the Nightmare Boxes and ran off with it at the end of issue #20. That mysterious somebody turns up at Gerber’s doorstep, revealing himself to be “a friend of Dakimh’s,” and leaves the box in Gerber’s hands. Almost immediately afterward, Thog’s pack of demons show up, grab Gerber, and suck him up into the box. They then take the box back to where the previous issue’s cliffhanger left us: with Manny, Thog, Klonus, and Mortak in that Atlanta junkyard. Thog then sucks Manny into the box and teleports away to crown his awful pyramid of Nightmare Boxes with it, and thereby conquer the cosmos.

Within the Nightmare Box, Gerber and Manny meet up, along with Dakimh the Enchanter. (As Gerber tells us: “Old sorcerers never die. They don’t even fade away!”) Dakimh reveals that the rational natures of both Gerber and the Man-Thing (who lost his empathic powers as a result of the “black gum” spilled from the root above his brow the previous issue), Thog’s pyramid will be undone. In fact it implodes upon its “crowning,” causing “all of infinity” to collapse, with only Gerber, Dakimh, Man-Thing, and Thog left “sane.”

mt22-spread

So Manny and Thog duke it out, with the battle ending in the only way it possibly could. Sing it, cats & kittens: “Whatever knows fear BURNS at the Man-Thing’s touch!!”

With Thog dispatched, Gerber found himself back at his (now destroyed) apartment, where he began this resignation letter because, in his words, “To put it bluntly, I’m becoming too personally involved.”

Just as he’s finishing up his letter, who should show but Dakimh—with Man-Thing in tow. This gives Gerbs the chance to say goodbye to both the character and the strip itself.

mt22c

Clearly, Gerber was ending this strip with something of a heavy heart. And the noted feeling of “abandoning” the Man-Thing would suggest this is not the way Gerber wanted things to go.

Text and Text and Text and Text and Look at Me!

My greatest criticism of this particular comic is that it’s not really a comic book at all. Comics are supposed to be a somewhat equitable marriage of text and art, but this issue is predominantly text. In fact it’s a lot of text. We get text pages again, of course—three altogether, including one two-page spread. But that’s not all.

Number of pages featuring all captions, with no word balloons: eight. Technically, if you left the text on these pages unboxed and typeset, that would make eleven total text pages. But wait, there’s more.

Number of pages featuring all captions with one word balloon: one (p. 15).

Number of pages featuring all captions with two word balloons: one (p. 14).

That’s a grand total of thirteen pages that were practically text pages. Thirteen pages out of eighteen; nearly three quarters of the book.

As discussed in my review of Giant-Size Man-Thing #4, the text page was a method Gerber used with some frequency during his original tenure at Marvel, to varying degrees of success. He discussed his use of this device with the Comics Journal in 1978:

“It [text pages] can work, but it depends on how it’s used; and in any case it’s not something that would work on a regular basis. The one clear advantage is that you can fit in a lot more text/information.” Gerber went on to cite a text piece from Howard the Duck #8 as an example: “we were able to fit literally three times as much dialogue as we could have if they had been hand-lettered balloons.” (Comics Journal #41, August 1978, reprinted in The Comics Journal Library Volume 6: The Writers, Fantagraphics Books, 2006, p. 26)

In this case, it would seem the use of text pages was purely utilitarian: It was simply the best way to squeeze in all of the story. The plot is obviously very, very compressed, with several shortcuts to get us to the necessary endpoint

The art is fine for what it is, but the circumstances here simply do not allow that to be very much. Poor Jim Mooney is reduced to doing what is, in effect, spot illos. There’s not a whole lot of panel-to-panel continuity, which is pretty much what defines comic art as such. Mooney is simply not allowed to be a storyteller, which is what the best comic artists do best.

Based on all this, it would seem clear that the axe fell on this series rather suddenly and unexpectedly, which forced Gerber to finish up in a hurry, which in turn led to several issues worth of story getting squeezed into just this one.

But how did we get to the point where such squeezing was necessary? Why was this comic cancelled and, more specifically, why did it seem to happen so suddenly and unexpectedly?

