First off, please be advised that this blog post is going to be one of the long ones. That’s primarily due to the fact that, in addition to covering the specific fifty-year-old comic book that gives the post its title, your humble blogger is also goiing to take a shot at answering the age-old conundrum: who came first, DC Comics’ Swamp Thing or Marvel Comics’ Man-Thing? (Regular readers may recall that when the blog spotlighted the second Man-Thing story, back in March, I promised something of this sort would be forthcoming; that moment has at last arrived.)
But it’s also destined to be at least a bit on the long side because before I can even get into discussing Swamp Thing #1, I feel that it’s necessary to give some attention to an even older comic, one that came out over fifty-one years ago. Of course, I’m talking about House of Secrets #92, published by DC in April, 1971; the comic book whose first eight pages gave us the very first “Swamp Thing” story, as written by Len Wein, drawn (mostly) by Bernie Wrightson, and edited by Joe Orlando. Neither the behind-the-scenes story of how Swamp Thing-the-series came to be — nor my own initial reactions to the first issue of the latter, as a fifteen-year-old reader in August, 1972 — make a whole lot of sense outside of the context of that classic tale. So, that’s where we’re starting, on what in all probability will indeed be a lengthy (though hopefully also enjoyable) journey. Forewarned is forearmed, eh?
There’s one more thing I feel obliged to note before we begin our look at “Swamp Thing 1.0”, however, and it’s that I didn’t actually buy House of Secrets #92 when it first came out. I’m not entirely sure why or how I missed it, since I was purchasing both House of Secrets and its sister Orlando-edited anthology title, House of Mystery, on a regular basis at the time; but that’s what happened, nonetheless.
Still, I somehow managed to read that issue in advance of my first reading Swamp Thing #1, some sixteen months after HoS #92’s release; and as I wasn’t yet actively purchasing back issues, I have to assume that I happened to peruse it at the house of a friend. But however I came across it, Wein and Wrightson’s story made an immediate and powerful impact on me — as indeed it seems to have done on virtually everyone who encountered it, way back then…
In a joint “Pro2Pro” interview conducted in 2004 by Dan Johnson for Back Issue #6, Wein and Wrightson recalled the genesis of the original “Swamp Thing” story:
DAN JOHNSON: What can you tell us about the origin of Swamp Thing? Was it just going to be a one-time story in House of Secrets?
LEN WEIN: Basically, it was. It’s one of those things that I came up with on the subway on my way to the office one day. I was selling mystery stories and I had to come up with some ideas, and I honestly could not say exactly where that particular idea came from. But all I know is it came to me while I was on the subway on the way to the office, and I pitched it to [editor] Joe Orlando, and he liked the idea, and I started to write the script . In fact, my favorite part about the story is that the character’s name comes from an accident.
BERNIE WRIGHTSON: Yeah, that’s a funny story.
WEIN: People would occasionally ask me what I was working on, and I kept talking about this “swamp thing” I was writing. And the “thing” at that point meant the story, not the character. By the time I was done, that ended up being the name of the story and the character.
In 1971, both Wein and Wrightson were frequent contributors to the DC “mystery” titles; another collaboration between the two, “Night Prowler”, had appeared in House of Mystery #191 in January, just three months prior to the publication of “Swamp Thing”. In 2004, the two men recollected the somewhat unusual circumstances regarding how Wrightson became attached as artist to Wein’s script for the latter:
WEIN: Marv Wolfman, my frequent collaborator and oldest friend, had just moved out to Lake Ronkonkoma, out on Long Island, and was having a housewarming party. Bernie and I were among the guests at the party. I remember, Bernie, you had just broken up with some girl you were seeing.
WRIGHTSON: Right, I remember.
WEIN: And we ended up just chatting, and Bernie and I went out to my car, just to sit and talk for a while about life and our problems. Bernie was telling me about this breakup he’d gone through. I said, “My God, I just wrote a story that has exactly that same emotional tone.” I said, “You’d be perfect for it.” And I told him about the story and he said, “Count me in.”
WRIGHTSON: That’s right, yeah. I remember that night, yeah. It was absolutely clear, the moon was out and it was unbelievably cold.
WEIN: Yeah (chuckles), that’s why we were sitting in the car. We were freezing our asses off. (laughs)
WRIGHTSON: We were in the car with the motor running and the heater on, yeah. (laughs)
For reasons no one seems to have remembered in later years, Wrightson ended up having less than an ideal amount of time to work on the story. This resulted in his calling on several of his artist friends for assistance — and not only for their illustrative skills. As the artist related to Jon B. Cooke in a 1998 interview for Comic Book Artist #5:
The deadline was really tight and I remember doing most of the work on a weekend. I had help from [Michael] Kaluta, Jeff [Jones], [Alan] Weiss and Louise [Jones, later Simonson]. I remember that to save time we photographed the whole thing. The bad guy is Kaluta who could make himself look really oily. I parted his hair in the middle and he had this great moustache. Of course, I was the hero because the girl was Louise Jones, Jeff’s wife, who I had a crush on and I got to put my arm around her.
