Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
In 1971, Marvel Comics introduced us to Ted Sallis, a scientist who must inject himself with his own special biochemical formula to prevent it from falling into the hands of enemy spies. After an accident, Sallis falls into the swamp and emerges as a monster. Thus, Man-Thing was born. One month later, DC Comics introduced us to Alec Holland, a scientist who must inject himself with his own special biochemical formula in order to prevent it falling into the hands of criminals. After an accident, Holland falls into the swamp and emerges as a monster. Thus, Swamp Thing was born.
Those origins may, perhaps, sound rather similar to one another.
It is possible to tease out the subtle differences between the two. Swamp Thing has a slightly more human visage and he retains his human intelligence. Swamp Thing is strong and has certain advantages from being made of plant matter.
Man-Thing has a more vegetative face and his human identity is deeply submerged if not lost entirely beneath an instinctive empathy. Man-Thing also emits a chemical with effects that are best summarized by the famous line: “Whoever knows fear burns at the touch of the Man-Thing!”
Also, Man-Thing is spelled with a hyphen.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this similarity is that there was no lawsuit between the two companies. This is because both creatures were primarily worked on by two writers who just happened to be roommates. Gerry Conway took an idea suggested by Stan Lee and further refined by Roy Thomas and came up with Man-Thing along with artist Gray Morrow. Conway’s roommate Len Wein was responsible for Swamp Thing with legendary artist Bernie Wrightson. As if this was not tangled enough, Len Wein ended up writing the second Man-Thing story published.
The mind boggles at the thought of lawyers arguing in front of a judge about the finer distinctions between two muck encrusted mockeries of men. What probably stopped any trial though was the realization that both characters also bore more than a passing similarity to a comic book character from the 1940s called The Heap.
That is a good thing because both characters have gone on to feature in some fascinating and frightening tales. Man-Thing achieved greatness in a long run of stories by writer Steve Gerber, who rose to the challenge of writing stories with second person narration for an instinctual protagonist with a series of macabre or science fiction tales. Man-Thing would eventually become a mainstay of the Marvel Universe. Any Marvel superhero who ends up in a swamp usually runs into Man-Thing.
In the 1980s, writer Alan Moore took Swamp Thing to new heights when he inverted the character’s design by revealing that Swamp Thing was not a human turned into a plant but rather a plant that tried to imitate a dead human. Swamp Thing also enjoyed more media success. A new show now airing on the CW is the latest addition to a mossy resume that includes motion pictures, syndicated television shows, and even some cartoon appearances.
Both characters are worth getting to know. They offer some eerie stories for those looking for scares this season and heartbreaking takes on the nature of identity.