Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #9

The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:
by Professor Matthew Bradley

Chris Claremont succeeded Michael Fleisher on Man-Thing with Vol. 2 #4, which as the middle third of a crossover with Doctor Strange was covered—along with the two extracurricular issues preceding it—in part one of our post on Doc, so we now round out this short-lived revival series.

Man-Thing 5 (July 1980)  
"Who Knows Fear"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Don Perlin and Bob Wiacek
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by Bob Wiacek

Finding young Barbara “Barbie” Bannister face-down in the swamp where she collapsed in flight, the Man-Thing—drawn by the fear she emitted—saves her life by flipping her onto the riverbank, and the gators drawn by her bleeding shoulder instinctively avoid him.  Awakening, she recalls how her parents took the alienated rich girl on a Caribbean cruise in a belated attempt to reach her, and just before they left Grand Bahama Island, Dr. Bannister was reluctantly persuaded to bring her new friend Ian McGuire.  She shoulda listened, because as the yacht approached the Okealachobee, the too-good-to-be-true Ian hijacked it, gunning down her parents as his men prepared to transfer a huge shipment of drugs from his own boat to theirs.

Rivera et al. had been at sea for weeks, and thought it a little soon for Ian to silence the shapely witness, but after their “party,” she slipped through a porthole and swam away with only a flesh wound.  Now, the sound of the approaching yacht revives her fear, with predictable results when Manny grabs her arm, and as she resumes running, her scream alerts Ian, who declines to “let the swamp finish her” because he leaves nothing to chance…and loves a good hunt.  After a rest that brings guilty dreams of her parents’ deaths, she awakens to find a coral snake on her midriff, yet despite relaxing enough to calm and brush it off, she sees that Manny is still following her, then uses her emotions (“Fear is the key”) to decoy the henchmen into an encounter with fatal results.

As Ian ineffectually engulfs Man-Thing with white-phosphorous grenades, the newly determined Barbie flees and reaches the road before collapsing, awakening this time in the care of “crusty ol’ town doctor” Sharon Cole and Cypress County Sheriff Daltry in the latter’s house.  As he gets a search party together, she stumbles on his studio, filled with paintings of Man-Thing (hence the portrait last issue) and an unidentified beautiful woman.  Just then, Ian appears, having killed the two deputies left on guard, and despite being warned that it’s too late to silence her, he says “this isn’t just business anymore—it’s personal,” but after evading his knife thrust and clouting him with a stool, she resists the temptation to kill McGuire, having learned courage from a bog-beast.

Having restored Man-Thing’s status quo ante at the end of Doctor Strange #41, Claremont now does the same with his newly acquired strip, signaling a back-to-basics approach with the generic title “Who Knows Fear.”  (Full Disclosure Dept.:  According to SuperMegaMonkey, a She-Hulk guest-shot written by the dreaded DAK takes place in the interim, but even I am not enough of a completist to open that can of green peas.)  Manny is back in both his native swamp—apparently turned into some sort of nature preserve for his benefit by his old pal Richard Rory, although no mention is made of that here—and his traditional role of a virtual supporting player in his own book as the catalyst/observer/unintended participant shambling through a Steve Gerber-type tale.

Yet as much as I admire Chris, I don’t know that I buy his antagonists, and had forgotten while reading this that Barbie (a bit obvious, aren’t we?) is being set up as a series regular rather than a Gerberian one-shot character.  Sure, the city-dweller who proves surprisingly resourceful in the wild is a venerable trope, but would this “pampered, spoiled brat”—her ignorance of all things practical well established—recognize the snake as “one of the deadliest…in North America,” and deduce that “it must have curled up on me for warmth while I slept”?  As for Ian, with his aptly Ken-doll looks, he’s a poor man’s Count Zaroff who actually calls his men “me hearties,” while the time, planning, and luck required make his smuggling scheme seem far-fetched indeed.

