Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Superheroes I Love No. 1: The Man-Thing

Everyone knows about Superman, Spider-Man, Batman and Wolverine. But one of the things that keeps me hooked on comics is the sheer variety of goofy, semi-obscure superheroes out there. Here's one of a series of occasional looks at lesser-known characters I've always dug.

PhotobucketWho: The Man-Thing, a swamp monster who first appeared in 1971.

What: A scientist transformed in a horrible lab accident -- you know how it goes -- into a mindless, shambling muck monster, who feeds off human emotions. Haunts the Florida Everglades, ends up in lots of strange magical-inspired escapades.

Catchphrase: "Whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing's touch!"

Why I dig: There's something about Man-Thing I've always liked, even if his name is vaguely giggle-inducing. (And we won't even get into the short-lived series "Giant-Sized Man-Thing," source of more comic geek jokes than you could fill a barn with.) I've always liked his bizarre design, kind of a pile of muck with a carrot for a nose and dreadlocks. He was created around the same time as DC Comics' "Swamp Thing," but has been used in rather different ways over the years. He's less a character than a catalyst -- there's a challenge in writing a story around a mute, basically brain-dead protagonist, who basically just reacts to events and puts plots in motion.

PhotobucketBut the best stories, by the late, great Steve Gerber, use Man-Thing as a pivot to tackle themes of all stripes. You'll find Man-Thing used in ghost stories, religious parables, environmental spiels, wacked-out pirate tales. Gerber had a knack for using Man-Thing's empathic nature as a mirror to reflect man's own lunacy, and was probably the best writer by far to tackle the character. Although his heyday was in the 1970s, he's even been used fairly successfully in more straightforward superhero tales -- one of my favorite "Marvel Team-Up" issues pitted Spider-Man in a gooey battle against Man-Thing. Sure, it's a funny name -- Man-Thing, tee-hee! -- but the muck monster has yielded some great stories.

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