He first appeared tumbling through the murk with an unfortunate alligator, just another short-lived nocturnal bout in the bayou. Stan Lee recommended recycling a name for the creature, something appropriately dismissive, even tragic. No need to emphasize his constituent mass of moss and water-logged bramble through the moniker because he didn’t particularly champion the rights of flora or the natural world. He could’ve been cobbled from any form of matter. His name spoke to his plight, to his eternal sentence as an unenviable abomination.
He was, in the end, a Man-Thing.
First rendered in exquisite black and white by artist Gray Morrow for an 11-page story in 1971’s SAVAGE TALES #1, the creature might best be described as Marvel Comics’ most unnatural force of nature, more botanical El Niño than hero or villain.
Writers Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas employed a rare second person narration, thrusting readers into the role of the doomed scientist Ted Sallis as well as the slimy behemoth he would ultimately become.
“How long have you lived this nightmare, here in the darkness?” the narrative asks. “Lived it so long that you’ve almost forgotten — Once you were a man!”
We don’t simply identify with the victims of the Man-Thing; we commiserate with the plight of Sallis himself, betrayed by a lover and condemned to this horrendous half-life as a shambling sentinel of the swamp. Most of us will hopefully avoid his exact fate in our waking lives, but the accusative tone of the narration helps to stir up sympathy for this wronged-man with a righteous cause, cast out from civilization and forced into a larger cosmic role that none would ever wish to bear. Again, few of us meddle with super soldier serums on a government contract, but even if we don’t share Sallis’ compounded guilt or self-loathing, many readers fear such times when they must relinquish control, temporarily or once and for all.
Ted Sallis became the ultimate vegetable, and not just because he’s rich in vitamin K. He’s a prisoner in his own body, or some warped derivation thereof. That speaks to the same primordial dread that makes zombies so potent: the desiccation of the human body, mind, and soul by disease and the onset of age. In essence, humans aren’t so wild about walking reminders of their own mortality and the concept that their vitality will be fleeting.
The choice to focus the horror of the Man-Thing character to this inward, Kafkaesque anxiety of losing oneself elevated the concept from pure camp to something far more complex. Stan Lee previously examined such paranoia with troubled heroes like Bruce Banner and Ben Grimm. For Banner especially, those forced transformations into the Hulk—that loss of impulse control, that loss of intellect—represented the ultimate betrayal of the mind. What could be more frightening than losing faith in your own consciousness? As the Man-Thing stumbles through the wilderness, he grapples with fragmented memories and raw emotion unfiltered by context or logic. Plants or animals do not suffer this same affliction, and the humans who do so count among the “mentally ill.”
Sallis’ metamorphosis happened quickly, but it prefigured a wave of cinematic body horror popularized by filmmakers like David Cronenberg in the 1980’s. Not just a standard plant-monster, there’s something downright tuberous and tumorous about Man-Thing’s fearsome physique. He lacks the noble oakiness of similarly-themed gargantuans like Groot, favoring the more uncouth root vegetables and textural mosses of the swamp. He boasts a prominent tendril in place of a nose, much like an elephant’s trunk. His posture isn’t all that great. He’s not the crisp iceberg lettuce of leafy ambassadors. He’s brussels sprouts left to roil and poach where you hid them as a persnickety child, under the rug and out of sight.
Out of mind, too.
His origin emerged informed by passion and betrayal. There in the steamy Everglades, the femme fatale Ellen Brandt kisses away the troubled doctor’s concerns as he labors over a secret serum. When she sells him out to some murderous A.I.M. goons for a quick payoff, Sallis injects himself with the cocktail, races away and crashes into the muck. His transformation includes as much weird science as southern gothic mysticism. When the creature burns Ellen’s face, the attack earns descriptions more occult than biological. Driven by powerful emotion—some of it driven by fractured memory and the rest filled-in by empathic link—the Man-Thing seeks out and scalds the fearful with a devastating touch.
There’s something far more strange at play than mushrooms and spores at the heart of Man-Thing. He serves as the unknowing pawn in a bigger game. Not only does Man-Thing represent a case of mad science run amuck; he’s also a denizen of Marvel’s larger cosmic realm. Early on, he becomes a point of fascination for a local cult, ushered into otherworldly adventures and apocalyptic prophecies, even before taking on the ecological concerns of the local Seminole community and marauding against destructive land barons.
Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, Man-Thing served as the albeit mindless custodian of Marvel’s kookiest happenings, courtesy of irreverent and inventive creators like Len Wein, Mike Ploog, Howard Chaykin, Jim Starlin, Chris Claremont, J.M. DeMatteis, and most especially Steve Gerber. He tussled with demonic cults, yetis, Nazi submariners, sea pirates, nightmare boxes, cosmic cubes, and incredible hulks. He saved the world and neighboring dimensions countless times, however haphazardly, only to shamble back into the swamps once more.
There will always more alligators to wrestle, more shadows from which to glare with hot, unblinking eyes.
He is not a hero. He is not a villain or anti-hero. He is not even a force of nature. He is, and may sadly always be, the Man-Thing.
Marvel 70’s Monster Week continues tomorrow! For more on the 75th anniversary of Marvel, visit marvel.com/75 or join the conversation on Twitter using the hash tag #marvel75