Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


Swamp Thing: Dark Genesis
(TPB size)

or Secret of the Swamp Thing (digest format)

Swamp Thing: Dark Genesis - cover by Berni Wrightson Released: 2002

Written by Len Wein. Illustrated by Berni Wrightson.
Colours/letters: various. Editor: Joe Orlando.

Reprinting: Swamp Thing (1st series) #1-10 (1973), and a story from House of Secrets #92

Published by DC Comics

232 pages

Cover price: $19.95 USA/ $32.95 CDN. ($9.99 USA for digest size)

Not a recent release, but this TPB is still in print, and a few months back (in late 2005) DC even re-released it in a digest-sized format under the title Secret of the Swamp Thing. Plus the stories have been reprinted many times over the years in comics form, including in a 1985 series, The Roots of the Swamp Thing.

Long before the current interpretation of the Swamp Thing, and before the one before that (who I gather is supposed to be the daughter of the first), and even long before Alan Moore's critically acclaimed 1980s revival that turned our photosynthesicatical hero into an Elemental swamp-entity, there were these original, more tragic-tinged tales of Dr. Alec Holland, bio-chemist, who is turned into a muck-encrusted mockery of a man...a...a...Swamp Thing!

These were written in the early 1970s at a time when mainstream comics were first experimenting with looser Comics Code guidelines. A slew of cross-genre characters were introduced, mixing horror with super-hero conventions from Ghost Rider to Werewolf by Night to Man-Thing (the strikingly similar Marvel character that pre-dated Swamp Thing by a few months...and a character I was actually more fond of).

The first story has Holland and his wife, Linda, working on a radical formula for accelerating plant growth in the Louisiana Bayou. When Holland refuses an offer made by a sinister cartel known as the Conclave, he is blown up in his lab, resulting in his body mixing with his chemicals and the neighbouring swamp, and being reborn as a monstrous plant creature, largely incapable of speech, but with his mind intact. Linda is killed by the Conclave agents and F.B.I. agent Matt Cable starts hunting the Swamp Thing, blaming it for the Hollands' deaths. Thus begins the saga.

The subsequent stories continue the threads of Cable's pursuit of the Swamp Thing, literally across the world (and hooking up with the lovely Abigail Arcane), unaware the Conclave is keeping an eye on him. Those threads seem a little contrived at times, or as if Wein was making it up as he went along (which he probably was).

Cable and the Hollands are on a formal, last-name basis in issue one, but by the third issue, Cable is referring to them as having been his best friends (though that could be seen as a telling comment on Cable's lack of close relationships). Even then, it's not clear how or why he attributes the deaths of the Hollands to the Swamp Thing. Still, one can't help but assume the makers of the 1970s "Incredible Hulk" TV series were thinking of Cable when they invented reporter McGee.

Swampys' decision to elude Cable fluctuates from story to story, from a general moroseness, to a determination that, with his limited vocal prowess, he'd be unable to convince anyone, to a belief that his bio-restorative formula must never be rediscovered.

The Conclave stuff is kind of thin as well, a sub-plot largely missing a...plot.

But those are only minor points. The strengths of the Swamp Thing were the issue-by-issue stories. Adventures mixing gothic horror and dark fantasy with evocative titles like "The Last of the Ravenwind Witches", "The Patchwork Man" and others. Wein's use of mood-setting description ("Dawn rolls in with a whimper, spreading shimmering fingers of scarlet across the snow-capped Balkan landscape like a blind man feeling his way.") would probably be unheard of in the modern, cinematic way of writing comics -- but a lot of the series' mood derives froom those purple passages. The frequently surreal stories remain oddly memorable for the most part, tales of Swampy stumbling upon isolated communities where, for the sake of the narrative, he is accepted unquestioningly as often as he is repelled as a monster -- communities with weird secrets, some terrible, some more uplifting. Usually wrapping up with one of Wein's clever twist endings.

Berni Wrightson's eerie, shadow-drenched art, at once beautiful and grotesque, full of rain-soaked swamps, bizarre architecture and equally bizarre people, was well-suited to the material, giving it a Gothic, period flavour even though the series was set in modern times. At its best his art combined with Wein's prose to draw you in to Swampy's haunting reality. Even the lettering is used to add to the ambience, often drawn in ragged boxes.

Together they could, surprisingly, make even cliches fresh. One of the best stories, "Monster on the Moors", is a simple, old fashioned werewolf tale.

The weakest tale is "Night of the Bat" (#7), which served as the climax to the Conclave sub-plot and brings super hero Batman into the saga. Unfortunately, it's an awkward fit. Leaving behind the dark fantasy genre, the story has Swamp Thing prowling the streets of Gotham, playing detective, hanging out in bars, supposedly interrogating thugs for clues (how a creature who is largely mute can interrogate someone, Wein never answers). I've often thought of Wein as one of my favourite Batman writers, but I never really felt Batman worked here (though I realize this may've been before Wein had tackled the character in his own mags) and Wrightson's art is less-well suited to the superhero milieu. And the basic plot lacks the climactic feel one would expect for a confrontation that had been building for seven issues.

The final issue is also one of my least favourites. Swamp Thing, as presented here, was more Gothic horror, genteel in its way, grotesque but not gory, while later writers like Alan Moore would infuse the series with more modern sensibilities, an ugliness evoking Clive Barker more than Mary Shelley, Stephen King more than H.P. Lovecraft. However, "The Man Who Would Not Die" is a somewhat more unpleasant tale evoking old EC horror comics, in concepts and visuals. Perhaps significantly, though written by Wein, the story is credited to Wrightson.

Of course, there are interesting side points to ponder. Swamp Thing came out around the same time as Man-Thing (and both owe origins to a '40s character called the Heap), and Wein's descriptions of Swampy, of his misshapen limbs, and his penchant to leave trails of slime, all evoke the Man-Thing...but not the way Wrightson drew Swamp Thing who, other than a pot belly, looks reasonably well-formed, and not particularly slimy at all!

As an added bonus, included is a short story by Wein and Wrightson that first introduced the concept of the Swamp Thing (from House of Secrets). It's not supposed to be considered part of the same reality, but it's interesting to see the beginnings of the idea.

Overall, though uneven in spots, there's no denying the atmosphere of these curious little tales. Though, admittedly, by the end of this collection -- which reprints the entire run of stories drawn by Wrightson -- there's a sense the series was running out of steam.

The series gained greater acclaim when Alan Moore turned the premise on its head in the '80s and had Swamp Thing revealed as being an elemental -- not Alec Holland at all, but a creature who only thought he was Alec Holland. But I think these early tales are a reminder of something that was lost in the change, that maybe went over the heads of Moore and his fans. A layer of poignancy, and a universal resonance as Holland sought what we all seek (if less literally)...acceptance, and to assert his humanity.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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