From the paneled pictures of your darkest dreams, this is Graphic. Every month, I’ll be telling you about the best horror in comic books, from the early days of EC Comics to the resurgence of the genre in today’s mainstream and indie publishers. So pull up your blanket, dear reader, switch on your flashlight, and turn the page…
Swamp Thing has always been comics royalty. Created by Wolverine co-creator Len Wein and horror comics titan Bernie Wrightson, the character’s haunting face and mossy aura made him a visual stand-out since the first issue of his series. That series was abruptly cancelled in 1978, but DC’s interest in old Swampy returned in 1982, when Wes Craven’s feature film about the character hit theaters. In order to capitalize on the movie, DC editor (and member of comic pantheon) Karen Berger put then-upcoming British writer Alan Moore on a team with horror artist Stephen Bissette and inker John Totleben. In an unexpected but ultimately brilliant move, Berger gave the team complete creative freedom, leading to the greatest reinvention of a character in comic history. In this edition of Graphic, we’re going to discuss how they did it.
But before we begin, let’s clarify a few things. First, you should absolutely read Moore, Bissette, and Totleben’s run (or Saga of the Swamp Thing) before continuing this article. The first three volumes are free with a ComiXology Unlimited subscription. Second, I’m referring to this comic as Moore, Bissette, and Totleben’s run of Swamp Thing only because they are its most consistent contributors. Artists Rick Veitch, Stan Woch, and Tom Yeates also took up pens to make this book a reality, and though they didn’t do so as much as the others, they deserve to be remembered for their contributions. Swamp Thing is the Citizen Kane of horror comics, but without the aforementioned artists, it would’ve only been words in a script.
Now let’s get to the good stuff, starting with poor old Alec Holland. When Wein/Wrightson created him, Alec was your average, too-attractive scientist studying the properties of swampland. Through a combination of criminal activity and generically radioactive goo, Alec‘s DNA was accidentally mutated with the swamp he studied. Gaining plant-based powers and a new, terrifying form, Alec became Swamp Thing… or so we thought.
With the new Swamp Thing creative team came new information on the identity of Swamp Thing. As it turns out, Alec Holland actually died in his fateful accident. Through a combination of the goo and some very trippy magic, Alec‘s consciousness transferred into the swamp itself. Well, to be specific, it transferred into the ancient elemental that inhabited the swamp (like I said, trippy). This revelation didn’t just change Swamp Thing‘s life, it subverted one of the most frequented tropes in superhero comics. There are so many comic book characters, good and bad, who became something else by a trick of fate and science fiction. That was no longer the case for Swamp Thing. For the first time in comic book history, a human didn’t turn into something else. A ‘something else’ turned human.
That’s not to say that Swamp Thing has ever been a typical ‘superhero comic,’ or the main character a superhero. Even from the days of Wein & Wrightson, Swamp Thing has always been more of a monster than a hero, his new form being more of a curse than superpowered upgrade (interestingly, some of the best iterations of Marvel’s Hulk also take this approach to transformation). In Saga of the Swamp Thing, Moore, Bissette, and Totleben subvert the idea of Swamp Thing‘s character as a monster by giving him something few monsters ever get: a place to fit in.
Part of being a monster, whether it’s a genuinely evil creature, misunderstood hero, or something in between, is being separate from a particular society. A monster is ‘the other,’ as that kid in your freshman philosophy class might say. And while Swamp Thing is definitely set apart from humanity, he’s not without a culture that accepts him – that culture being The Green. The Green is a dimension that governs all plant life in the universe, a dimension inhabited by sentient plant creatures. It’s sort of a heaven for plants, or if you like, the exact opposite of every New York apartment (I’m here all week). In The Green, Swamp Thing finds answers, acceptance, and even a purpose – he is to be the guardian of The Green on Earth. Here, again, the Saga of the Swamp Thing offers us a comic book first: an inhuman’s perspective of a creature that humans deem a monster.
Saga of the Swamp Thing is now considered a classic, a manual for anyone writing comics or horror entertainment. But perhaps the most teachable thing that comes out of this book is that risky storytelling pays off. Moore, Bissette, and Totleben radically reinvented an established DC character, one that was starring in a feature film, for God’s sake! Could you imagine DC Comics changing this much about Batman this way, right now? But had they not, and had Karen Berger not taken the uncanny, risky move to let them, we wouldn’t have this treasure of a book. The character, the readers, and the medium would be worse off for it.
If you’re a fan of horror comic classics like Saga of the Swamp Thing, drop me a line to let me know what other ones you’d like to see spotlighted in this column. I’d love to hear from you! Once you do that, follow us on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, and Discord for more rebirths, remakes, and returns all January long. And for all the best horror content you can find online, keep lurking at Nightmare on Film Street.