HORROR WE? HOW'S BAYOU?

Rewind to the early '70s, a time when hair was long, music funky and the width of bell-bottoms still expanding. However in the optimistic first years of this new decade, a plague fell upon the land. No, not the swarms of earnest singer-songwriters clogging up the record shops, something far worse! For now the swamplands and bayous of America were becoming distinctly unsafe, with sightings of foetid, unwholesome shaggy creatures proliferating rapidly! And no, this wasn't just scruffy hippies getting back to nature, this was a plague of bog-monsters!

Well, at least that was the impression you got if you were reading the horror comics back then. Seriously though, there must have been something in the air - other than the scent of thai sticks that is - for out of the blue, swamp critters were THE thing in horror titles in the early '70s. And over the years, there's been much debate about how this started and which came first, and hence I'm donning my best Roy Raymond outfit, and paddling down the time stream to the murky glades of the bayous to dredge up the muck-encrusted truth!

Apparently appearing last on the scene at the beginning of 1974, was a hideous beast with his own title - Marvel's own entry into the mossy monster menagerie, The Man-Thing!

Now Man-Thing had originally been a human scientist, Ted Sallis, who was working to recreate the legendary Super-Soldier serum - the lost formula that had transformed puny Steve Richards into Captain America. However a terrorist group were after Sallis's research, and having discovered his secret lab in the heart of the Everglades, the scientist is injured and only just escapes the nefarious villains. He injects himself with the only sample of his version of the serum to help combat his wounds but unfortunately while fleeing the scene crashes his car into the swamp. And hence the world believes Sallis is dead and gone. However the effects of the serum, coupled with mystic forces in the swamp do actually save him... But also transforming him into a mute unthinking mass of moss and slime - the Man-Thing.

Man-Thing is a somewhat unusual character, as he operates on pure instinct - he literally has no intellect whatsoever. And aside from now being almost indestructible in his vegetable form, he has a curious other ability - all those who know fear burn at his touch. The 1974 Man-Thing comic was helmed by the legendary Steve Gerber, who took the character through a host of wild adventures, having him fight monsters worse than himself but also encountering all manner of high strangeness such wizards and bizarre incursions from other dimensions.

It was a classic run of issues, with Gerber crafting highly atmospheric and memorable tales. However over the years many have thought that Man-Thing is merely a Marvel knock-off of another horror character,. For their arch rivals DC have a muck-monster of their own. And thanks to a spell of being scripted by the legendary Alan Moore, this bog-beast is somewhat more famous than his Marvel-ous counterpart. We are talking of course about Swamp Thing.

Created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, Swamp Thing launched in November 1972. And like Marvel's bog-beast, this moss-covered monstrosity was once a man too. The first issue told of how scientist Alec Holland was working in a secret lab hidden in the Louisiana swamps on a bio-restorative formula when weirdly enough some nefarious villains attempt to steal his research. Caught in an explosion from a bomb planted by these unscrupulous folks, a burning Holland plunges into the filthy waters of the swamp, and is believed to have perished. But thanks to the formula and, as later we'd discover, mystic forces, he too rises again, becoming Swamp Thing. However unlike Sallis, Holland retained his intelligence and would later learn he was been resurrected as a plant elemental who serves as Nature's guardian.

Now all of this sounds suspiciously similar to Ted Sallis's sorry tale I'm sure you'll agree. So then, was Swampy the original muck monster? Well, no, for this is an area of comics history with roots as tangled as a banyan tree! You see, before the 1974 solo title, Man-Thing had been appearing in the pages of another comic, and an anthology title, Adventure Into Fear!

Appearing in Issue #10 - a month BEFORE Swamp Thing #1 hit the stands - Man-Thing had surfaced in a ten page tale written by Gerry Conway. Man-Thing proved to be very popular with readers and became a regular feature, with Gerber taking over scripting duties for his second appearance. Furthermore as his popularity grew, so did the size of his strip, eventually expanding to take up most of the book which naturally lead to securing his own title by 1974.

So then, that makes Man-Thing the original haunter of the swamps? Well, no - for like Man-Thing, the Swamp Thing has previously surfaced in a DC anthology title before getting his own comic. Yes, this pair have parallel origins both ON and OFF the page. For in Jine 1971, in Issue #92 of House of Secrets, Wein and Wrightson had told a tale called 'Swamp Thing'.

Now this little tale has marked differences to the later comic - it's set at the turn of the century, rather than in the present day, and rather than being plunged into the swamps thanks to industrial espionage, our tragic hero - here named Alex Olsen - is the victim of a jealous rival. However this twisted Gothic tale proved to be such a hit that DC were soon asking Wein and Wrightson to develop a contemporary, more heroic version of the character to star in his own book. And many years later, in 1980s during the celebrated Alan Moore years, it would be revealed that every age has had its own Swamp Thing, reprinting the House of Secrets tale as the first hint that Alec Holland wasn't the first monster to walk the swamps.

However a month before Alex Olsen became a muck-encrusted mockery of a man, Marvel had published Savage Tales #1 in May 1971. Now this wasn't a technically a comic and didn't even bear the Marvel name - and for good reason.

Back in the 1950's there had been a huge moral panic over comic books which had resulted in the formation of the Comics Code Authority which laid down rules as to what comics could and couldn't show and vetted every issue. And aside for from generally toning down the violence and sex in comics, the Comics Code largely made horror titles untenable with strictures outlawing the likes of vampires, werewolves and ghouls outright. Now publishers were free not to sign up to this, but a book without the Comics Code seal (as can be seen in the upper right corner of all the covers above) wouldn't get picked up by distributors.

