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Book Review: Savage Tales #1 by Roy Thomas, Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, Sergius O’Shaughnessy [Denny O’Neil]

May 21, 2022

Savage Tales #1Savage Tales #1 by Roy Thomas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I bought this because it contains the first appearance of Man-Thing, which is excellent, and the best story in the book, but this magazine, which I read in its entirety over the past few nights, really has not dated well. Literally every story is about a man betrayed by a woman he loves. YouTube seems to think that I and a friend who are both single and in our 40s are interested in misogynistic incel videos, but neither of us have anything against women or difficulty forming friendships with women, and these five stories seem overloaded with the themes in such videos. Did it bother me when I read the Man-Thing story initially? Not really, because it was one character, but reading five stories in a row about this (Conan the Barbarian, The Fury of the Femizons, The Man-Thing, Black Brother, Ka-Zar), it’s clear whom the intended audience of this magazine was.

Readers in 1971 did get a lot for the 50¢ cover price–only $3.57 in today’s dollars (many factors besides inflation have caused the rise in price of comic books and other printed materials), and only three interior pages contain ads other than two full-page announcements of other Marvel publications with art that such one hestitates to consider them ads per se so much as integral material. Unlike later Marvel magazines of the 1970s, it has one text page giving the background of how each story came to be created, but no multi-page articles.

“The Fury of the Femizons” has gorgeous John Romita art, but the concept of a matriarchate that abandons 90% of its boys and enslaves the men who are left is a projection of toxic masculine fears. Mogon, the enslaved man who falls in love with Lyra is a sexist boor despite looking like a Ken doll. Both visions of the world are dystopian. Mogon’s vision is reminiscent of the right-wing men who complain about the feminist movement on social media. I don’t know if this is Stan Lee just being disgusting and what he really thinks or if he’s just trying to appeal to the “mature audiences” the cover says it’s for, clearly consisting of a certain demographic of men. As much as I love Marvel, DC has always been better at “mature readers” titles, which are usually mature in the intellectual sense as much or more as they are in the “inappropriate for children” sense. This story was never continued, although this future version of Earth was presented as the home world of Thundra in Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four vol. 15 (issue #151).

This is the second story in the book, and made me thjink less positively of the other stories in the book. The first is beautifully drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith and adapted by Roy Thomas from an actual Robert E. Howard Conan story, “The Frost Giant’s Daughter,” in which a nearly naked woman (she wears only a sheet thorugh which one can see her nipples, and which Conan takes from her) called Atali lures Conan to be killed by her brothers, the frost giants. Alone, it wouldn’t be so bad, but my point is that these stories together build to a level of misogyny that becomes overbearing. A censored and colored version of this story appeared in Conan the Barbarian #16.

The Man-Thing, written by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway from an idea by Stan Lee and evocatively drawn by Gray Morrow is about scientist Ted Sallis creating a Super-Soldier serum (the connection to Captain America isn’t mentioned until a few appearances later, but the term “Super-Soldier,” long-associated with Cap, is used–nothing here clearly indicates Marvel Universe continuity), being betrayed by his lover, Ellen Brandt (The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe says she’s his wife, but that appears to be censorship–other characters (presumably working for A.I.M. but not specified until the next appearance and not wearing the much-ridiculed beekeeper-variant suits)–call her “Miss Brandt”), becoming a mute, empathic swamp monster after injecting himself with it and driving into a “bottomless bog.” Ellen is portrayed a a gold digger who mocks Ted’s “civil servant salary” as being insufficient to her tastes. The irony is pretty delicious at the end of the story in which the second-person narrator tells him that he got his Super-Soldier–himself. Another line that I love and milked in my operatic adaptation is Ellen saying, “this is the only reality” in reference to her relationship with Ted being what matters rather than the use of Sallis’s work by the military-industrial complex. When Steve Gerber took over the character with his fifth appearance, a couple of issues later, he esablished that the Man-Thing is the guardian of the Nexus of All Realities, which is exactly what it sounds like.

