… The Saga of the Swamp Thing! (1982)
After wandering in the alphabet wilderness these past several days, we are back at last to some hard choices. The letter, “S” might as well be for “slaughterhouse” when you look at the good books that I have to step over to select Saga of the Swamp Thing.
Hard choices, here, but I am content. Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing added decades to my life as a comics reader and fan. If Moore hadn’t turned my head inside-out with “Anatomy Lesson” I might well have drifted away from comics for good. Instead, Moore showed how to reinvent a character in a way that reinvigorated not just one series, but an entire publisher. DC was absolutely the place to be in the mid-1980s, and I still wonder how things might have turned out if DC didn’t run Alan Moore out of town, and conclude from the success of The Dark Knight Returns that every damn book should be grim and gritty.
But I digress.
Swamp Thing is special enough that he makes this list twice, both in the form of Moore’s paradigm-shifting interpretation, and in the original Lein and Wrightson version listed in my long roll call of honorable mentions, below. Which “S” title is your favorite! Let me know!
- The Savage Sword of Conan (1974)
- Silver Surfer (1968)
- Son of Satan (1975)
- Squadron Supreme (1985)
- Star Wars (1977)
- Strange Tales (1951)
- Super-Villain Team-Up (1975)
- Sensation Comics (1942)
- Starfire (1976)
- Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes (1977)
- Superman (1939)
- Swamp Thing (1972)
- The Spirit (1940)
- Saga (2012)
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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
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