Cosmic muck

It was an amazing comic. A man has become a muck-monster, his humanity just a memory, seemingly limited to minor human-interest horror-adventures in a swamp, but somehow a magnet for society’s psychological ills, even attuned to cosmic insights, and eventually limping, looming into the central intersection of ultimate forces … Yeah, it’s great, man, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing was really someth — wait, you’re talking about 1973?

Oh my friends … let this nine-year-old tell you some things.

A brief interlude for publication shenanigans

Skywald

Skywald

Hillman

Hillman

It might be Roy Thomas’ fault: he suggested reviving the Heap, a 1942 character at long-gone Hillman Comics to Sol Brodsky for his venture Skywald Publishing. Brodsky did that very thing from 1971 to 1973, featuring the Heap written by Charles McNaughton and drawn by Ross Andru inked by Mike Esposito in Psycho magazine, as well as a one-shot Heap magazine written by Robert Kanigher and drawn by Tom Sutton in 1971. It wasn’t written as the “same guy” in a continuity sense, lacking for instance the tentacle-nose.

During those same years, as all comics fandom knows, Marvel launched Man-Thing and DC launched Swamp Thing. This is well-trodden fandom ground, summarized fully in this Hypnogoria article.

If you’re going to pull that wide-eyed crap about “great artists get the good ideas independently at the same time,” this is me laughing in your face. DC/Marvel or not, these people all knew each other, collaborated frequently, and in one key pairing, were roommates. “Never happened to mention it,” my ass.

However, only one smidgeon of that is relevant here, which is how neatly the two critters are divvied up across their characteristics, creating a precise line between IPs.

  • The Swamp Thing is the more traditional “man trapped in monster’s body” concept based on straight-up Joe Orlando horror with strong callbacks to Universal films; his plant-like physiology contributes a few powers like invulnerability to bullets. The Man-Thing is far more inhuman, literally made of muck and slime, such that he/it cannot be wounded in ordinary ways, and even if completely splattered, reforms.
  • Although slimy and with a disfigured face, the Swamp Thing is pretty much a powerful, athletic man. The Man-Thing has inhuman features including the Heap’s tentacle-nose, and is hunchbacked and knocked-kneed, thus is unable to run and quite slow.
  • The Swamp Thing is still Alec Holland in memory, perfectly capable of thought and (occasional) speech. The Man-Thing is practically mindless, entirely nonverbal, and emotionally limited; he/it empathizes with others’ primal emotions and can respond either compassionately or violently, but never operates as an independent agent. It’s taken as given that Ted Sallis is dead, with only fleeting memories or images remaining.
  • The Swamp Thing’s human precursor died/transformed in a fire, but he doesn’t have any fire powers. The Man-Thing’s did not, but he/it burns opponents with fire.
  • The Swamp Thing’s swamp is in Louisiana, but he has no special link to it or role in it. The Man-Thing lives in the Everglades and is spiritually and physically tied to its ecology.

Now for what I’m really talking about …

The cosmic filth and a little boy

I’m sitting cross-legged in that house in Pacific Grove, thumbing the pile of comics yet again, just old enough to be saving dimes and nickels to buy some sometimes. I’m also just old enough to be systematizing them, looking at issue numbers, publishers, writers, artists. There was a good chunk of Journey into Fear and the Man-Thing series, and my eye easily spotted the stylistic continuity among Ploog, Bode, and Bakshi, as well as the content compatibility with the Warren magazines.

It sank in deep. I may present almost a lab-perfect portrait of how and why the character works, coming to it with absolutely nothing in expectation, just a little kid reading with no introduction or context, all “eye and thought.” The Man-Thing’s a pretty hard row to hoe as a character, going all the way with the inhumanity to yield an utterly opaque protagonist. Yet it’s bizarrely fruitful, perhaps because it was so hard, it had to be compelling to work at all.

Bowen gets it.

Bowen gets it.

Unlike most movie-monster types, there’s not even any wish-fulfillment there. The creature is obviously crippled and confused, even pathetic. What makes it is the genius of that three-tentacle facial design which stops just shy of being ridiculous and instead frames the eerie gaze which is unquestionably looking right at and into you. Its very lack of judgment is upsetting – you know that it really sees you because it’s incapable of projecting, and therefore it is not the Other, you are.

Then it’s also menacing with just a tilt of its weird face to change the angle of its brow, capable of withstanding phenomenal violence and also delivering it – including that most terrifying feature, the burning touch which is at minimum scarring and maiming, and often fatal, yet which is paradoxically carried out in strict self-defense as the creature tries to eliminate a source of fear. People try to make a joke of the nearly once-per-issue catch-phrase – Whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch! – and fail. It’s a spine-tingler.

It’s the essence of the Hulk and the later Woodgod boiled down even further: the almost too-pure marriage of innocence and violence, of inarticulacy as its own form of authenticity, of “natural” in non-reassuring form, of madness as a state of being, of the victim of injustice delivering completely impersonal and uncompromising retaliation. It’s pure Scream. You can’t deliver a standard “I want but I must” protagonist arc with this at all. He’s not even a “monster,” but a genuine force, without volition but amplifying or changing whatever it encounters. Therefore the only way to write it is to present wholly emotional, real-life human stories which intersect with him.

