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411 Comics Showcase: Swamp Thing

December 16, 2016 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Swamp Thing Len Wein

I feel that it’s a safe assumption to believe that when I say “comic books”, most will equate the medium with superheroes. That feels somewhat odd, as there are many different genres that have been popular in comic format. Archie is one if the definitive teenage romance dramas of any medium, and I think there are many of us who first got into comics through Peanuts or Garfield. But there have also been westerns, detective yarns, war stories, adaptations of famous books and wholly original, often powerful material such as Maus or Neil Gaiman’s Samdman. The medium to tell many different stories, and I think it’s important to expand horizons and explore what is possible.

Sometimes, you need a stepping off point. Whether that is Judge Dredd, Miracleman or maybe V for Vendetta, it’s easy to find a book that has a mix of superhero trappings and more complex material. For me, it was The Saga of the Swamp Thing.

Swamp Thing was created by Len Wein as a one-shot character in a story for House of Secrets #92. It’s a pretty cool sci-fi horror story in the vein of Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Alex Olsen is a scientist who gets killed by his co-worker in a chemical explosion. Rising from the dead as a sentient monster made of plant matter, Alex got his revenge on his murderer and saved his wife Linda in the process. Tragically, she no longer recognized her husband and Alex returned to the swamp. The blueprint for good Swamp Thing stories was there; sci-fi horror, despicable villains and questions about the character’s identity.

The story proved popular enough for DC creative to push for a continuing series, which ran from 1972 to 1976. This series set the story in modern day, and Alec Olsen became Alex Holland, a Louisiana botanist who suffers the same fate. While ultimately short-lived, this series did introduce staples like arch-nemesis Anton Arcane and his niece Abigail, who became Alec’s love interest. It managed to inspire a pair of films, the first one being directed by Wes Craven of A Nightmare on Elm Street fame. With a movie coming out, DC naturally capitalized with a new series; The Saga of the Swamp Thing.

The new series became critically important to comic book history, though I doubt anyone expected it to be when Len Wein gave the series to a young British kid named Alan Moore. With his exceptionally well-written prose and a mind not short on creativity or depravity, Moore was the perfect person for the job. No other mainstream comic at the time was written quite the way or at the level of Swamp Thing, making it a cult favorite and a critical darling. Moore, of course, went on to write stories for many other characters and truly cemented himself as a titan of the industry when he created Watchmen.

His work on Swamp Thing is a different beast of course, but Moore got his reputation for a reason. Fascinating and frightening, the series thrives on its creepy atmosphere and disturbing ideas that are sure to haunt the reader. Moore also showed no restraint in radically altering the mythos; The Anatomy Lesson had the Floronic main before a vivisection on the character, revealing not only how his body worked, but establishing that the Swamp Thing was not actually Alec Holland. Instead, the plants had somehow absorbed the memories of Alec and used them to form a conscience; even the monster’s breathing was simply a function of memory that wasn’t really his.

I won’t spoil some of the nastier elements of Moore’s run, but suffice it to say that Anton Arcane is among the most sadistic, contemptible villains in comics. His niece on the other hand is quite a lovely character, serving as the audience surrogate and helping Swamp Thing come to terms with who he is. Their relationship is one of the more complex and genuinely sweet romances I’ve ever read in a comic. And it leads to one of the strangest issues, focusing on psychedelic lovemaking as Abigail and Swamp Thing long for intimacy with each other.

While Moore’s reputation and a love for monster movies got me into Saga of the Swamp Thing, I think the variety is what kept me there. The series was able to effortlessly transition from clinical science fiction to psychedelic, almost spiritual poetry when it wanted to. There was horror, there was romance, there was great human moments and even a bit of genuine superheroics when the plot called for it. Moore also showed a certain contempt for the Comics Code; it wasn’t going to govern his creativity, and DC was wise to allow him to bush boundaries. In many ways, this series was the father of Vertigo, and that imprint may be its lasting legacy.

There have been many writers since Moore to work on Swamp Thing. Naturally, they have big shoes to fill, and while some try admirably, nothing has supplanted that run in my view. The closest would be Scott Snyder’s run during the New 52 relaunch; over nineteen issues and one annual, he was able to put his own spin on the character’s mythos and craft a quality story. If you’d like to give Swamp Thing a chance to impress, I definitely recommend looking into these books.

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What are your favorite Swamp Thing stories or moments?