Swamp Thing season is upon us. With a new television series premiering last week(now unfortunately cancelled, despite critical acclaim) on DC’s exclusive streaming platform, the internet is lush with articles about where to start catching up on Swamp Thing’s past, namely the contributions of the legendary Alan Moore of Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and V for Vendetta fame. While that is certainly a landmark run for the horticultural horror, as a great starting place; I couldn’t disagree more.
Before Alan Moore, Stephen Bisset, Scott Snyder, or Yanick Paquette was Len Wein, and, perhaps more importantly, Bernie Wrightson. Swamp Thing first appeared in a one-off tale in House of Secrets #92. Many forget that the man named Alec Holland was originally Alex Olsen. His origin is mostly the same but follows the structure of a classic 50s horror tale. The man that would become plant is still transformed during a lab explosion, except here it’s triggered by his once best friend who is lusting after his wife, still named Linda. Later, after marrying her husband’s killer, the woman’s grief causes the murderer to suspect his new wife knows something of her deceased husband’s murder and he must kill her before he’s caught. That’s where Swampy steps in to kill his murderer and save his wife. This version would later be retconned back into DC canon.
The entire origin story would be loosely rewritten when DC decided to give Swampy his own title to terrorize. The jealous killer is erased altogether and in his place is an organization known as the Conclave who are after Alec and Linda Holland’s bio-restorative formula. The Conclave attempts to kill Alec with a bomb and he’s believed burned to death in a chemical fire. Swamp Thing is rises from the swamp to save his wife’s dog who becomes a recurring character. After Alec’s funeral, the men return to finish the job and Linda is killed. Recurring character Matt Cable mistakenly blames the swamp thing for Linda’s death, and turns against his former friend, not realizing he is the Swamp Thing. The series follows Swamp Thing struggling to reclaim his humanity, saving Matt Cable and Abigail Arcane time and time again, and fighting his nemesis Anton Arcane(a total of two times!). He did all of this with his wife’s trusty hound by his side.
By all accounts, the Swamp Thing was writer Len Wein’s idea. Wein was sharing a room with Gerry Conway(who would later write the last few issues of Swampy’s first title). Gerry Conway was writing the script for a new character at Marvel; a character you may have heard of if you’ve been reading this blog, Man-Thing. Simultaneously, Wein was working on bringing his Swamp Thing to life at DC. By all parties’ accounts, the similarities between the two characters and their origins were entirely accidental. Marvel beat DC to the punch by a month and briefly considered legal action against their competitor before deciding against it, probably due to both character’s similarities to this guy.
Unfortunately for Marvel, their Heap rip-off wouldn’t flower nearly as well competition’s. Artist Bernie Wrightson is undeniably what gave the DC title its biting edge. Looking at Wrightson’s heavily inked shadowy distorted figures and skeletons with hulking tissue stretched over them from bone to bone while they drip muck and slim, it’s not hard to see why. Wrightson’s signature style lends life to decisively impossible forms making the most impossible creatures, like Arcane’s Un-Men who look astonishingly believable.
The twisted, mangled forms of Wrightson’s art have old fashioned EC Horror DNA. Unlike much of his competition, Wrightson could work fast for his intricate style. It’s said he was doing two-pages a day when working on the original Swamp Thing title.
For how dense they are, those first 10 issues of Swamp Thing move at a clip which you wouldn’t expect from a DC comic of that era. I wasn’t surprised to learn that co-creators Wein and Wrightson were working in the so-called “Marvel Method” at the time; this meant the two would plot the stories together and Bernie would draw them without dialogue so Len could fill it in after the fact. Due to the creative process, the pacing and characterizations in Swamp Thing were ultimately up to the artist. Some of the best early Swamp Thing stories were Bernie’s idea such as the issue where Swamp Thing saves a young woman accused of witchcraft, the story feels like a sort of progressive twist on the classic EC moral play.
You have to see Bernie’s brushwork on the pulp paper it was originally printed on with desaturated colors and the living texture that comes from such cheap paper. It just isn’t the same in glossy reprints or on e-readers. It isn’t only that Wrightson’s work is creepy or grotesque, his pages live with drama and soul that you simply don’t see often. On one panel he could communicate volumes of emotion and story that would take most artists and writers several pages to convey. Sadly, he only stuck with Swamp Thing for 10 issues.
In Wrightson’s own words, he abandoned his swampy creation because it was too easy, or mechanical. Towards the end of the run, he was just phoning it in(though, you couldn’t tell to look at it). It’s funny that Wrightson’s best-remembered art is hardly his best as he more or less abandoned brush-work inks after issue 9 of Swamp Thing in favor pens. Issue 10 speaks volumes for the change in style. It’s here that Wrightson decided he was done with color comics. He kept working, doing black and white magazines for Warren like Creepy.
The detail in Wrightson’s post-swampy work is absolutely breathtaking. The distorted sinewy forms are still murked in shadow but, within those shadows, every horrid detail is gloriously exposed. Your eye can wander the page for what feels like lifetimes before naturally stumbling on that tremendously unsettling reveal. We’d recommend his Frankenstein, his Stephen King collab Cycle of the Werewolf, or his issues of Creepy.
Len Wein maintained some connection to the Swamp Thing character long after Bernie left the book to work on other things including publications for Warren. Later, Wrightson was given a $2000 creators “bonus” for Wes Craven’s film adaptation of Swamp Thing, though he lamented in interviews that he believed he deserved more. Wrightson felt he was overlooked when the studio was looking for creators to consult with on the set of Swamp Thing but, in interviews, he doesn’t seem to mind much, nor does he feel cheated in any way.
It’s not as though Bernie’s story is one of an overlooked genius, no. Wrightson is well renowned as one of the most important artists to ever work with the horror genre in any medium. Wrightson’s Stephen King collabs are legendary on their own merit, including the classic film Creepshow, which was a George Romero directed homage to the pulp horror that influenced Bernie’s style; Wrightson illustrated the in film comic panels as well as an accompanying graphic adaptation. Wrightson also went on to do production art on many films such as Ghostbusters and The Mist. He was frequently tapped as a “creature consultant” for Hollywood films.
The muck-heap simply wouldn’t be an attractive character if not for Bernie Wrightson. While Len Wein is a great writer and was the first to write the character and Alan Moore’s revival was an undeniably groundbreaking run; Bernie Wrightson was still the first to give Swamp Thing a voice, and he was able to do so without a word on the page. This is why, if you’re planning a visit to DC’s swamp, I recommend you start your journey with Swamp Thing Volume 1, issues 1-10.