Published on January 29th, 2015 | by Swamp Thing0
Where There’s Muck… Part 4
Swamp Thing – It’s not easy being The Green
The time is upon us. We’ve had an overview of the history of the muck monsters, scrambled over The Heap and burned at the touch of Man-Thing. That leaves just one muck monster to complete our tuberous triumverate. Swamp Thing. As we’ve covered it in some depth twice before, let’s skip the Man-Thing .vs. Swamp Thing debate and concentrate on ‘ol Swampy himself. The creation of artist Bernie Wrightson and writer Len Wein, Swamp Thing first appeared in House of Secrets #92 in July 1971. Though actually he didn’t, but more of that later.
The positive response to the House of Secrets #92 one-shot story got DC thinking they might be on to a good thing, and they requested an ongoing series for Wein and Wrightson’s swamp creature. Swamp Thing #1 appeared in November 1972. There was a new origin story and a revised look for Swampy. In the original story he had been a shambling, mossy thing with more than a passing resemblance to The Heap. For his own title he was given a more muscular, athletic look, with speed and strength to match the new physique. Nor was this reborn monster to remain mute. It was an important decision by Wein to give Swamp Thing a voice, and also to allow him to retain his human intelligence. Neither The Heap or Man-Thing could speak, and only the re-launched Skywald version of The Heap retained enough of his intellect to recognize the horror of his own predicament. By allowing Swamp Thing to retain the ability to think and talk like a man, and a highly intelligent one at that, it immediately elevated him out of the mire that the other muck monsters were bogged down by. It was a simple trick, and one that echoed classic film director James Whale’s decision in 1935 to give Frankenstein’s creature a voice in Bride of Frankenstein, the second Frankenstein feature from Universal. In the 1931 film, Boris Karloff’s monster had been mute but for angry growls. In Bride – which fans and critics alike consider to be superior to the original Frankenstein – having the power of speech completely changed the audience’s perception of Karloff’s creature and created an empathy that wasn’t usually associated with “monsters” of the day. So it was with Wein’s Swamp Thing, and from the get-go Swampy was to be a creature given more to angst than anger. As with Skywald’s Heap, the reader was meant to feel some sympathy for the man within the monster as he struggled to come to terms with what he had become and fought his episodic battle to regain his humanity. A later writer would re-imagine that battle and paint a bigger picture of this monster’s universe, but for his first tentative steps, Swamp Thing’s motivations were to remain simple. Primal.
Swamp Thing – The First Shoots.
I don’t think it’s stretching things too far to say that the first ten issues of the 1972-1976 Swamp Thing run are some of the most revered to have come out of DC in their long and chequered history. Wein’s writing was clearly aimed at a more mature audience than most of DC or Marvel’s output at the time, and Wrightson’s gloriously macabre and gothic penwork was to secure his reputation as one of the great comic artists. Wein’s origin story for this incarnation of Swamp Thing bore some resemblance to the story he had penned for House of Secrets #92, but now in a more contemporary setting. Dr. Alec Holland and his wife Linda are scientists working on a bio-restorative formula to promote plant growth in the hope of helping in the fight against world hunger. Working in the Louisiana swamplands, which scientists are peculiarly prone to doing for reasons known only to themselves, they are attacked by thugs working for a clandestine organization called the Conclave. The lab is blown up and Alec crashes out into the swamp, ablaze and drenched in his bio-restorative formula.
Wein’s story is no masterpiece. There’s nothing here that’s truly original or innovative, and the murder of Linda shortly after the lab explosion gives Alec, now reborn as Swamp Thing, a basic revenge motivation that at times feels clunky and contrived. But coupled with Wrightson’s art it works, and works well. These first few issues also introduced Swamp Thing’s ongoing love interest (and eventual mother of his child) Abigail ‘Abby’ Arcane, and one of comicdom’s great villains, Abby’s uncle Anton, with his army of misshapen un-men. Wein and Wrightson were a perfect pairing for this horror-fantasy material, but sadly it wasn’t to last. Wrightson departed DC for Warren Publishing in January 1974, and issue 10 of Swamp Thing would be his last. Wein stayed on as writer until issue 13 (pretty much wrapping up the revenge storyline before he left the title), though he would be reunited with Swampy several times over the character’s varied career. With Wein and Wrightson’s careful nurturing gone, Swamp Thing began to dry out and wither as sales shriveled. By issue 24 Swamp Thing was human again, and a previously unmentioned brother had appeared in the story continuity. It was clear that the rot was terminal, and the title was cancelled before the promised battle with Hawkman in issue 25.
Signs of Regrowth.
Following the loss of his own title, Swamp Thing wandered the DC universe as something of a lost soul. He found temporary homes between 1976 and 1982 in DC Comics Presents (co-starring with Superman), The Brave and the Bold, and Challengers of the Unknown (where Swampy meets Deadman, a recurring partnership that was to remain in later Swampy continutiy). Swamp Thing’s reversion to Alec Holland is retained, though now he has to keep administering bio-restorative formula to stay human.
