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Un-Men

The Un-Men are a fictional group of grotesque creatures in the DC/Vertigo Comics universe. Created by the writer/artist team of Len Wein and Berni Wrightson, the Un-Men made their first appearance in 1972, in the first and second issues of the original Swamp Thing comic book series. The characters made subsequent appearances in later issues of Swamp Thing and its successor series, Saga of the Swamp Thing, and in the 1994 five-issue Vertigo miniseries, American Freak: A Tale of the Un-Men. In August 2007, Vertigo (DC's "mature readers line") launched The Un-Men, a new monthly comic book series chronicling the further exploits these characters.

Appearances in Swamp Thing Comics

As described in Swamp Thing v1, #2 the Un-Men are "synthetic men" created by the evil sorcerer/scientist Anton Arcane in his mountain castle in the Balkans. In that story arc, Arcane dispatches a group of these deformed creatures to Louisiana to capture the Swamp Thing. Obsessed with obtaining immortality, the elderly and ailing Arcane intends to transfer his mind and soul into the Swamp Thing's indestructible plant body. Arcane explains to the captive plant creature that the Un-Men "are the result of my first experimentations -- crude, but totally dedicated to me." Unsuitable for Arcane's body-switching schemes, the Un-Men mindlessly serve their "master" as obedient henchmen. At the end of the story arc, the Swamp Thing chases Arcane to the top of his castle tower, and the old man plunges to his death. His loyal Un-Men jump after him like lemmings, presumably to their deaths as well (v1, #2).

Possibly taking visual inspiration from EC Comics horror books of the 1950s as well as the story of Frankenstein, Wrightson depicted the Un-Men as outrageously malformed humanoid creatures, no two of whom were alike. (Wrightson's almost whimsical detailing of the Un-Men also calls to mind the eccentric pop-art monster designs of 1960s "hotrod artist" Ed "Big Daddy" Roth.) It's not entirely clear how Arcane constructed his Un-Men, but several of them are made of stitched-together body parts, like Frankenstein's monster. The resulting creatures sport all manner and class of bodily aberration -- from multiple heads, to extra limbs, to partial animal anatomies.

The two most distinctive Un-Men were Ophidian, a talking snake creature with 10 pairs of legs and hypnotic powers, and Cranius, Arcane's major domo and the leader of the Un-Men. Described as "the living brain," Cranius is an oversized brain with a human face that is grafted onto a large human hand. Cranius uses his fingers for locomotion. In later appearances, Cranius is shown to have telepathic powers.

The Un-Men returned seven issues later (v1, #10) to further harass the Swamp Thing, in the last issue to be illustrated by Wrightson. (Wein would stay on as writer for three more issues.) In that story, Cranius and five additional Un-Men accompany a revived Arcane to the swamps of Louisiana (v 1, #10) to make a second abortive attempt at stealing the plant being's body. In a retconned narrative flashback, Arcane explains how he survived the fall from his castle tower: A handful of his Un-Men retrieved his dead body and whisked it off to a secret laboratory. “Under my semi-telepathic control,” Arcane says, Cranius directed the Un-Men to “construct a synthetic body to house my undamaged mind.” Arcane's new body is a monstrous humanoid frame that resembles a walking corpse with an alarmingly receding upper lip. Arcane goes on to explain that he and six Un-Men swam across the Atlantic Ocean, using Cranius’s “telepathic powers to home in” on the Swamp Thing’s mind. After briefing Swamp Thing on his recent doings, Arcane orders his Un-Men to attack the plant creature. The battle is unexpectedly joined by a group of vengeful ghosts: martyred slaves who rise from their unmarked graves and proceed to assault Arcane and his Un-Men. The ghosts use magic to make Swamp Thing sleep through the battle, and the plant creature awakens at dawn to find seven new gravestones, the central one scrawled with Arcane’s name.

