Published on August 4th, 2014 | by Swamp Thing0
Where There’s Muck… Part 3
It’s a Man-Thing
So now that we’re half-way through this increasingly sporadic look at the rise of the muck-monsters (blame Batman Day), here’s a quick recap. Pay attention, there’s going to be a test at the end. In Part 1 we covered the sudden increase in the overall swamp-beast count in 1971 (rising from 0 to 3) and why that may not have been entirely coincidental. In Part 2 we looked at the various incarnations of the original moss-man, The Heap. That leaves us with the titanic two. The head honchos. The big (mouldy) cheeses.
Man-Thing and Swamp Thing.
Part 1 also covered the ‘who came first’ debate (or argument, depending on how long you’ve been in the pub), and yes, Marvelites, Man-Thing did come first; and also yes, there’s a fair-to-middling chance that Swamp Thing’s origin story may have been ‘borrowed’ from Man-Thing. A bit. Allegedly.
That aside, how does Marvel’s entry in the muck-monster line-up stack up against his peers?
Man-Thing, you make my heart…burn?
Savage Tales #1 was published in May 1971 by Curtis Magazines, a division of Marvel. It was to be a magazine format black-and-white anthology series that would exist outside of the Comics Code Authority. Legend has it that Marvel editor-in-chief Stan Lee was fond of the magazine format, whilst other’s in Marvel were not so keen, particularly as the finished comic was to be non-Code. As one of those opposed to Savage Tales was publisher Martin Goodman, Marvel’s new baby was to be stillborn and Savage Tales #1 was the only issue for 2 1/2 years. Issue #2 finally appeared in October 1973, after Goodman had left Marvel.
Savage Tales #1 had the look and feel of a sword-and-sorcery magazine, which wasn’t surprising given that the two lead characters for that issue were Conan the Barbarian and Ka-Zar, a jungle lord with a familiar backstory that may have been ‘borrowed’ from Tarzan. A bit. Allegedly. Wedged in between the testosterone-soaked loin cloths was a new character: Man-Thing. Created by Stan Lee and Roy Thomas, scripted by Gerry Conway and drawn by Dwight Graydon ‘Gray’ Morrow. Man-Thing is a cautionary tale which seeks to explain why it’s a bad idea to become a biochemist, develop a super-soldier serum, inject yourself with the only vial of it and then crash your car in an Everglades swamp. Sadly the story came too late to help Dr. Theodore ‘Ted’ Sallis, who does all of those unwise things in an effort to keep his serum from falling into the wrong hands. Man-Thing retains none of Sallis’ intellect, only brief glimpses of his memories, and is a creature of instinct. Man-Thing also has a touch that burns, which we later discover is down to a powerful acid that Man-Thing secretes in response to sensing powerful negative emotions like fear. Indeed, we later discover that the negative emotions that Man-Thing can sense in others cause the creature actual physical pain, sending the normally placid muck-man into a rage. Chemical burning of his victims is probably a wiser option than actual fire, as that might be seen as a disadvantage when you live surrounded by, and are largely constructed of, flammable material.
Unlike Swamp Thing’s first appearance in House of Secrets #92 which was to appear two months later, Man-Thing’s opener suggested that Marvel’s new muck-monster was to be a continuing character. Indeed, a second Man-Thing story, penned by Swamp Thing co-creator Len Wein, was already in the bag for Savage Tales #2. Wein and Bernie Wrightson’s first Swamp Thing story had more of a standalone feel to it. Whilst we’re on comparisons, the Marvelites aren’t going to forgive me if I don’t make this next one. Man-Thing is the result of a flaming biochemist falling into a swamp and being reborn through a combination of the action of a chemical agent he’s created himself and, as we later find out, magical forces. In Swamp Thing #1 (but not House of Secrets #92), Swamp Thing is the result of a flaming biochemist falling into a swamp and being reborn through a combination of the action of a chemical agent he’s created himself and, as we later find out, magical forces.
And Marvel didn’t sue DC?
They didn’t, possibly because 2 months before the appearance of Man-Thing, Skywald’s Psycho #2 had given us The Heap. The Heap is a result of a flaming pilot falling into a swamp and being reborn through the action of a chemical agent. As the pilot in question doesn’t moonlight as a biochemist he can’t be blamed for not creating the chemical agent himself. And there’s less magic.
