Wednesday, October 27, 2010

MIS-Adventure Into FEAR.
A review of TOMB of TERROR # 1

I have a few posts near-ready to go, and timed to post in the days leading to Halloween, so since, due to my new work schedule, I'm not quite able to present my New Avengers # 5 post as of yet (soon, soon,)  I am going to take this time to post a mini-review (aka; rant) of "TOMB OF TERROR" # 1.

Due to my schedule, I've only read the Man-Thing story thus far since my copy arrived today.
If you want a review of the Werewolf-By-Night or Son-of-Satan stories within, maybe there are blogs dedicated to those characters on the web that can help out.
I know they all fall within my "6-Dimensions of Doctor Strange" philosophy, but time is tight these days.


Legion of Monsters - Redux!

MAN-THING: “Descent of The Beast”,
story by Paul Hornschemeier, art by Marc Texiera.

After reading the MAN-THING 10-page story found inside this black-and-white anthology one-shot, I found that I probably couldn't be more disappointed with it if they tried to make it worse than it was.

The solicitation copy described the story to be as thus:

The mal-formed Man-Thing, temporarily in possession of his mind, attempts to save a man from certain death at the hands of racist hunters.

The writer, Paul Hornschemeier, writes a tale of having the Man-Thing come into temporary possession of the mentality of his long-lost human side; Ted Sallis.
Unfortunately for us, it is an uneven, and unoriginal tale.

First, Hornschemeier uses a B.S. premise of having Doctor Strange granting "Manny" the psyche of Ted Sallis - his human side - for awhile. I'll get into why this is flawed, soon enough.

The story starts "in medias res" with neither idea nor clue as to when or what happened prior to this, nor how.
After mystically transporting himself, Man-Thing and an unnamed woman somewhere near the Man-Thing's Florida Everglades home, Strange tells Sallis that he is unsure how long Sallis will have before his mind regresses to the near-blank slate of the muck-monster.

In the time he is alotted, "Ted/Manny" is supposedly to spend it together with a lady-friend (presumably, his estranged wife, Ellen Brandt-Sallis, although, Ellen has always been shown as a raven-haired brunette, and this woman is a blonde - but that's a minor quibble). Yet, he doesn't spend it with his wife/girlfriend like it is suggested, but instead, after quickly driving him to the swamp via the back of a pick-up truck, (not like Doctor Strange couldn't have teleported them to the swamp's edge if that was the intent) Ellen gives "Ted/Manny" a tear-felt touch and sends him off, with his mind slowly slipping away.
In this way, the writer is granted the crutch of 1st person prose to write his story, instead of the usual 2nd person, or altered-state of perception in which most Man-Thing tales are penned.

I'd be willing to allow that concept for one reason:
  • it allows for a seldom-seen glimpse into the mind of Ted Sallis.
However, it is a story-beat that has been used  a few times already over the years - some mystic or scientific "whammy" allows the humanity of Ted Sallis to emerge -albeit temporarily - from the muck and mire of  the mind of Man-Thing before the inevitable return to near-mindlessness.

Another hackneyed aspect to the tale is the basic antangonist/ victim dynamic.
Two stereotypical southern "rednecks", armed with shotguns, chase a single, black male into the swamp and seek to kill him, for reasons unknown except, seemingly for that of race-hate.
This is one of those oft-used story backdrops that Man-Thing stories have employed time and again.
While it isn't always a southern-white/ black-male racial portrayal (other times it was a white male, a woman, a rogue cop chasing down a black man, a ballerina, a clown, etc... on several separate occasions, that white-supremest/ black-male death-hunt has been used), it isn't as though this story sheds any new insight on the problem of hate-relations. It's just a means to an end for the story.

Man-Thing, with Sallis' mind ebbing away, much like the waters at the edge of the swamp, finds that with the free will that he is briefly possessed, he will try to right this wrong, and hopefully atone for some of his past transgressions (either as Sallis or Man-Thing).

In typical modern Marvel-comic style, while routing the two racist rednecks, Sallis actually rips one guy in half (reminiscent of the several times that character; "The SENTRY" tore various foes; Carnage and Ares among them, in twain)!

But all this is all well and good for a stock, 10-page anthology (inventory) tale.
What truly ruins the story is the ending.

While I will give away the end after the warning, I will merely say here that the "twist-ending" wrap-up shows either;
  • a fundamental lack of understanding of the character of Man-Thing. 
  • poor communication / coordination between writer and artist.
  • a lack of editorial insight and control.
  • or, all of the above
But here is the problem with the ending...


Unfortunately, Hornschemeier totally botches the ending (or perhaps the artist; Mark Texiera, misinterpreted the script), because by the end, as the victimized kid emerges safely from the swamp, seeing civilization up ahead, his face reads "relief"... and not "fear".
The fear is washed away in that moment of realization that he has escaped a horrid fate.

Relieved that discovering that he is free of the hunters, that Man-Thing is nowhere in sight, that he is mere feet away from reaching a paved road with cars in sight, the young man has a broad smile and obvious quickened step.

So, there would be NO reason for Man-Thing, now without Sallis' control, to suddenly appear, grab and burn the young man (smoke and flame emitting from his eye-sockets).

Just piss-poor writing, and a story being published that should not have seen print without some serious editorial dictates of rewrite.

I can't tell for sure if it is Marvel-editorial going down the tubes, or the lack of reading skills/ assessment/ expectations of the masses which may be aiding and abetting Marvel in turning in drek in the guise of art.
(I'm more inclined to blame the professionals for their being less-than-so, than blaming the consumer.)