I think I can predict with some confidence that I’m not going to have too much to say about the Perlin/Wiacek artwork dominating Claremont’s run.  It exacerbates the overarching principle of Mooney’s long years on the character (perhaps too long; per the lettercol, “After finishing issue #3, he asked to be taken off the book”—no reflection on Chris, one hopes!), i.e., Manny looks generally good, while everyone else looks average at best and goofy at worst, in that Perlin style we’ve come to know and loathe in Ghost Rider.  It’s not brilliantly drawn, but there is a fun and well-conceived montage of Barbie’s nightmare in page 15, panel 1 (above), its centerpiece being Manny with Ian’s grinning head, holding Dr. and Mrs. Bannister in his claws as they scream in flames…

Man-Thing 6 (September 1980)  
"Fraternity Rites!"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Don Perlin and Bob Wiacek
Colors by Glynis Wein
Letters by Diana Albers
Cover by Bob Wiacek

It’s bad enough that Daltry and chief deputy Charley Hazzard find someone has trashed their office and attacked Roy Ford, who was on the graveyard shift, but when the ex-Marine sergeant sees his late schoolteacher wife, Nancy, defaced in a 15-year-old wedding picture, “Big John” grimly straps on his gun.  Perps J. Elliot Osbourne, Regina Masters, Allen Walsh, and William Hobart, “members of an exclusive Georgia college fraternity,” watch gleefully from the diner across the street.  After slamming addict Billy’s cowardice, Jacko tells his “little Droogs” that they are to destroy the Man-Thing, whom the unafraid Daltry sees while visiting Nan’s grave and “treats…with the same careful respect he treats the great swamp itself.”

“It would have been a real giggle to dig up Daltry’s wife and mess up her bones,” Jacko notes as he tricks the sheriff into following them by almost running him down and then baits the trap with Reggie, posed by their “crashed” car.  Having monitored his radio, they force a cuffed Daltry to retract his back-up call, but Manny attacks, drawn by Billy’s fear, and after an abortive attempt to ram him, Jacko leaves Allan (sic) to die in the explosion of Daltry’s wrecked jeep.  Ignoring the Vietnam vet’s warning that the defoliant they carry is “more virulent than Agent Orange” and can poison central Florida, Jacko dupes Billy into wading out to retrieve his pills from a log in a “test of manhood,” intending to lure Manny with his ensuing panic and kill them and Daltry.

The resourceful sheriff kicks Jacko and Reggie into unconsciousness, slips his legs through the hands cuffed at his back, and tries to distract Manny from the petrified Billy, first with the gun he retrieves from Reggie and then with an oil lantern.  The recovered Jacko gets the drop on Daltry, only to have Manny loom up behind him, but as he opens the valve on the tank, he burns at the you-know-what, the flames detonating the pressurized defoliant, which was never used due to its volatility and “burns like a magnesium flare,” consuming both Jacko and the deadly chemicals.  Daltry explains to his prisoners that Manny—who survives the blast unscathed—attacked Jacko and not Billy because “that icy exterior masked a primal insecurity, a basic, deep-seated fear…”

Animal House Was Never Like This!” blares the tagline, and while they obviously don’t mind cashing in on it, the disclaimer is accurate, because to my recollection, National Lampoon’s 1978 blockbuster hit comedy did not have a body count, as this does.  Now, I’ll give it to you straight, students:  I volunteered to cover this run not because I remembered it as being great, but because of my abiding admiration for Claremont, whom I have called the Bullpen’s standard-bearer for quality writing in the waning years of the Bronze Era.  I also knew that our esteemed Professor Tom, who tackled the last of Manny’s defining Gerber-era stories, did so in a spirit of selfless teamwork, yet never loved them and thus was unlikely to mind my poaching on his swampy turf.

But I’m starting to wonder if I made a mistake, because once again, I don’t totally buy the set-up or characters, whose dialogue (“my lascivious, lustful love”; “did buckling on this cannon make you feel muy macho, piggy-poo?”) rings false.  I’m not sure how many coed frats there were in 1980, although admittedly, Reggie’s “membership” may be figurative via lover Jacko, who seems oddly well-informed about Manny’s nature.  Offenses escalating from assault through attempted murder seem a tad extreme for “Fraternity Rites!”—this issue’s title—and however reflexively anti-authoritarian these “kids” may be, Daltry appears so far to be consummately reasonable as well as remarkably fit, the antithesis of the “pig” and “big-belly cop” they call him.

