Swamp Thing: Dark Genesis
Halloween is a month away, but all of October is Monster Month for me, and to kick things off I offer an especially timely Dollar Box column, where I look at single-issue comics stories with an original cover price of a dollar or less. This month is all about swamp monsters, and while Swamp Thing isn’t the first of his kind (that would be The Heap), and not even the first muck monster from the Big Two (as Marvel’s Man-Thing debuted several months earlier), Swamp Thing is certainly the most famous and best-realized of all the the many fiends stalking the four-color funny book bogs.
Originally appearing in a short story in House of Secrets #92, Swamp Thing made his first full-length appearance in somewhat altered form in 1972’s Swamp Thing #1. The product of a close collaboration between writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson, Swamp Thing is one of the greatest creature designs in all of comics. With his craggy brows and half-skull face, Swamp Thing is perched on the edge of uncanny valley, with a visage by turns soulful and monstrous, the perfect mask of torment for forlorn man-turned-monster Alec Holland.
Later creators — including luminaries like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Brian K. Vaughn, and Scott Snyder — would develop Swamp Thing into an elemental champion at the center of a complex and expansive comics cosmology, but the original Wein & Wrightson version of the character is simplicity itself. Tasked with creating a bio-restorative formula by the government, scientist-couple Alec and Linda Holland retire to a remote swampland laboratory, where they are immediately menaced by thugs intent on stealing their knowledge. One thing leads to another, and before long a bomb has gone off and a flaming Alec Holland has plunged into the muck, only to rise as the avenging muck monster, Swamp Thing!
This is a taut and effective horror comic, strongly-written by author Len Wein and lent an extra layer of creepy by the uncredited letterer, who employs drippy caption boxes to good effect. Perhaps that letterer was artist Bernie Wrightson, who put his stamp on every other aspect of the book, creating a swamp-gothic look on the fly — a world of shadowy locales that are still perfectly detailed, and populated with heavy-featured thugs rendered with such skill that you don’t recognize the degree to which the art uses comic exaggeration until you’ve read the book two or three times.
Wrightson would go on to become one of the most celebrated artists in the medium, but he was largely unknown when Swamp Thing debuted … and what a debut it is. This is a mature work with a rare balance of style, mood, character, and storytelling.
It’s also a simple story, as befits the best origin tales, setting the table for stories to follow by introducing the main characters, and establishing our (anti) hero’s all-important powers and foibles. Of interest to fans of later incarnations of Swamp Thing (or readers more familiar with the minimally-sentient Man-Thing), this version of Swamp Thing is fully aware of what he is.
Alec Holland’s scientific mind instantly comprehends what has happened to him, and there is a minimum of mooning around and identity crisis before Swamp Thing gets down to the business of revenge.
And that’s the long and short of it, really — in “Dark Genesis” we have a bare bones Silver Age horror comic, an on-the-rails story that could pass for a one-and-done entry from EC’s Tales From The Crypt. Swamp Thing’s many complications and evolutions would come later, and it is a testament to the solid foundation laid down by Wrightston and Wein that this most basic muck monster is still surprising and delighting us forty years later. I personally revere Alan Moore’s 1980s reinvention of this character, but there’s also room in my collection for this simpler version of Swamp Thing, an effective and eminently memorable character in its own right. You won’t find this 20-cent comic in dollar boxes any longer, but affordable reprints are readily available, should you wish to familiarize yourself with the original adventures of this greatest of the swamp monsters! (A digital version of the story was also available for free direct from DC Comics at the time of this writing).
(And if you want even more Swamp Thing, check out my review of the rest of the series, here!)
This article originally appeared at StashMyComics.com.
NEXT MONTH: #153 First Cut
Posted on October 7, 2015, in The Dollar Box and tagged Bernie Wrightson, DC Comics, Len Wein, Swamp Thing. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.
It’s amazing how well the early Swamp Thing stuff still stands up. The Alan Moore/Bissette/Totleben run gets most of the attention, but the Wein/Wrightson stuff is just as good in its own way. Same with the Rick Veitch as writer stuff that follows Moore’s run.
I first came to Swamp Thing during Alan Moore’s run (which might remain my favorite comic run of all time). It was only years later that I went back to the originals and came to love them, as well.
I thought Nestor Redondo’s art was pretty phenomenal, and Tom Yeates did a great job on the art too with Martin Pasko writing. Those issues had some ups and downs in story, but I was always captivated by the detailed artwork those guys brought to every issue. And there were more than a few moments of horror, which is not easy in a format like comics. I wonder how much Moore et al were inspired by their predecessors.
It seems to me that Alan Moore paid close attention to continuity … before going off in a direction no one would expect. His “Anatomy Lesson” remains the greatest reinvention I’ve found in comics. It preserves the core of Swamp Thing, honors the past of the character, and opens up entirely new dimensions for the book.
Berni Wrightson left Swamp Thing at exactly the right time.
Totally agree with everything you say about his work on the series, Paul, but I’d add that quitting while he was ahead – before hitting monster of the month territory – was a part of what gave his work such impact. The “long and short of it” indeed.
Agree with Anonymous about the amazing Nestor Redondo, but the limitations of the original ST concept were already working against him. Its easy to forget how innovative Moore’s early stories actually were, and how much they opened the series up.
It took a crazy outsider like Moore to see something new in this character, but he had a genius for reinvention. I’ve never cared much for his original characters, but his pastiches and (especially) his brief time offering new takes on DC characters are generally very special.
It’s a real shame Moore & DC went splits — there are dozens of characters in the DC stable that I’d love to see Moore take on.
But I wonder if it was ever really on the cards even if Moore had stayed at DC, Paul – his reinventions really put characters through the mangle and use them up, which doesn’t sit easily with an ongoing continuity. After all, DC vetoed use of the Charlton characters and balked at the Twilight proposal.
Mind you, I think Moore works better with less restriction anyway (I have a hard time imagining a Charlton series being quite as great as Watchmen) and love the later stuff too, so we have a difference of opinion there.
But we could probably agree about wishing for more of his take on Marvel? People forget he worked for them first (sort of). Back in the Captain Britain days, apparently he was mad keen to work on the FF.
A Moore FF run – that would really have been something…
Moore’s work often felt apocalyptic, like every book he wrote was the last book ever written … but he could color inside the lines, too. His Swamp Thing run turned everything inside-out, but it ends with Swampy and Abigale walking into the sunset, all nicely set up for the next creator to go whatever direction they wished. I have to think continuity issues could be ironed out with Moore, and even if they couldn’t, DC already had a publishing lineup that accommodated Elseworlds and Dark Knights and other “imaginary story” formats.
It’s just such a loss that he didn’t do more with the Big 2 characters.
And, oh yes, his Fantastic Four would have been quite something.
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