Monday, December 14, 2015

The Curious Case of Swamp Thing's Second Hello

House of Secrets #92 (July 1971)(cover by Bernie Wrightson)
"Swamp Thing"
Len Wein-Bernie Wrightson

Swamp Thing #1 (October/November 1972)(cover by Bernie Wrightson)
"Dark Genesis"
Len Wein-Bernie Wrightson

Doug: If you're like me, it varies from book to book (I'm talking high brow books here, kids -- no pictures) whether or not you actually start with the preface, introduction, acknowledgements, etc. or just dive right into the text. Today I'll be reading/scanning from the DC Comics Classics Library volume Roots of the Swamp Thing. I am always using the BAB as an excuse to read things I've not read before -- I did it earlier this year with a couple of Adam Strange stories, and it's been well-documented over the past couple of months that I've been reading Marvel's Monster of Frankenstein series. I was standing at my book shelves in the middle of last week trying to choose something different when my eyes settled on today's fare. In my entire life, I think I have read two Swamp Thing stories, so for the most part today's post is written from a fresh perspective. In this case I dove right in, reading the first appearance of ol' Swamp Thing from House of Secrets #92 and then moving right into the next "chapter", Swamp Thing #1. I was about 1/3 of the way through the second book when the deja vu (read: these dudes are ripping themselves off!) set in. Searching for a clue, I then went back to the front of the book and read the preface from author Len Wein. A-ha, said I. 

Doug: Wein related how he'd come up with the original idea, gotten editor Joe Orlando to OK it, and then convinced friend Bernie Wrightson to draw it while commiserating with him at Marv Wolfman's Christmas party back in 1970. Both Wein and Wrightson were on the rocks of love, so crafted a tale of love lost, revenge, etc. Boom -- neatly packaged in an 8-page throwaway tale, cathartic for both creators. And then the mail started to arrive. More and more. Publisher Carmine Infantino wanted more Swamp Thing, but Wein was skeptical. Their story had been a personal one and had served its point. Wein and Wrightson balked. Temporarily. They thought about it, and then decided to sort of re-tell the first story, with new characters and a new direction. End of my confusion. So let's do something a little different in terms of formatting today. Usually Karen and/or I do a plot synopsis with some analysis, and then wrap things up with final thoughts. But since today's stories fit together, I'm going to break it into categories for a sort of side-by-side look at Swamp Thing's two "hellos". Art samples will appear side-by-side, the left from House of Secrets and the right from Swamp Thing.

Story length:
House of Secrets = 8 pages
Swamp Thing = 22 pages

Main characters:
House of Secrets
Alex Olsen (Swamp Thing), scientist
Linda Olsen-Ridge, wife to Alex, and then wife to...
Damien Ridge, scientist; Alex Olsen's partner
Swamp Thing =
Alec Holland (Swamp Thing), scientist
Linda Ridge-Holland, scientist and wife of Alec
Lt. Matt Cable, government agent
Ferret, do-badder
The Plot:
House of Secrets = Wein declared in the piece I read that he had wanted to do a period piece about a swamp creature. By the way Wrightson chose wardrobes for his characters, I'd estimate that Swamp Thing's 1st appearance is set in the Victorian era. There are only three characters in the story, and the plot is quite simple: Alex Olsen is young, good-looking, smart as a whip, and married for one year to the beautiful Linda. Alex's partner in science is Damien Ridge, who is jealous beyond seeing straight. In his mind, Damien thinks that Alex knew Damien loved Linda, but Alex proposed anyway. Filled with anger, Damien rigged an explosive via chemical reaction in the laboratory where they worked on an unrevealed project. Making an excuse to leave the room, Damien was just outside when the detonation occurred. Linda was nearby, but Damien told her not to go inside -- that there was literally nothing left of Alex. The truth was, Alex was not dead but horribly disfigured. Damien dragged his limp body away from the place they worked and buried Alex in a bog. Several months later Damien had gotten his wish -- he'd married Linda. But Linda could only think of Alex and faked her way through her "love" of Damien. Now paranoid, Damien feared that Linda would discover that he'd been the one to kill Alex. But what neither of them knew was that Alex had not died, but had instead been "reborn" by the swamp's waters into a lumbering mass of animated vegetation. And each night, that Swamp Thing had shambled up to the old mansion's windows, hoping to get a glimpse of "his" Linda. But on a fateful night he saw Damien draw a syringe and move it close to Linda's neck. Exposing himself to his "friends" for the first time, the Swamp Thing burst into the room and killed Damien. Unable to speak, though, he could make no explanation to Linda, who screamed and cowered in his presence. A tale of love, murder, and revenge, but overall of loss.

