Swamp Thing: A Biology, er, Biography

In a pantheon of primary colors and sharp lines, one DC Comics character stands out from so many others. He’s as much monster as he is human, as plant as he is man. He’s more horror than he is hero: He’s the Swamp Thing. With the Swamp Thing getting his own TV show this spring, it’s time to take a peek at who or in some cases, what, he is. Oh, I mean his second TV show. Yeah, we’ll get into that.

The Swamp Thing was created by Len Wein (co-creator of Wolverine and others) and Bernie Wrightson back in the early 1970s, with the green giant’s first appearance being in House of Secrets #92 in July 1971 before getting his own solo series. His name comes from exactly where you’d guess. Wein couldn’t think of anything.

“I didn’t have a title for [Swamp Thing], so I kept referring to it as ‘that swamp thing I’m working on,’ and that’s how it got its name!” Wein has said of the character.

Who is Swamp Thing?

Swamp Thing’s original origin story went something like this. Scientist Alec Holland was working in a lab in a Louisiana swamp on a bio-restorative chemical that could solve the world’s food-shortage problems. Holland’s work on this solution was interrupted when thugs from a crime organization broke into his office and set a bomb. The bomb went off, and Holland stumbled into the swamp covered in burns and his formula. The swamp and bio-restorative combined to make him a hybrid of man and plant.

Swamp Thing came during a time when the earth’s population was exploding and people were becoming conscious of that explosion. Overpopulation was a very real fear, and there was a ton of fiction like this popping up at the time – Stand on Zanzibar, Zero Population Growth, and Soylent Green (the movie) all popped up within a few years on either side of Swamp Thing. All of these stories were concerned with things like overpopulation and its effects, such as food shortages and environmental destruction. In this way, Swamp Thing fits into its zeitgeist perfectly.

Before we get into his history, let’s stop and talk about what our good green stinkyman is capable of. As with any hero, powers vary from one incarnation to another. Instead of making Swamp Thing impervious to bullets, he’s actually extra-pervious, but as a sentient plant, he can grow back wounds almost instantly.

At one time, Swamp Thing was the plant elemental on planet Earth, and even controlled the other more classic elements for a time. As a plant elemental, he was able to travel anywhere there’s plant matter on the entire planet instantly. He’s shown the ability to communicate with, control, and accelerate the growth of any plant – including alien plant life. He breathes and eats more like a plant than a human, with one character at one point commenting that Swamp Thing has stopped “pretending to breathe.” His strength is, like Superman’s, difficult to calculate. With the ability to control plant life and to grow and shrink – he once grew out of John Constantine’s tobacco – he can grow to just about any size, and has even uprooted trees by hand.

A lot of that would come into play later into the character’s saga, pun intended, but many elements took shape early on, including his most common adversaries. One of Swamp Thing’s most recurring villains, Anton Arcane, would appear here, along with his Un-Men and the Patchwork Man. Arcane was obsessed with the idea of immortality and Swamp Thing was one possible source. Key recurring characters like government agent Matt Cable and Abby Arcane show up in these early issues, too. Matt is a government agent trying to track down Swamp Thing, while Abby is the niece of Anton Arcane, and an empath who later falls in love with and marries Swamp Thing, bringing him back from the edge a couple of times as his connection to Earth’s plant life threatens to consume him.

The original story was pretty straightforward. Alec, now Swamp Thing, sought out the organization who killed his wife and transformed him into sentient vines. By the end of the first 24-issue run, which went from 1972 to 1976, Holland had regained his humanity. During this run, Wein and Wrightson stepped away from the comic, and were replaced by a few writers and artists, including Gerry Conway, who would co-create Marvel’s Punisher in 1974 – another character who exists alongside, but apart from more traditional comic-book heroes.

After that, the Swamp Thing would sleep for six years, awakening in 1982, with his revival happening on two fronts: the Saga of the Swamp Thing comic-book series, which would run for 171 issues and see runs from Alan Moore, Nancy Collins, Grant Morrison, and a then-unknown Mark Millar, with Moore’s being the most famous among them.

Swamp Thing at the Movies

While Swamp Thing was seeing new life in the pages of DC comics, he was also getting ready for his silver-screen debut, with Wes Craven in the director’s seat. The 1982 movie drew heavily from the original incarnation of the character, and featured Ray Wise (Twin Peaks, Robocop) and Adrienne Barbeau (The Fog, Escape from New York, and countless mentions in Sealab 2021). Stuntman Dick Durock played the character for the first time in this movie, and would go on to play him again and again through the years. As a Wes Craven production, the movie leaned harder on the horror elements of the character. Interestingly, Craven had an ulterior motive in the Swamp Thing, wanting to show that he could handle action and stunts in a big Hollywood production.

In the pages of the comics, things were changing. In Saga of the Swamp Thing #21, Alan Moore took over the book from Martin Pasko and was given free rein to do as he liked with the character. And free reign he took, changing the very DNA of the character.

Issue #22 began with the Sunderland Corporation employing Jason Woodrue, The Floronic Man, another plant-hybrid DC character, to perform an autopsy on Swamp Thing, who is held in cold storage. During the autopsy Woodrue pulls brain and lung-shaped plant masses from the body, and slowly realizes that the organs aren’t functional, but rather that they’re memories of organs. Woodrue realizes that Swamp Thing isn’t Alec Holland. Rather, it’s “a plant that thought it was Alec Holland, a plant that was trying its level best to be Alec Holland.” Rather than being a human, Holland had died in the swamp, and the bio-restorative chemical allowed the plants to consume Holland and thus his memories, turning into a plant-based being with the memories of Holland.

