I’ve already afforded Swamp Thing a place of honor in my Top Ten DC Characters list, but the full Bernie Wrightson/Len Wein run on this book merits a column of its own. It seems like Swamp Thing has been with us forever … and he’s going on four decades of funny book adventures … but that such a seemingly shallow and exploitative character is still a vital part of the comic book landscape speaks to the inherent quality and intrigue of the creation. Swamp Thing wasn’t comicdom’s first significant swamp monster (that would be The Heap), and he didn’t even beat Marvel’s Man-Thing into print, but Swamp Thing is unquestionably the best of the muck monsters, and I think one of the more underrated characters in comics.
Much of Swamp Thing’s present appeal owes to his many reinventions, first by Alan Moore in the 1980s, in what is arguably the finest run of comics of all time, but more recently from creators like Grant Morrison, Brian K. Vaughn, and even Scott Snyder in Swamp Thing’s “New 52” book. But at the root of all these reinventions are the original issues of Swamp Thing, by co-creators Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson. These worthy tales provide a foundation for a character still vital nearly half-a-century later, and they remain greatly entertaining comics in their own right. Not bad for a shambling mockery of a man in mud monster form!
I enthuse at length about Swamp Thing’s origin issue in my Dollar Box column, so I won’t repeat myself here, aside from noting that Swamp Thing #1 is a top origin issue, creepy and entertaining as a stand-alone story while still delivering all the meat-and-potatoes expected of an origin tale. Swamp Thing’s genesis is iconic and likely familiar to all readers by now — the story of scientist Doctor Alec Holland, set afire by a bomb while working on his “bio-restorative” formula in a remote swampland laboratory, the poor devil plunging into the swamp to put out the flames only to rise later as the monstrous Swamp Thing.
Later creators would re-spin the tale, with Alan Moore most famously turning the whole thing inside-out in “Anatomy Lesson,” but when Swamp Thing debuted in his own book in 1972, the origin was on-the-nose — yep, that was poor Doctor Holland trapped in that muck-encrusted body, a character purpose-built to be a misunderstood monster, with a human soul yearning to reverse its hideous physical transformation.
well before Alan Moore, Wein & Wrightson did an “anatomy lesson” of their own
That straight-ahead story style continues in the following three issues of Swamp Thing I review here, but this isn’t intended as a criticism. Rather I see it as a case of clear and deliberate storytelling, standing apart from other, more embroidered Silver Age tales in that it is so bare bones. These stories are simple and they recycle monster movie tropes but they do it so well that everything old seems new again.
I’ve seen this tale many times before, but with Wein & Wrightson I’m happy to see it again
Much of this is down to Bernie Wrightson’s tremendous artwork, but before I spin off in rhapsodic praise for the pencils I want to offer a few words for Len Wein’s scripting. Wein is easy to marginalize in any team that includes Bernie Wrightson but the exhaustive ten or fifteen minutes I spent on Wikipedia doing background for this piece indicates Swamp Thing emerged from a close collaboration between Wein and Wrightson. While it is difficult to extract at this late date who did what, exactly, we can look at Wrightson’s post-Swamp Thing work and see that he definitely benefited from his partnership with Wein. For the most part, Wein’s scripts are content to set the scene and establish tone and then let Bernie do what he does best, but in this it is possible to laud a writer for restraint, and also to recognize a case where a comics author contributes so perfectly to a piece of visual storytelling. I’m not the kind of comics fan who thinks pages must be swarming with clever word balloons to feel a comics writer has done his job; quite the opposite, in fact, and Wein’s work on Swamp Thing is this better sort of comics scripting, hand-in-glove with Wrightson’s art, fully a part of the piece and better for leaving unsaid what those Wrightson images so clearly communicate.
Ah, and those images! Wrightson’s art is as startling today as it was all those years ago, a beautiful blend of horrific character designs, expressive faces, perfectly-composed set pieces, and rock-solid storytelling. Greatly benefiting from silky Joe Orlando inks, Wrightson’s pencils transport us to all the gothic locales you’d expect of a 1970s horror book — murky swamps, creepy European castles, fog-bound Scottish moors — they’re all here, they’re all exactly what you’d expect, and they’re all jaw-droppingly wonderful.
