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SWAMP THING

DC relaunches Swamp Thing with a new direction...and a new lead character.

By Rich Handley     July 05, 2000

What's old is new again. Vertigo, DC Comics' adult imprint, is offering a different spin on some of its oldest titles, and it's looking to the Louisiana swamps to do it. Since its January 1993 launch, only Hellblazer has escaped cancellation out of the imprint's original core titles, which also included Doom Patrol, Animal Man and Shade the Changing Man. And even though it was part of that canceled group for a time, it's only fitting that the line's former premier title, Swamp Thing, should be leading the pack again to dizzying new heights.

The year 2000 has brought a return to creative chances and shake-ups for Vertigo. Totems reunited Vertigo's original cast to save Earth from Y2K destruction, while Hellblazer adopted a new creative team and new direction, and Sandman's Lucifer took center stage in his own spin-off title. The most eagerly awaited change, though, has been the return of Swamp Thing, DC/Vertigo's acclaimed elemental saga.

Now in its third incarnation, Swamp Thing has switched its focus to tell the story of Swamp Thing's daughter, the human/demon/elemental hybrid named Tefé. They say you can't go home again. But Vertigo, which specializes in all things 'horror, mature, sophisticated, dark fantasy, cutting-edge and just plain weird,' is hoping to prove everyone wrong with its new take on an old friend, which--in typical Vertigo styleis offering anything but the 'same old thing.'

NO SENSE OF HOUMA
Updating a classic can be an intimidating prospect. Just ask Brian K. Vaughan. The latest writer to chronicle the Swamp Thing saga, Vaughan is stepping into some pretty big shoes, particularly those worn by Len Wein, David Michelenie, Gerry Conway, Marty Pasko, Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, Doug Wheeler, Nancy Collins, Grant Morrison and Mark Millar. The fit may not be perfect, the shoes may have grown scuffed, but the road is one with which Vaughan is very familiar.

'I've read and enjoyed every issue of Swamp Thing ever written,' says Vaughan. Still, despite this familiarity, he doesn't plan simply to follow where others have already tread. 'The brilliant work of Alan Moore, Rick Veitch and Mark Millar certainly influenced me as a writer, but their Swampy stories haven't necessarily influenced the direction of the new series. I think Swamp Thing should be a potted plant, a book that always acknowledges its important roots but is still able to journey to any imaginable destination where it can grow, thrive and bear fruit. For better or worse, this is my direction. Digging up dangling plot threads from earlier incarnations of the book would satisfy a handful of old fans, but it would alienate many more new ones. It's time to move forward.'

According to Vaughan, his take on Swamp Thing will differ from Moore's as much as Moore's differed from that of Swamp Thing's co-creator, Len Wein. 'I think the only way anyone can hope to be even a little like Moore is to be totally unlike those who came before you,' contends Vaughan. However, elements of Moore and Veitch's runs will remain, particularly with regard to Tefé. 'This child of an Earth elemental and a loving human woman has certainly been raised by the best plants and humans have to offer,' explains Vaughan, 'but her parents didn't sire her alone. Swamp Thing had to inhabit the body of John Constantine [from Hellblazer] in order to mate with Abby, and Tefé has more than a little of everyone's favorite bastard in her blood.'

In fact, Vaughan adds, Constantine's predilection for playing both sides against the middle will initially drive her new direction, here 'Man vs. Nature' rather than Hellblazer's 'Heaven vs. Hell.' The original Swamp Thing benevolently protected the bayou and confronted horrors invading that domain, whereas Vaughan describes Tefé as 'a morally confused teenager with unchecked powers loose in a world she must now judge. The horror of our new series will frequently be Tefé herself. Where is Tefé headed? Is she the hero of the book or the villain? Who will become a member of the ongoing supporting cast and who will die a terrible death this month? Is Swamp Thing a simple anthology book or is there a bigger picture that's only been hinted at so far?'

Vaughan pauses for effect, then answers his own questions: 'I'm afraid I can't tell you a damn thing,' he says. 'I know exactly where I'm taking our girl, but the complete unpredictability of this series is what I like best about it. I want readers to have no idea what to expect every month, other than well-told horror stories with beautiful artwork from Roger Petersen and new inker Rick Magyar. Hopefully, that'll be enough to keep them coming back for more.'

Four issues have hit stands thus far, earning Vaughan a fair share of criticism over his depiction of [former lead characters'] Alec and Abby's relationship, their relegation to the background, and the series' transplantation out of its long-time home of Louisiana. 'A few readers hate the fact that Abby and Swamp Thing don't appear to be the exact same people they were when we last saw them,' says Vaughan. 'That baffles me. What relationship doesn't grow and transform over the course of several years? Besides, Swamp Thing has always been about change: birth and death, death and rebirth, love and loss, growth and regression. But like the seasons, these changes always come and go in cycles, so if you don't like the current status quo, just stick around for a bit.'

That status quo will be in a constant state of flux, as Tefé's journey will be outward as well as inward. As Vaughan is fond of saying in interviews, 'This Swamp Thing will be about swamps as much as Sandman was about sand. The visceral, real-world horror of these stories will take place in our own backyards, as Tefé leaves Houma behind and travels around the globe in search of answers.'

While some readers may not like what he's doing, the general response to the book has been quite positive according to Vaughan, and that's what matters most to him. But even though he feels justified in his new approach, he knows he'll continue to face criticism from what he deems 'a vocal minority.'

'There are a few readers out there who don't know what they want--they want what they know. Hell, I'd love to see Moore or Millar writing Swampy again. But right now, they ain't. So I could do a bad job of exploring the exact same themes they've already explored, or try (and fail) at aping their unique styles. Or I could try to move the book forward by writing with my own distinct voice about things that interest me, like Moore and Millar did when they inherited the book from their predecessors.'

