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Review: ‘Man-Thing By R.L. Stine’

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Man-Thing By R.L. Stine
Writer: R.L. Stine
Artists: German Peralta, Tyler Crook and others
Marvel Entertainment; $15.99
Rated T+ for teens 13 and up

The trade paperback collection of juvenile fiction juggernaut R.L. Stine’s recent five-issue Man-Thing miniseries contains a brief prose introduction from the author that contains some downright shocking information. Stine writes that when he was growing up, his life revolved around comic books, and that getting to write a comic book series himself was a dream come true.

Man-Thing TPThe fact that he loved comics as a kid isn’t the surprising part, of course. He writes that the EC horror comics were his favorites, as well as a big influence on him, and that is readily apparent to anyone who has read much of Stine’s work and much of EC’s classic output (that influence is even obvious in here, as there are five short Stine-penned comics by different artists, which originally appeared as back-ups in the serially published issues of this series).

No, the surprising part is it took until now for Stine to write a comic book script. Surely he’s been a big enough deal in publishing for a long enough time that he could have written for most any comics publisher at most any time he chose, right?

Why the delay? I don’t know for certain, but I can at least offer a guess based on the quality of his Man-Thing story, which is the other shock contained in this trade: R.L. Stine just isn’t very good at writing comics.

Perhaps I should clarify. After all, those back-ups, which are grouped all together after the various chapters of the 80-page Man-Thing storyline, are well written. They are all essentially EC-like shorts, five-page strips with twist endings that function simultaneously as dark gags. These are drawn by Daniel Johnson, Christopher Mitten, Kate Niemczyk, Joathan Marks Barravecchia, and Tyler Crook, who also provided the covers for the series.

It’s the Man-Thing story that reads like a bit of a mess.

Now, the character is something of a challenging one. Unlike DC’s more famous Swamp Thing, whose origin is just about identical to Man-Thing’s, Marvel’s muck monster doesn’t speak and barely has anything approaching a consciousness. A sort of mindless empath, Man-Thing is drawn to strong emotions, particularly fear, and in the best stories—those from Steve Gerber’s early 1970s run—he acts as a catalyst or witness to the stories of various human characters. He was basically a cool-looking monster whose wandering overlapped with melodramas set in and around his swamp home.

Rather than taking his cues from Gerber, Stine seems intent on telling a serial story, and his first order of business is to alter Man-Thing into leading-man material. The series opens in Hollywood, where Man-Thing has recovered not only the human mind of biochemist Ted Sallis but also the ability to speak (a neat trick, considering he lacks a mouth). Sallis is attempting to become an actor, which perhaps makes sense given how popular movies based on Marvel characters have become since Man-Thing’s 2005 TV movie.

Stine mines the premise for all the jokes he can and then moves on…like, immediately. By the next issue, Man-Thing has merged with an unexplained doppelganger and has been transported back to his home swamp, where the animal life has become strange and monstrous. In the next issue, he enters the Nexus of All Realities and is transported to a different dimension.

The strange shifts give the story a dream-like quality, but it’s all too polished for the randomness to be charming; instead, it comes off as a highly skilled professional making up a story—and seeing it published—as he goes along. It’s episodic, but almost every issue seems like an episode from a different series with a different premise.

This is likely the result of Stine being a very experienced writer new to writing for this particular medium and, perhaps, the editorial team—Katie Kubert, Mark Paniccia, and Christina Harrington—taking an understandably deferential, hands-off approach with their super-famous, super-successful “get” of a writer, instead of helping him shape his ideas into something that works as a satisfying serial comic.

It is not completely without merit, of course. Certain scenes are good, certain dialogue is sharp (even if it seems weird coming out of the traditionally mute and brainless Man-Thing’s non-existent mouth), but it doesn’t hold together as a series…each issue ends with a cliffhanger of some kind, but the story doesn’t flow from one issue to the next. Rather it just reads like the kind of story a little kid might tell you: “This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.”

Given the reputation of the writer, and how perfect a fit this particular Marvel character is for him, it is about as disappointing as a comic can be.

That said, those Man-Thing-less shorts are all pretty strong, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see another Stine-penned comic in the future.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.