The story’s point-of-view now changes to that of Damian Ridge, who remembers (via interior monologue) how he had always loved Linda, even before she married Alex Olsen — and how hard he’d had to work to hide his resentment from his research partner and “eternal friend“…
Now, however, Damian fears that Linda is beginning to suspect the truth. After she excuses herself to go to her room, he resolves that, regardless of how he feels about her, “my own neck comes first… Linda must die!”
We next see Linda sitting at her dresser, brushing her hair… and wondering why she feels like she’s being watched…
“Swamp Thing” made a significant impact immediately upon its original publication; according to several later accounts, House of Secrets #92 was the best-selling DC comic in the month of its release, outpacing both Superman and Batman. Publisher Carmine Infantino was keen to spin off the concept into its own series right away, but Wein and Wrightson were initially reluctant to do so. As they told Dan Johnson in 2004:
WEIN: The story had meant so much to us, and had such an emotional resonance for the two of us, that we decided we didn’t want to weaken the story. We didn’t want to water it down by making it an ongoing series.
WRIGHTSON: Absolutely, Len. And besides, it was just so much fun.
WEIN: We refused for the better part of a year and then I had this wonderful epiphany one morning where I went, “Schmuck!” and I slapped myself in the forehead. I suddenly realized we could do a new series, without doing the same story with the same characters. You know, basically start over again. And I called Joe Orlando and said, “Joe, I figured out how to do this without undercutting the original story.” And Joe said, “Oh, great! I’ll pitch it to Carmine.” And Joe called me back a few minutes later and said, “Yep, [Carmine] still wants to do the book. Who do you think should draw it?” I said, “Bernie.” [Joe] said, “I don’t think Bernie wants to do a regular book.” I said, “I’ll call you back in an hour.” (laughs) And then I called Bernie.
WRIGHTSON: Yeah, my reaction was exactly the same. I was a little scared of taking on a whole book on a regular basis because I was then, and I’m still now, pretty slow. And I was just afraid that I wasn’t going to be able to meet the deadlines and I’m going to fall down on this. But when Swamp Thing came along as a series, I thought, “My God, if I’m ever going to do a complete comic book, this is the one.” It was made to order because Len and I talked about it in very broad strokes, about the story arc and everything. And I thought, “This is great. This is going to be, like, wall-to-wall monsters. What could be better?”
What indeed? And so, in August, 1972 — one year and four months after his first appearance — comic book readers met Swamp Thing, again, for the first time:
We don’t get a crystal-clear look at the Swamp Thing on page 2, any more than we got one on the book’s cover; nevertheless, the attentive reader will not fail to notice even from these partial viewings that Wrightson’s original character design from House of Secrets #92 has been significantly reworked. In comparison with the sloop-shouldered, thick-middled figure of the earlier story, the protagonist of “Dark Genesis” offers a brawnier, more physically imposing — one might even say more heroic — profile.
Already, the similarities between this iteration of the “Swamp Thing” story and its predecessor are obvious — here’s the young male scientist and his wife, here’s the laboratory located near a swamp — but so are the differences, which go beyond the relative superficialities of simply updating the time period and changing some names; for example, Linda Holland is her husband Alec’s fellow scientist and research partner, as well as his beloved spouse.
In the original “Swamp Thing”, we were never made privy to the nature of Alex Olsen and Damian Ridge’s scientific research. But here, the Hollands’ work is specifically described as a quest for a chemical compound that can be used “to create gardens out of sweltering deserts“.
The “bio-restorative formula” angle appears to have been the contribution of Joe Orlando. As the editor related in an interview for the first issue of Comic Book Artist in 1998:
I would read the Atlantic Monthly as I rode the bus as it went along Broadway. I was reading this article on the way to the office and it was about famine in the world and how to relieve it. The author said that food was cheap but the transportation to get the foods to areas of the world that needed it was expensive. The article also said that if only we knew how to accelerate growing time for food — plant life — and that was the story idea! Whoever could figure that out could rule the world. We were in a Cold War and if the U.S. suddenly found the formula… it was the idea for the story. You can come up with a million characters but if the premise doesn’t work, you don’t have a story.
Although Wrightson doesn’t appear to have used extensive photographic reference for “Dark Genesis” (the photo shoot for “Swamp Thing” was atypical of his usual work habits), the character of Ferrett was visually based on a real person. According to an interview Bernie Wrightson gave in 2004 (though it wasn’t published until a decade later, in Comic Book Creator #6 ([Winter, 2014]*), DC colorist and assistant production manager Jack Adler served as a model for the “big, heavy, bad guy with the mustache”.
Unsurprisingly, the Hollands reject Ferrett’s offer. The latter then directs the beefier of his two “cronies”, Bruno, to apply some physical persuasion — but at that moment a car pulls up, and the goon squad quickly takes off, vowing to return…
Matt Cable reminds the Hollands that whoever controls the bio-restorative formula will be able to control the whole world. “Think about that!… And think how many people would rather see you dead than to let their enemies have your formula!” Adding a warning that they should never open their door unless they know who’s behind it, Cable makes his exit, leaving the scientist couple to resume their work — and to ponder his words. Then, only ten minutes later, Linda hears a scratching noise from outside…
In his 2004 interview for Comic Book Creator, Wrightson revealed that his friend and fellow artist Mike Kaluta — who, as you’ll remember, modeled for the villain in the original “Swamp Thing” story — got to have a character in “Dark Genesis” visually based on him as well; it just wasn’t a human character, this time:
He’s the dog. [laughter] I gave the orange mutt Michael’s mustache.
