Saga of the Swamp Thing

11 Mar

The character of Swamp Thing, an elemental creature who shares a connection to all plant life on the planet, first appeared in 1972 but had roots in a comic published a year earlier. DC Comics’ House of Secrets #92 (June-July, 1971) contained a story by Len Wein and artist Berni Wrightson, about a man murdered and dumped in a swamp, whose body metamorphosed into a muck monster that rose from the mire to wreak vengeance upon his killer. Response to the story was overwhelming, and plans were immediately made to launch a new title with a similar creature as the protagonist. Swamp Thing #1, by Wein and Wrightson, had a cover date of Oct-Nov, 1972. In the ongoing series, the man in the muck was Alec Holland, a handsome young scientist, and his first mission in hideous, shambling post-life existence was to avenge the murder of his wife, done in by the same criminal outfit that put him in the swamp. In the course of the series, he found his body had become more plant than human — if a limb was cut off, he could grow it back. He ranged far from the Louisiana swamp he’d come to call home — even had an adventure in Gotham City with Batman — and he took on a wide variety of science fiction and supernatural adversaries. The series was both a critical and a commercial success. But Wein and Wrightson were unable to stay with it beyond its 10th issue, and their replacements were not as well received by readers. The series ended with its 24th issue (Aug-Sep 1976), and the character was relegated to occasional appearances as a guest star. In 1982, Swamp Thing was adapted into a movie — not exactly a record-smashing box-office bonanza, but DC deemed it a big enough deal to warrant reviving the comic book. The new series limped along for a couple of years, then was taken over by writer Alan Moore. That’s when the character really took off.

Swamp Thing’s very existence is defined by the question, “Is he a man who looks like a plant or a plant that think’s it’s a man?”. That question was at the heart of Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing run, widely regarded to be the greatest in the character’s long history. Early on, Moore revealed that Swamp Thing isn’t actually a transformed Alec Holland. Holland died as a result of his injuries. Swamp Thing is merely a mysterious form of plant life that absorbed fragments of Holland’s consciousness and memories. Naturally, this is a character prone to questioning his own existence and place in the universe. That existence always seems to be in flux, as recently DC’s comics have taken a hard turn and suggested that Alec Holland does still exist within Swamp Thing. Swamp Thing’s mythology was further complicated with the addition of elements like The Green and the Parliament of Trees. The Green is sort of like The Force in that it’s a living energy field that links all plant life in the universe and is the source of Swamp Thing’s powers. It coexists with other mystical energies in the DCU, including The Red (animal life), The Rot (death and decay) and The Grey (machine life). These energy fields also exist as actual locations, and The Green is home to the Parliament of Trees. These ageless, powerful Plant Elementals oversee all plant life in the universe. As it turns out, the Parliament has always relied on a Swamp Thing to carry out their will in the human world, and Alec Holland is simply the latest in a long line of Swamp Things.

In 1984, Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, and John Totleben crafted one of the most perfect single issue comic books of all time: The Saga of the Swamp Thing #21, “The Anatomy Lesson.” In many ways, that issue was the paragon of the Modern Age of superhero comics, with its florid, but poetic, narrative captions, its dark themes, and its deconstructive intent. If Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns have been held up as the twin pillars of superhero modernism (as they should be), then “The Anatomy Lesson” is the banner waving from the top of the castle of contemporary comics. Its approach has been mimicked (often poorly) more frequently than almost any other single issue in history. It’s the quintessential comic in which we learn an undiscovered truth about the past of the protagonist, and that new perspective changes everything. Reading it now, it’s easy to underestimate just how powerful it was at the time, since its form and function has been replicated so often in the years since, but if Saga of the Swamp Thing #21 came out as a brand new issue this year, it would still blow everything else away. It’s just an amazingly powerful comic, written and drawn by young men who were soon to rank among the best ever working in the industry. Swamp Thing existed before that of course, with Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson making their mark on the original Swamp Thing series, and even at its creakiest, it’s an excellent monster comic, full of gothic horror, deep shadows, and vicious tragedy. But as good as those early Swamp Thing comics are, they’re still just well-crafted monster stories, while Alan Moore did something fresh, wonderful, strange and exciting when he came to a floundering volume of the series in the mid-1980s.

Swamp Thing has enjoyed a pretty healthy career outside of the comics even before joining the cast of the video game Injustice 2. He was actually the first DC hero after Batman and Superman to star in his own movie. Horror icon Wes Craven directed 1982’s Swamp Thing, which was fairly well received. That was followed up by 1989’s ultra-low-budget sequel Return of the Swamp Thing, which wasn’t. Swamp Thing also starred in both a live-action and animated TV series in the early ’90s, with the former enjoying a pretty healthy run from 1990 to 1993. More recently, he’s appeared on the animated series Justice League Action and in the direct-to-video animated movie Justice League Dark. Alec Holland was mentioned on NBC’s short-lived Constantine series, but unfortunately that show was canceled before he was able to appear in the flesh (plant-flesh?). Looking ahead, it’s believed that Swamp Thing will make his DC Film debut in an adaptation of the Justice League Dark comics. In one draft of the script, Swamp Thing is a member of a team that also includes Constantine, Madame Xanadu, Zatanna and Deadman. Swamp Thing has never had much patience for the Justice League in the past, but the whole point of the JLD is that these characters are handling supernatural threats the regular League just can’t grapple with. Basically, get used to the big green guy, because you’re going to be seeing plenty more of him in the near future!

One Response to “Saga of the Swamp Thing”

  1. simon7banks April 24, 2018 at 3:27 pm #

    It seems pretty clear to me that the Swamp Thing draws (no doubt unconsciously) on the Green Man of Celtic mythology. In fact, the Green Man was sometimes depicted with a body in human shape but made up of plant forms. So – Sir Gawain and the Swamp Thing?

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