In 1972, DC’s personification of natural life and transformation emerged from the darkness of Louisiana swampland. Created by writer Len Wein and artist Berni Wrightson, Swamp Thing is a complex story of loss and rebirth. The hero of The Green made his DC Universe debut earlier this spring with a terrifying re-imagining of his origins but was sadly cancelled less than a week later. Fans have already started a #SaveSwampThing campaign on Twitter in hopes of giving the character a fair shot at a second season. It is clear that Swamp Thing has a special place in the hearts of DC fans.
2019’s Swamp Thing accentuated the elements of science fiction horror that have been deeply woven into the character’s roots since his conception. Swamp Thing’s layered saga can be confusing at a glance. Just who is he? Where did he come from? Should we be afraid? This breakdown of the key components of the Swamp Thing mythos will give essential insight into Louisiana’s most powerful swamp monster- and the man at the core of the “thing”.
The Roots of the Swamp Thing
House of Secrets #92 (1971):
Swamp Thing first appeared as a story in the House of Secrets title. In this one-shot appearance, Swamp Thing was once a man named Alex Olsen. Olsen is a scientist with a loving wife named Linda. Though Olsen is intelligent, he does not notice that his best friend, Damian, is also interested in his wife. The conflict escalates, coming to a head when Damian triggers an explosion in Olsen’s lab intended to kill him. He then tosses Olsen’s body into the swamp, which causes the scientist’s body to mutate from that of a human to a human-plant hybrid. In this version, Alex Olsen tries to reunite with Linda and is horrified to see that she has remarried. Her new husband? None other than Olsen’s backstabbing best friend, Damian. Because of his monster-like appearance, Olsen is unable to communicate with Linda and the couple cannot reunite. Luckily, this story was not the last of Swamp Thing. The character was singled out for a solo title shortly after to be penned by Len Wein and drawn by Berni Wrightson.
Swamp Thing #1 (1972):
Tucked away in a secluded Louisiana lab, Botanist Alec Holland and his wife, Linda, are hard at work on a biological formula. Their formula is no small experiment. Holland and his wife believe they may be on the brink of solving world hunger, and it’s gotten the attention of the American government. The Holland’s have the government’s protection and remain hidden away to keep their formula away from prying eyes. Unfortunately, those prying eyes want more than a look. A company interested in obtaining Holland’s work for themselves makes an offer Holland can’t refuse- except he does. When the scientists refuse to sell out, the laboratory is bombed and a flaming Holland submerges himself the surrounding bayou for relief. Thanks to the chemicals disturbed by the explosion, Holland transforms in the waters of the swamp, merging his own human essence with the local plant life, and emerges as a horrifying plant-like creature.
Alec Holland, the man, becomes a distant dream as Swamp Thing adjusts to his new reality. Unable to cope with what he has become and reeling from the loss of Linda, he seeks revenge on the men that cause the explosion. Tragically, Swamp Thing finds no release in the violent payback. Readers of the original 1970s run watch Swamp Thing wander the earth in search of meaning. His life, as he knew it, has ended in a flash. His rebirth grants him amazing power but does little to reconcile the tortured psyche of a man turned monster.
The Era of Alan Moore
By 1982, Swamp Thing had suffered through his fair share of ups and downs. When the series dropped in readership, writers attempted to shake up the usual with new characters. Among these was Alec Holland’s brother, Edward. The attempt was ill-fated, as Edward did little to revive the book’s ratings. Eventually, Len Wein would publicly denounce the creation of Edward, as well as several other changes the short-term Swamp Thing writers made.
Fortunately, Swamp Thing had a formidable champion in comic writer Alan Moore. Moore’s impressive body of work includes titles like Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and The Killing Joke. Moore took over the series in the early 1980s. His run is considered one of the most brilliant in DC comics. Moore turned Swamp Thing into an escaped creature of science forced to grapple with his ideas of humanity and massively impactful powers. The vivid storytelling and existential undertones turned Swamp Thing into a beacon of possibility for comics. Moore treated the title like a playground of imagination, utilizing elements of fantasy that had previously faded from circulation. Moore also redefined a cast of characters that would become mainstays in Swamp Thing’s mythos.
Alan Moore contributed extensively to Swamp Thing’s primary love interest, Abigail (Abby) Cable. Abby has supernatural abilities of her own and is the niece of one of Swamp Thing’s greatest enemies, Anton Arcane. The two share a deep connection that transcends time and eventually have a son together named Tefe.
Meaning and Abilities
General Powers: Swamp Thing is able to animate plant life to construct a sentient body. Because his abilities affect any and all plants, Swamp Thing can construct a body for himself anywhere he chooses. He is also able to change the size of these bodies at will and possesses super strength. Swamp Thing shares a direct link with plant life, allowing him to understand its energy and detect problems around the globe. Additionally, he can control both earthly and alien plant movement.
The Green and The Parliament of Trees: Swamp Thing is the protector and avatar of The Green, the elemental force that connects all plant life on earth. We learn in Alan Moore’s run that Alec Holland is part of a cycle of Swamp Things, each having taken on the role of protecting The Green. The Parliament of Trees, a group of plant elementals that have existed on earth for millennia, produce one guardian at a time to watch over the green and defend their elemental network from harm.
The Black/ The Rot: Just as The Green is a force of life, The Black (also known as The Rot) is a force of death and decay. The Green and The Rot are natural antagonists, engaging in an elemental war that drags Swamp Thing into a nearly impossible fight. Luckily, The Rot is so deadly that Swamp Thing is not alone in his fight against it. Animal Man, the personification of The Red (The elemental force of animal life), helps Swamp Thing battle The Black for the good of life itself.
Anton Arcane: He may be related to the love of Swamp Thing’s bizarre life, but Anton Arcane is as lethal of an enemy as they come. Arcane is both a sorcerer and a scientist whose diabolical work threatens everything Swamp Thing stands for. Arcane was born in the 1800s and showed an affinity for decay from childhood. His enthusiasm for snuffing out life attracted the attention of the Parliament of Rot, who would eventually make him The Black’s avatar. Arcane is such a threat the The Green that the Parliament of Trees sends Swamp Thing back in time to fight him. Fortunately, this time-travel trip eventually lead to the meeting of Swamp Thing and Abby.
Team Affiliations and Friends
Compared to other heroes, Swamp Thing is not as concerned with protecting the citizens. His job is to protect the green, meaning that plants are more of a priority than humans. Even so, he has been willing to lend a hand when the DC universe is really in trouble. He was a major ally in the Young Animal imprint event, Milk Wars, by working with Cave Carson. He has also been known to assist the Justice League Dark in supernatural missions. Though Swamp Thing may not like John Constantine, Zatanna often has an easier time persuading him to get involved with matters of The Red. Swamp Thing has also made several Justice League appearances and is well known to major members of the league.
These titles are a good sampling of some of Swamp Thing’s strangest and most fantastic adventures:
Saga of The Swamp Thing – Alan Moore
Swamp Thing (Bronze Age) – Len Wein
Swamp Thing: The Root of All Evil – Grant Morrison
Cave Carson has a Cybernetic Eye/Swamp Thing Special #1 – Jon Rivera
Justice League Dark #1 – James T Tyvion IV
Swamp Thing Winter Special – Len Wein and Tom King
The cancellation of DC Universe’s Swamp Thing is a disappointing blow to fans. Fortunately, there is plenty of material for anyone looking to dive deeper into the world of The Green. Do you have a favorite Swamp Thing story? Let us know in the comments below!