Saga of the Swamp Things

man-thing 80.jpgAlan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing was my favorite comic in my younger, more gloomsome days. I probably liked it more than my other favorite comics at the time, Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. But Swamp Thing wasn’t the only swamp monster in comics.

Before Alan Moore’s run, before Len Wein and Berni Wrightson even created Swamp Thing, there was The Heap. The Heap debuted in Hillman Periodicals’ 1942 Air Fighters #3. Baron Von Emmelmann, a German World War I flying ace, is shot down over a Polish swamp. During World War II, he shambles out of the muck a mindless creature, The Heap, who battles Axis powers and engulfs cattle for the oxygen in their blood. He needs their oxygen because he can no longer breathe.

Solomon Grundy started out way before Hanna-Barbera’s 1978-79 Challenge of the Super Friends and the Legion of Doom. Debuting in 1944, Grundy first tasked the Golden Age Green Lantern, Alan Scott, in All-American Comics #44. Cyrus Gold, a wealthy man (or gangster) stews in a swamp for a while and becomes an evil zombie, Solomon Grundy, to pay for his crimes. Grundy grows kind of treelike during his long steep and that’s particularly sucktastic for Green Lantern Alan Scott, since his powers don’t work on wood—sort of like Hal Jordan’s don’t work on anything yellow. (I love the Golden Age weaknesses. Wood, baby, wood). I understand at one point, Grundy could control anything made of wood, like a superstrong zombie Poison Ivy.

Over the years, Solomon Grundy’s had a lot of incarnations with varying degrees of intelligence. Sometimes he’s a criminal mastermind. Sometimes he’s nearly mindless. The only constant is his endless cycle of death and rebirth. Nobody illustrates samsara better than Solomon Grundy. In DC’s animated Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, he’s a figure of pathos and a savior, sacrificing himself to save the world.

man-thing-source.jpg And then there’s Marvel’s Man-Thing, which premiered in 1971, the same year as DC’s Swamp Thing and about the same time a small independent publisher, Skywald, re-launched The Heap. Man-Thing is also the result of mixing a human, a swamp and an experimental formula, in this case an attempt at the same serum that
created the super soldier, Captain America. Unlike Swamp Thing, (nee Alec Holland Alex Olson), Ted Sallis did not emerge compos mentis from his Florida swamp. Instead the serum mixed with the swamp,
creating the cutest shaggy legs and an oozing, mindless creature drawn to emotion. Man-Thing also excretes some chemical that makes people catch fire when they “know fear.” “Those who know fear burn at the Man-Thing’s touch,” as the comics say, which makes for a lot of burning horror in the Man-Thing’s vicinity.

Since Man-Thing is a toxic disaster in hominid form, writers usually provide sentient, conscious, frequently flammable people around Man-Thing to make for stories. Setting Man-Thing’s swamp in the “Nexus of All Realities” made it easier—and led to Howard the Duck. (Similarly, John Constantine and Hellblazer spun off from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing). Man-Thing’s rudimentary consciousness creates the need for a text-heavy third person omniscient or partially omniscient narrator or another protagonist.

While I’m totally into a mystical Swamp Thing, I also recognize a narrative weakness. Swamp Thing’s chemical accident was arranged in a sort of cosmic trifecta—Alex Olson’s by a jealous rival; Alec Holland’s by foreign agents desperate to steal his secret formula. And post-Moore, both were set up by Nature, in need of an elemental to defend the Green. So Man-Thing and Swamp Thing are at opposite ends of the consciousness spectrum, but their stories are potentially limited by their extremes–Man-Thing’s almost Brownian response to emotion and Swamp Thing’s expansion from single individual, Alec Holland, to a plant elemental pretending it’s Alec Holland to planetary elemental. And an elemental, planetary consciousness is hard to write without texty, texty brooding monologues.

