Halloween’s coming. The late Bernie Wrightson was born 73 years ago. FRED VAN LENTE pits the Bronze Age muck monsters against each other…
Hey, it’s a special Halloween installment of Fred Van Lente’s COMIC BOOK DEATH MATCH, in which our fearless columnist takes two related-but-opposing titles, chooses a bunch of issues covering several years, reviews them, and then, using a completely infallible set of criteria, decides which is better.
It’s your foolproof way of ending any and all such comics arguments — a service from 13th Dimension!
This time around, it’s Swamp Thing vs. Man-Thing because: A) Halloween is this weekend and B) It’s the late Bernie Wrightson’s birthday!
So let’s have at it!
By FRED VAN LENTE
A 1940 issue of the Street & Smith pulp Unknown saw the debut of Theodore Sturgeon’s short story “It,” the great-grandpappy of all swamp monsters, a muck-covered skeleton that spontaneously rises up to destroy whatever it gets its claws on out of nihilistic curiosity. Impervious to injury, It is stopped only when It falls into a fast-moving stream chasing a little girl and the waters tear the substance of It’s body away, leaving only It’s inanimate bones behind.
It is “a massive caricature of a man,” Sturgeon writes. “A huge thing like an irregular mud doll, clumsily made. It quivered and parts of it glistened and parts of it were dried and crumbly.”
Unforgettably terrifying even today, “It” spawned comics imitators quickly, including one of the more enduring Golden Age villains, Solomon Grundy, who shares It’s origin if not It’s look.
The Heap, a mainstay of Hillman Comics’ Airboy Comics, had both. Premiering two years before Grundy in 1942, the Heap’s foundation-corpse came courtesy of German WWI flying ace Baron Eric von Emmelman crashing his biplane into a swamp.
The Baron died a second time in the mid-1950s comics purge that wiped out scary comics until the relaxation of the anti-horror provisions in the 1971 revision of the Comics Code. In the ensuing boomlet, Etrigan first shed the form of man, Dracula emerged from his Tomb, Hank McCoy further mutated into a blue-furred monster, and Marvel and DC both dispatched an “It”-style bog-shambler to join the mummies, werewolves, and ghosts haunting 1970s comics racks.
The Heap is most obviously the direct visual inspiration for Marvel’s Man-Thing (though this “Man in the Moonlight” looks mighty familiar, doesn’t it?). No shock there, as Roy Thomas, Mr. Leave-No-Golden-Age-Character-Behind himself, was crucial to Manny’s creation and first appearance in the black-and-white magazine Savage Tales.
The second Man-Thing tale — drawn by Neal Adams, no less — was scripted by Len Wein, who debuted “Swamp Thing” with artist Bernie Wrightson in DC’s House of Secrets #92. Wrightson’s cover featured a portrait of last year’s Will Eisner Hall of Fame inductee Louise “Weezie” Simonson (then Jones), the great writer and editor.
In fact, moss-monsters clung so fiercely to the minds of the Big Two that Marvel adapted Sturgeon’s “It” into comics form in the first issue of its Supernatural Chillers mag, leading to talk of a spin-off series, but since the regular Man-Thing strip had already started appearing in the anthology Fear in July 1972, that idea sank quickly into the mire.
Exactly one month later, Swampy shambled out into his own title, leading to the natural question here at COMIC BOOK DEATH MATCH: Who rules the bayou?
The only way to find out is to read both titles simultaneously with pub data provided by Mike’s Amazing World of Comics and render summary judgment at the end.
OK, Things, do your thing:
Swamp Thing #1: “Dark Genesis!”
(Len really likes to put “Genesis” in his titles, doesn’t he? Must be a Bible scholar.) So, here’s the thing: Swamp Thing and Man-Thing have exactly the same origin. Bad guys are after a serum invented by the main character, and said serum-plus-swamp transform him into a monster. Ted “Man-Thing” Sallis was attempting to recreate the Super-Soldier Serum, an elusive holy grail in the Marvel Universe until 2021, when (“Pitch Meeting” guy voice) it became super easy, barely an inconvenience.
Alec Holland and his wife, on the other hand, are trying to create a “bio-restorative formula” desired by Advanced Idea Mechani—wait, I mean the Conclave. When Alec refuses to sell Conclave goons his formula, they beat the snot out of him and blow up his lab. They do not bother securing the formula before blowing up the lab, but, lucky them, the government builds an exact replica of the lab on the exact same spot for some reason, giving them a second bite at the apple. They return and knock out the Hollands’ spectacularly useless FBI babysitter Matt Cable, the answer to the trivia question “Which fictional character was better off as a raven?”