The Man-Thing Mystery

Ninety-five percent of the time, a comic is cancelled as a result of poor sales. When we pose the question of why this book was cancelled, the knee-jerk response is that it must have been selling poorly. The curious thing, however, is that all the surface evidence suggests that Man-Thing was, at worst, an okay seller; possibly even one of Marvel’s stronger sellers.

First of all, back in those days, Marvel followed a pretty standard protocol for poor sellers. The first thing they’d do, if the book was a monthly (as Man-Thing was), is scale it back to bi-monthly. But Man-Thing stuck to a monthly pub schedule beginning with Fear #15 (August 1973) all the way through this last issue, Man-Thing #22 (October 1975).

In addition, Man-Thing also had his own giant-size quarterly series featuring original material that lasted over a year. For the sake of comparison, Marvel mainstays the Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor did not have regular giant-size quarterlies featuring original material at this time.

Marvel also made a deal circa 1975 to adapt several of their comics into book-and-record sets for Power Records. Man-Thing actually made the cut here (adapting the story “Night of the Laughing Dead,” featuring the suicidal circus clown, believe it or not). The Hulk joined him this time, though once again, no Thor, no Iron Man.

During the course of my research for this post, I also stumbled across an internet rumor that Steve Skeates was at one point set to take over the writing of Man-Thing in the wake of Gerber’s departure. It’s the first I’ve heard of this possibility, but if true it would be a clear sign that sales on the book were still strong. The fact that the book got revived just a few years later (in 1979) is also strong evidence that the character/concept had legs.

Ultimately, I don’t think the book was cancelled for weak sales because I don’t believe it ever suffered from weak sales. My feeling is that the series was cancelled because Gerber decided to stop writing it.

So now the question becomes: Why would Steve Gerber want to quit Man-Thing?

Creative Burnout?

In the aforementioned interview with the Comics Journal, Gerber revealed that, “I’ve always done my own letters pages… I like to read all the mail that comes in.” (Ibid., p. 41).

Going over some of those later letters pages—and knowing it’s Gerber who’s writing the editorial responses—there’s quite a bit of evidence that he was burned out on Man-Thing. In addition to some of what I quoted in earlier blogposts, there were other letters pages that held such evidence. In the letters page of Man-Thing #12, the question of whether Gerber should continue as writer of the strip is asked flat-out:

But the question we feel we have to ask is— are we pleasing most of you, most of the time? Do you like the varied kinds of stories we’ve been tossing at you? Would you prefer to see another writer on this book? (Don’t be afraid to speak up: sometimes Steve G. feels he’d like to see another writer on this book!) If so, who?

Again, keep in mind that it’s Gerber himself who’s actually posing the question.

In Man-Thing #14, Gerber wrote a story where this strong, independent woman kinda sorta agrees to become a willing captive of an ancient satyr. In the letters page of Man-Thing #18, which printed reactions to issue #14, several readers pointed out the misogynistic implications of this tale. The editorial response was that Gerber “was in an odd mood when he wrote that yarn.”

Then there is the lettercol for Giant-Size Man-Thing #5, which carried this lengthy introduction:

SPECIAL BULLPEN NOTE

It’s both with a twinge of sadness and an enormous sigh of relief that we make the following announcement: this issue will be the last of our GIANT-SIZE MAN-THING series. We hate to say goodbye to this thirty-page format, but at the same time, poor Steve Gerber, our regular MAN-THING scripter, can now breathe a little more easily, knowing he faces only twelve, not sixteen, Monumental Plotting Challenges each year.

Fact is, that’s the story behind this issue’s three-writer, three-artist collaborative effort. As the deadline was approaching, we found Steve sitting over his typewriter mumbling, “Gpugh Muck. Slime. GooFoo- Fabotnik.” It had finally got to him. So Len Wein and Marv Wolfman led him gently away from the keyboard (on which he was attempting to play “My Old Kentucky Home”) and reminded him that both he and they had always been curious to see how other writers might handle MANNY. Steve nodded. Grinned. Then he broke out in hysterics. “You— you mean, you’ll do it! You’ll help?” They did it. They helped, And Steve is eternally grateful. Hope you enjoyed their interpretations of Marvel’s most unusual monster as much as Steve himself did.