Per the directive of the mysterious “Mister E” (no, not that one), Ferrett, Bruno, and the other one return to the Hollands’ lab. This time, Alec (who’s alone, fortunately) answers the door armed with a rifle. Unfortunately, Bruno conks him on the back of a head before he has a chance to use it…
According to Wrightson’s interview in Comic Book Creator #6, page 12 had to be modified due to the Comics Code Authority’s objecting to the depiction of Alec Holland as being on fire:
If you saw the original page of art, you would see that under the word “fume,” [in panel 2] it’s been whited-over pretty thick, right? Originally, before the Code insisted on the change, it said “flame-enveloped flesh.” We were told we couldn’t show him burning. Hence, the coloring is green, not yellow and red. Those are not flames, they’re fumes because we can’t show someone on fire…
It’s been several days now since the explosion… and though Alec may be dead, his and Linda’s work must continue. And so, the grieving scientist and the government agent make their sad return to the Hollands’ repaired laboratory, as a “dark, chilling” rain begins to fall…
Hearing the Swamp Thing’s hoarse cry, Matt Cable goes to the door and opens it. Swampy retreats into the shadow before he can be seen, but then…
Cable has not gone far when he hears another sound — human footsteps, this time, from back near the lab. Immediately, he turns and begins to retrace his steps…
According to Wrightson, both he and Wein came under criticism from Carmine Infantino for their use of two full-page splash panels beyond the one near the beginning of the story (see page 15 as well as page 21, above), despite the fact that other DC creators, such as Jack Kirby, were doing this sort of thing on a regular basis As the artist explained in his Comic Book Creator #6 interview:
He [i.e., Infantino] said, “It’s cheating. You’re not working, you’re just doing a one-page picture. You’re not doing multiple panels, you’re not doing a breakdown.” …I don’t know where this objection was coming from, but I do remember Carmine having a problem with the additional splash pages and he said, “Don’t you think you guys are going overboard with this stuff?” But we thought it was a great idea because we hadn’t seen it that often. Yes, Kirby and [Joe} Kubert were doing it, but they were the only guys. I liked the dramatic impact of going from six or eight panels to some climactic full-page, single-panel scene. Bang! Suddenly the music gets really loud. Carmine really got on Len’s case about this… Carmine said to Len, “Do you realize we paid you a full rate for one word on a page?” It was penny-ante stuff. But I’m sure that never occurred to Len while he was writing it. I doubt he thought, “Oh, boy! Page 21 and ‘STOP!’ There’s another $15 for me!”
When my fifteen-year-old self finished reading Swamp Thing #1 for the first time, back in August, 1972, I knew I’d just read a very good comic book. Nevertheless, I was vaguely disappointed, because, to my mind, it wasn’t quite as good as the original “Swamp Thing” story from House of Secrets #92.
The way I remember it, my disappointment had mostly to do with my preference for Wrightson’s original character design — the lumpy-looking fellow with “the saddest pair of eyes I’ve ever seen, at least on a monster!” (to quote Mrs. S. Berendt of Junction City, KS, whose missive appeared in the letters column of HoS #95) — over the taller, more muscular (for lack of a better term) iteration of Swamp Thing that debuted in “Dark Genesis”.
But looking back at things from the vantage point of half a century later, I think that what I was really missing was a quality that was merely exemplified by Swampy Mark I’s sad eyes, rather than encompassed by them — and that was the tragic romance at the heart of the original story. That’s the element that gave Wein’s initial script the “emotional tone” he realized would make it a good fit for the recently broken-up Wrightson, as the two young men sat talking alone in a car, one freezing night on Long Island. That’s what gave the completed eight-page story the “emotional resonance” that made it so special to both of its creators that neither of them was eager to crassly exploit its success.
In my opinion, what ultimately made (and makes) “Swamp Thing” a stone classic — and probably the greatest single short story that ever appeared in any issue of any of DC’s mystery anthologies — is the work’s overwhelming sense of loss; a sense that “Dark Genesis” strives to reach in its turn, but ultimately can’t quite attain. Because while the latter tale’s Alec Holland may lose both his physical humanity and his love, they’re still two separate losses. Linda Holland’s death in Swamp Thing #1 is certainly tragic, but it’s also fundamentally disconnected from Alec’s transformation; if he ever found a way to become human again, she’d still be dead. HoS #92’s Alex Olsen, on the other hand, successfully saves his Linda’s life — but he loses her anyway, because he can’t be with her in his monstrous new state (or so at least he believes). It’s his very existence as a Swamp Thing, and nothing else, that keeps them apart; an unsolvable dilemna that makes for a perfect romantic tragedy.
