Marvel had the Glob, Skywald had the Heap, Warren Publications had Marvin the Dead-Thing. There was the Bog Beast at Atlas Comics and the Monster in the Muck at Charlton, while Gold Key Comics offered the Lurker in the Swamp, and the Beast of the Bayou.
As bizarre as it sounds, there was actually something of a vogue in early to mid ’70s funny-books for human corpses emerging from the murk, walking the earth shrouded in goo, and getting involved in other people’s problems. If these stories teach us anything, it’s that some things just refuse to die, especially the propensity for comic book writers to copy off each other.
Honestly, the fact that even one of these lunatic ’70s swamp monster characters managed to survive through the decades as the star of a superhero comic is hard to believe, and yet we find ourselves blessed with two of them: DC Comics’ Swamp Thing, and Marvel Comics’ Man-Thing. It just goes to show what you can achieve, when you put an infinite number of monkeys in charge of your pop culture.
The question of which Thing came first is a little bit fraught, because they debuted within a couple months of each other. Man-Thing emerged in the first issue of Marvel’s black-and-white comics magazine Savage Tales, with a cover date of May 1971, and Swamp Thing’s first appearance was a one-shot story in a July 1971 issue of House of Secrets. Besides, they were both pretty much ripoffs of the Heap.
I told you about the Heap last week; he was the World War I German airman who crashed his plane into a swamp and emerged in the ’40s as the original comic-book muck monster. The Heap showed up in Air Fighters Comics as an offbeat side character in a 1942 Sky Wolf story, but he was intriguing enough to bring back a couple more times, and in 1946, he pushed Sky Wolf out of the book and got his own regular feature, which shambled along until 1953.
What made the Heap an unlikely comics hero is that he was practically brainless. He didn’t talk and he could hardly think, mostly acting on impulse and dim memories of his previous life. When he first got his own feature, he was paired with an American kid named Rickie, who hated him and tried to destroy him multiple times. After a while, the comic drifted into the fantasy/mythology genre, and the Heap started meeting gods and dwarves.
And “drifted” was really the word — the character was so passive and reactive that it almost didn’t matter what kind of story he was involved in; he would mostly stand around and try to look interested until some character needed to be brutally murdered, and then he’d swing into action. You might wonder how a character like that could possibly succeed as a comic book feature, even in the late ’40s, but they were simpler times, and they hadn’t figured out about lead paint chips yet.
The origin story of Man-Thing is that he just kind of happened. The idea came up when Stan Lee was putting together a new black-and-white comics magazine called Savage Tales, to compete with Warren Publishing’s Creepy and Vampirella. In the Swampmen: Muck Monsters and Their Makers book, Lee’s assistant Roy Thomas said:
“Stan Lee called me in… to begin this new book called Savage Tales… Stan wanted to do a series called “Man-Thing”. He just had a sentence or so, just the idea of some guy doing some experimental drug and getting sort of fused with the swamp, so he becomes this creature. It sounded a lot like the Heap, but Stan never mentioned that character. I knew of the Heap, of course, but didn’t mention it.
“So with that couple of sentences, I went off and plotted the story. I gave it to Gerry Conway, who wrote a script from it, and it was given to Gray Morrow to draw. It was my intention to basically bring the Heap into comics.”
And here’s how Gerry Conway described it:
“Man-Thing was really Roy’s idea, something that he wanted to do because of his interest in the old Heap character. I was Roy’s pinch-hitter, so whenever he would start something that he didn’t really feel like he wanted to carry forward, he would turn it over to me… just stuff that he would start and that he wasn’t really that enthusiastic about.”
What they came up with should sound a little familiar. Ted Sallis is a brilliant scientist, cooped up in a secret government lab which is located in the Florida Everglades for some reason. He’s supposed to invent a super-soldier potion that turns people into indestructible warriors, and he does a pretty good job of it. But once he’s got it, he’s not happy with it; apparently, he’s just figured out that the army is going to use it to kill people, and that doesn’t sit right with him.
So he’s planning to destroy the formula and put an end to the experiment, but his luscious girlfriend turns out to be a double agent, who’s planning to murder him, and steal the only sample of the solution. He manages to escape from her goons, and as he’s driving away, he injects the potion into himself, in order to keep it out of her hands.
Now, anybody could have told him that you’re not supposed to inject yourself with experimental super-soldier serum while you’re driving, but Ted’s not that clear of a thinker. In the next panel, he crashes through a fence and straight into the swamp.
And so the swamp does what swamps do, apparently, which is to turn people into grotesque slime zombies seeking revenge on the living. The Man-Thing gets his head up above water, and within a couple of pages, he murders everybody except the girlfriend, who’s scarred by the creature’s burning touch.
That could have been the end of it, just another macabre one-shot horror story with the mandatory ironic twist. A second story was written and drawn, but Marvel decided not to go forward with Savage Tales, so the sequel stayed on the shelf.
