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Silent Partner: The Early Man-Thing Guest Appearances By Anthony M. Caro

The macabre Man-Thing returned to live-action adventures with a cameo in the well-received Werewolf by Night Disney+ Halloween special. The overwhelming number of MCU fans watching the special either never saw or don’t remember the 2005 made-for-cable-TV movie featuring the former Ted Sallis.

And likely, only a tiny percentage read a classic Man-Thing comic. Hopefully, the recent cameo prompts some viewers to track down originals, reprints, and collected editions to enjoy eerie tales featuring the offbeat Marvel monster hero.

Maybe they’ll get a complete picture of the genesis of the Man-Thing by checking out his early 1970s guest appearances designed to help out his first series. The early guest shots help introduce the weird creature to fans of traditional heroes – a wise plan that unfortunately didn’t work as well as hoped.

Swamp Monster Rally

If the Man-Thing is Marvel Comics’ “rip-off” of DC Comics’ Swamp Thing, where does that leave Atlas Comics’ Bog Beast? Likely standing next to his more well-known creatures and older swamp compatriots like The Heap and Theodore Sturgeon’s 1940 “muck-monster” from his pulp horror tale “It!”

Swamp creatures might not be as popular as other traditional monsters, but they have a storied tradition in comics. That tradition sometimes comes with low sales figures. While Swamp Thing’s debut in House of Secrets #92 (July 1971) sold surprisingly above expectations, Alan Moore’s incredible run on Swamp Thing in the 1980s only moved about 60,000 copies monthly. Marvel would typically cancel a series that hovered around 100,000.

Man-Thing never stunned the comic book industry with robust sales, but the series delivered memorable stories. The comic book and magazine tales from the 1970s captured the perfect mix of horror and super(anti)heroism while effectively utilizing non-mainstream popular characters. Essentially, the creative teams made the creature into a supporting character in an anthology series. Aesthetically, the idea worked.

The First Shambling Guest Shots and Team-Ups

Technically, the Man-Thing’s appearances in Astonishing Tales 12 and 13 (June and July 1972) are his first guest shots since the title was – for all intents and purposes – Kazar’s – but it was Kazar’s on loan. Marvel could have dropped Kazar at any time and moved another hero into the slot. Since Astonishing Tales is an anthology/preview series, Man-Thing could have taken over the book. So, it’s debatable whether the appearance is a legitimate guest appearance in “someone else’s” book.

The first official guest appearance of Man-Thing in an established title was Avengers #118 (December 1973), a merry Marvel epic mashup. The Defenders get a huge plug as guest stars on the front cover, and Man-Thing receives a single-panel cameo – one month before his solo title hit the stands. His next guest-shot appearance reflected a truly prestigious one: Marvel Two-in-One #1 (January 1974).

The 1970s Man-Thing comic book ended after 22 issues (Jan. 1974–Oct. 1975), following his magazine debut in Savage Tales #1 (May 1971) and test runs in Astonishing Tales and Adventure into Fear. A second attempt to spark life in the character series with Man-Thing Vol. 2 (Nov. 1979–Jan. 1981) ended after only 11 issues, shocking considering the incredibly popular Chris Claremont provided exceptional stories from issue four onward.

By 1981, Marvel’s 1970s horror cycle faded, depriving Man-Thing of a comeback.

When the second series ended, the Man-Thing continued to make appearances, but the character’s chance at B-level glory appeared over, but he still had some value. The 1970s and 1980s saw writers tap the muck monster to stand alongside – and frequently battle – more well-known superheroes.

Why Team Up with The Man-Thing?

Answer: He can’t carry a book alone, but he’s a cool, marketable character in a supporting role. Would anyone want to see a second Man-Thing movie? Doubtful. What about a Werewolf by Night vs. Man-Thing Halloween special that finds them battling one another before realizing a villain’s been playing them, so they team up? That’d work.

