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DC Comics Classics Library: Roots of the Swamp Thing (Review)

Sometimes a creator leaves such a massive impression on a character that it’s almost hard to believe that the character ever existed before the writer in question began their run. Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing is one such run, a modern day comic book classic which still reads as one of the best continuous runs by an author on any serial publication, ever. However, despite the fact that Alan Moore effectively defined the monster, Swamp Thing actually enjoyed a long publication history even before Moore began writing the title.

Roots of the Swamp Thing only collects the first thirteen issues of the first Swamp Thing title, but it’s enough to get a flavour for the title under Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson. While it still remains in the shadow of an author who took over later, it’s not a bad monster book in its own right. It still struggles a bit to find its own identity, but there’s some interesting ideas – and it’s easy enough to find some of the ideas Moore would develop to great success gestating between the lines.

It’s alive!

Moore’s run is so influential that it actual extends its influence backwards. It’s a testament to how fully-formed his ideas were that I am incapable of reading these early issues without constant reference to a mythology he retroactively grafted on to the character. Moore revealed that Swamp Thing was not in fact Alec Holland. He was merely an elemental monster who thought the he was Alec Holland. You know an author is on to something when his later ideas influence your approach to the creature’s very origin, as originally dictated by the original author.

Of course, it’s easy enough to fit Moore’s narrative between the lines. That is what makes it genius. The proto-type origin story crafted by Len Wein for House of Secrets featuring a different Alec and Linda (“Olsen”, not “Holland”) can be easily explained away as an earlier iteration of the same monster. I spent a great portion of the book in awe of just how much of what Len Wein wrote seems to vaguely hintat an idea articulated by Moore, but it took the later writer to make everything fit.

Monster mash-up…

For example, there’s the nature of the creature’s existence. As early as the second issue, Wein is rather explicitly stating that he is a plant who has taken human form. Arcane is confused by his physical of the monster. He gasps, “Why — y-you have no blood pressure — and your respiration — like that of a plant! You breathe in carbon dioxide — and exhale oxygen! Your body, it seems, is equally plant-like! There are several bullets lodged inside you — in places that would be fatal to anyone else!”

In a later chapter, Wein suggests that his body is a primal plant to such a degree that the creature’s conscious mind can’t entirely control it. He discovers, at one point, “I’ve stood in this spot so long… I’ve begun to take root…!” There’s very little indication that the creature is Alec Holland, only that he wants to be, and that he seems blind to the nature of his body through that idea he holds. His clinging to human identity – mourning Linda, angst over his secret formula – seems to be holding the monster back from something profound during Len Wein’s run. It’s fascinating that Alan Moore managed to tie together threads that wouldn’t have been noticed otherwise.

Seventies title fonts, everybody!

That said, and this is indicative of the major flaws with the Roots of the Swamp Thing issues, Wein seems a little confused by the monster he is creating. This refers to all aspects of the story he is telling, which is quite difficult to pin down at times, but especially true of the Swamp Thing himself. The issue after we’re told that Swamp Thing wasn’t killed by bullets because he didn’t have internal organs, the creature panics while under attack from another monster. “Got to get some leverage,” he thinks, “put my weight behind it… and break his grip… before he breaks my neck…”

This is in many ways the root of the problem that Len Wein seems to have writing Swamp Thing. He’s never entirely sure about what he’s writing. There’s a sense, throughout the book, that he’s still trying to get a feel for the monster. It makes sense, after all. Swamp Thing is not a werewolf or a vampire or a monster in the style of Frankenstein’s monster. He’s something a bit strange, a bit new, albeit with classic gothic trappings. Alan Moore would write the character so perfectly that he felt like a monstrous archetype, but Wein is writing something a bit strange, which explains why he never seems entirely sure of himself.

Took a while flower…

Consider the character of the monster himself. The character is, to be frank, full of angst. In thirteen issues, the guy whines so much that I found myself rolling my eyes. Wein suggests that the character is in a perpetual state of mourning for his wife, but is also harbouring a secret plant growth formula that he must keep a secret to prevent the creation of another monster. In a way, that feels like a character beat from The Incredible Hulk, but it’s frustrating because Wein using the plot point to keep the creature (relatively) mute.