Daltry’s meeting with Manny on page 6 is well handled, both conceptually by Chris and visually by Perliacek, as he encounters the muck-beast amid the tombstones in a thick fog, lit only by his flashlight, and calls him “big fella.”  Conversely, the ending is trite (“Daltry spares a smile of farewell to this creature who is as mindless, as elemental, as invincible, as eternal as the great swamp which gave him birth, and which will forever be both his home…and his prison”), and with his mop of sodden hair, poor Daltry looks alarmingly like Captain Kangaroo in page 27, panel 2 (below).  On the plus side, Chris is typically peeling back lairs of Big John’s persona and history, revealing him as a character with whom we will want to continue spending time as this unfolds.

Man-Thing 7 (November 1980) 
"Whatever Happened to Captain Fate?"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Don Perlin and Bob Wiacek
Colors by Carl Gafford
Letters by Diana Albers
Cover by Bob Wiacek

Evocatively backed by a blood-red sky (perhaps anticipating next issue’s “Red Sails, Burning!”), Manny watches the aftermath of the event that drew him with its tidal wave of terror, and ended abruptly as Southlands Airways Flight 904, bound from New York to Miami, crashed into the swamp.  Daltry introduces Barb Bannister, who is aiding in the grisly clean-up, to old flying buddy Niles Watson, and with “Jaydee” vouching for her, they listen with spellbound horror as the NTSB senior investigator plays the top-secret cockpit voice recorder tape.  In flashbacks visualized for our benefit, the flight crew spots the strangest UFO of all, an airborne 18th-century wooden pirate ship that quickly cripples Flight 904 with a broadside.

Captain Fate’s boarding party looted the plane and slaughtered the passengers, taking with them not only the women but also their protective “sea-level environment,” leaving the craft to suffer explosive decompression.  Corroborating this nightmare at 35,000 feet, and pinning the captain to the control panel, is an object identified by Barb as a Diasturian sword, thanks to her Spanish college boyfriend, a historian and aspiring Olympic fencer.  She persuades Niles to lend her the sword, hoping to establish its provenance by matching it with Miguel Diasturian’s “meticulous records,” yet when four of Fate’s men seek to retrieve it, they are wiped out by Man-Thing, “the monster who helped Khourdes!” (spelled “Khordes” when Fate et alia debuted in Vol. 1 #13-14).

Unaware that he has saved them from the pirates, who inexplicably did not go to their eternal rest once the “curse was lifted and karmic balance restored” after the Bermuda Triangle clash, Daltry and Barb head to town as escapee Abel Barlow warns Fate aboard the Serpent’s Crown (hitherto unnamed, I believe), only to be hanged for cowardice.  Barb marvels at the Citrusville Public Library & Historical Society’s occult collection, as John does over how “right” the sword feels; an impromptu back rub is interrupted by ghosts impervious to his .44 Magnum slugs, if not his “new toy,” as he breaks a wedding-night vow against further killing.  They flee into the swamp, meeting Manny, but cannot shake the frigate, and backup arrives just as the trio is spirited away.

Here, Claremont owes his biggest debt yet to Gerber, although less for the style of storytelling than because this is the sequel to one of Steve’s own weirdest yarns, which is saying something.  The new 22-page format affords Chris a larger canvas on which to bring home the full horror of the crash, achieved largely with words rather than with the relatively restrained Perliacek visuals.  It probably goes without saying that their efforts seem even more pedestrian when compared to the atmospheric—if decidedly different—looks provided by Messrs. Buscema/Sutton and Alcala, respectively, in the original two-parter, even if Bob creates an interesting effect with a symbolic cover that shows a, shall we say, giant-size Man-Thing looming out of the clouds above the raid.