The Un-Men made their next appearance in the second Swamp Thing comic book series, Saga of the Swamp Thing (v 2), launched by DC in 1982 to capitalize on Wes Craven's Swamp Thing movie adaptation. As before, Arcane returns (v 2, #17 - 19) with a cadre of Un-Men and explains via flashback how he managed to cheat death once again. In this issue, writer Martin Pasko and artists Stephen R. Bissette and John Totleben retconned the earlier storyline; in the new version, we learn that slave ghosts turned the Un-Men against their maker. As Arcane explains, the ghosts emitted "powerful psychic vibrations," which "took hold of my Un-Men, made them realize their lowly station, and so they rebelled." Subsequently, the Un-Men “buried each part of my dismembered body in a separate grave, then vanished, never to be seen again.” In this version of the battle, Cranius is shown perched on the side of the central tombstone, directing the frenzied interment with a commanding digit.

“Fortunately," recounts Arcane, "there were other Un-Men, who exhumed” his body parts, and, "using the science I had taught them, rebuilt my artificial body – this time even less well than before.” Not satisfied with his minions’ surgical abilities, Arcane fashioned himself an apparently robotic “exoskeleton” below his waistline--a metallic chassis in the shape of a six-legged spider--and replaced his right eye with a bug-like glass lens. As the expository flashback continues, we learn that the reconfigured Arcane returned to his Alpine redoubt and resumed his efforts to develop an immortal body for himself. “I saw excellent possibilities in insects," he says, "the most adaptable and prolific of organisms.” Thus he created a second-generation group of Un-Men, “insectoids – human insects.” They come in various colors and shapes: caterpillars, centipedes, praying mantises, winged moths, wasps and other pests, usually with human-like heads. At the end of this story arc, Arcane is eaten by his own insectoid Un-Men, defeated for the third time (and the second time at the hands--and mandibles--of his own creations).

Saga of the Swamp Thing #82 - 83 explored Arcane's early history as a battlefield medic for the German army during World War I. In a story line that paralleled H. P. Lovecraft's famous short story, Herbert West: Reanimator, the young Arcane is shown stitching together the body parts of dead soldiers in a series of unauthorized necromantic experiments. The same story arc also delves into Arcane's World War II-era activities. As a trusted aid of Hitler, the middle-aged Arcane is now headquartered at a cattle slaughterhouse, where he has successfully created his first Un-Men. He calls them prototypes “cobbled together from whatever body parts I could get my hands on.” Boasting that they are “infinitely adaptable,” Arcane reveals that he plans to build an Un-Men army of obedient, “perfect soldiers” who “never complain and always follow orders.” But before he can muster his Un-Men army, Allied bombs destroy the slaughterhouse, and, presumably, the Un-Men.

Although Arcane would more than occasionally return from the grave to stalk the Swamp Thing, the Un-Men would not return to the present-day story line for another decade. Their next appearance was in v2, #136 - 138, in a story arc that had Arcane returning to earth from hell and demonically possessing the preserved body of the late General Sunderland, the defense contractor who had frozen and vivisected the Swamp Thing a decade earlier (in Alan Moore's celebrated story, "The Anatomy Lesson"). Neither Cranius nor any of the insectoid Un-Men appear in this arc. Rather, Arcane is shown creating a new group of Un-Men, most notably the psychic Dr. Polygon, a purple man with nine or so faces on his head. At Sunderland Corp. headquarters in Washington, we glimpse a half dozen ogre-like Un-Men who are fresh off the assembly line. One of them resembles the rubbery, hooded-face creature last seen in (ST v1 #10), i.e. one of the six originals who turned against Arcane in the swamp (and who presumably escaped, “never to be seen again.”) Another has four arms, a bird-beak and devil horns. Another is a stocky dinosaur man. At the end of this arc, Sunderland's daughter, Connie, turns against Arcane and blows up the Sunderland facility, Arcane, and, presumably, most of the Un-Men. She manages to escape with the aid of Dr. Polygon.

