Swamp Thing 3.1: The Birth of Modern Comics, But Not Yet

We’re not in the North Pole, anymore. The scene has shifted from Superman’s pristine frozen hideaway in the Arctic, as we travel all the way south to the humid marshlands of Louisiana. The noonday sun hangs heavy in the cypress trees, and the air is alive with the susurration of insects, birds and reptilian mire dwellers going about their business, the sounds and smells of an endless tangled web of life, death and decay.

Slowly, from where you least expect it, a muck-encrusted mockery of a movie rises from the blog, a misshapen and misunderstood monstrosity that can only be called… Swamp Thing!

It is an ugly creature, unsteady and unkempt, but when you look into its eyes, you see the spark of intelligence and ambition buried within. It is strange, and it is alive, and it is the most important superhero movie ever made.

This might seem like a startling contrast, moving from the familiar skies of Metropolis to the murky depths of the bayou, and you might even wonder why Swamp Thing is a superhero movie at all.

On the outside, at least, they seem to have nothing in common. Superman soars through the heavens like a god; Swamp Thing emerges from beneath the muddy water. Superman is primary colors and bold clean lines; Swamp Thing is moss and foliage and a million messy miracles. Superman is admired; Swamp Thing is pitied.

But under the surface, Swamp Thing and Superman are pretty much the same movie. They begin with scenes of a loving relationship based around baffling movie science, which leads to a tragic burst of explosive energy that sends our hero tumbling out into the void — losing his home and his family, and becoming something new.

The hero rises, invested with strange superhuman strength and invulnerability, plus at least one extra power that the comic book never mentioned. He has a romantic connection with a human woman, which can never be fully consummated. He fights a ruthless, sociopathic genius who uses technical know-how to make a doomed grab for earthly power. There’s even a scene where the villain sacrifices his fat henchman. Really, the only difference between them is that Superman is a good movie, and Swamp Thing sucks.

Okay, maybe that’s going too far. I’ve recently done podcasts on The Fantastic Four and The New Mutants, which are aggressively bad movies that will actively ruin your week. The badness of Swamp Thing is not on that level. Swamp Thing is a flawed movie with many entertaining deficiencies, which we will spend the next little while together laughing at and learning from.

But what is he, this Swamp Thing, and what rock did he ooze out from under?

Well, as with all worthwhile cultural artifacts, Swamp Thing started out as something different, and then fell backwards into what it became. The first Swamp Thing tale was published in July 1971, as a one-shot eight-page story in issue #92 of the DC Comics mystery-horror anthology, The House of Secrets. It was written by Len Wein, a prolific comics writer who wrote for just about every type of comic book that existed at the time, and drawn by Bernie Wrightson, who mostly focused on horror comics.

“Swamp Thing” is a tragic love story about a scientist named Alex Olsen who’s murdered by his best friend Damian, because Damian covets Alex’s beautiful wife, Linda. Damian arranges for an explosion in Alex’s laboratory, and then buries his body in a nearby swamp. Damian marries Linda — and then Alex returns to life somehow as a sad-sack swamp creature, to take his terrible revenge.

On the night that the story takes place, Damian decides that Linda is close to figuring out that he killed Alex, so he plans to kill her with a hypodermic needle. At the crucial moment, the shaggy, sweaty creature that used to be Alex smashes through the window to murder his rival, and save his beloved wife.

Once Damian is finished, Alex longs to tell the terrified Linda that he loves her and wants to take care of her, but he can’t, because he’s an angry, slimy corpse monster who just murdered her husband.

The story ends with some lovely melodramatic internal monster monologue, as he trudges back to the swamp:

Only the swamp is kind to me now — it is only the swamp that cares — I look down at my wrist — and the barren place where once there was a golden bracelet — and I wonder where it is…

— If tears could come — they would!

So obviously that’s the basis for a long-running superhero comic, which gets adapted into an exciting feature film.