This issue was unquestionably published before House of Secrets #92, the first appearance of the original Swamp Thing, Alex Olsen, which had a cover date of July 1971. This issue’s cover date is May 1971, and the last page (not counting the ads) says that the next issue would be on sale in April (comic books are traditionally dated several months later than their actual release dates to keep them on the stands longer). Many articles have dismissed the idea that Len Wein, who was roommates with Conway at the time, was influenced by Conway’s writing. Supposedly, they never discussed each others’ work. That may have been true in general, but it cannot be true in this case. Savage Tales #2 has a cover date of October 1973, and was released on June 26, 1973, according to (as of this writing, they do not have release dates for either Savage Tales #1 or House of Secrets #92). That may give an idea how early Savage Tales #1 was. The issue, which was the first of many black and white magazines Marvel would publish in the 1970s until the July 1995 final issue of The Savage Sword of Conan, ran into distribution problems. A second issue was prepared, but when it became clear that Savage Tales wasn’t going to have a second issue for the forseeable future, the stories intended for it were on inventory and needed new homes. The second Man-Thing story appeared in Astonishing Tales #12, cover dated June 1972 and, according to Fandom, was released on March 21, 1972, after undergoing some censorship that actually makes sense (reportedly, Dr. Barbara Morse wore nothing under her white lab coat, which seems unrealistic and part of what I was talking about above), and it was written by Len Wein and drawn by the recently passed Neal Adams, who signed my copy to me a number of years ago. Considering it was intended for April publication, and that the inital Swamp Thing story was not intended as an ongoing character, it is unlikely that the story had as much lead time. The ongoing version of Swamp Thing, Alec Holland, first appeared in Swamp Thing #1, cover dated November 1972. The Man-Thing, however, had appeared on a consisent bi-monthly basis from his second appearance onward, in Astonishing Tales #13 (August 1972) and in Fear #10 (October 1972). Steve Gerber was attached to the character with Fear #11 (December 1972). While the characters diverged in direction and bear less resemblance to each other than they do to their predecessors: Theodore Sturgeon‘s short story, “It!” (a swamp monster that formed around a dead man’s skeleton), and The Heap, a German pilot downed in World War I who was awakened by World War II as a swamp monster and went around eating people and animals until a soft reboot in which Ceres (really!) taught him to feed off the soil; the origin of the Alec Holland Swamp Thing bears a much stronger resemblance to the Man-Thing’s origin than to the origin of the Alex Olsen Swamp Thing, whose story was incorporated into the Swamp Thing mythos in Swamp Thing (vol. 2) #33 (Swamp Thing: Love and Death) and became a supporting cast member starting in issue #47 (Swamp Thing: A Murder of Crows and particularly in Swamp Thing: Regenesis and Swamp Thing: Infernal Triangles), and there can be no doubt by this point that Wein was influenced by the Man-Thing, having written the second appearance of the character (he would go on to edit The Man-Thing starting with issue #15 (March 1975 (December 17, 1974)) to its conclusion in #22, although that’s of little relevance in debunking the claim that the Man-Thing was a rip-off of Swamp Thing).

“Black Brother” is a political thriller in which the governor of Potonga, in the fictitous newly independent African nation of Orbia, known only as Joshua, is set up by his wife, Belle, another gold-digger to be photographed with a white woman posing as a reporter who assaults him to make it look from the photos like he was assualting her. It was written by Denny O’Neil under the alias Sergius O’Shaughnessy and drawn by Gene Colan. Of itself, it’s not bad, and probably deserved to be continued as intended, but packaged with four other stories involving similar betrayals by dissatisfied women–in this case, one who has what most people would consider a luxurious lifestyle, it’s like being sledgehammered with misogyny. I was more interested in the subplot in which oil interests were harming the fishing industry that Joshua considers the key to his people’s financial independence. I’m not sure what motivated O’Neil to use a pseudonym for it despite my finding it sexist viewed through 2022 eyes.

Finally, we have a Ka-Zar story that later appeared in Astonishing Tales #14 in a censored and colorized form. This is also by Stan Lee, and drawn by John Buscema. The cover says “Ka-Zar Kills!” but it doesn’t say what. It’s a “longtail,” a Tyrannosaurus or other therapod dinosaur. Zabu kills a giant snake whose teeth seem too big for the constrictor-type it probaby is. This is about another gold-digging woman, Carla, who hates her husband, Ralph, who has been chronically poor. He is attempting to steal vibranium to make his fortune. When Carla sees Ka-Zar, she thinks he’s a “real man” and attempts to seduce him after he has just given her a still-relevant lecture on war and pollution that humans outside the Savage Land are committing. She taunts Ka-Zar as though he is afraid of her husband, even though he is clearly rejecting her on the moral stance that she is committing adultery. She intentionally pulls away from him when her shirt is in his hands, exposing her chest to him. He then shows her women bathing in a waterfall and ridicules her attempt to seduce him. This portion was censored from the code-approved reprint. Nine panels on pages 57-58 were omitted, and the text in the surrounding panels was altered to clarify the point about the poisoned ring, and the art altered to show Carla’s blouse still closed. The top right panel on page 55 had her shadowy nipple bump smoothed out, and ripped clothes were drawn on her in the third from last panel on page 62–her being nude face-down in the water implies that the hairy men raped Carla before murdering her, one of the few attempts at realism marred by the toning-down of the story. At the end of the story, Ka-Zar tells Ralph that he came to the Savage Land a weakling, and needs to leave as a man. With all the toxic masculinity on display in this issue, one wonders what he might mean, although his other portrayals, and his comments about the barbarism of “civilization” lead me to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Like I said, it is the cumulative impact of these stories, particularly tainted by the Femizons story, that give this issue the feel of misogyny and toxic masculinity. The art, I must stress, is top-notch. The main problem is with the narrative trops and some of the speeches, for which the writers must accept most, if not all (the Marvel way, which was the Stan Lee way encouraged or imposed on other writers, was for the writer to plot the story, the illustrator to draw it, then for the scripter (the writer unless plotter and scripter get separate credits, which may have been the case for The Man-Thing, but not for any of the others) to create the final text), of the blame. Conservatives whining about “woke Marvel” probably won’t be bothered by any of this and may wish Marvel would go back in this direction. While Stan Lee denied in one of his “Soapbox” columns that anything Marvel published had intentional political leanings, Sean Howe‘s  Marvel Comics: The Untold Story notes that in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Marvel bullpen was pretty much all left-leaning except for Steve Ditko, who was an Ayn Rand devotee, but he was never allowed to write, only draw, at this point in his career, and he had been away from Marvel for five years when this was published. While Conan, Man-Thing, and Ka-Zar collectors will want this book, I would recommend not reading the five stories all around the same time if one doesn’t like to be sledgehammered with tropes of gold-digging women and love of patriarchy.

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