However by the end of the '60s the Code was been revised and was becoming more flexible, allowing Marvel and DC the freedom to publish horror titles once again. However there were still limits on what could be shown, and to get around this an independent publisher Warren exploited a loop hole in the rules. For if your comic was printed in the larger magazine format and the strips were in black and white, then technically it was no longer a comicbook as defined by the Code and therefore outside its jurisdiction.

And so Warren launched Creepy and Eerie as horror magazines, and the more adult content proved to be a hit with readers. And other publishers such as Skywald and Stanley Publications were also soon releasing similar horror comic magazines such as Nightmare and Ghoul Tales. Hence Marvel formed Curtis Magazines to launch its own range of Code-free comics, with Savage Tales being the second attempt to break into this new market. The lead strip in Savage Tales was a Conan story but it also contained a tale scripted by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway entitled 'The Origin of the Man-Thing'.

And despite being cancelled after just one issue, there were plans for Man-Thing to be a regular feature in the new magazine. Indeed a second story had even been scripted, and woulod eventually see print a year or so later in Astonishing Tales #12 in June 1972. However interestingly this time the hulking swamp monster was written by Gerry Conway's room-mate, one Len Wein... Yes, the same Len Wein who created Swamp Thing!

Now then it would appear, if we are judging by cover dates alone, that it's DC ripping of Marvel. However thanks to the complexities of comics production and the fuzzy memories of all involved, no one - not even Gerry Conway and Len Wein - are certain who invented what first. And at the time, there was no legal action brought - however that wasn't down the vagaries of memory, or a lack of evidence over which of the pair first mooted the concepts, or even the fact that despite having kissing cousin origins the Swamp Thing and Man-Thing books took their characters in different directions.

No, the real reason that there was no litigation can be found in a Skywald magazine. For in the second issue of Psycho - which appeared in March 1971 before either House of Secrets or Savage Tales - another muck monster reared it's ugly head!

Meet Jim Roberts... Jim was a handsome fella until his cropduster crashed into a vat of experimental chemicals and at a secret military base and the combinations of fire, nerve gas and pesticides transformed him into a monster! And as the Heap, a sentient mass of earth-matter, he would enjoy many adventures in the pages of Skywald's magazine, and even made a short-lived foray into regular four colour comics in late 1971 with his own solo title.

However this character, written by Charles McNaughton and drawn by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, actually predated both Man-Thing and Swamp Thing not by mere months but by whole decades! For this was but a rebooted version of the Heap, who had had a long life in comics, first appearing in Air Fighters Comics #3 way back in December 1942!

Air Fighters Comics was an anthology title starring the young flying ace Airboy and featuring other aviator heroes in back-up strips. One such character was Skywolf and a tale in Vol. 1 #3 brought the world the first incarnation of the Heap. Here's his origin -

The transformed Baron Emmelman proved to be a big hit with readers and soon returned, eventually getting his own strip in Airboy Comics Vol. 3 #9 in October 1946. The Heap's adventures would run until 1953, ironically outlasting his parent character Skywolf. Over the years, we'd learn that his transformation was aided by mystic forces - the powers of the earth goddess Ceres - and his look would change; morphing from a white shaggy creature, through dull grays and browns to green and gaining a root-like nose.

And this is the real reason why Marvel weren't suing DC over the similarities between Man-Thing and Swamp Thing. As Roy Thomas recalled in 2002 when Stan Lee first came up with the seed idea for Man-Thing - "The creature itself sounds a lot like the Heap, but neither of us mentioned that character at the time..." And with good reason I suspect - for much like Man-Thing, the Heap was semi-mindless and the two creatures are startlingly, if not litigiously, similar looking! Here's the mature design of the Heap - judge for yourselves...

...It's the carroty nose that does it, isn't it! But equally clearly, looking at his origin Swamp Thing owes a debt to the Heap too.

And there we perhaps have an explanation of not one, not two, but three muck monsters stalking the pages of the horror comics of the early '70s. As the Comics Code relaxed, it was only natural that creators were looking back to the past, and just as many companies resurrected classic terrors such as Dracula and Frankenstein in the pages of their comics, and titles in the vein of the old EC shockers returned to the newsstands, it was perhaps inevitable that attention would turn to one of the great monster characters born in the Golden Age of comics.

Unbeknownst to the writers and artists at the time, with the Heap they had created a new archetypal monster and the success of the '70s swamp critters which homaged it, form a vital part of horror comics history with a long and lasting legacy.

However the Heap itself, despite being the original muck monster of the comics world, was actually owed a heavy debt to an earlier work. In the fable SF pulp magazine Unknown, in August 1940, legendary writer Theodore Sturgeon published a tale entitled 'It!' which told of a mossy plant monster that turns out to be a transformed man. And this story hailed as one of the best ever printed in Unknown is the great grandfather of all the swamp monsters we've discussed here.

Interestingly Sturgeon's seminal tale was adapted from comics by Marvel in Supernatural Thrillers #1 in 1972 by Roy Thomas and Tony Isabella. And apparently launching an It! series following on from the adaptation was discussed, but highly ironically, ultimately the idea was discarded as it was thought the character was too similar to Man-Thing...

BONUS MATERIAL!

The excellent Jesse Willis of the SFFaudio Podcast has just alerted to the fact that Sturgeon's tale and brood of bog-beasts also inspired a radio play from CBS Radio Mystery Theatre - The Creature from the Swamp in March 1974.

CLICK HERE TO HEAR THE CREATURE FROM THE SWAMP


JIM MOON, 4th September 2013


Return