Conclave thugs are even even more mind-numbingly incompetent than Cable; again, they murder the Hollands before getting their hands on the formula. The fallen Alec, having staggered into the bio-restorative formula-soaked swamp and emerged as the titular Thing, lurks nearby and kicks the crap out of the baddies. Cable, casting about for a scapegoat for federal incompetence, blames Swamp Thing for both Alec and his wife Linda’s murders, forcing the monster to flee into the night.
What Swamp Thing has over Man-Thing, to put it bluntly, is Bernie Wrightson (credited as “Berni” throughout the series). In this inaugural outing he inks himself, with spectacular results. The splash where we see the “muck-encrusted, shambling mockery of a man” fully for the first time still gives me chills.
Unfortunately, every plot point in this story hinges on every character, hero and villain alike, being extremely dumb. I know that’s a cliche criticism of horror protagonists, but I love horror and I’ve got to tell you it doesn’t have to be that way. Bit of a letdown on the reread, to be honest with you.
Fear #11: “Night of the Nether Spawn!”
While Wrightson’s gothic style (and many of his Swamp Thing storylines) evokes the classic horror movies of the 1940s and 1950s, the most striking thing about Man-Thing is that his series feels very contemporary. This title oozes The Seventies, right down to the peace sign belt buckle worn by neophyte witch Jennifer Kale and the Exorcist-era look of Thog the Nether-Spawn (a “Class-Two Demon,” the Marvel Database helpfully informs me), both of whom debut in this issue. (The actual Jennifer is a good decade older than the kid Neal Adams depicts on his spectacular cover.) This is likely because Steve Gerber is writing the series, in what he says (in the last entry on this list) is his first-ever Marvel gig. In his empathic way, Man-Thing discovers Jennifer botching a spell in the swamp and then protects her from the Nether-Spawn that pursues her and her little brother, well illustrated by artist Rich Buckler.
WINNER: MAN-THING. Half as long and twice as good, I must say.
Swamp Thing #6: “A Clockwork Horror”
My fellow Gen-Xers may dimly recall one of the first original shows on the nascent Nickelodeon network was “Video Comics,” featuring pan-and-scan, full audio adaptations of DC strips like Flash, Green Lantern and Adam Strange. My dad loved getting his hands on new tech when I was a kid, so we had cable before anyone else I knew, circa 1979.
Already a giant nerd by age 7, I adored “Video Comics” and saw its version of Swamp Thing #5 on The Nick and I can still hear the narrator intoning “Next… A Clockwork Horror!” But I never saw the next episode (if they even adapted #6… I looked on YouTube but the only Swamp Thing Video Comics episode I could find was their adaptation of #1, which is pretty great.). So reading “A Clockwork Horror” for the first time during this reread was a real treat, is what I’m saying.
Swamp Thing literally falls off the back of a truck in Vermont to conveniently discover a town where Alec and Linda Holland lived together in wedded bliss. It doesn’t take him long to discover that a kindly watchmaker has created clockwork replicas of recently dead people from the obituaries to keep himself company. Swampy is tempted to stick around with robo-Linda until the Conclave attacks with more advanced bots like the rad one on the cover. Wrightson crushes it on the art front as usual.
Fear #16: “Cry of the Native!”
Good Steve Gerber is one of the best comics scripters in history; Not-As-Good Steve Gerber produces stories like this, heavy-handed stabs at social or psychological relevance with a superhero or monster (or duck) shoehorned in. Nevertheless, Gerber crafted an impressive array of supporting cast members for a series about a walking pile of moss with a carrot nose. Here we meet ruthless construction magnate F.A. Schist, who wants to bulldoze Man-Thing’s swamp to build an airport. The local Native Americans are not fans, and attack the construction site… with bows and arrows, in loincloths… because they’re Native Americans and this comic is from 1973. Artist Val Mayerik does a great job depicting the evil foreman’s finish at the business end of a ’dozer.
WINNER: SWAMP THING. The Swiss-looking town feels like a dry run for (IMHO) Wrightson’s most impressive achievement, his illustrated edition of Frankenstein.
Swamp Thing #10: “The Man Who Would Not Die!”
In speaking of Frankenstein, after saving a voodoo mambo from an escaped convict and hearing a horrific tale of antebellum injustice, Swampy once again falls into the clutches of his archnemesis Anton Arcane and his hideous creations, the Un-Men. The warlock/mad scientist is undeterred in his dream to take his sick mind out of the Sloth form he’s currently stuck in (Wrightson draws him great, but whenever he appears, in my head I hear “H-e-y you guuuuys!”) and into Alec Holland’s unkillable plant body. Unfortunately, Arcane makes his move in a slave burial ground, and Swampy gets an undead rescue from an unexpected source. Wein scripts from a story credited to Wrightson.
Man-Thing #5: “Night of the Laughing Dead”
More Gen-X memories: I spotted the Book & Record version of this issue in a dusty thrift shop when I was very young, and the sight of Man-Thing carrying a dead clown through a swamp scared the bejeezus out of me. Why this morbid tale of a suicidal clown’s ghost toying with Man-Thing and his friends was chosen for a piece of children’s merchandising is totally beyond me. I could barely handle listening to the adaptation, captured on YouTube, today. Way to scare kids away from literacy, Power Records!
