Tony Caro enjoys writing about all things pop culture, especially movies and television.
A plant with the memories of a man might seem like an absurd character, and, in many ways, it is. In his landmark run on Swamp Thing, Alan Moore set the stage for a radical departure from the heroic swamp monster's original characterization to launch the hero-horror series into a bold new direction. The new direction manifested after revealing the former mysterious creature represented an elemental champion with demigod like powers. The new journey of the title character begins with the innovative story arc starting with an issue titled, ''Anatomy Lesson'."
Who Is The Swamp Thing?
Long time fans of Swamp Thing comics are familiar with the character's early and later origins. Peripherally aware pop culture consumers familiar with Swamp Thing's movie and cable TV appearances may find the following short primer a little enlightening.
Swamp Thing is a character with a tumultuous history. His arrival followed the debut of a similar creature in the horror anthology House of Secrets #92 in July of 1971. The issue ranked among the best selling comic books in history at the time. The incredibly garish cover caught people's attention and helped boost sales immensely. Set in the 19th century, the simple tale featured a murdered man returning to life in the form of a Swamp Creature to seek revenge predictably. Strong sales certainly meant the character would return.
An update was on the horizon.
The real Swamp Thing garnered his own series, but it (sadly) only lasted 24 issues. Only the first 13 of these issues featured the work of original creators Len Wein/Berni Wrightson. Wein and Wrightson's vision was firmly rooted in the horror mold along the lines of what was established in House of Secrets.
In the first series, we learn of Alec Holland, a scientist attempting to create a biorestorative formula designed to help end world hunger by generating vegetation in arid lands. The lab he works in is sabotaged and bombed. Holland, caught in the bombing, bathed in the biorestorative formula and set in flames, jumps into the bayou swamp waters surrounding the Louisiana lab.
The proverbial startling metamorphosis occurs. The biorestorative formula saves his life but turns him into a swamp creature. Holland spends the next several years trying to find a cure and restore himself to human form.
Alec Holland/Swamp Thing followed the "travel from adventure to adventure while searching for a cure to his plight" plot convention for years. Then, the series experienced a completely new spin when Alan Moore took over the reins as its writer.
An Anatomy Lesson for a Swamp Creature
Although the first series' run only lasted 24 issues, the character returned in a new series.
The second series ran over a decade and gained quite a bit of notoriety after Alan Moore began writing story arcs with The Saga of the Swamp Thing #21 in February of 1984. The debut story entitled ''Anatomy Lesson'' presented a stunning and shocking change to its origin. It was rare for the central characters in DC or Marvel to be open to experimentation (that would come later) due to fears that altering an established character could turn off loyal audiences. DC Comics seemed willing to take chances with Swamp Thing.
The Saga of the Swamp Thing didn't rank close to a number one seller. So, little concern existed about making changes. Often, books that had a decent, small following and a limited market share saw various approaches taken to increase interest. Frequently, such steps were desperate and failed. In this case, the new direction worked, although not to the degree of, say, Daredevil.
In the issues leading up to ''Anatomy Lesson," readers assume Swamp Thing met his end by way of a bullet to the head. When Woodrue, the Floronic Man, performs an autopsy on the corpse on behalf of the Sunderland Corporation, Woodrue concludes the Swamp Thing is purely a plant. The human anatomy and internal organs are merely replicas. Woodrue accurately realizes that the Swamp Thing is not Alec Holland and never was Alec Holland. Sadly, when The Swamp Thing revives (''You cannot kill a vegetable through shooting it in the head.''), the creature learns the sad truth.
Therein comes forth the central question of ''Anatomy Lesson:''
How would you feel if you were not who you thought you were?
To say the effect on the Swamp Thing was devastating would be a dramatic understatement.
Of Swamp Creatures and Philosophical Musings
The earlier incarnations of the Swamp Thing centered on an utter misnomer. There was no real Swamp Thing alter ego. Alec Holland never experienced a physical change after the lab explosion and exposure to the experimental formula. Alec Holland died. The plant tried to revive him, failed, and recreated an entirely different being that stole the dead man's memories.
