A Ghost Dressed in Weeds:

Unearthing Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing

Alan Moore began his career as a minor cartoonist working for his local newspaper and U.K. music magazines, producing humour strips like Maxwell the Magic Cat, Roscoe Moscow, and The Stars My Degradation. Believing himself to be a slow and mediocre artist, he changed direction and soon focused primarily on writing. This led to him writing scripts for short stories and series for Marvel UK (working on Doctor Who comics and Captain Britain), 2000 AD (short twist ending stories and serials like Skizz, D.R. and Quinch, and Halo Jones) and Warrior (which included his work on V for Vendetta and Marvelman). He was dedicated to writing the most entertaining and thought-provoking scripts that he could, and his work proved popular with British comic fans. He was a vocal supporter of comics as a valuable medium, yet some time in 1983, he stopped producing work for comics and disappeared from public life. He never wrote for public consumption again.

Now, imagine if that had happened. Let’s just take a few moments to think about how different comics history would have been on this alternate Earth. The first major change would be the cancellation of Saga of the Swamp Thing, as Moore would not have been hired to write and save the title. There would be no wonderful work on the mainstream DC titles, such as the classic Superman stories like “For the Man Who Has Everything” and “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” nor other seminal works like Watchmen, Supreme, From Hell, Lost Girls, or League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Neil Gaiman would never have picked up an Alan Moore Swamp Thing comic and establish contact with Moore, who taught him how to write a comic script. As such, we may never have had Sandman. We may never have seen the British Invasion of writers in the 1980s, which led to works like Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, Animal Man, and Doom Patrol. We’d have no John Constantine or Hellblazer and probably no Vertigo line of comics.

Moore’s work on Swamp Thing is a key moment in the evolution of comics, and so it is imperative to have an analytical study of these important and ground-breaking issues. I’ll begin with a brief history of Swamp Thing’s appearances before Moore’s run.

The Swamp Thing character was created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson and first appeared in House of Mystery #92 (June-July 1972) in a short, eight-page story. Set in the early 20th century, Alex and Linda Olsen are the perfect couple, both happy and deeply in love, but Alex’s co-worker, Damian Ridge, wants Linda for himself. Ridge causes a laboratory explosion that kills Alex, who he throws into a nearby swamp. Ridge soon manipulates an emotionally vulnerable Linda, and they marry. Meanwhile, Olsen’s body became saturated with chemicals causing him to transform into a swamp monster. He is unable to speak and is distraught at his deformity, and so he watches over Linda from a distance, until Ridge tries to kill her, as he fears she will discover what he has done. The monster is forced to act, killing Ridge and saving Linda, who sees only the monster and not the man that she once loved. She is petrified by his presence, so the Swamp Thing leaves, unable to communicate with Linda and reveal his true identity.

The story provoked a huge amount of positive mail, no doubt due to its heady mix of powerful and emotive themes like betrayal, lust, and revenge. Yet Swamp Thing wasn’t the only plant-based monster to debut in the early 1970s. There are strong links to Man-Thing, a Marvel comics character (created by writers Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, and artist Gray Morrow), who first appeared in Savage Tales #1 (May 1971), which was a black and white comics magazine aimed at a more adult audience. Len Wein was roommates with Gerry Conway at this time, and the similarities between the characters were noticed in the Marvel offices. The first Man-Thing story predates the first appearance of Swamp Thing (House of Mystery #92, dated June-July 1972) and the revamped version in Swamp Thing #1 (October-November 1972). Conway tried to persuade Wein to make changes, but Wein didn’t agree that there was a problem. No legal action was taken by Marvel, probably because both characters seemed to share common sources of inspiration and lineage: the monster in a prose short story called “It,” written by noted SF author Theodore Sturgeon in 1940, is the earliest influence, followed by the Heap, a character created by writer Harry Stein and artist Mort Leav, that first appeared in Air Fighters #3 (Hillman Periodicals, December 1942).

