Fear #15 (August, 1973)

Back in September of last year we took a look at Fear #11 (Dec., 1972), featuring writer Steve Gerber’s debut outing on the “Man-Thing” feature (as well as the fifth appearance overall of that feature’s titular star).  As you may remember, that story introduced two siblings, Jennifer and Andy Kale, who lived with their grandfather in a small Florida town; the pair’s ill-advised experimentation with a book of magic spells “borrowed” from Grandpa inadvertently summoned a demon, the Nether-Spawn, who was only prevented from ravaging the town by the intervention of the Man-Thing, within whose swampy habitat the young people had conducted their spell-casting.  At the tale’s end, the Nether-Spawn had been banished back to his hellish dimension by the expedient of burning the spell-book, and the Kale kids had declared their gratitude and everlasting friendship for their shambling, semi-sentient savior.  There was no indication whether Gerber would return to these characters — or to the intriguing question of what Grandpa Kale was doing with such a powerful grimoire in the first place — but the conclusion certainly left the door open for a sequel. 

And following a single, unrelated standalone story in Fear #12, a sequel is just what was delivered in issue #13 (Apr., 1973).  Behind a cover by Rich Buckler and Frank Giacoia, Gerber teamed with new regular penciller Val Mayerik and inker Frank Bolle to begin a further exploration of the magical mysteries centered upon the Man-Thing and his marshy abode… beginning with the first on-panel appearance of Grandpa Kale:

Yep — unbeknownst to Jennifer and Andy, not only is their Grandpa a sorcerer himself, but he’s also the leader of a group of like-minded cultists…

And so the book of spells from issue #11 gets an appropriately exotic name… just in time for the cult to discover its absence, as Grandpa, aka Joshua Kale, opens the ornate box that’s supposed to contain the Tome of Zhered-Na and finds it empty.

Meantime, Jennifer and Andy are hanging out at the local soda fountain with the former’s maybe-boyfriend, Jaxon, who refuses to believe their stories about the recent demonic-goings on in the swamp.  He’s so skeptical, in fact, that he heads out into the swamp all by his lonesome, where he is observed by a hidden Man-Thing… just prior to being accosted by a demon.:

“…an aspiring witch like yourself…”  Well, that potential little inter-generational conflict got settled pretty quickly, didn’t it?  Good to know that Joshua Kale has so much confidence in his granddaughter’s ability to safely navigate the dangerous waters of the magical arts… I guess…

The reason Ted Sallis feels he recognizes the guy on the throne is that he’s the spitting image of the demon the Man-Thing fought in Fear #11, the Nether-Spawn — though we should probably note that red skin and pointed ears don’t exactly make for a unique look among those of the infernal persuasion.  As it happens, this unpleasant fellow is indeed that very same Nether-Spawn that we and Ted (as Man-Thing) have met previously, though he gets an additional name here…

Ellen!”  If you hadn’t read the first “Man-Thing” story from Savage Tales #1 — or at least the brief recap of it provided in Astonishing Tales #12 — Gerber pretty much left you hanging high and dry as to the significance of this character’s appearance here.  As someone who had at least read the latter comic, I was aware that Ted Sallis’ girlfriend had betrayed him, and that her actions had led to his plunge into the swamp that resulted in his becoming the Man-Thing; I also knew that, as the latter, he’d later taken his revenge on her.  I didn’t know, however, that said revenge had left the duplicitous young woman alive, but badly scarred, which would signal more clued-in readers that something was not-quite-right with her unblemished look here.

Fifty years after reading this story for the first time, I find myself more confused now than I was then.  The way that “Ellen” shatters and then fades might lead one to conclude that she’d been an illusion the whole time — but Thog’s dialogue about her being his priestess and fiancé implies that she is (or was) quite real.  Perhaps Steve Gerber himself didn’t know for sure…

At this point, the Kales — who’ve been observing all these proceedings — finally exit their automobile, as Joshua announces that he’s worked out what’s actually going on:  “The only logical explanation for all this is –”

Okay, so everything we’ve seen on the last few pages has been an illusion, up to and including Thog?  Well, maybe… on the other hand, we know the Nether-Spawn has a real existence somewhere, since he quite plainly was able to manifest himself on our earthly plane back in Fear #11.  Again, the answer may be simply that Gerber hadn’t worked all this out as thoroughly as one might hope, back in 1973.

The demon’s ectoplasmic substance consumes itself, until all that’s left is a pile of ashes.  Jaxon, thankfully, is left unharmed by his experience, leaving just one matter unsettled: how, her grandfather wants to know, did Jennifer discover the Man-Thing’s burning power?

