Monday, January 22, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Man-Thing

(or "Don't Just Stand There, DO Something!")

When we look at Marvel's Man-Thing (yes, you there, snickering in the back, if you can't hold it in, please leave the room), inevitably, comparisons arise to DC's Swamp Thing. Both were created almost at the same time, both involved brilliant scientists working on top-secret projects who got doused with their own chemicals, set on fire, and ran into the swamp ("so I built a third scientist! That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp!") Both involved said scientist coming back as a mucky, oozy swamp creature whose body has only a tangential relationship to the animal kingdom.

So why (apart from the gifted writing of Alan Moore) is Man-Thing at best an occasional guest-star and Swamp Thing a major player in the DC universe?

It can't be the tone; both play pretty much in the same corner of "dark, near-supernatural near-horror adventure". Setting? To be honest, Man-Thing has the edge here; the swamp that nurtures him is a nexus of realities, a cornerstone of existence constantly visited by strange and unusual beings (like Howard the Duck, whom we'll be discussing in a future column.) It's a perfect storytelling engine for a writer. Even the supporting cast for Man-Thing is great, with wizards, budding teen sorceresses, and a sarky, cynical DJ with a heart of gold and a lucky streak a mile long--and all bad.

No, it has to be said: The problem with Man-Thing is, well, Man-Thing. Because he's a walking (well, shambling) example of the one thing you don't want your protagonist to be--passive. He's completely and totally mindless, not even operating on the search for food or shelter; his only interest is in destroying things that feel "negative" emotions like fear or hate. (Which, naturally, writer Steve Gerber has to fudge on countless occasions, because if you have a nine-foot tall swamp monster that burns everything that fears him to death with acid, well...you'd probably have a pretty high casualty rate. So good guys seem to intuitively understand that they don't need to fear the rampaging swamp monster more often than they strictly speaking should.) Other than that, Man-Thing is usually content to stand there and let the plot unfold around him.

This isn't just a problem for an open-ended series, this is a problem for even a single story. Writers constantly get told, "Avoid the passive protagonist." The lead character for your story should be doing things, making decisions, and ultimately deciding his or her own destiny. Steve Gerber has to struggle and strain to get Man-Thing to move five feet. He's constantly ringing in "empathic links", "inexplicable urges", magic spells, gimmick after gimmick for the entire length of the Essential Man-Thing, just to get the lead character involved in the plot. That's the sort of thing that can exhaust a writer, and it's a hassle that you don't need. Your stories live and die on your lead character, and if they're not willing to get involved, you're handicapped before you start.

11 comments:

Arturo said...

I encountered a similar problem once at GenCon when I went to a "learn how to play 'Vampire:The Maskerade'" session. You are supposed to design your character, and give him certain traits; and you are supposed to advance if you play those traits truthfully. Well, I picked the two traits that seemed most interesting to me, which alas were "curmudgeon" and "solitary." Which in retrospect was dumb, but hey; it would have played well as an NPC or as part of a small campaign. Alas, the very next thing that had to happen was for the DM to explain what the hell I was doing in a gathering of 12 vampires from sundry clans and why I would go on the adventure...

Bill Reed said...

Someone should do a story where Man-Thing becomes active for some reason... and see what happens.

Matt Brady said...

John, I followed Brian Cronin's link here from Comics Should Be Good, and I'm very impressed. Your writing is full of interesting insights. I'll be checking back regularly, and I've added you to my blogroll.

Bill said...

I'm another new reader from Comics Should Be Good and I'm finding the Storytelling Engines series very interesting. Thanks for the putting these up.

It's interesting to compare the Man-Thing stories with Bill Mantlo's stories of the mindless Hulk at the Crossroads of Realities. Very similar concepts. Mantlo had the Hulk slowly evolve some intelligence and some ability to deal with the bizarre events he was faced with. It was really getting somewhere interesting when the story was derailed by a creative team switch with Alpha Flight. Might be interesting to try a similar approach with Man-Thing if there was any hope of people buying the book long enough.

Runmentionable said...

I've also come here from Brian Cronin's link and am glad I did.

I think you're slightly tough on Steve Gerber, who - rightly - constructed the stories around the other participants, and frequently did it very well. It's still problematic, though, because it means that while many issues are strong stand-alone stories ("The Kid's Night Out" and "A Candle for Saint Cloud" are particularly fine), that works against longer-term development and (in the best sense) continuity. Great individual comics, but not a great series.

Still less static than Sergeant Fury mind you.

SanctumSanctorumComix said...

Ditto on the C.S.B.G. link-love.

