DAY 21: POWER PLANTS. One where the vegetation fights back.
Swamp Thing can trace his roots — yes, it’s a he — back to “It,” Theodore Sturgeon’s short story that ran in the pulp magazine Unknown in 1940. The story is all about a man — Roger Kirk — who dies and is reborn in a swamp.
This was an influential tale whose roots — pardon the pun — took hold throughout comic books, which were the younger brother of the pulps. In Air Fighters Comics #3, published in 1942, Sky Wolf (a World War II fighting ace given to wearing the mask of a wolf and helping Airboy battle the Axis) the muck-encrusted form of World War I German pilot Baron Eric von Emmelman returned from the grave in the same way that Roger Kirk did two years before.
Thanks to his immense force of will and the help of the goddess Ceres, as the Baron’s body decayed, he became one with the vegetation of the swamp that he was shot down over. Now, he was more marsh than man, and fought Sky Wolf until discovering the fanaticism of his countrymen.
Before long, The Heap was the heroic star of his own backup in Airboy Comics, with adventures lasting from 1946 to 1953. He’d return in 1986 as part of Eclipse Comics’ reboot of Airboy before being bought by Image Comics, where he’s now part of Todd McFarland’s Spawn Universe.
After EC Comics (the creators of Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror amongst others) and other horror comics publishers were taken to task for their extreme material, the Comics Code Authority outlawed all monstrous characters unless they had literary roots. In fact, until the year 1989, you weren’t even allowed to say the word zombie in a mainstream comic book (Marvel got around this by calling them zuvembies, if you can believe that).
As the CCA relaxed its rules at the start of the 70’s, two different characters that both grew from the Heap started at both Marvel Comics and their cross-town rivals, DC.
Man-Thing was created by Stan Lee and Roy Thomas (who’d go on to write Fire and Ice and adapted plenty of Conan stories, including the one that would be filmed for Conan the Destroyer). A series of conversations led to five different potential origins for the character, with the name being recycled from another character that had already appeared in Tales of Suspense #7 and #81.
Thomas would tell Alter Ego that Lee “had a couple of sentences or so for the concept — I think it was mainly the notion of a guy working on some experimental drug or something for the government, his being accosted by spies, and getting fused with the swamp so that he becomes this creature. The creature itself sounds a lot like the Heap, but neither of us mentioned that character at the time.” Lee also had the name for the character, which would lead to perhaps by favorite comic book title of all time: Giant-Sized Man-Thing.
While you’d think that Man-Thing would be a one-note character — he never speaks and he just kind of shows up in the swamps — but he grew from his first appearance, where he battled Marvel’s Tarzan-esque Ka-Zar to become something much different thanks to the deranged hands of Steve Gerber, who made Man-Thing the center of the Nexus of All Realities, which just so happened to be inside his swamp.
Once biochemist Dr. Theodore “Ted” Sallis and a former co-worker with Dr. Curtis “The Lizard” Connors, the man who would become Man-Thing was working on a version of Captain America’s Super Soldier formula with Dr. Barbara Morse (who would become Hawkeye’s wife Mockinbird, man, I read too many comics as a kid) when techno soldiers from Advanced Idea Mechanics (A.I.M.) and his betraying wife attacked. The result? You guessed it. Fused with the swamp, no brains and a tendency to wander. That said, Man-Thing also gained the ability to burn anyone who felt fear in his presence, so he had that going for him.
Man-Thing became a story engine for Gerber (who contended that he was just a reporter for the very real tales of the character, as he appeared as a fictional character within the comic), who used these stories to introduce sorceress Jennifer Kale, the barbarian Korrek who emerged from a jar of peanut butter, the serial murdering Foolkiller, Dakimh the Enchanter and Howard the Duck. Yep, Gerber’s Man-Thing was pure imagination writ large across the comic book page. After leaving comics, Gerber would write for plenty of cartoons, including Dungeons & Dragons, which his work had a major influence on.
At pretty much the same time, Len Wein came up with the idea for a swamp-based character as he rode the subway. “I didn’t have a title for it, so I kept referring to it as that swamp thing I’m working on. And that’s how it got its name!” Master illustrator Bernie Wrightson (he drew the comic cover for Creepshow) designed the character’s visual image and helped tell his first few adventures.
The Swamp Thing was once Dr. Alec Holland, who was working with his wife Linda to invent a solution for the world’s food shortage problems. After some thugs blew up their lab, his destroyed body was coated in one of his formulas and grew within the swamp, transforming him into a conscious plant with all of his old memories. Of course, once Alan Moore came on board — after this movie brought the character back to comics — we would learn that Swamp Thing was really the latest in a long line of Earth elementals that protect the Green.