Now, just in case you're reading this, and are unsure as to the specifics of the Man-Thing's modus operendi, and why I seem so down on this piece of work, allow me to give a brief info-dump.

Man-Thing is a near-mindless and mostly mute bog creature, the intellect of the biochemist (Ted Sallis) buried deep inside his dulled mind.

Imagine trying to think through an overpowering dull headache that makes it near impossible to add one plus one.
That's probably even more than the level of thought that Manny possesses.
At times, fleeting thoughts rise to the surface of consciousness. Fading impressions and trace memories that aid him in understanding what things are, but otherwise, no true "mind".

Instead, he is an empath, drawn to the emotions of others.

He reacts in an hostile manner to negative thoughts and emotions.
Hate and jealousy irritate him.
FEAR causes him pain.
When he feels another's fear, he has to do anything he can to stop it.
Due to a chemical process, when he TOUCHES anyone while in that state, their fear causes him to exude a caustic agent that sears them - often times, causing total combustion.

The tag-line; "Whoever Knows Fear, BURNS at the touch of the... MAN-THING!" sits atop the logo of each issue of his old magazines (and is used in almost every other appearance in others' titles).

It takes a decent writer to craft stories wherein the creature isn't just some hand of justice, conveniently meting out a good ass-burning to those who deserve it.
Overall, the best Man-Thing writer was the late, great Steve Gerber, who handled the majority of the "Adventure into Fear" and volume 1 series.
If you have any opportunity to read some Gerber issues, you won't be sorry.

However, if you require but one single issue to read, oddly enough, it isn't Gerber's... but the 1st issue of the 2nd volume, written by Michael Fleisher.
Seriously, it's a pretty good one, with an ending that always tugs a tear from me.
In it, was one of the closest instances of having the mind of Ted Sallis being returned to him - as a by-product of a serum and a loving, hands-on re-education / rehabilitation program.

This is one of the reasons that this story's use of Doctor Strange as the "Deus ex machina" to revive the dormant Ted Sallis persona feels wrong.

Sallis' mind has been kindled briefly by mystical means before. Each time it ended poorly.
One instance, Doctor Strange's oldest foe; Baron Mordo, once returned Sallis' mind to him in exchange for aid in a demonic ritual, only for Stephen Strange to state that it would be impossible to make permanent that retention of intellect. (Doctor Strange v2 40,41, Man-Thing v2 # 4)

Another instance, a demonic touch allowed for Sallis to regain awareness, but only to recoil and wish oblivion rather than have to feel his mind slipping away yet again. (Defenders v1 #98)

So it seems that unless a new, renewed life-affirming sense of hope were to permeate the soul of Ted Sallis, I don't see why he or Strange would try it again.

(Not that it wouldn't be something that you'd at least try every so often, but if the end result is always to feel your thoughts slipping away - to essentially suffer a sort of "death" each time, you'd be less likely to want to suffer through that more than a few times.)

Sadly, more permanent cures has long been discounted as being "impossible" on more than one occasion (as it had been oft-written - and spoken by Dr. Strange - that since the Man-Thing was created by a strange synthesis of science and sorcery that Strange would be unable to grant a return of Sallis' long-lost humanity).

Most Man-Thing stories are bittersweet, in that he never finds the solace he needs, and the few times he comes close to regaining his humanity, it slips away.
The tragic (or perhaps, kindest) cut to it is that since his intellect soon submerges, he will never remember how close he came.


Anonymous said...

I gotta admit, I have never read the Man-Thing books. This story in the anthology really did nothing for me and it is good to know that it is not the fault of the character, but the writer. I am going to have to go check out that story you mention and see how this could have been if it had been handled with competence.

mike said...

good post. as a Man-Thing collector, i bought this issue (as well as this month's Superhero Squad lol) and pretty much had to resign myself to simply enjoying the artwork in the Man-Thing story. waaaaaay back in Defenders 97 or 98 (or somewhere close) there was a story where some demon inhabited Man-Thing and he became literally giant-sized! in that story, Doctor Strange (inside Man-Thing's/Sallis's mind) offered Ted the chance to retain some of his psyche. Ted refused. That's another important precedent that writers seem not to know. yeah this story was particularly clumsy, even aside from the Man-Thing character stuff. it's opening was out of nowhere. "what's going on?" is what i kept asking.

~P~ said...

Hey Mike,

Defenders # 98 was indeed one of the instances that I listed in the post.
(Along with the crossover from Doctor Strange; Master of the Mystic Arts # 40,41 and Man-Thing # 4)

The demon from that Defenders issue was called "Unthinkk" (yeah.. I know... Man-Thing, with no mind is invaded by "Unthinkk".)

As you point out, one of the worst (and biggest cheat) aspects of the story was that it just starts "in medias res" like that.

Just poor writing, and a weak story.


~P~ said...

Oops... misspelled the demon's (already -intentionaly- mispelled) name.


Here is his info page and story beats from that Defenders issue, such as Ted Sallis' request for oblivion.


mike fox said...

hahaha, unthinnk, yep. i don't know how i missed that the first time i read your post - must've scrolled down past that section or something.

Kyle Urban said...

I've only ever read the J.M. DeMatteis Man-Thing/Strange Tales unfinished run, but now after reading the ending bit of this entry I may have to pick up the Essential Man-Thing books.

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