If you ever go back into Wooley Swamp, son, you better not go at night!
There’s things out there in the middle of them woods
That’d make a strong man die from fright!
There’s things that crawl, and things that fly,
And things that creep around on the ground!
And they say the ghost of Lucias Clay gets up and it walks around . . .
— “The Legend of Wooley Swamp”
The Charlie Daniels Band
Long has humanity feared swamps, not only alligators, quicksand, poisonous plants, and other real dangers, but the ones our collective conscious has created over centuries that are even more frightening than the ghost of Lucias Clay. When I lived in Ukraine, my university colleagues learned that I love science fiction, comics, anything weird, and taught me about Slavic legends, many of which involved swamps and marshes. Bolotnik, for example, rules over wetlands, appearing as an elderly man covered with dirt and vines, or as a man with frog’s arms and a large mouth. He and his wife, Bolotnitsa, lured people to their dooms. Another figure, Dziwozona, kidnapped babies unless their mothers were wise enough to tie a red ribbon around their hands. This female demon took different shapes, including an old woman wearing a red hat with a fern twig attached to it or a beautiful woman. Finally, the vodyanoy, diminutive old men with algae-encrusted hair and beards, or toad-like behemoths, gleefully drowned their victims while capturing their souls.
Other cultures have swamp legends as well. The American indigenous Abenaki feared the Swamp Woman whose cries compelled listeners to lose their way. The Australian bunyip guards wetlands, and the British Tiddy Mun brought pestilence when the citizens of Lincolnshire drained fenlands and threatened its home. Not all were dangerous for the sake of danger, it seems, but dangerous as a warning to those who would harm their habitats. Beware the guardians, indeed.
Unsurprisingly, swamp monsters have been prominent in American horror, both in literature and in comics. Swamp Thing certainly wasn’t the first, nor will any be the last. Let’s discuss a few favorites. I’m grateful to Pádraig Ó Méalóid who pointed me toward Comic Creator #6: Swampmen: Muck-Monsters and Their Makers, an amazing source that focuses mainly on muck monsters, eschewing zombies, spirits, or animal-based creatures. I gleaned much information from this issue, but I won’t limit myself to one type as the editors and writers of that magazine have.
Unknown (August 1940) featured an adaptation of Theodore Sturgeon’s short story, “It.” This monster formed mysteriously from the remains of Roger Kirk who’d gone missing in the swamp. (Oh, Roger. If only you’d been in Ukraine with me to hear the many warnings inherit in their stories!) During its rampage, the beast murders a hunter, terrorizes a young girl, and then finally dissolves in water. So much for “It.” Many credit Sturgeon for influencing the breadth of swamp-related horror comics.
Pre-Code Swamp Horror Comics
Recently, Yoe Books released Swamp Monsters: An Anthology edited by Steve Banes and Craig Yoe. Inside readers will encounter, among others, “The Swamp Monster,” “The Swamp Horror,” “Dead Woman’s Swamp,” “Beast of the Bayous,” “Creatures of the Swamp,” and “Bride of the Swamp.” Before the Comics Code Authority ruined all our fun, 1950s publishers released quite a few horror comics from EC’s stable to others such as Forbidden Worlds, Ghostly Weird Stories, Web of Evil, Adventures into the Unknown, and the Unseen. Themes and purposes mirrored those from myth or legend, with monsters fulfilling guardian duties, but sometimes they merely run amok. Once again, watch your step when crossing swamps! Stephen Bissette’s introductory history, “Creatures of the Swamp: What Music They Make,” adds to this volume’s worthiness.
Four Heaps have appeared over the decades. For example, in Spawn #73 we meet Eddie Beckett, a dead man who through the magic of “neoplasm” combines with soil and garbage and voila! Villain! The other three Heaps deserve longer mentions.
