DrunkWooky Retro Comic Review: Swamp Thing #1 (Len Wein, Bernie Wrightson, 1972) or “The Tale of Two Swamp Things”

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Warning! There be spoilers ahead!

This article arises from a discussion I had last night with Anthony over at comicsheatingup.net. We were discussing whether House of Secrets 92 or Swamp Thing #1 was truly Swamp Thing’s first appearance. An easy question right? House of Secrets 92 was published first! Not so clear as we’ll see.

You can read Swamp Thing’s origins in a few different formats. Of course, for the originalists, there are the first prints of House of Secrets 92 and Swamp Thing 1 (1972). There are digital and collected edition options too, however.

My Swampy Print

This article also arises from my love of Bernie Wrightson. I met him at FanX in Salt Lake City the year he died. Surrounded by the Arthur Suydams and the Greg Horns of the world, yelling over the din of the crowd like carnival barkers, Bernie sat quietly among his beautiful black and white ink prints, waiting for those who knew well enough to notice a legend in their midst. I approached him and his wife and I couldn’t have met a kinder, more humble person (and couple) that day. He signed my Swamp Thing vs. Batman print in pencil and signed a copy of Batman 265 for Anthony. We chatted about god knows what, but all I remember was it was the best part of my day.

First Appearances

House of Secrets 92 (July 1971)

Anthony and I debated the first appearance of Swamp Thing last night and I think he won. I don’t mind that because he enlightened me to a distinction a lot of others may not be aware of. While the design and concept and even name “Swamp Thing” first appeared in House of Secrets 92, this Swamp Thing was Alex Olsen, and he lived during the early 1900s. Like Alec Holland in Swamp Thing 1, Alex Olsen was also a talented scientist. Both he and his friend Damian had affections for a blonde woman named Linda. In another parallel, Alec Holland’s wife would also be named Linda.

Damian conspired to murder Alex by causing an explosion in Alex’s lab. After burying Alex’s body in the swamp, he then married Linda, Alex’s widow. Alex, of course, returns as a “muck-encrusted mockery of a man” and the true horror is that his love doesn’t recognize him. In a tragic twist of fate, he can’t even speak to explain his predicament to Linda. Swamp Thing in House of Secrets 92 was written by Len Wein and illustrated by Bernie Wrightson. The issue was published July 1971.

I love myself a good first appearance, but there are definitely different types of first appearances. Old fashioned introductions of characters sometimes came in anthology books, and in fact most often did. Spider-man appears as one of a handful of features in Amazing Fantasy, Superman appears as a number of features in Action Comics, as does Wonder Woman, as does Batman, Dr. Strange, and Ant Man. The list goes on an on. Further, there are those old fashioned first appearances that set up the character with a backstory, paired with an origin to their strange power, curse, affliction, or other attribute, tie that attribute to a conflict, and then the issue comes to some sort of resolution. All of this happened in packed, condensed panels with lots of exposition narrative and was often accomplished in 11 or fewer pages. As the serial nature of comics developed, many in the industry began to discover the merit of luring the reader into the next issue with a cliffhanger. So we ended up with the last page reveal of brand new characters that seem to run rampant. It has always struck me as a shame when these first appearances end up on the last page of another character’s book. Often they get full treatment with origin and what-not in the very next issue, but just as often that character’s backstory, motivation, intent, powers, etc. are drawn out over a long story arc. Sometimes its abandoned entirely. We don’t often get the types of full issue first appearances like House of Secrets 92 and Swamp Thing. Recent examples of fully fleshed out first appearances are probably Edge of Spiderverse 2 and Wolverines 3. Often the last page reveals get characterized as “cameos” or implicitly downgraded when the next issue is called a “first full appearance.” This often leads to confusion as people chase down the first “cacoon that held HIM”, then the first “HIM”, then the first naming of “HIM” as “Adam Warlock.” But enough about my nostalgia for self-contained first appearances.

Swamp Thing in House of Secrets 92 ends with a definitive “The End”. This makes sense for a horror anthology like House of Secrets. I mean, what’s more horrifying than the Swamp Thing cursed to wander the bog, knowing his wife remains married to his murderer? Alex lost the love of his life. He’s now a tragic figure unable to speak his truth to his love. That’s horror, baby. Not gore, but the terror of the mind. The fear of irreversible loss.

Other famous first appearances resolved in that first issue, but we were told by the narrator that the newly introduced character would be back. Spidey caught his Uncle’s killer and we were told to return to the new “Amazing” for more Spidey adventures. Superman was announced to return on the last page of his story. There were no story cliff-hangers per se to intrigue you, just an express promise of more adventures. Not so with Swamp Thing. The End.

Swamp Thing 1 (November 1972)

But it wasn’t the end was it? At least not in spirit. In 1972, Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson returned to Swamp Thing again. Once more, the Swamp Thing to be was human and a scientist, but this time named Alec Holland. He had a wife named Linda again, yet this time she was also a scientist. A progressive step in the right direction, if you ask me. Now, Linda and Alec are working on a chemical that can prompt rampant growth of foliage out of an arid desert. This little detail about the nature of their scientific endeavors adds some synchronicity to the origin. House of Secrets had ambiguous chemicals involved, but here’s the mutation is given another shade of explanation. The fiction just became science fiction!