But there must have been something in the fetid water back then, because a couple months later, DC Comics published their own version of the Heap, an eight-page sob story about a sad-sack called Swamp Thing. This was Len Wein’s original version, about a 19th century scientist named Alex Olsen who’s murdered by his best friend and dumped in the swamp, so the friend can seduce Alex’s bereaved wife. This version of Alex is a scientist as well, and blows up in a lab explosion, but there’s no special serum or formula involved.
And here’s where the timeline gets a little complex. In order to be published so close together, Gerry Conway and Len Wein must have been writing their stories around the same time, so you might imagine that it was just a coincidence — except that Conway and Wein were actually roommates at the time. In fact, Wein wrote the second Man-Thing story, continuing Ted Sallis’ unhappy Everglades adventure.
A year later, Marvel decided that they might as well get some use out of that second Man-Thing story, so they stuck it into the middle of Astonishing Tales #12, a book that starred Ka-Zar, Lord of the Hidden Jungle.
In this story, Ka-Zar and his sabertooth tiger Zabu are brought all the way from the Hidden Jungle to the Everglades in order to find Ted Sallis’ super-soldier formula, which is somehow still in dispute. The black-and-white Len Wein story is used as a flashback for Man-Thing, and then some mean characters from Advanced Idea Mechanics get involved and it all goes badly.
The interesting twist that Len Wein brought to the character is that Man-Thing really doesn’t like fear, and by interesting I mean fairly bonkers. In the first story, the creature burned everything it touched, but Wein figured you can’t have a series about a character that can’t touch anything, so now you only get burned if there’s fear in your heart — say, because an enormous violent swamp monster is chasing you.
So when Man-Thing and Ka-Zar end up trapped in a pit by a team of faceless jumpsuited science Nazis, the ape-man and the Man-Thing have a hard time getting along.
We get some Man-Thing captioning, which is written in second-person to evoke a Rod Serling-type vibe:
Even in the gloom of the pit, you know the look which darts from his wide-opening eyes. You’ve seen that look before, haven’t you? It is… FEAR.
You hate fear most of all, don’t you, Man-Thing? And that which you hate —
— YOU MUST DESTROY!
This is incredibly irresponsible on the part of the caption-writer, obviously. Why are you riling him up like that?
Well, Ka-Zar’s a lead character, so Man-Thing can’t actually destroy him. By the time the next issue starts, Ka-Zar fights down his feelings of fear just in time for the Man-Thing to grasp him without injury.
So that’s the crazy shtick for Man-Thing, that he pays close attention to other people’s feelings, so that he can burn anybody who’s afraid of him. Whatever Knows Fear Burns at the Touch of the Man-Thing! was the slogan, and I have to admit that at least it’s original. I don’t think there’s anything else like it in comic books; it’s a little island of goofiness, off on its own.
At the end of the two-part story, the Man-Thing decides we belong dead and pulls a switch that blows himself and all the bad guys to smithereens, and then Ka-Zar says well, I hope the Man-Thing has at last found peace, which obviously he hasn’t.
They did this with the Heap, too; each of his first three stories ended with the Heap getting blown up somehow. People need to stop thinking that they can blow up swamp monsters at the end of a story. It doesn’t work, and it annoys the monsters.
It turns out this was a good time to be a monster in Marvel Comics, because they were starting to invest in a suite of horror titles. Werewolf By Night debuted in February 1972, with a Tomb of Dracula comic following in April, and The Monster of Frankenstein in January 1973. Those are pretty much the only public-domain Universal Monsters characters that you can use as the lead of an ongoing monthly — there’s not a lot that you can do with the Invisible Man or the Mummy, comics-wise — but there was the Man-Thing, at a loose end with nothing on his calendar.
So Man-Thing became the lead feature in Adventure Into Fear as of October 1972, beginning with a story about saving a baby from being thrown into a river by his deadbat dad.
The main character doesn’t talk and can’t really think much, so the captions have to do all the heavy work. “The man who was once Ted Sallis,” they say, ending an expository flashback, “whose body has become that of a swamp-roaming creature, forgets again what once he knew. It’s better, that way. It’s better.”
Man-Thing has the presence of mind to bring the baby all the way to the local doctor’s house and ring the doorbell, so something is certainly breaking through, but the captions translate things back into brainless-monster terms.
“He returns to his hunt,” say the captions. “A hunt he no longer understands, a hunt continued solely because it was once begun… begun, perhaps, by a different entity… one touched by the feeling of innocent life in its tainted hands… the life of a child almost cruelly wasted… a child he will now avenge… for reasons he doesn’t quite comprehend!”
There’s a lot of that, and it sets the tone for how the character is going to make his way through the world — coming across somebody else’s problem, getting some kind of instinct about what’s going on, and then following those feelings.
It was a month after that, in November ’72, that DC dampened our door with their new ongoing Swamp Thing series. This was a modern reboot of the old-timey House of Secrets story, and Len Wein started the story over with a new explodable scientist.
And what do you know, this time the story sounds a lot like the Man-Thing origin from Savage Tales. Alec Holland is a scientist, like Ted Sallis, who’s working swampside on a secret government project to concoct a dangerous magic potion. Bad men interfere, and Alec ends up taking a dive in the swamp, soaked in his own bio-restorative formula.