It landed me here, at the NEXUS of ALL-REALITIES and one of my all-time favorite characters; MAN-THING.
(# 2 on my list)

(Manny was the comic that led me to DOCTOR STRANGE, and that Mystic is my # 1)

Anyway, there WAS a writer who took MAN-THING on an ACTIVE perspective.

J.M. DeMatties, in the 3rd MAN-THING series, eventually had MAN-THING being imbued with shards of the NEXUS and the primal force of the "first man" ADAM QUADMON.

This cosmically enhanced version of MAN-THING took a different look and M.O.

He was bleached, all-white, in color and was intelligent (divinely so), and sought out remaining shards of the Nexus.
(AT least, that's what I seem to recall. The art by LIAM SHARPE was...distracting.)

Anyway, J.M.D. had MAN-THING and his estranged wife, ELLEN (she who caused him to become MAN-THING in the first place) reunite and become split pieces of this heavenly power (much like JMD did with his run on DR FATE, where he has a brother/sister team need to unite as one to become FATE).

They hunt after the pieces, (with MAN-THING showing shrewd and vicious calculated decision-making and forceful, direct assaults on others who stand in the way of his quest (NAMOR, SILVER SURFER, Cult of Entropy, Howard the Duck), especially MR. TERMINIUS (a cosmic level entity whose M.O. we don't really get to see (as the book gets canned), who has taken the son of ELLEN and TED SALLIS (MAN-THING) as his emissary.

Oddly enough, JMD takes all this and spins it into his next gig (SPECTRE, with Hal Jordan) and reintroduces TERMINIUS as a similarly named entity, but who now grasps for HAL JORDAN's niece as his liason.

As for MAN-THING, it all went back to status quo in subsequent appearances in a SPIDER-MAN 1999 annual and early issues of the relaunched HULK.

The divine aspect leaves MAN-THING, and he is now split in two.
The white MAN-THING seems to ascend to the heavens, leaving the mindless monster back on Earth.

Now, all of this is from memory.
I might be off a tad here or there, but for the most part... I'm on target.

~P~
P-TOR

Monkey Migraine said...

I never heard of "Comics Should Be Good", just heard about this site from a friend...

Thank you for breaking that down. I first encountered Man-Thing in the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe. The image of Man-Thing lurching towards me on the page will forever be my image of Man-Thing. I loved him before I ever saw his comic, and was massive disappointed when I read the actual stories.

I think that he's a better character functionally than Swamp Thing. He's also scarier - the tentacles on his face and the large round black eyes would scare the crap out of me coming at me in the night. And the fact that he's drawn to anyone who fears him (which includes pretty much everybody) makes him more terrifying because it creates a cycle - you encounter Man-Thing, you fear him, he chases after you relentlessly until he burns you alive. But his lack of a mind does make him a poor story engine.

Then again, what's Jason Voorhees or Michael's motivation besides killing anyone they encounter? I think the real problem with Man-Thing is that they try to make him the hero. He's not. His profile and even his motto ("whatever knows fear burns at the touch of the Man-Thing") imply a figure of terror. If I had the series, I would make him the villain, sort of a monthly horror movie. People encounter him, run from him, are destroyed by him. People try to destroy him, but can't. The local town draws Man-Thing to them and he traps them all inside. Maybe even introduce a regular Man-Thing hunter trying to stop him.

Daniel Peretti said...

Good series. Am I noticing a pattern here? DC has good engines, Marvel has not-so-good ones. Maybe that's just a function of which characters you've dealt with so far.

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Crimson said...

There's also the fact that Man Thing has a lame name, poor visual design, and, though you seem to think they are great, a supporting cast of idiotic and visually weak characters. While Swampy, being visually developed by Berni Wrightson at his peak, has an awesome core visual design and the coolest supporting cast around. The Un-Men even got their own Vertigo series they're so awesome.

I notice throughout your series here that you are dismissing the obvious: (visual) coolness counts for bucketloads when determining the success or failure of a title.

Anonymous said...

I think the problem is that Marvel and writers keep forgetting that Man-Thing has always worked best as a host for an anthology, used in the same way as had been used The Phantom Stranger for his anthology, Destiny with his book for his anthology, or the real life Rod Searling for the television series classic "The Twilight Zone".

The best Man-Thing stories have been one-shot episodes in his on-going series in which the characters have their little local drama, then Man-Thing shows up, and almost always the villain fears him and ends up burnt or chased into a properly poetic justie while the villain's victim somehow senses that the Man-Thing is harmless and therefore suffers not at all.

Trying to turn him from a host and deus-ex-bogmonster into a protagonist is what keeps failing.