Guest appearances in another hero’s book during the Silver Age and Bronze Age were special because creative teams didn’t overdo them. Keeping “special guest appearances” somewhat infrequent helped bump sales because a guest shot represented something special. The Man Without Fear likely garnered new readers after Spider-Man appeared in Daredevil #16 (March 1966).

The mysterious Man-Thing had two things going for him as a guest star. First, he was a 1970s Marvel “quasi-monster/almost-a-superhero. The horror genre had its fans, and those who appreciated monster mayhem may grab a hero book for something offbeat.

The Man-Thing also benefited from Power Records’ marketing assistance. From 1974 through the early 1980s, Power Records released several Marvel and DC book-and-record adaptations sold in toy stores and other places comic books weren’t typically found. The outrageously violent and depressing “Night of the Laughing Dead” dramatization familiarized some kids with the strange swamp creature they never knew had a comic book. Seeing the muck man in a new book might grab some customers.

And the Man-Thing had several memorable appearances in 1974.

The First Shambling Guest Shots and Team-Ups

The first official guest appearance of Man-Thing in another title was Avengers #118 (December 1973), a merry Marvel epic mashup. The Defenders get a huge plug as guest stars on the front cover, and Man-Thing receives a single-panel cameo. His next guest-shot appearance reflected a truly prestigious one: Marvel Two-in-One #1 (January 1974).

The Fantastic Four faded a bit from their 1960s glory, but The Thing was a popular character with the perfect whimsical personality for team-up adventures in Marvel-Two-in-One. Creatives could team Spider-Man and Ben Grimm with anyone, sometimes quizzically. Those guest heroes may be downright Z-grade some months.

The ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing ain’t happy about something he reads in the newspaper. Ben Grimm loses his temper and takes it out on the man working at the newsstand. Ben flipped over “plagiarism” taking place down in the Everglades. It seems some “clown” ripped off Ben Grimm’s “moniker.”

No, The Thing isn’t thrilled about someone – or something – calling it/himself “The Man-Thing.” Ben’s somewhere in parts unknown, and he trades in his bus ticket back to New York for one to Florida. Yes, a member of the Fantastic Four rides a Greyhound clone to travel to his next adventure.

Writer Steve Gerber pulls readers’ legs with this silly setup and moves right on to the expected plot point: the villain. After all, the debut issue’s story title is “Vengeance of the Molecule Man.” The two “good guys” will fight and then team up to battle the bad guy, or so the reader thinks.

Don’t think this is a purely dopey story. Gerber throws a great curveball before the issue’s conclusion.

Remember those old blurbs found in early 1970s Marvel books? The one on page two tells a tale: “The Macabre Man-Thing – Now in His Own Mag!” Man-Thing #1 and Marvel Two-in-One’s debut issues both his spinner racks in the same month. Like Man-Thing, The Thing received a team-up test run in another book, Marvel Features. The Thing’s series proved far more successful. The Man-Thing’s series could only benefit from appearing in a debut issue with a popular character that likely sold well.

The generic plot has The Thing and the Man-Thing squaring off and battling the Molecule Man’s son. The younger Molecule Man blames the Fantastic Four for his father’s death and directs his ire against The Thing. He also uses his vast molecule power to weaken The Thing and the Man-Thing by taking their powers away and reverting them back to Ben Grimm and Ted Sallis.

That’s Gerber’s unexpected twist – weaving classic old-school comic book tropes: heroes who long for a cure for their “affliction” find themselves unable to defeat an evil villain without their unwanted powers.

The issue also gives a unique glimpse at the Ted Sallis character. Although Ben Grimm remains the focus. Such unexpected twists take the generic – and somewhat silly – setup and spin it. That’s a brilliant way to start a new series.

