Whoever knows fear burns at the touch of… the Man-Thing!
(The above image is by Chris Samnee, artist of Thor: the Mighty Avenger – check out his site ChrisSamnee.com for more great art)
Who is the beast composed mainly of vegetable matter but deep down retaining the soul and intellect of a man? It may come as some surprise to learn that there are many creations that could answer that question. There are several ‘muck monsters’ in comics and this is just one of them. The Man-Thing was created by Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway and artist Gray Morrow for Savage Tales in 1971, a kind of horror anthology magazine published back in the day when Marvel did such things (there were similar publications featuring Dracula, Zombie and the Hulk).
After years of selling his work to the highest bidder, chemist Ted Sallis had grown a conscious and decided that his latest invention, a potion that could create the perfect soldier, was too dangerous for anyone to own. Unfortunately, his girlfriend sold him out. Madly fleeing from his lover and her hired muscle, he injects the serum into himself just as his car veers from the road and into the swamp. There Sallis undergoes a strange transformation, bonding with the swamp matter and losing the ability to speak. He emerges as a mass of vines and moss with roughly-shaped limbs ending gnarled hands and feet. His face is composed mainly of two large red globes that are his only manner of emoting as his mouth is entirely absent, replaced by a kind vine-trunk.
The Man-Thing series shares many key elements with Swamp Thing and it’s hardly surprising as Swamp Thing creator Len Wein and Man-Thing co-creator Gerry Conway were roommates at the time. But this kind of thing happens far more often than anyone cares to admit. Wein was even one of the first writers outside of Conway to work on the Man-Thing, scripting a short story that was included in a Ka-Zar adventure for Astonishing Tales in which the jungle man met the man-monster.
One of the weirder aspects of Man-Thing is that the narrative is told in second person with the text informing the reader what s/he feels and thinks, creating a very unique reading experience. There is a recurring notion of Sallis’ memory and mind bubbling beneath the Man-Thing’s consciousness but it is beneath a hazy barrier that is probably for the best as Sallis’ life has become a kind of living Hell. Dwelling entirely in the swamp, it soon becomes apparent that the Man-Thing is tied to a nexus of all realities, a handy plot idea that was later utilized by Daniel Way in Deadpool: Merc with a Mouth, Jim Krueger in Paradise X and Fred Van Lente for Marvel Zombies 3 and 4 just to name a few. The nexus was an invention largely provided by Steve Gerber (also the creator of Howard the Duck), the writer who later become most associated with Man-Thing.
While the initial stories were similar in tone to traditional horror tales in which people were horrible to each other until the deus ex machina stepped in and made the villain pay the piper, the comic soon developed a supporting cast and more fully fleshed out Man-Thing himself as a real character rather than a plot device. The strange series was moderately successful throughout the 70′s and the character appeared in a few traditional comics such as Marvel Two-in-One. Because of the cult status of the Man-Thing and the immense impact that Gerber’s stories had on everyone who read it (Neil Gaiman is a huge fan), Marvel has attempted to bring the character back several times after Gerber left the series but with no real success. It’s no slight against the other creators, but Man-Thing was really Gerber’s baby.
Eagle-eyed readers may notice that Man-Thing has most recently turned up in Jeff Parker’s run of the Thunderbolts as the ‘mode of transportation,’ an ability that the creature has acquired due to its connection to the nexus of all reality. A bizarre and popular character, I highly recommend picking up the reasonably priced essential collections for your bookshelf.