As I’ve already indicated, however, I didn’t grasp all that at age 15 (or, if I did, I don’t remember it). To the best of my recollection, my critical analysis went about as far as “eh, the original was better,” and pretty much stopped there. But, as I’ve also said, even feeling that way I still recognized that Swamp Thing #1 was a really good comic book. I don’t think that there was any question in my mind that I’d pick up issue #2 when I saw it… as indeed I did, and as we’ll discuss in more detail come October.
All that said, I find myself struck today by the realization that Swamp Thing, as a continuing series, probably couldn’t begin to reach the same heights as “Swamp Thing” the short story; at least, not until someone could find a way to restore the element of romance to the basic character concept, by crafting a narrative in which the Swamp Thing might not only once again find true love, but also come terribly close to once again losing that love — before ultimately saving her, of course (and not just from a murderous husband, this time, but from the legions of Hell itself).
Let’s all be grateful that Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, and John Totleben came along when they did to figure that out.
Now, as to the “Swamp Thing vs. Man-Thing” business, these are the facts: The original “Swamp Thing” story — which, as we know, was written by Len Wein — appeared in DC Comics’ House of Secrets #92, whose indicia identifies it as the June-July, 1971 issue. The first Man-Thing story, on the other hand — entitled “Man-Thing”, and scripted by Gerry Conway — ran in the first issue of Marvel Comics’ black-and-white comics magazine Savage Tales, whose own indicia carries the date May, 1971. Just based on that information, Marvel certainly appears to have made it to the muck-monster market first (though not by much). But given that the dates are so close, and that production schedules between publishers might easily vary, is it possible that “Swamp Thing” was actually produced before “Man-Thing”, even if it was released a little later? And also taking into account the remarkable coincidence that Wein and Conway were roommates at the time they were working on these stories, is it reasonable to believe that they came up with their respective ideas independently? And if they didn’t — well, then, who copied whose homework?
Or, to once again put the fifty-one-year-old question in its most succinct form: who came first, Swamp Thing or Man-Thing?
The equally succinct answer is, of course: the Heap.
In making that statement, I’m not trying to be a smartass. (Well, not just trying to be a smartass.) Nor am I simply highlighting the incontrovertible fact that the Hillman comics character known as the Heap — who debuted in Air Fighters Comics #3 (Dec., 1942) and later went on to star in his own backup feature in that title (by then renamed Airboy Comics) from 1946 to 1953 — embodied the basic trope of “guy goes into a swamp, comes out a monster” almost three decades prior to either of DC or Marvel’s “Things” arriving at the party. (Which isn’t to say that that fact is itself insignificant, by any means.)
Rather, it’s meant to indicate that the short-lived early ’70s revival of the Heap by the almost-as-short-lived Skywald Publications (a revival which may have involved an official acquisition of intellectual property rights from the defunct Hillman, but may just as well not have; no one seems to know for sure) arrived on stands in advance of either Man-Thing or Swamp Thing’s initial appearances.
That’s right. Psycho #2, “introducing the horrible Heap!!”, and cover-dated March, 1971, was released on January 1, 1971. It was followed almost three whole weeks later by Savage Tales #1, which came out on January 19th**; while House of Secrets #92 brought up the rear by more than two months, not showing up in spinner racks until April 1st. Simply in terms of publication date, it seems clear that Skywald’s Heap takes chronological precedence over both Marvel’s Man-Thing and DC’s Swamp Thing.
So why is the Heap usually ignored when comics fans and historians discuss which of the Seventies swamp monsters was first out of the bog? Mainly, I think, because this version of the Heap had such little lasting impact — his strip was gone by the spring of ’73 — in comparison with the much longer comic-book careers of Manny and Swampy. There’s also the relatively minor (but still noticeable) coincidence of both of the Big Two’s new muck-monsters having “Thing” as part of their names. And finally, you don’t have the “roommate” angle, since, to the best of my knowledge, neither Len Wein nor Gerry Conway ever shared living space with one Chuck McNaughton, the writer who’s credited with the script for that first Heap story in Psycho #2.
Of course, establishing that there was another comic-book swamp creature gestating around the same time as both Man-Thing and Swamp Thing doesn’t really settle the matter of which of the latter two characters conceptually preceded the other one, or whether DC “copied” Marvel (or vice versa). It is nevertheless relevant to that discussion, I believe; though to better see how, we need to pull out for a longer and broader view of the whole swamp-monster trope.
Let’s begin with what most agree is the first of all such figures in popular culture: the titular monster in Theodore Sturgeon’s short story, “It”, which was originally published in the August, 1940 issue of Unknown magazine. Sturgeon’s classic horror tale describes a malevolent, near-mindless being that mysteriously forms deep within the forest upon the skeleton of a man named Roger Kirk, who’d gone missing in the woods years before. (Note that “It” is spawned in a forest, not a swamp; still, that’s pretty much the only major aspect of the familiar muck-monster concept not anticipated by this story.) Frequently anthologized, “It” would reach a new audience of comic book readers (such as your humble blogger) in July, 1972, when Marvel Comics presented an adaptation by writer Roy Thomas and artists Marie Severin and Frank Giacoia in the premiere issue of Supernatural Thrillers.