That may sound implausible, but it was a really good story — especially by anthology horror-comic standards, which were not high — and it made a big impression on the readers. According to the book Swampmen: Muck-Monsters and Their Makers:

“The book [House of Secrets #91] sold like a son-of-a-bitch,” Wein said. “I know this because I was told that fact by everybody, by [future DC publisher] Paul Levitz later on, as well as all kinds of people at the time. It outsold Superman that month. [Then-publisher] Carmine’s immediate response after seeing the sales figures was, ‘I want us to do an ongoing book. It’s a big hit, so let’s do a continuing title.'”

It took Wein about a year to figure out how to take this one-and-done story with two surviving characters who don’t like each other and turn it into an ongoing series. The key was to forget the original story and start over again, with more characters and a larger canvas.

In the new version, Alex Olsen became Dr. Alec Holland, who’s working with his wife Linda on a magical “bio-restorative formula” that will feed the world by stimulating explosive plant growth. This is a top-secret project, so the US government sets up the Hollands in a remote laboratory in the Louisiana swamps, where they can work without being noticed.

The Hollands are being minded by Lt. Matt Cable, a government agent assigned to protect them, and unfortunately, he’s really not very good at protecting people. Some rough-looking gangster types come by and tell Alec that there’s a “private organization” that wants his formula or else, and when Alec tells Cable about it, he advises them to keep the door locked.

The movie actually follows this first issue pretty closely, with a few important differences. The film has a “Beauty and the Beast” love story between Alec and Lt. Cable, so Cable is female in the movie, and Linda becomes Alec’s sister. The other big difference is the villain, Arcane, who’s a mixture of a couple characters from the early comics: black-magic wizard Anton Arcane, and a shadowy businessman called Mr. E.

But the broad strokes are the same: the bad guys set off a bomb, which sets Alec on fire and sends him hurtling into the swamp, where his charred corpse mixes with the bio-restorative formula, and he returns as a big angry swamp creature to take his revenge.

He kills the thugs responsible for his and Linda’s deaths, and then he’s left at a loose end, wandering the world as an enormous super-strong vegelunatic, wondering if he’ll ever be able to return to human form. Cable thinks that the monster is responsible for the Hollands’ deaths, so he vows to track the creature and bring it to justice, somehow. And that is the setup for this crazy superhero monster comic.

For 24 issues, Swamp Thing wandered the world, finding trouble wherever he went. He battled werewolves and dinosaurs and Lovecraftian nightmares and clockwork robots, and felt sorry for himself at least once an issue, doing two-page monologues on how lonely and hopeless he was, despite the growing cast of friends that followed him around and tried to help him. It was a weird book.

The first set of issues really were extraordinary, and hold up incredibly well, but when the original creators left, the book started to drift. Bernie Wrightson left the comic after issue #10, and Len Wein after #13, and then it bounced around between a couple of different writers until the concept lost steam. They called it quits with issue #24, in September 1976.

And that’s where it would have stayed — a weird, short-lived series from the early 70s with a good early run, which hardly anyone remembered — but then a comics nerd lawyer who was desperate to become a movie producer got the rights to make a Swamp Thing movie.

We’ll get into this story tomorrow, but the short version is that he really wanted to make a comic-book movie, and nobody cared enough about Swamp Thing to stop him. DC didn’t expect that he would actually go through with it, but he did, and he got Wes Craven to write and direct it, and suddenly here’s this weird little rubber-suit monster action-adventure superhero love story, just sitting there being unlikely.

Well, naturally, if somebody’s going to go to the trouble of making a movie about a DC Comics character, then they should probably make some comics to go along with the movie, so DC relaunched the series as The Saga of the Swamp Thing, with a new #1 published in May 1982.

The movie turned out not to be very good, and the new comic wasn’t very good either, and according to all the normal laws of physics, they should have both sunk back into the mire and been forgotten all over again.