Kung Fu Masters and Muck Men

Of all the titles in which the Man-Thing would seem incredibly out of place, it would be Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. The truth is, the titles had a bit in common with one another: their popularity derived from genre film fare. Shang-Chi, Iron Fist, and Deadly Hands of Kung Fu magazine rode the popular “kung-fu movie cycle” of the 1970s. Kung Fu comic books, magazines, and novels saw their sales drop when the fad ended. Shang-Chi lasted well into the 1980s since it was an exceptionally well-written series that gave readers something different from traditional superhero titles.

Man-Thing was another in a long line of excellent horror comics that hit the scene far too late. As exceptional as Monster of Frankenstein and Tales of the Zombie were, the books suffered short runs.

Mash-up the monster and the kung fu master? Why not? Maybe the readers of Shang-Chi would give the Man-Thing a chance.

Not only does the cover art show Shangi-Chi’s knife-hand swing cause bloody green muck to spurt from the Man-Thing’s stomach, but Shang-Chi’s foot kicks through the swamp monster’s thigh.

And that cover blurb catches the eyes:

“Martial Arts vs. Man-Thing…and One Must Fall!”

Shame nothing like that happens.

Sorry, but the cover of Master of Kung Fu #19 (August 1974) reflects false advertising. Shang-Chi and the Man-Thing never do battle in the issue. Man-Thing’s barely in the story, with a brief appearance at the beginning and one at the end. It’s a cameo.

The story itself is quite good, as writer Steve Englehart delves into Shang-Chi’s psychological trauma over accepting how dangerous his father, Fu Manchu, is. The physical action mainly picks up from the previous issue, with Shang-Chi trying to overcome being drugged and dodging two deadly assassins. What makes the story unnerving is a flashback sequence where one of Shang-Chi’s young classmates warns him that his father wishes to rule the world. Shang-Chi mentions this to his father, who puts his son’s mind to rest by noting he has no such intentions.

And Shang-Chi’s classmate disappears.

The inference is obvious: Fu Manchu had the classmate killed. Also inferred is that Shang-Chi blames himself for his friend’s death, and the guilt remerges due to his delirious, drugged state.

Consider it a well-done epilogue to the previous issue, but don’t expect much from the Man-Thing. He shows up at the end to provide a conclusion.

The issue marks the second Man-Thing appearance in another character’s book before his solo title reached 12 issues. He’d soon get another.

The Man Without Fear Won’t Burn at the Man-Thing’s Touch

Other than appearing in his own stories in the Monsters Unleashed anthology, the Man-Thing’s 1974 guest appearances did not extend to other Marvel horror titles. Placing the Man-Thing into superhero books seemed like an attempt to draw hero fans to the underperforming horror titles. (Man-Thing’s solo book did not even last two years) Giving him a guest shot in Daredevil seems downright odd since hornhead’s book wasn’t exactly Marvel Comics’ hottest books and Daredevil seemed like an unlikely hero to square off against the Man-Thing. Perhaps everyone thought 1970s Daredevil diehard readers would gravitate to Man-Thing’s series.

Daredevil #113 (September 1974) features excellent plotting by Steve Gerber that adds much-needed logic to explain why a NYC-based hero travels to the Florida Everglades and runs into the Man-Thing. The cover features one of DD’s more popular villains, the Gladiator, and there’s no hint of the swamp creature’s presence. The Man-Thing doesn’t appear until the final panel, so all he gets here is a cameo. However, the ghost of Ted Sallis hovers in the story.

Foggy Nelson’s sister Candace needs FBI protection in Florida since she acquired Ted Sallis’ research papers. Sallis had novel ideas about dealing with pollution – transforming humans into creatures capable of breathing toxic air when the earth becomes uninhabitable.

No one knows what happened to Ted Sallis or his research work, and others besides Candace want those secrets. The Gladiator wants to get his buzzsaw-spinning gauntlets on Candace and the research files on behalf of his boss, the Death-Stalker.

Daredevil finds his way to the Everglades, but the Gladiator and the Death-Stalker find him. The Man-Thing shows up just as the Death-Stalker gives the Gladiator the order to finish off a felled Daredevil.