Swamp Thing can't find a cure and become Alec Holland once again because he never was Alec Holland.
A shock to the system goes through Swamp Thing, and the creature commits its first deliberate murder in the act of revenge shortly after discovering its true identity. The violent touch by Moore truly does get across the notions things now have become tremendously different.
Once the shock wears off, the former Alec Holland, now solely the creature called Swamp Thing, eventually returns to Louisiana and enters into a comatose state and enters the green, the microscopic world of plants where the consciousness of the creatures stays. At the same time, the body becomes a useless shell lying on the ground. (This occurs in issue #22, the second part of the story arc started with ''Anatomy Lesson''.)
The Swamp Thing is unable to answer ''If I am not who I am, then who am I?''
The notion of living a life that has turned out to be a lie is not exactly something anyone would ever wish to experience. Most do not. However, others do have to contend with the fateful realization that all they have known has been a lie. The great Karl Popper once famously noted the right approach to life is to accept the possibility everything we believe may be wrong. Few can accept such a belief for the obvious reasons.
Yet, there can come times in a person's life where circumstances do lead to an earth-shattering moment when all previous belief systems are cast aside. While some might be in denial of such a situation, those who are honest with themselves can accept the notion their life has been a lie. The resultant pain and shock can be devastating. If you are not who you are, then who are you?
The answer, for the Swamp Thing, is "a plant with the memories of man.: The plant never realized this and thought it was always a man. In "Anatomy Lesson," the first day of the rest of the Swamp Thing's life begins, and the experience is far from a pleasant one.
Moore points out the one thing that kept The Swamp Thing sane was its connection to humanity. The creature believed it was human. Throughout western literature, beginning with Beowulf, the scope of most works of fiction is the discovery and search for the individual. Until ''Anatomy Lesson,'' this same focus appeared in Swamp Thing comics. Instead, the search for the individual and the individual's identity are both lost. The Swamp Thing is not an individual and has no real identity.
Or does it?
A more upbeat theme, and the one the book would eventually follow, centers on rebirth, renewal, and rediscovery. While not Alec Holland, The Swamp Thing still lives and exists and can do good. In some ways, the creature's plight can be seen as a journey of a newly renewed self. The past must die, so the future may live. The rebirth of the Swamp Thing may reflect a new, liberated future. Since the creature cannot become Alec Holland once again, then The Swamp Thing is free of the burden of trying to become Alec Holland. He can accept and be who he is.
Steve Bissette's Contribution
Steve Bissette does deserve an enormous amount of credit here. Swamp Thing fell under the category of a horror title in the DC line, but it still maintained quite many familiar trapping of a hero style comic. Swamp Thing, like Marvel's Werewolf by Night, was a good guy.
Yet, there is still an element of horror to the comic. The very eerie artwork of Steve Bissette contributes to this. In many ways, it is evocative of Graham Ingles' work in EC Comics. The sequences where Swamp Thing goes berserk on Sunderland maintains a very EC style. Bissette creates a horrifyingly creepy look to the proceedings that complements Moore's somewhat melodramatic narrative.
Other writers would have their turn with the series, and it had its ups and downs, with each writer delivering their unique spin. The second series ended up suffering cancelation, and a third, fourth, and now a fifth series has kept the character alive in the DC Universe. There are the occasional homages to the Len Wein/Berni Wrightson original run, but the series has firmly remained faithful to the mythos created by Alan Moore.
For those interested in learning more about Swamp Thing, Alan Moore, and Swamp Monsters in general, please check out the excellent "Swamp Monster in Comics" book issued by TwoMorrows Publishing.
Fans of the old Swamp Thing TV series may be thrilled to learn a new one is forthcoming. The new version plans on being more horror-oriented and adult-themed....just like the Alan Moore comics.