Last month, in our epic Swamp Thing #1 post, we covered at some length the parallel creation and development of Man-Thing and Swamp Thing, two swamp monsters who were both introduced to the comic-book-reading world in early 1971 by the two largest American comics companies, Marvel and DC. As noted in that post, while both characters received their own ongoing color-comics series in the summer of 1972 — well over a year after their respective introductions in Savage Tales #1 and House of Secrets #92 — Man-Thing managed to make it out of the gate a month before his distinguished competition, with the July release of Fear #10.
Fear — or, if you prefer, Adventure into Fear, as the comic’s title was styled on the cover beginning with that issue (though it was never changed in the indicia) — had up to this point been an anthology book, reprinting short horror, fantasy, and science fiction tales from Marvel’s “Atlas” era of the 1950s and very early 1960s (though a couple of new stories had also appeared in more recent issues). The initial 10-page installment of “Man-Thing” came from the team of writer Gerry Conway (who’d scripted the character’s origin story in Savage Tales from a plot by Roy Thomas), penciller Howard Chaykin (whose first published job for Marvel this was), and inker Gray Morrow (who’d drawn that initial Savage Tales story, and who is generally credited with the character’s visual design). It told a done-in-one tale of how the muck-encrusted, mute, and mostly mindless Man-Thing (who, as a flashback reminded readers, had been a scientist named Ted Sallis prior to his unfortunate transformation) saved the life of a baby who’d been tossed off a bridge by his callous father, and then sought vengeance on the child’s behalf. (What it didn’t attempt to do was explain how the Man-Thing had survived the explosion at the end of Astonishing Tales #13 [the concluding chapter of a two-part Ka-Zar storyline in which Manny had been featured], which readers had been given to understand should have destroyed him. But, honestly, that didn’t seem like such a big deal at the time; after all, we’d been given so little information about Man-Thing’s nature up to this point — not only his specific abilities, but even the very substance he was composed of were still essentially mysteries — that it wasn’t all that difficult to accept that he’d simply, well, pulled himself back together somehow.)
Having returned to the character they’d helped originate just long enough to see him safely launched in his new series, both Conway and Morrow left Fear after issue #10, as did Chaykin. And so, with the exception of cover artist Neal Adams (who’d previously drawn what was originally intended to be the second Man-Thing story in Savage Tales, but ended up appearing in Astonishing Tales #12, instead), Fear #11 would see an entirely new creative team come aboard. Its members included another new young artist (albeit one who’d been around slightly longer than Howard Chaykin), Rich Buckler, as penciller; Jim Mooney, a veteran artist with over thirty years in the comics business, as inker; and as writer, a brand spanking new arrival at Marvel named Steve Gerber.
Like many another comics pro of his generation, the 24-year-old Gerber came from the ranks of fandom. A native Missourian, he’d come to know Roy Thomas, another son of the “Show Me State”, back in the early 1960s, when the future editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics was himself still only a fan. After graduating college, Gerber worked in St. Louis as an advertising copywriter for roughly eight months — an experience he’d later describe to an interviewer as “tremendously boring”* — before getting in touch with Thomas to see if Marvel had any work available; fortunately for both him and, ultimately, us, the rapidly-expanding publisher did. What would become Fear #11’s “Night of the Nether-Spawn!” was Gerber’s first story for Marvel Comics, plotted before he’d even left St. Louis for New York.
Arcane forces? Mystic circles? Up to this point, the Man-Thing and his milieu had seemingly been grounded in science (or at least what passes for it in comic books); Ted Sallis’ metamorphosis had been presented as the result of an experimental “super-soldier” serum combining with the swampy substance of the Everglades to cause a bizarre biochemical reaction. But this is a monster book, after all, and monsters and magic do seem to go together; besides which, Manny’s appearances with Ka-Zar in Astonishing Tales have already planted our fetid friend firmly in the Marvel Universe, and we all know that the MU is lousy with magic.
As the two young siblings, Jennifer and Andy, continue their preparations, we learn that the book they’re using actually belongs to their grandfather. Having an interest in witchcraft, Jennifer has attempted to borrow if from him, but has been rebuffed. “There must be something about it — maybe even about him — that he didn’t want us to know!” declares Jennifer. “Don’t you see — ?… It’s part of our family heritage!”
So the kids have snuck the mystic tome out of the house without Grandpa’s knowledge, and after picking up some necessary supplies from the local “head shop” (the first such establishment to be mentioned in a Marvel comic book? Maybe, though I couldn’t say for sure…), they’ve headed out to the swamp to — what else? — summon a demon.