I wonder if forward-thinking Chris had this in the back of his mind while writing #5, since Ian’s “me hearties” sounds perfectly natural when uttered by a real pirate, although I’m not sure if the formerly fearsome Fate is ready for his close-ups in page 13, panel 6 and page 21, panel 4.  Also interesting that, for the second time, Chris cites “the most powerful handgun in the world,” with its inevitable Dirty Harry (1971) associations.  There’s so much going on here, and so much still to be explained and/or resolved, that to some degree I feel I should withhold judgment pending the conclusion, but in the meantime, Daltry and his “new flying buddy,” as he tactfully describes Barb to Niles, continue to hold my interest, as does their developing but understated relationship.

Man-Thing 8 (January 1981)  
"Red Sails, Burning!"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Don Perlin and Bob Wiacek
Colors by Carl Gafford
Letters by Diana Albers
Cover by Bob Wiacek

Aboard the Serpent’s Crown, Daltry and Barb watch in horror as Senior Flight Attendant Mary Louise Kennedy is pitched into the hold with Manny to punish her for resisting Jebediah Fate’s advances.  Defiant even in chains, John attacks Fate and soon joins her, calming Manny by forcing himself to suppress his own emotions, but after Daltry repeats his challenge to a duel, Fate wings a crewman who questions his refusal, leaving John locked in the hold and ordering his other female captives to “prepare” Barb.  Taken from the boats and planes Fate has attacked, they are said to be immortal so long as they remain on board, telling Barb that “Something about this ship—some force—drains the will,” compelling acceptance…and worse.

Meanwhile, the crew of a Coast Guard helicopter elects not to report seeing a stone tower arise in the North Atlantic, from which erstwhile oceanographer Maura Spinner and her satyr/sorcerer lover—his original name of “Khordes” now reinstated—raise, restore, board, and take to the air in the British frigate H.M.S. Athena, sunk by the Serpent’s Crown.  Before reporting to Fate’s cabin, Barb fills John in on what she’s learned of their history (for which I will refer you to our original undergraduate curriculum, rather than reinvent the wheel), the pirates’ presence linked somehow to the Diasturian blade.  John effects an escape by getting a choke hold on a pirate with his chains and maneuvering Manny, who is drawn by the pirate’s fear, into smashing the grating.

To allay suspicion and buy time for Daltry and Ms. Kennedy to free the others, Barb keeps her appointment with Fate (as it were), mercifully interrupted by a broadside from the Athena.  Amid the chaos, Fate duels Daltry, also falling under the sword’s spell, in the rigging; Manny topples the topmast while battling the crew, landing Fate nearby for a fiery comeuppance, his soul swallowed by the sword; and John is thrown overboard, hauled back up by Barb et al.  The ships land at Shark Bay, a U.S. Navy base near Citrusville, and the prisoners are transferred to the hospital ship U.S.S. Mercy, yet after Khordes sends the pirates to “their long overdue final reward,” a force field traps Daltry on Fate’s ship, which flies off as his ghostly laugh fills the air.

To be continued…but not in #9; I’d quite forgotten that the story doesn’t end here, so the cliffhanger actually came as a surprise, yet it results in a structure that is really rather odd and (again, pending final resolution) somewhat frustrating.  Maura and Khordes are hustled onstage for what appears to be an unsatisfyingly abrupt and tidy ending that, for one thing, sidesteps the matter of the “pirate wenches” being protected from the passage of time while aboard the Serpent’s Crown, a concept that was, ironically, handled with some poignance by Len Wein when Manny guest-starred in Incredible Hulk #197-8.  And then suddenly Fate pulls his Freddy Krueger/Michael Myers/Jason Voorhees-style “the threat is over—oh, wait, no it isn’t!” routine...

Asked why this attempt would be more successful, Khordes said, “Nothing is absolutely sure, Sheriff Daltry, in this world or the next.  I must learn what mystic force reawakened them.”  Spoiled as we have been by the routine excellence of the Claremont/Byrne team on various books, it’s still a bit jarring to see Chris saddled with artwork that is at best average, although in fairness, his writing here is hardly up to X-Men caliber; we’ll obviously never know what he would’ve done with more than two issues to go.  That said, insight into the late (and unseen, except in photos) Nancy Daltry grows as John tells Manny, “In her own way, she loved you, monster—like she loved all things living,” and the way Barb is filling the void she’d left is clear.

