This month at Longbox Graveyard is all about 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!)
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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.
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… 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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