But in 1984, a promising new writer from England named Alan Moore signed with DC Comics to write a series. His biggest success up to that point was a strip called Marvelman — retitled Miracleman, when it was reprinted in the US — which took a goofy, old-fashioned Shazam knockoff published in the 1950s and reframed all the old stories as hypnotically-induced hallucinations beamed into the head of a modern-day man who gradually realizes that he actually has all the superpowers that he sees in his dreams. I know that sounds weird if you haven’t read it, but it was basically the first draft of Watchmen, and it’s very good.

So when DC hired Alan Moore, he said that he wanted to take the worst, lowest-selling character that they had, and see if he could make something beautiful out of it, and that was The Saga of the Swamp Thing. Moore took over the book in 1984 with issue #20, and in issue #21 — “The Anatomy Lesson” — he literally dissected the character and put it back together again, completely reframing the character and setting it on an exciting new track.

And that turned out to be the birth of modern comic books. I’m not really going to get into Alan Moore’s work during this chapter of the blog — it’s not immediately relevant until we get to the 1989 sequel, The Return of Swamp Thing, at which point we’ll talk about it a lot. But I’m bringing it up here, because that’s the reason why the 1982 Swamp Thing movie was unintentionally important.

If they hadn’t made the movie, then DC wouldn’t have relaunched the comic in 1982, and it wouldn’t have been there for Alan Moore to reconstruct in 1984. Yeah, he would have done something else instead, but Swamp Thing was especially suited for the kind of transformation that Moore was hoping to write — a character with untapped potential that nobody really cared about, and didn’t have a rich mythology that fans wanted to protect.

If he’d gone to work on Green Lantern or The Flash, there would have been too much fan expectation weighing him down. If he’d started with Atari Force or Arak: Son of Thunder or The Warlord, there wouldn’t have been enough material for him to work with.

Swamp Thing, as created by Wein and Wrightson, was an intriguing character with a solid origin story and some worthwhile history that had been allowed to decay for a few years. That’s the rich soil that Moore needed, in order to grow something thoughtful and literary and utterly gorgeous.

Without Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, we probably wouldn’t have Watchmen, and we definitely wouldn’t have Hellblazer, which grew out of a character Moore created for Swamp Thing. DC wouldn’t have recruited the other “British invasion” writers of the late 80s and early 90s, so that means no Grant Morrison working on Animal Man and Doom Patrol, and no Neil Gaiman writing Sandman and Black Orchid. 

Arguably, without Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing we wouldn’t have intelligent, literary comics at all, and the entire field would be a lot more childish and boring. Sure, it’s possible that somebody else could have taken the same steps forward, but that would require a second genius to show up, and you can wait a long time between geniuses.

And if we didn’t have intelligent, literary comics, then we probably wouldn’t have Buffy the Vampire Slayer or post-1986 Doctor Who, for reasons that I don’t have time to get into right now, and that means that television would suck too. Modern comics and television shows wouldn’t have happened without Alan Moore on Swamp Thing, and that wouldn’t have happened without this weird ridiculous rubber-suit Swamp Thing movie.

So here we are, at the dawn of a new and thrilling chapter in American pop culture: Swamp Thing, the most important superhero movie ever made.

