Novelist Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic “Dune” originated the quote, “Fear is the mind-killer.” In the Marvel Universe, deep in the swamps of the Everglades, fear isn’t only the mind killer; it’s a body killer as well. In those swamps dwells the creature known as Man-Thing, whose classic tales spawned another memorable quote, “Those who know fear burn at the Man-Thing’s Touch!”
The muck monster resurfaces this week with the release of “Dead of Night Featuring Man-Thing” #1 from Marvel Comics’ MAX line. CBR News spoke with writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa about the four-issue miniseries, which features art by four different artists.
“Dead of Night” came about because Aguirre-Sacassa had reached a transition point in his career. The writer had just finished his run on “Sensational Spider-Man” and was about to join the writing staff of the HBO television series “Big Love.” “I wasn’t going to stop doing Marvel work because I love it; it’s in my blood now, but I felt like I should focus on miniseries or stories with characters that were sort of off the beaten path that I could work on at my own pace.” Aguirre-Sacasa told CBR News. “Everybody at Marvel knows I have a huge affinity for the horror characters and Warren Simons, my editor on ‘Sensational Spider-Man,’ asked, ‘Why don’t you do a horror book for the MAX line?’ We started batting around a few ideas and he suggested a Man-Thing story. I said, ‘Let me think about it.’
“I thought it would be nice to tell a Man-Thing story but what I really wanted to do was sort of my own take on those ’70s style mutant horror films, like ‘The Hills Have Eyes,’ where a group of teenagers stumble upon a group of cannibalistic mutants. I thought we could tell a story like that in the swamps around Citrusville [where Man-Thing dwells] and Man-Thing can be kind of a fringe player. We’ll tell this balls-out, gross throwback to ’70s era horror. Warren thought it was great so I drew up a proposal.
“Then I thought what if instead of relegating Man-Thing to the fringes of a story that doesn’t even really need him, lets take specific elements from the Man-Thing mythos like his origin and relationship with Jennifer Kale and try to do a kaleidoscope of four different stories. Since Man-Thing is so many different things to so many different writers, we could do almost an anthology that highlighted four different aspects. Warren had the great idea to not title the series ‘Man-Thing’ and to instead call it ‘Dead of Night’ which is the title of an old Marvel horror comic.”
The stories in “Dead of Night” explore four different facets of the Man-Thing in four distinct ways. “I felt like if we’re doing four different issues with four different stories why don’t we try to tell them in four different horror styles?” said Aguirre-Sacasa. “So issue #1 is like an EC horror comic. Issue #2 is told in a style similar to the old Warren magazines ‘Eerie’ and ‘Creepy.’ The third issue is the ’70s mutant cannibalistic horror tale. And issue #4 is more like a James Cameron ‘Aliens’-style horror story.”
The level of sex and violence in each issue of ‘Dead of Night” differs depending on the style of horror the issue is hoping to achieve. “The EC issue is all subtextual and has kind of tongue in cheek Bettie Page-style sexuality,” Aguirre-Sacasa said, “Whereas the ’70s one is pretty graphic stuff. It’s funny because this is the first time I worked on a MAX book, and I almost felt like I was making the gore, violence and sex gratuitous, but when I went back through with Warren he asked, ‘Why are you putting this in? Is it because it’s essential to the story? Or is it because you can?’ Whenever my answer was ‘Because I can,’ I reexamined that part of the story.”
While each issue of “Dead of Night” can be read and enjoyed on its own, readers of the entire series will get a larger interconnected tale. “In that first issue, Ted Sallis, the scientist who becomes the Man-Thing, is working on a formula very similar to the Super Soldier Serum, which is part of his traditional origin,” explained Aguirre-Sacasa. “That’s what turns him into the Man-Thing, ultimately. But before he injects himself, tests are done on other denizens of the swamp, which creates the cannibalistic mutants that are loose in issue #3. Jennifer Kale, the swamp witch who befriends the Man-Thing in the original series, pops up in all the stories as well, so when you read them all together the four issues kind of tell the uber origin of the Man-Thing.”
