A Secret Story (The Last War in Albion Part 52: Wein and Wrightson's Swamp Thing)

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This is the second of a currently unknown number of parts of Chapter Eight of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in six volumes. The first volume is available in the US here, and the UK here. Finding volume 2-6 are, for now, left as an exercise for the reader, although I will update these links as the narrative gets to those issues.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: French postmodernists Deleuze and Guattari used vegetable metaphors to argue against the notion of fixed identity, while Alan Moore got a phone call from Len Wein, acting as a representative of the assemblage known as DC Comics.

"It's a secret story. It's a story of two brothers." - Neil Gaiman

Figure 382: Detective Comics gave DC
Comics its name, was the reason Jack
Liebowitz had a financial stake in the
company, and, in its first issue, featured
an appallingly racist cover.
The Time Warner subsidiary known as DC Comics has its origins in the merger between National Comics, itself a merger of two companies initially formed in the mid-1930s by Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, a World War I veteran turned pulp writer, and All-American Publications, which, at the time of their merger was co-owned by Jack Liebowitz, who had also come to own National Comics after forcing Wheeler-Nicholson out. National Comics’ two major publications were Action Comics and Detective Comics, the latter of which was the title that had given Liebowitz a stake in the company, as he underwrote its publication. All-American Publications was a 1938 partnership between Liebowitz and Max Gaines, and published a number of other significant characters: the Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman, most notably. The companies, due to the shared presence of Liebowitz, were always stablemates, but after Liebowitz bought Gaines out, leaving him free to create the competing EC Comics, they officially merged into one company in 1944 under the official name of National Perodical Publications, although they were by this time generally referred to as DC Comics, a name they’d officially adopt in 1977. 

During its early days, unlike what would eventually become its sole major competitor, DC invested hard in superheroes, churning out characters to follow its initial smash success with the adventures of Superman in Action Comics. This began with Batman, created by Bill Finger, with Bob Kane on art, which appeared in Detective Comics, and eventually expanded to a large and familiar stable of characters. The breadth and success of this line meant that when superheroes went out of fashion at the end of World War II, DC, unlike Marvel/Timely, did not entirely abandon superheroes, publishing title featuring Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman continually through the 1940s and 50s. And when the superhero comic proved a useful way of getting around the censorship imposed on the industry in the wake of psychologist and public intellectual Frederic Wertham’s 1954 attack on comic books, it was DC that jumped back upon that bandwagon, developing new versions of many of its old superhero properties and eventually, in 1960, teaming several of them up in the Justice League of America, a move that prompted Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to create the Fantastic Four for Marvel.

Figure 383: Cain and Abel, the hosts of DC's
twin horror anthologies House of Secrets and
House of Mysteries. (Art by Bernie Wrightson,
from House of Secrets #92, 1971)
In 1968, reacting to some loosening on the restrictions imposed on comics, DC decided to get back into one of the genres that had largely been abandoned in favor of superhero comics, namely horror comics. These had been the specialty of Gaines’s EC Comics, and had been one of the categories of comics most savaged by Wertham and his supporters, but in 1968 DC poached former EC editor Joe Orlando to edit House of Mystery, a once-horror book that had by that point become a superhero anthology. Orlando returned the book to its horror roots, introducing a new narrator in the grand tradition of EC’s Crypt Keeper and Old Witch - the biblical Cain, who served as caretaker for the eponymous House of Mystery. Shortly thereafter, Orlando oversaw the revival of a sister book, House of Secrets, which was, fittingly, narrated by Abel. 

In April of 1971, in issue 92 of House of Secrets, there appeared a short story entitled “Swamp Thing,” written by Len Wein and drawn by Bernie Wrightson, both creators who had broken into comics under Joe Orlando in his early DC days. “Swamp Thing” tells the tale of Alex Olsen, an early 20th century scientist betrayed by his seeming friend, who lusted after Olsen’s wife and who engineered a lab accident that gravely wounded Alec, then buried his body out in the swamps. As his former friend concludes that Linda, his wife, has begun to suspect him and that he must thus murder her, it is revealed that Alex is not, in fact, dead, but is a swamp monster, who rescues Linda, but then retreats back into the swamps when he realizes he terrifies her and that his humanity is truly gone.