Tomorrow:
So why Swamp Thing exactly?
3.2: Dark Genesis

Chapters

— Danny Horn

30 thoughts on “Swamp Thing 3.1: The Birth of Modern Comics, But Not Yet

  1. We’re not in Kansas anymore either.
    I am predisposed to cut this movie an enormous amount of slack if it is ultimately responsible for John Constantine. His intro is in the only issue of Swamp Thing I ever read.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I have to admit to not having taken the time to spend with enough Alan Moore stories. I’ve read Watchmen and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? — both of which I liked — but everytime I hear about Moore it’s either as hero-worship or that he relies on rape too much. Which are both off-putting for different reasons, so I generally stay away. The spin that he’s responsible for modern genre fiction wasn’t one I was ready to read this morning, but you make some interesting observations. Of course, with all things like this (and as you stated), if it hadn’t been him, it would have been someone else.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to the next weeks of digging into this movie. I’d never seen it until a couple months ago when I watched it in segments on Tubi as I fell asleep over the course of a few nights. My only exposure to Swamp Thing as a kid was the conservation commercials he appeared in where he threw empty cans back into a kid’s boat or something. So, my view on Swamp Thing was that he was this environmental justice warrior; which I liked, but I didn’t know anything about the character from those very short TV spots. For the movie, I was assuming that it would be aggressively awful, but it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. I quite liked the Adrienne Barbeau character, so I’m curious to see in this blog if I was wrong for that.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. You should read Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. I say this with zero hesitation. There is a rape-adjacent plot twist in the first ten issues, but it’s presented as unspeakably horrifying and traumatic, and there’s no rape-fantasy involved. If you’re okay with vampire stories, which are 100% rape-fantasy and often positive about it, then in my opinion Swamp Thing shouldn’t be a problem.

      Liked by 6 people

    2. I watched it this morning. On my phone. I figured not being able to see all the details would not matter based on the comments I read. Sometimes it helps your enjoyment of a movie to have very low expectations of it. It wasn’t that bad. I’m a fan of 1950s Creature Features so that worked in its favor. Plus, it was short. And, mercifully, there were no fake Cajun accents. So, all in all, I have fairly positive feelings about it.

      Liked by 5 people

  3. I was there right at the beginning of the Moore era and it’s no exaggeration to say he is as important to the development of comics as Siegel & Shuster, Lee & Kirby, and Frank Miller. The revolution he (and Miller) set in motion eventually moved in very dark and unpleasant directions but that’s not entirely his fault.

    Liked by 6 people

  4. Huh. I never knew that’s how the timing of it all worked in regards to the movie and starting SAGA. I’ll be curious now to hear how the movie came to be.

    I enjoyed Alan Moore back in the day until he just became too . . . himself. I wasn’t reading SAGA at the time he took over, but within a couple of months everyone was raving about him and I managed to get his first issues before they escalated in cost too much. As a result of the book’s success, a lot of his earlier work began to be reprinted. MARVEL/MIRACLEMAN of course, but also a weird strip he did called MAXWELL THE MAGIC CAT, which I recall liking. It was kinda primitive but fun.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Someday someone will write a biography of Moore that explains how he got turned inside himself after Watchmen. My own theory is that he never got over his disappointment that it was Neil Gaiman, rather than himself, who broke out from comics into the mainstream.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. I remember watching Swamp Thing on the USA Network in the early 1990’s and vaguely enjoying it, but never had any interest in the comic books because it looked like a rip-off (or maybe the other was the rip-off) of a similar Marvel comic title.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Yup. Which led to probably the most infamous comic-book title ever–GIANT-SIZE MAN-THING. Ah, the ’70s just keep giving.

        Liked by 6 people

      2. The seventies were a great time to be a kid. All this total weirdness that you could only fully grasp when you were just a tiiiny bit older. Of course, I own it.

        Liked by 5 people

    1. Wow, yeah. It’s close.

      Marvel’s Man-Thing first appeared in Savage Tales #1 which was on sale at newsstands on January 19, 1971.

      http://www.mikesamazingworld.com/mikes/features/comic.php?comicid=57770

      DC’s Swamp Thing first appeared in House of Secrets #92 which was available to buy on April 1, 1971.

      http://www.mikesamazingworld.com/mikes/features/comic.php?comicid=15948

      I don’t know what production time for comics was back then, but that’s a pretty short window for Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson to rip off Stan Lee and Gray Morrow.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Thing is, in 1971 Man-Thing and the original Swamp Thing had different origins and settings.

        When the new Alec Holland Swamp Thing debuted in 1972, they gave him pretty much the same origin that Marvel had used the previous year.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Let’s get this out of the way: I’m mainly a Marvel fan. There have always been rumors that Man-Thing was a ripoff of Swamp Thing. The truth, as always, is more complicated.

