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.

*New Series* Uncompleted Stories: Preface


Ms Bethany Cabe

Every now and then, I’ve tried to give book readers (if they are interested) an insight into the ways that comics reading differs from book reading.
One principal point cannot be emphasised too much, which is that mainstream comic book characters are corporate properties, not creative properties. They have been written by dozens, if not hundreds in the case of older creations, of writers, each with their own vision, perception, thought and preference, each tempered by an editor appointed to oversee the corporate custody of the character. And each editor has their own vision, perception, thought and preference.
Accordingly, everything the comics reader reads is a purely temporary vision, valid only so long as that individual writer is in nominal control. And sometimes not even then.
Take, for example, the case of Bethany Cabe. Bethany was a supporting character in Iron Man, during the successful late Seventies/early Eighties run by David Michelinie (writer) John Romita Jr. (pencils) and Bob Layton (inker). Bethany, a stunningly attractive redhead, was introduced intially as a new girlfriend for Tony Stark, who was also head of a bodyguarding company and a highly skilled martial artist in her own right.
Micheline et al.introduced the idea of Tony Stark as an alcoholic during their run, and Bethany became an integral part of the series with her (successful) efforts to help him go sober. It transpired that her late husband had been a drug addict, who died in a car smash after she left him: Bethany is determined not to let Stark go unsupported. During this run, she learns that Stark is Iron Man. The pair are incredibly close, and completely open with each other.
Michelinie left after issue 141. The new writer’s first story was a two parter in which Bethany Cabe suddenly became ultra-secretive, betrayed Stark and announced she was leaving him to return to her husband, who suddenly – and miraculously – was discovered to be alive. Off she went, not to be seen for ages.
It was a complete betrayal of everything that had been estalished over a two-year run, completely lacking in emotional consistency or plausibility, because the new writer didn’t want to use Cabe and wanted to bring in a girlfriend he’d create for his stories.
That’s what comics are about. Writers and artists change, abruptly, for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality, or even popularity of their work. And each new team comes in wanting to do their own stories, wanting nothing to do with the ideas and themes of their predecessors, and even less to do with building storylines that their predecessor was not able to bring to fruition.
In the Seventies and early Eighties, readers had to get used to stories that vanished out from underneath them, to certainties that reformed themselves from one issue to the next, to the expectation at any moment that a new writer would abandon something that would remain uncompleted.
The situation did start to resolve itself as the Eighties progressed: between Jim Shooter’s dictatorial regime as Editor-in-Chief at Marvel reigning in the anarchy of the Bullpen, and the Kahn-Levitz-Giordano triumvirate at DC accepting the company’s lesser market share as a given and concentrating on quality and creators as their USP, such things grew rare. Not dismissed, aswe shall see, but far less common.
These are not the only reasons why, in comics as opposed to books, stories fail to end – and I don’t mean the mainstream necessity of superheroes living endlessly in a narrative stream without conclusion.
All this musing comes about because I’ve recently been re-reading a couple of series that have failed to reach their ending, with no prospect of further work in sight, and it’s given me the urge to write about such instances, and the effect incompletion has on what we have available to read.
I’ll be starting with a story that was both uncompleted and completed: tune in to find out what series this involved.