If this all sounds like DC was stealing ideas from Marvel — well, they were all stealing from the Heap who was stealing from Theodore Sturgeon — let me blow your mind a little further. Swamp Thing writer Len Wein and Man-Thing’s co-writer, Gerry Conway, were roommates.
Despite the first version of Swamp Thing appearing House of Secrets #92, Len Wein would later say, “Gerry and I thought that, unconsciously, the origin in Swamp Thing #1 was a bit too similar to the origin of Man-Thing a year-and-a-half earlier. There was vague talk at the time around Marvel of legal action, but it was never really pursued.”
It was decided that this was just a strange coincidence and after a while, the characters became so different, no legal action was necessary.
If you’d like to learn more about the fascinating lives of comic book swamp men, I recommend TwoMorrows’ Comic Book Creator 6: Swampmen.
Whew! I told you all that so I can tell you this: In 1982, Wes Craven wrote and directed an adaption of the comic, long before comic book movies were a thing. His intent was to show the major Hollywood studios that he could handle action, stunts and major stars, all while doing it under his $2.5 million dollar budget. Good news — he succeeded.
A top-secret bioengineering project in the southern swamps is dealing with sabotage, so Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau, playing a mix of the comic’s Matt Cable and Abigail Arcade) has been dispatched to replace one of the scientists who has been killed. She soon meets lead scientist Dr. Alce Holland (Ray Wise) and his sister Dr. Linda, who together have developed a glowing plant with explosive properties, as well as a combination animal/plant hybrid.
The real issue is that the secret base is being eyed by the evil Anton Arcane, a paramilitary leader who wants the fruits — and vegetables — of all this labor for himself. He’s played by Louis Jourdan, who is absolutely perfect in the role, oozing menace from every pore while remaining aloof and almost high cultured in his pursuit of evil.
Soon, Arcane’s forces attack, murdering Linda and blowing Alec up real good. However, just like the comic, he now rises as the Swamp Thing, played by stuntman DIck Durock (who was also the pie-eating champion in Stand By Me). Now, he must protect Alice and his notes, keeping them both from Arcane.
The movie differs from the comic in that Holland’s formula unleashes whatever the dominant personality trait exists within each person. For Holland, it’s the ability to heal and transform his inner strength into outer muscle. Yet Bruno (Nicholas Worth, who played the heavy in plenty of films and lent his voice to the Reaper in The Hills Have Eyes Part II), the biggest of Arcane’s henchmen, becomes a small rat-like creature and Arcane himself becomes a gigantic boar.
Another of Arcane’s henchmen — Ferret, the one who gets his neck snapped by Swamp Thing — is played by David Hess, who was Krug in The Last House On the Left. Also, Karen Price, who plays one of Arcane’s messengers, was Playboy‘s Playmate of the Month for January 1981. I tell you that because it’s her centerfold that appears on the tail of Gyro Captain’s copter in The Road Warrior.
There was one bit of controvery this film caused, more than a decade after it was released.
In August 2000, MGM released this movie on DVD and althought it was labeled PG, it actually included the 93-minute international cut, which amps up Adrienne Barbeau’s ample charms and nudity in the skinny dip sequence. Two years after that, a woman rented this film in Dallas for her kids and was shocked and dismayed by what her family saw. Trust me — they should be so lucky!
Durock and Jourdan — along with much of the crew, including producers Michael E. Uslan and Benjamin Melniker — would return in 1989 for The Return of Swamp Thing. It’s directed by Jim Wynorski and features Heather Locklear as Abigail Arcane, who heads to the swamp to confront her stepfather Dr. Arcane. He’s been brought back to the dead by the evil Dr. Lana Zurrell (Sarah Douglas, Ursa from Superman) along with an army of mutant Un-Men, all ready to do battle with Swamp Thing.
If anything, that movie gave us more than a series on the USA Network and a cartoon complete with Kenner action figures (of course I bought every single one). It also gave us this, a PSA where Swamp Thing speaks for Greenpeace.
Good news. Today you learned way more than you ever thought you would about 20th century popular fiction involving swamp based creatures. Would it help even further if I told you that Man-Thing also appeared in a 2005 SyFy movie directed by Brett Leonard (The Dead Pit, The Lawnmower Man, Hideaway)? I sure hope so.
You can watch this for free on Tubi. You can also grab the blu ray from Shout! Factory and the MVD blu ray reissue of the sequel from Diabolik DVD.