Man-Thing 9 (March 1981)
"The Echo of Pain!"
Story by Dickie McKenzie
Art by Larry Hama and Danny Bulanadi
Colors by Carl Gafford
Letters by Rick Parker

"My Soul to Keep!"
Story by J.M. DeMatteis
Art by Ed Hannigan and Bob Wiacek
Colors by Ed Hannigan
Letters by Jim Novak
Cover by Bob Wiacek
Although I presume there will be many more, this fill-in is another example of the phenomenon seen in next month’s Doctor Strange #46, which reminds me of the contortions engendered by the brief format change of November 1971.  The primary story clocks in at a once-standard 17 pages, and a five-page backup—a format Marvel was perhaps still using as a proving ground—brings it up to the new normal.  “The Echo of Pain!” is a rare credit for Dickie McKenzie (Roger’s wife, aka Roberta, who had an offscreen “cameo” in Iron Man #123), with art by Larry Hama and Danny Bulandi, while “My Soul to Keep!” is written by the up-and-coming J.M. DeMatteis, drawn and colored by Ed Hannigan, and inked by an inevitable Wiacek.

“Echo” flashes back and forth in time to show what brought David Connelly and his pregnant wife, Elizabeth, to an abandoned shack at the edge of the swamp.  Fleeing the disapproval of both their fathers, they were stranded by car trouble, but the seeming refuge where she gave birth turned out to be fatal due to bacteria in the stagnant water, which poisoned the couple after they drank and bathed the baby in it.  Despite the class warfare dividing them, her wealthy parents, Edward and Jane Hart, enlisted his widowed father, Jessie—one of Hart’s laborers—to seek the pair, and they arrive just as Man-Thing, drawn by the varied emotions emanating from the shack, has shambled off with the instant orphan, who was ironically soothed by having been picked up.

Her shotgun stuck in his muck during the ensuing confrontation, Jane ignores Edward’s warning about the barrel being blocked, backfiring with lethal effect, and as her husband races to avenge her, he burns…well, you know.  The sole surviving adult, Jessie is “too scared to even run,” yet his immediate love for the newborn and determination that she must live erase his fear, leaving Manny subdued and Jessie to raise his granddaughter.  “Neither the muck-monster nor the old man realizes that the factor which saved the infant from the tainted water was the Man-Thing’s unique chemical composition, interacting with the child’s metabolism as he held her.  It is just as well.  The irony might be too much for either of them to bear,” the closing narration informs us.

Fleeing through the swamp, 17-year-old Larry stumbles on Man-Thing, whom he takes to be a hallucination and thus does not fear, relating his escape from two deprogrammers who filled him full of drugs while trying to undo the “brainwashing” of the Reverend Har Chew Tao.  Catching up with him, they bind and beat Larry, earning themselves a quick facial peel courtesy of Manny, and as a contingent of Tao’s Children arrives to free him, the day appears to be saved.  Yet they call his unorthodox savior “a devil, Larry—a spawn of Satan” and, asked about the pain-wracked deprogrammers, say, “Who cares?  Let them die here,” all in the name of “Love and compassion.  Two words you can never know, Man-Thing, and thus, to your eternal credit, can never abuse.”

It’s an interesting, albeit presumably coincidental, pairing of stories, heavy on the moralizing and violence (Manny’s head is graphically blown apart by Jane before gradually reforming, his eyes waving about on stalks like a lobster’s, while a throwaway gas-station display in page 7, panel 1 features “OPEC Monopoly Petroleum Products”), yet with some striking visuals.  Hama’s second page presents a dozen small “frames” that zoom in on Manny, reflecting a death’s head in one crimson eye, then pull back to show the tap dripping its deadly liquid; the “BLAAAAM!” in panel 3 runs across the entirety of page 18, emphasizing the impact that kills Jane.  Hannigan’s splash is a wild, hallucinogenic montage that perfectly captures Larry’s drug-addled perceptions.