One would imagine that it’s a bit of an over-reaction, especially given how much he whines about it. If Wein wanted to keep the creature mostly silent, he could play up the idea hinted in the early issues that the creature can talk, but it’s extremely difficult. The creature’s silence adds another similarity to Marvel’s Man-Thing. The two monsters appeared together and were (initially) quite similar. However, the pair would develop in surprisingly distinct directions in the years that followed. However, the Man-Thing has pretty much always been mute, so it feels strange to see Swamp Thing following his gimmick.

Jaw-stopper…

However, despite how overblown all this sounds, at least it is internally consistent. The monster feels sad and guilty, adding an air of tragedy to Swamp Thing. The problem is that Len Wein tends to write the monster with a very chirpy inner monologue. Disguising himself to prowl around Gotham, the character dons a trenchcoat. The image is hilarious, but could also be tragic. Unfortunately, his inner monologue is clearly in “quip” mode, as he opines, “Presenting the new Alec Holland… star of stage… screen… and sumphole!” The matter isn’t helped when the creature starts making terrible puns about “splitting headaches” while using goons to break tables in two.

This makes it somewhat difficult to see Swamp Thing as an inherently tragic monster, instead of just a comic book hero with the trademark quips. However, it isn’t just the creature himself that suffers in these early stories. It seems like Len Wein is struggling to figure out how exactly you tell a Swamp Thing story. The character has become so firmly linked with the Lousiana Bayou that it’s almost difficult to imagine the monster outside that context for an extended period. However, the character spends an extended period of this run absent from the Bayou, to the point where he leaves it in the second issue, only to return to it in the ninth.

“We must not look at goblin men…”

Alan Moore would use the creature to tell very American horror stories. In fact, his American Gothic arc is one of the best horror comics that I have ever read. The creature is – as discussed above – a relatively young creation. He’s also a distinctly American creation, anchored in the Deep South. He is the perfect vehicle to tell horror stories that speak to the American worldview, instead of just mindlessly retreading the old ground established in those classic European horror stories.

To be fair, the first issue suggests that Wein is telling a modern horror story, with a very American angle to it. Written in the early seventies, one can already sense the author’s cynicism about the government and the Cold War. We’re introduced to Alec and Linda Holland working on a top secret project under the watchful eye of the government. One might expect, from that set up, that the pair would be the victims of sabotage by the Russians or other foreign governments, but Len Wein explicitly sources the threat that destroys their lives in the private sector.

Homecoming…

It’s the poorly-conceived and nebulously evil “Conclave” that is behind the attack. It’s an interesting concept, but an idea executed so awkwardly that Wein takes care to tidy up that loose end fairly early in the run of the series. Still, despite the awkward execution, there’s a sense that the “the Conclave” is very much a collection of private sector companies seeking to actively hinder the development of any beneficial technology that would damage their stranglehold on industry. It seems especially evil that they are probably more interested in destroying Alec and Linda’s work than they are in securing it for themselves. “The Conclave has many enterprises that would be jeopardised by outside use of that compound… thus, if we can’t have it, nobody will!”

Of course, there’s more than just private enterprise at work here. As early as the first story, Wein hints at the idea that the United States government is not an explicitly heroic organisation, and that they are less interested in Linda and Alec than they are in the technology that the pair are developing. As Cable assures them, “That conversation we had about you two being merchandise was no joke! You’re commodities, Doctor — you and your wife — to be bought, sold or traded by whoever can manage to own you!”

Visions of madness…

That’s a very interesting existential horror, and the downside of the entreprenuerial American dream. if everything can be traded on the free market, eventually that includes ideas, dreams and even people. It immediately roots Swamp Thing in a fear that sits at the heart of the American psyche, a criticism of the dark underside of one of the virtues of American society It makes the story explicitly American, and places it firmly in the present, arguably exactly what a horror comic like Swamp Thing needed to do. It’s actually a wonderful introductory issue.

The problem comes in the issues that follow. Len Wein has the formula for success outlined fairly early on, and it’s not too far from the stuff Moore would do with the character to make him work perfectly. However, the very next issue takes a sharp left turn, whisking away the Swamp Thing to Eastern Europe with wizards and alchemy and stoen castles. It seems like the book takes about five more issues to stumble its way back to where it started from that bizaare tangent, as Wein tries to write the creature as a decidedly gothic monster.