    Here’s an article that covers most of the threads. tl;dr Both monsters draw on a 1940s monster called The Heap and possibly a 1968 movie called Curse of the Swamp Creature. A more direct cross-pollination may be because Len Wein was rooming with Gerry Conway (who wrote the first Man-Thing story) at the time.

    There was a direct-to-Syfy movie about Man-Thing in 2005, notable only for the appearance of Alex O’Loughlin. Trivia: it includes characters named for Steve Gerber, Val Mayerik, and Mike Ploog, who all worked on the title at some point.

    Liked by 5 people

  7. Very much looking forward to this sojourn to the swamps!

    I was a big fan of Moore’s take on the character, and was a loyal Vertigo reader, back in the day. All the books were great, all of them strange and using horror tropes fondly and respectfully—but Sandman was the best. It was great that Gaiman took all these characters from the old horror anthology mags, like House of Secrets and House of Mystery (Abel and Cain, respectively) and gave them a sort of life again, even if they were more backup characters. There was even a comic called Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love—which was a straight up grab for the Dark Shadows market with its focus on horror and romance—that eventually became another horror mag, losing the ‘of Forbidden Love’ part of the title to get straight to the spooky stuff.

    The movie itself is another one of those HBO or USA Networks types of beast—it showed up regularly enough on cable, which meant that if you were a kid or a teen, you were going to see it at some point, just like TNT and Clash of the Titans, and then you were going to see it over and over again for no good reason other than ‘it’s the only thing on’, and at some point it was ‘Good god, will this never cease!’ after which point it became comforting background noise.

    Horror movies and comics were always my true love, so this should probably have been more important to me than, say, Flash Gordon, but alas, even Wes Craven, David Hess, and Nicholas Worth (an exploitation lover’s dream team, really) can’t elevate this much.

    I don’t dislike it, but I don’t love it, either. Baby Leland Palmer in the swamps was a cutie, though.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. I saw this thing a zillion times on Showtime back in the day: it and Beastmaster were always on at some point, leading to my theory that one of them had to be broadcast at all times in order to keep the Elder Gods in their own dimension.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Brilliant intro! Got a big bowl of jambalaya, to enjoy this new voyage of disquisition & discovery. How will Captain Danny pilot us safely through the bayou’s wonders and dangers? Thanks for expanding my vocabulary today with swampy “susurration.”

    I read Miracleman and enjoyed it. I didn’t realize Moore also wrote Swamp Thing. No wonder clever collectors had it. I’m an 80% die-hard fan of what I’ve read by Moore. I could do without the 20% of his work with the gory hyper-violence, cruelty, sexism, and elitism. Definitely not charming, cute little stories for the kiddies any more. No super-knitting here!

    “two-page monologues on how lonely and hopeless he was, despite the growing cast of friends that followed him around and tried to help him.”
    I sure could have related to that as a teenager.

    “That may sound implausible.” That’s not a problem for a comic book story! The problem is inconsistency with the implausible premise, like the Superman II writers. Nobody followed through on all the consequences of an implausible premise, to earnestly weave together all the loose ends of its implications, like Moore. Brilliant of him to take the turnaround strategy. If he can’t make it work, nobody minds because they couldn’t either. If he can make it work, his genius is proven.

    Hope you later can slip in a little more about the Dr. Who connection. I’d like to learn how we get from Moore to Davies and Moffat.

    Is it just coincidence that Micronauts also had a bayou setting?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Hope you later can slip in a little more about the Dr. Who connection. I’d like to learn how we get from Moore to Davies and Moffat.”

      The link wasn’t that direct. It was Andrew Cartmel, script editor for the McCoy years. He gave his new writers a copy of Watchmen to read to show the sort of vibe he wanted. Whether there’s a direct link in style from Cartmel to RTD is debatable, but there’s quite a resurgence in fan-love for 1988-89 Doctor Who.