As with Fear #11, the ending of issue #13 brought a conclusion to the main narrative thread, though one with even greater potential for future storylines whenever Gerber and Mayerik were ready to follow up on it.  And, as it turned out, the duo would be ready to follow up with the very next issue, #14 (Jun., 1973).

The cover for Fear #14 was provided by Alan Weiss, while on the book’s interior pages, Chic Stone succeeded Frank Bolle as the embellisher of Val Mayerik’s pencils.  In a 2003 interview for Comic Book Creator #6, Mayerik identified Stone as the only inker he ever had on “Man-Thing” that he was satisfied with, saying his work came “the closest to what I had drawn of any of these guys.”  When your humble blogger first read this remark some months ago, it struck me as curious, as the veteran inker whose name I most closely associate with the bold lines of his mid-’60s work over Jack Kirby’s pencils for Fantastic Four and other Marvel titles seemed an odd fit for Mayerik’s feathery rendering style.  But now that I’m looking at the issue itself, damned if Stone-on-Mayerik doesn’t look more like Mayerik-on-Mayerik than does any other “Man-Thing” art job, at least among those published around this time.

The issue’s story, “The Demon Plague!” begins with more strange happenings in the swamp, as the local fauna suddenly rises en masse to attack the Man-Thing.  And weird stuff is happening elsewhere, as well; we’re shown scenes of sudden, angry violence in a backyard in St. Louis, in an office in Cincinnati, and on a busy roadway in Detroit before the scene returns to Florida, and our protagonist’s battle against angry birds and alligators…

Once they reach their special spot, the cultists begin their rite, unaware that the Man-Thing — his struggle against the swamp’s belligerent wildlife evidently over, at least for now — is watching them from nearby.  We learn that the ritual’s purpose is to recover the still-missing Tome of Zhered-Na; but after several minutes’ worth of chanting yields no results, a cultist named Brainard suddenly breaks ranks, blaming Joshua Kale for the ritual’s failure, and accusing him of having stolen the book in the first place.  Joshua vehemently denies the charge, but Brainard refuses to back down…

Jennifer protests that other than knowing what the Tome of Zhered-Na is (more or less), she doesn’t have a clue about what’s going on here; but the enchanter, Dakimh, merely rebukes her for attempting to play innocent…

At first, Jennifer’s confidence in her champion seems displaced, as the Man-Thing puts up no real defense against his opponent, Mongu the Gladiator (“this world’s mightiest warrior“); though he dodges a couple of swings of the fighter’s heavy ax, he then allows Mongu to push him to the ground…

I have to say, if there’s any character one would expect to be forgotten after his first, very utilitarian appearance, it’s Mongu the Gladiator.  But something about the guy must have appealed to someone at Marvel, as he’d have return outings in both Hulk and Avengers, a few years down the road.

Jennifer’s line about “that glint” in Dakimh’s eye will prove to be quite perceptive, as we’ll learn in the very next issue…

And now we come at last to the primary subject of this post, as well as the final installment in our trilogy of tales: Fear #15.  Behind another fine cover — this one by Frank Brunner — we get yet another change of inker, as Frank McLaughlin picks up the brush.

As is evident from the splash page, the demons-spawned world-wide crisis of madness has escalated dramatically past the relatively small-scale violence and other aberrant behavior we saw in the previous issue…

Considering that the “Man-Thing” series is set firmly in the Marvel Universe, you kind of have to wonder where the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, the Defenders (paging Dr. Strange!), etc., are during all of this.  Shouldn’t we get one of those all-purpose “everyone’s busy with other cases” dodges, if nothing else?

The Kales head downtown, where they find that the Man-Thing’s “running amok” amounts to little more than shambling slowly down the middle of Main Street — not that that deters the townsfolk from trying to fill him full of lead or run him over with a truck (neither of which is effective, naturally)…

The Man-Thing is dead… so far as anyone can tell, anyway.  A wrecker arrives to haul his inert form back to the swamp, and Jennifer tells her grandfather that she wants to go with them.  Joshua gives his assent, telling Jen that doing so may help ease her pain; but as the vehicle drives away, the cult leader’s thoughts reveal that his real goal in sending his granddaughter away is to keep her out of danger, while he makes one last effort to retrieve the Tome of Zhered-Na.  Kale knows that the demons attempting to invade Earth went after the Man-Thing because in addition to his being connected to the swamp, and thus part of the bridge connecting Earth to the Netherworld, “he was also a mystical force opposed to the demons.  They tore him apart — from within — by using him as their gate to our world.  And now…!”

