Since first emerging from his immemorial bog in 1971’s The House of Secrets #92, Swamp Thing has frequently bubbled to the surface in DC’s lineup over the decades. Created by writer Len Wein (Giant-Size X-Men #1, editor of Watchmen) and artist Bernie Wrightson (Creepy, Frankenstein), Swamp Thing mixed the superpowered, central character driven narrative style of super hero comics with horror elements seemingly inspired by pulp forebears such as the Cthulhu Mythos fiction from the twenties and thirties and the infamous E.C. horror comics of the fifties.
With Wrightson illustrating THoS #92 through Swamp Thing #10 and Wein writing the same and finishing his run on the series at #13, early issues were a bi-monthly monster mash as Swamp Thing – a scientist named Alec Holland transformed into a superhuman plant creature as a result of being doused in his own biorestorative formula in a laboratory bombing – faced off against monsters, aliens, Lovecraftian beasties, supernatural horrors and power-mad wizards.
The eighties saw a revival in interest in the character due largely to a low budget creature feature film adaptation directed by Wes Craven and a staggering, multi-year run by writer Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) and artists Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, and Rick Veitch. During his tenure Moore would radically expand the character’s abilities, transforming him from superhuman plant man to an earth elemental with a variety of supernatural abilities.
Now, with a popular run by writer Scott Snyder in DC’s New 52 concluded, Wein has returned to his old stomping grounds to pen a new 6 issue Swamp Thing miniseries.
With issue #1 we find that Swamp Thing has been nurturing a dislike of his current place in life and, by choice, is apparently no longer on speaking terms with the Parliament of Trees. He’s interrupted from his brooding and alligator wrestling by no less than the Phantom Stranger himself to stop a zombie (the voodoo variety, not the George Romero/Walking Dead gut munching variety) bent on a murderous rampage against those it considers responsible for its undead condition. It’s the sort of monster battle that would have fit right in with the early days of Swamp Thing’s history, and gives a nice nostalgic tone to start out with.
In issue #3 Swamp Thing receives a blast from the past via a visit from old friend Matt Cable, a former federal agent who, in the series’ early days, had hunted Swamp Thing believing the creature had murdered Alec Holland only to switch sides once he’d learned the truth. Cable reveals he’s been traveling the globe after retirement, searching for some spell, some artifact, some tool that can be used to restore Holland’s lost humanity. He’s stolen something that may be able to do exactly that, and, as the pair present the item to DC Universe sorceress Zatanna, she warns them that there may be a price neither one of them may be prepared to accept.
The miniseries is, so far, a far more cut and dry experience than Swamp Thing has tended to be since… well, since Wein’s first time around. Gone is Abby Arcane, Swamp Thing’s long-time love and the starcrossed, bizarre romance that comes with her. Also gone are the heady philosophical and environmental themes of previous eras. Rather than tell a story of Swamp Thing’s acceptance and undertaking of his role as environmental protector, Wein gives us a hero who knows he’s supposed to do all that stuff but is just too bitter and angry to want to do it anymore, though that very attitude may put himself as well as the world in serious jeopardy.
Artist Kelley Jones – particularly revered for his work on the “Vampire Batman” trilogy and for his work on both Batman and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman – brings the ghastly and grotesque to life page after page, and seems a natural choice for this horror-centric super hero saga, though one can’t help but find his interpretation of Swamp Thing himself a bit odd. As a red-eyed creature basically made up of moss, vines, leaves, and whatever other plant matter artists could think of, Swamp thing has had an established, very intricate signature look for decades now. He’s also a creature that tends to be used in shadows, silently watching from the bog until his moment to strike arrives.
Jones’s approach seems to be flipping the established look and aesthetic of the character on its head. The body of intricate interweaving plant matter is gone, replaced with a huge, bestial interpretation mostly flat in skin tone save for the odd vein or vine. He’s front and center in every moment, angrily shouting through gritted teeth, all fists and flailing arms and legs. If one didn’t know what character this one and had seen only the body without the head, one could easily mistake it for Marvel’s Hulk rather than Swamp Thing and, in a way, that seems to rob the character of some of his unique visual appeal. It’s a strange dichotomy – visually, everything feels exactly right in Swamp Thing save for Swamp Thing himself.
While Wein’s new Swamp Thing is, in many ways, a throwback to an earlier, less complicated era of the character’s history, it is a satisfying one so far, presenting a direct inner conflict within its protagonist that should be interesting to see resolved.