Friday, August 16, 2013
Review: Roots of the Swamp Thing
Artists: Bernie Wrightson and Nestor Redondo
Collects: House of Secrets #92 (1971), Swamp Thing #1-13 (1972-1974)
Published: DC, 2009; $39.99 (HC), $29.99 (TPB)
Most discussions about Swamp Thing revolve around Alan Moore’s influential tenure on the title during the 1980s, but comparatively little has been said about the character’s first appearances, published over a decade earlier. And while the early-’70s comics collected in Roots of the Swamp Thing, written by Len Wein and illustrated primarily by Bernie Wrightson, don’t have the same philosophical heft as some of Moore’s stories, they frequently make for a kind of genre entertainment which, in its own way, is just as fulfilling. In fact, if Moore’s creative run was paradigmatic of the more literary-minded approach mainstream comics were to briefly take in the late 1980s, I would argue that Wein’s run was similarly emblematic of the best that horror comics were capable of in the 1970s.
It’s probably fitting, then, that the first Wein/Wrightson story to feature a swamp monster was published in House of Secrets, one of DC’s two flagship horror anthology titles during the 1970s (the other being House of Mystery). Between its second-person narration and moody linework and coloring, this story wears its debt to 1950s EC horror on its sleeve; it’s a worthy homage, with an ending as powerful as that of any story illustrated by the likes of Al Feldstein or Johnny Craig. Interestingly, though, this story was merely the prototype for what was to come in the ongoing series Wein and Wrightson would begin the following year.
In Swamp Thing #1, the duo reinvents their title character as Alec Holland, a scientist whose “bio-restorative formula” possesses the ability to “make forests out of deserts.” His discovery is naturally the envy of villains like the mysterious Mr. E, whose agents sabotage Holland’s lab and murder his wife. Holland survives, but he is forever changed: saturated with his own formula and set ablaze, he plunges himself into the heavily-vegetated swampland surrounding his home and mutates into the “muck-encrusted mockery of a man” that will come to be known as the Swamp Thing.
Holland proves a remarkably affecting character for a shambling monster virtually incapable of speech. Wein rarely loses sight of the character’s sorrow over the death of his wife, and while the book’s third-person narration is often heavy-handed to the point of campiness, the writing that conveys Holland’s thoughts is soberingly down-to-earth. But while the character at times seems well on his way to full-blown existentialism, his development is repeatedly cut short by the introduction of too many villains, too early in the series (in fact, there is already another one, in addition to Mr. E, by the end of the first issue). The worst of them is the Cthulhu-esque monster M’Nagalah, which spends half an issue babbling about its role in the evolution of mankind. At one point it claims to have “touched the minds of your greatest scribes,” who it lists as H.P. Lovecraft, Ambrose Bierce, and Edgar Allan Poe; what is the 1970s equivalent of a facepalm?
The story is at its best, however, in the issues detailing Holland’s search for answers about Mr. E. His hunt takes him from Louisiana all the way to Eastern Europe, and in stories equal parts gothic and Universal Studios horror, Wein pits the character against werewolves, the mad scientist Anton Arcane, and even a contemporary version of Frankenstein’s monster. At the same time, he develops a supporting cast consisting of Matthew Cable – a government agent convinced Swamp Thing is the murderer of Holland and his wife – and Arcane’s beautiful, white-haired daughter Abigail, who joins Cable in his dogged pursuit of the mutated Holland. The journey ends in Gotham City, where Holland’s run-in with Batman makes for a tale as clever and engaging as the best issues of Marvel Team-Up and The Brave and the Bold. This issue also brings the Mr. E subplot to a satisfying close, seemingly setting the stage for Wein and Wrightson to take the character in any number of new directions.
Instead, unfortunately, the quality of the book nosedives almost immediately. It’s around this point that the page count for each issue drops from 24 pages to a mere 20, and while the stories are more compressed from here on out, that doesn’t necessarily make the plotting any tighter. It’s not long before certain tropes rear their increasingly ugly heads, again and again. By issue 8, even the main character appears sick of the endlessly repetitive plotlines: “Oh, no…not another mindless mob,” he thinks, wearily batting away a crowd of pitchfork-wielding villagers for what feels like the series’ hundredth time.
Things go from bad to worse after Wrightson’s replacement by artist Nestor Redondo in issue 11. As it turns out, though, Redondo is the book’s biggest saving grace in these issues; it’s the plots themselves that descend into Lovecraftian silliness and, for the first time, begin to rely heavily on cliffhanger endings. Before long, Holland is doing less of the well-written introspection that characterized Swamp Thing’s early issues than he is traveling through time to fight dinosaurs and Roman gladiators. It’s clear in the final issues collected in Roots of the Swamp Thing that, without the collaboration of Wrightson or the Mr. E subplot to give his stories more long-term direction, Wein was floundering. Issue 13 was his last; afterward, the title’s writing duties passed back and forth between David Michelinie and Gerry Conway. Redondo would remain the book’s artist until its penultimate issue just under a year later, when it was finally cancelled.
In all fairness, my harshness toward this collection’s last few issues has less to do with their respective strengths and weaknesses – they are perfectly competent, if fairly by-the-numbers, superhero tales – than it does with the unfavorable way those stories compare to the earlier issues. It seems to me that the mood and character established in those first issues allowed them to tell stories that were noticeably different from the ones being published in other Marvel and DC comics at the time, and it’s a shame to see such potential fall to pieces in the end. Still, the first seven issues collected in Roots of the Swamp Thing are 1970s horror comics par excellence, worthy of attention by those interested in the history of comic books and American horror stories alike. While the other issues may hold interest for some, it’s probably safe to say that, compared to the earlier material, they seem little more than a curiosity in their protagonist’s long publishing history.