Right now I'm plowing through his Man-Thing stuff via the Marvel Essentials Man-Thing Volume 1. If you haven't discovered the Essentials yet, what is wrong with you? They're the best bargain in comics.
No, they aren't in color. Yes, that does matter. But consider that the book costs $17 (not that a clever person would pay full cover) and there are 40+ issues of material in there. That works out to less than 43 cents per - are you kidding me?
Man-Thing is interesting on several levels. When you think about it, the character is so simple that he's actually very difficult to write. Even Hulk at his worst has a rudimentary intelligence. The Man-Thing is just kind of...there. No language to speak or understand, no real character.
He's basically just a disgusting misshapen mound of crap that shambles around attracted by any emotional stimulus that presents itself. It's kind of like Britney Spears only Man-Thing sets those who fear him on fire instead of doing a bunch of blow off their stomach.
So there's no communication and no motivation, just a thing wandering a bog. How the hell do you sustain that and keep it fresh?
What Gerber decided to do was make the Man-Thing a kind of non-judgemental observer on any damn thing Gerber felt like talking about. The bog is in Florida, so you've got some people to intersect with. And then he plopped this magical dimensional portal in the mix - "the nexus of all realities".
So now anything could happen, and did happen. Demons, check. Magic, check. Spaceships and talking ducks, check. And those are the sci-fi fantasy elements, which are fun. But then there were the social elements that Gerber was obviously most interested in exploring. Family problems, check. Substance problems, check. Race problems, check.
Adventure into Fear # 12 is one of the race problem issues, entitled "No Choice of Colors!". The premise is that a black fugitive escapes the custody of a racist lawman and heads into the swamp to lose his captors forever. Naturally that sort of emotion attracts the attention of the empathic Man-Thing, who actually strains what is left of his brain to help nurse the convict back to health.
Some of the rhetoric is cliched and familiar. Sheriff Corlee is a Jackie Gleason type with a badge, part of a lynch mob ready to accuse an innocent black man of any crime to avoid seeing him pursue a romance with a white woman. It feels a little played out, but then again these people aren't hard to find, either.
Where the story gets very interesting to me is toward the end when Corlee induces Jackson to admit that he stabbed a man to death when he could have escaped without harming anyone. Man-Thing feels betrayed by Jackson, who had sold him a sob story of innocence and persecution.
The plant creature stops shielding Jackson at that point, and then Corlee drills him full of holes. Of course all that hate brings the Man-Thing closer to the sheriff, and you know what happens then. Time for the ol' fire bath, my friend.
Nobody wins. And doesn't that ring true? I think it was a brave story to tell, one that probably wouldn't get printed at mainstream Marvel in 2008.
It's very easy to say that bigotry is a bad idea - we've heard this before, sometimes even with sincerity. It isn't very controversial, though. What's rare is that Gerber claims that the persecuted are not off the hook ethically. And that is controversial.
It isn't like this is propaganda from "The Man", either. Gerber was Jewish, and I'm told that the Jews may have had some first hand experience with bigotry and persecution. He's not telling us that Whitey Is Bad. He's telling us we're ALL screwed up - Man-Thing says to hell with all of us. I like that.
Go read some Steve Gerber stories. It's worth it.