Fear (#11 – 15) – Steve Gerber

3 out of 5

Note: The covers of these suggest the book is “Adventure into Fear,” but the indicia is simply “Fear”.

The start of Steve Gerber’s trek with swamp lurker Man-Thing, and a somewhat wayward – but absolutely intriguing – test of the waters of the various tones the title could incorporate.

Issue #11 introduces a lot of key elements for Gerb’s run – the Kale family; their involvement with the occult; the swamp that is Manny’s home being a nexus for demons – but it’s initially a very isolated story, with all of these elements backgrounded to the way Man-Thing shambles into them, and given Steve’s method of plotting-on-the-fly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he just circled back around to this stuff out of interest, and not due to long-term planning. The series also bounced around artists for a bit: Rick Buckler with Jim Mooney inks looks great here, as Steve figures out how to balance the omniscient narrative voice that an empathic-only lead requires with visual story-telling.

…Something he started to nail as soon as issue #12, an interestingly gray take on race relations, as a racist white cop tracks a black “suspect” to the swamp. Some of the dialogue feels a bit stilted (although not having been alive in the 70s, I dunno what things actually sounded like then…), but the way the story swivels around a “typical” moral is interesting, and the ending shows, early on, how Steve was willing to allow things to get pretty bleak – which is often, to me, more compelling than a pat, happy ending. Buckler switches to inks for Jim Starlin’s pencils; it’s a great team, but a little more formal-Marvel looking.

Issues #13 – 15 pick back up with the Kales, and Gerb already starts experimenting with mixing things waaay up for a horror mag, as we teleport to another realm with wizards and arena battles, have a random elf appearance, establish a telepathic link between Jennifer and Manny, and then sets about recasting Man-Thing as some epic protective force, while also getting rid of the whole demon aspect so he can move on to other, more inventive ideas. At the same time, the mag retains its rather somber tone, never turning Man-Thing into a “friend,” per se – he always shambles off to be alone, and the narration gets stronger and stronger in explaining his empathic-driven actions, which juxtaposingly underline his inhumanity, not able to truly act of his own accord. Val Mayerick steps in as a proposed semi-regular penciler; check out issue 15 versus the other two for a small lesson in inkers and colorists: Val looks great when inked by a more detailed Frank Bolle (#13) or Chic Stone (#14), but rather sloppy under Frank McLaughlin’s (#15) tendency to drop shadows and thicken lines; colorist Ben Hunt maintains an Earthy, dark vibe for the book in 13, while P. Goldberg goes bright and flashy in 15, which doesn’t work with the mood.

Steve’s strong narrative voice and ability to quickly craft emotive characters and interesting tweaks to comic formula are apparent early on, but these first few issues also show the writer trying to find the exact story he wants to tell.