Calling the final issue of Infernal Man-Thing ”bleak” doesn’t quite do justice to just how soul-crushing it really is. As a post-script to Steve Gerber‘s classic 70’s run with the swamp monster, and sequel to the story Song-Cry of the Living Dead Man, it’s an odd, alienating beast where the subject matter is dark and the humor that punctuates it even darker, as its characters fight a war against their own existential dread.
A lot of this comes in the form of Brian Lazarus, the primary character of the Song-Cry tale, once again suffering a dangerous mental breakdown exacerbated by supernatural means, here represented as cartoon characters that torment him. A frequent theme in Gerber’s work is about the individual drowned out by society’s rat race: pay bills, get a mortgage, raise a family, work, rinse, repeat. The one size fits all mentality that ascribes success as being both universal and determined entirely by how much money you can collect before you die (or, barring that, the appearance of having money before you die and all that debt falls on the people you’ve scammed into buying your success story; this is what a lot of Americans call “personal responsibility” in 2012). Previous issues explained that, following Song-Cry, Lazarus had taken up a career in screenwriting to solve his need for creative expression, only to find himself entrenched in marketing and franchising that stifled him. Artist Kevin Nowlan notably depicts both Brian and Man-Thing with constant, glazed-over frowns; of course, Man-Thing has always been a passive mirror to everyone else’s own emotional traumas, nestled comfortably in the uncomfortable realm of the uncanny, a reminder that we are ruled by primal forces we often don’t understand and even less often can control (decades after Gerber’s initial run, the rise of J-Horror films would touch on similarly disturbing notions). As much as Man-Thing (all emotion, no mind) is a mirror to Brian, he (all mind, no emotion) is a mirror to Man-Thing, “a socio who’s strayed from the path” as Gerber puts it with Carlin-esque wit.
Fitting, then, that it’s Brian’s mind, an anthropomorphic cartoon tree nicknamed “Mindy,” who turns out to be the villain. Forcing Brian to pour the last vestige of his being into a disjointed screenplay, Mindy plots to fuse with Man-Thing. Here, Nowlan draws a two-page collage where Lazarus writes himself into Man-Thing’s origin, his lips sewn shut in this sequence to represent the silencing of his voice, which is a great distillation of the surreal, avante garde nature of Gerber’s work with artists like Mike Ploog, Gene Colan, and many others. Brian only ever refers to Mindy as a “she,” reversing the gender roles of “Light and Void,” but it’s notable that Mindy’s power grows along with her phallic Pinnochio nose, made explicit when she tells Brian’s Song-Cry love interest Sybil “He thinks darkly about you, Sybil dear. Quite often. It excites him” right as the nose is completely bulged. It’d probably be more accurate to say “Mindy” is androgynous, neither male nor female, only primal id hidden behind a veneer of higher-thought. Brian isn’t just repressed creatively and intellectually, with Mindy desiring to become “relentless, burning vengeance” against the world he never belonged in, but sexually as well, and having Mindy unleashed–growing to a grotesque, Cronenbergian mass, similarly to Tetsuo in Akira–brings to the surface all manner of unpleasant fantasies (at one point she says, “Will you please relax and let me in?!?”), many of which directed at Sybil Mills.
Sybil appears to be the voice of reason, despite walking a similar path to Brian. A former dancer, she dons her old leotard like an aging gunfighter putting on the holster “one last time” before going off to reach out to Brian at the abandoned asylum from Song-Cry (even bringing a gun to complete the metaphor). Again, Nowlan shows an understated humor in his depiction, with Sybil squeezing into the form-fitting garment, in complete disbelief she’s going through with this. Like Lazarus, she lost her own creative passion to the grind of everyday life some time ago, but hasn’t given in to despair the way he has. As before, it is Sybil putting herself into danger that spurs Lazarus into action against his own destructive mind, though this time Gerber had a far less optimistic outlook. If it weren’t for the context, that final moment of Lazarus choosing his own freedom, the final page could very well have been the most nihilistic thing the writer has ever published. Instead, it’s a sad, honest capstone to a career spent fighting against a tide of banality and conformity.