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Captain Comics: The many mutations of Swamp Thing

Andrew A. Smith, Tribune News Service on

Published in Comic Books

The new "Swamp Thing" TV show isn't your daddy's swamp monster. It isn't even Alan Moore's.

Moore is the English writer famous for "From Hell," "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," "V for Vendetta" "Watchmen" and a slew of famous stories on major DC Comics characters like Green Lantern ("Mogo Doesn't Socialize") and Superman ("For the Man Who Has Everything"). One of his most beloved efforts was his run on "Swamp Thing," which re-imagined and revitalized the character.

Moore began his run on the second "Swamp Thing" title in 1984. Prior to that the muck-encrusted mockery of a man had been an accidental headliner.

"We really didn't think we were going to create a legend," wrote Len Wein in the Foreword to "Swamp Thing: The Bronze Age Omnibus." Wein, a writer, was the co-creator of the character, along with artist Bernie Wrightson.

(It should be noted that both Wein and Wrightson are no longer with us. The astounding thing is that both were born in the same year, 1948, and both died in the same year, 2017. Something cosmic going on there.)

Wein went on to recount an anecdote about the 1970 creation of an 8-page story that became "Swamp Thing." He and Wrightson were at a holiday party at the house of DC writer Marv Wolfman, with Wrightson "suitably depressed" after breaking up with his girlfriend. Wein had already dreamed up a story that mixed romance, horror and wistful sadness, which had been accepted by his editor. He pitched the story to Wrightson, who agreed to draw it. "Swamp Thing" eventually appeared in the DC Comics mystery anthology "House of Secrets" in 1971.

"Swamp Thing" was told from the point of view of Alex Olsen, a young scientist murdered by his scheming partner, who longed for Olsen's wife. Buried in the swamp, badly injured but not dead, the scientist morphed into a creature recognizable as today's Swamp Thing. As the story began, he lurked in the swamp, watching the house where his partner lived, having married Olsen's widow. The usual grisly revenge ensued, but it was the wife's horror at Swamp Thing's appearance that lent the story its weight, as well as Swamp Thing's tragic acceptance of his new existence.

According to Wein, that issue of "House of Secrets" was the best-selling DC book of the month it appeared, and he and Wrightson were begged to continue the character in an ongoing series. Eventually they both accepted, but unwilling to dilute the power of their 8-page gem, created a new Swamp Thing origin. "Swamp Thing" #1 appeared in 1972 to suitable fanfare.

The new version of Swampy starred Alec Holland and his wife Linda, who were working on a "bio-restorative formula" in a swamp when foreign agents bombed their lab. Linda was shot and killed, but the explosion, formula and swamp combined to revive Alec as a living plant --a swamp thing. What ensued was Alec's quest for a cure to his condition, while battling monsters as a monster.

The title had its ups and downs, even being canceled at one point. But then came Alan Moore.

Moore arrived with issue #20 of the second "Swamp Thing" series, and did something amazing. Many creators will re-invent an existing character that isn't selling well. But Moore re-invented Swamp Thing and turned the strip completely upside down ... without changing a single word that previous writers had established. That's pretty hard to do!

So: Spoilers ahead for a 1984 story. If you don't want to know what Moore did, don't read any further.

Still with me? OK: Moore asked the musical question, "what if Swamp Thing isn't a man who thinks he's plant, but a plant who thinks he's a man?"

In other words, Alec Holland was dead, and had been since "Swamp Thing" #1. The character named Swamp Thing was truly a plant, one who had simply operated under the delusion that he was Alec Holland after absorbing Holland's memories via planarian worms. (Feel free to Google.)

Which meant that there was no "cure" to be had.

Which meant that Swamp Thing had no future to work for, and his past efforts had been a waste of time.

Which meant he was really, really angry.

Moore went on to establish a new purpose for Swampy, one that was amazingly grandiose. Swamp Thing, it turned out, was the "avatar of the Green," or plant life. Counseled by the Parliament of Trees -- previous avatars who had taken root in the Amazon rain forest after their tenure ended -- Swamp Thing's job was to protect plant life from its worst threat: Man.

One interesting aspect of this was the implication that all of literature's swamp creatures -- Marvel's Man-Thing, Hillman's The Heap, Theodore Sturgeon's It, etc. -- could be connected to this grand cycle of avatars. DC couldn't say so -- copyright laws, you know -- but the reader was free to make the connection.

 

This new status opened Swamp Thing to powers he didn't know he had. For example, his body was simply a construct -- he could always abandon it and grow another. He could take his consciousness into "the Green," the interconnected, ethereal web of all plant life, and pop up anywhere. As it turned out, he could even connect with plant life on other planets, and with some effort, project his consciousness there.

Moore told some suitably outlandish stories about Swamp Thing in space, but mainly he told horror stories about traditional monsters -- monsters that he inverted in much the same manner as he had Swamp Thing. What if, for example, the monthly cycle of werewolves was connected to the monthly cycle of menstruation? What if vampires, tired of dodging the sun, simply lived underwater? Moore -- abetted by the super-creepy art of Stephen Bissette and John Totleben -- breathed new, terrifying life into old legends, and catapulted "Swamp Thing" into the stratosphere.

Which, strangely, doesn't seem to be connected to Swamp Thing's most famous iteration, the Alan Moore series. In the first episode of the new "Swamp Thing," we see all the characters we associate with the comic book series, only in slightly altered ways:

-- The new series is set in Marais, Louisiana, instead of Houma, Louisiana. But it looks just the same.

-- We meet Avery Sunderland (Will Patton), a local boy done good, instead of evil Gen. Sunderland of the globe-straddling Sunderland Corporation. Avery's wife Maria (Virginia Madsen) appears to be a bigger player.

-- The show's protagonist is Alec Holland (Andy Bean), but he is a disgraced biologist who used to work for the Sunderland Corporation instead of a scientist working for the government. And he is single. (Sorry, Linda).

-- TV's Abby Arcane (Crystal Reed) is an American doctor with the CDC, instead of being the European daughter of Swamp Thing's greatest enemy, the scientist turned sorcerer Anton Arcane.

-- Matt Cable (Henderson Wade) is the local sheriff, instead of being the government agent assigned to protect Alec and Linda Holland.

-- Liz Tremayne (Maria Sten) is a reporter on the local weekly paper, instead of the hostess of a tabloid-style TV show.

Of course, all of this could be misdirection, and all the characters will shed their skin to reveal that Moore's plots are the underlying reality. That could happen.

Or it could be its own animal. If so, it can join the previous Swamp Thing adaptations, which include a TV show on TNT, two movies and a cartoon. Not to mention the hundreds of comic books.

"All in all, not a bad record," Wein said, "for a character who began life as an 8-page mystery anthology story."

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(Captain Comics by email (capncomics@aol.com), on his website (captaincomics.ning.com), on Facebook (Captain Comics Round Table) or on Twitter (@CaptainComics).

(c)2019 Andrew A. Smith

Visit his website at comicsroundtable.com.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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