I hadn’t read the short story that introduced him, in House of Secrets (which wasn’t exactly the same character. Creators Len Wein and Berni Wrightson decided a new character with the same premise appealed to them more than a sequel). I didn’t read horror books. I liked Wein’s work on Justice League of America, but even so, I don’t know that would have done it. But for some reason I did pick it up (the novelty of a cover with no dialog didn’t hurt) and it blew me away.
The story as a lot of you may know, focuses on Alec Holland, working with his wife Linda on a miracle fertilizer, the “bio-restorative formula,” that could make deserts bloom. An organization called the Conclave wants it; when the Hollands refuse, the Conclave blows up their lab. Linda dies; Alec staggers into the swamp where the formula suffusing his flesh transforms him into … the Swamp Thing (astonishingly nobody ever resurrected her, ever). He eventually gets revenge on Linda’s killers, but the security guy on their project, Matt Cable, becomes convinced Swamp Thing was in on it with them. He vows to hunt the monster down.
Wein and Wrightson, who helmed the first 10 issues, reworked most of the classic horror figures: mad scientist, immortalist, Frankenstein monster, robots, a werewolf, witches, witch hunters, Batman … They introduced Abigail Arcane (who would become Swampy’s lover in the Alan Moore era), had Matt grow and change until he realizes Swamp Thing’s not the monster, and generally told good stories, amazingly drawn in Wrightson’s grotesque style. I was hooked.
What made it work? Partly, it was my own reaction. This was well before I’d seen or read much horror. While I know the outcast, lonely monster is a common figure, I didn’t quite see that at the time. When Alec, walking into the swamp at the end thinks “Alec Holland is dead. And in his place stands only … a swamp thing,” it was gut-wrenching (as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve always had a soft spot for characters who feel isolated and alone). Sure, the Hulk in this era was a lonely, misunderstood monster (Wein scripted a lot of that), but Hulk was also an angry brute who leveled whole cities. Swamp Thing wasn’t scary, people just thought he was.
But it wasn’t just me. According to Wein, Swamp Thing was DC’s top seller in this early phase, even beating Superman. Perhaps it’s partly the time was right. After the Comics Code eased the rules on horror books, the genre exploded in the early Bronze Age. DC, Marvel and Charlton had anthology series. Around the same time Swamp Thing’s book debuted, we also got Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf by Night and Man-Thing took over the Fear anthology book. So it was the right time.
But Tomb of Dracula focused on a genuine villain. Jack Russell in Werewolf by Night was more action-oriented and Jack Russell still had friends and a lover despite being a lycanthrope. None of these books were as quiet and sad and haunted as Swamp Thing.
I reread them a while back and they didn’t quite live up to my memories. But they’re still more than good enough to justify my memories.
#SFWApro. Cover by Berni Wrightson, all rights to current holder.