Posts Tagged ‘Steve Gerber’

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.

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You know the old saying : if it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it must be — well, a duck. And there’s no doubt that the first issue of Marvel’s new Howard The Duck monthly definitely features a walking, talking,  intelligent, permanently-down-on-his-luck duck from another planet, which is — at least on paper — exactly what Howard is and always has been. But he’s also a lot more than that, and that’s what makes Howard The Duck #1 so much less.

Truth be told, what made Howard such an instant overnight sensation in the 1970s is the simple fact that he was nothing more than a conduit for the social, political, and philosophical observations of his co-creator, legendary comic book scribe Steve Gerber (who later became involved in a protracted legal struggle against Marvel for ownership of the character). Howard’s other creator, artist Val Mayerik, left the building much earlier than Gerber did, but the duck “trapped in a world he never made” continued on reasonably well without him. Once Steve was out of the picture, though, the character never recovered — and certainly never sounded quite right ever again.

Which isn’t to say that the new creative team of writer Chip Zdarsky (best known for his work as the artist on Image Comics’ hugely popular and successful, Matt Fraction-penned Sex Criminals), penciller/inker Joe Quinones, and colorist Rico Renzi don’t give a solid effort here — it’s just that their hands are completely tied, and they’re stuck in a “no-win” situation. When Disney bought Marvel, one of the first things they did was dictate numerous changes to Howard’s physical appearance, feeling that he looked a bit too similar to another famous duck that was the property of the House of the Mouse(Gerber himself responded to these mandates by turning the character into a rat for nearly the entire duration of the 2002 six-part series from Marvel’s since-shuttered “mature readers” imprint, Max Comics, that represented his final go-’round with his signature creation), and now what we’re stuck with is an iteration of Howard that doesn’t look, feel, or sound anything like what we’re used to — and on top of that Marvel editorial seems to have decided that the story fans purportedly “want” to see in these pages is one that explains how a duck-turned-private eye ended up in the possession of The Collector at the end of the Guardians Of The Galaxy film.

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To that end, the main thrust of Zdarsky and Quinones’ debut installment is taken up with getting us from point “A” — Howard in a New York jail cell — to point “B,” which is Howard in an outer space jail cell. He picks up a new human female sidekick along the way (longtime love interest Beverly apparently being out of the picture now), and has some reasonably entertaining run-ins with both The Black Cat and Spider-Man (in fact, Zdarsky scripts the out-and-out funniest Spidey scene in years), but all this manages to do is showcase how much better a handle the creators have on their guest stars than on their actual protagonist. Howard always bitched about his sorry lot in life, and does plenty of that here, but he was at his best when waxing existential on the utter pointlessness of life in general, and that’s an element that his “kinder, gentler” 2015 version is sorely lacking (along with his former trademark cheap cigar).

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A rather forced “montage” scene  at the exact halfway point of the book (as depicted on the page below) doesn’t help matters any, either, and while I certainly commend Marvel for being willing to roll the dice on “quirky” fare in a way that their Distinguished Competition seem to be shying away from in the advent of their “New 52” relaunch (although that may be changing when DC rolls out a host of new titles in June), it seems like the commercial failure of more “off-beat” recent series like She-Hulk (who re-emerges as a supporting player in this very book) and the criminally under-appreciated Superior Foes Of Spider-Man is giving the publisher something of a case of cold feet. They apparently want to continue to try to push the envelope in a more humorous direction, but they’re just not willing to go quite as far as they were a year or two back, with the end result being a re-launched Howard title that feels like it’s very tightly controlled by editorial.

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Does it have its moments? Sure, absolutely. And it’s well-drawn (and colored) throughout. A reader who’s brand new to the character — as in, one who hasn’t even seen the George Lucas-produced movie, much less read the original comics — and who is primarily interested in answering the question “who was that crazy duck guy at the end of Guardians?” might, indeed, find  a fair amount to like here. But for anyone else with even a passing knowledge of who Howard is (or at least who he used to be)and what he’s (or, again, was) all about, this first issue offers no reason to stick around for the second and beyond. If Marvel wants to have an anthropomorphic “funny animal” character other than Rocket Raccoon and Squirrel Girl as an active part of their universe, they should just let Zdarsky and Quinones — who would probably be up to the task — create a new one. It’s not simply a case that Howard without Steve Gerber isn’t Howard — it’s that he flat-out can’t be.