Swamp Thing = Wein's and Wrightson's second go-round with their swamp man is similar, if more intricately plotted. An extra 14 pages will do that for ya! In this update, told only a year after the House of Secrets story, we find that the husband/wife super-scientist team of Alec and Linda Holland are being sequestered by the government so that they can complete some top-secret, and very valuable work. They are moved into a barn that's been outfitted as a state-of-the-art laboratory. A Lt. Cable is their liaison, and tells the pair that under no circumstances are they to open the door unless on his order. There will be cars patrolling the area to keep them safe, and secret. We find out that the Hollands are working on a compound that will allow vegetation to grow anywhere, and abundantly. They know that their work has a price tag beyond valuation, and it's just when they "go live" for the first time that they are interrupted. A thug named Ferret enters the lab with a couple goons and tells Alec Holland that he would like to make an offer that can't be refused. You get it... Of course Holland tells them to take a hike. Cable returns and chews out the Hollands for even talking to anyone else. We get an uneasy feeling about Cable, like he's perhaps up to his own agenda. Later that evening the Hollands hear a rustling outside the barn, and open the door to discover a large dog -- apparently a stray. They take it in, not knowing that the dog wears a radio transmitter so that the bad guys can eavesdrop. Ferret pays the Hollands another visit, and this one doesn't go so well. Alec is knocked unconscious and while down and out, a booby trap is set. A short time later, as he begins to regain consciousness he hears a bomb ticking. It goes off in Holland's face. His body ablaze, Holland flees the lab and runs into the nearby swamp, where we must assume he drowns. After Holland's funeral, Cable encourages Linda to finish the work. But Ferret's guys turn up, rough up Cable, and Linda ends up dead. Much like in the first story, the Swamp Thing now makes his appearance and kicks some tail. He's fired at by multiple assailants, and we infer that he (the former Alec Holland) is now invulnerable. The story ends with Cable alive and the Swamp Thing back to his new digs. But he's spied on by some supernatural dude with goonies in his employ. It looks as if the plot will thicken in the next issue.

House of Secrets = Ugh. Wein writes the narrative boxes in the Claremontian style "You are..."
Swamp Thing = Good stuff.

House of Secrets = Bernie Wrightson is a guy whose stuff I look at and really try to soak it all in. It seems funny to say, but even his grotesque images are just beautiful; so intricate. But in the first Swamp Thing story his art has a real 1950s feel to it, much like what we'd have seen from the EC books of that era past.

Swamp Thing = In both stories Wrightson inks himself. His work seems to have a very natural feel to it, a la Joe Kubert's work (in the regard that it's all him, all the time). Wrightson's Swamp Thing the first time out was a mass, a lump. But here he's fully-formed as we think of the character. I also must state a preference for the second version of Swamp Thing's face as compared to the first version, which seemed to sort of have a mossy mustache (a real soup strainer!) look. Wrightson's story telling and pacing are great!

Doug: So there you have it. If we have any Swamp Thing aficionados amongst our readers, I'd love to hear more about the character, the original Wein/Wrightson run compared to Alan Moore's take on the character, the character as one of DC's supernatural denizens, etc. I'm pretty much a tabula rasa here today.


Edo Bosnar said...

Like the idea of parallel reviews; I'd read both of these stories before, both reprinted somewhere, and I read a smattering of the other Wein/Wrightson stories, possibly in one of these DC Special reprint books that came out in the late '70s. As I recall, I liked the stories well enough, but Wrightson's art is really key to enjoying them. You're right: even when he draws grotesque images there's this sort of beauty to them.
However, I have to say that by far the best Swamp Thing stories are from the Alan Moore run; his stories really took the character to a whole new level.
By the way, the origin from House of Secrets was reprinted in an issue of Moore's run as part of a longer story called "Abandoned Houses" that was a tribute to the cancelled House of Mystery and House of Secrets.

Humanbelly said...

Boy, it's been probably 40 years since I've read Swamp Thing #1--- and I know it's still sitting down there in a longbox somewhere. I'd forgotten what a first-rate issue that was-- and possibly didn't have a full appreciation of it even then. My buddy and I thought he was quite cool, but of course it was always the mini-debate over whether he or Man-Thing was the "original" swamp-monster creation-- especially with some of the absurd similarities in their origin stories. I don't off-hand know the answer right now, but my guess would be that Swampie had the the advantage of precedent by at least a month or two? Since we were primarily Marvel Zuvembies at the time, though, our assumption was that M-T was the better title character. I have since completely, completely reversed that opinion.

And to be perfectly accurate, The Glob (Hulk #121) would have had the precedent over both of 'em-- (See, friends, it always ALL connects back to the Hulk---!)

Something else that's kinda cool? For this one issue, at least, the character's mucky feet still had the potential to be planted in the Sci-Fi horror realm. To all appearances, he's simply a science-based (more or less) creation as opposed to a supernatural one. Like Frankenstein's Monster.

As a side discussion-- a few years ago I tried watching the Swamp Thing TV series aaaaaaand finally gave up, as the writing had all the depth of a weaker Jeff's Collie (LASSIE)episode. . . but with a bit less dynamic pacing. Although I have to say that I truly liked the late Dick Durock as Swampie. More of him and less of the "protagonist" kid would have made for a much more compelling show. (Hmm-- perhaps the LASSIE connection is stronger than I realized? "JEFF'S SWAMP MONSTER"--?)