American Freak: A Tale of the Un-Men miniseries

In 1994 Vertigo published a five-issue miniseries, American Freak: A Tale of the Un-Men, written by Dave Louapre and illustrated by Vince Locke. American Freak focused on a completely new set of characters, described as the offspring of the original Arcane Un-Men. The miniseries also introduced a number of continuity errors into the Un-Men mythology. In American Freak, it is revealed that in 1969 a U.S. army special tactics team captured 13 “horribly disfigured” creatures, "definitely not human", hardly even animal, "deep in the Louisiana swamp". If this plot point is intended to represent events occurring after the mutilation of Arcane by his Un-Men (as depicted in v. 1 #10), the date and number of Un-Men is incorrect. And in Louapre's story it is the military guards, rather than Arcane, who dubbed these creatures "Un-Men".

The plot of American Freak revolves around the second-generation son of two of these "horribly disfigured creatures", a 23-year-old man named Damien Kane. Per this miniseries, the Army conducted painful, inhumane experiments on the captive Un-Men, toward the goal of “mating” them and then producing a “serum” that would eliminate deformity in the offspring. (The military application of all this is not made clear.) The serum proved unstable and all the offspring except for Damien Kane died. Kane developed normally until he turned 23 years of age, at which time (the beginning of this miniseries) he began to horribly mutate. The story follows Kane’s painful transformation into a freak, and his escape (with the assistance of a telepathic, still-at-large-in-the-swamps first-generation Un-Man named Crassus – note: this is not Cranius). Crassus tricks Kane into traveling with him to Romania, promising the lad that his “creator,” Arcane, might be able to help reverse the mutation. Of course, it’s a trick: Crassus knows that Arcane is no longer in his castle redoubt. Crassus’s secret goal is to make Kane rescue a gaggle of other next-generation Un-Men from the clutches of a depraved millionaire who forces them to perform in a private sideshow.

Through some form of prophecy that is never explained, the next-generation Un-Men recognize Kane as “the One” they have long expected to deliver them from captivity. Kane reluctantly helps his cousins revolt and slaughter their tormentors. The Un-Men then board a private jet for America, where they proceed to set the captive, cryogenically frozen original Un-Men free. Army soldiers and guns are involved, and ultimately Kane’s love interest -- a bald, legless and psychically powered second-generation Un-Woman named Scylla -- is mowed down with bullets. The original Un-Men -- mute and apparently retarded -- toss themselves into a conveniently situated vat of acid, thereby making a statement about the tragic pathos of freakdom. Meanwhile, Crassus vanishes into the darkness of the swamp.

The military experiments are exposed, and Kane and his fellow survivors become celebrities, gracing the cover of LIFE magazine and appearing on TV talk shows. An embarrassed federal government grants them their own reservation settlement (on a former nuclear bomb testing site) and goth teens pay homage to the freaks at the camp perimeter. Ironically, the Un-Men have become caged curiosities yet again. At the end of issue 5, Kane has mutated into a brooding endomorph, a veiny elder statesman narrating his tale from a private cave high above the new Un-Men encampment.

Monthly series

A monthly series, written by John Whalen and illustrated by Mike Hawthorne, premiered in August 2007. The first story arc takes place more than a decade after the founding of the Un-Men reservation in American Freak. Damien Kane has died and his reservation has been taken over by a coterie of Arcane's original Un-Men, led by Cranius. Under the control of Cranius, the reservation has been transformed into Aberrance U.S.A., a freak-themed tourist attraction that is equal parts Disneyland, Las Vegas, and carnival sideshow. When a "natural-born" performing freak (i.e., not an Un-Man) from Aberrance is murdered, Agent Kilcrop of the U.S. Department of Energy (D.O.E.), which continues to oversee the one-time H-bomb test site, is called in to investigate.

Kilcrop, an African-American albino, believes that his superiors at the D.O.E. picked him for the assignment because they consider him to be their "house freak." Kilcrop suspects that Cranius and company may be involved in a coverup of the missing performer's death. Facing the resistance of the Cranius et al, but gaining the unanticipated aid of Niko Parish, a stunningly beautiful "Un-Woman" angel-girl lacking an arm (Cranius modeled her transformation on the famous "Winged Victory of Samothrace" statue), Kilcrop uncovers a conspiracy in a town divided by the Un-Men and the "gaffs," natural-born freaks marginalized as second-class citizens by the custom-built Un-Men. The term "gaff" is a play on the real-life carnival colloquialism for "faked freaks," such as sawdust-stuffed "Fiji Mermaids" and other phony sideshow attractions. The artificially enhanced Un-Men apparently consider the natural-born freaks of Aberrance to be "fakes," i.e., "pretenders" and "nature's accidents" who pale in comparison to the Promethean creations of Anton Arcane and the second-generation Un-Men built by Arcane's first lieutenant, Cranius.