Which is not to say that this story is anything other than completely awesome. While #10 is Wrightson’s last issue on Swampy, #5 of Manny’s self-titled mag is Mike Ploog’s first. The natural gloopiness of his Will Eisner-esque figures (Marine vet Ploog started out in comics working for Eisner on his PS magazine for the military) is a perfect marriage of art style to milieu. Ploog is unforgettable on this title for the next half-year, illustrating some of Gerber’s best tales.
WINNER: MIKE PLOOG
Swamp Thing #19: “A Second Time to Die”
Swamp monsters: Not huge fans of construction equipment, clearly.
Bernie Wrightson has been replaced by Nestor Redondo, one of the best artists of the Filipino Invasion of US comics in the 1970s, and it’s a shockingly seamless transition. Here, Gerry Conway pens a clever tale that asks the question, “What happens to all the body parts bad guys keep chopping off of Swamp Thing?” In this instance, a severed hand grows into an entirely new Thing, but bereft of Alec Holland’s consciousness.
(I should say that that “consciousness” is another major difference between Manny and Swampy. Marvel took cues directly from Theodore Sturgeon and made Man-Thing, like It, mute and barely sentient; Swamp Thing, on the other hand, can speak [with difficulty] and has an endless self-pitying internal monologue that would make Peter Parker go, “Enough, already.”)
Swampy finds himself drawn to Not-Thing along with Matt Cable and Abigail Arcane, all set-up for an awkward two-parter, as this story was originally 25 pages, created for a Giant-Size Swamp Thing that never materialized. The post-Wein and Wrightson era of Swamp Thing churns outs perfectly serviceable, instantly forgettable comics until the title meets its end at #24 in 1976.
The Brave and the Bold #122: “The Hour of the Beast”
But wait, there’s more! DC gives us a double dose of Swampy this month as he meets Batman (again) in a characteristically bananas Bob Haney/Jim Aparo joint. A rootin’-tootin’ promoter has captured the Swampster and put him on public display, which Bats objects to on moral grounds, as the only person allowed to abuse freaks in Gotham City is him. When all plant life in Gotham grows super-sized and murderous, the captive Swamp Thing is of course blamed. But the Darknight Detective sleuths out that the plant invasion is a government experiment run amok, so Batman recruits ST to destroy the heart of the fiendish flora before The Gummint napalms the city with mega-defoliant.
What I find most amusing about this issue is that Alan Moore and John Tolteben basically did the exact same story in their legendary Swamp Thing run a decade later, except there Swampy was most definitely the aggressor.
Man-Thing #22: “Pop Goes the Cosmos!”
This is how it goes, sometimes: You’re flying high, graduating to your own series to battle sky-pirates and evil candles, generating spin-offs and getting Giant-Size specials on the same month as your regular mag, and the fans can’t get enough of you.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, boom: Cancelled!
The comics racks, they are a fickle mistress.
Steve Gerber himself stars in the last issue of his series, narrating the story to his editor — who is, IRONY ALERT, Swamp Thing-co-creator Len Wein, back at the House of Ideas — that stretches all the way back to his first being hired for the Man-Thing Fear strip by Roy Thomas.
Funny thing: Turns out that every page of Gerber’s scripts has been dictated by Manny ally Dakimh the Enchanter all along, to thwart the evil designs of that ol’ rascal, Thog. The Nether-Spawn’s cultists have been collecting evil emotions in Nightmare Boxes to let him conquer the universe. Man-Thing and Gerber both get sucked into one, and they use their psychic connection and the former’s empathic nature to ruin Thog’s designs and kick his ass.
Or something like that. Penciller Jim Mooney does yeoman’s work making this make any sense, in a comic with no less than three full text pages.
Does it work? Not really. But it is at least interesting, and that’s more than I can say for a lot of Swamp Thing.
Hey, I love Bernie Wrightson. He was a really nice guy and a brilliant artist. He let me bum cigarettes off him once at a bar in London when we were guests at the same con.
But Swamp Thing is an early work, a bog-standard (pun intended) Monster of the Month comic with terrific art.
Basically, the series is horror comfort food.
While there’s nothing wrong with that, Man-Thing, particularly when Gerber and Ploog were together, is one of the best, most innovative horror comics of all time, and arguably the best work by either of these creators.
I mean, I may be a bit biased because I once created an Avengers team comprised almost entirely of Man-Thing supporting players, but by the power invested in me by the Comic Book Death Match Commission (of which I am the sole member), I declare:
OVERALL WINNER: MAN-THING
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13th Dimension contributor Fred Van Lente is a comics writer, historian and playwright.