Swamp Monsters and Stoners: When Mainstream Comics Tuned In, Turned On and Dropped Out
Writer Steve Gerber's 39-issue run on Man-Thing exemplifies a crucial period in the development of comics: when the mainstream and underground collided.
The head-trip starts with a jar of peanut butter in 1973. Young Andy Kale is having a late-night snack, and even though he knows his older sister has some kind of superpower (she shared a "psychic bond" with a creature known as the Man-Thing some time back), he wonders if she's "going ga-ga" following her recent bout of night terrors.
When Andy goes to bed, the knife he used to spread the peanut butter begins to glow and transform, until "a Kathartan war sword rests beside the jar of peanut butter, or is it a jar...of man?" Then what must be one of the strangest moments in mainstream comics takes place, as the peanut butter oozes out and eventually takes the shape of "Korrek--warrior prince of Katharta!"
A few pages later, while Korrek attempts to discuss the nature of absurdity with his new-found companions, they are joined by a cigar-smoking, suit-wearing duck named Howard, who lectures them on the word's true meaning (and who would go on to star in his own cult classic series of comics, and a very odd movie).
At this point, readers of Adventure Into Fear #19 may have begun to wonder what the creative teams at Marvel comics were smoking. A mainstream publisher was embracing decidedly trippy storylines and elements not only inspired by the counter-culture but apparently aimed directly at it.
"Change was upon the mainstream comics starting in the late sixties and on into the seventies, but the changes were not a reaction to the underground comix movement," write Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith in The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture. "The men who ran DC and Marvel knew very little--and cared even less--about the undergrounds, but they were deeply interested in relating to their audience."
The reason for that interest? Sales. As Ronin Ro writes in Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution: "By now, Warren Publishing was selling lots of black-and-white horror magazines, Marvel was churning out Ghost Rider, Dracula, Werewolf by Night, Tales of the Zombie, and Brother Voodoo, and the industry wondered if superheroes were passé."
The audience was changing, and as always, the comics industry struggled to find and sell to a new one.
"When DC and Marvel introduced darker themes it was no doubt partially a reflection of the times, but when these changes proved to be popular, the trend was fueled by the tendency of the mainstream to copy what sells," write Duncan and Smith. "Indeed, the 1970s were a time when both Marvel and DC seemed to be throwing everything against the wall just to see what would stick."
Among those items that stuck was an ongoing story about a strangely poetic, silent creature made of muck and slime, who brought with him a suburban sorceress, a talking duck and jar of peanut butter that turned into a warrior prince. But that was already two and a half years after Man-Thing's debut for Marvel Comics in the spring of 1971.
"Stan [Lee] hadn't really created anything to match the success of the earlier Lee-Kirby co-creations," Ro explains. "He gave Roy [Thomas] a one- or two-sentence prompt for a swamp hero named Man-Thing, but this was when DC was using the same idea (based on a long-gone hero, the Heap) in their Swamp Thing story."
From the beginning, there was something odd about Man-Thing. Recalling the iconic origin of Captain America, Man-Thing begins when scientist Ted Sallis develops a serum to create super-soldiers. As a sign of the times, the soldier's main strength appears to be an ability to breathe polluted air. From his base in a swamp, Sallis is betrayed, and in the ensuing chase, he injects himself with the serum. His car crashes into the swamp, and rather than transform into a super-soldier, something in the serum reacts with something in the swamp, yadda-yadda, and he becomes the macabre Man-Thing.
This might sound familiar. As Ro notes, DC Comics used a similar story for their Swamp Thing comic, and writer Len Wein worked on both comics in the beginning. Biographical website The Gerber Curse explains how writer Steve Gerber deliberately went in the other direction from Wein:
"Marvel had some competition in the 'swamp creature' field with DC's Swamp Thing, whose own series debuted the very same month (October cover date) as Man-Thing. [Gerber said:] 'When I got the Man-Thing assignment, one of the first things I did was sit down with Len [Wein, Swamp Thing's writer] and tell him, "Why don't you tell me what you're doing, and whatever you're doing, I'll do something completely different."
While the issue of which comic came first remains somewhat controversial, Swamp Thing's gargantuan reputation grows mostly out of Alan Moore's run on the series in the 1980s, which incorporated (among other things) supernatural elements and environmental awareness into a powerful love story. Interestingly, many of those elements also occurred in Man-Thing at least a decade earlier.
Moore's work on Swamp Thing has been so highly-regarded that the other swamp creature, Man-Thing, seems to have been overshadowed to the point of relative dismissal. However, the early issues of the comic, especially Steve Gerber's 39-issue run as writer, deserve recognition and regard as a decidedly risky artistic venture that helped to change mainstream and underground comics.
"While the underground comix were uninhibited and willfully shocking in the tradition of the sex comics that had existed on the fringes of society, at least a part of their financial success was due to a mainstream comics publisher, Marvel Comics," write Duncan and Smith.