Intriguingly, there’s no definitive proof that either the writer (Harry Stein) or artist (Mort Leav) of the “Skywolf” yarn in Air Fighters Comics #3 that gave the world the Heap were familiar with “It”, which had come out just a couple of years earlier. But it’s hard not to see the remarkable similarities between the two monsters, especially as regards their origin stories. As shown in the page at left, the Heap’s human antecedent was a German World War I flying ace named Baron von Emmelman, whose plane went down in flames in a Polish swamp — but whose “will to live” somehow allowed him to return as “a fantastic Heap that is neither animal nor man”. Originally visualized as white and shaggy — rather more suggestive of a Yeti than a bog creature — the Heap would eventually come to be colored green (or brown, or somewhere in-between), which allowed for his exterior to be more easily associated with moss or grass than with hair; he also acquired a root-like “nose”, a feature he’d later pass down to Marvel’s Man-Thing.
From the very beginning, however, the Heap is established as unambiguously dangerous — he’s literally bloodthirsty, being required to consume the blood of animals (or humans) to survive — but unlike Sturgeon’s It, he’s not malicious; and when he inevitably becomes violent, his rampages are directed primarily towards Nazis (which is kind of a neat trick on the storytellers’ parts, seeing as how the character is virtually mindless). This makes him not only the first muck-monster in comics, but also the first muck-monster who can (at least sometimes) be categorized as one of the “good guys”.
That’s not something that could be said about the next significant comics character to crawl out of a swamp — at least not as he was originally conceived and portrayed. This was Solomon Grundy, who made his debut in All-American Comics #61 (October, 1944), as the villain in that issue’s Green Lantern adventure. As was explained by that story’s writer, Alfred Bester (who, as it happens, was in addition to being a comics scripter also a contributor to several science-fiction and fantasy magazines — including Unknown, the venue where Sturgeon’s “It” had appeared in 1940), Grundy had been formed from the mortal remains of Cyrus Gold — a man who’d been murdered in Slaughter Swamp fifty years earlier. While he was considerably more human in appearance than either It or the Heap — or most of the marsh-spawned monsters that would follow in the years to come — the two panels by Bester and artist Paul Reinman shown at left make it very clear that, other than his skeleton, Grundy was primarily composed of vegetable material. (This was actually an important plot point, as Grundy being made mostly of wood made him impervious to Green Lantern’s ring, which was powerless against that material — at least in this first story.***) Grundy almost immediately began to embark on a crime spree, which only came to an end when Green Lantern managed to have him run over by a train… though he’d come back, of course, and has indeed continued to be a baleful presence in the DC Universe down to this very day.
After the Heap and Solomon Grundy, there’d be any number of comic-book “swamp creatures” showing up through the 1950s and ’60s — though most of these were one-offs that appeared in various horror/fantasy anthology titles, and that also didn’t quite match the man-into-monster “It” model in all respects, usually turning out to be alien invaders or the like. That would change in 1969, when writer Roy Thomas and artist Herb Trimpe brought the classic muck-monster trope into the Marvel Universe in Hulk #121, via the squishy (but mighty) form of… the Glob.
In a 2002 interview with George Khoury (eventually printed in 2008, in Alter Ego #81), Thomas referred to the Glob (correctly, I believe) as “the first real successor to The Heap in modern comics”. Explaining how he and Trimpe came to create the character, Thomas went on to say:
By the age of seven or eight I was reading Airboy Comics… and “The Heap” was in every issue. I couldn’t buy every issue, but I was always intrigued by this creature who just shambled onstage to mop up a story every issue and fight a different monster and never say a word… So… when I was writing [The Incredible] Hulk and Herb Trimpe and I were looking for new villains, I decided to do The Heap. Herb was familiar with him, too, I think… The Glob was the first real character of that type in a Silver Age super-hero type story, at Marvel or DC or anywhere.
As related in Hulk #121, the story of how the Glob came to be began when a convict (unnamed in this appearance, but later identified as Joe Timms), having received word in prison that his wife was dying, escaped from prison and fled into the Florida Everglades… where he sank into a bog and died. Years later, however, the Hulk was passing through the area and carelessly knocked some cans of radioactive waste into that same bog; that material, rather than poisoning the environment for miles around like it would in the real world, behaved in the usual magical fashion it does in old comics books, somehow reanimating whatever was left of the unfortunate Mr. Timms and bringing him back as the mute, mentally confused (but not really evil) Glob — who, dimly remembering his long-ago mission to return to his dying wife, then proceeded to kidnap Betty Ross, under the mistaken impression that she was his lost love. This naturally brought him into conflict with the gamma-irradiated alter ego of Betty’s erstwhile boyfriend, Bruce Banner (aka the Hulk); but although the Glob gave a good account of himself against Marvel’s Emerald Behemoth, at the story’s end he was apparently destroyed, dissolved in a “anti-radiation fluid” originally intended for his foe. Of course, this hardly meant that the Glob was gone for good; indeed, Thomas and Trimpe would bring him back for another bout with ol’ Greenskin in less than a year, in issue #129 (Jul., 1970), and he’d go on to several more appearances after that.
The Glob may have been Roy Thomas’ first contribution to what might be called the muck-monster “revival” of the Bronze Age, but it was hardly his last. The next such project he was involved with (at least in terms of its publication date) was, surprisingly, not a Marvel venture; rather, it was the Skywald version of the Heap.