For the most part, Wrightson breaks little new ground here, though I was was taken with the weird designs of Arcane’s Un-Men, particularly that talking hand mastermind …
… but it isn’t invention but reinvention that’s the point. I loved seeing Swamp Thing face off against Frankenstein’s monster, and the Werewolf too, and it didn’t matter to me that they were monsters by some-other-name. Copyrights be damned — Swamp Thing is a kick-ass monster and I want to see him fight other kick-ass monsters! Frankenstein vs. The Wolf Man can never compare with Bride of Frankenstein, but in his heart of hearts you know which one a twelve-year-old prefers.
It’s not all central casting monsters, either. Wein wrings some pathos out of the reveal of which brain resides in that Frankenstein form (and how he got there, too), and there’s even a bit of emotion in the Werewolf’s inevitable demise, a doomed child more than ready to move on but held on this mortal plane by parents all too unwilling to let go of their little boy, however murderous he has become. Wein’s around-the-gothic-world in eighty pages plotting does require some leaps of logic — the pontoon plane at the center of Swamp Thing’s transports does not withstand close consideration, unless we want to believe that hand-for-a-head Un-Man was somehow at the controls — but these are forgivable sins in service of a fast-moving and delightful plot, no more jarring than Indiana Jones hanging on the periscope of that Nazi sub for a thousand nautical miles. In a world filled with swamp monsters and a body-hopping arch nemesis such things can’t rightly be called ridiculous.
And by keeping the tale moving along and refusing to apologize for or dwell on its inconsistencies, we have that much more room for the main events, the monster versus monster fighting, the pathos of the twisted human souls stuck in those monstrous forms, and the minimal but emerging subplot of the human characters who misunderstand Swamp Thing, and are doomed to hound him to the earth’s end (among whom is Abigail Arcane, introduced in the second issue as a not-quite-damsel in distress, who will loom large as one of the most complete female characters in comics under Alan Moore’s eventual tutelage).
Abigail Arcane, in black & white (boots and hair!)
There was an era when superhero books weren’t afraid to be superhero books, with big-shouldered muscleheads striking wide stances and smashing each other through the sides of skyscrapers — and this is a monster book in the same vein, full of crazy Dutch angles and reaching shadows, and contriving to hang Swamp Thing on a cross in a cart because, well, it’s just looks so damn cool.
This whole run is like that … you can ignore the words and appreciate the art, or you can delve into the narrative and enjoy the whole package even more. Plus there are some places where words-and-pictures come together in ways that the comic form does best, as when Swamp Thing surrenders his recovered humanity to thwart the evil designs of Arcane …
… or when our hero tumbles down into the roots of Arcane’s castle.
However you slice it, this is a superior comics run, and I’m affording it a top grade, dented only slightly by a very minimal lack of originality, and that tiny bit of storytelling slight-of-hand that catapults Swamp Thing back and forth across continents on the wing of a pontoon plane, in service of a location-driven plot. Even then, I am picking nits — this is a series to be cherished and enjoyed.
So why am I restricting my review to four issues? That’s all the reprints I have! I am now on the lookout for the remaining six issues of Wein and Wrightson’s run, but perhaps a more seasoned hand can tell me if I should bother. Like the Silver Surfer, does this original Swamp Thing series peak in its forth issue, going into a painful decline, or do the remaining issues build on this very strong start? Let me know your opinion, in the comments section below!
Either way, I remain tremendously impressed with Wein & Wrightson’s Swamp Thing. Long may he shamble!
- Title: Swamp Thing
- Published By: DC Comics, 1972-1976
- Issues Reviewed: #1-4, November 1972-May 1973
- LBG Letter Grade For This Issue: A-minus
- Own The Reprints: DC Special Series
Originally published as Longbox Graveyard #81, January 2013.
TOMORROW: Marvel Value Stamps!
My Last Days of Superman article from earlier this year has generously been reprinted at Sequart, as part of their Superman Week coverage.