Back in May, 1973, by fifteen-year-old self was so delighted to see concepts and characters from the “Tales of Atlantis” Sub-Mariner backup feature (on which Gerber had collaborated with artist/plotter Howard Chaykin) show up here in “Man-Thing” that it didn’t bother me that Mayerik had lifted his visual of the city of Atlantis directly from Chaykin and Joe Sinnott’s splash page for the first “Tales” installment in Sub-Mariner #62 (assuming that I even noticed).  Hey, at least they colored Kamuu and Zartra correctly this time!

The name of Zhered-Na’s god, Valka, comes from Robert E. Howard’s “King Kull” stories; as in “Tales of Atlantis”, its use here helps tie the fictional prehistoric settings of Marvel’s two Howard-based comic series, Kull the Conqueror and Conan the Barbarian, to the present-day milieu in which Captain America, Spider-Man, and their ilk operate.

Journeying inland, Zhered-Na eventually came upon a remote colony of Altlanteans.  Making a new home in a nearby cavern, she began again to preach her prophetic message…

Speaking of lifted visuals… in addition to Chaykin’s “Tales of Atlantis” art, Mayerik also seems to have taken a bit of, er, inspiration from Gil Kane’s work in Conan the Barbarian #17 (Aug., 1972), per comparison of the Mayerik panel shown directly above with the Kane one displayed at right (text by Roy Thomas, inks by Ralph Reese).  (Not making any judgments here — just noting it for the record.)

And here Jennifer’s line from Fear #14 about the glint in Dakimh’s eye pays off, as the enchanter not-so-unexpectedly turns out to be not such a bad guy after all.  That said, your humble blogger is far from convinced that Steve Gerber actually knew that this turnaround was coming when he plotted (as opposed to scripted) that issue… but we’ll save our discussion of that topic for a bit further on.

Jennifer Kale’s new outfit is obviously based on that of her sorcerous predecessor, Zhered-Na — although someone (Mayerik?  inker McLaughlin?  colorist Petra Goldberg?) seems to have forgotten that the Altantean prophetess’ garb included pants.

The abrupt tonal shift from the humor of the elf Yopp to the horror of the crucified cultists is exactly the sort of thing that we Marvel readers of the early 1970s would quickly come to expect from Steve Gerber.

But the Man-Thing’s efforts against “a being of fire and stone — the very antithesis of himself” prove ineffective, and he falls before his opponent’s blows…

So, once again, we appear to have reached an ending… and a relatively final one, at that, as not only has the immediate threat of demonic invasion been thwarted, but the intriguing psychic connection between the Man-Thing and Jennifer Kale has been severed, which would seem to limit the potential for future storylines involving the aspiring young sorceress and her family.  Sure, there’s at least one rather large loose end left hanging — what was up with that “false” Tome of Zhered-Na that Jennifer and Andy used to summon Thog back in Fear #11, anyway? — but otherwise, Gerber appears to have wrapped up his storyline in a reasonably tidy fashion.  So, so long, demons of Sominus — we’re off to the next thing.

Well, we are for a couple of issues, anyway… and then we’ll be right back to Jennifer and Dakimh and more multi-dimensional shenanigans in Fear #19.  Why, you’d almost think that Gerber was making this stuff up as he went along.

And you’d be right, for the most part.  In 2003, the author told Comic Book Creator editor Jon B. Cooke (for an interview published in CBC #6) that soon after he was handed “Man-Thing” as a regular assignment, he had a conversation with Len Wein, the writer of DC Comics’ Swamp Thing, in which the two scribes mutually agreed that their respective series, so similar on the surface, should otherwise be as unalike as they could possibly make them.  Since Wein had already planned out the direction of Swamp Thing as far ahead as a year or thereabouts, Gerber knew what he wouldn’t be writing about.  But that was it.  As he told Cooke:

I honestly think I kind of let the series lead me around by the nose, to be honest with you.  Those characters would pop up.  Jennifer Kale was in the very first story that I did.  The sorcerer [Dakimh] turned up a couple of issues later, I believe.  As they began to interest me, I just let them sort of run the stories for me…

Gerber’s intuitive, seat-of-the-pants approach to storytelling is particularly evident in the development of Dakimh, I believe. As I touched on earlier, I suspect that when Gerber worked out the original plot for Fear #14 — and when Mayerik drew it — the writer hadn’t decided yet that the enchanter would ultimately turn out to be a good guy.  Jennifer’s “glint in your eye” comment near the end of that issue comes pretty much out of nowhere; what’s more, it’s a reaction to something we ourselves can’t see, because Mayerik hasn’t drawn it.  I can’t prove this, obviously, but I’m of the opinion that Gerber’s shifting Dakimh over to the side of the angels came relatively late in the scripting process, and may well have been a spur-of-the-moment decision.

