"Night of the Laughing Dead/And When I Died...!"
Writer: Steve Gerber. Pencils: Mike Ploog. Inks: Frank Chiaramonte.
Man-Thing #5, 6, 1st series (1974)
I first created my site as a place for me to post graphic novel and trade paper back collection reviews, then I expanded it with other sections -- reviews of uncollected mini-series, then uncollected great storylines, and single issues. But for some reason...it's taken me a long time to post a piece about this two-part story -- in some respects, maybe the greatest piece of sequential art storytelling I've ever come across.
You like The Watchmen? Don't you have a lopsided desk you could use it to prop up? Dig the X-Men? Don't you have a drafty basement that needs some insulation? 'Cause, really, if you pruned your collection down to only one story -- this is the only one you'd need.
Okay, I'm being facetious. Sort of.
The Man-Thing was the other swamp creature -- the one that (I believe) actually pre-dated DC's Swamp Thing by a few months, but didn't quite seem to acquire the same fame. Though both series were similar in that they weren't just straight comic book adventure, or even horror, but flirted around with allegory and social parables, surrealism and Twilight Zone-ish fantasy. Yet under the auspices of Steve Gerber (who assumed Man-Thing from Gerry Conway) the Man-Thing was actually more ambitious, more strange, more eclectic than Swamp Thing. Maybe that's why it never achieved the same success...after all, it's a series where the main character is less a personality than a force of nature.
And this two-part story is all Man-Thing was and could ever aspire to be, and mayhap represents Gerber at his very best, too. And not only is it self-contained, so you don't need to have read other Man-Thing comics, it even provides a recapping of Manny's origin (not that that's relevant to the plot).
It begins with a mixture a whimsy and melancholy, with a crying clown driving deep into the swamp...and blowing his brains out. An odd beginning for an odd tale, as it draws together Man-Thing, Man-Thing's then co-stars -- Richard Rory and Ruth Hart -- and a few of the clown's carnival compeers -- the trapeze artist who loved him, the boss who hated him, the bullying strong man. The ghost of the clown rises from the swamp and ensnares then all into reenacting key moments from his life, Rory and the others literally becoming their roles -- all played out for a jury of celestial critics who must judge the worth of the clown's life, the justification for his suicide, and ultimately the fate of his immortal soul -- "My soul at the mercy of the critics!" as the clown proclaims.
And...oh, wow! (as Rory at one point exclaims).
It isn't simply the story that is so compelling -- though it is that, with fantasy and horror mixed with kitchen sink drama unveiling the clown's troubled life, his flirtation with happiness, and his final succumbing to despair. Nor is it the endless stream of memorable lines, and haunting text captions, capturing snippets of profundity in a dialogue balloon, and carving out achingly realized personalities. But the telling itself, the surreal dreamlike presentation where the swamp itself becomes a bizarre stage, as the "actors" have breakfast conversations over a kitchen table...while gnarled trees loom up in place of walls, and brackish swamp water laps at the table legs.
As such, a success of the story has to be credited to artist Mike Ploog (and inker Frank Chiaramonte). Ploog is a stylized artist with a cartoony bent that probably owes a bit to Will Eisner. Man-Thing may well've been the property most suited to his strengths, where he could go to town on expressive characters and moody, gothic backdrops of dripping foliage. And this story inparticular is just full of richly weird yet thematically justified imagery, like scenes of the ghost of the clown (before the others know he's dead) centred in a stage spotlight where there should be no light! Or, as mentioned, the body of the story where the clown's life is played out, literally like a stage play, complete with cardboard backdrops, and with the Man-Thing looming behind the characters, unacknowledged, in his "role" as the dead clown's inner spirit.
Actually, to be honest, you could probably just pick up the second issue by itself, and still get the story, the first part being almost more just the set up. But the whole is worth the read, and is astonishing in its mood, its ambition, and its articulation of the Human Condition.
Hey -- it's warm in here. Better grab a copy of Final Crisis to prop open a window.