I’m flattered to be reprinted by a highbrow outfit like Sequart. Please mouse on over there to read my article, and check out the site if you’ve never seen it before. Their mission is to “advance comics as art,” which is something we can all agree is a good thing.
- Superman Gallery (longboxgraveyard.com)
- Revenue of the Superman Industry Through the Ages Compared in a New Infographic by FinancesOnline.com (prweb.com)
- A Visual History of Superman’s Signature ‘S’ (geektyrant.com)
- Superman or Batman? (nerdintherealworld.wordpress.com)
- Why The World Still Needs Superman (biowars.com)
- How Many Supermans Is Too Many? (webnerhouse.com)
- Super-Weird Facts That You Probably Didn’t Know About Superman (io9.com)
- Man of Steel: The top 20 reasons why Superman is Jesus (metro.co.uk)
- Superman Unchained #1 (comicvine.com)
- Yeah, Sure, What We Need Now Is Another Stupid Film About Superman (stirringtrouble.wordpress.com)
Superman might be the world’s most popular superhero. He’s also among the most difficult to write. Through the years we’ve seen Superman travel through time, endure the heat of the sun, and perform so many feats of strength, speed, and stamina that every other superhero on earth seems superfluous.
Superman is a paragon — ageless, invulnerable, always a jump ahead. Even Kryptonite — one of Superman’s few vulnerabilities — eventually proved powerless over the Man of Steel.
With his secret identity as Clark Kent so carefully guarded, it is difficult to strike at Superman through the people he holds dear (though Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen have been threatened by more than their share of supervillians and runaway robots in their day). Being such an ultimate superhero with so few weaknesses it’s only natural that creators should desire to pit Superman against the one great villain that gets us all, in the end — death.
Superman has died several times. Most famous may have been 1992’s “Death of Superman” arc, where Supes met his demise at the hands of the killing machine called Doomsday.
Superman would return, of course, bigger and stronger than ever, and it was never a case of “if,” but “when.” A character like Superman could never die “for reals” — he’s too valuable a property. Only an “imaginary story” could kill off Superman, and make it stick. Two of the biggest names in comics got their chance to tell just such a story. Alan Moore told the death of Superman in 1986 in the two-part, “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?” while Grant Morrison gave us his take two decades later in the twelve-part series, All-Star Superman.
With both Superman and Action comics wrapping of their runs in 1986 prior to John Byrne’s post-Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot of the Man of Steel, DC tasked Alan Moore with writing a coda for the Silver Age Superman. Alan Moore was the greatest comics writer of his generation, but he had to be handled with care — he seemed to write every comic story as if it were the last tale ever written. His stories were inventive and ferociously imaginative, but they also left their characters turned inside-out, with little left for the creative teams that followed. Moore’s best-known work at DC — Watchmen — was partitioned in a universe all its own, where it could do no lasting harm to DC’s heroes. Moore’s brilliant Saga of the Swamp Thing altered that character for all time, but few readers really cared about Swamp Thing before Moore got to him. Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke put Barbara Gordan (Batgirl) in a wheelchair for a quarter-century.
So we might have expected Superman’s crucifixion when DC tossed Alan Moore the keys to the Fortress of Solitude, but his two-part story from Superman #423 and Action #583 is more prosaic than apocalyptic. At least, it looks prosaic. Illustrated by classic Superman artist Curt Swan, these issues look just like any number of Superman books from the 1960s or 70s … but there’s something twisted and dark going on beneath those Silver Age surface impressions. Like a David Lynch movie, there is dysfunction behind the happy-looking facade, which begins to crack when Superman’s goofiest foes — characters like Bizarro, Toyman, and the Prankster — turn uncharacteristically homicidal. In penning this tale of the end of the Silver Age, Moore takes his brief literally, bringing down the curtain not only on Superman, but on an entire era of four-colored adventure when the good guys always triumphed and evil contented themselves with silly conspiracies that attacked Superman’s dignity but rarely left a mark. Bizarro’s suicide at the onset of this story heralds that things have changed, the stakes have been raised, and neither Superman nor the people around him will ever know peace again. Worse yet, there may be nothing that Superman can do about it.