DC decided to capitalise on the popularity of the first Swamp Thing story by giving the character his own comic. Swamp Thing #1 (October-November 1972) saw Wein and Wrightson create an updated version of Swamp Thing set in the present day, which would probably have a more long-term appeal to a modern audience. In this new version, scientists Alec and Linda Holland have created a bio-restorative formula designed to enhance plant growth. Despite threats, they refuse to sell it to agents of the mysterious Mr E. [1] The agents attempt to kill Holland with explosives, as per their instructions. Holland, covered in both flames and the formula, runs headlong into the swamp, to emerge later as the Swamp Thing. Linda is killed, and Matt Cable, a government agent responsible for the protection of the Hollands, mistakenly blames the creature for the death of the couple.

The stories tend to swing between SF and horror (something that Moore would use to his advantage during his run). A quick survey of the issues of this run bears that out. The monstrous Un-Men are Swamp Thing’s first foes, led by Anton Arcane, who becomes Swamp Thing’s nemesis. We also meet Abby Arcane, who becomes the key supporting character in the book and central to Moore’s later issues (#2 and #3). There are appearances by a werewolf (#4), a brother and sister accused of witchcraft (#5), and a town full of robots (#6). Swamp Thing is linked to the wider DC universe in a team-up with Batman (#7), and H.P. Lovecraft’s influence is evident in #8 when the people of Perdition, a mining town, are disappearing due to a monstrosity called M’Nagalah. Ghosts (#10), mutant worms (#11), and a gem that enables time travel (#12) swiftly follow. After Swamp Thing reveals his true identity to Matt Cable in #13, the SF / horror madness continues with a telekinetic child (#14); a priest / black magician and a demon called Nebrios (#15); Zombies on the island of Kala Pago (#16-17); old people leaching the vitality and youth of younger people in Serenity Village (#18); a fight with another Swamp Thing grown from an arm he lost in #5 (#19-20); a visit to an alien planet and an encounter with Solus, an alien ex-tyrant (#21); being captured by the government and placed in a facility with mutants (#22); encountering Holland’s brother Edward and his girlfriend Ruth Monroe being attacked by Thrudvang (a monster); and regaining his humanity (#23-24).

With the benefit of hindsight, the title probably tried to do too much too quickly. Despite the core momentum of the central conceit of the book, having Swamp Thing travel from place to place helping people in need and yearning for his lost humanity, the dizzying array of concepts led to a lack of coherence. This was not helped by changes in the creative team within a relatively short period of time. [2] An advertised team-up with Hawkman in a proposed #25 never saw print, as the series was cancelled with #24 due to poor sales. It seemed that the promise of the early issues had faded to nothing.

Swamp Thing would next appear in a run of stories in Challengers of the Unknown (#83-87). Holland, after reverting to his Swamp Thing state, once again encounters M’nagaleh (from #8) before joining the Challengers and Deadman in the year 12,000,000 to find Rip Hunter. Swamp Thing would also battle Solomon Grundy with Superman’s help in DC Comics Presents #8 and team up with Batman against the Delta Organization in The Brave and the Bold #176. They were adequate stories, but none are particularly memorable or noteworthy, and Swamp Thing often seemed ill suited as a supporting character in other characters’ books with characters whose powers and environments are so different to his own. These guest appearances, and the stories in the first Swamp Thing series, depict a dour character mired in the tragedy of his lost humanity: he was, as Alan Moore put it, “Hamlet covered in snot,” and it became one of the features that Alan Moore sought to change with his run on the title, moving the character away from being a persecuted victim to a more pro-active force to be reckoned with.

In 1978, a proposed comeback, in the form of his own title, may have offered the chance to reverse the fortunes of the character, but it fell victim to the “DC Implosion” of that year, when a number of existing and proposed series were cancelled for reasons that included higher production costs and poor sales. It seemed that Swamp Thing would remain in limbo forever.

