There are literary classics that stand the test of time, that stay generously shelved in local book stores, that sell briskly on the likes of Amazon.com. Then there are great, great works of fiction that fade and become hopelessly lost in an earlier era, long forgotten. They cry out for rediscovery. One such brilliant piece of literature is the saga of Swamp Thing.
Ok, so maybe a 1970s comic book that ran for 24 issues isn’t quite the same as an “Oliver Twist,” etc. But I’ll be the first one to stand up and defend comic books as potentially great works of fiction. And while Marvel, DC and the rest of the comic industry creators have come up with some top notch superheroes, I have a particularly high regard for Swamp Thing. The entire series took a brave and creatively sharp departure from the standard action hero sagas. Swamp Thing was in a league all his own.
For the uninitiated, Swamp Thing began life in an issue of “The House of Secrets” in 1971, then got spun off into his own comic in 1972. Dr. Alec Holland was a scientist, working on bio-restorative research at the behest of the government.
“If we’re right,” Holland tells his wife and lab assistant, “larger quantities of our chemical will be used to create gardens out of sweltering deserts.”
Tucked away in an old house in bayou country, Holland’s work is interrupted by sinister figures looking to buy his formula. When he naturally refuses to sell, they decide to try other means, including planting a bomb in the lab that blows up the entire house, and smothers Holland in the chemicals he’s been using. His body, engulfed in flames, stumbles into the swamp outside and collapses into it. End of story?
Well, not quite. What rises from the swampy waters is… “clusters of root, the crumbling chunks of moss … a muck-encrusted shambling mockery of life … a twisted caricature of humanity that can only be called…”
You guessed it.
Swamp Thing seeks out the villains who destroyed his life, and gets his appropriate revenge. This mass of swamp matter that resembles a very tall man not surprisingly possesses enormous strength, and can’t be shot, stabbed or mutilated because bullets just sail through his swampy physique. So he makes a powerful hero.
What I enjoyed so much about the series, though, is that it goes in an entirely different direction from most other comic books. Swamp Thing doesn’t don the title of super hero and go off looking for villains to cut down. Instead, the writers — Len Wein and Berni Wrightson — use Swamp Thing in other ways.
At one point, Swamp Thing gets kidnapped by a group of deformed misfits, who fly him to a mountain castle ruled by a mad scientist who wants to take on Swamp Thing’s physical being — and its great strength. Later, Swamp confronts a werewolf in rural Scotland. He visits a village where the locals are chasing a woman they believe is a witch, and then a magical German village run by an inventor who creates robots — all of them super-happy, friendly and peaceful.
This series worked so beautifully because the writers took us to utterly fantastic places in each episode — totally unpredictable ones, in most cases.
But the comics were also fascinating because they had a dark, quite ominous feel. The worlds that Swamp Thing entered were not just dangerous, but at times quite malevolent. Yes, most comics have nasty villains with sinister designs; but in the Swamp Thing saga, a kind of morose cynicism came through in each issue. Swamp Thing’s journey showed us people at their very worst.
The villagers finally catch the woman believed to be a witch and put her on a hideous mock trial, highlighted by a three legged baby. The mother and father of the werewolf seek fresh victims for their son. The happy inventor seeking to create a peaceful world is, not surprisingly, brought down by evil forces. Swamp Thing exists in a totally nihilistic world, one where few if any of us can expect much hope for happiness, or a better future.
Maybe the comic was a product of the 1970s, of Watergate, the Vietnam War, Nixon and, most ghastly of all, the rise of disco. That decade was enough to bring anyone down. Maybe the writers of Swamp Thing simply reflected the general sense of defeat and exhaustion of that post-sixties decade. In any case, Swamp Thing didn’t survive past 24 issues.
Since then, he’s gotten revived by film director Wes Craven for the 1982 “Swamp Thing” movie, although it was significantly more campy than scary, followed by a new spin-off comic book and later a cable TV series. Sadly, today I think his glory days are long gone.
But this moss-covered creature is worth rediscovering. If you can find those old 1970s issues at your local comic store or on Ebay, grab a few. The disturbing world that Dr. Holland finds himself in is like few other comics I’ve ever read.