And Skywald didn’t sue Marvel?
They didn’t, possibly because two years before Skywald gave us their version of The Heap, Marvel had introduced us to The Glob in Incredible Hulk #121. The Glob was the result of an escaped convict falling into a swamp and being reborn through the action of a chemical agent. No flames and no magic. But still…
Things got messier than they needed to be when publisher Goodman got his way and Savage Tales #2 wasn’t able to see the light of day until after his departure from Marvel. That meant Len Wein’s Man-Thing story was shelved, and there was a real possibility that Man-Thing would disappear back into the Florida swamps, never to be seen again. I suspect that Wrightson’s muck-monster story in House of Secrets #92 probably was just a coincidence, but the positive response to it would have got DC thinking about the possibility of creating an ongoing character. And if Man-Thing was indeed gone for good there would be no head-to-head issues to worry about. What’s difficult to put down to chance is the similarities between the two origin stories, given that Wein would have been perfectly aware of Man-Thing’s origin, having just penned the sequel to it.
Wein’s second Man-Thing story hit the news-stands in Astonishing Tales #12 in June 1972, though not as a standalone tale (it was integrated in its entirety into a Ka-Zar story). Man-Thing appeared again as an integrated character in Astonishing Tales #13 before getting his own feature in Adventure into Fear #10 in October 1972. Swamp Thing #1 appeared in that same month.
Given the time it takes to get a new comic into production, and the fact that Man-Thing wasn’t a feature character at Marvel until the same month as Swamp Thing appeared, it’s unlikely that DC, and Wein in particular, were anticipating the scrutiny that the origins of the two characters would be subjected to. Some might even suggest that the timing of Man-Thing being elevated back to being a feature character was a deliberate attempt to dirty the swamp water before anybody else got to sit in it. Whatever the truth of all of this political maneuvering, there’s no doubt that the delay in getting Man-Thing’s second story to print was a painful body-blow for Marvel in the fight against Swamp Thing. Had Savage Tales continued as a monthly then Man-Thing would have been a recurring character on his third feature appearance by the time Wein and Wrighton’s first swamp creature story was published. An established swamp creature already on the comic-book roster might have made DC think again before commissioning Wein and Wrightson to produce an updated feature version of their character.
Perhaps today the most appropriate response to these machinations is to shrug and say ‘whatever’. So Marvel got into a huff but didn’t do anything but sulk. DC pretended like nothing had happened, dude. They had both ripped off the original 1940’s Heap anyway. Like seriously and shit. Chill.
Whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch!
That Man-Thing reappeared at all after the initial cancellation of Savage Tales may in part have been down to his good looks. Gray Morrow’s artwork for Man-Thing’s origin story was something special (though less so in the UK version that appeared in Savage Action #4, where the reprint quality is truly awful). Morrow’s wonderfully detailed art got Man-Thing noticed, making it an easier decision for Marvel to continue with the second story even after a lengthy hiatus. But if it was great art that formed the foundations of Man-Thing’s reputation, it was great writing that built on those foundations. After Man-Thing’s appearance in Adventure into Fear #10, Gerry Conway passed scripting duties over to Steve Gerber. It was a marriage of writer and character that worked well for both of them in a way that has strong parallels with Alan Moore’s tenure as Swamp Thing’s writer. Both Gerber and Moore were keen to reinvent their characters and introduce a strong mystical element into the stories, though it’s Moore’s reinvention of Swampy that tends to be remembered, probably because Swamp Thing was a well established character and the changes were regarded as more radical because of that. Gerber’s work on Man-Thing came much earlier in the character’s timeline and had less of an impact because of it, though it was Gerber who penned Man-Thing’s tagline “Whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch!”
Man-Thing remained in Adventure into Fear until #19 in December 1973. In January 1974 he finally graduated to his eponymous comic, taking with him Gerber’s other creation from the last story in Fear #19, Howard the Duck. Man-Thing ran for 22 issues, with the character also getting a quarterly special Giant-Sized Man-Thing (a name that has caused much juvenile sniggering over the years) that also had a Howard the Duck backup story.
With the cancellation of Man-Thing, Gerber continued to write guest appearances and one shot stories for the character, most notably for Marvel Comics Presents and for a brief team-up with Spider-Man.
