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.

Uncompleted Stories: Swamp Thing 1


Wrightson’s Swamp Thing

Though he’s been around for over forty years, and enjoyed a high esteem for long periods during that time, DC’s Swamp Thing is unlikely to be familiar to the non-comics reading public (with the exception of fans of early Eighties Horror B-Movies).
Like many other DC characters, Swamp Thing has been through several incarnations down the years. Let us begin with a bit of historical perspective.
Swamp Thing was conceived by writer Len Wein and artist Berni Wrightson for an eponymous ten page horror story, published in House of Secrets 92 in 1971. The story was set in an isolated house on the edge of the Louisiana swamplands, in the first decade of the Twentieth Century. Damien Ridge and Linda Olsen Ridge are at home, on the six month anniversary of their marriage, and someone – or something – unseen is watching them from outside.
This is Linda’s second marriage: her first husband, scientist Alex Olsen, Damien’s partner, was killed a year ago in a laboratory explosion. Damien comforted, and subsequently married her, but what Linda does not know is that it was Damien, out of jealousy over her, who sabotaged the lab and dumped Alex’s still-living body in the swamp.
Though he has what he wants, Damien is alert to a little cooolness on Linda’s part, seeing it as her inutuiting his role in all of this. Rather than let her begin investigating, and uncover him, Damien prefers to kill her. He is about to plunge a hypodermic into her neck, unseen, when the viewer outside untervenes.
Linda sees a terrifying monster, vaguely man-shaped, draped in the rotting vegetation of the swamp, burst into the house and horribly kill her husband: widowed twice at so young an age. She screams in terror as the silent monster stares at her, before it shambles out into the swamp, never to be seen again.
What she does not know, because the creature has no voice with which to speak, is that the monster has acted not out of rage or mania, but out of love. The Swamp Thing is, or was, Alex Olsen, transformed out of all recognition but unable to stay away from the woman he loves. By saving her life, he has severed any faint hopes of returning to her. As he turns towards the swamps, his misery is compounded even further by the fact that his vegetable body cannot cry.
“Swamp Thing” was not formally promoted in any way, but word swept rapidly and House of Secrets 92 sold in incredible numbers. I have heard it claimed that it was DC’s best-selling comic of the month, but given the publishing conditions of the early Seventies, I find that very difficult to believe. Certainly, there must have been a considerable sales-spike: more than enough to have DC  pressing Wein and Wrightson to convert the Swamp Thing into a series.
Both creators demurred. In part, it was the desire not to spoil their experience on a story with (rare) personal significance and satisfaction, but in even larger part it was the knowledge that contemporary page rates were nowhere near enough to enable them to do the necessary research for a series set seven decades earlier.
They were, however, willing to revise the character in a contemporary setting. Thus the second Swamp Thing made his debut in the first issue of his own series, set in 1972. This first Swamp Thing series would last 24 bi-monthly issues.
Drs Alec and Linda Holland, biologists, are on the point of completing a Bio-Restorative Formula that could potentially refoliate the Sahara. The Government has moved them to a laboratory in the Lousiana swamplands, disguised as a deserted barn, under the watchful eye of DDI Agent Matt Cable.
However, the Conclave, a criminal organisation, has learned of the Formula and tries to buy it. When the Hollands refuse, the Conclave decides to kill them, rather than allow anyone else to use the formula. Alec is knocked out and left in the lab whilst a bomb is planted: at the last moment, he comes to, only for the bomb to explode in his face, coating his body in the burning chemicals of the formula.
Out of reflex, Alec bursts from the lab and hurls his burning body into the cooling water of the swamps. A month later, the Swamp Thing, seven foot tall, man-shaped, draped in the rotting vegetation of the swamp, rises from the water.
Unlike the first Swamp Thing, Linda is soon killed herself. This gives the ongoing series two points of impetus. First, Holland is seeking a means by which he can restore his humanity, and secondly he wants revenge for his wife’s murder.
Wein, very much a purple writer at that time of his career, structured the series around a parade of classic monsters and horrors, though the main theme was that Man was the true Monster. Wherever Swampy went, trying to mind his own business, meaning no harm to anyone, the moment anyone saw him, they went mob-crazy on his big, green butt.
