When Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson conceived of Swamp Thing in 1971, they probably had little inkling that the character would become a cultural icon. Originally created to appear in a short story in House of Secrets #92, Swamp Thing offered a heartwrenching story about a scientist who, betrayed by his partner, escaped death and was transformed into a shambling, muck-encrusted mockery of man. The story was in part inspired by The Heap, a golden age muck monster, and by recent romantic woes that both creators were going through. It didn’t take long for DC to comission an ongoing series which saw the turn of the century character reinvisioned for modern day.
This new Swamp Thing turned Alex Olsen into Alec Holland and introduced such memorable characters as Anton Arcane, Swamp Thing’s eternal foil, Arcane’s niece Abigail and federal agent Matt Cable. This supporting cast, along with a few additions here and there, carried the book for 24 issues and have become as intrinsically linked to Swamp Thing as Lois Lane is to Superman. However, as so often happens, the original creative team of Wein and Wrightson left the book after thirteen issues and while it carried on, it never quite recovered or showed the brilliance of it’s early issues.
Fast forward to 1982, when Wes Craven directed a Swamp Thing feature film. Hoping to capitalize on the movie, DC got the ball rolling with a new series written by Martin Pasko. After a year and a half of writing the book, Pasko’s other commitments forced him to give up the title, which fell into the hands of a British writer named Alan Moore. And the rest, as they say, is history.
With “The Anatomy Lesson”, Alan Moore showed us that Alec Holland wasn’t actually a man transformed into a monster. In fact, Swamp Thing had never been human at all; he was a walking mass of vegetation with the knowledge and thought patterns of a dead man. Disconnected from his humanity, Swamp Thing eventually found that he was the latest in a long line of Plant Elementals, a community of creatures born in flames and created to safeguard earth. He discovered The Green, a spiritual community that exists between all plant life, and The Parliament of Trees, which was made up of former Swamp Things who had taken root after serving their time as Plant Elementals.
In doing this, Alan Moore accomplished several things. He perfected the art of the retcon, completely recreating a character from the ground up while denying none of the established continuity that had been laid down by previous Swamp Thing writers. He approached horror comics from a literary point of view for the first time in years and managed to tell a story which encompassed ecological, political and spiritual stories within the context of a mainstream DC comic book. Swamp Thing became the first mainstream comic to completely abandon the Comics Code Authority and write for adults and paved the way for the entire Vertigo line.
He also wrote one hell of a great comic. Together with John Totleben and Steve Bissette, Alan Moore crafted one of the finest works in his illustrious career, a run that stands the test of time with mindblowing concepts and storytelling. Comicscape will gladly put Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing up against anything the creator has done before or since and for that matter, we’ll put it up against any comic being published today. It’s just that good.
Of course, when something is that good, whatever follows it up is bound to be judged rather harshly. After all, where can you go once your protagonist stands revealed as an avatar of the earth itself with the abilities of a god? It’s kind of hard for the next guy to come in and write a story where Swamp Thing fights a werewolf.
Rick Veitch continued along a similar path as Moore before leaving the title in a highly publicized dispute with DC editorial. Horror writer Nancy A. Collins overhauled the book, restoring it to it’s pre-Moore roots followed by Grant Morrison and Mark Millar who just sort of fumbled the ball. Brian K. Vaughn’s run on the series focused on Tefé Holland, the daughter of Swamp Thing, and a later revival… well, we’re not even sure what that was about. We certainly weren’t reading it. The point is that these revivals, even the ones met with positive reviews, never lasted particularly long and certainly did not manage to capture the public’s attention like the Wein/Wrightson or Moore eras. Furthermore, there just doesn’t seem to be much more that can be done with ol’ Alec Holland. He’s a swamp god… now what?!?
Perhaps more than any other character, Swamp Thing lends himself to the idea of a complete overhaul. In just his second appearance ever, the character was completely reimagined. It’s been firmly established that being a plant elemental and protector of The Green is something that is passed on when a Swamp Thing chooses to take root. Just like Swamp Thing did during Moore’s run, it may be time for readers to accept the fact that Alec Holland is dead, make our peace with it and move on. Break free from the baggage of the past and stop trying to continue the story; just start over with a brand new cast of characters.
Of course, one then runs the risk of simply retreading hallowed ground and telling a story which we know the ending to, even if it does feature a different lead. So maybe the best idea is to reintroduce Swamp Thing to the DCU proper? DC’s been making a push toward some more magic based characters (Zatanna, Dr. Fate) … maybe Swamp Thing should be next on the list? After all these years of Vertigo exclusivity, who wouldn’t love to see Swamp Thing team up with Batman again? Or Superman? Hell, we’d settle for a Captain Carrot team-up just to see Swampy in the DCU again! Or could the best option be to take a Tales From the Crypt route? Have Swamp Thing play a Crypt Keeper-esque role in a new horror anthology series, simply introducing a story, maybe narrating a few and cracking a joke at the end?
Hey, Comicscape doesn’t claim to have all the answers; we just know how to point out the problems. All we know is, we want more Swamp Thing and we want it now!