Some may say that the heyday of the swamp creature in comic books has long since passed, but I’m not so sure. Granted, the Alan Moore/Steve Bissette/Rick Veitch/John Totleben run on DC’s Swamp Thing back in the 1980s set the bar pretty high, but rather than try to compete with that, recent swamp-monster comics have been trying for something of a “return to roots” (bad pun, I’m sorry) approach : Swamp Thing himself returned for a six-part mini-series last year helmed by his co-creator, Len Wein, and artist Kelley Jones (whose style has always owed a heavy debt of gratitude to Bernie Wrightson) that saw them basically flat-out ignore Moore and everything after and make the former Alec Holland an old-school “muck monster” all over again, and now Marvel has decided to get in on the throwback act by bringing back their own stalker of the swamps, Man-Thing, with no less than Goosebumps creator R.L. Stine at the wheel. Could we, perhaps, be in the midst of a full-on swamp creature renaissance?
I guess the jury’s still out on that one, but for fans of these sorts of books, the signs look good : admittedly, Swamp Thing circa 2016 turned out to be something of an up-and-down affair that probably ran out of nostalgic charm at about the four issue mark, but if and when he returns I’ll probably toss my three (or four) bucks in and give it a go again, and the same “what the hell have I got to lose?” sense of nostalgia compelled me to open my wallet for the new Man-Thing #1, as well. I’m by no means a hard-core Stine fan (although there are certainly enough of ’em out there to bring at least a few who are non-comics-readers into shops to see what this is all about, I’d wager), but I do still have a decidedly soft spot for Steve Gerber’s old ’70s run on the series, although that’s something of a two-edged sword, for while Gerber may not have created Man-Thing as he did Howard The Duck, both characters were essentially stand-ins for their author that he marked with his own indelible stamp of Philip K. Dick-esque, quasi-metafictional “high weirdness” — and neither has fared particularly well in the hands of other creators who have attempted one failed re-launch after another. You’d think Marvel would have learned after Gerber left The Defenders way back in the day and his group-therapy-centric “un-team” immediately devolved into a low-rent Avengers rip-off that floundered for about another hundred issues or so before finally receiving a long-overdue mercy killing that once the idiosyncratic scribe left his stamp on something it should just be left well enough alone, but the problem is especially pronounced in the case of Man-Thing because he’s literally an empty vessel : an unthinking, shambling, mockery of a man who wanders into situations based on a kind of “emotional telepathy” that draws him toward conflict, whereupon he makes contact with the most fearful individual involved (usually — okay, always — the bad guy) and, well — “whoever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch,” right? Then he exits stage left and the story’s over.
So, yeah — without all the social, political, and personal allegory that Gerber was able to channel into the situations that surrounded Man-Thing, it’s gotta be said : he never amounted to much more than a mound of moss. But Stine has a rather clever way around that little problem : his Man-Thing, you see, can think and speak. Not only that, he’s trying to make a go of it in Hollywood! Not that it’s going especially well, mind you — and it looks like it might go from bad to worse when his previous, mindless incarnation shows up to take his “life” back — but hey, wouldn’t you be looking for work in monster movies if you were in his shoes (not that he wears any), too? What else is he gonna do? Work at Wal-Mart or the post office?
Don’t ask me how or why his brain started working again — not being anything like a continuity expert on Marvel’s last couple of decades’ worth of printed matter I just couldn’t tell you, and for all I know maybe it hasn’t been explained yet and figuring out the mystery behind the “new” Man-Thing is something that Stine will be exploring in this five-parter — but it certainly works as far as core conceits go. Sure, the basic narrative tone of this opening installment is “retro” all the way — complete with omniscient narration, “purple” prose, thought balloons, a lengthy origin recap, and any number of currently-out-of-fashion literary tropes — but to see them all conscripted into service of a decidedly modern type of story is pretty damn refreshing and immediately gives one reason to be optimistic that this comic will aspire to something both other and better than the pure nostalgia ride that was Wein and Jones’ Swamp Thing reboot.
The artwork by German Peralta goes some way toward reinforcing this belief, as well — influences abound, obviously, as there are distinct visual cues that borrow not so much from previous iterations of Man-Thing as they do from old-time horror comics in general (Graham Ingels’ EC work and Ditko’s legendary Warren stories come immediately to mind when looking at some of these panels), but it’s not like every single page here would look right at home in the pages of Eerie or Creepy if it were in black-and-white. Some would, to be sure, but hey, let’s be glad that they’re not, because Rachelle Rosenberg’s watercolor-influenced hues on this comic are straight-up gorgeous and suit this material perfectly. Wrap it all up under a cover provided by Mr. Harrow County himself, the one and only Tyler Crook, and you’ve got one damn good-looking funnybook.
It’s not all perfect, mind you — there’s a genuinely useless and insipid backup feature that takes up the last four pages and leaves you feeling more than a bit financially cheated for shelling out $3.99 for what amounts to a 16-page story (in other words, smart folks may just want to “trade-wait” the whole thing) — but it is fun, smart, easy on the eyes and, perhaps most importantly, hearkens back to the past without becoming stuck in it. Purists may balk at the very idea of an intelligent (or even self-aware) Man-Thing and throw in the towel immediately, sure, but that’s their loss. Stine’s effortless mix of the old and the new grabbed me right away, and while I’ll always be interested in where Man-Thing has been, as of now I’m far more interested in where he — and this series — are going in the future.