But now you’re probably asking yourself: are they going to replace GSMT with a new magazine? The answer: yep. And it’ll be known as S & TGOTG, which translates out to… STARHAWK AND THE GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY!! And it’ll be written by Steve, who’s always longed to do a science fiction strip.

But who’s Starhawk? Guardians of the what? You’ll find out in, of all places, the next few issues of THE DEFENDERS beginning with #26, on sale any day now. We urge you not to miss this startling prologue to what we think may be the series-smash of 1975.

Now our only problem is … what happens to Howard the Duck? And on that question, we’d like to hear from you! A magazine of his own? A backup strip in one of our other 50¢ books? A spot in CRAZY? Let’s hear your suggestions!

First up, I want to point out that Giant-Size Man-Thing was not cancelled for poor sales; it was cancelled because Marvel was abandoning the giant-size quarterlies across the line. (In other words, all the giant-size quarterlies were effectively cancelled.) And in case anyone out there wasn’t already aware, Howard—who had been a back-up feature in Giant-Size Man-Thing —would wind up getting a comic of his own in the traditional format (starting out with a bi-monthly schedule), while the Guardians strip would find a home in the pages of Marvel Presents (also bi-monthly).

Secondly, since Gerber took the reins back in Fear #11, the only Man-Thing stories he didn’t write were in the pages of this issue of Giant-Size Man-Thing. As stated, the issue contained one story by Gerber, one by Len Wein, and one by Marv Wolfman. The Wein and Wolfman stories aren’t terrible, but they’re not great either. They’re perfectly ordinary—which means when you contrast them with Gerber’s regular Man-Thing work, they come off as downright dull. To be fair, even Gerber’s story this issue was kinda middling by Gerber standards (though the Tom Sutton art was certainly a treat).

In addition to lightening Gerber’s workload, might the non-Gerber stories have also served as an experiment to see how other writers would do on Man-Thing? If so, was the conclusion drawn in line with my own (that conclusion being that only Gerber could write up to Gerber standards)?

In any case, the reference to the “Monumental Plotting Challenges” presented by this strip is clear acknowledgement of how difficult it was to write. It’s also quite clear that the “Challenges” had begun to wear on Gerber.

Then we have the sheer number of titles that Gerber was, or would soon be, handling. He very well may have wanted to free himself up to write the Guardians strip, Howard the Duck, and Omega the Unknown. (At the time he was also still writing Defenders, along with occasional assignments in Marvel’s anthologies and B&W mags.) Again, the last Man-Thing was cover dated October 1975. The first issue of Howard was cover dated January 1976; the Guardians feature began in Marvel Presents #3, cover date February 1976; and the first issue of Omega was March 1976. So the timeframe would appear to make this theory quite plausible.

Providing Some Insight

I was able to get in touch with Mary Skrenes (Gerber’s writing partner on Omega) to see if she could shed some light on any of these issues as someone who was around at the time, and she was nice enough to do just that. Here is what she told me:

Creative types coming to Marvel generally wanted to do Superheroes and Gerber was no different. He loved the genre. He had a lot of fun with it and did slide a lot of new ideas into the titles he wrote.

Man-Thing was a difficult book to write for people who were used to the simplistic SH [superhero] formula. But for Steve, M-T, a character who had no personality, no desires, no motivations except the primal drive to burn Fear, was a perfect opportunity. It enabled him to tell stories. His stories had tremendous human appeal and pathos and social commentary. Often, in one way or another, Justice was done.

You’re right, Steve may have given up the book to concentrate on Howard the Duck. Howard was his alter-ego and he gave him a chance to expand into more absurdity than possible with Man-Thing. Omega was an opportunity to something “different” with a Superhero and we had some time-consuming issues getting that across. He was also writing other books at the time. Something had to give.

As I recall, Steve Skeates was Gerber’s suggestion to replace him on M-T. Skeates also has the ability to surround a lump of sludge and vegetation with a rotating ensemble and tell stories. He would have thoroughly enjoyed it. I believe that some folks at Marvel never forgot or forgave his disastrous early days there.

Nobody else wanted to follow Gerber’s act. Also, editorial power shifts were easing into play and the book was dropped. (No, I can’t elaborate.) Skeates did do other things for Marvel including being a Contributing Editor with us on Crazy Magazine.

