Monday 1 February 2021

Swamp State: 50 years of Swamp Thing

No stranger to filming in swamps himself, Nick Smith, our resident US-based stellar scribe, takes a break from solving the multiverse mystery of WandaVision on Disney+ and goes in search of an eco-friendly muck monster celebrating half a century.

Guest post by Nick Smith

DC’s latest live-action Swamp Thing series is intelligent and entertaining, with slick production values and first-class actors like Will Patton, Virginia Madsen and Kevin Durand setting the bar high. It brings the 50-year-old comic book character up to date with the downbeat, adult drama and high body count we’re used to in modern, post-Lost adventure shows. But it also has quaint elements like its boggy setting, which at times looks like an old-fashioned Hollywood set, and its environmental concerns straight out of a ‘70s eco-thriller.

Swampie has a long and lumpy history of adaptations. Wes Craven’s 1982 feature film starred Ray Wise (Twin Peaks) as Dr. Alec Holland, transformed in a lab fire into a smooth-featured Swamp Thing played by Dick Durock. Adrienne Barbeau was government scientist Alice Cable and Louis Jourdan was the dark-hearted Anton Arcane, who ultimately transformed into an unconvincingly furry monster.

While the saga went on to great heights in comic book form thanks to Len Wein, Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, Stephen Bissette and other creative greats, on-screen he came back in a low-budget comedy. 1989’s The Return of Swamp Thing was followed by live-action and animated shows in the early ‘90s as well as a video game, riding a Tim Burton-spawned wave of superhero shows, which included The Flash and Batman: The Animated Series.

Since then, Mr. Thing has popped up in a couple of Justice League Dark animated features, making cameos in games, the Arrowverse Crisis on Infinite Earths and even in Teen Titans Go! to the Movies. So there’s obviously a fondness for the shambling mud pile and it’s not just because he’s green.

In issue 100 of Swamp Thing, the titular character searches for his daughter Tefe, who has been kidnapped by demons. To communicate with the demons, he requires a special water that will allow him to talk to them. He must also deal with a guardian of Eden, a paradise that lies unexpectedly in the continent of Antarctica.

The story, “Tales of Eden,” is indicative of the comic’s ecological and theological examinations. There are references to the underworld and its minions, the near impossible-to-reach Garden of Eden and Swamp Thing’s responsibilities as a father, even though Tefe is a disembodied ‘ghost.’

From its humble origins as an homage to muck monster horror comics courtesy of Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson, Swamp Thing has become a much-lauded saga for adults. The hero started out as an intelligent, likeably scientist sharing conceptual roots with Bruce Banner AKA The Hulk. As Swamp Thing, he has hobnobbed with DC stalwarts like Superman and Batman but can spend a whole issue growing his head to enormous size so that he can puzzle out a problem, or borrowing a human’s body so that he can conceive a child with the love of his life, Abby Arcane.

Although the sequential series as a whole has necessary narrative tropes such as searching for lost family members and fighting evil villains like (Abby’s dad) Anton Arcane and the Floronic Man, the creative teams go beyond common comic book motifs to look at human progress and its effect on nature. Holland is imbued with the power to inhabit and control any kind of flora. As such, he has a unique, innate connection to plant life and the interconnected world of ‘The Green.’

The setup gives plenty of scope for stories exploring ecotheology – the correlation of religion and the environment. In the ‘80s comic book revamp of Swamp Thing, Holland is transformed into an elemental. He is a spiritual force of nature, as much a part of the fabric of the ecosphere as air or water and ultimately he becomes master of all elemental forces. That’s quite a load to put on a swamp monster’s shoulders. Consequently, Holland struggles with the ethics of his powerful position. Is he a steward or regulator of nature?

Comic books that cover such environmental and doctrinal ethics are rare. Swamp Thing is a deep, rich and sometimes pedagogical series that allows its carefully developed characters to make world-shaping decisions, some poor, some empowering. In the latest TV version of the book, Alec is just learning about the Green and its dark opposite – the Rot – so it’s left to other characters to make important decisions like, ‘should I dump harmful chemicals into the swamp?’

In a timely fashion, those chemicals cause a viral reaction among the local inhabitants of Marais, Louisiana. Abby, working for the CDC, is called in to investigate. With Alec Holland’s guidance, she makes a link between the viral symptoms and the chemicals. Holland’s boat is destroyed but he survives, his body mixing with the chemicals and the swamp to form… a thing.

The show follows Abby, played by the waif-like Crystal Reed, and Holland (Andy Bean is the man, Derek Mears is the monster) as they come to terms with Swamp Thing’s new life and the swamp’s elemental forces. The first few episodes are convoluted, with a ghost child, another young girl psychically attuned to Swampie, a mystic (Madame Xanadu) with unspecified loyalties and a guy full of roaches who disappears after one episode. The weirdness is blamed on the Rot, balanced by The Green, which can also cause spooky illusions.

As if that isn’t enough, we also meet the Phantom Stranger, the Blue Devil (embodied by Sharknado’s Ian Ziering), Anton Arcane in a brief nightmare scene and Swamp Thing nemesis Jason Woodrue, played with twisted glee by The Strain’s Kevin Durand.

The swamp’s Most Watchable vote must go to Will Patton (No Way Out, Armageddon) as the greedy, ruthless Avery Sunderland and Jennifer Beals (Flashdance) as the equally ruthless Sheriff Lucilia Cable, who will do anything to protect her son Matt (Henderson Wade).

Most of the supporting characters are deliciously shady, so it’s the human relationships that really make this show enjoyable. Beyond the fun of seeing some of the bad guys get their just desserts, the Force-like, ecotheological connection between Swamp Thing and The Green lends an epic feel to the series.

All the main storylines are resolved in the space of 10 hours. If the ending feels rushed, that’s because the series was cut from 13 episodes and a subsequent season made unaffordable by a change in tax rebates in North Carolina, where Swamp Thing was filmed.

The new adaptation of DC’s beloved horror comic was described as a ‘hit show’ when it was screened on The CW, with one million viewers tuning in live and mouths smudged out to hide the swear words, leading to hope that there was life in the old bog monster yet. Despite this, the show is ‘unlikely to return,’ according to a Deadline interview with CW Chairman and CEO Mark Pedowitz.

The ‘90s version of Swamp Thing ran for 72 episodes, concluding with an episode ironically titled “It’s a Wrap.” While Swampie lacks the public awareness he had back then, when there were toys on store shelves, a sublime monthly comic and movies to watch on videotape, his environmentally-conscious story is as relevant as ever and I have a creeping feeling that he'll be back on small screens before long. In the meantime, I’m glad to say that the makers of the latest series ended their version on a high note - by acknowledging the comic book creators who spawned the ideas and images that entertain us today.

What are your favourite memories of Swamp Thing? Let me know in the comments below.

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