Swamp Thing movie poster (1982)It was the release of the Swamp Thing feature film (1982), directed by Wes Craven and starring Dick Durock as the title character, that led to the creation of a second ongoing series. The Saga of the Swamp Thing, written by Marty Pasko with art by Tom Yeates, continued in a similar vein to its predecessor but offered a more consistent focus on horror, with SF elements kept to a bare minimum: vampires from Rosewood, Illinois (#3), which Moore would return to in his own run; a demon that murdered children (#4); a squid-like monster (#6-7); mutated marines (#8); mystic pendulums, Nazis, and Golems (#10-12); and an appearance by the Phantom Stranger (#14 and 15). New characters were added to the cast: Harry Kay, a former Nazi trustee and now an agent of the Sunderland Corporation (an organisation that was trying to capture Swamp Thing throughout the early issues of volume 2); Dr. Dennis Barclay, another Sunderland employee; and Liz Tremayne, a reporter and TV host. They proved to be key characters in these issues, with Moore exploring their fate during his run.

Despite a solid run of stories, sales once again began to suffer. Len Wein, who now edited the title, brought in a new art team with #16 – Steve Bissette and John Totleben, both graduates of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. This would prove to be a crucial step in ensuring the future of both the character and the title. Marty Pasko had also tired of writing the book, and he left with issue #19. Wein needed a new writer for the book, and he had the good sense to realise that a fresh voice was needed if there was any chance of pulling the series back from the brink of cancellation. He began to think about the short stories and serials he’d read in some British anthology comics, namely 2000 AD and Warrior, and he realised that the same writer was responsible for his favourite ones. He managed to find a phone number for the British writer through his contacts in the comic field. He rang up Alan Moore, introduced himself, and asked Moore if he was interested in producing a pitch for the series.

Moore was convinced it was a fellow comics fan or professional playing a joke. By all accounts, it took some convincing on Wein’s part until Moore realised that Wein was indeed who he said he was. Moore also realised that this could be his break into American comics. It wasn’t an auspicious beginning though, as Swamp Thing was considered a third-rate, lower-tier character in the DC universe, especially with its flagging sales and an all-but-cancelled title. Wein and Moore saw this as an opportunity to let loose and experiment with the comic.

A final, strange coincidence hovers over the story of how Moore began work on this title. A few weeks before Wein’s phone call, Moore had set himself a creative challenge. He wanted to assess his creative abilities, particularly in light of his success with his Marvelman revision, where he had taken an obscure British superhero (a second-rate Captain Marvel copy, essentially) and chipped away at the concept, refashioning it for the modern era. He wondered if he would be able to repeat his success with an American character, whether he could capture revisionist lightning twice. The character he chose for this thought experiment was the Heap, a close relation to, and predecessor of, the Swamp Thing. He wouldn’t recall this coincidence until later, but it’s strange to think that he may have had a premonition that he would be working on a swamp-based character. Moore wrote a 15-page proposal which analysed, deconstructed, and reconstructed the character and his world, and it proved to be his entry ticket into the world of American comics and widespread international acclaim.

Moore’s debut issue, #20, wasn’t reprinted until 2009. It became viewed as a clearing exercise for Moore to begin afresh with #21, something the title “Loose Ends” helped to emphasise. It wasn’t considered important enough in light of the magisterial issue #21, which seems to offer a more definite start to Moore’s work on the series. Despite this, #20 is a critically neglected gem that has some interesting things to say.

More on that issue next time.


[1] This character is not the trenchcoat wearing man of mystery who shares the Mr. E name, but a man called Nathan Ellery (as later revealed in #7).
[2] Wein and Wrightson’s departure from the book (issues #10 and #13 respectively) led others to take over creative duties. Nestor Redondo penciled all but the last issue of the series. (Ernie Chua penciled #24.) David Michelinie wrote #14-18 and #21-22, while Gerry Conway wrote #19-20 and #23. Conway also provided the plot for #24, with David Kraft scripting the issue.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew writes about comics for Sequart, where he is currently serialising a book on the Moore-Bissette-Totleben-Veitch issues of Swamp Thing. He blogs about comics and other aspects of popular culture here. He holds a BA Hons in English, History and Media Studies, an MA in English Literary Culture (1880-1920), and postgraduate qualifications in teaching and librarianship. He currently works for Glyndwr University in Wrexham, Wales, UK, as an academic study skills tutor and sessional lecturer, where he is also undertaking PhD research into intertextuality in the work of Alan Moore.

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