Man-Thing 10 (May 1981)
"Came the Dark Man, Walkin', Walkin'..."
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Don Perlin, Bob Wiacek, 
Bruce Patterson, Al Milgrom, and Frank Giacoia
Colors by Carl Gafford andChristie Scheele
Letters by Diana Albers
Cover by Bob Wiacek

Hitchhiking along County Route 800 toward Citrusville, pondering a reunion with jarhead Daltry, ex-Sergeant-Major John Kowalski meets and stops Man-Thing in his tracks.  Addressing him as Sallis, this “emotional null [and] psychic void” muses, “I can cure you—after a fashion—or at least relieve your torment.  The question is, should I?”  Just then, he sees Andy Kale chased down by bikers whose leader, Barnaby Stone, accuses the lad of stealing his girl (evidently open to debate), but as Kowalski intervenes, Manny’s appearance inspires the gang’s hasty retreat, with Sally Petrie in tow; after a casual brush by the stranger reduces his mossy arm to a withered husk, and with Andy’s bike totaled, the humans head for the Kale farm.

While Manny shambles into the swamp’s healing waters, Andy’s sister, Jennifer, has donned her ritual Atlantean garb to cast a scrying spell, hoping to help Barb locate Daltry, yet an energy backlash chars her protective pentagram and flattens the apprentice sorceress.  Flashbacks reveal that although the curse laid on Fate was apparently transferred to John, the satyr could neither explain nor undo it, so he and Maura “returned to his island home, in the heart of the Bermuda Triangle.”  No sooner has Jen left a message with Wong, seeking Dr. Strange’s help, than Andy returns with Kowalski, who is invited to spend the night, but as Andy prepares to fetch the bike with grandfather Joshua, and Barb says she feels sure she knows Kowalski, all Hell breaks loose.

Manny appears and is hit with a Molotov cocktail by one of the bikers, but luckily for Jen, who’s splattered with burning gasoline, he reacts to her fear by tossing her into the nearby river.  Andy goes mano a mano with Stone and is holding his own when Manny, felled by a volley of bombs, recovers and disperses the gang again; yanked off his bike by Andy, Stone wings him with a gun that proves ineffectual against Kowalski, who kills him with an icy touch.  In the aftermath, Sally casts her lot with Andy, Jen ponders “a burst of mystic energy” she felt when Stone died, Manny returns to the restorative waters and Kowalski says he’s Death, whom Barb denied in #5, yet “I’ll help you save Daltry—and humanity—for a price.  You must join me…forever,” so she accepts.

Holy cats.  Sans elaboration, the lettercol reveals this as the penultimate issue, yet in preparing to ring down the curtain, Chris throws us one hell of a curve ball (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor).  It’s not alluded to here, so others may have been just as unaware of it as I was when I bought this back in the day, but Kowalski was the protagonist of a short-lived series in War Is Hell #9-15 that marked Claremont’s first regular four-color gig…two entries of which were penciled by none other than Perlin.  As such, he hasn’t been seen since October 1975—speaking of which, between this book’s bimonthly status, last issue’s fill-in stories, and Jennifer’s failed attempts to locate him, six months will actually elapse in real time between Daltry’s appearances.

The only issue of that series I’ve ever seen is the first, which I acquired decades later in, natch, my trusty Marvel Firsts: The 1970s, and which Claremont merely scripted.  The series itself was “conceived and plotted by Tony Isabella, with the welcome aid of Roy Thomas” and later-acknowledged contribution of Steve Gerber, but (as with X-Men) Chris quickly made it his own, flying solo after collaborating with Tony the Tiger on #10.  Those who wish to may refresh their memories or obtain a little context by consulting our own minimal coverage from October 1974 and/or this much more detailed post from SuperMegaMonkey, which—unfortunately enraging certain colleagues with a twofer—reproduces Isabella’s introductory essay in full.  Yes, I’ll wait.

Don gives us a plethora of ominous close-ups of Kowalski’s eyes filled with star-fields and other things, while Bob apparently had some unspecified help here, with the inks credited to “Wiacek & Co.,” although my usual sources do not enumerate said company.  Don’t know if that was a contributing factor, but while the Claremont/Perlin/Kowalski reunion presumably ensures that our newcomer’s appearance is consistent, the Kale family frankly looks nothing like I remember.  Editing errors by Messrs. Fingeroth and Shooter also abound (“Khordes” has re-reverted to “Khourdes”; Ms. Bannister’s first name has mysteriously dropped a vowel to become “Barbra”; “Okealachobee” is mangled as “Okalochoobee”)—maybe nobody cared on this lame-duck book.

