You might know Man-Thing as “basically another Swamp Thing,” and that is fair—to say there’s a resemblance between the two is to say that water is wet. Yet while there is significant crossover in origin and concept, each character tends towards different kinds of stories, and so have remained unique enough that their similarities matter less. Though Swamp Thing has far overshadowed Man-Thing for most comic readers, Man-Thing has his own epic, career-defining run with writer Steve Gerber.
Man-Thing Omnibus collects Man-Thing’s first appearances as well as most of Steve Gerber’s classic run on everyone’s second (or third) favorite fictional marsh creature. Though this story begins in familiar territory, it transforms in no time to include Satanists, alternate dimensions, weird sword-and-sorcery characters out of nowhere, and, of course, one highly cantankerous cigar-smoking duck named Howard. Buckle up!
Collects: Astonishing Tales (1970) #12-13, Fear #11-19, Man-Thing (1974) #1-22, Giant-Size Man-Thing #1-3, Incredible Hulk (1968) #197-198, Marvel Team-Up (1972) #68, Marvel Two-in-One (1974) #43, Man-Thing (1979) #1-11 and Doctor Strange (1974) #41, plus material from Savage Tales (1971) #1, Fear #10, Giant-Size Man-Thing #4-5, Monsters Unleashed (1973) #5 and #8-9 and Rampaging Hulk (1977) #7
The Nexus of All Realities
Created by Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway and Gray Morrow, Man-Thing made his debut in Savage Tales #1 (1971). Outside of a shaky origin story, it wasn’t until guesting in Astonishing Tales that the character started to truly come to life. Guesting alongside the dynamic, dashing Ka-Zar made for a wildly compelling team-up, and seeing Man-Thing through Ka-Zar’s eyes gave both characters extra dimension. After fighting and subduing Man-Thing, Ka-Zar does not give up on him and refuses to let others harm him. A.I.M. scientists intend to experiment on Man-Thing, but Ka-Zar puts his life on the line to free him. Though Man-Thing ultimately trudges along on his way, it’s after he flips a switch and causes a massive explosion that apparently kills him. Right off the bat, our guy has a flair for the dramatic.
Welcome to the Jennifer Kale Show
Gerber’s introduction to Man-Thing occurred in Adventure Into Fear #10, and he would go on to write a whole arc for the swamp monster that ended with FEAR #19 and began anew in first the charmingly titled Giant-Sized Man-Thing and then the ongoing Man-Thing (1974). In FEAR #11, we are introduced to the Man-Thing’s new, somewhat temporary supporting cast with the great Jennifer Kale and her brother Andy.
Though the Kales are generally forgotten among Marvel’s horror line, they’re truly great. They look like normal boring teenagers, but in their very first appearance, Jennifer steals a magical tome of her grandfather’s and attempts to casually summon demons onto this Earth. Andy is comparatively easy-going and whitebread, which makes Jennifer’s bizarre personality stand out all the more as she expresses disappointment that the spell did not work and he suggests that they return the book.
However! The demon was indeed summoned, and the Man-Thing ends up in a life-or-death battle against it. Over the following issues, it becomes clear that Jennifer has a strange psychic connection with Man-Thing that is mostly forgotten about down the line. Jennifer and her psychic connection with Man-Thing are amazing, and here’s hoping they make a comeback in a big way. As cool as Marvel’s many witches are, very few of them were stealing books and running out into the swamp to summon demons in their teens.
FEAR #12 features a story in which a Black man is fleeing a racist cop, and another issue focuses on Natives engaging in protests to defend themselves against a racist system. While these stories are essentially one-offs, they marked a willingness on Gerber’s part to delve into liberal politics that would continue through much of his career, specifically in his Howard the Duck as well as his brief and bizarre She-Hulk run several years down the line.
Meanwhile, back in the Everglades, the Kale family and the literal cult they are in charge of (listen… life comes at you fast) ends up in an interdimensional skirmish that leads to Kale hanging out on another world training as a sorcerer’s apprentice, and for several highly disjointed sword-and-sorcery style stories to occur over many several issues.
By the time Man-Thing reemerges in his own series, it’s mostly resolved, but just mostly. In Man-Thing #1, we’re dropped essentially back into the middle of the story that left off in FEAR #19, in which Kale has been sentenced to execution by the Congress of Realities, but it all gets resolved pretty quickly. On the plus side, there are lots of fights between Man-Thing and these cool red dragon-snakes, so it’s fun even if there will inevitably be moments that leave you scratching your head.