(1) Baron Eric von Emmelman dies, melds with bits of forest and trash, and rises as the carrot-nosed Heap, an instant favorite who graced the pages of Hillman’s Air Fighter Comics, which later became Airboy Comics, starting with issue #3 (1942). From World War I fighter pilot to a walking grass pile: not necessarily a career choice for most, but this one lasted 11 ½ years with the first Airboy and company. Later this Heap experienced a resurrection when in 1986 Eclipse Comics revived Airboy, when the Golden Age original’s son inherited the name. How could writer Chuck Dixon not invite the Heap back to the party? He’s only the first swamp monster to regularly come back for more. No one-issue wonder is he.
(2) Next comes my sentimental favorite. This takeoff was the brainchild of Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder, designed specifically for their story “Outer Sanctum” from MAD #5 (1953). He’s just what you’d expect from pre-code MAD. Saucy but kind of cute.
(3) Skywald Publications ran a horror magazine, Psycho, a knockoff of Warren’s Creepy and Eerie, and our final Heap arose in issue #2 (1971), fabricated from the corpse of Jim Roberts, a pilot (we’re not straying far from type, I know) and toxic waste. He only lasted about two years.
“Born on a Monday,” rising from Slaughter Swamp outside Gotham City, Solomon Grundy once was Cyrus Gold, a criminal who died then lay moldering, accumulating swamp materials, for fifty years before rising to torment the Golden Age Green Lantern and the Justice Society of America. Since then he’s confronted Superman, Batman, and the Justice League of America. Ranked high among other DC villains, a true fan favorite. We who belong to a certain generation will remember his time with the Legion of Doom on the Saturday morning hit, Super Friends. Later, Bruce Timm adapted him for the animated series Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. Grundy’s come a long way since All-American Comics #61 (1944). May he never die on Saturday and get buried on Sunday.
Inspired by Airboy Comics, Roy Thomas created the Glob who first went toe-to-toe with the Hulk in The Incredible Hulk #121 (1969). He told artist Herb Trimpe, “Let’s do the Heap.” And they did.
Marvin, the Dead-Thing
Did you think that Warren Publications wouldn’t get into the swamp-monster game? Al Milgrom and Esteban Maroto created Marvin, the Dead-Thing for Eerie #46. The story involves, yes, the usual cadaver and the requisite swamp muck, but wait! Milgrom and Maroto have added suicide and a girlfriend. No one cared about poor, lonely Marvin, so he ties a rock around his neck and jumps into a river. Upon rising as the Dead-Thing, he goes to his worksite, not the first place I’d choose, where a mob immediately confronts him. One girl does befriend him, but then someone from the mob shoots her accidently. Marvin takes her back to the swamp, and just like him she turns into a monster, “Girl-Thing.” The pair returned in Eerie #129 to witness murderers discard an infant into the swamp. You guessed it. The child becomes a swamp beast, and baby makes three.
“. . . for whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch!” How cool is Man-Thing? He lives in a swamp outside Citrusville, Florida, he carouses with Howard the Duck, and, best of all, he guards the Nexus of Realities. Although created by Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, and Gray Morrow, it was Steve Gerber — who also gave us Howard the Duck, Hellcow, and the Elf with a Gun – who really brought Man-Thing to life first through Adventure into Fear and then 39 issues of Man-Thing. Although developed about the same time as Swamp Thing, Marvel’s monster was not intended to replicate that phenomenon. Indeed, both were independent of each other, believe it or not. Still, reviewing Man-Thing’s origins will prod memories of almost any swamp-creature story you’ve read. Look up Savage Tales #1 (1971), where to save his life biochemist Ted Sallis injects himself with a super-soldier serum he’d been designing. He then drives off from his lab only to crash into the swamp. His body catches fire, the chemicals react with the swamp, and the rest is history. Unlike Swamp Thing, Man-Thing has no personality but reacts empathically to others, most notably against fear which causes his touch to burn those feeling that mind-killing emotion. Arguably, he’s the loneliest of all swamp denizens.
I never meant to present an exhaustive list, but only to represent how trends and motifs generate and regenerate – I mean, dead people, mysterious processes, maybe a special potion, you get it, right? — and how swamps continue to excite dread across peoples and generations all over the world. If after experiencing any of the above you still long for that cabin on the edge of the Everglades, be my guest. I might not stop by next Thanksgiving, however, even if you survive that long.