Man-Thing 11 (July 1981)
"Hell's Gate!"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Val Mayerik and Bob Wiacek
Colors by Carl Gafford
Letters by Janice Chiang
Cover by Bob Wiacek

Marvel editors Jim Shooter, Louise Jones, and her assistant, Danny Fingeroth, find Claremont uncharacteristically (if vainly) seeking oblivion at McSharran’s Pub in Manhattan’s Inwood neighborhood.  Asked why he’d resigned from Man-Thing, Chris recounts how, walking on Bleecker Street, he saw the Serpent’s Crown flying toward Dr. Strange’s house, entering to find a dead Doc and Clea and live Daltry, now a pirate who runs him through with his Magus Sword, stealing a third soul for the “master of the cosmos.”  Meanwhile, Manny bursts in on Barb and Death­—er, Kowalski—at the Citrusville Public Library & Historical Society, but is again stopped, uh, dead in his tracks by this “emotional void” that draws and yet flummoxes him.

Barb says that the sword can “open gateways to alternate dimensions,” and its creator (now, with sadly typical editorial sloppiness, named Ferdinand DiAusterian) was burned at the stake by the Inquisition in the 1500s.  Kowalski explains that it possesses and binds those who wield it to the “ancient primal demonic power” the Spanish swordsmith served, but “can only be fought—and defeated—by someone no longer living.”  As the price for his aid, he demands that Barb share his solitary 40-year burden as the personification of Death; after a literal kiss of death that transforms her into “a beautiful, terrible angel,” she is transported to a crash site where one Sally Rovere lies dying, and learns the worst:  they must relive the life of each dying spirit they collect.

They and Manny then appear in Sominus, “the land of eternal shadow [and] home of the ultimate evil,” where she makes short work of warriors from various eras, whose barrage shoots Manny to pieces.  But the ambient magic quickly restores him, the “miasmic evil” and the army’s growing fear goading him to collapse the fortress wall, and Barb leaves Kowalski to claim their souls, entering the central keep.  There she finds Pirate John and, in invisible mystic chains, “some of the most powerful sorcerers on this planet, all victims of the Magus Sword,” including Jen, “Joshua (high priest of an ancient cult), and her mentor Dakimh the Enchanter.  Also Margali Szardos—sorceress supreme—and her daughter, Jimaine,” as well as the trio slain chez Strange.

Longtime fans of Manny (Fan-Things?) will be unsurprised to learn that the Big Bad is Thog, the Nether Spawn, who’d exploited Daltry’s love of battle and  imprisons Barb in a crystal pillar, his intended conquest of the universe interrupted by Manny’s arrival.  Since the magical atmosphere sustains them both, Thog restores Manny to a thoroughly confused Sallis, unexpectedly turning Claremont into Man-Thing.  Unnoticed, Barb’s prison begins to crack open, since even spells have lifespans—a concept Chris alluded to in Dr. Strange #40—and this one is accelerated by her deadly touch; bursting free, she brushes off Daltry’s attack as easily as Manny had, then turns her attention to Thog, who narrowly frees himself from her grip with a gigantic bolt of lightning.

In destroying the castle, it seemingly hands a victory to Thog, who recovers first and offers her a choice—she can save either Daltry or the world—but has not counted on an attack by Claremon-Thing, and his fear has the expected result, reducing him to ash.  Doc shames Kowalski into releasing Barb from her vow, and the group pools its strength to restore Chris, if not Ted, before they return to the Kale farm and go their separate ways.  Ending his story, Chris explains that his empathy for Sallis led to his quitting the book, which Shooter decides to cancel, yet as they leave the pub, its owner is revealed as Dakimh, “who touched young Claremont’s dreams with tales of the macabre Man-Thing…as I touched those of Steven Gerber before him,” and then vanishes.