Figure 383: Swamp Thing's original design featured a
somewhat cartoony, hangdog facial expression. (Written
by Len Wein, art by Bernie Wrightson, from House of
Secrets
 #92, 1971)
Although this premise is hardly the height of creative genius, Wein and Wrightson made a good show of it with the story, which features three nested narratives. The bulk of the story is narrated in the second person, beginning “you smile because he expects you to - but in the shadowed corridors of your heart there is no real joy - there never can be… Your name is Linda Olsen Ridge,” it continues, forcibly allying the reader with a character with whom (given the demographics of DC’s readership) they had numerous major differences, to say the least. This section of the story breaks off midway for a lengthy narration from Damian, Alex’s treacherous friend, who explains his nefarious plot in a sequence that begins and ends as a sequence of thought bubbles, but turns to narrative captions in the middle. Linda’s sequence, meanwhile is focused on how she longs for her dead husband, and on her growing paranoia. But Linda’s sequence is framed by a third narrative, written in the first person from the perspective of Alex, the swamp monster. This narrative carries an altogether more mournful and haunting tone, beginning, “I cannot remember the morning any more - but I know the evening well! I belong to it now…” and continuing in a similar tone that Moore would eventually characterize as that of “Hamlet covered in snot.” But the slightly baroque storytelling and Wrightson’s versatile art, which has a paranoid line characterized by expanses of hatched shadow for the middle sections, but that turns faintly ridiculous for the drawings of the swamp monster himself, who looks out at the world through two sad eyes set in an expanse of moss that results in a visage not unlike a sad cartoon dog, gave the story a memorable punch that stood out from the generic twist-of-fate short stories in the old EC style that mostly populated House of Secrets.

Figure 384: Alec Holland plunges, burning, into the
swamp to become Swamp Thing. (Written by Len Wein,
art by Bernie Wrightson, from Swamp Thing #1, 1972)
Indeed, the story was strong and popular enough that in August of 1972 DC launched an ongoing Swamp Thing series by Wein and Wrightson. This was not actually a continuation of the story in House of Secrets #92, but rather a reworking of it, set in the present day as opposed to a romantic past. The broad structure is the same - it starts with narration from the Swamp Thing, and concludes with him trudging off into the swamp, accepting that his humanity is gone. But many of the details are changed, sometimes significantly. Instead of Alex Olsen it is Alec Holland who serves as the lead character, and it’s specified how he became a swamp man, namely that he was drenched in the “bio-restorative formula” that he was working on when he was killed by a bomb planted by gangsters trying to steal his formula. Stumbling out into the swamp, burning from the bomb blast, Holland collapses into the swamp, only to emerge as the Swamp Thing and, upon discovering his wife’s body, to vow revenge on those who did this to him. And Swamp Thing himself is designed differently, with a distinct mouth and a capacity for more varied facial expressions, making him a more human-like figure. But the broad strokes are the same as that of the first Swamp Thing story. 

Figure 385: Hillman Periodicals' The
Heap as drawn by Todd McFarlane's
protege Greg Capullo
(Although they also had several similarities to the origin story of a Marvel character called Man-Thing, a character whose second appearance was written by Wein in between Swamp Thing’s debut in House of Secrets and the first issue of his own series, a similarity that has been pointed out by Man-Thing’s co-creator Gerry Conway, who was also Wein’s roommate at the time. It is, however, worth noting that the history of swamp monsters is a lengthy one, going, in comics at least, a 1942 monster published by Hillman Periodicals called the Heap. Moore, coincidentally, had done a thought experiment about how he might relaunch obscure American properties in the same way that he’d done Marvelman just a few weeks before Wein’s phone call, and had used the Heap as his subject, although he only remembered this coincidence after he’d completed his Swamp Thing pitch. Drawing the line of influence to an amusing circle, in 1998 Todd McFarlane, who obtained the rights to the character in his ill-fated attempt to buy Marvelman by purchasing the remnants of Eclipse Comics, debuted a new version of the Heap in Spawn #72. This new version had the power to transport people to a place called Greenworld, a concept that owes no small debt to Moore’s transformation of Swamp Thing.) 

