Oh, Swamp Thing.

Starting publication in House of Secrets #92 in a one-off tale starring Alex Olsen, a new series emerged with a differently named protagonist (Alec Holland) possessing the same powers. The same creative team handled both the introduction and the initial series, and would continue for ten issues when Swamp Thing’s image, that indiscriminate monster made of murk, would bleed into mass culture with a somewhat successful movie, a brilliant parody in Marvel comic’s Man-Thing that partially constitutes Gerber’s virtuosic satiric ramp through the Marvel Universe (Howard the Duck and Defenders included, among others), and a television series that lasted four seasons.

“I’m from Philadelphia; I’m used to weird things. I’d sneak out at night. you’d be surprised at some of the things I’d see… I think my mom and I just need some trial and separation” just some of the things a young, naive boy would tell a plant elemental.

The show is lazy and bizarre, and the soundtrack fits perfectly with the Animal Collective I forgot to turn off while watching this.

Anyways, the comic didn’t do too well after an incredible initial run, and Swamp Thing became one of those fabled comics characters more widely known outside of comics instead of inside comics for a while.

As for the comics themselves, they were absolutely brilliant, inventive, and creative dark fantasy horror genre pieces, so casual as to seem from a grand tradition of stories which were only whispers on the margins. However, themes quickly retreated the familiar, and Samp Thing could always conjure an abstract mass of plants to solve his problems with force. It didn’t outwear its welcome, though. It had enough time for DC Comics to try a desperate move: assign a science fiction writer mostly known for dystopian space operas and comedies (Alan Moore: see Ballad of Halo Jones, The Adventures of D.R. and Quinch). And they gave him total creative reign of a character that had lots of iconic presence, and few sells.

So Alan Moore focused on the horrific side of swamp thing. While initially seeming to be nothing different than the initial series covers,

which was preceded with great oddities like this one:

there was one crucial difference with Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing

This one does not look at the reader. Instead, we simply watch from behind his back, given a limited comprehension of dread power we are too powerless to stop.

Of course, Alan Moore eased into it masterfully with the grace of a superhero historian and the revelatory power of a gleeful profanist (himself becoming a magician at the time), and, of course it ended up becoming a best seller and singlehandedly creating an imprint of mature themed comics (Vertigo), but Alan Moore didn’t know that when he made his first initial changes to this monster with such an irrelevant, and murky, identity.

Like my mentor always told me, you gotta take lemons and make great american novels while you’re drinking delicious lemonade.

To do this, Alan Moore pondered deeply on the complexities of having a murky identity. He turned the original name of Swamp Thing (Olsen, instead of Holland), into justification that the Swamp Thing is a repeated entity that possesses individuals. Olsen was a failed experiment, a one-off. Holland was the real deal, and republishing the same pages with the name changed cemented that successful revision, or evolution, of Swamp Thing’s identity. He even became a full fledged member of the DC Universe, engulfing Gotham in greenery just for the heck of it.

So he went on, becoming less and less human throughout Alan Moore’s run. I wish I could say that I’ve read all of the immediately following Veitch’s run, but what little I’ve seen continues the formula of swamp thing as an outsider character to much more complex and vulnerable character’s problems. Then the stories became more literate and focused on personal drama to achingly dull effect.

Soon after Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing ended (and almost singlehandedly justified the need for trade paperbacks in a marketplace that at best had magazine anthology reprints of older material), plenty of other British comic writers started taking old, forgotten superhero properties and seeing how time had eroded them, how age had given them wisdom. Grant Morrison wrote Animal Man and Doom Patrol, Neil Gaiman wrote Sandman, and one of the characters Alan Moore created in his run, the con artist and magician John Constantine, got his own title in Hellblazer (now anticipating celebration of its three hundredth issue). The superhero, it seemed, certainly did not have to be human.

And so times got more relaxed. More desperate realistic visions of old properties got tried, sometimes to startling effect (Shade: The Changing Man and Sandman Mystery Theatre, for my money a better and more consistent read than Gaiman’s, although I’ve yet to track down all the pamphlets of the latter), sometimes to piddling inconsequential effect (Sorry, Ann Nocenti’s Kid Eternity). DC had starting grabbing its heroes from the gutter, and found that there was an audience for that.