The similarity between these two stories did not escape the attention of the Man-Thing creators, especially because one of them was Len Wein’s roommate. “Gerry was rooming with Len at the time,” Roy Thomas recalled, “and says he tried to convince him to change his story. Len just didn’t seem to see the similarities, so he just went ahead with what he was doing. And in the long run, the characters verged off after that origin, so it didn’t make too much difference, anyway. There were never any hard feelings about it.”
There was a little talk over at Marvel about suing Wein, or DC, or somebody, but as is typical with anything to do with Man-Thing, nobody cared enough to pursue it.
Starting with the second Adventure Into Fear issue, writing duties were handed to a new writer named Steve Gerber, who had recently been hired and didn’t have a regular gig yet. They could tell that he was the right guy to work on it, because he wasn’t really that interested in it. Roy Thomas said:
“I don’t remember how much before that he’d come in, but not too long. And we needed something to experiment on with the writing, so Man-Thing seemed to fit. Gerry was always in demand on other things, so I’m sure it gravitated toward Steve. Maybe he wanted to do it, and at the same time he just wanted an assignment. As with a lot of these things, you just end up doing something because it’s available, and maybe you get attached to it and maybe you don’t.”
The character didn’t really have a connection to its origin story anymore, and there were no established secondary characters, so Gerber could take the book in whatever direction he wanted. In the Swamp Men book, Gerber talked about how and Len Wein handled the comparisons with Swamp Thing:
“[Len and I] knew we were going to have this ridiculous situation of these two swamp monsters running around at the same time. Len was also doing some work for Marvel, and he and I sat down one afternoon in the Marvel offices. He had been introduced to me as ‘Oh, you’re the guy who’s doing Man-Thing, I’m doing Swamp Thing.’ We made a decision that the two books were going to be nothing alike.
“I just asked him, ‘Well, do you have anything planned for the next X-number of issues of Swamp Thing?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t. Why don’t you tell me what you’re doing, and I will do something completely different.’ And he did, and that’s why the two books bore almost no resemblance to each other.”
What Gerber wanted to write about was magic and alternate realities, so in his first issue, he introduces a teenage girl named Jennifer, who takes her little brother out into the swamp to read a spell out of a magic book owned by their creepy grandfather. The occult ritual opens up a gateway that unleashes a demon into the world, and Man-Thing has to beat it to death with a tree.
It looks like that’s the end of the story, but Jennifer and her family come back two issues later, and they become the supporting cast for a while. Their grandfather is operating a magical cult that causes problems for a couple issues, and then a wizard shows up and Jennifer starts taking sorcery lessons.
They call the gateway the Nexus of All Realities, and every once in a while interesting things pop out of it, like a sword-and-sorcery Conan-style barbarian hero, or a talking duck from outer space who we’re going to see a lot of, three movies from now. Establishing a Nexus is a good gimmick when your lead character is a mute brainless lunk who lives in the Everglades, because he doesn’t need to do anything except react when crazy stuff pops out of the hole.
But he’s still the lead character, so every once in a while you have to announce that Man-Thing is the only one who can defeat whatever the big boss is, for no reason other than convincing readers that they should keep buying comics with this guy’s name on the cover.
After a while, Man-Thing graduated from the anthology book to his own Man-Thing comic, and it did so well that Marvel used him as a headliner in their higher-priced Giant-Size format. The fact that Giant-Size Man-Thing sounds funny has been noted by everyone.
After 39 issues, Gerber’s attention was drawn elsewhere, so he wrote one last post-modern issue featuring himself as the lead character, explaining to his editor that all of his stories were actually true, and dictated to him by wizards and demons. Grant Morrison did this better with Animal Man in 1990, but Steve Gerber did it first.
Somehow, Man-Thing has proven to be so adhesive that Marvel can’t help but dig him up every few years and air him out a little. The original series ended in 1975, but there was a second series from 1979 to 1981, and then several miniseries in 1997, 2004 and 2017. He was in Thunderbolts in the early 2010s, and Howling Commandos of SHIELD in 2015.
Last year, to celebrate the character’s 50th anniversary, Marvel did a 3-part crossover called The Curse of the Man-Thing, with the Avengers, Spider-Man and the X-Men, and he last appeared in a comic just a month ago, in the June 2022 issue of Fantastic Four. Unhinged and unnecessary, Man-Thing has managed to dig himself a permanent parking spot in the Marvel Universe. I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of these stains on the carpet.
Another fun podcast episode, this time about Elektra!
25.1: Go Ninja Go Ninja Go
Once again, I want to recommend TwoMorrows Publishing’s Swamp Men: Muck-Monsters and Their Makers, which is where I got all of today’s quotes. It’s a smart and comprehensive look at a very silly phenomenon, which is exactly what I like best.
Also, I’d like to direct your attention to the panel below, from Adventure Into Fear #11, which reveals what it sounds like when you hit a demon with a tree.
Another fun podcast episode, this time about Elektra!
25.1: Go Ninja Go Ninja Go
— Danny Horn