Moore took inspiration from the planarian/flatworm, which has shown some (debated) ability to gain memories learned by consuming other planarian worms that had been taught to do things like avoiding light. Often, the most entertaining sci-fi ideas are pulled from real science and nature, and Moore found his in the flatworm.

Here, the lore around Swamp Thing expanded considerably. Like the Green Lantern, it came to light that there had been countless Swamp Things throughout history, and that the Holland-inspired one was just the latest. These beings were defenders of something called the Parliament of Trees, a group of entities that rule The Green, a dimension that connects all plant life on Earth.

Moore took the comic in a few other interesting directions. In 1985, a Moore-penned issue of Saga of the Swamp Thing was released without approval from the Comics Code Authority. Because the character was aimed at and read by mature audiences, it wasn’t as big a scandal as it might’ve been.

In Saga of the Swamp Thing #37, Moore introduced the Hellblazer himself, John Constantine, who would go on to become a character on DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. Oh, and this book called Hellblazer.

Moore reigned from issue #21 to #64, when Rick Veitch took over, as Moore was leaving to start the aforementioned Hellblazer. Veitch would leave at issue #88 because DC wouldn’t let him run a story in which a Swamp Thing met Jesus Christ. Doug Wheeler took over from there, introducing a daughter for Swamp Thing, named Tefé Holland, and things moved along until vampire novelist Nancy Collins stepped in from Swamp Thing #110 – #138.

Nancy Collins wanted to bring Swamp Thing back out of the metaphysical world and back to ours. She worked to restore the horror-infused tone of the character, even reviving some old villains like Anton Arcane and the Sunderland Corporation. Collins wrote a lot of ecologically-influenced stories. She took the time to dig into Swamp Things’ internal life with his family, and to use his bayou environment as a source of storytelling. Characters spoke with the patois dialect common to the area, and New Orleans culture took on a greater part of the story. Alan Moore’s run on the character gets a lot of the attention, but Collins work is the run I most wish would see life in a paperback or digital collection.

Swamp Thing on TV

It was around this time that the first Swamp Thing TV series started. There was an 1989 sequel to Craven’s movie, but with a much lower budget. Dick Durock stepped into the rubber suit a second time for that picture. In 1990, though, Swamp Thing came to life on the USA cable network – once again played by Durock and even wearing a modified version of the 1989 sequel’s suit! Durock noted at one point that the original movie’s suiting-up took four hours, but by the time the show was airing, they had a better-looking suit that only took 45 minutes to get into.

The series ran for 3 years and was meant to be produced cheaply and quickly. The same way that the movie was proof that Craven could work with action, the USA series was meant to act as a display piece for Universal’s Florida sound stages. Early episodes were filmed in swamps, but as you might guess, that sucked because of everything that already sucks about swamps, combined with everything that sucks about making a television show. They moved to a soundstage shortly after, where Durock wore the 80-pound Swamp Thing costume 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, learning 10 pages of dialogue a day. Remember, Durock is a stuntman, so this isn’t something he was trained for in the same way an actor would be.

As so often happens, the network meddled, bringing in a kid character at one point, though the response to the kid was so poor that they wrote him off by having him – I’m not kidding – abducted by a child-kidnapping ring. It was only revealed through some dialogue later on that he was rescued. And of course, episodes were shown out of order, as so often happens with shows.

The show was meant to run for 100 episodes, but only made it to 72 before cancellation in 1993. Despite this, it was at one point the USA network’s highest-rated program ever, and stayed that for a good while.

During this time, Swamp Thing also made the jump to animation. The series was short, though, and was canceled after just five episodes. But that was long enough for it to get its own toy line featuring 13 action figures and five playsets and vehicles. Swampy even got a video game on NES and Game Boy, as well as other merch like a board game, t-shirts, and even slippers.

Back on the comic book side, later issues would see collaboration between Grant Morrison and Mark Millar that had Swamp Thing being split into two separate beings – Alec Holland and Swamp Thing. The collaboration ended after four issues at which point Millar took over and ran Swamp Thing through a series of trials against the different elemental “parliaments” created by Moore, uniting the elements and becoming a plant elemental.

The Saga of the Swamp Thing series ended at #171, and would stay dormant for a few years until Brian K. Vaughan took him on in 2001 and wrote a story focusing on Swamp Thing’s daughter, Tefé Holland. The series ran for 20 issues and took a page from Dune‘s playbook. Tefé had been exposed to the the Parliaments before she was born, and this left her an unusual child with dark impulses. Despite this being a pretty interesting idea, it didn’t resonate with fans who were looking for a story about, you know, Swamp Thing.

The character has appeared in various stories since that run, including a short run in 2016 that brought back creator Len Wein and had him working with Kelley “Batman’s Ears Aren’t Long Enough” Jones.

Swamp Thing doesn’t have an ongoing series currently, but with the character coming to DC Universe this spring, we wouldn’t be surprised to see him make a comeback soon. More recently, he appeared in DC and NetherRealms’ Injustice 2 as one of the playable characters.

The upcoming show is being produced by James Wan, who has helmed everything from Saw and Annabelle movies to the seventh Fast and Furious movie and this winter’s well-received (and extremely profitable) Aquaman. Andy Bean and Derek Mears will play Alec Holland and Swamp Thing respectively. Mears has jumped into the rubber suits of Jason Voorhees, the Predator, and more, so the Swamp Thing costume shouldn’t be anything too new for him. Crystal Reed will play Swamp Thing’s on-and-off love interest, Abby Arcane, and Henderson Wade will play sometimes-adversary Matt Cable.

Story details on the show are sparse. We’d love to see a mix of some of Swamp Thing’s classic stories and the inclusion of Moore’s more psychedelic stuff. We won’t have to wait long to find out, though – Swamp Thing hits DC Universe on May 31, 2019.


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