Thomas’ role here was an indirect one, though, arguably, no less critical for that. As he told George Khoury in 2002: “I had lunch with [ex-Marvel production manager] Sol Brodsky soon after he left Marvel to co-found Skywald. He was looking for heroes to do. I couldn’t write for him, so he was kind-of picking my brain, and I wanted to help without getting too involved, since Stan [Lee, Marvel’s editor] wouldn’t have liked that.” Thomas suggested that Brodsky’s new company take a shot at resurrecting the Heap. And Brodsky clearly must have liked the idea, since, as we’ve already noted, Skywald brought a new version of the vintage character to magazine racks in early 1971.
As recounted by writer Chuck McNaughton and artists Ross Andru and Mike Esposito in Psycho #2, the new Heap had, like the original, been a human aviator prior to his transformation. But rather than a German World War I flying ace, this unfortunate soul — Jim Roberts, by name — was a contemporary crop-duster pilot whose sabotaged plane went down in a restricted military area, where a mix of pesticides, nerve gas, and a forest fire ultimately gave birth to what Richard Arndt (writing in Comic Book Creator #6) called “the ugliest swamp creature of them all” — a fair assessment, in my opinion, even if this Heap’s origin (like that of Theodore Sturgeon’s It) doesn’t technically involve an actual swamp.
But now, let’s briefly turn the calendar back to just a couple of months prior to the release of Psycho #2, a time when Sol Brodsky and his team at Skywald were still in the process of following through on Roy Thomas’ helpful suggestion regarding the Heap; a time, too, when, back home at Marvel, Thomas himself was getting involved with the creation of yet another muck-monster: the Man-Thing.
Like Brodsky, Thomas’ boss Stan Lee was interested in moving into the “mature readers” black-and-white comic magazine market currently dominated by Warren Publishing’s Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella. As Thomas explained in his Alter Ego #81 interview:
Stan Lee called me in… He wanted to launch this new magazine called Savage Tales, and one of its features was to be called “Man-Thing.” He had a couple of sentences or so for the concept — I think it was mainly the notion of a guy working on some experimental drug or something for the government, his being accosted by spies, and getting fused with the swamp so that he becomes this creature. The creature itself sounded a lot like The Heap, but neither of us mentioned that character at the time, though Stan’s said since, when people have asked him about the Hulk, that he was familiar with The Heap. I didn’t care much for the name “Man-Thing,” because we already had The Thing, and I thought it would be confusing to also have another one called Man-Thing…
With Lee’s title and basic concept to work from, Thomas proceeded to write a detailed three-page synopsis (dated November 10, 1970, it’s reproduced in full in Alter Ego #81, for anyone who’s curious) describing how an unnamed scientist, working in a lab located in a swamp to develop “more death-chemicals for our little police action in Nam”, is betrayed by his girlfriend, who’s secretly a freelance spy who wants to sell his new formula to the highest bidder. But the scientist has already burned the only paper copy of his formula, which currently exists only in liquid form in a hypodermic syringe — and rather than let the spy and her henchmen take that from him, he shoots it into his arm and flees in his car. Of course, the car inevitably crashes into the swamp — and what follows can probably be predicted by anyone who’s read this far.
Once having completed his synopsis, Thomas turned it over to others to turn into a finished eleven-page strip for Savage Tales #1. The assigned scripter, Gerry Conway, followed Thomas’ outline closely — his main contributions coming in the form of the main characters’ names (according to an article in Comic Book Creator #6, Conway derived the scientist’s moniker — Ted Sallis — from the names of a couple of his writer friends: Ted White, who as a science-fiction and fantasy magazine editor had bought some of Conway’s short stories, and James Sallis, whom Conway had met at an SF writers’ workshop, but who’d later become better known for his crime fiction) — as well as the specific identification of Sallis’ secret project as a “super-soldier” formula. As for the artist, Gray Morrow, he seems to have come up with the visual design for the Man-Thing all on his own (there’s no description provided in Thomas’ synopsis) — though a debt to the Hillman Heap is obvious, especially in regards to what Thomas has called the creature’s “carroty nose”.
The finished story — clearly intended as the first chapter of an ongoing serial — duly appeared in Savage Tales #1; which, as we’ve already noted, may have been cover-dated May, 1971, but almost certainly came out in the last half of January. And then, of course, a little more than two months later, DC Comics released House of Secrets #92, featuring “Swamp Thing” — a story scripted by Gerry Conway’s roommate at the time, Len Wein.
Which, naturally, brings us back to the question we started with: Were “Swamp Thing” and “Man-Thing” conceived independently, or was one influenced by the other?
In his Comic Book Creator #6 interview, Wrightson was forthright in expressing his view of the matter:
Gerry Conway, who came up with “Man-Thing,” was Len’s roommate at the time Len wrote the first script, okay? Marvel’s schedule was faster, their turnaround was quicker, where they could get a book out, much quicker than DC. So figure it out. “Man-Thing” came out before “Swamp Thing,” okay? My opinion is “Man-Thing” is a complete rip-off of “Swamp Thing,” but it came out first so that Marvel could say that DC was copying their idea.