Our mossy hero may have remained as an occasional guester, much as Man-Thing did, had director Wes Craven not helmed a Swamp Thing movie for release in 1982 (5 years after his cult horror classic The Hills Have Eyes but still two years prior to his first major mainstream success with A Nightmare on Elm Street). Not surprisingly, when the movie was announced DC felt the time was right to give Swamp Thing another shot at his own title. Saga of the Swamp Thing debuted in May 1982, the title’s first annual being an adaptation of Craven’s film. Len Wein had returned to the DC fold by this time and took on editing duties at the new Swamp Thing title. It was he who, in response to a reader’s letter, stated that the events in issues 21-24 of the original Swamp Thing run had never taken place. The new stories excluded the reversion to being human and any mention of Alec Holland’s brother, returning instead to a point not far from where Wein had left Swamp Thing in issue 13 of the original run.
Again the title received some critical success, but much like the first run by issue 19 it was struggling to get decent sales numbers. The film was not a big hit (though it did somehow spawn both a significantly worse sequel co-starring Heather Locklear alongside Dick Durock’s Swampy, and a TV series, again with Durock in the title role), and though the writing and art on the comic were consistently good, it seemed that Swamp Thing wasn’t yet hardy enough to survive the regular cold snaps in the DC universe.
Summer of Swampy – Moore is More.
With something of a Hail-Mary play, DC handed writing duties to a little known British writer, Alan Moore. Moore had obtained a degree of notoriety in the UK by revamping early superhero character Marvelman (Miracleman in the US to avoid copyright issues with Marvel that are worthy of a series of articles in themselves) for the groundbreaking British magazine Warrior, which also included the first publication of another Alan Moore series, V for Vendetta. Apocryphal stories abound that Moore was planning to do a similar rebirth trick with The Heap when he was offered the gig on Swamp Thing. Moore was given free rein to do what ever he wanted with Swampy in the hope that he could turn the title around, and he took full advantage of that freedom In his first issue as writer, Saga of the Swamp Thing #20 – Loose Ends, he apparently kills Swamp Thing in a hail of bullets. Issue 21, The Anatomy Lesson, completely rebuilds the character’s mythos, and is arguably one of the best single issues of a title ever to come out of a mainstream comic publisher (if only because it contains the line “you can’t kill a vegetabe by shooting it in the head”). It now transpires that Swamp Thing was never Alec Holland, he was an elemental being who thought he’d been human because he’d been born at the moment of Holland’s death and had inherited his memories. This allowed Moore to connect this version of Swamp Thing to the character who had first appeared in House of Secrets #92 by asserting that there had been hundreds of versions of Swamp Thing over the centuries, all agents of The Green under the guidance of the Parliament of Trees (who in one classic panel seem to count both The Heap and Man-Thing in their number). Much of the story from the preceding 19 issues was simply discarded and a new story arc began. This was a very different Swamp Thing. Having spent much of his existence trying to find a way to revert to being human, he now had to come to terms with never having been human at all. That put paid to any suggestion of the earlier issues showing Swamp Thing becoming Alec Holland still remaining in the title’s continuity. And now that he knew he had never been a man, Swamp Thing has no reason to pretend to be on or look like one, learning the ability to move through The Green and build new plant bodies at will.
Working alongside Moore, putting images to his singular vision, were Stephen Bissette and John Totleben. Although primarily an inker for Bissette’s pencils, it was Totleben who produced the often exquisite oil paintings that appeared as cover art several times during his time at Swamp Thing. Moore, Bissette and Totleben were to be the right team at the right time for Swampy, and during their time together on the title Swamp Thing’s popularity grew more quickly than even Alec Holland’s bio-restorative formula could have managed.
With Moore at the helm, Swamp Thing regularly voiced ecological and spiritual concerns whilst trying to maintain the title’s horror/fantasy roots. It wasn’t always a successful mix, but the more adult literary style of Moore’s writing meant that Swamp Thing became the first mainstream comic to abandon the CCA stamp of approval, though it was the introduction of the “for mature readers” banner on the title that Moore cites as one of his reasons for walking away from DC.
Moore stayed with Swamp Thing until #65. In his time there he shook things up violently enough for the shockwaves to reverberate throughout the industry, and when the dust settled there was a new understanding of the way comics could be sold to a more adult audience. Several of his story arcs dealt with areas that were historically taboo (including the moral complications of a female character having sex with a non-human creature like Swampy), and by having Swamp Thing able to travel through space and time he freed him from the constraints of his earthbound revenge-driven past.
Moore’s other great contribution to the Swamp Thing canon was John Constantine, who first appeared in Swamp Thing #25 in a brief cameo, making his full debut in #37. An immediate hit with fans, Constantine was to get his own title (Hellblazer, which ran for 300 issues from 1988 to 2013), a movie and a TV series. Moore began a love-hate collaboration between Swamp Thing and Constantine that has continued through each of the successive runs of the title up to the present.