A second run of Man-Thing began in November 1979, though the first issues were so poorly received that writer Michael Fleisher was replaced after #3 by Chris Claremont. Claremont was working on Doctor Strange at the time, so not surprisingly he made the most of his unexpected time on Man-Thing by bringing the good Doctor into the muck-monster stories as well. Man-Thing volume 2 lasted only 11 issues. In the finale of Man-Thing vol. 1, Steve Gerber had written himself in as a character. Claremont repeated the trick in the finale of vol. 2, and went a stage further by having himself become Man-Thing briefly.
In April 2008 Marvel revisited Man-Thing’s origin in a 4 part story published in their ‘Dead Of Night’ series via MAX Comics, the ‘explicit content’ arm of Marvel. Despite the extra latitude available under the ‘MAX’ banner, writer Roberto Aquirre-Sacasa and artist Kano created a new story that remained surprisingly faithful to the original.
Guest appearances and one-shots have continued for Man-Thing, including a spell with The Dark Avengers and a stay at The Punisher’s Franken-Castle, but a lack of writing continuity and a succession of storylines that make unimaginative use of the character have kept Man-Thing firmly entrenched in the B-list camp, though he’s mainstream enough to have warranted a death in Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe #4 in October 2012. At the same time as he was being slaughtered by Deadpool, Man-Thing was also briefly elevated to feature status again with the three issue mini-series The Infernal Man Thing, developed from Steve Gerber’s unfinished 1980’s Man-Thing graphic novel The Screenplay of the Living Dead Man. Gerber passed away in 2008 and never saw the story published.
Mucky Moving Pictures.
Man-Thing made it onto the big screen in a movie (theatrically released internationally but direct-to-video in the USA) in 2005. Like Swamp Thing’s two big screen outings in the 1980s, Man-Thing The Movie is something of a curate’s egg. Wisely the film steers away from the campy style of the Swamp Thing movies and has some unexpectedly dark and enigmatic moments. Sadly though the character of Man-Thing in the movie looks wrong, acts wrong and is basically…well…wrong. Other than keeping the name Ted Sallis, the origin story is also very different from the comic, even transplanting Man-Thing from Florida to Louisiana, right into the heart of Swamp Thing territory. Also gone is the burning grasp, to be replaced by an ability to manipulate vegetation, again making the story feel much more Swamp Thing than Man-Thing. Not a terrible film in its own right, fans of the comic couldn’t help but be disappointed (especially given that the script was loosely based on a Steve Gerber story) and having characters named after Man-Thing comic artists and writers (including Gerber) wasn’t going to appease them, though no doubt some of them took solace from the gratuitous bouncing-breasts sex-in-the-swamp scene.
For those interested in Marvel Movie trivia, in Man-Thing’s original origin story, Ted Sallis was betrayed by his lover (later retconned to be his wife), Ellen Brandt, who tries to steal the super-soldier serum Sallis has developed. Man-Thing attacks her and severely burns her face, but she survives. A character called Ellen Brandt also appears in the 2013 film Iron Man 3. She has facial scarring, though not to the extent shown in the comic, and is also missing an arm, but there’s no doubt that she’s intended to be the same character as appeared in the Man-Thing stories.
Where next for Man-Thing?
For now at least it seems that guest appearances and one-shot backup stories are to be Man-Thing’s lot. That’s a pity. Gerber’s time with Man-Thing showed what could be done when a writer understood a character and was given time to develop that character. Since then a succession of writers have ‘had a turn’, but none for long enough to leave a lasting impression in Man-Thing’s squishy exterior. Perhaps in the end the problem is that, like The Heap before him, Man-Thing is one tough sonna bitch to write sustained, original stories for. Under their mossy exterior they’re basically mindless revenge beasts, which means that by default they’re going to spend a lot of their time as supporting characters, intervening in other people’s problems.
So for the moment, Man-Thing fans will have to make do with action figures, lead figurines (Eaglemoss released a ‘Man-Thing Special’ as part of The Classic Marvel Figure Collection) and playing with their Man-Thing Heroclix mini-figure (complete with Howard The Duck riding on Manny’s back) while they wait for their sometime hero to make another appearance…
Coming in Part 4: Swamp Thing; it’s not easy being The Green.
This occurrence of The Nigel Cole did not direct the films "Calendar Girls" or "Made in Dagenham". Nor should it be confused with the similarly named and almost as hair-covered Northern biomass The Cheryl Cole.