All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly (with spectacular digital colors by Jamie Grant) was conceived as one of a series of stand-alone, out-of-continuity stories intended to reinvent DC’s biggest heroes. All-Star Superman was the only project that reached full fruition — the controversial All-Star Batman & Robin The Boy Wonder remains incomplete after nine issues (and I may be alone in liking this series), while Adam Hughes’ All-Star Wonder Woman remains one of the great “lost” comics of recent years. Only All-Star Superman went the distance, in twelve high-quality installments readily available in trade editions (volumes one, and two), collecting an Eisner Award for “Best New Series” in 2006 and even being adapted into a not-half-bad animated feature film in 2011.
Unlike Alan Moore’s tale, All-Star Superman wears it’s weirdness on the outside. Falling prey to the machinations of Lex Luthor, Superman suffers a fatal overdose of solar radiation which substantially increases his powers while also slowly killing him from the inside. Knowing he has only a short time to live, Superman races to make up for lost time, revealing his secret identity to Lois Lane, and embarking on a series of twelve labors to defend the earth and hopefully leave the planet in a position to survive without him. Along the way, Morrison touches on all the homespun elements of the Superman myth — the Kansas farm boy with his flying dog, the unlikely and bumbling Clark Kent deception, the relationship between Superman and his pal, Jimmy Olsen.
But we are through Morrison’s looking glass here, so there’s plenty of strangeness, too, like the exotic creatures and artifacts on display at Superman’s Fortress of Solitude (viewed through the paranoid eyes of a Lois Lane suffering an artificially-induced nervous breakdown), and a 21st-century Jimmy Olsen who trails his own bizarre backstory, characterized as the kind of guy who casually hacks a commercial blimp network to engineer an aerial getaway.
Strangest of all the characters is Superman himself. Solar radiation didn’t just triple his strength — it also tripled his creativity, curiosity, and imagination — manifesting itself in an outburst of scientific experimentation that serves to illuminate Superman’s alien psychology. This series sees Superman concocting potions that award super-powers for twenty-four hours, creating miniature suns on a “Cosmic Anvil” to feed his pet “Sun Eater,” and using his x-ray vision to copy down his eight billion letter genome sequence into a book.
With twelve issues to tell his tale, Morrison sets out not only to show the death of Superman, but also to clarify his life as an alien exile of a lost and impossibly advanced culture. When Lex Luthor inherits Superman’s powers near the end of the story, and sees the world the way Superman sees it — across the entire electromagnetic spectrum — Luthor is humbled, and we realize in a moment how god-like and unusual Superman is even when compared to the world’s greatest (albeit evil) human intellect.
Moore is less concerned with Superman’s interior life — he has two issues to tell his story, and he fills them to the brim with the kind of funky Silver Age continuity that he so loved. In a subversive sort of way, Moore revels in all the little details that DC was so determined to clean-up and ret-con back in the 1980s, binging on robot monsters, time-traveling teenage Legionaries, flying dogs in capes, and superpowers for Jimmy Olsen and Lana Lang like a condemned man ordering his last meal. But there’s an undercurrent of darkness in all these appearances — Supergirl is bundled back to the future with her Legionnaire pals before she realizes she is dead in Superman’s era; Jimmy and Lana are killed by the Legion of Supervillains (who have traveled through time to witness Superman’s demise); even poor Krypto bites the dust after absorbing a fatal dose of radiation from the Kryptonite Man. Moore isn’t out just to kill off Superman — he has the innocence of the entire Silver Age of comics in his sites.
Moore tells a fast-paced and fun story (in a grim sort of way) but we don’t learn a lot about Superman, or see him meaningfully change in the crucible of his last days. Instead, Superman remains Superman, largely stoic as the people he loves are taken from him, even to the point of (seemingly) taking his own life in a chamber of gold Kryptonite, punishing himself for breaking his own code against killing after ending the murderous rampage of Mr. Mxyzptlk by tearing him in half with a Phantom Zone ray. But Moore stops short of total despair with a postscript that shows Superman is still alive, years later, married to his love in Lois Lane and father to a son with superpowers. Now living a boring human life, Superman is dismissive of his former identity, saying that Superman was too wrapped up in himself, and overrated, and wrong in his belief that the world couldn’t do without him.