An underwater menace!

He plowls a landscape that could have come from a Universal Horror film as he fights Arcane and his patchwork monster. He then moves to Scotland, where he prowls the moors and fights a werewolf. There’s horses and carts, as Wein seems to write the creature almost thrown back in time. The creature gradually moves closer to America, but Wein seems to struggle to bring the creature back to the present, writing an adventure which calls to mind the Salem Witch Hunts. It’s an American story, but it’s still far too old.

In the superbly titled “A Clockwork Horror”, Wein seems to be getting closer. The story of a small village that mysteriously reappeared seems like it could be post-War social commentary. Everybody in the town is, after all, a robot, evoking comparisons to The Stepford Wives. It could, after all, serve as potent commentary on visciou small-town American life where one is required to be constantly pleasant and smiling to conform to various community stereotypes – a culture that doesn’t tolerate difference, diversity or weakness. There’s even the reintroduction of the suggestion that the US government is itself a cold and unthinking machine, as Cable observes, “If it wasn’t for the fact that none of the town’s new residents has ever registered with the government or paid any taxes — we’d never have even heard of it!”

Happily never after…

Unfortunately, the story is undermined a bit when the culprit is revealed to be a Swiss watchmaker who has the best of motives, and the story becomes tragic. It never feels like the issue of a town populated by robots based on dead people who can only feel happy is ever addressed. The ideas surely has some value for social commentary? It feels like the waste of a perfectly good premise, but the ideas do seem to be getting a bit stronger as Wein drags the story back towards the present.

Indeed, the later issues contain ideas which seem to foreshadow some of Moore’s own storytelling decisions. While Wein is never quite as effective an author as Moore is, and while his stories tend to go in different directions at times, you can see the vague outlines of many of the uniquely American monsters that Alan Moore would bring to the series. For example, in one issue, the Louisiana Bayou receives a visitor from outer space who learns first hand of mankind’s inhumanity. Another adventure has Swamp thing dislocated in time, much like Moore would have him dislocated in space, zooming through the cosmos without control.

The all-seeing eye…

Wein’s writing is undoubtedly stronger when dealing with these slightly more modern ideas. In fact, one of the ebst issues of the collection see Wein abandoning werewolves or creepy castles for an Eldricht abomination in the style of H.P. Lovecraft. (Lovecraft is even references by name.) Drawing on the founding father of American horror, Wein creates a grotesque and bizarre adventure for Swamp Thing that feels distinct from those stories in other anthologies based around more classic creatures.

Visiting a failed mining town named “Perdition”, the eighth issue seems like Wein is finally telling a distinctly American horror. The story of a community that had been founded on coal mining, only to see the town die when the resource dried up. Of course, the landscape is still somewhat alien to the settlers, and the old mines house a grotesque monster named “M’Nagalah”, a distorted refugee from another dimension who seeks only to grow and gain mass.

Boom, boom, acka lacka lacka boom…

Described by Swamp Thing as “a pulsating cancer”, the creature is firmly rooted in cosmic horror, adding to the feeling that it is a more American type of monster. (While astrology and aliens existed in various local folklore long before the United States was founded, they seem to have developed in literature along with the relatively young nation.) M’Nagalah boasts that his power is connected to the stars themselves, perhaps reflecting an American interest in outer space.

While it is, of course, anchored in the ancient belief in astology, it seems to be tied to the then-recent fascination with the universe beyond Earth. “For soon… soon… the great geometric progression that was begun at the birth of the cosmos will be finished at last… Soon each intergalactic body will be in position to complete the vast celestial circuitry that will make M’Nagalah the master of all that is…”

A rolling swamp monster…

After that point, sadly more than half-way through the book, Wein seems to find his feet a bit better, with various references and ideas that explore modern America, or the older problems that still inform modern America. An otherwise forgettable issue features a horror story of inhumanity on a plantation, making the most of the series’ Southern setting. Alan Moore would return to the legacy of slavery – albeit to greater effect – during his American Gothic arc.

In the very last issue, there’s a hint of the social conscience that Moore would embed into the book, albeit only faintly suggested. Moore would use the book to cleverly explore environmentalism, and the damage that inconsiderate humans do their environment. Here, Wein seems to make a few observations about zoos and the captivity of animals, with the U.S. government keeping Swamp Thing in a “hydroponic tank” which, its creator boasts, “virtually duplicates the conditions of his natural environment.”

