SWAMP THING: Roots of Horror

Released 40 years ago today, Wes Craven's B movie was an entirely different 'thing' to what followed in the pages of the groundbreaking comic book.

By Rich Johnson · @richpieces · February 19, 2022, 5:29 PM EST
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"A lot of life is dealing with your curse … Does it make you into a monster, or can you temper it in some way, or accept it and go in some other direction?" ― Wes Craven [1]

Gothic. Poetic. Tragic. Psychedelic. Horrific. For just over half a century, the Swamp Thing has evolved from Universal monster and B movie homage to an elemental god. The creature's roots are not of an individual life form (or host) but a legacy of many, proving that this is more than a man and monster, becoming anything, anyone… anywhere.

Of course, the late Wes Craven's film is barely any of these things, released at a time when the wonderfully weird character was not only partially formed, but on the cusp of a genuine metamorphosis. In an effort to distance himself from his edgier, exploitative work, Craven now moved towards the mainstream; his contemporary, John Carpenter, leading the charge with a number of genre films, including his own 'Thing' the same year. Hit or miss, both Craven and Carpenter left the pretense of the European influence behind, reminding audiences of American cinema and its escapist entertainment. In contrast to Carpenter's EC Comics corruption and cinema schooling, Craven was raised in a strict Baptist household. Such material was forbidden, and, therefore, it is no coincidence that the majority of his work ― mainstream or not ― often explored repression, resulting in an explosion of (sexual) violence and explicit content [2] pouring onto the screen. Interestingly enough, one of many sins the original comic book series would go on to explore beyond the limits of its pulp influences.

Gothic beginnings

"What is a memory? It is a searing sound of devastation -- as you watch the world go up in flames before you… What is memory? It is the gaping wound that once had been your heart -- when you learn you are alone…" ― "Swamp Thing", The House of Secrets, issue #92 (1971)


Other than character changes, the origin remains (mostly) intact. Seeking a "Bio-Restorative Formula" for more nefarious means, the evil Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan) burns botanist Alec Holland (Ray Wise) alive after the sabotage of his life-changing experiment. Covered in his formula and doused by the surrounding waters, Holland is resurrected as the Swamp Thing, "... something no longer human — but rather a muck-encrusted mockery of a man" [3]. Although a modern monster, the original saga has always remained, at its heart, a "Beauty and the Beast" tale. This first onscreen version is hardly the greatest love story ever told. But, in true gothic fashion, has its moments in reminding us — amongst the noise of the movie's camp comic book action — of the connection between Holland and Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau), as we are shown all that is left of his humanity.


Born out of the Bronze Age, Swamp Thing was co-created by writer, Len Wein (1948-2017), and artist Bernie Wrightson (1948-2017). The idea for the first story ― in which a scientist is murdered by his jealous best friend ― came to Wein while traveling on the subway to a pitch meeting. An idea he would refer to as "that swamp thing I'm working on." The name stuck… or simply took root. First appearing in House of Secrets issue #91 (cover-dated July 1971), both writer and artist presented a hybrid of Frankenstein's monster and the prehistoric Gill-Man framed perfectly as an homage to the Universal monsters and banned EC horror comics of the '50s. This was their childhood, and, regarding Wein himself, pulp material became the perfect medicine for a kid who had suffered from so many physical disabilities. According to his wife, Christine Valada [4], her husband had "what he called 'terminal blood poisoning' when he was misdiagnosed for an illness in his teens." Deeply scarred from the lancing of the infection that ate away at his flesh, "his father told them that if Len was going to die anyway, he'd rather bury him whole." Suffering further illnesses at the time he created the Swamp Thing, therefore, it was no surprise at all that the creature ― its soft center dressed in a monstrous exterior ― was such a deeply personal character and reflection of Wein himself; the foundations for the DC character (literally) growing into another of his grizzly superheroes.


Wein and Wrightson's original eight-page tale was given its own series the following year ― running for 24 issues from 1972 to 1976 ― outselling the Batman and Superman titles and becoming DC's best-selling issue that month. It is this initial run of the first volume (1972-1976) Craven drew influences from. Onscreen, the tragedy of Alec Holland's demise and the monstrous 'hulking' presence of the Swamp Thing was now confined to the bayou rather than wandering through traditional gothic landscapes. Details of which, only hinted at in the castle-like mansion and its dungeon purveyed by Arcane during the final act. The film's naivety was a combination of how one-dimensional the character was at the time (less of a god and more of a monster) along with Craven's lack of familiarity with the material, but begins with independent producer (and Batman obsessive), Michael Uslan purchasing the rights to Batman and Swamp Thing. Although the Caped Crusader would take the rest of the decade to bring to the screen ― Uslan attached as producer to all of the Batman movies so far ― as first-time producer on Swamp Thing, he was personally responsible for hiring Craven. It is also interesting to note that, after the huge success of Richard Donner's Superman (1978) and its sequel (1980), such seminal superhero property would be followed up by such an oddity.

