Monday, April 11, 2011

The Saga of the Swamp Thing

As this is a science-fiction geek blog it seems like a safe place to confess that I am a comic collector, or at least I was. I buy very few comics these days apart from watching eBay to fill some gaps in my collection.

When I was young I remember Dad buying me the Victor and the Hotspur comics for boys. Reading the adventures of Alf Tupper the tough of the track is my first memory of comic books. From there I moved on to the Marvel UK reprints of Spider-Man, the Hulk and the X-Men. Shortly before I left home for university I started reading 2000AD and the fantastic exploits of Judge Dredd, but once I got to medical school I gave comics up because I was all "grown up". This seems to be quite a common phenomenon amongst comic fans - many of whom have had their gap before something gets them back into the hobby.

I think I was in my third year at Uni when I came across a comic called Warrior in a Leicester newsagents. Warrior was a black and white anthology comic which was published by a British comics legend called Dez Skinn who had previously been an editor on those Marvel UK reprints from the 70s. The stories in Warrior were very different from anything I had previously encountered in a comic. They seemed distinctly grown up in theme and two stories in particular stood out. The now infamous weirdy beardy Alan Moore was writing Marvelman (later to be known as Miracleman) and V for Vendetta both of which took a very realistic look at the superhero myths which were common place in American comics. Warrior got me back into comics and I collected the entire run which I still have to this day.

Warrior also made me follow the career of Alan Moore so when he started writing for DC comics in America I was there pretty much from the start. Moore was the first of a series of British writers and artists who were head-hunted by DC in the 80s. Moore was given a failing DC horror title called the Saga of the Swamp Thing. The title character had been created by Lein Wein and Bernie Wrightson in the 1970s and was then revived in the early 80s to tie in with a quite terrible 'man in a rubber suit' movie version. After a couple of years the comic about a scientist who was transformed into a muck monster was on the point of cancellation when Moore took over. What followed is now comics history.

Moore along with the artists Stephen Bissette, John Tottleben, Alfredo Alcala and Shawn McManus radically changed the comic and the Swamp Thing's origin. Moore realised that the Monster's search for a cure for his condition was pointless because if it succeeded the story would be over. So in a famous issue called the Anatomy Lesson he revealed that the Swamp Thing was not the scientist Alec Holland transformed into a walking pile of muck and leaves but instead was a shambling pile of plant matter that just happened to believe it had once been a man. The creature was infused with Holland's memories but the man himself was long dead. This remarkable change in the comic's focus opened the door for Moore to tell a whole range of fantastic stories. And by returning the book to its literal roots he was able to make it the horror comic that is was originally intended to be. As the Swamp Thing encountered more and more terrifying foes Moore and his artist collaborators produced some genuinely scary stories which quite disturbed me when I read them in the 1980s and they're still great to read now.

A word about collecting comics back then. Nowadays comic books have gone mainstream, largely thanks to the success of several blockbuster movie franchises. Most cities have a Forbidden Planet or another comic book store, and if not it is very easy to find the latest issues for sale on-line. But back in the day collecting american comics was a lot harder and somehow more fun at the same time. Leicester had at various times 2 small comics shops, both were tucked away in hard to find and rather seedy places, one was in a subway underpass and the other was tucked away on the top floor of a strange shopping arcade. They both sold other ephemera and often featured interesting herbal smells, I always had the impression that they had another under the counter trade which I probably didn't want to know about. Quite a contrast to the bright and shiny high street Forbidden Planet stores of today.

I used to pop in regularly looking to see when the latest issues had arrived from the USA and also to trawl through their back issue boxes and pick up some missing issues. Through them I found out about Frank Miller's Daredevil comics and the Dark Knight Returns and followed Moore onto the phenomenal success of Watchmen. I'm proud to say I was there right at the start and I still have all those issues. Happy days indeed.


  1. Fond memories of visiting you at uni and reading Warrior, Watchmen and Swamp Thing. Hold on a's your fault I'm such a nerd!