      Like

      1. Oops- a small correction. It wasn’t Watchmen that Cartmel used to recommend, it was Moore’s “The Ballad of Halo Jones” – the collected editions of the 2000AD strip.

        Like

  9. One of my favorite things Moore did in his run was bring the original House of Secrets #92 story back into continuity when Swamp Thing meets all of the past swamp things (“The Parliament of Trees”! I love comics so much!)

    Liked by 8 people

  10. Siskel & Ebert liked the movie very much, and took pains to make it clear they weren’t recommending it as “so bad it’s good”- they thought it really was, non-ironically, good. They didn’t persuade me to watch it, and THE SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING is so utterly splendid that I can’t imagine really enjoying any presentation of the character other than Moore and Totleben’s. But I suppose, if you stick with it for ten or fifteen posts, I’ll miss participating in the comment section so much that I’ll have to break down and have a look.

    Liked by 4 people

  11. Hello! Just discovered your blog over the weekend, and fell down the rabbit hole reading your entertaining & insightful entries on Superman and Superman II. I’m looking forward to reading your multi-part retrospective of Swamp Thing.

    The funny thing is, when I saw Swamp Thing on HBO in the early 1980s as a kid I had no idea it was based on a comic book. When I subsequently saw some of the issues published by DC Comics I actually thought it was based on the movie, rather than the other way around. Of course within a few years I did learn about the Len Wein & Bernie Wrightson classics from the early 1970s.

    I guess the movie Swamp Thing was fairly faithful to the comic book as it existed in the early 1980s, but post Alan Moore the series definitely became much different, and I’m curious how an adaptation of the character’s Vertigo incarnation might go. Wait, was there a new TV show a couple of years ago? How was that one?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I really liked the recent show. It had a lot of potential, and I was sorry that they only gave it the one season, no doubt due to HBO Max dickery in taking over the DC Universe shows. I was excited by the various DCU characters that they introduced and were setting up. I’m not sure there was a particular Alan Moore feel to it, but it definitely had a more mature outlook. Probably more because of a) the way that storytelling in general has evolved over the past 40 years since this movie, and b) the advantages of even a curtailed TV show over a one-and-done movie.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Ahh, Swamp Thing; with your rich and fetid loam being the soil from which so many dark comic fruits sprang.

    Adrienne Barbeau has a fantastic instinct for being in the right genre films: this, The Fog, Creepshow…she really made a career out of what many actors would think of rent-paying roles.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve heard and read many times that Carpenter sees The Fog as a lesser entry, but I love it. It’s fabulous! Leper pirates bearing down on a sleepy seaside hamlet, seeking revenge? That’s great stuff, and Adrienne Barbeau is tops in it. As is Tom Atkins, who’s always weirdly adorable and appealing as your average good guy everyman. I love that the story’s told on two—three fronts if we include Janet Leigh and Nancy Loomis—and watching those stories fall together at the close. Genuinely creepy and fun.

      “Tell it to call you Billie!” Ah, flaming youth and mom and pop video shops, how I miss you.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Thank you all, Danny and commentators, for giving me the deep history of this character, and expressing some, though not all, of my reservations about Alan Moore. I duly saw the movie on USA in the ’90s, as noted, but had no idea it was anything but a sadly sweet little one-off.

    I look forward to going through it in detail, because since I saw the movie, my main relationship with it has been to burst occasionally, in a deep Rolling-Stones-style voice, into “SWAMP Thing! You make my HEART sing!”

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I’ve read all the Moore issues of Swamp Thing but, apart from that first House of Secrets story, never read any of the pre-Moore stuff.
    When the DC Infinite app becomes available in the UK in a few weeks, I think I would like to sample them.

    What I do recommend is the Steve Gerber run on Man-Thing in the early-mid 70s. It’s a completely different take to any version of Swamp Thing, but is a very intelligent and stimulating read (it also involves the origin of Howard the Duck).

    Like

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