They are both escorted to a barn in the swamp to work on their project in peace, but warned by their handler that all manner of nefarious groups including governments would want their work, or even to destroy it. All signs in this setting point to the story being told in contemporary times. The trio roll up in what appears to be a 70s sedan and later on we’ll see some sophisticated electronic listening devices being used. Alec Holland is separated by at least 60 to 70 years from Alex Olsen.

No sooner do Linda and Alec start making progress on their project than a nefarious trio show up to make them an offer paired with a thinly veiled threat. The Hollands’ handler was right, there are others out there seeking this bio-restorative research. When the Hollands rebuff the trio’s offer, a stray dog shows up by coincidence. Of course, this is corporate espionage. We get a glimpse of the shadowy man behind the threats and perhaps the seed of later stories to come.

When the trio of men return, Linda Holland and the Hollands’ handler are out. Alec hold’s strong against the threats of the men but is knocked unconscious. He awakes to find that the men have chosen to deny the world of Alec’s research if he won’t give it up. The bomb the men set turns the barn into an inferno. In a familiar scene, Alec runs immolated, screaming, into the swamp. There, his bio-restorative compound mixes with his human tissue and the swamp muck to create SWAMP THING! Skipping ahead a little, upon returning to his cabin, Swampy finds Linda dead, shot by the nefarious trio. He hunts down the men and exacts his vengeance!

There are definitely parallels, but also important distinctions between the House of Secrets 92 and Swamp Thing 1 Swamp Things. The obvious difference in names goes without saying, but the similarities run deep. In House of Secrets, Alex had something that another murderous man desired–his wife. In Swamp Thing 1, so did Alec–his research. Of course, there’s the near-identical genesis. The two serums combine with each man and the swamp muck to create Swamp Thing. However, the most interesting thing to me is a difference which actually veils a similarity. In House of Secrets 92, Linda survives. In Swamp Thing 1, Linda is shot by the corporate espionage agents. This would seem like a huge contrast, except it is actually the same device from a narrative perspective. In House of Secret 92, Alex has lost Linda because she sees him only as a monster and he can’t communicate his identity and win her back. His pain is knowing that his love continues to live, but he cannot reach her. In Swamp Thing 1, Alec has lost Linda not only because he is now a monstrosity, but because she’s been killed. Swamp Thing 1‘s tragedy does seem more poignant, though. In House of Secrets 92, Alex has lost his former life, his humanity, supposedly his research, and his wife to the arms of another man. In Swamp Thing 1, Alec has lost all of that as well, Linda perhaps more permanently. Which is more painful, though? Knowing your love lives, you cannot reach her, and she is with another man? Or is it knowing she is gone forever? These two tales offer us the opportunity to ponder that.

Finally, in Swamp Thing 1 we are left with a cliffhanger. A gnarled hand holds onto some sort of seer’s glass and demands the Swamp Thing be brought to them. Unlike House of Secrets 92, this story is going to continue! We don’t get a “To Be Continued”, but we get a panel much more promising than House of Secrets’ “The End.”

So, to answer the debate Anthony and I had in short: Swamp Thing 1 is definitely Swamp Thing’s first appearance in the most definitive sense. The Swamp Thing we have all grown to love is Alec Holland, not Alex (I have to scroll up to even remember his last name) Olsen. Futhermore, we were told, outright, that Alex Olsen’s story ended. “The End.” It never continued. While House of Secrets 92 is the first appearance of the Swamp Thing concept, Swamp Thing 1 is the first appearance of DC’s famous Swamp Thing. The one Alan Moore would breath fresh innovative life into years after.

Seeing as this article is technically a review, I guess I’ll try to find something to fault. Except I can’t. What did you expect, this issue is a classic? Yes, the story is condensed and we have little time to examine the world of Swamp Thing in this issue alone, but this issue gives us every reason to care about this character and continue to show up month after month. Bernie Wrightson’s art is phenomenal as goes without saying. Every time I look at a Wrightson image I think of old fashioned wood cuts with the countless small lines carved one next to the other. The artist somehow seeing the forest for proverbial trees as he creates the image line by line. How Bernie works with the negative space of the shadows in his image, I don’t think I’ll ever understand. In this article, I added digitally colored versions of the pages, but I recommend tracking down an original print somewhere. The tactile textural feel of these images in the original book just can’t be understated. Sometimes something gets lost in all the polish. There is beauty in all the mess, and what better character to illustrate all that than Swamp Thing!

You can read Swamp Thing’s origins in a few different formats. Of course, for the originalists, there are the first prints of House of Secrets 92 and Swamp Thing 1 (1972). There are digital and collected edition options too, however.

Swamp Thing The Bronze Age Volume 1 will give you House of Secrets 92 and Len and Bernie’s entire Swamp Thing run 1-13 (Bernie left after issue 10).

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