Sunday, September 11, 2011

Swamp Thing (comic book)

image (1972-1976)
Created by
Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson
Wikipedia Entry

Back in 1971, it was  slow day at work. One of my co-workers suggested I run down to the local drugstore and pick up a couple of comic books.*  He gave me money for one, so I went out and searched for titles.  Among them, was something called Swamp Thing.  I thought it was the stupidest sounding title ever, and knew I had to have it.  Not only was I pleasantly surprised, but the book quickly became a comic book classic.

The origin** was the story of Alec Holland, a scientist working with his wife Linda in the swamp to develop his "bio-restorative formula," sort of a super fertilizer. When enemy agents try to steal the formula, Alec resists, and, for his trouble, is left unconscious in his laboratory with a ticking bomb.  He wakes up just as it explodes and, drenched in the formula and burning up, he runs into the swamp.

The bad guys go after Linda, just as up from the swamp rises a muck-encrusted mockery of a man (love that phrase) -- Alec, turned part man, part plant.  He kills some of the bad guys, but Linda dies, too.  He then goes off to find the people responsible.

On the way, he meets Abigail Arcane, who begins to understand that the creature is human, and his friend Matt Cable, who blames the monster for the death of his friend Alec***.  The concept of a monster who was human, told from the monster's point of view, seemed very fresh at the time.****

The first series had the Swamp Thing meeting up with versions of classic movie monsters like the Patchwork Man (i.e., Frankenstein's monster) and even superheroes like Batman.  Len Wein had a real flair for dramatic writing and powerful incidents so it became more than just a tour of monsters. 

And the art by Berni Wrightson was spectacular.  Wrightson was a master of horror comic art.  His work is finely detailed and very creepy.

After ten issues, though, Wrightson left.  He was replaced with artist Nestor Redondo.  Many didn't notice the change, but while Wrightson's art is appreciated today, Redondo is only the guy who replaced him.  The two were similar in style, but Wrightson was clearly better.

After the first story arc of 13 episodes, Wein left, too, replaced by David Micheline.  The comic, though still a good one, slowly lost readers and a bit of its freshness.  After 24 issues, the series died.

It remained forgotten for six years.  But Wes Craven directed a Swamp Thing film in 1982, and, to cash in, DC started the new Saga of the Swamp Thing comic,  It limped along for a year and a half until they hired a successful UK writer who had never done work in the US -- Alan Moore. Moore completely revamped the character, changing him from a man/plant hybrid to a "plant elemental," and the book became a critical and popular success.*****

People still remember the Alan Moore version, and much of it has been reprinted.  The original run, however, has gotten short shrift. One reprint book stopped at issue 10, to showcase Wrightson's art, but leaves off the last three issues the Wein wrote, essentially leaving out the conclusion of the arc. 

The original Swamp Thing was a landmark in the history of comics, and still stands up well today.

*Yes, comics were sold in drugstores back then. Also, believe it or not, Marvel Comics were hard to find:  you either got DC or inferior brands like Charlton Comics.

**Actually, Swamp Thing was based upon a one-shot story by the same creative team that appeared in House of Secrets, set in the early 20th century.  In it, Alex Olson makes the discovery.  When he returns from the swamp, his partner is trying to kill Alex's wife.  The Swamp Thing protects her, but, unable to communicate who he was, returns sadly to the swamp. 

***A neat trick that they became such close friends -- they first met in the beginning of the origin issue.

****Sort of.  A few months earlier, Marvel had come out with Man-Thing, who seemed very similar, probably because Len Wein wrote the origin story.  There were no lawsuits, though, since the two comics quickly went off in different directions.  Man-Thing now is best remembered for its Annual -- called Giant Sized Man-Thing.  At the time, all Marvel's double issues were called "Giant Sized," and the obvious double entendre was missed.  In addition to laughs at the name of the issue, the comic featured the debut of Marvel's strangest hero, Howard the Duck.

*****It's probably the only work by Moore I don't particularly care for, though.  There are certainly some excellent episodes, but the entire concept of "plant elemental" just was too labored for me, and I missed the pathos of Alec losing his humanity, the central concept of the original run.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

as moore noted, while the original series was brilliant, if the point of the story was holland trying to regain his humanity, the overall arch was flawed

how long can a comic exist based on that central theme? once he becomes human again...comic is over

if he doesnt change back...arch gets boring

the characters and storylines moore created are brilliant

closest thing at the time was animal man, by morrison