There are, however, some additional plot points with no correspondence to anything in House of Mystery #92. The first is one of Holland’s assistants, Matt Cable, who mistakenly believes that it is Swamp Thing that has killed his friends Alec and Linda, and who vows to hunt Swamp Thing down. The second is the final panel reveal, a cliffhanger leading into the second issue where, “countless miles away, in a tower at the top of the world,” a clawed hand, presumably that of some sorcerer, gestures at a scrying glass sowing Swamp Thing’s solitary journey out into the muck and orders the creatures amassed around the glass to “fetch him, my pets! Bring him here… to me!” This claw, in the second issue, is revealed to belong to Anton Arcane, and the creatures he commands are the Un-Men, a host of bizarre critters who, on Arcane’s command, jump Swamp Thing, subdue him, and have him brought across the ocean to Arcane’s lair in a standard issue gothic castle.

Figure 386: Swamp Thing and, for that matter, the
reader are ambushed by the bizarre Un-Men. (Written
by Len Wein, art by Bernie Wrightson, from Swamp Thing
#2, 1972)
It is difficult to overstate the visual impact of the Un-Men’s appearance. Among Wrightson’s many gifts as an artist is a flair for the grotesque, and he outdoes himself with the Un-Men, producing a dozen or so distinct designs for them, many impressively misshapen wrecks that do things like walk on their hands or have a second face where their stomach should be. One, a brain with a face that has the five fingers of a hand in lieu of legs, shouts, “swiftly, my Un-men - capture him swiftly! The Master will not tolerate your failure!” It is an almost literally stunning panel, coming as it does with minimal setup or grounding in anything the book had done up to this point. Within a couple of pages it has completely traded in the Louisiana bayou setting of its first issue for gothic horror with a heavy debt to Frankenstein, and two issues later it casually changed again, albeit after having introduced Abigail Arcane, the niece of the villainous mad scientist, who joins Matt Cable on his quest to hunt down Swamp Thing. 

This flexibility would prove to be the animating spirit of the Wein/Wrightson run on the character, with each issue moving to a new setting or concept, so that Swamp Thing jumped from confronting aliens to witch hunters to Batman, all of them drawn in Wrightson’s endearingly grotesque style. These stories were held together by Wein’s characterization of Swamp Thing, which made the character long on thought balloons despite largely remaining silent within the issues, giving him a sort of detached and philosophical view on proceedings that is nevertheless animated by Swamp Thing’s continuing desires for revenge, survival, and the restoration of his humanity. It was an iconic and influential run of comics that concluded inn Wrightson’s final issue with the character, Swamp Thing #10, featuring a revived Anton Arcane, now in the grotesque and Frankenstein-esque form of his own Patchwork Men. With that story, however, Wrightson departed, and after three issues with his replacement, the perfectly adequate Nestor Redondo, so did Wein. What followed were a stretch of largely serviceable single issue horror stories, but none of them managed to capture the mad energy of the Wein/Wrightson tales, nor their giddy creativity, and the book was cancelled in 1976 with its twenty-fourth issue. 

Figure 387: Dick Durock as the Swamp Thing in Wes
Craven's 1982 film adaptation of the comics.
The character would likely have lain in obscurity for a while at that point, except that in 1982 Embassy Pictures released a film adaptation of the character, headed by acclaimed horror director Wes Craven. The film is not what one would call a major work of Craven’s, and seems to have been viewed by Craven mostly as a calling card piece to show that he could do action sequences. Swamp Thing, played by Dick Durock in a rubber suit in the grand cinematic tradition of Gill-man, pines for and protects Alice Cable, a composite of Abby Arcane and Matt Cable who is the sole survivor of the attack on the lab that creates Swamp Thing, ultimately defeating Anton Arcane, reworked to be the force behind the attack and, in the film’s final act, a giant wolf monster transformed by the same bio-restorative formula that made Swamp Thing. The story draws from several of the early Wein/Wrightson stories, but smooths out the splendid variety that animated them into a fairly generic action film with a gratuitous nude scene for Adrienne Barbeau. Its sole significant contribution to the overall Swamp Thing mythos is the decision to have Alice fall in love with Swamp Thing, a romance Swamp Thing rejects in favor of his comfortably tragic solitude, but nevertheless an idea that Moore would eventually expand on mightily. 

