Swamp Thing #1 (1972)

Listen to this plot and tell me if it makes any sense. A man and his wife have created a special formula that will stimulate plant life and has the potential to make the deserts fertile. The government hires the pair to work on the formula for them, and installs the pair in an old abandoned farmhouse in the Louisiana bayou. The govermnent puts security in place but it’s not good enough. Evil-doers find out about the formula and try to steal it. Failing to do so, they place a bomb under some chemicals. The lab explodes, and the scientist runs into the swamp. The chemicals somehow react with the scientist’s body and turn him into a misshapen mockery of a man, the swamp thing.

Yeah, it’s all crap. Idiocy out of a bad b-movie. So why does this comic work so well? Why does it pull the reader in and not let you go?

A big part of it is the art of Berni Wrightson. Especially in the mid-’70s, Wrightson was a master of comics art. He may not have had Neal Adams’ ability to draw realistic characters, but his art simply oozed atmosphere. When the rain falls in this comic, it is an all-consuming rain, drenching everyone and everything in menace. It feels like Matt Cable, lurking in the rain in the swamp, is just a half step away from madness. And the rain intensifies the Swamp Thing’s feelings of rage and frustration, making his plight seem much more dramatic.

The whole story is filled with touches like that. When we first see the scientists’ lab, it looks like something from a 1930s horror movie, with strange-looking tools and test tubes everywhere. The strange angles just add to the feeling of apprehension a reader feels, as if we are just waiting for something bad to happen. Clearly Wrightson thoroughly thought out wanted to do in this story before drawing it, as a tremendous amount of intelligence and passion flow from the pages.

This is not to minimize the work of writer Len Wein. It’s easy to forget Wein in light of the brilliant work Alan Moore did on the comic ten years later, but Wein does a wonderful job of helping to create atmosphere and give the story a feeling of poignancy.

The thing I was more curious about when rereading this comic was how well it stood up in light of Moore’s reconstruction of the origin. I was expecting the comic to lose a little something since it was retconned into something completely different from how it’s portrayed in this issue. In fact, though, the origin seems more poignant now. Instead of the Swamp Thing having the essence of Alec Holland within it, now the Swamp Thing is a plant that has vague beliefs that it is Alec. This makes the monster seem even more sad, even more futile in its attempts to keep humanity alive in itself. This twist intensifies the horror.

Yeah, this comic is legendary. And it deserves that status.

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