From #65, writing duties fell to penciller Rick Veitch, who kept things moving along on roughly the same tracks that Moore had laid down. It was during Veitch’s tenure that Swamp Thing had perhaps his most controversial and widely publicized spat with his groundskeepers, DC. Despite having previously approved Veitch’s script for issue 88 in which Swampy meets Jesus Christ, they got cold feet and at the eleventh hour they refused to publish, fearing a ‘religious backlash’. Veitch quit over the incident, and at the time it was difficult to reconcile the paradox that Satan was regularly portrayed in comics but it was ‘inappropriate’ to portray Jesus.
Fear of Heights.
Doug Wheeler took the helm from issues 88-109, playing midwife to the birth of Swamp Thing’s daughter Tefe. Sales of the comic fell like leaves in Autumn, partly because of fan support for Veitch, but primarily because Wheeler’s writing didn’t strike the right chord with the readership. From #109 on, horror writer Nancy A. Collins was brought in to try and revive interest in the title. Whilst there is a vociferous chorus of fans who have proclaimed Alan Moore’s work on the title to be overrated, there is another that wants us to believe that Collins’ time on Swamp Thing has been equally underrated. It was during her time at the title that Marvel’s ‘adult’ Vertigo imprint first appeared on the cover (issue 129). Despite the best efforts of Collins, followed by Grant Morrison and then Mark Millar, Swamp Thing was cancelled, ending with issue 171 in October 1996. Various reasons have been given for the cancellation, but poor sales certainly contributed, as did Millar’s own admission that he had become bored with the series.
Apparently, so had the fans.
A Short Winter.
As well as occasional guest appearances within the DC universe, Swamp Thing was given two more runs at his own title whilst at Vertigo. Series 3 ran for 20 issues between May 2000 and December 2001, and concentrated more on Tefe than it did Swampy himself. Series 4 managed 29 issues from May 2004 to September 2006. Inconsistent writing and continuity fudging plagued both series, and again critical approval didn’t translate into significant sales. These regular relaunches of the title suggest that DC wanted to do something with the character, they just didn’t seem capable of working out what. Or perhaps more accurately, they didn’t seem capable of working out what the fans wanted from the character. But they weren’t ready to give up trying, and Swamp Thing wasn’t to be left out in the cold for long.
Swamp Thing is back in the DC universe. The culmination of The Brightest Day and Search for Swamp Thing titles was the relaunch of Swamp Thing as a DC title in September 2011, as part of their The New 52 overhaul. How long he’ll stay rooted at DC this time is anyone’s guess. There’s no doubt that Swampy will always have a loyal following, the problem has always been that strong writing and powerful storylines in themselves don’t guarantee sales, and as with any titles that have survived as long as ‘ol Swampy, continuity can cause significant headaches. At this stage the Alan Moore approach of “throw it all away and start again” really isn’t going to cut it. It’s unlikely that Swamp Thing’s troubles are over if his potholed past is an indicator of the state of the road ahead, but he’s a resilient species and isn’t going to go quietly into the compost bin. He’s been cancelled four times already, but Wein and Wrightson created a character with solid roots, and Moore and Veitch grafted on a hardy perennial that can survive each time the wind changes at DC. On a personal note, having been a fan and collector of Swamp Thing since before its 1982 relaunch, it’s oddly grating to see him caught up in the modern world of cover variants and limited edition lenticular covers, much as it was disconcerting to watch Laurence Olivier in the original Clash of the Titans. You just want your idols to be above that kind of thing. I live in hope that sometime in his future there will be a run of Swamp Thing to match those first ten issues by Wein and Wrightson,or the early Moore/Bissette/Totleben issues. I’m not holding my breath. Nor am I expecting a blockbuster movie anytime soon, though there has to be some big screen mileage in the Alan Moore version of Swampy if the pitch hasn’t been queered beyond repair by the earlier Swamp Thing films and TV series, not to mention that dodgy Keanu Reeves outing as John Constantine .
Imitation is the Best Form of Flattery.
During his career, several parodies of Swamp Thing have appeared. A recurring character named Sump-Thing appeared in the cult classic Cerebus The Aardvark (along with the Man-Thing parody, Woman-Thing). An unrelated character bearing the name Sump-Thing also appeared in The Mighty Mites. Marvel joined in the fun in What the…?! #6 when they went with Man-Thang vs Swamp-Thang, the closest thing to a meeting between the two big muck monsters that we’re likely to get. It’s also worth doing a comparison between The Bog Swamp Demon from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the current incarnation of Swamp Thing. Those antlers look familiar. And to complete that particular circle, The Bog Swamp Demon got his own title from Hall of Heroes, with none other than Steve Bissette illustrating the covers for the 4-issue run.
As this journey into the world of the muck monster finally sinks below the surface as a stream of bubbles, I believe it’s fair to say that of all of the characters to have been spawned from Theodore Sturgeon’s original tale of a man made of muck – The Heap, Man-Thing, Solomon Grundy, The Glob and Swamp Thing – it is Swamp Thing that has usurped the crown as ‘King of the Muck Monsters’. That crown may have slipped a few times, but as yet none of the others have been able to take it up in his place. Who knows, perhaps one day one of them will, or maybe there’s somebody new lurking out there in the swamp, just waiting for their chance. Until then, long live the King…