Uncompleted Stories: Swamp Thing 2


Swamp Thing regrown

Having had one story killed under him by cancellation, over a decade later DC’s Swamp Thing went through a similar experience.
After a near-miss in 1978, when the DC Implosion put paid to an intended revival of the series before it saw print, Swamp Thing returned in a new series in 1982, spinning off the back of a horror film directed by the then-unknown Wes Craven, which was a fairly close adaptation of issues 1 and 2 of the first series.
Where, not that long before, the character would have simply returned in Swamp Thing 25, DC had finally come alive to some of the nuances of the collector’s market and wanted to provide themselves with a fresh no. 1, so the series was named Saga of the Swamp Thing.
The new series was written by Martin Pasko and drawn by Tom Yeates in close imitation of Berni Wrightson. Pasko’s long, involved story, with a wholly new supporting cast, was sadly turgid and sales were poor, despite attempts to boost matters by reintroducing long-term series supporting characters Matt Cable and Abigail Arcane, now a married couple, and Abby’s twice-dead Uncle, and Holland’s mortal foe, Anton Arcane.
By issue 19, with Pasko leaving, sales were down to a pitiful 19,000 per month. Cancellation would not long follow. Len Wein, who had returned to edit the series, had the freedom to try a long shot, and invited British-born and based writer Alan Moore to pitch for the series. Moore was, in industry terms, still a young and unproven writer, though he’d been a revelation in British comics over the previous two years, as one of the most innovative and imaginative creators around.
So Moore wrote issue 20, “Loose Ends”, briskly tidying up those parts of Pasko’s continuity for which he had no time. It ended in deliberately clichéd manner, with the Swamp Thing cut down and ‘killed’ by a hail of bullets. We sighed slightly: how many times had we seen the hero ‘die’ on the last page of an issue, only for him to spring back to life on the first page next month.
What we didn’t know was that we had just seen the real thing.
In issue 21, Moore performed an autopsy on the Swamp Thing’s body. D-list villain Jason Woodrue, an existing plant-human hybrid known as the Fluoronic Man, cuts Swampy’s body apart, removing organs like lungs and liver and brain that do not function, that cannot function, because they are made of vegetable matter, not human flesh.
The answer comes by accident. Swap Thing is not, and never was, a human transformed into a plant. He is a plant that has had impressed upon it a powerful, traumatised human consciousness that, unable to accept its death, has shaped itself into the form of a man, complete with organs that don’t work but which comfort it by being there.
Without invalidating a single word of Wein and Wrightson’s Swamp Thing, Moore had turned the concept on its head and created the third Swamp Thing, whose adventures would continue until the end of the series, many years in the future, after 171 issues and many twists and turns.
Moore’s tenure was an awesome run of concepts, as the Swamp Thing slowly accepted that it was not human, not Alec Holland, and began to discover what it was instead. Moore re-defined Swamp as a Plant Elemental, one of a long line of Swamp Things: protectors of the biosphere created when the Green – the overmind of the Earth’s vegetative sphere – needed something to intervene between humanity and the planet. He was the latest in the long line of Erl-Kings.
Throughout this run, Moore was mainly aided by the art team of Steve Bisette (pencils) and John Totleben (inks), with back-ups and fill-ins provided by a number of artists with astonishingly similar vision. One of these, Rick Veitch, became principal artist for the final year of Moore’s run, during which Swamp Thing was forced off Earth, unable to connect himself to the planet any longer.
After a number of adventures in space, Swampy learns how to reconnect and returns. At the end of issue 64, Moore’s last, he and Abby, his lover (that is a story for an entirely different blogpost!) retire to the heart of the Swamp, to peace and a life together.
A decade later, Moore’s influence on the field, and that of British witers who followed him, most particularly Neil Gaiman, would have meant that might have been it. Swamp Thing volume 2 might have been cancelled, the story over. But such times had not yet come about, and issue 65 was due out a month later, and it was written, as well as drawn, by Veitch.
Veitch planned to stay to write two long story arcs. Only the first of these would be completed.
His first arc was a natural offshoot from Moore’s last arc. The Swamp Thing had been forced off Earth, leading the Green, via the Parliament of Trees, to assume he was dead, and lay the seed for the next Swamp Thing. Swampy’s return was disastrous, upsetting (literally) the balance of nature to the risk of the whole planet.
Two solutions were offered to Swampy: that he retire to the Parliament, leaving the world behind, and allow the seed to progress, or to exercise the right of primacy and absorb (i.e. kill) the Sprout. Swampy, still too influenced by the human responses of Alec Holland, refused both options, leading to an increasingly desperate situation as he tries to secure the Sprout a proper birth in a proper form.