Is this any way to write a continuing comic-book series?  Well, it certainly comes with risks — ones not limited to simply leaving a stray loose end or two hanging at the end of a multi-part story.  (See this blog’s now-and-forever Exhibit A for the perils of “pantsing”, aka “The Mister Kline Saga”.)  But if Steve Gerber had worked in any other fashion while writing “Man-Thing” circa May, 1973, it seems likely that we wouldn’t have had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of a certain anthropomorphic waterfowl some four months hence, in the pages of the aforementioned Fear #19… and that would have been a real shame, to put it mildly.  Naturally, however, we’ll need to reserve further discussion on that particular topic for a later post — one that’ll be coming your way this September.


  1. frednotfaith2 · 12 Days Ago

    I missed these early Man-Thing stories when they were new — the first issue I got was the very next one, Adventure into Fear #16 (I also got 17 & 18 but, dang it, missed #19!). I did plug in those holes in my collection much later and while Gerber’s style evoked a feeling of being on a wild rollercoaster ride, I did enjoy it and it certainly contrasted with what Wein was doing on Swamp Thing (which I’d likewise only read much later). Actually, on reading your synopsis of these stories, Alan, it did strike me that Alan Moore might have taken at least a smidgen of inspiration from Gerber’s writing here in giving Swamp Thing a more mystical as well as environmental connection to his world, as well as a connection to a blonde beauty, but taken in directions Gerber might not even have dreamed of!
    Of course, Moore was famously very meticulous in his plotting while Gerber was openly much more seat-of-the-pants style. I can’t say I had yet taken notice of Gerber’s writing 50 years ago, but within the next year I became very aware of him through collecting Daredevil and Marvel Two-in-One and he quickly became one of my favorite comics writers. Something about his unique sensibilities as a writer resonated with me, particularly his humor, bizarreness and occasional outbursts of moral outrage at stupidity and injustice.
    I also enjoyed Mayerik’s art, even with that obvious swipe which I wouldn’t have been aware of at all without your having pointed it out! And, yeah, adding some obvious cheesecake aspects to our muck-monster exploits. Gerber might have at least had Jennifer comment about suddenly being in a bikini with a metal bra that likely wouldn’t have been very comfortable. I suspect that no woman in history ever wore such garb, at least aside from those engaged in dressing up for fantasy roles.
    In my real-time reading history, I first encountered Jennifer & Dakimh in the Howard the Duck Star Wars satire, which I loved. Appears in these stories that Gerber initially intended Dakimh to be a standard villainous sorcerer but then came to realize he’d work better as a more friendly if a touch goofy wizard, hence that note about the “glint in his eye” which wasn’t hinted at in the art. It’d be several more years before I’d read the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I now also see a touch of Gandolf in Dakimh. Interesting in retrospect how Gerber alternated the mundane with the mystical and sci-fi in Man-Thing. Not to mention his own strange brand of sword & sorcery which I’m sure no one would confuse with that of Roy Thomas! Overall, one of my favorite series from the 1970s.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. DontheArtistformerlyknownasfrodo628 · 12 Days Ago

    I was never a fan of Marvel and DC’s horror books, so I guess that means Man-Thing/Swamp Thing=Not My Thing, at least until Moore took over Swampy some time later. Most of my familiarity with Man-Thing comes for the Woman-Thing parody in the pages of Cerebus The Aardvark, and that’s really it’s own thing. Reading it now, fifty years later, I don’t really feel like I missed anything. Gerber, at this point in his career, was still trying to find the voice that would serve him so well down the road on Howard the Duck and the Guardians. and as you so ably pointed out, Alan, was making this stuff up as he went along, which for 1970’s comic book writing was pretty much par for the course. The leaps in logic and the way Grandpa’s “guess” at why Man-Thing no longer recognizes Jen at the end, which is immediately taken as fact, even though there is no real empirical evidence to back it up, seems to have been “business as usual” for comic writers back in the day. Fortunately, that would change, but obviously, it hadn’t changed yet.

    I’ve never been a big Val Mayerik fan, but this art looks pretty good, albeit wildly different from issue to issue due to the different inkers. Mayerik is apparently pretty good a copying what others have done, between his recreation of Chaykin’s Atlantis, that panel he stole from Gil Kane and Conan for his rendering of Zerhed-Na, et al, but is it me or did Jennifer and her brother age a couple of years over these issues? I haven’t gone back to re-examine the first issue of Fear we discussed here, but my impression of the Kale kids was that they were teen-agers, where here, they seem to be full-grown adults. Maybe it’s just me.