That’s about all that I remember. Gerbs would have talked to you for two hours on the phone. He was a walking encyclopedia about everything comics. I wish he were here to do so.

I’d like to publicly thank Mary for her kindness and courtesy in responding to my query. Obviously, I also wish I had the chance to talk to Gerber himself about some of this stuff—if you’ve seen his interviews in the Journal and elsewhere, you know how brutally honest, informative, and humorous he was as an interview subject.

So we have confirmation that there was at least some talk of Steve Skeates taking over Man-Thing at one point (in fact he was Gerber’s personal choice to do so). We also have confirmation that there was some trepidation among other Marvel writers about following Gerber and writing up to the lofty standard he set on the strip.

What Might Have Been

In a 1976 interview with Foom, Steve Gerber was asked about the possibility of working on an underground comic and how such work might differ from his mainstream comics. “I was going to say the plots might be more complex,” he responded, “but I’m not really sure about that when I remember that ten-issue Defenders ‘bozos’ epic. I don’t know if they could get much more complicated than that.” (“The Foom Interview: Steve Gerber,” Foom No. 15, August 1976, p. 16)

Gerber also once observed: “Unlike some of my colleagues, I do not plot my stories months and months in advance. In fact, the ‘next issue’ blurb at the end of each story is always the most difficult line for me to write. I change my mind like some people change underwear.” (“Zen and the Art of Comic-Book Writing,” Howard The Duck, No. 16, September 1977, p. 7.)

Regarding this final storyline on Man-Thing, we know that when the action shifted to Atlanta Gerber originally had a five-issue arc in mind (shortened to four issues due to the book’s cancellation). But as the two quotes above suggest, Gerber may very well have expanded on the length of this saga if the series had remained open ended. In fact, had Gerber been allowed and/or inclined to stay with Man-Thing, who’s to say how long it might have gone on? It very well could have turned into an even lengthier epic than Gerber’s “bozos” storyline. He certainly had enough raw material for it.

Take Roland Duhl, for example. We only got one proper page of him in issue #21 and in that brief appearance he was absolutely fascinating. An accountant? In the employ of an extra-dimensional demon? And where did that venomous hatred for his wife come from? How much of his personality was his own and how much of it was the result of his corruption by Thog? And what’s with the name—did Gerber intend a deeper meaning somehow with the clear allusion to real-life author Roald Dahl?

I think Gerber originally had something far more elaborate in mind with Duhl. Somehow, I’m guessing he would have represented the melding of the demonic with the mundane; how commonplace, everyday things eat away at all our souls. For that matter, I think Gerber also had far more elaborate plans in mind for Dani and the Scavenger. In any case, I’d bet my last dollar that making them siblings was not the original idea, as there was no mention, no allusion of any kind to this in the Scavenger’s origin the previous issue.

Had he been left to continue the strip without any other outside considerations or worries, I’d bet Gerber would have given us several more fascinating minions of Thog on a par with Duhl, Dani, and the Scavenger. Maybe Thog had many more servants working across the country; across the globe, even. Maybe he had an entire army of minions at his beck and call, just waiting to be summoned. With Gerber, all things were always possible.

The cover is also a bit of a mystery, as it echoes no scene in the actual story at all. Not sure of the penciler (Ron Wilson, maybe?), but the inks are clearly Klaus Janson. It shows Manny holding an unconscious woman in his arms, on some rooftop somewhere, in the rain. The woman looks like Dani, and at Manny’s feet is a Nightmare Box, which looks as if it were hastily added in to the lower right corner. Was this a stock cover with some re-working/correction added in to better fit the story? Or could it offer a hint of what the original, more extended story plans might have been? We’ll likely never know.

It is truly tragic that we will never see Gerber’s original vision(s) for this storyline on a printed comics page. The potential was virtually limitless and Gerber & Mooney were on an all-time roll when the plug was pulled. Gerber would go on to do amazing things on Howard, Omega, the Guardians, and Defenders—but the abrupt end of Man-Thing left a hole in my comics-loving soul that can never be filled.

EDIT: Some fresh insight on the cancellation of this series has just recently been revealed. For more info, click here.

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