Less blockbuster, more shlockbuster, tonally, Swamp Thing wasn't sure what it was. But we are more than sure of what the director's key work had become over the years; Craven's impact on horror movies reinventing the genre several times. As with many horror maestros, his reputation (on and off camera) as one of the kindest and most affable people in the industry is a dichotomy to the material he delivered over a 40-year career. From exploitative origins in The Last House on the Left (1972) to his modern-day bogeyman, Freddy Krueger, in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and the meta-horror of Scream (1996), it is easy to see how Swamp Thing would remain so overlooked… "It had a great poster... what more can I say?" [5]


Shot in the swamps of South Carolina, Swamp Thing has few Cravenisms. Closer in tone to Saturday afternoon television ― spinning A-Team-style stunts and a flash of boobage [6] ― it leans more heavily towards its adolescent audience. Written and directed by Craven, the chaos and budget restraints he had to deal with resulted in a film that almost sank his career. Part of its gung-ho approach ― clearly to keeping the production moving ― was the streamlined script melding characters, themes, and scenes from the first volume of the comic book series. Swamp Thing's abilities are limited; the first incarnation of which ― both on the page and screen ― only able to regenerate a missing limb. Here, he is reduced to no more than a hulking mass that wades through the bayou ― with Dick Durock's heartfelt performance just about managing to distract from his ill-fitting rubber suit. Briefly framed like the Patterson-Gimlin footage, Swamp Thing unfortunately lacks the legendary stature of Bigfoot, along with the mythos and unique elemental powers now synonymous with the character.


Craven's film is what it is; dumb PG-rated fun that revels in its B movie charm and makes no apologies for it. In fact, this version ― despite the qualms most would have with it ― is a comic book movie in every sense of the word. Going on to inspire more mutant madness with Troma Entertainment's The Toxic Avenger (1984), it is still baffling to see how these films (bizarrely) straddled popular culture. Both "Swampy" and "Toxie" fortunate enough to ride the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze, all of which led to their own animated shows during the early '90s; similarly, other monstrous vegetables seen in the Attack of the Killer Tomatoes animated series (1990-1991), based on the 1978 B movie spoof. However, during this time, back in the pages of the comic book, there was little room for child's play.

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American Gothic and beyond the bayou


"He's just a ghost. A ghost dressed in weeds." ― Jason Woodrue, "The Anatomy Lesson", The Saga of the Swamp Thing, Volume 2, issue #21 (1984)

During the early '70s, Len Wein looked outside of his American homeland; Swamp Thing's journey an external one that forged a path predominantly across Europe. From another (more cynical) perspective, British writer Alan Moore scrutinized America from overseas in the mid-'80s and, as a wizard of words, led the "British Invasion" of creators ― including Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman ― who dominated DC Comics during this period. Both Wein and Wrightson initially concerned themselves with less serious themes, steeped in nods to gothic literature of the 19th century ― Poe, Shelley, Stoker et al. ― while Moore brought Swamp Thing back to the bayou, emphasizing "what a weird and wonderful place home can be." [7]


Once a silent monster in the earlier issues, the journey would now become as much about self-discovery (and latent powers) as it would be a comment on the sins of America ― from mass genocide to slavery and the destruction of the wilderness ― stories that were to become some of the finest works of Southern Gothic literature. After tying up "Loose Ends" in the saga (issue #20), Moore's approach to the material ― illustrated (predominately) by artists Steve Bissette, John Totleben, and Rick Veitch ― began to build a rich tapestry of time and place. All of which opens with a dissection…

Considered one of the single greatest issues of any comic book series [8], "The Anatomy Lesson" from The Saga of The Swamp Thing, issue #21 (1984) lays everything on the slab. Analyzed by a villainous Jason Woodrue (the Floronic Man), the mad doctor studies another "bio-chemical fluke" in search of answers as he examines a skeleton of wood and (pseudo) unworkable organs. Here, he realizes nothing physically remains of the man that was once Alec Holland; only a plant that thinks he's a man… and everything, from that point, changes. In a single story, Moore completely reinvents and revitalizes the DC property lending a prominent voice to Swamp Thing and digging the foundations for what was to come.