    Anyway, it’s nice as always to get a look at what I missed out on back in the day. Thanks, Alan!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. frasersherman · 11 Days Ago

    In light of your discussion about Gerry Conway’s Mr. Kline arc, I think Gerber does much better at sticking the landing even when he’s flying blind. His biggest weakness is that he hand-waves Man-Thing’s mindless empathic nature whenever the plot calls for it. Here Man-Thing figures out what’s going on; in another story he has enough memory of his human life to bind up a broken arm. But still, having read these for the first time in Essentials a few years back, I really like them (https://atomicjunkshop.com/a-supporting-actor-in-his-own-book-reading-the-essential-man-thing/).
    Kamuu, though, meh. He was so much more interesting in that Disney movie where he was turned into a killer whale (sorry. For anyone who doesn’t know, Namu the Killer Whale was a 1960s Disney movie).
    “Shouldn’t we get one of those all-purpose “everyone’s busy with other cases” dodges, if nothing else?” Agreed. One thing I love about Avengers/Defenders down the road is that they show what Dr. Doom and Dracula are doing during the final apocalypse.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Joe Gill · 11 Days Ago

    I, like you Alan, was a big fan of the Man Thing series, I think it had a unique perspective in Comic books. Manny could be the central character or a supporting character or indeed, simply an observer. I seem to remember one story arch in which he observed for a time and simply “walked away” leaving us voyeur viewers unfulfilled. One thing I hadn’t noticed when I ,similar to you, read this some fifty years ago is my new reaction to “Whoever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch” Back in the day I thought this was the coolest mantra/ tag line? I’d ever heard for a comic book character. But looking back at it now I can’t help but think who WOULDN’T know fear if someone looking like Manny touched them? The Pope? The Dali Llama? Anyway, the story itself serves to set up the return of said characters in issue #19 as you mentioned and the art, if not the somewhat overheated story, are exceptional. You wondered about where are all the other Super Heroes as all that carnage is unfolding. My own pondering would be, how long did it take to clean up all this world wide mess and shouldn’t that be addressed going forward? It always seems like everything is back to the status quo so quickly. Ah..comics..

    Liked by 1 person

  5. crustymud · 11 Days Ago

    You are correct in your assessment of Gerber’s creative process, Alan. As he himself put it in “Zen and the Art of Comic-Book Writing” from Howard The Duck #16: “Unlike some of my colleagues, I do not plot my stories months and months in advance. In fact, the ‘next issue’ blurb at the end of each story is always the most difficult line for me to write. I change my mind like some people change underwear.”

    I’d prefer he plan things out more firmly— we’d get less stories with silly errors this way— but these errors don’t ruin Gerber’s stories the way they ruin Conway’s (and others) because Gerber works from a stronger foundation and is simply a much better writer. One of the best ever, imo.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Cornelius Featherjaw · 10 Days Ago

    Forget the Avengers, surely Dr. Strange would have some inkling of a demonic invasion!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. John Minehan · 4 Days Ago

    I always felt the Wein/Wrightson/Orlando Swamp Thing was a Meta commentary on Genre Fiction: Hammer Frankinstein or Werewolf flicks Lovecraftian stories; First Contact stories; and pulp faction heroes, et seq,

    The Gerber Man-Thing stories, no matter who drew it or edited it, were about Steve Gerber’s neuroseses. Usually, in a good way.

    Fear #19/Man-Thing #1 was great, Man-Thing #2 with Richard Rory was great, Fool killer was great, Ploog came in and “Carnival of Souls” was great than it lagged until the “Dawg” story and then it is great again from “A Candle for St Cloud” through the whole “Decay Meets the Mad Viking” through “A Book Buns in Cirtrusville” up to the end,

    At its best, it was inspired.

    At its worst, it was either pointless (the F.A. Schiest and Ponce de Leoone stories or the Pirate stories) or self-indulgent crude (“The Song Cry of the Living Dead Man”).

    It was Vertigo before Vertigo.

    Liked by 1 person

    • frasersherman · 4 Days Ago

      Yeah, “Soul Cry of the Living Dead Man” was sub-par. Nothing invites maudlin bad writing like a writer writing about the agony of writing.
      Wein was quite open that he and Wrightson were committed to working through one classic horror icon per issue (I guess Batman qualified).

      Liked by 1 person

      • John Minehan · 4 Days Ago

        I guess the Trope was “Pulp Hero fights monster.”

        Heck, Gardner Fox started that with the Monk story back in 1939 . . . .

        Liked by 1 person

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