The key was in place from the very first story by Thomas and Gerry Conway: once all the conflicting passions and circumstances have driven things too far, the jerkass character has one chance to reflect upon his or her choices. It’s wrong to think, ooh, the creature is scary-looking, so people get scared, now he can burn them – that’s not it at all. Instead, in that moment, a person might show the courage it takes to change his or her driving passions, to decide to be who they are rather than stumble forward into more and more vicious acts. Fear is the alternative, not fear of the “monster,” but of the possibility of personal change – it’s cowardice of the emotions, of the mind, and of the authenticity of life. That is what the creature burns.

It’s a nice fit too for occult and cosmic stories centered upon the Thing’s unknowing presence, a technique not invented by Gerber but swiftly taken by him into multiple dimensions, cosmologies, surrealism, pop psychology, sword-and-sorcery including Zhered-Na’s boobcups, and even more pop philosophy. In this, Man-Thing was the only 70s bog-monster to amplify some brief cosmic stuff from the 1940s Heap, as the Wein/Wrightson Swamp Thing had its own, different sort of horror-surrealism.

That’s fun for sure, and you can’t beat a barbarian swordsman manifesting out of a peanut butter jar, but between you and me, Gerber’s Zap always tried too hard and ended by winking too much, such that the God/Dog punchline is a mere joke lacking power. The spine of the series wasn’t this level of blow-out extravagance but rather the one-by-one human dramas, again, laid down well in the early stories by Conway. When Gerber could dial down his bitching and moaning, he hit it hard. His title-hopping avatar Richard Rory has more spine than such characters typically do. The clown’s suicide-story in MT #5-6 is probably the standout for critics and scholars, the original Foolkiller is pretty strong stuff especially since it predated the most famous televangelist scandals, and “The Kids’ Night Out” in Giant-Size #4 should be required middle-school reading nationwide.

dawgFor the small me leafing through the beige-newsprint stories, the finest hour came in Man-Thing #9-10, regarding a very different, entirely ordinary dog, named Dawg. It’s a story full of menace and evil yet with no bad guy – just conflicting emotions, human pain, and fear of a wasted life.

An old couple who dropped out long before it was fashionable, living in the swamp, and their dog. There’s nothing important or destined or fated or symbolic about them. None of them are very bright or wise, so there’s no one to deliver Gerber’s opinions directly to the reader. No one turns out to have been right or wrong all along, and it ends in complete defiance of ordinary themes of comeuppance or confirmation – yet also in flawless catharsis. Instead of showcasing his audacity, or setting up a target for some aspect of life he dislikes, for once Gerber’s raw heart is on display – absolutely emotional without sentimentality. I can’t name one issue of The Defenders or Howard the Duck for which that’s the case.

Name an animal, the yearling or the black stallion or Old Yeller or whoever, the one that stuck for me was Dawg and the story never left me. It was a real pleasure to come across Michael Noble’s post Of Man-Thing and Mike Ploog to show me that another little kid had the same response.

Mid-80s transfer

By now I hope it’s apparent how much of the Thomas-Conway-Gerber’s Man-Thing contributed to Moore’s 1983 reboot of the Swamp Thing and his following epic “American Gothic:” the complete separation of the hero’s physical existence from his former humanity, the conspiring cultists, the ecological focus and personal link to the swamp, the hippie buddy and general counter-cultural outlook, the corporate enemy including a psychopathic inventor, the piecemeal critique of the American Dream, the “madness plague” occurring all around the swamp, the emphasis on an altered state of consciousness, the physical resurrections, the center of the cosmic struggle …

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining – the reasons are clear. DC had been undergoing a dedicated campaign to become Marvel Too since Wein, Marv Wolfman, and George Perez had launched the New Teen Titans, the more so since the New Gods found themselves folded into the Legion of Superheroes, and at the point I’m talking about, it was getting nailed down hard running up to the first Crisis.

‘Porting Man-Thing content into its twin separated at birth was a natural move, literally  – thus instead of a B-movie sideline, Swamp Thing looms up at the center of the mega-crossover, and it’s all connected, man, like, all the realities at once, and the filth underfoot will become our path to the stars … a whole new morality awaits us! You couldn’t get more “import Marvel’s soul” if he had suddenly “revealed” that Clark Kent actually wasn’t from Krypton and had spider-powers. (and you might investigate where Alfredo Alcala had earlier developed his icky-awesome Swamp Thing work)

Besides, Moore had the decency to reference the Heap in detail, and blink-or-miss-it, the Man-Thing too in “The Parliament of Trees,” ST #47. I’m good with it.

Since then

Greg Land, Legion of Monsters (cover) 2007 - click for full illustration

Greg Land, Legion of Monsters (cover) 2007 – click for full illustration

Dance over the precisely-drawn concept boundary of 1971 as Moore may have done, still, it seems not to have diminished the Man-Thing’s curious power.