The series went well under its original creators, but Wrightson left after issue 10, and Wein three issues later. And though replacements as like for like as could be found were conjured up, sales began to decline.
So a decision was taken that, with effect from issue 23, Swamp Thing would be re-positioned as a superhero, instead of horror series.
Outgoing writer, David Michelinie, was kind enough to drop Swampy, at the end of issue 22, not in Louisiana but, improbably, California, on the doorstop of Alec Holland’s heretofore un-mentioned elder brother, Edward.
The new direction was remitted to Gerry Conway. He began by introducing a new, more flambuoyant crime syndicate after the Bio-Restorative Formula, as represented by the former Commander Zero.But whereas Zero, who was supposedly dead, had been a meek, unassuming, be-spectacled man in a suit, Conway put him in a skin-tight costume and, in place of his crushed right hand, affixed a scythe, a la Marvel villain The Grim Reaper.
So Edward Holland hears his brother out and decides that his transformation can be reversed by repeating it. And despite Zero’s attempts to intervene, it works, and Alec Holland was once more human.
This state persisted into issue 24, during which Conway started assembling plot-lines. Edward Holland’s beautiful, red-headed protege is far too impressed with the younger, more handsome Alec: Edward, enraged at being overshadowed yet again by his brilliant younger brother, plots to make him regret it. Alec has another encounter with agents of the syndicate and finds himself wishing he still had Swampy’s strength and invulnerability. Tellingly, his body suffers crippling cramps and stresses…
Issue 25 was advertised as guest-starring Hawkman. But this never appeared as the series was cancelled abruptly due to plummeting sales. The ‘superhero’ Swamp Thing never appeared.
And I have to say that that’s a tremendous relief, since the new direction was utterly ludicrous and wholy implausible even by the standards of Seventies’ comics. The series even had foisted on it a new logo,which, prophetically, was the single worst, most clumsy and ugly logo I have ever seen in comics.
So many things were wrong, or at best wholly cliched by this change that even at the time, continuity-based fans wanted to find a way to obliterate it. To begin, the change of scene to California (Conway had recently moved to LA, and was dragging all his series to the Golden State) was wholly wrong for a swampland creation.
Then the introduction of a new crime syndicate on an infantile level, as opposed to the plausible Conclave and, worst of all, placing the aforementioned Commander John Zero into tights and scythe!
Then the introduction of a new red-head to become Holland’s girlfriend, the trite jealousies of an elder brother who’d shown no interest in his late brother for years, the diminution of Alec Holland’s all-pervading longing to regain his humanity by suggesting that he’d avoided asking his brother’s help out of pride!
The cliché of Edward Holland getting jealous so fast that he was prepared to betray his own brother by undoing a scientifically advvanced procedure that demonstrated him as a genius.
Had issue 25 been published, I have no doubts as to its contents. Alec Holland would have been attacked again, requiring Hawkman’s aid to escape. Red-headed protege, fearful for his safety, would have kissed him. Edward Holland would have snapped and kick-started his plan. And on the final page, Alec would have reverted, no doubt painfully in body as well as in mind, to beingSwamp Thing.
Except that henceforth he would be able to occupy both forms, transforming from Holland to Swampy in the same manner that Bruce Banner becomes the Incredible Hulk. The only question up for debate is whether the transformation would be voluntary or, to extend the Hilk parallel,  uncontrolled and caused by stress of some kind.
Though the story was uncompleted, Conway did get a chance to deal with one of his dangling plot-threads. A few months later, in a short-lived revival of Challengers of the Unknown that lasted eight, guest star crowded issues, Conway chose to put one of the Challs in need of desperate aid from noted biologist Alec Holland.
Though he is working desperately against time to prevent his body reverting permanently to the Swamp Thing (for no given reason), Holland cannot refuse his aid, and ends up losing his battle, thus restoring the status quo in a very cheap manner.
Nobody regretted not seeing this fatuous story through to its conclusion. Edward Holland, Red-Headed Protege and the syndicate disappeared without trace or any kind of second thought, and following Crisis on Infinite Earth in 1985, and the wholesale revision of DC’s history, this little episode ceased to have ever ‘existed’.
It had, in any event, already been obliterated, by writer Alan Moore’s transformation of the Swamp Thing in 1983, which silently revoked any validity in Conway’s two issues.
Nevertheless, this disastrous idea was not to be the Swamp Thing’s only experience of an Uncompleted Story, as we shall see next.