Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Swamp Thing

 Swamp Thing--or at least an early version of him/it--first appeared in 1970 in a one-shot story in House of Secrets #92. The story, anchored on Bernie Wrightson's creepy art, was a hit and the higher-ups at DC wanted more.

Wrightson and writer Len Wein both felt the original story was complete in of itself, but Wein eventually hit on the idea of creating another Swamp Thing, with an almost identical visual design linked to a different origin. So was born Alec Holland, whose laboratory in the swamp was destroyed by saboteurs, dosing the poor scientist with chemicals, setting him on fire and sending him running screaming in agony into the swamps.

To the surprise of not a single reader, he is transformed into a swamp thing. (As I understand it, this was later retconned into Holland actually being dead with his memories overlaid onto Swamp Thing. I haven't read those stories, so can't pass judgement on them. In my mind, Swamp Thing is still Alec Holland.)

Anyway, in his efforts to find those responsible for destroying his lab (and soon after murdering his wife), Swamp Thing had a serious of adventures that took him out of the swamp to various locations (including Gotham City and a team-up with Batman). Eventually, though, he returns to the swamp that "birthed" him. This story, titled "The Man Who Would Not Die," is told in Swamp Thing #10 (May-June 1974).

Swamp Thing encounters an extremely old black woman being threatened by an escaped prisoner. The friendly monster saves her, Unperturbed by his appearance, she tells him a story.

There was once a rich plantation here. But the owner was a vicious man who treated his slaves with sadistic cruelty. At one point, he has a one-armed slave named Black Jubal burned at the stake. The owner had threatened to take Jubal's attractive woman for himself. Jubal had strenuously objected.

By the way, this is the 1970s, when it was apparently still required by law to put the word "Black" in front of the name of pretty much every black character. Otherwise, how would we know?

Soon after Jubal was killed, he apparently returned from the dead to take final vengeance on the plantation owner.

Well, that's a nicely spooky story, but its just a story, right? Swamp Thing soon finds his hands full with a more realistic problem. An old enemy named Arcane--whose brain was transplanted into a hideous artificial body after his supposed recent death--wants to capture Swamp Thing and trade bodies once again. With his brain in Swamp Thing's powerful body, he can easily enslave the world. Unlike that silly ghost story, this is the sort of thing that happens to people all the time.

Unfortunately for Arcane, he uses the world "slave" in a sentence at least one too many times. Just when it seems that Swamp Thing is going to be captured, Jubal and a bunch of other ghosts of former slaves show up to smack down Arcane and his artificial "Un-Men."

Len Wein is an excellent writer, but in one way this is not one of his best works--the ending is far too predictable. But the story holds up despite this. It is otherwise well-structured and Bernie Wrightson's art work is perfect. Gee whiz, Wrightson knows how to be creepy when he wants to be. So despite telegraphing the ending far too obviously, the story definitely succeeds in being creepy. "The Man Who Would Not Die" literally drips with atmosphere, with every detail in it enhancing the sense of horror inherent in the story. It's a case in which a writer produces a pretty good story and then can watch it be elevated into something better by the right artist.

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