We catch up with “the young humans” at the town’ movie theater, where Andy is less than enthused about his big sister’s choice of film…
While Rich Buckler and Jim Mooney are both talented illustrators in their own right, their styles don’t mesh all that well (at least in your humble blogger’s opinion), with the result that most of the artwork in “Night of the Nether-Spawn!”, while telling the story competently enough, isn’t particularly memorable. That said, certain images — such as the full-page splash shown above — convey a rawer, pulpier feel, somehow evocative of 1950s horror and monster comics, that I really do enjoy.
Or to put it another way: I reckon I like the way Buckler and Mooney draw two monsters havin’ a fight.
“…whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch…” The burning power of the Man-Thing had been established in his very first story by plotter Roy Thomas and scripter Gerry Conway; Thomas had then gone on, in Astonishing Tales #12 and #13, to introduce the idea that the emotion of fear was what triggered the uncanny burning. But it was Steve Gerber who came up with the turn of phrase that would become an enduring tagline for the character, repeated in a multitude of stories, and eventually even being bannered above the title logo of the Man-Thing comic that followed Manny’s run in Fear.
The Man-Thing is staggered by the demon’s force-blast; instinctively, he realizes that he’s grown significantly weaker in the time since he’s left the swamp. Somehow, Manny and the environment where he first came to be are linked, and if he’s going to recover, or even survive, he needs to return to where he belongs. Thus, he attempts to shamble away in retreat — but the demon, determined to destroy his defeated foe once and for all, decides to pursue him back to his “miserable bog”…
The dialogue that Gerber gives the demon — or Nether-Spawn, as we now know to call him — in the last panel above makes it plain that he’s a fallen angel, straight out of Jewish and Christian mythology. Eventually, we readers will learn that there’s a bit more to the guy than just being a run-of-the-mill lieutenant of Lucifer… but Gerber hasn’t gotten quite that far himself just yet.
Once he’s fully emerged from the swamp water, the Man-Thing — whose strength seems to have been fully restored by his quick dip — uproots a good-sized tree, and then drives it into the Nether-Spawn like a battering ram, knocking him off his feet…
Now, I’m not going to try to tell you that “Night of the Nether-Spawn!” is a timeless classic for the ages. But as a first-time effort at professional comic-book writing, it’s not bad at all. Steve Gerber would go on to author much better stories than this one, without doubt; that said, it’s still worth noting how well he managed to catch the “Marvel style” of conic-book wordsmithing right out of the gate, along with delivering a solid plot for this done-in-one monster yarn.
Intriguingly, at the time he delivered his script for Fear #11 to Marvel, Gerber had no idea whether he’d ever return to script another adventure of its star attraction. As he told an interviewer in 2002:
…when I was given the first assignment, I didn’t know whether I was ever going to be writing a second “Man-Thing” story. That wasn’t decided until after I got to New York. The first one I just did as a self-contained story, without even thinking about the future of the character or the book or anything, because I didn’t know whether I was going to have anything more to do with it.**
That’s ironic, obviously, given that Gerber would go on to write upwards of forty Man-Thing stories over the next several years, becoming the definitive writer of the character in the process. The peculiar nature of the feature, with its empathic, purely reactive protagonist, would prove to be an ideal match for Gerber’s unique sensibility and imagination, allowing him to craft the body of work for which, along with Howard the Duck, he’s arguably best remembered. I look forward to sharing some of the best of that work with you in the months and years to come.
As noted earlier, the first Man-Thing story in Fear ran a mere 10 pages; it shared space in issue #10 with two standalone short tales. With #11, the feature got a 50% increase in page allotment; even so, the 15-page length of “Night of the Nether-Spawn!” left room for a single short to fill out the comic’s remaining pages:
“The Spider Waits”, scripted by an uncredited (and as yet still unknown) writer, with art by Fred Kida (a talent best known today for his work on Hillman’s “Airboy” feature in the 1940s), had originally been presented in Marvel Tales #105 (Feb., 1962). It’s the story of Sven, a janitor who, having been traumatized as a child by being locked in a closet chock full of spiders, grows up to fear and loathe the eight-legged critters, and to relish destroying them whenever given the opportunity. He’s not an unsympathetic fellow, but simply by the conventions of the genre, you know exactly what fate awaits him — especially after he goes to a bar and meets a beautiful, black-haired woman who, having learned of his predilections, invites him back to her place to, er, clean out her cobwebs. One thing leads to another, and in the end…
Coming in at six pages, “The Spider Waits” is an inoffensive little piece, if more amusing than scary. But it’s also the very definition of filler, and I doubt that any reader was sorry when Man-Thing ultimately took over the whole book — as he’d do just four issues later, with Fear #15.
*Jon B. Cooke, “A Man, a Duck, and a Monster”, Comic Book Creator #6 (Winter, 2014), TwoMorrows, p. 112.
**Cooke, p. 114.