I’d remembered, of course, that Val Mayerik co-created Howard the Duck with Gerber (in Fear #19, natch), but forgot that his stint lasted a whole year—#13 through Vol. 1 #4 of Manny’s own book—so this is more of a homecoming than I realized.  As for Chris, who’d already been off of Dr. Strange for five months, he borrows yet another page from Steve, interpolating himself into the story along with Thog et alia; in fact, this is in many ways a poor rehash of Gerber’s own final issue, Man-Thing #22.  To be blunt, it’s a mess, with no lettercol discussing the real-world aspects of the cancellation, and I wish I could say it was big disappointment but, except for the Claremont “brand,” the preceding issues had not built up any great expectations in this professor.

As with Kowalski, no citation or backstory is given for the Szardoses (later seen in Doc #57-8), but when Chris introduced them in X-Men Annual #4—which, due to the non-linear nature of our post-graduate studies, I have yet to reread—he revealed that Nightcrawler’s girlfriend, Amanda Sefton, was really Jimaine, his foster sister.  Overall, they seem to be racing to the finish line so frantically that lots of things fall by the wayside, such as the prior acquaintance between Daltry and Kowalski established last issue.  Andy’s biker chick and Barb’s inaugural soul share a first name; is this relevant, coincidence, or carelessness?  Other than repeating his recent failure to cure Sallis, Strange does little but restore order, and poor Clea is not dignified with a single line.

Had this been 1984, the cover of their “Tear-Stained Last Issue,” with a weeping Manny icon to prove it, would’ve convinced me that this was the dreaded Assistant Editors’ Month.  Captions signed by Fingeroth read, “I give up!  I can’t write cover copy for this crazy book!  I mean how do I explain that Doctor Strange dies?  And that Chris Claremont, writer of Man-Thing and X-Men, also buys it this ish?  Nobody’s going to believe it.  I don’t even believe it…and I edit the book!”  Well, score one for truth in advertising, anyway, although by now, Doc’s dying has become a bit shopworn.  Don’t know how Chris felt about his portrayal by Wiayerik, yet on the splash, at least, a more woebegone figure cannot be imagined, appropriate though that might be...

Chris’s transformation (which, believe it or not, I didn’t even remember when I titled this post) lets him literally get into character, providing interesting insights into his perceptions:  he reads the color-coded “Kirilian [sic] auras” of those around him, a kind of psychic mood ring.  Yet the reason behind this unintended, and ultimately self-defeating, side-effect of Thog’s spell is totally unexplained, unless you find “Because magic” to be satisfactory.  Although Mayerik’s somewhat cartoony style was never one of my favorites, his Man-Thing is obviously, er, solid, and he contributes some very expressive faces, e.g., the tearful Barb, gazing skyward, overcome with horror at her newfound status in page 12, panel 6; the utterly disoriented Ted in page 22, panel 4.

So that’s it.  We’re left with some heavy moralizing via Dakimh (Sallis “must right the karmic balance that he unwittingly upset by the way he lived his life.  Like Kowalski, this ordeal marks a rite of passage in the rising and advancing of his spirit.  He grows.  He matures.  At the proper time, he will re-emerge having attained his full potential as a human being.  For him, for Kowalski, for us all—there is hope”) and, sadly, very little regret over the end of what seemed a promising pairing.  If anyone could carry the Gerber torch on this difficult character, Claremont would appear to be it, yet he never really found his groove, further hampered by persistently mediocre artwork, and Kowalski’s eleventh-hour interpolation didn’t bring too much to the table.

In Two Weeks...
More Superheroes means more fun, right?


  1. I know that compared to other professors, Dean Pete and myself are alone on the Island of the Unimpressed when it comes to Steve Gerber. So you couldn't be more right that I wouldn't mind a lick if you jumped on Man-Thing. Even though I only handled the last six issues of his first series, that was more than enough for me. Especially since there were two Giant Sizers in the mix. Plus, I had my fill with Perlin with Ghost Rider. Good for you taking one for the team! Though I'm pretty sure you will do the same thing with your next two Post Graduates.

  2. Claremont's grocery list would seem Proustian compared to our next two efforts. Thanks!