"Following the lead of magazine publishers Warren and Skywald, who were publishing popular black-and-white magazines, the industry returned to publishing horror comics, revising the Comics Code in 1971 to allow for the inclusion of vampires, ghouls, and werewolves as long as they were 'in the classic tradition' of 'high calibre literary works,'" they continue. "Marvel and DC entered the seventies with faltering superhero sales and a slight but growing competition from underground comix and the magazine-format horror comics that were unfettered by the Code restrictions. This sent the Big Two scrambling to find the next big thing, and they often attempted to adapt to whatever current trend in popular culture was selling."
What they believed to be selling was the counterculture, and that opened the door for Gerber to bring a new kind of weirdness into play. Among the other unusual elements in Man-Thing were his utter silence and incoherence. Almost in spite of its pop surrealism and stabs at social relevance, the strangest aspect of Man-Thing might be the creature's loneliness and isolation.
The creature was once a brilliant scientist, but once transformed, he no longer thinks, although he has occasional, fleeting impressions (like drug-induced flashbacks) of his human life and memories. The creature can only sense emotions. Hate hurts him, and fear drives him to destroy its source. When he grasps someone who feels fear, that person begins to burn. As the often-repeated phrase goes: "For whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing's touch."
There are many, many deaths in the early Man-Thing comics, and morality is ambiguous throughout Gerber's three-year run. In one early story, Man-Thing encounters an escaped convict (who is black) and a police officer (who is white) in pursuit. The story depicts their hatred for each other, their racism and violence, but also takes care to show more than one side of each character. As a creature without thought, Man-Thing doesn't judge them, and holds no sense of morality or justice. Instead, he destroys both men when they feel fear in his presence. Then, without reflection or feeling, he returns to the swamp.
As The Gerber Curse website explains, one of the biggest challenges he faced was "how to turn a character who was essentially a mindless walking mound of muck into a viable series."
"'Man-Thing couldn't speak, couldn't think, couldn't emote, couldn't react on his own,' [Gerber said]. 'He was completely at the mercy of whatever emotions came into his sensory sphere. Even more restricting, until the last few issues, he couldn't leave the swamp, so every story has to come to him.' The solution was simple: introduce some supporting characters who did have minds!"
In other stories, the creature saves an innocent, kills or punishes the antagonist, but it's often done inadvertently. Most stories end with the thoughtless creature sinking back into the swamp, where he sits quietly until his empathic powers detect a strong emotion, somewhere nearby.
"Most of his days and nights are spent this way. Alone. Silent. Hidden among the shifting shadows of the swamp," opens the first issue of Giant-Size Man-Thing (a title known to have induced more than a few giggles in the 1970s). "Somehow it occurs to him how barren this existence is...But always the thought fades...As do all his attempts at recollection and reason."
Whether involved in stories related to social issues (such as racism, drug use, the energy crisis, First Nations protests, or environmental destruction), or those related to comic book mysticism on par with Dr. Strange, possibly influenced by Jack Kirby's weird tales of cosmic proportions (for example, when his swamp is revealed to be the "nexus of all realities"), Man-Thing remains an enigmatic loner. The creature's thoughtlessness makes him a cipher that other characters (and the reader) can turn into any number of metaphors.
"It's entirely possible that Steve Gerber was the finest writer working for a genre-oriented comic-book company in the 1970s," writes Gary Groth, in a 1978 Comics Journal interview with Gerber, whose comments give a sense the rebelliousness inherent in his work on Man-Thing and Howard the Duck, among other works.
"Something has happened to this country in the past 10 years or so," Gerber says (in 1978). "We've become much more willing to accept anything again, it's hard to escape the clichés Madison Avenue or the Government shoves down our throats. The truth has become unbearable to contemplate. There's a terrible apathy that's engendered a new movement back to the Self. The society seems to have accepted the notion that by simply becoming oblivious to what's happening in the world outside our skins, the horror will go away. It's not going to go away."
Gerber seems to have channeled that palpable outrage into an incredibly strange sort of satire that's balanced by existential angst and a romantic notion of loneliness. Following Gerber's death in 2008, Tom Spurgeon's at The Comics Reporter wrote a moving tribute that described Gerber as "a singular writer of odd and affecting comics for mainstream publishers, an advocate for and icon of creators rights."
"Steve Gerber's role as one of the best and emblematic writers of his generation can't be overstated. He was a crucial figure in comics history. Like some of the all-time great cartoonists of years past, Gerber carved a place for self-expression and meaning out of a type of comic that had no right to hold within itself so many things and moments that were that quirky and offbeat and delicately realized -- except that Gerber made it so."
Those quirky and offbeat moments included experimental devices, such as inserting page-length texts and prose stories within comics, and writing himself into his penultimate issue, a meta-narrative move that seems to foreshadow such now-classic works as Grant Morrison's iconic run on Animal Man in the 1980s. Gerber would downplay his use of the device.
"It was just a silly inspiration," he said in an interview with The Comics Bulletin. "I felt I had a close relationship with readers of that book, and I wanted my farewell to feel a little more personal than just a comment in the letters page."
Collected into two massive "Essential" volumes, Gerber's work on Man-Thing exemplifies the collision of mainstream and underground comics in the marketplace. With its heady combination of surrealism, stoner-freakiness, social relevance, existential musing and mysticism, Man-Thing represents risk-taking at its trippiest in the 1970s.