Axel-In-Charge: Facing the 'Divided' Marvel NOW! Future
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Gray Morrow, and the story is “The Origin of the Man-Thing” from Savage Tales #1, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated May 1971. This scan is from the trade paperback The Infernal Man-Thing, which came out in 2012. Enjoy!
Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, and Gray Morrow co-created Man-Thing in Savage Tales #1, which is of course far more famous for containing Stan Lee and John Romita’s “The Fury of the Femizons.” But the Man-Thing story is very neat, and of course he appeared a few months before his more famous DC counterpart. So why doesn’t he get as much love? Homophobia, perhaps? The mind reels!!!!
Morrow’s art is beautiful in this story, so let’s check it out!
This is how Morrow sets the scene, and it’s a tremendous view of the swamp. Look at his amazing brush strokes in the first two panels. He uses white ink to create an eerie haze in Panel 1, and delicate grays for the crane taking flight in Panel 2. He contrasts the almost hazy whites of the crane with the black spots on the alligator almost hidden behind the narrative caption in Panel 2, which creates a bit of tension that explodes in Panel 3, when the alligator attacks. Morrow’s use of paint makes both creatures almost a part of the swamp – there’s no border between the bottom of the alligator and the water. In Panel 4, we see the circle of life – the alligator is grinning as the crane’s foot protrudes from its mouth, and its eye is a satisfied slit, but Morrow shows in the foreground the monster rising from the depths, ready to strike. The delicate beauty of the first two panels has been replaced with solid lines and blacks, showing the hard reptilian armor of the alligator and the bulbous muck of the Man-Thing. It’s a cool transition.
This is a wonderful splash page, as Man-Thing rips the alligator apart. Morrow blends the heavier lines with the haze of the swamp really well – Man-Thing’s face is shrouded in darkness, as he’s doing something so violent and he’s also living a horrible life, but Morrow still makes sure that the strands of moss streaming from his body are lightly painted, even the wispy black ones. Meanwhile, he still uses nice blacks on the alligator, with the roughness of the paint making it more three-dimensional and leathery, but he also doesn’t use as many holding lines as we might expect. Both Man-Thing and the alligator are part of nature (even though Man-Thing isn’t quite an original part of the swamp), and the way Morrow makes them fade a bit into their surroundings shows this nicely.
In a flashback, we get the story of Ted Sallis and how he became Man-Thing. I love this page, which introduces us to Ted and his completely untrustworthy lover, Ellen (NEVER TRUST THE WOMAN!). Morrow drenches this page in sex, and while Savage Tales was for “mature” readers, it’s still nice to see the creators taking that seriously – even though there’s no sex in this story (it’s not that mature!), Marvel could get away with a bit more innuendo in it. Look at Ellen in Panel 1. Morrow uses darker inks to show her in shadow, with the gauzy nightgown obscuring her hourglass frame just the tiniest bit. She stands in the haze, while Ted is much more sharply delineated. Morrow still puts half of his face in shadow, showing that things are weighing on his mind. Then he steps inside, and Morrow lights the scene up so that we get Ellen in her sexy glory, with shades of nipples showing (scandalous!) and her hips aggressively cock-eyed. We’ll see her face more clearly below, but on this page, Morrow does a nice job hinting at the cruelty in her eyes. In Panel 3, he shifts our point of view so we’re behind Ted, looking down at the languishing Ellen, who’s doing her best to seduce him. Again, Morrow shows a hint of evil in her gaze, which is transformed when he says he violated security by bringing her along. The creators place the “napalm” headline in the corner of the panel, tying this story to Vietnam and Ted’s guilt over creating chemicals used to kill. Morrow does a wonderful job in Panel 4, as Ellen softens toward Ted, who’s trying to forget his demons but can’t. Morrow uses heavier inks on his cheek and shadows on his hand to show the burden he lives under. Somehow he loses his shirt between Panel 4 and Panel 5 (seriously, how did that happen?), as Morrow sags him down a bit as Ellen lies next to him, even more coquettishly, until he can’t resist her charms anymore. Morrow uses what we know about Ted to impart a bit more desperation in his kiss – his hands clutch her, with his right arm clinging to her, while he pushes his mouth against her a bit sadly. Obviously, that tiny nightie won’t be on long! The progression of this page is wonderful, as Morrow hints at Ellen’s ultimate betrayal and also shows how well she adapts to Ted, while Ted goes from a man who is haunted to a man who has to have some intimate human contact. It’s really nicely done.