With all due respect to the late Mr. Wrightson, his thesis isn’t tenable, since Gerry Conway didn’t come up with Man-Thing; Stan Lee and Roy Thomas did. And since all of the important elements of the first “Man-Thing” story can be found in Thomas’ Nov., 1970 synopsis, if anyone did “rip off” Wein’s script for more than just the name or basic concept, it would have had to be Lee and/or Thomas, rather than Conway. And as regards the name — well, as Thomas noted, Marvel already had a “Thing”, so if they were copying anyone there, it was themselves. Finally, how credible is it that Thomas, the avowed fan of the Hillman Heap who’d already written two Glob stories for Hulk, would have needed to crib from Wein’s “Swamp Thing” to come up with the idea of a scientist who falls into a swamp and comes out a monster? Because as best as I can tell, the protagonist’s being a scientist is the only significant plot element shared by “Swamp Thing” and “Man-Thing” that they don’t also share with most of the muck-monster origin stories that had come before them.
So, if we grant that Marvel’s project is highly unlikely to have been influenced by DC’s, what about the other way around? Could Len Wein have “borrowed” the idea for what became “Swamp Thing” from his roommate, Gerry Conway? In an article about the controversy published in Back Issue #6 (Oct., 2004), Conway provided a quote that seemed to at least admit the possibility:
We were both fans of each other’s work, so we did talk about it. We didn’t hide [our work] from each other. My work was pretty visible at any given time. My desk was in the middle of our living room. Len may not have been consciously aware of what I was doing, but he could have had the opportunity to be aware.
For his part, Wein was quoted in the same article as saying:
Which one came first implies that the other one copied the first… They were pretty much created independently, simultaneously. [Gerry and I] shared an apartment, but we never really talked about the particulars of our work. It’s just a coincidence [that both came out as close as they did], and it’s made more bizarre by that fact that Gerry and I shared an apartment.
Frankly, I see little reason not to take the late Mr. Wein at his word in regards to this. As I’ve hopefully demonstrated in this post, the whole “guy goes into a swamp, comes out a monster” trope was, if not exactly widespread, still quite well established by 1971; in any case, it certainly wasn’t unique to either of the young comic-book writers who happened to be sharing an apartment around that time. I’m even willing to give credence to statements made by Wein in another interview (published in Comic Book Creator #6) that not only was he unfamiliar with the Heap before he began work on “Swamp Thing”, but that he also hadn’t yet read Sturgeon’s “It”, and that he wasn’t even then aware that the well-known Golden Age DC supervillain Solomon Grundy was, at least in terms of his origin, a swamp monster. (Though I can’t help but note that he didn’t mention whether or not he’d yet read either of Roy Thomas’ Glob stories in Hulk.) Does that mean that the whole idea for “Swamp Thing” came to Wein completely out of the blue while he was on the New York subway, like he told Dan Johnson in 2004? Well, maybe… though I think it’s more likely to be an example of cryptomnesia, the phenomenon experienced when one has picked up on ideas that are at large in their surrounding culture without being consciously aware of having done so.
So — have we said all there is to say on the question of precedence re: Swamp Thing and Man-Thing? Well, not quite… seeing as how we’ve only dealt with the similarities between the first stories of the two characters; and as we’ve already seen, the version of Swamp Thing that appears in the first issue of the comic of that title is quite different from the one introduced in House of Secrets #92. And as it turns out, Alec Holland has a bit more in common with Ted Sallis than did his forebear, Alex Olsen.
As has already been discussed, the first “Swamp Thing” tale was supposed to be a one-off; and though the success of HoS #92 made DC keen to spin it off into its own series right away, Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson originally resisted that idea. But “Man-Thing” was always intended to be a continuing feature; and thus, a second tale was duly commissioned by Marvel. For reasons no one seems to have been able to recall in later years, that story ended up being produced by an entirely different creative team than had worked on the first one, as Gray Morrow turned over the art chores to Neal Adams, and Gerry Conway surrendered his muck-encrusted typewriter to… Len Wein?
Yep. If freelance writer Wein wasn’t already familiar with “Man-Thing” prior to mid-1971, he certainly was well before Swamp Thing #1 went to press. While his and Adams’ piece (which, as shown at right, recapped the Thomas-Conway-Morrow origin story on its first page) never appeared in Savage Tales (the second issue of that venture having been yanked from the production schedule by Marvel publisher Martin Goodman), a place was eventually found for it in Astonishing Tales — a title then serving as home berth for Ka-Zar, Lord of the Savage Land. After some revisions, Wein and Adams’ story became the centerpiece of Astonishing Tales #12 (Jun., 1972); an issue which, along with that story’s follow-up in AT #13 two months later, brought the muck-encrusted mockery of a man that used to be Ted Sallis quite firmly into the Marvel Universe.
