Swamp Thing wicked this way comes…

by on Aug.01, 2012, under Uncategorized

Forty years ago this coming November, the brackish murk of the Louisiana swamps gave birth to one of the finest creature creations to spring from the human mind. 1972 marked the release of DC Comics’ “Swamp Thing”, a spin-off title from a short story in its popular “House of Secrets” anthology series, expertly crafted by writer Len Wein and illustrator Bernie Wrightson. “Swamp Thing” #1 told the story of a husband and wife scientist team, Alec and Linda Holland, and their discovery of a bio-restorative formula which accelerated plant growth, “that can make forests out of deserts”. Hidden away in a laboratory within a converted barn, the Hollands are charged with perfecting the chemical when a few sinister strong arms arrive, attempting to take possession of the formula.

Unwilling to comply, Alec Holland is the unfortunate victim of an explosion caused by the evil interested party, and – doused with the chemical and engulfed in flames – plunges into the cooling waters of the swamps. His burning flesh, mixed with the bio-restorative formula and the thick waters of the bog, absorbs the compound and he rises into the night air – no longer the handsome doctor, but a hulking monstrosity, more plant than man. A swamp thing.

What follows is a series of dark, inventive and stylized adventures as Holland searches for a cure for his new condition, placing him in the path of synthetic men, werewolves, witches, robots, aliens and undead slaves bent on revenge. Superbly written and beautifully drawn, “Swamp Thing” was pure gothic gold. Set in what would appear to be a rather non-specific time period, the book took the reader from Scottish moors to Balkan mountains to remote towns removed from modern civilization to Gotham City for a clash with what may be one of the most intimidating Batman renderings to land on the printed page. Agonizing over his loss of humanity (as well as the loss of his lovely wife at the hands of the men responsible for his own fate), Holland finds himself in a most peculiar position. Seeking revenge upon his wife’s killers, he must contend with a former friend who mistakenly believes HE is the one responsible for Alec and Linda’s murders. Agent Matt Cable relentlessly hunts the brute, seeking his own vengeance. On the run AND on a mission, the Swamp Thing encounters a unique mix of victims, downtrodden and misunderstood much like himself. Driven by his instinct for good, the help he offers those in need is often met with hostility, for he is horrifying to behold – a “muck-encrusted mockery of a man”.

“Swamp Thing” #1 was the first comic book I can remember picking out as a kid – I still recall the dreary rainy night my father stopped at the corner store and talked me into going inside during the downpour with the promise of a comic. I was just about to grab another of the western or war magazines my father was so fond of (to this point the only books that ever made it into the house), when something lurking at the very bottom of the spinner rack caught my eye. The title and logo alone were enough to seize my young imagination. I quickly thumbed through the pages, and I was a goner. THIS was my kind of comic!

The Swamp Thing was simply a fantastic monster design. Human enough to still garner sympathy from the reader, the massive brute towered above the average man. His massive chest demonstrated the power within his giant frame (power enough to stop a speeding car head-on), yet his deep-set red eyes managed to emit wisdom and compassion. His facial features were distorted into a distant semblance of his former self, with a blunt, peaked facsimile of a nose and no ears to speak of. Living roots and vine thrived on his moss-covered form, and his limbs were capable of rapid regeneration (as depicted in several key stories). Standing in one place too long, and his feet began to take root. Majestic and monstrous all at once, he was an impressive sight to behold among the brightly-costumed superheroes of the time.

In addition to the titular character, Wrightson churned out some amazing creature designs. Anton Arcane’s manufactured Un-Men were a fright, seeming to leap straight out of Tod Browning’s “Freaks” and onto the page. The Patchwork Man – a foreshadowing of Bernie’s career-defining “Frankenstein” designs – was both ugly and beautiful, sacrificing his own misshapen life to save that of his daughter. The powerful alien creature from issue #9 is still an awesome image, and the futuristic robot enforcers of a displaced Bavarian clockwork town still hold up after forty years. His incomparable art graced the book for ten memorable issues, at which time the equally astounding Nestor Redondo took over the art chores. From there, the deep conspiracies and Lovecraftian horrors continued to lure readers into a truly literary comic book experience, until the series ended its 24 issue run in 1976. However, much like the title character, “Swamp Thing” wouldn’t die.

In 1982, on the heels of a theatrical film release written and directed by horror master Wes Craven, DC relaunched the title. Soon, the writing chores were given to a British writer named Alan Moore, who steered the book in a horrific new direction, re-writing the true nature of the Swamp Thing, now a true monster devoid of human life. Moore is most recognized for his groundbreaking maxi series “The Watchmen”, considered by many to be the greatest contemporary comic to date. Moore’s run delivered the character to newfound fame and popularity, largely contributing to the formation of DC’s Vertigo imprint of horror-themed books. The fan-favorite writer crafted nerve-shattering tales, sending the character to the very depths of Hell itself in search of the soul of the woman he loved. Innovative, terrifying, and revolutionary, Alan Moore’s “Swamp Thing” output is a milestone of modern graphic fiction. Incorporating interesting new characters, such as John Constantine (later to receive his own major motion picture), and reviving familiar yet almost-forgotten cast members from DC’s horror past, such as Biblical brothers Cain and Abel, Alan Moore directed “Swamp Thing” through a successful run as the first mainstream comic book to forego the Comics Code and target an adult-only audience.

The roots of the Swamp Thing spread far, with a theatrical sequel to Craven’s 1982 film, a television series on the USA Network, a pair of video games, and a Saturday morning cartoon which launched a popular toy campaign from Kenner Toys. Throughout the ensuing years DC took the book in an array of different directions, attempting unsuccessfully to reignite the popularity of Moore’s iconic tenure on the title. One of the more recent incarnations featured cover artwork by Eric Powell, who managed to evoke a rather Wrightson-esque imagery.

With the release of DC Comics’ “Blackest Night” inter-title story arc, the Swamp Thing was brought back into the spotlight. “Brightest Day” places the human Alec Holland back among the living, as a separate Swamp Thing exists simultaneously. The current volume of the series has met with critical acclaim, and once again the “muck-encrusted mockery of a man” has captured the attention of readers.

The Swamp Thing is a standout example of just how powerful outstanding creature design can be. Four decades – and more than a few failed interpretations – later, this shambling, moss-covered muck monster is as popular and endearing to fans as the autumn day he debuted in ’72. DC Comics has released a beautiful series of hardcover reprints of the original Wein/Wrightson and Moore stories, well worth picking up for repeated readings. Maybe by candlelight, on a dock in the deep of the night…

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