Issue #34 ― titled "Rite of Spring" (1985) ― is a literal mindfuck and a genuine benchmark and high point of Moore's run. This "vegetable sex chapter" ― by no coincidence my own (adolescent) introduction to the series ― attracted more readers than ever before. Moore, at his best, delivers a hallucinogenic consumption via poetic prose in which a deeply seductive communion between Swamp Thing and Abigail (Abby) Cable is played out. At first, she eats his fruit, which results in her absorbing his consciousness and perceptions before she feels the earth and the creature's soul, falling in love via a deep connection to "the Green" [9]. All of which is stunningly composed in mind-altering panels.

The art of Swamp Thing has, for the most part, rendered a monster and his environments rich in texture and atmosphere while often lending itself to those more visceral moments of (body) horror. Pulling himself together (or sprouting a new limb) is a walk in the park; the most interesting visuals often when navigating the Green before growing rapidly from the ground dressed and camouflaged in the surrounding flora. There is an unforgettable scene in issue #22, "Swamped", beautifully illustrated by Bissette (pencils) and Tottleben (inks). "Giving up the illusion of meathood", Swamp Thing lays dormant as he connects to the Green for the first time. Withdrawn, he no longer pretends to breathe; now sunk into the damp surroundings as he stares vacantly at the sky, his eye sockets filled with rainwater.


Awakened, Moore goes on to introduce John Constantine as his guide (issue #37), who leads him through the badlands as he learns more about his new powers and the Parliament of Trees [10]; traveling to Hell, the cosmos, and back again. The complete antithesis to what was seen on the page and screen up to this point, dark and awakening moments become Swamp Thing's bleak (breathless) observations of humanity, "Is there some pattern... that I should perceive...in this senseless pageant... of atrocity...? Is there some truth... that may be divined... from the entrails... of America...?" [11] Words as graphic and poetic as the imagery. This Swamp Thing unearths the inherent violence of America, less concerned with traditional gothic influences but, instead, a journey through the land via its people. Anchoring his artists, Moore returned to the pretensions (and brutal truths) often displayed in extreme cinema of the '60s and '70s ― note the conclusion of Soldier Blue ― fueled by the reprehensible history left behind. Therefore, the "American Gothic" storyline became the crucial second act and "the beginning of a more self-conscious travelogue of cursed turf" [12] and, therefore, leaned more towards the themes Craven had already bloodied his hands with, in his own comments to a post-Vietnam society.

When the "monster" itself is destroyed as a foreign entity, throughout the final arc, he transcends from the microcosm to the cosmic expanse of space… in search of a body. Less of a Lovecraftian nightmare and more another hallucinatory experience ― spattered with philosophical monologues ― Swamp Thing rebuilds his new (blue) world, reminiscent of both René Laloux's Fantastic Planet and Moore's other blue (self-imposed) exile, Doctor Manhattan. Bored, he creates a copy of himself to play an alien game of chess before recreating his lover, Abby. He doesn't stop there, growing architecture and other characters from his past life. Sadly though, as a god, what he creates he destroys and continues to move on through space.


Often compromised during the title's early run, it was the story "Love and Death" ― issue #31 (1984) ― that was initially rejected due to explicit content and led to DC permanently sidestepping the Comics Code Authority (CCA) for approval. Rebranding the title as "Sophisticated Suspense" was one step closer towards an older readership and precursor to the Vertigo imprint that would follow a decade later. As the first DC comic to permanently drop the Code, it wasn't long until every other publisher followed. Unshackled, the title would continue to push boundaries even when Moore exited. This time, however, the publisher themselves pulled the plug on Swamp Thing's most controversial story, which even mainstream media reported at the time. Scripted by artist Rick Veitch ― who had taken over the writing duties after Moore ― the unpublished issue #88, "Morning of the Magician" (solicited in 1989), had the character travel back in time… only (wait for it)… to interact with Jesus Christ himself just before the Crucifixion. The idea for the cover was to have Swamp Thing formed as the cross and stained by the blood wounds of Christ. Veitch was so incensed by the withdrawal of the story he resigned from the series shortly after.

In the years following Alan Moore's groundbreaking run and Veitch's continuation of the saga, other writers and artists made their mark, most notably horror author Nancy A. Collins, assisted by artists Scot Eaton, Kim DeMulder, and Tatjana Woods. Collins' contribution was a significant entry point to the series and a return to the roots of horror that had become somewhat diluted. Exploring the (often) complicated and conflicting memories Swamp Thing battled with ― his life as a man and destiny as a god ― Collins' run became another high point. Most importantly, as a female writer, she developed Abby into a much stronger character through the troubled and twisted relationship that had formed between them, building her own genuine sense of presence through a (forgotten) Arcane heritage.


Fertile future?


"Another human, another avatar… another hopeful reach into the abyss that is man." ― Poison Ivy, "My Green Amaranthine", The Swamp Thing, issue #3 (2021).