RIP in Peace, Alligators
There is a truly wild amount of alligator death in this omnibus. Whenever we catch a glimpse of what Man-Thing does in his downtime, he’s either aimlessly wandering the swamp or mass-murdering alligators. Everyone needs a hobby, but, let’s face it, this one is a little weird.
To begin with, these are some very strange alligators. For one, they seem to hunt in large packs, and they tend to specifically target Man-Thing despite the fact that he just straight up murders at least two of them on the page. That’s what we actually see, which leads me to wonder how many alligator deaths can be attributed just to Man-Thing. Climate change is destroying their habitats and now this. It’s difficult to understand the deeply felt animosity between Man-Thing and Literally All Alligators, but it is character-defining for both parties.
If you get tired of alligator death, there’s also a page where Man-Thing goes wild on a team of sled dogs. The story doesn’t state whether or not he kills them, but let’s face it, he just threw an alligator full-tilt face-first at a rock. We might think dogs are cuter than alligators, but chances are, Man-Thing doesn’t. Suffice it to say that after this page, those dogs were retired from sledding—permanently.
Weirdest Guest Star Ever
Besides his early team-up with Ka-Zar, this trade collects a handful of the Macabre Man-Thing’s appearances around the Marvel Universe. Daredevil and Black Widow very randomly swing in and save Jennifer Kale’s life in Man-Thing #1, but that wasn’t the only superhero cameo along the way. Incredible Hulk #197-198 includes a truly delightful hero-versus-hero brawl between the Hulk and Man-Thing, who he refers to as “carrot-nose.” Ouch! Doctor Strange #41 taps into the weird mystical energy of the Man-Thing to give us a baffling and fun extradimensional side adventure. Marvel Team-Up #68 shows Spider-Man allying with the Man-Thing in one of the weirder team-ups of all time, while Marvel Two-in-One #43 involves Captain America and the Thing in a quest for the Cosmic Cube, which Man-Thing himself has essentially no interest in and walks casually away from when it begins to turn him back into his former self.
Then, of course, there is the guest star that would go on to warrant his own ongoing comic series and a movie to boot: Howard the Duck. Howard is taken from his homeworld and awkwardly dropped into a familiar swamp. Howard teams up with Man-Thing, who in turn was already teaming up with Jennifer Kale and Dakimh the Enchanter, to take out Thog the Nether-Spawn. It’s all in a day’s work for Howard, and he becomes essentially what John Constantine is for Swamp Thing when he’s not busy on his own adventures. The duck did it first!
Richard Rory, Go Home!
While Jennifer Kale and her brother Andy were great additions to Man-Thing’s cast, Richard Rory is who we see by far the most in the ongoing. Who, you ask, is Richard Rory? Well, Rory is a stand-in for Steve Gerber, a radio DJ who mostly showed up to bemoan his bad luck while walking into opportunity after opportunity and dating beautiful women well out of his league. Like Jennifer, Rory forms a bond with Man-Thing, and he himself borders on the heroic more often than not as he goes up against, well, The Man. Rory is a cool guy and he fights for the underdog!
In the final issue of his run on Man-Thing (1974), Steve Gerber introduces himself as a character who has been “reporting” on the Man-Thing’s adventures and has decided to move on. In interviews, Gerber has noted that this was born out of a sense of kinship he had formed with fans of the book, and the desire to give them something truly special and personal on his way out. The issue succeeds by being one of the strangest, funniest, yet somehow most heartfelt of the series.
There are many instances in which Gerber does something that later Vertigo artists would put into their comics. For instance, the world gone mad with aggression would pop up later in a Cain and Abel story in Sandman, and the author appearing as a character would happen in Grant Morrison’s Animal Man run. The book’s general willingness to center politics, racial justice, and questions of autonomy makes for a work that was, in many ways, ahead of its time.
As noted, Gerber is perhaps best known for the creation of Howard the Duck, while as a storyteller he is regarded for creating the kind of weird and convoluted tales in which a talking, cigar-chomping duck would feel at home. It’s no wonder that some of his best creations have struggled since; living up to the sheer wild energy of these stories would be a difficult challenge, particularly with the comparatively limited space that such odd concepts would be likely to receive in today’s market. Thus Man-Thing is a comic truly unlike any other. While the pacing and the abundant exposition might be off-putting for some, there’s no question that it’s a wild ride that has to be read to be believed.