Published on May 20th, 2013 | by Matt Derman0
The Infernal Man-Thing is Depressing Fun
It’s always nice to be surprised by both the writing and the art of a comic book series. Since it is typically a collaborative medium, you often have to live with either great writing or great art. Finding both in the same place is rare. Finding a unique story paired with unique artwork is even rarer, but exists in all three chapters of Steve Gerber and Kevin Nowlan’s The Infernal Man-Thing. Gerber and Nowlan both experiment with their storytelling techniques to produce something that feels refreshingly singular today, even though Gerber wrote the script for it nearly thirty years ago. A sequel to a 1974 issue of Man-Thing that Gerber also penned (and is reprinted in the pages of Infernal), this story’s publication was massively delayed when it was originally written. It only came out in 2012, four years after Gerber’s death. And though there may be an editorial update here and there, the core of the story is timeless, a bold and challenging examination of the final stages of one man’s descent into complete, self-destructive insanity. Not the most hopeful of tales, but one that manages to be playful and charming even at its most dismal.
Though Man-Thing is the title character, and certainly plays a key role, the star of this series is really Brian Lazarus. A failed television writer, Brian has been driven quite mad by his inability to do anything of meaning or lasting importance in his life, so he flees to an abandoned house in a swamp to try to write something of substance. In reality, though, he is there in a desperate final attempt to thwart his personal demons. He wants to take his pain away, and part of him believes if he can get get the right words out in time, he’ll find some semblance of peace.
In and of itself, this is not the most thrilling or original narrative. But the way Gerber writes Lazarus and, more importantly, the way he writes Lazarus’ insanity is what makes this story so great. When at his maddest, Brian’s fears and hurt and other aspects of his growing craziness manifest themselves in the real world as bizarre cartoon characters who are out to get him. They attack him, and he feels it all over his body, even though in reality it all stems from his broken mind. And the primary villain of the series is one of these strange animated monsters, a tiny little tree named Mindy who comes across at first as cute and fun-loving but, in the end, is a terrifying personified version of Brian’s own mind fighting against the rest of him.
Man-Thing, as a fully empathic creature, sees and feels everything Brian does, and joins in the struggle for Brian’s sanity. So we get a nice big monster battle in the midst of a darker character study. This pushing together of the dreary and the goofy is at the heart of this entire book, and is reflected in Kevin Nowlan’s art as well. Nowlan uses fully painted pages here, so the visuals are richer and realer and more textured than you often get in a comic. This adds a realism and, in the story’s lowest moments, new layers of darkness. Nowlan’s Man-Thing is a droopy, pathetic muck monster, and Lazarus is fittingly weary and hopeless in his demeanor. But the cartoon attackers are all done in full Saturday-morning silliness, and the dichotomy between them and the “real” world is a major boon to Gerber’s script.
This is not a comicbook where the good guys get to beat up on the bad guys and justice is served. It is far more even-handed in its resolutions, leaving the heroes in not much better a state than their enemies. Yet there’s still a lot of wild fun to be had along the way, and a level at which The Infernal Man-Thing refuses to take itself entirely seriously, which is what makes it such a compelling and unique read.