And that is where the Swamp Thing comics by Grant Morrison and Mark Millar emerged. Seeing a property that once again resembled the mighty tree rotting in a bog that Alan Moore was able to revise, Grant Morrison conceived of a vision for the remake. Along for the ride was Mark Millar. According to Morrison’s recently published book, Supergods (which says many more nice and menacing words about Morrison’s peer in punk Scottish superheroics), he plotted out almost all of the run, providing specific captions and dialogue. After reading the run recently myself, I have to say this seems true. The last issue even says has Mark thanking Grant in print for the daily phone calls and guidance on style and developments. Prose that cuts too quick into character’s reality arises, and way too often. It’s not that Millar doesn’t get into the heart of his characters, but he normally doesn’t do it with Roy Thomas levels of universe synchronicity perfectly arranging a chess board. He’s much more into smashing prearranged chess boards, arriving into a room smartly tailored and with just the perfect fuck you to shout before tipping over the chess board that has so completely fascinated old men for years before bringing them, already drunk and tired, to the club at night. He slips them ecstasy. They let him run their events, their entire universe, and before too long, it’s all about flashing lights and glamour, and gosh, why are we so broke, and why does Disney own us?

Dude, where’s my independence?

At least, that’s what Mark Millar did with the Marvel universe, and what it’s recovering from now (with yet another “event book”, sure to follow the same sagging sales trend Marvel’s event books have been having since Civil War). And here, the initial goal is certainly destruction of the staid Swamp Thing that had bored readers into looking for the more violent and sexy vertigo comics that earlier issues of the Swamp Thing had paved the way for. But, after they rewrite Swamp Thing’s history, they start to build him up. And it’s the first genuine change to his character since Alan Moore rewrote the Swamp Thing as an elemental force remembering himself as Alec Holland.

A human Alec Holland wakes up in South America remembering himself as the Swamp Thing, his dreams are haunted with an elemental green figure inching closer, demanding that he accept his fate. After sensing that the love of his life is threatened, he assumes the swamp thing mantle, possessing it to prevent the death of Abby. He reluctantly becomes the Swamp Thing, and wakes up.

His trials are not over, though. First off, his name is Matthew Cable instead of Alec Holland, and he is in what we find out a parallel universe composed of a ghost’s sorrow. He must free a ghost writer who died before she could finish her book of unconnected short stories. The Swamp Thing goes through a variety of stories in a piece of modular storytelling as self contained and epic as Seven Soldiers, if on a slightly smaller scale. Samp Thing goes through a series of fictions, and he must become the same character in each. This gives him the power of fluidity, of becoming a water elemental as well as a swamp elemental. In a smaller story, he became a rock elemental, and in an extended, and much less developed story ending the run, Swamp Thing becomes a god. The only humanizing aspect is his growing apathy for his increasingly less physical relationship with his former love, Abby Arcane, as he seeks power and immortality., becoming a blank slate in the process. An interestingly blankened slate, though.

One that interacted with Sargon the Sorcerer, and gave credibility to John Constantine being an actual member of the DC Universe (which is always a question left never fully answered. Give the DC Universe its enchanted gutter!, i say).

Regardless, after that series had given the DC Universe a God that had saved the world from a threat the JLA could not even defeat in Swamp Thing’s first story (22-27’s tangle with the Floronic Man, which has Swamp Thing realizing that he can’t cover the world in plants: humanity needs to turn oxygen into carbon dioxide for plants to exist), and the rest of the run continues to be an exercise in displaying even more irrelevant power. “The deconstruction of the ego is an essential exercise for any magician”, the one time possessed of the word of God remarks. An exercise that he embarks upon through the method of a job waiting tables for demons.

And so many lines are written (seemingly from Grant Morrison’s dreams), and so the Swamp Thing fades from the narrative almost completely by the story’s end. As well as seeming to function as an exercise in Grant Morrison’s ego death (providing “exact captions” as his Supergods book quotes), so too does the story become more about a public reacting to a mass monster instead of the trials and tribulations of that mass monster. As the comic has laid bare (and as it points out in many remarkable one of stories my enthusiasm could conjure), Swamp Thing has no potential enemies, no foes in this comic. He achieves omnipotence. And, just like Morrison’s run on New X-Men, every other writer who took the character went through as many pains as possible to deny the change and positive growth Morrison and Millar’s stories allowed for the character, Swamp Thing again became agonizingly in love with Abby Arcane and did not travel far from his swamp. Truth be told, there are fewer stories that can be told of a god without emotion, but does he have to return to the same emotion? Can not his temporary omnipotence inflect his philosophy?

Every other writer separated Swamp Thing as far as possible from actual superheroics, and focused exclusively on his overly fetishized relationship with Abby Arcane that became more than afternoon trips of enlightenment together, and became, well:

After one series of overwrought vertigo comics failed, DC tried another. It didn’t do too much better.

Joshua Dysart’s run does a good job of restoring Swamp Thing to the Gothic monster narratives he works so well in, but it was, again, too little too late: people bought Swamp Thing because they liked how it used to be: not because they wanted to know where it could become. So when Swamp Thing became a god, they left.

final issue of the first Swamp Thing comic, written by Mark Millar and drawn with jagged, punk deisgn aesthetic by Phil Hester who could reach into a classic Wrights or Totlebon homage on a whim.

