Last week, the first issue of R. L. Stine’s Man-Thing arrived in shops from Marvel Comics. Though I’d seen a number of previews and even process videos concerning the cover and art, I don’t think I really understood just how wacky this comic was going to be. It is really far-out in left field in good ways and will probably challenge what you think of as a Marvel comic if you give it a chance and pick it up.
The main story artwork by German Peralta with colors by Rachelle Rosenberg, has a kind of classic monster movie feel, a nod to the past of the character that works really well, and also casts the strange world of Hollywood in a rosy, ironic light. The writing by Stine, though, is incredibly punchy and at times very harsh, which sets the tone for dark comedy and keeps a fairly strong tragic vibe running for our central character, Ted Sallis, aka Man-Thing. As a scientist who meddled with a super-soldier serum and injected himself while on the run from the government (as we learn in this issue), Sallis spent an indefinitely long period of time in a vegetable-like state in the swamp in his new form. Over time, he’s recovered him more human traits–except it doesn’t look, smell, or seem like that to any other human being.
[The mean streets of Burbank for disgusting Man-Thing]
Man-Thing’s grotesqueness is an excellent source of humor and pathos, but when you dig deep and think about it (and you will since it’s such a recurring topic), you begin to recognize the horrifying state this is for Sallis. His isolation is profound. He’s trying to find work as a movie monster in Hollywood, but he can never take the suit off. We should be acclimated to this storyline from classic literature–see what this situation did to Frankenstein’s Monster, for instance? It usually drives the monster mad. It makes them want to wipe out the humanity rejecting them for their physical differences. Sallis, however, is cut from a different cloth, it seems. He’s so “normal” in his reactions that we forget literary or even film tradition and don’t assume he’s going to go on a murderous rampage. We just feel for him, and begin to wonder what it would be like to be trapped like this–forever–literally making people vomit to be around you. That is horror for you. That concept is real enough to reach any reader.
Stine’s use of humor is essential to make this book work. Otherwise we’d just be mopey on behalf of this creature. Sallis reacts instead like another character who gets name-checked in this issue–Ant-Man–with an indomitable self-deprecating reaction to the situations in which he finds himself. He knows the world is absurd, and that he is the most absurd of all. At least he has that. But you have to wonder–this guy essentially has super-powers, as we see during his origin flash-back, so why isn’t he using that power for some kind of good? It might not diminish his isolation, and it might not earn him a living (as we see in the Ant-Man comics actually) but it might give him a greater sense of purpose. There’s no way at this point that Sallis thinks he’s hero-material, though, and that may be the big barrier he has to overcome. And the humans aren’t helping him with that low self-esteem.
The back-up story included in this issue, written by R.L. Stine and drawn by Daniel Johnson is actually really interesting as well, and makes for a nice addition for readers. It’s a simple, melodramatic story about ambition, occult powers, and the villains you might meet in ordinary life. It reminds you that Stine is interested in stories where bad people bring themselves down and potentially good people raise themselves up. Let’s hold out some hope for Man-Thing, who still has four more issues to sort out his self-image in this series.
Man-Thing #2 arrives in shops on March 29th, and it looks like the issue will take him back to the swamp, where he may also find he doesn’t quite fit. Caught between worlds! Poor old Man-Thing.
[Cover art for Man-Thing #2, by Tyler Crook]