In 1990, Marvel’s house-magazine/PR publication “Marvel Age” published the “Marvel Age Preview,” which billed itself as, “A look at 1990’s hottest titles!” Some of the projects touted were published (Todd McFarlane’s “Spider-Man,” Howard Mackie and Javier Saltaires’ “Ghost Rider”), others resurfaced at other companies (Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy’s “Star Wars: Dark Empire”) and some were cancelled outright (the announced “Mutant Wars” 12-part crossover between “Uncanny X-Men,” “New Mutants,” “Excalibur,” and “X-Factor”). Out of all of these projects, the one that I never thought would suddenly resurface over two decades later was Steve Gerber and Kevin Nowlan’s graphic novel, “Screenplay of the Living Dead Man.”
The project is now a three-issue mini-series with the misleading title, “The Infernal Man-Thing,” and I mention all of this because of how ill-suited this new format is to what was originally created. The late Gerber wrote this script as something intended to be read as a single unit, not broken into three parts. The end result is a story that almost randomly starts and stops, the flow of Gerber’s script badly broken from one moment to the next. That’s a real shame, because two issues in, it’s quite clear that this is not only a strong and powerful story, but also one that was deeply personal to Gerber.
Parts of “The Infernal Man-Thing” #2 are hard to ignore as being strong allegories for Gerber’s own life; the return to the asylum to finish the story he once told there (in Gerber’s case, returning to “Man-Thing” to finish the story he’d begun with “Man-Thing” #12, the original “Song-cry of the Living Dead Man” which is helpfully reprinted here), references to “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (for which Gerber co-wrote an episode), and of course main character Brian working heavily in animation (which Gerber did after originally leaving comics). Even if you don’t catch these references, it’s a story of creation and the desperation to get those stories out into the world. It’s about failure on a commercial level, about ideas literally tearing one’s self apart. While there’s still a concluding chapter still to come next month, right now it’s feeling immensely strong.
I hate to say it because it took so long, but the art really was worth the wait. We so rarely get a project both penciled and inked by Nowlan, so having it fully painted by him is such a lovely rarity. It’s a strange mixture of slapstick and disturbing; we get little stars whirling around Brian’s head when a door smacks into it, only three pages later to then see cute little cartoon characters cutting Brian apart and pulling out his insides. The agony on Brian’s face in that moment is hard to shake, and I can’t help but think that Gerber must have been thrilled to see these pages come in over the years. Man-Thing’s slightly bizarre appearance may have initially felt a little off-putting to some, but at this point I’m enchanted by it. Man-Thing looks so odd and lumbering here that it’s even more of an outsider than ever.
“The Infernal Man-Thing” might have been written over two decades ago, but its posthumous currently feels rather apt. It’s not Gerber’s final comic story (that turned out to be his Doctor Fate serial in “Countdown to Mystery”) but it feels like it’s his final word on the medium. It’s a shame that the format of its initial publication feels like such a bad decision; misleading (if nice) covers from Arthur Adams, a nonsensical title, and bad chapter-breaks created after the fact. They actually greatly diminish the overall feel for the story that Gerber and Nowlan created here; a collected edition will almost certainly be the preferred method in which to read this story. “Screenplay of the Living Dead Man,” Gerber, Nowlan, and the audience all deserved a little more respect after all these years in how we finally got to read this comic.