Greetings, readers. Before I wrap up my piece on the gorilla-suit actors of Hollywood, I felt the need to put all this down. A couple days ago, our very own Brian Solomon rocked some serious face with his article on Marvel’s own Muck-Encrusted Mockery of a Man, the giant-sized Man-Thing whose touch burns those who fear. Brian, clearly, is a man who knows his 1970s comic book bayou beasts. He prefers Man-Thing; I, on the other hand, grew up with Swamp Thing, his DC counterpart. I felt it altogether fitting that a companion piece be written, and…well…I wanted to write it.
Swamp Thing grew from the typewriter of Len Wein and the brilliant artistic pen of Berni Wrightson (a man standing on par with Frazetta in my never-humble opinion), first appearing in DC’s House of Secrets anthology series, issue #92, July 1971. Set in the early 20th century, this stand alone story is told from the perspective of the Swamp Thing — a man-shaped tangle of weeds and slime, from whose head two mournful red eyes glower. Born Alex Olson, he was a scientist of indeterminate field and married to the beautiful Linda. Unfortunately, his lab partner, Damian Ridge, was desirous of Linda — and engineered an explosion to get Olson out of the way. Burying him in the swamp, Damian married Linda. However, the chemicals permeating Olson’s skin causes him to rise as the misshapen Swamp Thing. Damian begins to suspect that Linda realizes he killed Olson, and moves to kill her as well — but is stopped by the Swamp Thing. Attempting to communicate with Linda, she is instead horrified and, dejected, the Swamp Thing slouches out into the swamp, never again to look upon civilization.
Wein and Wrightson were initially resistant to revisiting the character, but were eventually convinced to create a duplicate — Alec Holland, a government scientist working on a bio-regenerative formula in a secluded bayou — and a star was born. When goons sent by the criminal syndicate The Conclave attempt to coerce Holland into giving them the formula for nefarious ends, a chain of events is set into place that results in a terrific explosion, a burning Holland collapsing into the swamp, and rising as a Muck Encrusted Mockery of a Man. Wein and Wrightson collaborated on the first ten issues of Swamp Thing’s 24-issue run, before passing the torch. Swamp Thing then experienced several rises and falls in popularity, cancellations, renewals, Alan Moore, two feature films (a serious — and somewhat dull — film by Wes Craven, and a poppy, fun sequel by Jim Wynorski), a live action TV series, an animated series and accompanying toy line — for which the five-episode animated series was little more than a very long commercial for.
It is the 1991 toy line and animated series that mark my own initial interest in Swamp Thing. I was four years old, and had every action figure (except villainous Weed Killer and heroic Tomahawk), the vehicles, the playsets. I don’t remember a time before I had them. I have no idea where the initial interest came from, if I saw TV commercials or what. I wore out a VHS tape of the first episode of the animated series, “Un-Men Un-Leashed!”
From that point on, the character was in my head. Part of me. I think we still have old Crayola drawings I did of Swamp Thing and his friends and enemies. There’s photos in one of the family albums of me staring goggle-eyed at the camera on my fifth birthday, a Swamp Thing cake my mom made for me in front of me, clutching the “Mutant Bayou Jack” figure that came with the Un-Men Transducer playset.
From there, fast forward a couple years. I’d fallen away from Swamp Thing once the action figures broke or lost their accessories, but rediscovered the 1990 Swamp Thing live-action TV series (starring stuntman Dick Durock, who’d played Swampy in the two feature films as well) in syndication on…probably the Sci-Fi Channel. From there I found out about the comics, but was never really able to get my hands on any. My interest, unfed, drifted away once more.
In December 2008 I open Radiation-Scarred Reviews, my review blog. Eventually I rent both Wes Craven’s and Jim Wynorski’s takes on Swamp Thing. Wes Craven’s film left me a little cold, though there remained the sweet visceral thrill of seeing the hero I’d known so long again. Jim Wynorski’s film, on the other hand, made me cheer — it was like having a video of my imaginary adventures with my action figures.
Through a local comic shop, I introduced myself to Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing — and honestly, though I know few will agree with me, I was kind of disappointed. Moore’s tales of plant elementals and demons, body-swapping and madness…was almost too much, you know? I was used to super-science and supernaturalism in my Swamp Thing, but Moore took it too far for my general tastes.
Finally, inspired by Brian’s article on Man-Thing, I went online and ordered DC/Vertigo’s Swamp Thing: Dark Genesis, collecting Wein and Wrightson’s Swamp Thing tales, including the House of Secrets original tale. It arrived in the mail today, and I read through it breathlessly as soon as I got home from work. And all I have to say is…Mr. Wein, Mr. Wrightson…I am in awe.
Ten of the eleven stories — the original Alex Olson tale, and most of the various trials of Alec Holland undergoes as he strives to regain some semblance of his humanity and avenge himself on his killers — share a common theme. While Swamp Thing may be a man in the guise of a monster, the real monsters have an all-too-human face. Whether it’s the sorcerous Anton Arcane’s attempts to steal Swamp Thing’s physique for world domination or a would-be mugger on a freight train, the villains are as human as the reader. The message is clear, to the point of bluntness at times. Wrightson’s pen and ink work beautifully ties in with Wein’s tales of the evil that men do, delivering a top notch experience with every page.
More than anything, reading this…I’m reminded of Godzilla during the same period, oddly enough. Godzilla in the 1970s was this unwelcome monster hero who saved the world time and again from horrors worse then himself…but at the end of each adventure he’d have no choice but to turn and leave, returning to Monster Island or the cold bosom of the uncaring sea. No matter how heroic he was, he’d never be welcome, he’d never belong, he’d never have a home. Swamp Thing as presented by Wein and Wrightson is the exact same situation.
So there you have it. My backwards journey through the muck and madness and magic that is DC’s Swamp Thing. I mean no disrespect towards Man-Thing, the Heap, or any other creature made of pondscum and moss. But Swampy’s been my hero for almost two decades. And ain’t nothing’s gonna change that.