When Infernal Man-Thing #1 came out a couple of weeks ago, my esteemed colleague Iann Robinson was sad to learn that he wasn't fond of the late, great Steve Gerber's posthumously published sequel to a Man-Thing story he wrote in the 1970s called "Song-Cry of the Living Dead Man." I pondered writing a 'second opinion,' but now that Infernal Man-Thing #2 is out, I'll just offer my counterpoint here. That book resonated with me in ways I would rather it didn't, given that it's a melodramatic expression of hopeless anguish.
That original tale, illustrated by John Buscema and Klaus Janson and published as back-up fare in the first two issues of this follow-up, was about a writer named Brian Lazarus, a man drowning in his own artistic struggles. Everything in his life – all the minutiae of existence – threatens to tear him apart and away from the work he's trying to accomplish, the statement he's trying to make. The creation he's trying to birth and the pain he's trying to exorcise. Attempting to do such a thing in an abandoned asylum is not conducive to the continuing mental health of a man prone to horrifying hallucinations.
Lazarus encountered the Man-Thing, who was drawn to the asylum by the sheer strength and intensity of the man's emotional torment, and that snapped him out of his daze long enough to send him out into the world, staggering into the helpful arms of Sybil Mills. In his conversation with her, we learn that Lazarus has begun to be overwhelmed by the absolute meaninglessness of everything in life. He no longer enjoys The Beatles or any music he once thrived on, every interaction he has with creditors are another piece of his soul taken, every professional lie he crafts in the advertising world – it all swirls around him as crushing reminders that the hollow superficiality of existence is inescapable.
"I can see the tunnel a the end of the light," Lazarus thinks. "To survive among them, you must become them. You can't have your soul and eat, too. To survive, you must die. You can't be the walrus if they want you to be the system."
As his editor apparently referred to it then, "quasi-profound psychological drama." But in the foreword to Infernal Man-Thing #1, Marvel stalwart Ralph Macchio gives Gerber's work all the more resonance by telling us "Lazarus was not surprisingly a stand-in for Steve himself: a man worn down and decimated by the strangling supeficiality of the society around him." In the original story, Lazarus is snapped out of his torment once he managed to reach out to Sybil Mills long enough to make a connection – one that is solidified when she takes a hit from the Man-Thing, driven mad by his empathic connection to Lazarus' pain, and shows him there is another way. For Brian Lazarus, it is a revelation that leads to some hope. But Steve Gerber had more to write.
The sequel, "The Screenplay of the Living Dead Man," was written in the 1980s, and it's taken until now to see publication due to the slow artistic progress of Kevin Nowlan, who insisted on painting each panel (much to Steve and Ralph's delight), and could only do so at a snail's pace while also juggling projects which actually paid the bills. The effort stalled for many years, but eventually, Nowland finished the job he accepted decades ago, and we're finally seeing it now.
What's unfortunate about it is that Nowlan's first big splash page reveal of the Man-Thing in the first chapter of the sequel makes him look like a naked green guy wearing an elaborate fright mask, and that's going to put off a lot of people. It starts the story off on the wrong note, and I can fully understand why Iann wasn't impressed. The strange cartoony elements that quickly start assaulting him are also a bit hard to take. But they have a point – Gerber worked in the '80s on several cartoon shows like G.I. Joe, Transformers and the like, and Brian Lazarus remains a stand-in for him.
The new tale takes place many years after the old one, when Lazarus meets up with Mills once again in a diner, after they've both gone their separate ways and forged new lives. Mills had to give up dancing, had a kid with an abusive bastard, left him and is now working as a waitress. Lazarus, for his part, spent five years in therapy venting all his self-destructive thoughts and found a way to achieve a form of stability. "Got my normal life together, too. Married a Linda. Fathered a Jason. Committed to a 30-year variable rate mortgage. Norm Normal's life," he tells Sybil, in an eerily detached manner. Lazarus came to terms with his limits as a writer and gave up trying to write something deep, so he left advertising and went into animation – "innocuous little confections about elves and aliens and singing wrestlers. Good fun."
That is, until he and his whole company got laid off, and his carefully constructed normalcy fell right apart, and he flipped out, threatened his boss, became an outcast unable to support his family professionally while trying to craft his own independent show called "Mindy the Tree" that never came to fruition. Until he just left that life and drove away – on his way back to the same madhouse wherein he tried to write the Song-Cry. Only now, he's calling it the "Screenplay," because "the artsy take went out with Carter."
When the cartoony "Mindy" appeared to him halfway through the trip and started talking to him, Lazarus became resigned to the halluciongenic misery that once drove him screaming crazy. "Life is minutiae. Life is trivial. Besides, most people are dead by the age of five or six nowadays, anyway – mentally crushed – in part, by the kind of tripe I did for a living."
Gerber is delivering gut-punch after gut-punch to everything we do. Everything we are. Everything we celebrate. I relate to that sensibility on a fundamental level more often than I'd like to admit. Right now, I'm being paid to write these words, a critical analysis of someone else's creativity that I could never hope to compare to, whose work does not in any way need me to speak for it. I don't even write comic books. I write about comic books. Of course, that means I completely identify with Brian Lazarus' assertion that everything he does is absolutely pointless. I have no illusions that anything I do is in any way important, but we have to create those illusions in order to make it through our time on this earth. In the grand scheme of things, there is no grand scheme of things. Nothing really matters.
And that's just the first issue.
Infernal Man-Thing #2 makes things stranger. Lazarus contrasts the first story with this one by saying "last time, I only wounded my soul. Now it has cancer." His imaginary creditor tormentors who used to attack him have been replaced with the silly cartoon characters he's spent his career creating to tell lies to children about how this is a loving world. His half-invented friend Mindy seems to have a genuine empathic connection to the Man-Thing, drawing the creature out of the nearby swamp. And then, in his attempts to be creative, Lazarus finds himself writing a Star Trek riff called "Brian: The Next Generation," putting Man-Thing in an ill-fitting Spock shirt (and this is where it bears noting that Gerber wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation as well). Yet, the imaginary demons still found him and began devouring him.
His next attempt is as butt-kicking "Random Commando III," trying to blow away all the monsters with guns. That effort fails as well, and it all appears to be some plan devised by whatever Mindy the Tree is going to turn out to be. If anything other than a concoction of the mind of Lazarus.
After some time, Nowlan's depiction of Man-Thing is easier to take, and he gets a bit more mucky along the way, thankfully. This is definitely a series worth reading, worth examining and worthy to be Gerber's last story to the world. It's an examination of frustration. At one point, Mindy speaks to the confused Man-Thing. "It's the hate you can't figure out. Neither can he. It swims around and around inside him, looking for something to bump into. Another free-floating chunk of himself, usually. There are hundreds of 'em – thousands. His head is an asteroid belt. He caroms from one to the next, naming each one as he goes. Job. Duty. Convention. Obligation. Money. Fred. Just names. There's a cohesion problem."
There's nothing quasi about this profundity.