In the end, with the Sprout growing increasingly confused and corrupted by all the failed births, Swampy came to an elegant and unexpected conclusion that to birth the Sprout properly, it needed to be born in human form, as the child of Swampy and Abby.
When this was done, ending the line of Erl-Kings, the Parliament’s response was to ask why it had taken him so long to reach this conclusion?
Veitch’s second arc was tied into the 1988 DC Crossover story, Invasion, though I’m assuming that Veitch merely used the premise of the series to set-up his planned sequence.
Invasion was based on the premise that a coalition of 14 alien races, fearful of the sheer variety of Earths superhuman population, launches a pre-emptive strike intended to enslave the planet before it can get out into space. Needless to say, the sheer variety of Earths superhuman population is what defeats them.
However, for Veitch’s purposes, Swamp Thing, as an entity capable of mobilising the actual planet against its invaders, was singled out for a pre-emptive pre-emptive strike. He is forced off Earth again, but this time barred from escaping to another planet. All trace of Swampy is lost, and everyone believes him dead, except the pregnant Abby, who refuses to accept he won’t return.
And she is, naturally, right to believe, for, unable to escape in space, Swamp Thing has fled in time, moving backwards in order to manifest himself, each time in historical periods where he meets notable DC characters.
Curiously, at some point he also encounters a mysterious chunk of amber crystal, with which he cannot co-exist. As soon as it appears, he is forced from that temporal zone, and has to move ever backwards.
This sequence moved from World War II (Sgt. Rock, Easy Co., the Unknown Soldier) to World War I (von Ritter, the Enemy Ace), to the late western period (Johnny Thunder, Madame. 44, Bat Lash and more) to the post-Revolution period (an aging Tomahawk, Etrigan the Demon), and in issue 87, Arthurian times (Arthur, Merlin and Etrigan again).
Issue 88 was where the arc was broken. Veitch had had his outline approved, guest penciller Michael Zulli, on his first mainstream assignment, had completed two-thirds of the pencils. DC had given the issue the go-ahead. And then they pulled out, demanding that the story be scrapped.
What happened? Warner Brothers had happened. The forthcoming Batman film was going to happen. The conservative and religious backlash under President Reagan was happening. The Last Temptation of Christ had definitively happened. Distributors and retailers, who were now DC’s near-exclusive access to their customers, were getting scared of progress and innovation that might play in such sophisticated places as New York, but were considerably less acceptable in Pigfart, Indiana.
Because in issue 88, the Swamp Thing was going to meet Jesus Christ. A monster was going to be seen alongside our Lord and Saviour. What was worse, he was going to be the cupbearer who brings water to Jesus on the Cross: a monster – almost by definition a demon – was going to show pity for the Christ.
DC had accepted the story and then gotten cold feet. Partly this was due to changing social conditions. Partly it was down to Warner Brothers, with the millions it had invested in the first Batman film since Adam West in the Biff-Pow-Bam Sixties, and was actually looking at its comics division and getting antsy about upsetting anyone. And yes, some of it was due to Veitch having glossed over, in his outline, certain aspects of his intended treatment of Jesus (i.e. as a magician and NOT as Christ) that made the story far less innocuous than it was expressed to be.
Whichever way, issue 88 had become unpublishable.
Veitch argued his case strenuously, but unavailingly. Having failed to move DC, he took the only course open to him, and quit. British writers Neil Gaiman and Jamie Delano, who had agreed to take the series over when Veitch had concluded his arc and his commitment, withdrew out of sympathy. For a second time, Swamp Thing found himself in the middle of a story that was Uncompleted.
It can be argued that this was not actually the case. Swamp Thing skipped a month, and issue 88 came out, and the Swamp Thing travels in time story continued under a completely different creative team, writer Doug Wheeler taking over the task of concluding Veitch’s sequence in two perfunctory issues.
An ending was published. Very few people hold it in regard. It has nothing of Veitch’s intentions: indeed Veitch has offered, as recently as 2004, to make whatever changes are necessary to make the unprinted story publishable, provided DC will allow him to finish his story. There was no interest then and, a decade later, with the story itself ‘happening’ three Universes back and DC firmly wedded to trashing everything likable about its characters, it is not something we can ever expect to see.
Indeed, I am led to believe that Wheeler’s twenty-two issue tenure involve retcons to a lot of not just Veitch’s work but that of Moore as well, as if DC expected sales to just collapse and didn’t care any longer.
But sales did not collapse. It would be another seven years before the series would be cancelled, shortening but not leaving uncompleted an ambitious sequence of stories by Mark Millar. Nevertheless, the Swamp Thing’s story ended for me and many others in that moment. Unless Veitch is given the miraculous opportunity to complete his story, it remains a dark and hollow tale, unfulfilled.

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