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.
So why Swamp Thing exactly?
3.2: Dark Genesis
— Danny Horn