Kilcrop learns that a subset of the local gaffs have formed a religious cult around the late Damien Kane, founder of Aberrance and a figure romanticized by locals as a "freak's tribune." Although Kane himself was second-generation Un-Man, his compassion for all the freaks of Aberrance -- natural and enhanced --has made him a kind of latter-day saint in the eyes of the oppressed gaffs. They believe that Kane will return to avenge the hostile takeover of Aberrance by Cranius and the other original Un-Men. Eventually it happens, with Kane, now part of the "Compound K" used by Cranius to give lift to the new generation of the Un-Man, taking control of his "offspring". Kilcrop manages to calm him down, and Kane returns to dormancy, using his last strengh to grant temporary power of flight to Niko, enough to save her and Kilcrop himself. Cranius names the agent by his hidden first name, Kain, a name he hadn't used since he was himself a carnival sideshow, revealing a deeper connection between him and the Un-Men, then sends Niko to ask the D.O.E. Kilcrop as a joint agent: overseer from the D.O.E., Chief of Security in Aberrance. Kilcrop accepts, turning a new page in his life.

As the new Chief of Security Agent Kilcrop is turned into a sort of Aberrance chief detective, handling mysteries and conspiracies connected to the Un-Men themselves, with the aid of Cranius, embittered by the loss of his "Compound K" but willing to share with Kilcrop the insights needed to solve his cases. Eventually it is revealed that Kilcrop was a circus performer who entered violent staged matches against his (non-albino) brother, has a past with Cranius, and one of the heads of the Aberrance "inseminated" himself so he could have an heir.

Shortly after Kilcrop settles his attrites with Cranius about his past (Cranius as a sign of goodwill restored his father's corpse as a barely functional zombie to wound up his frustrations on it), a new blow falls on Kilcrop life. Doctor Sunderland, a beauty-obsessed scientist comes to Aberrance to aid Cranius in restoring the Compound K, in exchange for a cadre of insectoid, bestial Un-Men to sell as living weaponry. Cranius accept, offering Janus Sr. new offspring for the necessary stem cell research. Niko, the only one able to tell Kilcrop of the plot, is shushed under the threat of revealing her past before Aberrance: a wanted felon for killing her abusive father.

The insectoid Un-Men are freed in Aberrance, showing the ability to "infect" over beings. Kilcrop is able to contain the skirmish, but during the revolt several guards are killed, Janus Sr. has his head frozen into liquid nitrogen by Cranius in self-defence, and Niko Parish is turned in an almost mindless humanoid Praying Mantis, not before being able to profess her love for Kain.

Agent Kilcrop allows the D.O.E. to put him on trial for his inability to contain the rebellion, he's stripped from his role and disgraced in the F.B.I. ranks, considered a "person of interest". Aberrance is shut down, and Kilcrop aids Cranius into findind a cure able to give Niko her human self back.

Since Vertigo cancelled the issue, the plotline about Niko Parish and the still-living Un-Men and gaffs of Aberrance is likely to stay unresolved.

In other media

The 1989 film The Return of Swamp Thing featured several creatures genetically engineered by Arcane's team of scientists, including a leech-man and a scientist who becomes a giant-brained monster. They are not referred to by name as Un-Men.

In the Swamp Thing animated series and toyline, there were five Un-Men, humans who are temporary mutated by Arcane's Transducer machine. The three Un-Men under Arcane include Dr. Deemo(a bokor mutated into a snake), Skinman (a zombie mutated into a bat), and Weed Killer (an plant exterminator mutated into a leech/centipede monster). The two other Un-Men, being one-time only, were Arcane(a spiderish monster) and Bayou Jack (exposed to Arcane's tranducer serum and muatated into a mantis-like Un-Man), the later with the Transducer playset.

See also

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References

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