Book Review: Readings

No nostalgia: discovery and rediscovery


Essential Man-Thing: Vol. 1

Marvel Comics, 544 pp., $16.99

Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier

DC Comics, 548 pp., $16.99

One of the encouraging recent trends in the comics industry has been the inexpensive black-and-white repackaging of long out-of-print stories. The Marvel Essential series comprises more than 40 titles; the DC Showcase line, a dozen-plus. More than nostalgic trips, they introduce newer readers to forgotten characters and creators while allowing older fans to rediscover beloved stories in an affordable format. Two recent collections, DC's Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier and Marvel's Essential Man-Thing: Vol. 1, feature the early stories of two fascinating yet all-but-forgotten characters. The former further supports my assertion that DC produced some of the finest war comics. Created by the legendary Joe Kubert, The Unknown Soldier follows a hideously scarred soldier who expertly assumes different identities through various World War II espionage missions in the European and Asian theatres. The never-named Unknown Soldier's earliest missions, while entertaining, are standard military-comics fare. The stories are littered with historical events – including a stint impersonating Adolf Hitler – so much so that you begin to wonder if the Unknown Soldier, like some comics version of Forrest Gump, was involved in every major happening of the war. However, the eighth story in the collection, "Totentanz" (Star Spangled War Stories No. 158, August-September 1971) elevated the series. With the aid of scripter Bob Haney, Kubert produced a powerful story that presaged his acclaimed 2003 graphic novel, Yossel: April 19, 1943. To rescue a woman who smuggled Jews out of Nazi-occupied territory, the Unknown Soldier, posing as a Jew, gets placed in a concentration camp. Ultimately, he completes his mission but not before suffering Nazi tortures. This and every story here reads like a mini-Mission Impossible episode and contains some of the best work of Kubert's career.

Essential Man-Thing: Vol. 1 collects the first appearances of the lesser known of the 1970s "muck monsters." Created by writer Gerry Conway and artist Gray Morrow, the Man-Thing first appeared in Savage Tales No. 1 (May 1971). The better-known Swamp Thing, created by Conway's roommate Len Wein and Berni Wrightson, premiered one month later in DC's House of Secrets No. 92. While the friends claimed synchronicity, they were most likely influenced by their memories of earlier comic-book marsh monster the Heap, who first appeared in Air Fighters No. 3 (December 1942). The oft-reprinted Wein/Wrightson Swamp Thing tales attracted acclaim and served as the source materials, along with a popular revamp from Alan Moore, for two movies and a TV series. A dreadful 2005 Man-Thing movie went direct-to-video. Ironically, Wein scripted the second Man-Thing adventure (Astonishing Tales No. 12), which introduced the monster's most unique characteristic: Whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing's touch. Soon after the initial appearance, writer Steve Gerber took over Man-Thing, producing a spate of often goofy yet engaging stories centered around the empathic swamp creature with no personality of its own, who guards the Nexus of All Realities. Within this framework, Gerber littered these far-out adventures with an intriguing supporting cast – including the first appearance of Howard the Duck – exploring Seventies politics and alternative culture with humor and particular insight. In Man-Thing No. 1 – the previous tales appeared in other Marvel comics, primarily Fear – Gerber and artist Val Mayerik took us through several layers of reality on a quest for the mysterious Overmaster, who turned out to be a man in a suit toting a briefcase. This collection also contains the two issues of the most misleading comic title of all time: the distinctly unpornographic Giant-Size Man-Thing. Throw in art by cult favorite Mike Ploog and eerie covers by Frank Brunner, and Essential Man-Thing: Vol. 1 offers a wild ride through a forgotten piece of weirdness.

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Essential Man-Thing:Vol. 1, Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier, Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Frank Robbins

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