Granted, there exists not one character or concept which Marvel has not at one time or another managed to bork. The series was rebooted in 1979 with less skill, including a phase by Chris Claremont which recaptured some Gerber-ism but also wraps the character more tightly into the Universe, and in many appearances the concept faded in and out of its strengths. I am blessed with ignorance of 1990s Marvel and most of the 00s, and I plan to keep it that way, especially since talking, cognizant Man-Things have been spotted, as well as silvery wise ones, and who knows what else. For my sins, I did see the 2005 film, one of Avi Arad’s few tactical missteps in letting an external studio run the project.

Miraculously, Conway, Morrow, Gerber, Mayerik, Ploog, and later, John Buscema, Tom Sutton, and Alcala had laid it down enough to stick. The cosmic cube scene I reference in the lead image is right on-target, shining through the otherwise not-really-good story it’s embedded in. The core seems to have survived enough to see periodic brilliance. Artists still pour their souls into those weird crimson globe-eyes, writers still create taut dramas to transform the creature’s blurry, wordless empathy and uncomprehending scraps of memory into terrifying precision-strike carnage.

I like this, it’s a too-little considered form of success which I find refreshing – completely 180 from the concept of memetic or franchise success, for which, see Deadpool, in favor of a “write me if you dare” quality. It forces the creators to step up and do something real this time. It gets under your skin; you can’t be a “fan” or “follow” it, it simply hits you.

Art Adams, Infernal Man-Thing 2010 (cover)

Sometimes too hard, perhaps. It turns out that in the 1980s, Gerber had written a follow-up titled  “Screenplay of the Living Dead Man” to his story “Song-Cry of the Living Dead Man” in MT #12. Art had been commissioned and partly completed by Kevin Nowlan, and the original story and sequel were published together in 2010 as Infernal Man-Thing. I confess I find it a bit appalling – like reading Yukio Mishima and shaking my head at the shocked, shocked responses of reviewers and peers when he committed particularly gaudy suicide. Gerber didn’t die of suicide but if there were ever a text screaming for help, this was it.

As I’ve implied so far, my preference for the character veers less toward author disclosure and more toward human drama. However, at the risk of some Gerber-like bellyaching of my own … I have many times felt that that little boy I’ve been trying to speak for here, died back then. I feel it now all too harshly seeing my own children at ages seven and nine. My contact with internet comics fandom and nostalgia via this blog is occasionally fun but also disheartening, as I try to see if he, back then, can actually be said to have lived and matured into me, or if I myself am merely an accrual of gunk animated by incomplete memory and unreflective/unrestrained response to fear and pain.

The persistent quality, more consistent than not, in Man-Thing reappearances gives me a little hope. It’s not retro, it’s not red meat for fandom, it’s not updated for the new market, it’s not winking or cute. Crap versions appear but slough off, leaving the core for those who can do it. It may be the single scrap of the 1970s Marvel that resists reboot and revision. Maybe. Maybe.

Links: Four great Man-Thing pin-ups, Your Chicken Enemy (discussion of Infernal Man-Thing), TwoMorrows: Mike Ploog

Next comics: Sword of God, Friends, p. 9 (December 13); Ophite, Gnosis, p. 4 (December 17)

Next column: Your mama’s apocalypse (December 18)

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on December 11, 2016, in The 70s me, Vulgar speculation and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. So what I know here, from my youth, is the Sturgeon short story “It!” cited in your Hypnogoria link. And, I get it. I feel ya. I [pick your expression of empathy and recognition]. There’s something about this force of nature/mass of matter that just stays with you, and your exploration here of why/how that happens in the comics seems quite wise to me. I’m going to reread the Sturgeon story and see how well those insights cross over.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If I remember correctly, of all the boggy comics guys, the Swamp Thing is probably the most similar to the creature in “It!”, especially Moore’s emphasis on how he/it realizes that he is in no way a “transformed” version of his former self, but has merely incorporated a dead man’s memories.

      I’m interested to know whether the Man-Thing’s empathic qualities, especially his/its ability to punish fear, have precedent in earlier stories. I’m pretty sure not. If not, then it’s probably the most original contribution from comics to this family of work. It’s certainly front-and-center in Thomas and Conway’s first story for the character, including its role in a morally-grey multi-person situation, and can’t be said to have arrived by increment or by multiple independent contributions during the later course of that title. (I bring this up because “powers” are in fact usually established through such a process for comics characters.)

      As I briefly mentioned in the post, it turns out that the Heap got “cosmic” for a little while during the 1950s, which I think is pretty cool. Pretty sure that didn’t happen in “It!”, although geez it’s been a really long time since I read it. If that’s right, then the Man-Thing getting cosmic in the 1970s, and the Swamp Thing doing so in almost exactly the same ways in the 1980s are part of a longer trajectory that’s specific to comics.

      Like

      • Well, prompted by “cosmic” and “early”, I’m reminded of the Talmudic Adam, initially “kneaded into a shapeless husk”, and maybe some Golem stories. But between the fear-punishing, the “face” visual you mention, and that particular Cosmic-flavor, “reminded/reminiscent” is as far as I’d go without a LOT more research and consideration.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: Your mama’s apocalypse | Comics Madness

  2. Pingback: The change of illusion | Comics Madness

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