Review by Win Wiacek
Swamp Thing was the first fan-sensation of the modern comics age, yet Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson’s triumph originated as a throwaway 19th century gothic thriller, wherein gentleman scientist Alex Olsen is murdered by his best friend and his body dumped in a swamp.
Wein and Wrightson transplant the concept to contemporary America for ten further collaborations, crafting an extended, multi-chaptered tale of justice/vengeance and a quest for answers. It’s philosophically typical of the era and a prototype for the miniseries format dominating today’s comics. They also use each chapter to pay tribute to a specific sub-genre of timeless horror whilst advancing the major plot.
A fresh origin has Alec and Linda Holland deep in Louisiana, working on a bio-restorative formula to revolutionise global farming. Working in isolation, they are protected by Secret Service agent Matt Cable, when representatives of an organisation called the Conclave demand that they sell their research – or else. The patriotic pair refuse, the lab is bombed killing Linda instantly, but Alec, showered with his own formula and blazing like a torch, hurtles to a watery grave in the swamp.
Transformed by the formula Holland is now a gigantic man-shaped monster, immensely strong, unable to speak, and seemingly composed of living plant matter. His brain still functions, and he vacillates between finding his wife’s killers and curing his own monstrous condition. Cable, misinterpreting the evidence, also wants revenge, believing the monster caused the death of his two charges.
Swamp Thing subsequently travels the world, encountering the darkest outbreaks of classic supernature and the insatiable greed of human monsters. The first and most memorable is black sorcerer Anton Arcane and his artificial homunculi the Un-Men. More sympathetically, we’re next introduced to Abigail Arcane and her tragic Frankenstein-influenced father in a classic case of monster misunderstanding. She joins Cable in stalking the mossy misanthrope.
Thereafter Swamp Thing encounters a Scottish werewolf, the Last of the Ravenwind Witches, and an old clockmaker before one of the most evocative and revered team-ups of the 1970s. ‘Night of the Bat’ features the final showdown with the Conclave in their Gotham HQ, and a landmark collaboration with the resurgent Batman. Wrightson’s rendering of the superhero through the lens of a horror artist inspired a whole generation of aspiring comics professionals.
Somewhat at a loss after ending his quest, the Moss Monster combats a Lovecraftian horror, an eldritch cancer god and a US military cover-up involving a marooned and benevolent alien. The classic run concludes with a tale of ghostly retribution amidst the graves of unquiet plantation slaves. Plotted by Wrightson, it marked his swansong. The next chapter is drawn by the miraculously gifted hands of Nestor Redondo, possibly the only artist who could have matched Wrightson’s visual intensity.
Redondo draws the monster back in his Bayou home, with Cable and Abigail close on his root-riddled heels. When mutant beasts attack his human pursuers, Holland rescues them and the relationship between hunters and prey alters forever. In the aftermath, Swamp Thing is sucked into an arcane time-loop locked on constantly-killed and perpetually-resurrecting Milo Mobius. This initial collection ends with the imprisoned Swamp Thing liberated and put beyond the reach of government scientists.
A genuine landmark, these stories exemplify comics wonderment from a less cynical and sophisticated age, but with a passion and intensity that cannot be matched. And, ooh, that artwork! There’s more in Volume Two.
The Wein and Wrightson material has previously been issued over the years in collections titled Dark Genesis, Secret of the Swamp Thing and Roots of the Swamp Thing.