If you ever need a reason to not eat vegetables, how about doing it out of respect for plant-based comic characters like Poison Ivy, Swamp Thing and Man-Thing?
While these characters may not be household names like cucumbers, tomatoes or lettuce, their shelf life has been exceptionally long: Poison Ivy is half a century old, while both “Things” are 45.
The whole “going green” ideology may not be every comic fan’s cup of tea, but what’s interesting to note is that their existence has given rise to many comics milestones and mythos.
Hence, in recognition of the three aforementioned characters’ milestones, this week we will focus on five of the most notable plant-based characters, and the impact they have had.
First Appearance: Batman (Vol 1) #181 (June 1966)
Poison Ivy aka Pamela Lillian Isley started off as a Batman villain but evolved into a notorious ecoterrorist. She will do anything to protect the environment and her precious plants, and this has given her something of an anti-heroic slant, having performed humane and heroic deeds that even overshadow other heroes’ world-saving feats.
Batman himself once said: “... as much as she would hate to admit it, Ivy is still more human than plant”.
Her Silver Age days saw her moulded after pinup queen Betty Page, and portrayed as a temptress in a plant bikini. Obviously, it’s not easy to take a sexy walking plant seriously, and she was so badly stereotyped that even Uma Thurman portraying her in the terrible Batman And Robin movie did nothing to boost her popularity.
There WAS one notable attempt at revitalising Ivy, though, and it came thanks to none other than Neil Gaiman, who revised her origins (see Secret Origins #36) by uprooting her and placing her alongside notable plant-based characters like Swamp Thing and Dr Jason Woodrue, aka The Floronic Man. The eerie presence of the latter as the cause of Ivy’s transformation certainly lends more credibility to her origin.
One notable trait in Ivy’s character is her raison d’etre. While most villains aim to conquer the world or become extremely rich, all Ivy wants is to accumulate enough funds to find a location to settle down with her plants. She succeeded in doing so on a desert island in the Caribbean once, but that dream was shattered when a US corporation used it as a weapons testing ground.
During the Batman crossover event No Man’s Land, she got a second chance to accomplish her dream through “purifying” an earthquake-ravaged Gotham City. This stands as the moment when her humane and heroic nature took centre stage – besides transforming Gotham’s Robinson Park into a tropical paradise, Ivy also took 16 orphans under her care, and provided fresh produce to the quake victims, an instrumental role that convinced Batman to let her go free after the event.
One other event further confirmed her anti-hero status – when she and Harley Quinn were each given $30mil by Catwoman (who plundered Hush’s slush fund) to restart their lives outside Gotham, Ivy donated all the money to reforestation causes in Madagascar and Costa Rica, while Harley went on a massive shopping spree!
First appearance: House Of Secrets #91 (July 1971)
Among all the plant-based characters featured today, the Swamp Thing has to be the one with the most unorthodox origin, thanks to legendary comic scribe Alan Moore.
Co-created by writer Len Wein and artist Berni Wrightson in 1971, Swampy started off as scientists (first Alex Olsen, then Alec Holland) caught in explosions that led to them merging with the swamp and their own chemical concoctions. But it was Moore who made the character even more interesting, by twisting the origin and making Swampy a 100% bonafide living plant, who absorbed Alec Holland’s memories and personality and only thought he was once a man!
Under Moore’s stint (Saga Of Swamp Thing #20-#58, #60, #61, #63, #64 and Annual #2), the character pushed every creative limit imaginable – origin, romance (the graphic details of Swampy-Abigail Arcane’s relationship surpassed everything you’d have read from Mills & Boon), DC’s power hierarchy (the bayou looked more exciting than the Watchtower or Metropolis) and adding a new dimension to the horror-fantasy genre.
Obviously, with so much envelope-pushing on all fronts, something had to give, and this turned out to be the Comics Code Authority, with Swamp Thing becaming the first mainstream title to abandon it! For the record, Moore didn’t elevate Swampy’s stature alone, as he had the best artistic team in Stephen Bissette and John Totleben, who collectively made every panel come alive!
Swamp Thing’s post-Moore incarnations may have been lacking in some ways, but a few have managed to increase his stature in the DC Universe. The recent New 52 version, for instance, made him the Avatar for The Green, and even saw him overthrowing the Parliament of Trees that gave him his powers. Even more recently, his co-creator Len Wein returned to the character for a six-issue miniseries that took Swampy back to his horror roots.
First appearance: Savage Tales #1 (May 1971)
Co-created by writers Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway and artist Gray Morrow for comics anthology magazine Savage Tales in 1971, Marvel’s Man-Thing never quite got out of the bayou, despite making his debut two months before Swamp Thing.