So in 2000, both Man-Thing and Swamp Thing moved toward other protagonists. In Man-Thing, it was Ellen Brandt, Ted Sallis’ former undergraduate, lover and betrayer, who “knew fear” and was burned when Man-Thing touched her face. Ellen broods textually and uncovers her destiny with the special “Men of Lineage,” like Ted, now Man-Thing. (I guess, Marvel decided there had to be more to a shambling, “muck-encrusted” Man-Thing and Ted was kind of a dick).

Meanwhile, Brian K. Vaughn’s 21st Century Swamp Thing focused on Swamp Thing and Abigail Arcane’s little sprout, Tefe. It was hard for me to appreciate how cool Tefe was at the time, because I was attached to the Alan Moore (Pogo!) and the underappreciated Nancy A. Collins runs. And having had my heart broken once over Swamp Thing, I wasn’t in a hurry to come back and break it again.
But if swamp creatures like Solomon Grundy can keep trying, I guess I can, too.


Carol Borden became a muck-encrusted mockery of an Un-Man after an accident involving a swamp, rhinovirus and 2 Nyquil gel-caps. All who know fear, burn at her touch.

11 replies »

  1. >Man-Thing also excretes some chemical that makes people catch fire when they “know fear.” “Those who know fear burn at the Man-Thing’s touch,” as the comics say, which makes for a lot of burning horror in the Man-Thing’s vicinity.
    When I arrived at that part, I got the impression that Man-Thing was some odd romance novel.
    I couldn’t shake the idea. But I persisted, kept reading, and found…
    >In Man-Thing, it was Ellen Brandt, Ted Sallis’ former undergraduate, lover and betrayer, who “knew fear” and was burned when Man-Thing touched her face.
    Aha! It IS an odd romance novel.
    Either that, or Man-Thing is some kind of professional wrestler … with a romance novel attached based on his character.


  2. you know, i just realized i should’ve written that i am “a muck-encrusted mockery of an Un-Man.”
    oh well.
    and, chuck, i like how you think. you know there’s romantic wrestling fan-fiction–even paranormal wrestling romance fan-fiction.


  3. I imprinted on Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing movie when I was an impressionably little duckling. Rather like Chuck, I thought it was a love story. A swampy, full-of-goop-and-drowning love story. Good times.


  4. What an interesting history! I think the part about Man-Thing being created out of an experiment involving Captain American’s super-soldier formula is a more recent re-visioning of the story. I don’t remember there being any such connection in the Man-Thing comics from the 1970’s.
    But I also wonder if there’s some reason, maybe some preternatural force, that explains why swamp creatures HAVE to keep being created and re-created in comics. And also why they are so often associated with fiery accidents or burning (or oxidizing, if you count the de-oxygenating of cows)?


  5. hey mr. dave–
    i think a lot of the swamp thing stories tie back to theodore sturgeon’s short story, “it.” but i don’t remember if there’s an explosion in “it.”
    mixing chemicals, organic swamp goo and fire is both fun and requires little explanation. “we don’t know how it happened–there are too many variables!”
    as for the super soldier formula, one of the most frustrating things about comics history is how difficult accessing older versions of characters and their histories is once marvel or dc change continuity. anybody have any information?


  6. hey chris–
    i think it would be pretty easy to argue that swamp thing has been a romance with horror elements from the start. in the first house of secrets story by wein and wrightson, alex olson is “murdered” by a man who wants to steal his wife. and the romance and angst between swamp thing/alex holland and abigail arcane/ cable /holland is central to the arcs in the ensuing swamp thing title. at least till tefe takes over.
    dr. o–
    yeah, i didn’t want to just stick black orchid in there. it seems like she deserves her own piece. especially when i’m not entirely sure where she fits into the swamp monster taxon.


  7. it’s funny, but when you related the “we don’t know how it happened–there are too many variables!” comment I couldn’t help but think of another unrelated thing: Pinky and the Brain’s accident with a microwave oven and a non-dairy creamer… Because nobody know what a non-dairy creamer really is!


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