Which looks eerily familiar to this:
But that’s for later paragraphs.

All of this is a far cry from the Samp Thing of the past, as seen now through commissioned (and beautiful) pinups by Bernie Wrightson made around the same time period, the mid to late 90’s:

So time passed slow for Swamp Thing after these comics. Seven years until a bad vertigo miniseries that sold poorly, and a year more until another open-ended series that ended up lasting little more than two years. No appearances in the DCU proper (if memory serves), and he just spent time fallow, collecting more of God’s dust.

On the other side of this pond, after a couple years hiatus, Grant Morrison was handed the keys to editing the DC Universe, and after reinventing Batman through Batman Inc. (which seems to be unexplored by every writer on Batman) and radically reinserting the “fierce humanism” of Superman from the 1940s [Morrison’s own word for his approach], a new Swamp Thing comic comes out, and it’s currently in one of the best selling New 52 titles from DC. Copies of the issue’s first print had a huge spike in value, and there are two other printings of it. More importantly, though, within the stories, Swamp Thing is finally returning to the DC Universe proper again.

I have to say, his new comics resemble Morrison and Millar’s almost exactly. A man dreams his time as Swamp Thing, and then, with only the possibility of a former life as the Green, he gets confronted by the elemental forces and must make a difficult decision. Will he return to the Green and become an elemental guiding the world? Or will he remain a part of this world?

Which choice is he going to make this time? here’s to hoping it isn’t becoming the Swamp Thing again. If there ever was a time to pass the mantle, now is it. My choice would be Bruce Wayne, because he’s already in control of one aspect of the green:

it’ll never happen, though.

At the very least, I hope that DC remembers that its current architect, Grant Morrison, as well as Marvel’s current rockstar writer, Mark Millar, already reshaped one of the most lofty and untouched characters, and along the way they wrote God into the DC Universe, turned its word into a vengeful spirit that sonic science, and even wrote a comic book about who is possibly the DC universe’s most powerful superhero, Swamp Thing.

The best part about the comic is that, even as the populace grows quiet and reminiscent of the world trembling potential that Swamp Thing has, they start to fear his apocalyptic cleaning process, they also recognize that change is possible. It’s only after Swamp Thing leaves behind “the last traces of my human ego looking for a role” that he stopes his apocalyptic renewal process that would begin with a single human child.

When Alec Holland faces the word of god (well, referred to every spiritual DC character as “the voice”), without his elemental powers because of his own hubris, he speaks as a colleague. “Your god does not understand kindness: only blind obedience. He wants us to do whatever he says.

As far as the natural world is concerned, it isn’t enough to simple exist. We want more from our lives. This is why we created our parliaments in the first place, don’t you understand [Word of the voice]? We want a voice of our own. Your god didn’t create mankind as a selfless act. He did so because he was alone and wanted someone who might shower him with praise. The Earth was considered a playground for these foul human creatures from the beginning. He made man in his own image and allowed him to abuse my people whichever way he please.

They cleared us to make space for walking hamburgers, roasted us in territorial wars… even the seven seas of this world have become poisoned and the skies diseased, while your god idly watches.

Now we say enough is enough.

We suspected this would happen, so very long ago, when we first heard that your god planned to make the dust sit up and talk. and so we devised a very clever plan… God created man in his own image and we hoped to use this power against him. We selected suitable humans and impressed ourselves upon their consciousness. But none of them truly aspired to godhood. Not until I came along. Haven’t you ever wondered what went wrong with the world? Don’t you ever stop to think you could do better when you look at the suffering around you? Have you never questioned God’s judgment?”

The word replies: “Never. His word is gospel.”

And then, over the next few seconds (interrupted by a lengthy scene detailing the conditions of his defeat), he dies. Tefe emerges from the void, having constructed her own body to be a musical instrument that produces the exact opposite frequency of the word of God, and suddenly the two cancel out. It’s simple science, a Flash fact written into a mature readers gothic horror biblical epic, and delivered by an everyman hero who had devised a plan the last couple pages reveal.

Yea, I’m sure “Mark Millar” wrote that.

I didn’t just quote that long passage to show the many Morrisonian themes contained therein (one of them left out of that litany above: that of self as superhero, the animal rights of Animal Man bleeding into this comic’s last page that shows utopia as a world of humanity as garden tenders of the earth), I also quoted it to show that the comic ultimately views Swamp Thing as a superhero. As much as the comics I’ve been writing about have investigated what it means to do right in a world, this comic does so, as well, and comes to the conclusion that not having a role, but seeing things that could benefit form your help, is really the way to be a superhero. And it just slips out in a horror comic at the tail end of impending cancellation from a fervent cult following not big enough to produce more issues.

It ends with Swamp Thing helping a bird to fly.

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