It would not do, however, for DC to not have a Swamp Thing comic in publication to go along with the movie (despite onerous conditions related to the sale of the movie rights that meant that DC could not actually produce any merchandise related to Swamp Thing whatsoever), and so in 1982 a new title, Saga of the Swamp Thing, was started with scripts by Martin Pasko, an industry veteran with decades of experience, and art by relative newcomer Tom Yeates. [continued]

Comments

Daniel Tessier 3 years, 2 months ago

I'd suggest that Swamp Thing, Man-Thing and the Heap were all ultimately inspired by Ted Sturgeon's story IT! published in Unknown magazine in 1940.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 2 months ago

I love the fact that Cain is wearing a DC button.

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Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 2 months ago

" This began with Batman, created by Bill Finger, with Bob Kane on art,"


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BerserkRL 3 years, 2 months ago

I would bet that Swamp Thing was influenced by the Silver Surfer comics; both involve a melancholy outsider wandering the Earth, helping people, and musing philosophically about how shit life is.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 2 months ago

Phil even chose a picture of a deceitful Cain pointing a finger.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 2 months ago

One of the things that happened toward the end of the original run was that Swamp Thing gets turned (temporarily) back to Alec Holland. This makes things a bit awkward for Alan Moore's revelation that Swamp Thing wasn't Holland anyway. The usual fix is to treat those late issues as retconned; they never happened. But no one ever mentions that Wein & Wrightson had already turned Swamp Thing (again temporarily) back to Alec Holland toward the beginning of their run. Is that supposed to be retconned too?

By the way, why does the link at the top go to the Moore collection rather than the Wein/Wrightson collection (which is in print, though the stories between their tenure and Moore's still aren't)?

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BerserkRL 3 years, 2 months ago

This was one of my favourite comics as a kid. I started reading with issue #15, so I'd already missed the Wein & Wrightson era; but their successors were pretty good.

He also had a number of crossovers in other books; see e.g. here and here.

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Unknown 3 years, 2 months ago

Having read It! recently, I thought large sections of It! could have been turned into a Man-Thing story with no or minimal changes.

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Jack 3 years, 2 months ago

The very first comic book I ever read-someone had left it in a laundromat when I was very young, and I read it because I read everything I could get my hands on-was a Swamp Thing where he'd been turned back into Alec Holland. So when Moore came along, I was briefly amused by the changes, but the stories were so good, I just shrugged my shoulders and went along.

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Lo-Fi Explosion 3 years, 2 months ago

Moore was simply writing post-Crisis comics in the pre-Crisis universe.

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encyclops 3 years, 2 months ago

I have two strong childhood memories of Swamp Thing, which I otherwise (perhaps consequently) never read on a regular basis, though I've read and appreciated a few volumes of Moore's work on it.

One was the Wes Craven movie, from which I somehow managed to see at least one scene, assuming I'm not confusing it with a different movie. In the scene, Swamp Thing grabs a man's head like he's palming a basketball and squeezes until blood gushes down between his fingers. I was young enough that it was terrifying. It still freaks me out a bit to think about it.

The other is this issue, which showed up in one of those Archie Comics-sized digests, a best of the year for DC type of thing: http://www.comicvine.com/the-saga-of-swamp-thing-4-in-the-white-room/4000-253925/ It was really quite good, very adult, about a children's TV host turned child killer possessed by a demon. I'd love to read more of that stretch of the series, but I'm inferring from some of the comments above that it's out of print.

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Kit 3 years, 2 months ago

#factcheck: Joe Orlando was a regular (if lesser) artist at EC, but not, AFAIK, an editor.

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timber-munki 3 years, 2 months ago

Is your treatment of DC (the organisation currently residing in New York, about to move to LA) as some kind of gestalt entity in and of itself anything to do with Morrison's pronoucements a in the early 2010s (during the media launch of Supergods) that the DC Universe (the stories, characters, settings & concepts created by employees & contractors of said organisation) gaining sentience due to it's complexity?

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 2 months ago

This is almost certainly true. I left it out mostly because I wanted the circularity of The Heap finally ripping off Alan Moore under McFarlane.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 2 months ago

Yes.

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Daru 2 years, 7 months ago

Man, great stuff Phil, loving this whole section as I catch up on reading your Swamp Thing posts. I missed this all when it came out as last year was full of family bereavement, so I just couldn't catch up.

But Swamp Thing was massively formative for me as an artist when I was in my teens, and then at college studying design and illustration. I have never seen this section of the stories so loving the background.

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