Artist Roger Peterson, for one, concurs. 'The people who do write in and complain are probably the same people who say they like Rob Leifeld's work on Cable. We're doing things differently than what came before, and that's the best way to do it. My buddy Karl Waller [of Wonder Woman and X-Men Movie Prequel: Wolverine fame] helped break down a couple of pages and said he was mystified how I got the job since my style is so different.

'I look at it this way: if [co-creator and original artist Bernie] Wrightson was wearing cleats and [John] Totleben [one of Moore's artists] was wearing sandals, then I'm wearing high-heeled platform shoes. Everybody who did Swamp Thing after Totleben tried to do the same types of lines and shading as he did, but if you try to ape someone, you're fooling yourself. I respect him too much to swipe from him.'

SWAMP THING'S ROOTS
The Swamp Thing saga's origins date back to 1971, when issue #92 of DC's The House of Secrets featured an eight-page tale by Wein and Wrightson entitled 'Swamp Thing.' Set in 1905, the story recounted the tragic fate of Alex Olsen, a scientist who turned into a hideous bog creature and lost his wife to his murderous rival after an experiment gone wrong. Wein's horror-laden narrations and Wrightson's eerie artwork sparked an overwhelmingly positive reaction among readers, prompting DC to commission a bi-monthly title the following year. Wein and Wrightson obliged, shifting the setting to modern-day and the focus to scientist Alec Holland.

The first Swamp Thing series lasted a meager 24 issues, with Alec wandering Louisiana battling evil and feeling depressed over his loss of humanity. Wein left with #13, allowing writer David Michelenie to step in for the remaining issues. Michelenie continued the wandering motif, changing very little until his final few issues, when he introduced Alec's brother Edward and returned Alec to human form. Alec remained human until a guest appearance in Challengers of the Unknown #82-#87, in which writer Gerry Conway restored the 'muck-encrusted mockery of a man' and teamed him up with another DC supernatural character, Deadman. Unfortunately, that series faced cancellation as well, leaving Alec's fate uncertain until Marty Pasko revived Swamp Thing for a second run in 1982.

Throughout Pasko's tenure, a new supporting cast appeared, but little changed about Alec's persona. It was thus that Moore's brilliant handling of the character, beginning in issue #20, was so stunning. In revealing Alec's true origin, that he was not a man turned into a plant but rather a plant mimicking human form, Moore re-defined not only Alec's character but the very nature of the comics industry. Moore brought poetry and beauty to the series by doing the seemingly impossible: making Swamp Thing a love story. To this day, his 43 issues remain the most popular of the entire run, among collectors and critics alike.

Moore's successors on the series, Veitch, Wheeler and Collins, expanded on his work by fleshing out Swampy's ancestors, the Parliament of Trees, as well as Alec's relationships with Abby and the many supporting characters left over from Pasko and Moore's runs. Of course, one of the key characters during this time was the new series' current lead, Tefé, who was born of human, demon and plant elemental with John Constantine's unwitting help.

A constant presence throughout the final seven years of the second series, Tefé underwent her most significant growth with the title's final writer, Millar, who made Alec and Tefé antagonists to the entire DC Universe. Most significantly, father and daughter plotted the destruction of all animal-based life on Earth. Although the devastation was ultimately reversed, Tefé nearly died in the holocaust, betrayed by all three of her parents. These pivotal events form the core of her present status, for she has turned her back on the past and set out to find her future.

NEW GROWTH
Thus far, Tefé has wandered the country, making temporary acquaintances along the way and moving on after surviving the horrors that awaited her. In that regard, Vaughan's motif is similar to Wein's original premise. And, like Moore, Vaughan has shown the Green to have ulterior motives for Tefé, which have yet to be revealed. So what exactly is in store for Tefé and where is her journey taking her?

'For right now,' explains Vaughan, 'the approaching war between humanity and the Green will simply be an interesting backdrop behind the more human, character-driven stories of horror that'll take center stage every month, sort of like what World War II was to a film like Casablanca.'

Most immediately, June's issue #4 introduced a major supporting player in the first chapter of the three-part 'Killing Time.' Pilate, an ex-sniper struggling with his desire not to kill anymore, allowed Tefé to take part in a hunt for a rogue lion running wild at a safari park. Another supporting player, a scarred Inuit named Barnabas, will be introduced in July's #5 and August's #6, in which a difficult decision--whether to save a human family or an elder from the Green as a forest fire rages out of control--forces Tefé to examine both sides of her heritage. New York will be the setting for September's issue #7, in which Tefé and Barnabas try to hide from their newest adversary, the Department of Agriculture.

Issue #4 also marked the departure of inker Joe Rubenstein, in favor of fill-in Mark Lipka for issue #5 and full-time replacement Magyar thereafter. Peterson, who admits his style didn't gel well with Rubenstein's, is excited at the change and believes fans will be, as well. 'If you liked it before, you'll love it now. Rick's real good. He gives me a nice dry brush. Normally, I prefer to do both pencils and inks, but if I can't ink for myself, then Mark and Rick are right at the top of my list for inkers.'

In the end, for Swamp Thing, it's the stories that ultimately matter, and Peterson finds Vaughan's stories just as interesting as the readers. But just because he's the book's artist, don't think he holds all the answers. 'I'm working on issue #8, and I still don't know where this is going,' he laughs. 'It's almost a schizophrenic book, like every issue is nowhere near what the previous issue was up to. I've told Brian we should hit the road and take her places we want to visit.'

If the future holds any promise, it'll be quite an interesting trip indeed. 'Upcoming issues take her into a little trippy plant world,' continues Peterson, 'told from almost a plant perspective. It seems to be a plant that's a murder witness, and she does sort of a Vulcan plant-meld to find out what happened.'

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