Man-Thing (#9 – 10) – Steve Gerber

4 out of 5

In Man-Thing’s letter pages, editor Roy Thomas and Steve Gerber often respond to requests to focus on X, Y, or Z storyline by telling the letter writer that Steve was purposefully avoided allowing the title to slot in to any particular genre, wanting to be able to encompass comedy, tragedy, surreality, action, and etc., as it befits any given story. The tale told in issues 9 and 10 is a great example of why this variable tone was important: it’s able to casually travel between something that’s a little backwoods goofy and cliche and then strange, and affecting, and have it all read as a consistent, linear experience. It also indirectly serves a spotlight on artist Mike Ploog’s abilities, choicefully applying stylization in a way that initially seems a bit off, but proves to be the right choice for flexing around the story’s tone.

Manny wanders across Maybelle and Zeke, an older couple who live in a shack in the swamp and have done for some time. Manny’s more curious than anything, but he scares Maybelle to near death, requiring Zeke to make the trek in to the city for medicine, accompanied by his ever-faithful Dawg (and I’ll let you guess what kind of animal Dawg is). Man-Thing, now interested in Zeke, follows along, and when odd creatures – a mutated tree, skeletons, vicious snakes – seem to endlessly pursue Zeke, enlivened by a mysterious red mist – the old man welcomes the swamp monster as a friend, Manny stepping in and putting down all the foes in spectacular, page-splash-y fashion. We cut back and forth to Maybelle, and get some backstory: on the couple first meeting and moving to the swamp, on Zeke slowly shifting his affections from his wife to his newly adopted animal, Dawg. The relationship between this trio ends up being the focus, Zeke realizing he may’ve taken Maybelle for granted as he retrieves the medicine – after a showdown with some rowdy locals – and makes his way back home, Man-Thing still along for the observational ride.

It’s surely a fantastic story, with all the mist-enlivened beasts, but also a very down to Earth one, with “hick” characters who are fleshed out beyond their consarnit stereotypes to be more human and intelligent than the ignorant types Zeke meets in town, Ploog and inker Frank Chiaramonte working overtime to find a perfect tone to encompass all the emotional angles of the story. The main criticism here is the emergence of another stereotype: the shrew-y wife. Steve is normally good at showing different sides of an issue, but he sticks pretty squarely with the husband being “right” and the wife “wrong,” and the story could’ve absolutely benefitted from a bit more gray on the matter.