Logic counts when it comes to making a story compelling. Random events that result in a superhero face-off may result in a decent story, but such haphazard writing has dramatic limits. Weaving Ted Sallis’ research into the plotline makes readers wonder how the Man-Thing will fit into the mix. That makes the story more compelling than if events happened without any direct connection between Daredevil and the swamp monster.

Daredevil #114 (August 1974) furthers the story.

#114 finds the hero receiving an assist from the Man-Thing, as the swamp creature’s burning touch takes the Gladiator briefly out of commission. The muck man slinks off into the swamp, not really caring about Daredevil’s plight, as an unconscious hornhead becomes Death-Stalker’s captive.

The Man-Thing returns at the story’s conclusion, again taking care of the Gladiator. The issue ends on a cliffhanger involving DD leaving Florida and returning to New York, Man-Thing’s services no longer required.

It’s Daredevil’s book, remember?

The action-packed issue helps further the storyline, but it also highlights the Man-Thing’s man flaw: there’s little a writer can do with him. The character desperately needed a shake-up, ala Alan Moore’s brilliant soft reboot of Swamp Thing in the classic “Anatomy Lesson” storyline. [Swamp Thing V2 #21 (February 1984)] How many times can the creature serve as a passive player after being hyped on a book’s cover? The Bronze Age answer is 22 issues for volume one and a scant 11 for volume two.

Yes, the two series – and the Man-Thing’s previous test run appearances – provided excellent amidst a uniquely creepy Everglades backdrop. But the character rarely propels the story, and that approach eventually runs thin.

The next and final guest appearance during the volume one era, Giant-Size Spider-Man #5 (April 1975), delivers a double-sized version of similar Man-Thing pros and cons.

Web-Slingers and Muck-Drippers

Giant-Size Spider-Man #1 (July 1974) depicted an obtuse clash between the wall-crawler and Dracula, and the offbeat story worked. So, why not grab another horror comics character and go for another eccentric homerun?

And check out that cover: Spider-Man battles the Man-Thing while the Lizard cheers on the starving alligators at the hero’s heels.

Looks intriguing.

Peter Parker needs a vacation and decides to return to Florida. J. Jonah Jameson okays the trip so Parker can take photos of the mysterious Man-Thing. However, Peter makes the predictable mistake of telling his old friend Dr. Curt Connors he’s dropping by for a visit.

Why wouldn’t he? Curt Connors was long ago cured of his shapeshifting affliction. What are the odds he’ll turn back into the Lizard when Peter Parker swings into the Everglades?

Writer Gerry Conway followed a formula not much different from the other three tales: Spider-Man finds himself in Florida, where the Man-Thing finds him. Conway had to thread two narrative needles with two limited characters, the Man-Thing and the Lizard. He succeeded by adding a subplot involving a suicidal character named Edmond Arnstead, a chemist who lost his company and fortune and now intends to drown himself so his family can collect life insurance – not very upbeat for a Spider-Man tale, but the nihilism works in a Man-Thing story.

Arnstead figures his path to salvation involves capturing the Man-Thing and profiting off the captive creature. The chemist attitude changes from despair to avarice to salvation over the course of the story, adding welcome dramatic subtext that elevates the story.

Unfortunately, a team-up with Spider-Man did not send the webslinger’s fans to the muck monster’s book. October 1975 saw issue 22 hit the spinner racks, ending the first volume of a Man-Thing solo title.

The 1980s Revisit the 1970s

The Man-Thing didn’t fade away entirely from Marvel Comics, and the character made infrequent guest appearances including shots in The Incredible Hulk, Howard the Duck, She-Hulk, a second appearance in Marvel Two-in-One, and more.

What the Man-Thing didn’t get was any character growth or evolution. Perhaps guest appearance and anthology tales fit him best and any serious thought of the Man-Thing carrying a book by himself faded with Man-Thing volume two becoming more short-lived than volume one.

