Written by R.L. Stine
Art by German Peralta and Rachelle Rosenberg
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
Ironic juxtaposition is one of the most effective methods of invoking humor in comic books. A passing glance at Man-Thing #1 reveals the presence of such a juxtaposition at the core of R.L. Stine's venture into the world of comic writing. The contrast between the horrific appearance of the intrinsically foreign Man-Thing and the familiar casual L.A. setting seems to be the primary comparison at the heart of the story. Stine and artist German Peralta manage to garner enough sympathy for Ted Sallis, the man behind the Man-Thing, that readers are left with the second bit of juxtaposition — a world that is living in effortless social comfort and a person who is tragically incapable of doing so. All of this is to elaborate on the classical absurdity inherent in the comic, a trait which ultimately grounds this comic and titular character as human and relatable.
The fact that the story, apart from an origin flashback, manages to be mostly character deepening and deliberately paced for the first half of the comic is impressive given Stine's background in more plot-driven works. Everything seems aimed at either making the most human monster possible or in reveling in the sense of pulp and camp that the comic finds itself constantly playing with. After a brief subversion of a monster fight, Man-Thing walks off the set of the latest superhero movie and into the office of a studio executive. Man-Thing has been testing so low with test audiences that the studio is going to pull the plug on the project. The utter heartbreak in Ted's ominous eyes framed by Peralta and colored by Rachelle Rosenberg elicits empathy in a really unexpected way. It's hard not to feel genuinely sad with Ted when he asks, "My numbers weren't good?" It's a completely ludicrous scenario, let alone a scenario for the Man-Thing, but it's in these moments that the comic is at its best.
A few scenes later finds Man-Thing shambling through a crowded Hollywood sidewalk centered and imposing in size, but with a posture that illustrates how uncomfortable he is. This is that second bit of juxtaposition that the comic does well. The crowd jeering at him is clearly horrified by his appearance, and he does look completely alien to the Californians, but the real split is in how natural and comfortable they look compared to the awkward mass that Man-Thing is. Again, there is a striking amount of empathy invoked as he utters the first of what proves to be a series a quips, "Don't let my good looks fool you. Deep down inside I'm very ugly."
Still, that sense of humor might prove to be an acquired taste, and Man-Thing's quips are likely going to be the aspect of the comic that turns a few readers off completely. It gets to the extent that he feels like a Spider-Man-Thing, and in the process, some of the sadness that makes the character so potent is lost at worst, or at best rechannelled into a coping mechanism, depending on which direction Stine takes in subsequent issues. It feels more like a coping mechanism when compared to Ted's human form from the flashback.
That voice is also identical to Man-Thing's internal thought process, but the odd humor only comes out of him in the present. On the subject of the flashback, what seemed like a perfect time to introduce new readers to Man-Thing's fear-based burning is conspicuous in its absence. Readers are never given any indication that this incarnation of the character has what was a defining characteristic in his past. Following the flashback and an incredible splash page, Man-Thing is once again ostracized and accosted by the average citizens of L.A., who genuinely seem to be the worst of humanity in an aggressively rude sort of way. The comic ends as Ted is attacked by his doppelganger, which he reasons is his animal nature incarnate, here to drag him back to the swamp.
Peralta is in top form artistically and manages to keep up with Stine's impressively handled tonal shifts perfectly. Man-Thing looks completely out of space when he needs to, miserably sad when necessary, campy and dramatic when a splash page calls for it, and even nail-bitingly tense during the visually and narratively frightening flashback sequence. Rosenberg does the same and is likewise pivotal in these tonal variations having the impact that they do.
This is a comic that knows what it is and wants to have fun with it. The writing fluctuates between notably interesting and frustratingly on-the-nose but is overall an inventive and fresh direction for Man-Thing. The art captures everything in the broad tonal range necessary to tell this story effectively and is a visual treat. Despite a few faults, it's undeniably entertaining. Even the backup story manages to seize interest as it reminds readers of a universally acknowledged truth: overly ambitious pianists are just the worst.