Lay down your burdens…

There is, of course, a rather obvious visual irony that Swamp Thing is being kept in a container where he can barely move his arms, mirroring many of the complaints made about keeping exotic animals in captivity. A cage is still a cage, after all, regardless of how it might attempt to emulate the resident’s previous living conditions. It’s a rather wonderfully understated point, and Wein cleverly doesn’t lean too heavily on it – it’s just a nice moment which I think suggests that the writer is growing increasingly comfortable with the potential of his next-generation monster.

Indeed, the final issue even contains a nice reference to Watergate, which would suggest that Wein is feeling a bit more at ease using Swamp Thing to explore aspects of the American psyche.  “Fenwick Military Academy on the outskirts of Washington D.C.,” one caption introduces us, “where we have come to eavesdrop on a certain conversation — an action that elsewhere would be unethical at best — but which, unfortunately, seems quite commonplace here in the nation’s capital…”

Keeping the monsters at Bayou…

It’s the only reference to the affair in the entire volume, but it plays into the themes that Wein has threaded throughout the issues reflected here, and which play to the strengths of Swamp Thing as a distinctly American monster, rather than one inherited or carried over from the grand and more ancient European traditions. Swamp Thing is, after all, the American landscape given life and form.

Even it is not as explicitly the case in the early Len Wein run, it is heavily implied. Swamp Thing is – even if you believe him to be Alec Holland – in a body constructed from the very soil of this relatively young nation. Although he isn’t every plant or animal, and event though he lacks the control that he would demonstrate during Moore’s run, this version of Swamp Thing still seems to exist in symbiosis with the Bayou.

Applied chemistry…

He is keen to get home when he is abducted from these surroundings. (Of course, it is arguably to get back to his research in the hopes of turning human again, but he also seems more comfortable there than he did in the issues charting his journey.) He seeks to restore balance when the gigantic mutated monsters escape into the Bayou. Even after he is apparently murdered by an otherwise innocent alien, the swamp restores him and gives him life again.

Len Wein’s Swamp Thing isn’t a classic, but it’s an effective monster comic in its own right. There’s a whole host of clever ideas to be found here, as Wein finds his feet in these early thirteen issues. Unfortunately, DC recently wrapped up their Comics Classics Librarycollections, so it seems unlikely that the rest of the gap between Wein and Moore will be filled by stylish hardcovers like this one. Even if it isn’t the genre-shattering run that would follow, it’s still a pleasure to own these stories.

Taking root…

Wein is accompanied throughout his run by artist Bernie Wrightson. Wrightson’s art is pitch-perfect for the title, and one can see the influence that his work here would have on his successors on the modern monster. Wrightson has a wonderful knack for drawing grotesque and absurd monsters that still maintain some weird semblance of humanity. Swamp Thing himself is the most obvious example, but you can even see it in Arcane’s Un-Men or even the wizard’s later warped form. These are creatures that are close enough to human that they fit comfortably in the uncanny valley, but not so close that they aren’t unnerving.

Wrightson has a wonderful flexibility – something that really helps the book during its initial identity crisis. Wrightson can draw the swamps of Lousiana, the moors of Scotland, or the greenery of New England without breaking a sweat. His art also shifts tone with practised ease. At some points, it’s clear that Wein is aiming for more traditionally superhero action (like with Batman or with a supervillain nesting in the Bayou), and Wrightson is able to handle those moments well. He’s also perfectly suited to more grotesque and horrifying art work, making him a vital part of these early issues. Wrightson’s pencils give the book a wonderful tonal consistency, and you can see how lovely the artwork looks.

It’s written on the wind… and, er… that branch over there…

Apropos of nothing, Wrightson also draws one hell of a mean “Swamp Thing emerging” panel, as the monster seems to burst out of things left, right and centre. I love those panels, as they always have such a dynamism about them.

Roots of the Swamp Thing is not an essential read. Those looking for something matching Moore’s run on the character are likely to be disappointed. However, these issues hold up pretty well on their own terms, and it’s fun to watch Wein and Wrightson try to figure out this relatively new creation. There are a few awkward missteps along the way, but Wein and Wrightson are charming enough that you want to go along with the ride.

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