Two hours of lovemaking (and possibly some light napping) later, Ted is ready to find his government contact, so he heads into the swamp. In Panel 1, Morrow uses gouache to wonderful effect, lighting the boat and its wake in the middle of a darkened swamp. The strands of moss hanging from the trees give it that eerie feeling that all comic book swamps share (movie/television swamps, too). In Panel 2, he uses the shadows well to shade both Ted and Ellen’s faces – it’s nighttime, of course, so it’s not surprising, but it also adds to the feeling of foreboding that we’re supposed to get out of the scene.
Ellen shows her true colors, of course, and Morrow goes full bore with her evil in this panel. She’s perfectly early 1970s-stylish, but the large bangs, tapered to a point, feel more “evil” than another hair style would, as this somewhat shaggy cut shows off her eyebrows really well and focuses our attention on her eyes and down her nose to her mouth. Her eyebrows are arched, which of course is shorthand for “evil,” and her thin eyes and long, upswept lashes suggest a cat, which of course is far more evil than other house pets. Morrow puts a bit of hatching on the side of her nose to add a bit of definition, but also to indicate to us that the left side of her face is shaded. That’s also logical, but it shows a bit more darkness to her than we saw earlier. Her smile isn’t wide and opening, it’s more of a smirk, and it leads to her devastating cheekbone, which is a bit more roughly inked. In the previous panel, she wasn’t holding a cigarette, but here she’s not only holding one, it’s lit – damn, she’s fast! I get that cigarettes were more widely accepted back in 1971, but there was a trend toward only evil characters smoking them, so of course Ellen would smoke. I just can’t figure out where she got it. This follows the previous panel instantly, and her outfit doesn’t suggest that she has a lot of places to carry cigarettes!
Ted escapes and does the only thing he can to keep the chemical from the bad guys – he injects himself. It turns out the chemical was supposed to be part of a super-soldier program – Marvel really loves their super-soldiers, damn it! – but it interacts weirdly with the water from the swamp, turning him into Man-Thing. He wanders in front of the car with the bad guys, and, well, this happens. This page isn’t as beautiful as the previous ones, and I’m not sure why. The entire story is 11 pages, and it’s a one-off, so I doubt if Morrow was rushed. Maybe he figured that Man-Thing is out of his element, so he’s not going to be quite as graceful, because he’s definitely drawn more roughly – the heavy inks dominate, and out of the water, there’s nothing gently streaming from him, naturally. He’s much more shambling and ungainly, and I imagine it’s partly because Morrow is showing him out of the water and partly because Morrow isn’t great at action – I haven’t seen enough of his art to make that statement definitively, but I’ve seen enough to know he’s not superb at it. The way he lays out the page is very neat, though. First of all, Ellen still looks dead sexy, and it seems Morrow is trying really hard to keep her top on, as it’s barely clinging to her and even, in Panel 4, appearing to fall away completely. Morrow subverts the somewhat common pose of the manly man standing proudly while the girl clings to his legs (can we call this the Frazetta pose?) in Panel 2, as Man-Thing stands tall, but he’s about to crack a dude in half, while Ellen crouches below, not in rapturous sexual longing, but in utter terror. I imagine her placement is so she can appear in the panel, but it’s weirdly sexual that she’s crouched between his legs, with her head almost in his crotch, and her clothes are ripped. There’s a strange subtext of sex here, especially as Man-Thing casually kills the two dudes and then advances on the woman, the muck dripping from his arm in Panel 4 looking far more suggestive than I think Marvel would like. Panel 5 shows his arm in between his legs, again implying revenge rape, as Ellen’s face contorts into sheer terror. This is an echo of the earlier panel, when Ellen was lying on the bed and we were looking at her over Ted’s shoulder – in that instance, of course, she was trying to seduce him, and this is the ugly flip side to that panel. Ellen’s cries of “Please, don’t touch me” are, of course, in reference to her belief that Man-Thing is going to kill her, but it could also, of course, mean that she doesn’t want him to touch her sexually. This is a disturbing page on a lot of levels, and Morrow does a good job selling it.
Man-Thing doesn’t kill Ellen, just burns her face, which might take the rape metaphor even further, because she’s been violated and marked but not killed. Then Man-Thing wanders off into the swamp, ready to start his odd career. Such a strange origin – it’s probably for the best it came in a Marvel magazine rather than a regular comic!
Morrow went on to more work, and in the late 1970s he started a pretty neat epic sci-fi story. We’ll check that out tomorrow. If you can’t wait to see more cool art, feel free to seek out the archives, where you can see another version of Man-Thing!
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