(or "Don't Just Stand There, DO Something!")
When we look at Marvel's Man-Thing (yes, you there, snickering in the back, if you can't hold it in, please leave the room), inevitably, comparisons arise to DC's Swamp Thing. Both were created almost at the same time, both involved brilliant scientists working on top-secret projects who got doused with their own chemicals, set on fire, and ran into the swamp ("so I built a third scientist! That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp!") Both involved said scientist coming back as a mucky, oozy swamp creature whose body has only a tangential relationship to the animal kingdom.
So why (apart from the gifted writing of Alan Moore) is Man-Thing at best an occasional guest-star and Swamp Thing a major player in the DC universe?
It can't be the tone; both play pretty much in the same corner of "dark, near-supernatural near-horror adventure". Setting? To be honest, Man-Thing has the edge here; the swamp that nurtures him is a nexus of realities, a cornerstone of existence constantly visited by strange and unusual beings (like Howard the Duck, whom we'll be discussing in a future column.) It's a perfect storytelling engine for a writer. Even the supporting cast for Man-Thing is great, with wizards, budding teen sorceresses, and a sarky, cynical DJ with a heart of gold and a lucky streak a mile long--and all bad.
No, it has to be said: The problem with Man-Thing is, well, Man-Thing. Because he's a walking (well, shambling) example of the one thing you don't want your protagonist to be--passive. He's completely and totally mindless, not even operating on the search for food or shelter; his only interest is in destroying things that feel "negative" emotions like fear or hate. (Which, naturally, writer Steve Gerber has to fudge on countless occasions, because if you have a nine-foot tall swamp monster that burns everything that fears him to death with acid, well...you'd probably have a pretty high casualty rate. So good guys seem to intuitively understand that they don't need to fear the rampaging swamp monster more often than they strictly speaking should.) Other than that, Man-Thing is usually content to stand there and let the plot unfold around him.
This isn't just a problem for an open-ended series, this is a problem for even a single story. Writers constantly get told, "Avoid the passive protagonist." The lead character for your story should be doing things, making decisions, and ultimately deciding his or her own destiny. Steve Gerber has to struggle and strain to get Man-Thing to move five feet. He's constantly ringing in "empathic links", "inexplicable urges", magic spells, gimmick after gimmick for the entire length of the Essential Man-Thing, just to get the lead character involved in the plot. That's the sort of thing that can exhaust a writer, and it's a hassle that you don't need. Your stories live and die on your lead character, and if they're not willing to get involved, you're handicapped before you start.