There’s still a bit of sting in this ending (poor Lana and Jimmy and Krypto are still dead, after all), but Moore can be forgiven for wanting it both ways. He kicked for the nuts in these two issues, but this was a send-off for Superman, and even Alan Moore couldn’t bring himself to dance on the grave of the world’s greatest superhero. Moore also telegraphed his conclusion in the first words of his story, telling us it would end with a wink, and reminding the reader that this was an imaginary story (and “Aren’t they all?”)
Morrison’s tale, being part of a longer-form continuity all its own, feels the more consequential story. While Moore’s tale is told at a frenetic pace, Morrison and Quietly can indulge in strong action set-pieces that also serve to show how Superman might have squandered his powers were he a less noble character — his battle with the time-traveling Samson and Atlas show us how the world would suffer from Superman as a sophomoric meathead, while his later battle with Kryptonians who have remade the earth in their own image shows how Superman may have been a tyrant, had he so desired. Mostly, though, we see Superman as selfless, working to his last hour to save the earth and ultimately giving his life to save earth’s sun, achieving apotheosis as a literal sun god (a fitting end, given that Morrison views Superman as a sun god figure, as revealed in his book, Supergods).
Selfless as he is, Morrison’s Superman is also selfish, or at least self-centered. He reveals his identity to Lois Lane, and treats her to a romantic, superpowered birthday, but then kind of hangs her out to try — obsessed as he is with saving the world — refusing to commit to a deeper relationship because their biology is incompatible, and they could never have children. Children aren’t the only reason people come together — would it have killed Superman to marry the girl? — but maybe here we see more of Superman’s alien psychology, a hint that a great gulf separates Superman even from the human that he loves most of all. Interestingly, Moore’s Superman is equivalently foolish when it comes to love, revealing that he could never have a life with Lois because he was afraid to break Lana’s heart. Maybe Superman’s greatest enemy isn’t death so much as it is romantic relationships!
In All-Star Superman and “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow” we have two entertaining comic book masterworks, by some of the most talented men in comics, both telling us their imaginary-but-not-really story of how Superman died. Both give us final and revisionist looks at the Superman mythos, and each story addresses Clark Kent’s relationship with the people he loves, and his enmities with the evil beings who have sought to destroy him.
Morrison’s tale tells us that the way Superman died was not so important as they way he lived, and he shows us how we never fully appreciated Superman while he was with us — and likely could never really understand him, owing to his alien psychology. Moore’s story is less interested in killing Superman than it is in killing the myth of the Silver Age of comics — a kind of prophetic, be-careful-what-you-wish-for warning from an author who saw more clearly than most that retroactively cleaning up the DC Universe through the contrivance of the Crisis on Infinite Earths would not serve to strengthen a great mythology so much as diminish it.
Neither tale is especially satisfying as a “death of Superman” story, but maybe a Superman death story is impossible. Moore’s Superman is unkillable because he is a figure of nostalgia, and even though Moore puts paid to the Silver Age in “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?” that nostalgia has only grown larger in this era of endless THIS-time-we’ll-get-it-right reboots of comics and superhero movies. Morrison’s Superman is just as impossible to kill, as Morrison makes Superman a figure of myth, setting him to twelve labors before turning him into a god of the sun, positioning Superman’s demise not as a death so much as a transformation into a benign and functionally immortal presence that remains ever apart from a mankind that could never truly claim him as their own.
In both stories the world seems able to carry on after Superman, the “last days of Superman” proving to be a new beginning — of the modern and less soulful era after the Silver Age of comics for Moore, and of an era where Morrison leaves mankind to puzzle out the mystery of Superman’s transfiguration, and to follow him if they can. Whether Superman brought superpowered chaos upon himself and upon the world through his mere existence is beyond the scope of these tales, but in every other area, these stores grapple with big ideas — setting out to tell the death of Superman, they instead affirm his immortality. In writing these death tales, Morrison and Moore show us that while you can kill a man, you can’t kill an idea, whether it be the wistful memory of a bygone era or the legendary tale of a hero who died for the greater good.
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #90 Red Sonja