WHEN THE REVISED 1971 COMICS CODE AUTHORITY guidelines gave mainstream comic writers permission to explore supernatural storylines, they wasted little time to jump at the chance. The early 1970s saw a mini-explosion of monster-themed comics, with such titles as Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf by Night, and Son of Satan hitting the racks. At their best, the monster mags were guilty pleasures that hosted superior art and scripts; at their worst, they were painfully clumsy attempts at horror in a time when the only real horror was the power of the censors to veto anything remotely provocative.
But a humble eight-page story in this issue of House of Mystery would go on to do two things. First, it introduced a character that would become one of DC’s most recognizable characters of the 1970s and ’80s. Second, it would signal the start of a new era in comics — one in which horror comics would come back with a vengeance, blowing away all preconceived notions of what they were supposed to be.
Along with sister title House of Secrets, House of Mystery began in the 1950s as an attempt to emulate the popular EC Comics lineup of horror comics. Pressure from censors both inside and outside the industry, however, kept the shock factor to a minimum, and the majority of stories were consequently rather mild. The format — each issue showcased a number of short stories with twists in their endings — allowed for a lot of experimentation, but for the most part, the stories followed standard formulas that were rarely altered. A favorite theme, for example, was a criminal receiving his just desserts in some ironic way, thanks to the interference of otherworldly forces.
At first, there was little reason to believe that the main story in this book, the first to feature the Swamp Thing, would be any different. Writer Len Wein and artist Berni Wrightson created a creature who was a man returning from the grave to seek vengeance against his murderer. It was a dark, brooding story (made all the more so by Wrightson’s gothic style), and at the time there was no indication that anyone at DC intended to give it an encore. But the readers’ enthusiasm for that one short story made a regular series all but inevitable, and Swamp Thing debuted in October 1972.
Despite the character’s roots in the horror genre, elements of superhero fantasy kept creeping in. In the ongoing series, for example, it was revealed that the Swamp Thing was once scientist Alec Holland, whose secret formula to promote plant growth was destroyed in an explosion set by secret agents who wanted to cover up his murder. In addition, the formerly lumpy monster developed a more muscular physique, probably to distinguish him from the series of misshapen creatures he did battle with.
Wrightson’s unique style graced only ten issues; a few issues later, Wein dropped out as well. Despite their replacements’ best attempts, the series lost its flavor, and it petered out after just 24 issues. Still, it was enough to catch Hollywood’s eye, and in 1982 the Swamp Thing movie hit the screens. The movie spurred DC to revive Swamp Thing in a second series, which they did with Saga of the Swamp Thing. The series picked up where its predecessor left off, following Holland as he searches for his humanity. But after just 19 issues, the title’s lackluster sales weren’t encouraging, and, with nothing to lose, DC gave the book to a young British writer named Alan Moore to see what he could do with it.
What happened after that is another story in itself. For now, it’s enough to say that, without Wein and Wrightson’s creation, Moore would have had nothing to revamp, and for that reason alone this book deserves special mention. Moore’s machinations aside, though, the Swamp Thing of the 1970s was a genuine attempt by a mainstream publisher to bring the comic-book horror genre away from the hokey “watch-the-bad-guy-get-it” type of stories that permeated the genre at the time and provided a powerful argument that the mainstream companies were just as eager to explore new types of stories as the underground publishers were.
From The 100 Greatest Comics of the 20th Century By Mitchell Brown
Did you know…
By sheer coincidence, Marvel Comics also came out with a man-from-the-muck of their own in 1971, a mute being called the Man-Thing. He did not catch on as well as his boggy brother at DC
As a concept, the Swamp Thing owed a lot to both Theodore Sturgeon’s 1948 short story “It” and a 1940s comic-book character called the Heap.
Joe Orlando, the editor who oversaw the Swamp Thing’s birth at DC, had a long career at EC Comics, drawing for such titles as Tales from the Crypt and Mad. He was instrumental in developing DC’s horror titles in the 1970s