Iron Man Annual (#3, 1976) – Steve Gerber

3 out of 5

…And Steve continues to evolve on his awesome little corner of the Marvel U, bringing Iron Man into the mix, just as he was able to with the Thing and others.

This 1976 annual iterates on mutating Florida swamps and a self-powered village and Molecule Man, as told across Man-Things and Giant Size Man-Things, and as such: of course Man-Thing is here too. Given Gerb’s interests in exploring man’s conflicting identities and drives, the swamp creature without any innate personality – being entirely empathic – was always such a fitting match for him; the writer’s take on Manny is – from my samplings of others’ – the best, and this is annual, for all its comic bookiness, is another great example of that.

Children playing ’round the swamps stumble across a gator, and a young girl of the three runs away, headlong into a marsh pit which sucks her down to her death. Man-Thing, drawn by the emotions, looks on. …And follows (slowly) the girl who has reemerged, grasping Molecule Man’s weapon, and swamp-mutated such that her mind is blended with MMs. This one-body duo pursues goals fueled by MMs anger: the girl marches them back to her home, taking aggressions out on Mom; Molecule Man tries to reassert control to attack the surrounding city, and then a visiting Iron Man, who’s there on Stark business to invest in that village. Throughout, Steve – with his usual poetic deftness, telling just enough and letting the art show the rest – plays around with the duality of child and man, and how Man-Thing pings off of all of this, and how a hero like Iron Man has to sit in the middle, aware of Man-Things empathic nature and realizing that MM is just possessing an innocent. This gives us plenty of action opportunities, and plenty of deeper, heavier moments with Manny.

Sal Buscema, on art, is admittedly a nostalgic fave of mine, as I grew up with him on Spider-Man. His characters are always a bit stiff, but his pages have such dynamic energy that the stiffness feels right somehow – it’s like a way to combat some of the soap opera dynamics of comics, by having these sort of marionette figures inserted into lively settings.

The 34 pages fly by across the three well-scripted parts. The slight ding to the rating is that there’s admittedly a feeling of some missed opportunities: Gerber touches on gender roles slightly, and the interesting scenario of having a female and male mind in one body, and it really seems like he’s going to offer some thoughts on that… but he never does. He’d return to a similar concept in another Man-Thing tale, which is darker than this tale and has a bit more depth, but this might be the more solid of the two overall, combining a lot of great 70s camp with the upper-tier narration of which the writer was capable.