Despite its damp and shallow nature, Wes Craven's version certainly delivers on nostalgia. There is a genuine boyish charm, especially if you watch without the weight of the mythology that proceeded within the pages of the comic books. Treated purely as an adaptation of his Bronze Age origins, this first adaptation certainly delivers, for all its goofball antics. But, as explored, the roots of the Swamp Thing run much, much deeper. Ironically, despite the film's misgivings, it led to a reconfiguration of the mythos and, in doing so, paved the way for the reinvention of sequential storytelling, giving birth to the Modern Age of comic books. For most, including myself, the character formed a deep and personal connection to monsters through the potential of horror comics ― over the years, both an ostracized genre and medium ― always at the forefront of producing stories that challenge the reader.


Swamp Thing stories continue to challenge because of the timeless themes explored, which have never been so prevalent as social anxieties ― surrounding collective trauma and the death of humanity ― reach an all-time high as we continue to live within an ecological horror show. In the most recent comic book series, The Swamp Thing, writer Ram V, and artist Mike Perkins remind us of the body horror and sheer terror illustrated over the years. Where the ill-fated 2019 TV series presented an eerily accurate prediction of a pandemic, corruption, and cover-ups, V and Perkins similarly re-deliver elements ripe for the picking with a new "Guardian of the Green", Levi Kamei. As he attempts to understand his new power and corruptive force of "the Contagion" ― a memory of mankind at its worst that now resides within the Green ― he wrestles with his own memories… and, alas, a continuing internal conflict…

As an avatar of the Green, Swamp Thing's ultimate dilemma has always been the conflict in completing what Alec Holland set out to achieve ― "create gardens out of sweltering deserts…" [13] ― bringing an end to famine and helping to heal the planet. Yet, as he ponders in those final pages of Moore's run, a brutal truth is shared as he knows he would be "endlessly covering scars..." for man to inflict endlessly. "Mankind must learn... to manufacture glories of its own... and to atone...for all its sins... without my prompting... or my aid. It is the only way they'll grow." [14] His hope is his weakness, highlighted by V in the most recent storyline. As Poison Ivy states, "All the turmoil is because you cannot grasp what you truly are. You cannot think beyond the weakest part of yourself… your humanity." [15]


Humanity is all we have left. The modern world has become a fertile but violent land, the ashes of the dead feeding the things that become our nightmares. Maybe all we have learned to grow is hard skin, so we can only hope that more vital seeds are planted, given the attention they deserve to produce something good and green in the world… instead of a monster.

1 In his foreword to How to Survive a Horror Movie by Seth Grahame-Smith.
2 Most note Wes Craven's entry into exploitation cinema, The Last House on the Left (1972) but it is the nod and the wink he often gave to his pseudonym, Abe Snake ― directing the porn movie Angela, the Fireworks Woman (1975) ― that has often raised its ugly head, sitting rather uncomfortably alongside his Psychology master's degree major and earlier years as a teacher.
3 The Dead Don't Sleep (2016) by Len Wein and Kelly Jones. Wein's final work before he passed away.
4 In her foreword to the collection Swamp Thing: Roots of Terror (2019).
5 Via Craven's film commentary on Scream Factory's 2013 Blu-ray release.
6 While the PG-cut teases a brief breast profile, Barbeau's gratuitous topless scene was shot and intended for use only on the European release.
7 Wein reflecting on Moore's run in "Home Again, Home Again: An Introduction of Sorts", Saga of the Swamp Thing: Book One (2008).
8 See also "The Coyote Gospel", Animal Man Volume 1, issue #5 (1988) by writer Grant Morrison and artists Chaz Truog and Doug Hazlewood. A comic book series that began to crossover (and "cross-pollinate") with Swamp Thing through "the Red", exploring ecological issues, albeit through a more meta-narrative.
9 A dimension, described recently in "My Green Amaranthine: Part 2", The Swamp Thing, issue #4 (2021) as: "Molecule thoughts ... a place of living information." A collective memory; the one thing we all share right now.
10 The Parliament of Trees reaches back eons, the chosen avatars imitating life on Earth.
11 "Bogeymen", Swamp Thing volume 2, issue #44 (1986)
12 Stephen Bissette's 2010 Introduction "Cursed Earth & Uneasy Riders", Saga of the Swamp Thing: Book Three.
13 "Dark Genesis!" Swamp Thing Volume 1, issue 1 (1972).
14 "Return of the Good Gumbo", Swamp Thing volume 2, issue #64 (1987)
15 "My Green Amaranthine: Part 1" The Swamp Thing, issue #3 (2021).