We should note here that, although there had been no appearances of either Swamp Thing or Man-Thing in the almost-a-year period between the publication of House of Secrets #92 in April, 1971, and Astonishing Tales #12 in March, 1972, the comics racks had not been bereft of swamp-monster protagonists all that time. Not only did Skywald’s Heap continue to appear in the bimonthly, black-and-white Psycho, but the publisher even took a shot at giving the character another shot at color comic-book stardom. The Heap #1 (Sep., 1971), featuring a lead story written by Robert Kanigher, with art by Tom Sutton and Jack Abel, arrived on stands on or around July 1, 1971. As things worked out, this would be the only issue of the title ever published; nevertheless, The Heap was unquestionably the first color comics title headlined by a muck-monster, beating its nearest contenders by a full year.
By July, 1972, however, the “weird/horror heroes” trend was in full swing, making it a prime time for one or both of the two largest American comic book companies to offer a bog-born creature as a series protagonist themselves. Marvel was first out of the gate with Fear #10, featuring the return of the Man-Thing in a ten-page tale written by Gerry Conway, with art by Howard Chaykin and Gray Morrow. (Perhaps coincidentally, and perhaps not, Marvel also brought out Supernatural Thrillers #1 — featuring the Thomas-Severin-Giacoia adaptation of the muck-monster urtext, Theodore Sturgeon’s “It” — the very same month.) And then, of course, just one month later — August, 1972 — DC Comics’ Swamp Thing #1 finally shambled into the light of day.
Here’s the thing. As we’ve already noted, both the first “Swamp Thing” story and the first “Man-Thing” story introduced the concept of a scientist whose own experiments are at least partly responsible for his monstrous transformation into the existing swamp-creature trope; prior to this, the metamorphosis of some unfortunate human being into something made mostly of muck either had no explanation provided by the storytellers (e.g., It, Hillman’s Heap, Solomon Grundy), or the explanation was essentially unrelated to the protagonist’s own actions (the Glob, Skywald’s Heap). As I’ve already indicated, I believe it’s quite plausible that that single innovation could well have been come up with by DC’s and Marvel’s storytellers independently of each other; after all, shorn of the “swamp” angle, the “scientist’s experiments backfire, making him a monster” bit is at least as old as Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (not to mention Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s 1962 Incredible Hulk #1).
But Wein and Wrightson’s second Swamp Thing origin story, “Dark Genesis”, parallels Savage Tales #1’s “Man-Thing” in a couple of additional respects that seem unlikely to have arisen by coincidence, at least to this reader. First, not only are Ted Sallis and Alec Holland both scientists working on an experimental formula, but both are doing so on behalf of the U.S. government. Second, both men’s transformations into “things” are precipitated when they’re attacked by criminals who want that formula for themselves. Could Len Wein have forgotten his own script for the second “Man-Thing” strip, which recapped those specific elements from the Savage Tales #1 story, by the time he began writing Swamp Thing #1? I think that’s extremely unlikely — although that doesn’t necessarily mean that Wein purposefully set out to “steal” from the authors of the earlier tale.
As Roy Thomas observed in Alter Ego #81:
Gerry and I thought that, unconsciously, the origin in Swamp Thing #1 it was a bit too similar to the origin of “Man-Thing” a year and a half earlier. There was vague talk at the time around Marvel of legal action, but it was never really pursued. I don’t know if any letters even changed hands between Marvel and DC… We weren’t happy with the situation over the Swamp Thing #1 origin, but we figured it was an accident. Gerry was rooming with Len at the time and tried to talk him into changing the Swamp Thing’s origin. Len didn’t see the similarities, so he went ahead with what he was going to do. The two characters verged off after that origin, so it didn’t make much difference, anyway.
Although Thomas appears to have been unaware of it, it seems that letters did indeed “change hands” between Marvel and DC. At least, that the story told by the late Carmine Infantino in his autobiography, The Amazing World of Carmine Infantino (Vanguard, 2001) — and as DC’s president and publisher at the time, he would have known. According to Infantino:
A funny thing about Swamp Thing: It premiered at the same time as Marvel’s character Man-Thing. Stan Lee sent me a letter saying Man-Thing came out a month or so before Swamp Thing and if we didn’t drop [plans for a] Swamp Thing [title], Marvel would sue. I reminded Stan of the character I’d worked on decades earlier: the Heap! [Note: Infantino drew several “Heap” stories for Airboy Comics in 1948.] Not only were Swamp Thing and Man-Thing both derivative of the Heap, but a case could be made that so was the Incredible Hulk! Well, I didn’t hear any more complaints from Stan about Swamp Thing.
At the end of the day, I believe that both Infantino and Thomas were correct. Not only were Swamp Thing and Man-Thing both derivative of the Heap, but following their similar origins, their series went off in very different directions. Both of those directions ultimately yielded some pretty fine comic books — some of which we’ll be exploring on this blog in the months and years to come. I hope you’ll join me.
*This particular issue of Comic Book Creator, aka Swampmen: Muck-Monsters and Their Makers, is highly recommended for any reader whose interest in this peculiar little subgenre isn’t completely sated by the present blog post.
**For the record, this is an approximate date, as given by Mike’s Amazing World of Comics — a source I’ve found to be extremely reliable for such matters. If it’s off at all, it’s not likely to be by more than a week or two.
***In at least some of Grundy’s later appearances — Justice League of America #92 (Sep., 1971), for example — Alan Scott’s ring seems to work against his old foe just fine.