HB-- gettin' back to work (today, fabricating period crown moulding & fancy stair-railings)

Martinex1 said...

I really enjoyed the format of this review. The compare and contrast is a nice change and probably applicable to many comic stories. I have never read Swamp Thing, and like HB am probably more familiar with Marvel's Man- Thing. I believe the first appearance of Marvel's muck monster was in 1971 and Len Wein even penned a story early on. And I thought that was all after The Heap from Skywald, but I am going off of a foggy memory.

The one thing that caught my attention here is that there was such a clamor for an ongoing and more appearances of the Swamp Thing after that first short story. That seems odd to me. Despite Wrightson's beautiful art, isn't the story pretty typical for horror anthologies of the time? It seems like I've read countless "versions" of that story in the "House" and "Chamber" and "Tomb" books over the years. I wonder what the attraction to this particular creature drama was.

Again, I really liked the side by side and I had no idea that there were Swamp Thing origins of different eras.

Doug said...

Thanks for the feedback thus far -- it is appreciated.

To the best of my recollection, the only time we've ever done a review with a similar M.O. was my look at Roy Thomas's Tower of the Elephant, as drawn by both Barry Smith and John Buscema. You can revisit that post by clicking here.


Redartz said...

Thoroughly enjoyed your review (s?) today, Doug; and getting to pore over some pages of fine Wrightson artwork is also enjoyable. Like HB, it's been decades since I read either of these, and unfortunately neither still resides in my collection. I do recall loving the Alan Moore stories; looks like another title to add to that growing want list of collected editions.

Interesting to hear the back story of Wein/Wrightson and the Swamp Thing's creation. As for who came first, House of Secrets 92 is cover dated July, 1971, and Man-Thing's intro in Savage Tales #1 was dated May, 1971. For whatever that's worth...regardless, I love them both...

Edo Bosnar said...

HB, I'd concede that Swampie is a better character, simply because even in his own stories, Man-Thing is more of a catalyst than actual character. However, if we were to compare just the stories from the '70s, i.e. Wein/Wrightson's Swamp Things vs. Gerber/Mayerik/Ploog/et al.'s Man-Thing, I'd vote for the latter every time. As I said, it's only Moore who turned Swampie into something special.

Vince and Siv said...

A bit off topic, but related to Wrightson's ST run.....

Back in the day when the book 'The Studio' came out (1979 I think, focusing on Wrightson, Kaluta, Jones and Smith), I took my copies of ST 1-10 to The Studio signing at Forbidden Planet London to get Berni to sign them (which he duly did, laying them all in a line, he wryly commented 'I'll sign them in a production line, which is how they were drawn!').

Having done that I passed issue 9 to Mike Kaluta saying 'I think you inked some of the pages, could you also sign it?' (Its still listed online in some places as him :, he looked blankly at my 16 year old self and said 'I think there's a mistake, I didn't do that.' At which point I felt a hot flush of embarrassment rising over my face.

At this point Jeff Jones leaned over and said....'oh, I remember doing that!' And signed his name on one of the pages he'd inked (you can see the difference in the inking style on a number of pages of the issue).

As a young-ish kid from London, meeting some comic pros (from America even!), a day like that is something that stays with you!

Doug said...

That's a great story.


Garett said...

Great review Doug, love the side-by-side! I remember reading that the character drawings in the original 8-pager were from photos Wrightson took of his friends, including artist Mike Kaluta who is the bad guy with the moustache.

For me, Swamp Thing is the best horror comic ever. I could never get into Man-Thing, and Tomb of Dracula, while great, runs a close second place. The art and storytelling by Wrightson are superb, and I prefer the energy of Wein's writing to Moore's later version.

Wrightson's compositions and anatomy are great, and he also has style to burn! One of the best inkers in comics. Swampy is also a great character. Loved the guest appearance by Batman later in this series, and the other characters like the Patchwork Man, the witch girl, and the clock maker. Hope to see more reviews here!

By the way, that first 8-pager was pretty much done over the course of a weekend, very quickly.

Anonymous said...

Hey Doug, seeing as you asked for a comparison, I reckon the Moore take scores over Wein's through being a lot less formulaic. For all that I like the original, it was very much in "monster of the month" territory after the first issue, the main point of interest (for me at least) being the fantastic artwork of Berni Wrightson. And, lets not forget, Nestor Redondo.

Have you read the Anatomy Lesson - Moore's take on the origin - from ST 21? It was his first issue after tying up Marty Pasko's previous storyline in 20, and will pretty much tell you what you need to know about Moore's approach, and whether its for you or not.

Easy enough to track down in reprint collections, a review would make for an interesting follow up post to this one....


Otto Sell said...

Interestingly, although they say they came up with the characters separately, creators Len Wein (Swamp Thing) and Gerry Conway (Man-Thing) were roommates at the time they were created...

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