Another element that ties the four issues of “Dead of Night” together is the presence of Digger, who serves as the series’ horror host. “When we decided to do the first issue as an EC horror comic, I thought, let’s really do it; let’s write it in that style and let’s illustrate it in that style,” Aguirre-Sacasa stated. “Then I thought we need a horror host because it’s not a true EC-style story without one. I emailed Marvel’s trade department, who are sort of the archivists of Marvel’s history and said, ‘I have a dim memory of a horror host like the Crypt Keeper. They immediately wrote back, ‘You’re thinking of Digger.’ So I pulled out some old issues of ‘Tower of Shadows,’ the comic where Digger first appeared.
“Even though the other issues in the series aren’t EC horror tweaks, after writing Digger in the first issue I felt like we should keep him around,” Aguirre-Sacasa continued. “He’s just too funny and fun to have in just one issue. And since we’re doing four different stories Digger helps to give the book a nice connecting thread.”
In the first issue of “Dead of Night,” which is drawn by Jose Angel Cano Lopez, Aguirre-Sacasa and Digger reintroduce readers to Ted Sallis. “In the original [Man-Thing stories], Ted was a bit of a milquetoast, so Warren said, ‘If you’re going to use this character why don’t you toughen him up a bit and make him less of a sap?’” explained Aguirre-Sacasa. “So he’s more of an Indiana Jones style scientist. He’s a little tougher but like in the original series he’s very altruistic. He’s working towards the betterment of mankind. And it’s nice to spend so much time with him in the first issue before he becomes the Man-Thing.”
Issue #2 of “Dead of Night,” drawn by Brian Denham, turns the spotlight on Jennifer Kale. Her circumstances in the miniseries may be different than those of her mainstream Marvel U counterpart, but Aguirre-Sacasa made certain her personality was the same. “When I think of the magazines ‘Eerie’ and ‘Creepy,’ the first person I think of is Vampirella and I wanted this issue to have that kind of cheesecake feel to it,” Aguirre-Sacasa said. “To me, Jennifer Kale’s essence is ‘swamp witch.’ She comes from a long line of witches and I thought, what if she was a down on her luck stripper who supports herself and takes care of her younger brother by stripping? She hides the fact she’s studying to be a witch by making her stripper persona this witch woman. That gave the issue a kind of ‘Grindhouse’ feel to it. The image I had in my mind was Salma Hayek’s dance in ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’
“You do these tweaks but you try to keep the characters the same,” Aguirre-Sacasa added. “She’s a really decent person. That was the most important element to keep alive.”
“Dead of Night” #3 is drawn by Javier Saltares and features two characters that some might recognize from Aguirre-Sacasa’s other work. Said the writer, “The first thing I did for Marvel was the Marvel Knights’ Fantastic Four book, ‘4’. In issues #5-7 of the book, I had the FF camping in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, where there’s the legend of the Jersey Devil and all these people have vanished over the years. In those three issues, two [student] filmmakers get caught up in the story because they’re trying to make a documentary about the Jersey Devil. I thought it would be fun if those same filmmakers from ‘4’ decided they were going to make a documentary about Man-Thing. So these two guys and their girlfriends set out to make a film about the Man-Thing, who they know nothing about. And they certainly don’t anything about the other things living in the swamps like cannibalistic mutants.”
Issue #4 of “Dead of Night” is a tale of retribution that features artwork by Nic Klein. “Ellen Brandt, Ted Sallis’s sort of curvaceous assistant from the first issue, comes back to get revenge on the Man-Thing for what is done to her in issue #1,” Aguirre-Sacasa said.
“Dead of Night” explores the question of whether the Man-Thing is an intelligent being or more of a force of nature. “The big questions are, is there any part of Ted left in the Man-Thing? Is the Man-Thing good or bad? Or beyond simple moralistic labels?” Aguirre-Sacasa remarked. “I think those are the questions I hope the series will answer satisfactorily.”
“Dead of Night Featuring Man-Thing” is first and foremost a horror series, which meant Aguirre-Sacasa had to leave some of the more fantastic elements of Man-Thing for later tales. “I love all the sword and sorcery elements, the Nexus of All Realities and stuff like Howard the Duck,” the writer said. “I was really determined to do a story with Korrek the Barbarian and the Nexus but I wasn’t able to get to them. I hope this series is successful enough that I’ll get a second run so I can do those other stories. It seemed like the goal of this series was to get Man-Thing to a place where other stories can be told.”