Dr Ted Sallis was a government scientist who was trying to duplicate the same Super-Soldier serum that transformed Steve Rogers into Captain America. Unfortunately, in a bid to get his research, enemy spies ambushed him in his lab in the swamp. Desperate to keep it out of their hands, Ted injected himself with the serum and escaped into the swamp. Unknown to him, this was no ordinary swamp and had mystical properties that, combined with the serum’s effects, transformed him into a creature made out of vegetable matter!
While Swamp Thing has control over plants, Man-Thing has no such power. Though incredibly strong, he has lost most of his human intellect, and is immune to any form of disease. The tagline “Whatever knows fear burns at the touch of the Man-Thing” refers to his ability to sense human emotion, specifically fear, which causes him to secrete a poisonous chemical that “burns” his victim.
The similarity between Swamp Thing and Man-Thing can perhaps be attributed to the fact that Man-Thing co-creator Conway and Swamp Thing co-creator Wein used to be be roommates. But that’s as far as the comparisons go, as Man-Thing’s achievements pale in comparison to Swamp Thing’s accolades.
Despite being around for 45 years, its biggest milestones only include a 39-issue run by Steve Gerber (Howard The Duck) and a 2005 live-action film that wasn’t very good.
While Gerber’s stint helped the character achieve cult status (the most memorable being his breaking of the fourth wall in his final issue), he is no Alan Moore. Marvel’s subsequent attempts to rejuvenate Man-Thing’s fortunes with big names like Chris Claremont and J.M. DeMatteis are best forgotten, as well as lame ideas such as recruiting him into the Thunderbolts and the Howling Commandos, as well as granting him access to the Nexus of Realities.
First appearance: Tales To Astonish #13 (November 1960)
IVY may be be 50 years old and the two Things may be 45 in real life, but the honour of oldest existing plant character goes to Groot of the Guardians of the Galaxy, who has been around even longer than Spider-Man!
He was created by Stan Lee (yes, him again) and Jack Kirby in 1960’s Tales To Astonish #13 as an alien who comes to Earth to capture humans and experiment on them. An extremely powerful plant-based being, Groot can expand his size at will, and also has the ability to regrow himself from even the smallest sprig.
Unfortunately, despite despite several attempts by Marvel to reintroduce him into its books, Groot never really blossomed until his big break came in 2006’s Annihilation: Conquest event, which subsequently led to him joining the Guardians of the Galaxy!
The popularity of Brian Michael Bendis’ Guardians Of The Galaxy reboot in 2013, as well as the hugely successful live-action film in 2014 (who doesn’t love Baby Groot, eh?) has elevated Groot to one of Marvel’s most popular characters. This is despite him only being able to say three words – “I am Groot”.
Nevertheless, as Vin Diesel’s voice performance as Groot in the movie showed, those three words can express a lot more than just his name. If you look beyond the phrase and reflect on Groot’s actions/reactions, you will realise that it’s more than just those three words. It sure makes the letterer’s job a whole lot easier though ...
First appearance: Adventure Comics #428 (1973)
IF there’s one thing I realised while writing this story, it’s that it takes a long time to grow the popularity of plant-based characters!
Since the first one was introduced in 1973, there have been four different Black Orchids over the last 40-odd years – Susan Linden-Thorne, Flora Black, Suzy and Alba Garcia.
When created for Adventure Comics #428, Susan’s forte was being a master of disguise, despite supposedly possessing super-strength, invulnerability to bullets, and flight! These abilities may have made her the ideal candidate for bigger world-saving exploits, but unfortunately for her, the various creative teams who handled her all seemed to believe that readers would be more interested in guessing her origin – which went on for years, to the point that it became a running joke!
Things improved slightly for her when she was inducted into the Suicide Squad in 1987-88, but she got her biggest boost when Neil Gaiman (pre-Sandman, writing his first mainstream comic book) and Dave McKean were hired to do a three-part miniseries on the character, on her 15th anniversary.
Gaiman’s story finally puts all jokes about her origin to rest, not only giving her a proper name (Susan Linden-Thorne), but also making her a human-plant hybrid with ties to The Green, which establishes an automatic link to other plant-based characters like Swamp Thing, Floronic Man and Poison Ivy.
The second and third Black Orchids – Flora Black and Suzy (no last name) – were also plant hybrids created from Susan’s DNA. Flora was the lead in the Black Orchid Vertigo series (1993-95) and was a femme fatale who used pheromones to control people’s minds. Flora perished in the series’ final issue, and was replaced by Suzy.
Unfortunately, Black Orchid never managed to go beyond the benchmark set by Gaiman, with Suzy and her subsequent New 52 successor (Alba Garcia) both recalling the character’s early days of mediocrity. This was despite attempts to inject depth into the character by inducting her into the Justice League Dark, Argus, and even amputating her arms(!). Maybe DC should just give Gaiman another call.