And then came the uniquely inspired and off-kilter Marvel Two-in-One #77 (July 1981). Writer Tom DeFalco’s “Only the Swamp Survives!” delivers a truly downbeat and sad reflection on human suffering that departs from the traditional “Man-Thing meets a hero” tale. While the issue delivers a harshly atypical plot for The Thing, the story would have fit perfectly in a Man-Thing book.

The cover features the Man-Thing menacingly reaching out to touch an atypically dressed Ben Grimm. The cover blurbs taps a depressive nerve with the words “..As I Lay Me Down To Die!” What’s going on here?

For a team of heroes, the Fantastic Four don’t always come off like traditional heroes. Of course, that’s the team’s (original) appeal. The characters may have superheroic aliases, but everyone calls them by their real names. Why not? They have no secret identities. With the Fantastic Four, who you see is who you get. That’s especially true of Ben Grimm.

“The Thing” isn’t Ben Grimm’s alter ego. It’s just a moniker and one that hurts. Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Girl, and the Human Torch are quaint nicknames. However, “The Thing” is dehumanizing. Does Ben Grimm need constant reminders he’s suffered disfigurement from exposure to cosmic rays?

Unlike other troubled Marvel characters – like the Silver Surfer – who complained about their plight, Ben Grimm puts up a jovial outward front while suffering from internal pain. And much of that pain comes from Ben Grimm wanting people to see him as Ben Grimm and not The Thing.

This Shooter-era Man-Thing/The Thing meetup doesn’t focus on a physical fight between the two. Man-Thing is a protector over a weakened Ben Grimm until fear starts to overcome the FF’s most beloved member.

And whatever knows fear….

Nick Fury reaches out to Ben Grimm with a proposition – perform a successful test piloting job on a rocket craft that travels at Mach-6. Fury appeals to Ben because he’s the only person with piloting skills capable of handling the job. Others failed and nearly lost their lives.

The job appeals to the now unusually surly hero. Nick Fury wants Ben Grimm to handle piloting duties and not use brawn to smash things. When discussing the dangerous job with his paramour Alicia, Ben reveals that he used to be a football star and a skilled fighter pilot, but he “had to get out of the game” when he became The Thing.

Showing he still has “The Right Stuff” affords the hero a chance to succeed as Ben Grimm and not the misshapen Thing.

The dangerous rocket crashes in the Everglades, and Ben Grimm knows he’s hurt. He’s worried that if he passes out, he’ll die. So, the hero forces himself to stay away and drifts into delirium. Do circumstances get better or worse when the Man-Thing appears on the scene?

DeFalco “cheats” a bit by including flashbacks where a weakened Ben Grimm’s mind drifts back to his days with the Howling Commandos, so the Man-Thing gets an assist from supporting characters. When the Man-Thing does appear, he stands by Ben’s side, trying to make sense of the many emotions flowing through the possibly dying hero’s psyche.

Ben starts to give up, losing his will to live. Fear creeps on him as Ben thinks he’s about to meet his end…and the Man-Thing’s burning touch lights a spark in The Thing. Literally.

If you’re looking for action, Marvel Two-in-One #77 has it – dramatic action. Take this excellent issue as an offbeat departure from the more common action-driven fare.

The Man-Thing walks off into the swamp at the end of issue #77, but he’d be back again and again in Marvel titles over the years. When you evaluate how well-written both Bronze Age and Modern Age Man-Thing stories usually are, the muck monster may rank as one of the more underrated characters in Marvel history.

 

Anthony M. Caro wrote the essay collection Universal Monsters and Neurotics: Children of the Night and their Hang-Ups and the sci-fi serial Why Does Cal Draw Stick Figures at 3 AM in the 22nd Century? for Amazon Kindle. He writes about all things pop culture and contributed to HorrorNews.Net, PopMatters, Mad Scientist, and Jiu-Jitsu Times. Besides working as a professional writer, he handled production duties in radio, TV, film, and theater. He’s currently developing an audio drama podcast.

 

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