Though at first glance Swamp Thing’s origin is about as straightforward as it gets, the reality of a man who ends up becoming a green monster is a little more complicated than you’d think.. From a simple talking tree who occasionally fights villains, to becoming a defender for all plant life to becoming a human again, Swamp Thing is as versatile as the plants that inhabit the swamp he lives in.
With a new take on Swamp Thing arriving on DC Universe, though it was already canceled, it gives the perfect opportunity to explore the character’s origin. What better time to revisit the complex and bonkers backstory of Swamp Thing?
Originally intended as a stand-alone horror story, writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson introduced the Swamp Thing in an eight-page story in House of Secrets #92 in 1971 as a character named Alex Olsen, an early 20th century scientist in Louisiana married to a woman named Linda. Alex’s assistant Damian Ridge was jealous of Alex and in love with Linda, so he caused one of Alex’s chemical experiments to explode–seemingly killing his boss–and buried the body in a nearby swamp. Using Linda’s grief to his advantage, Damian swooped in and married her. But of course, Alex didn’t really die. His body mixed with the chemicals and transformed into a humanoid vegetable monster. The titular Swamp Thing then kills Ridge, but the sight of him scared Linda away, leaving Olsen to wander the swamps all alone and green.
Though short, the look and concept were popular enough for DC to give Wein and Wrightson a solo series for Swamp Thing. Here they swapped Alex Olsen for Alec Holland and introduce the idea of a “bio-restorative” formula that accelerates plant growth. The origin was basically the same, but involved criminals attacking Holland rather than a jealous coworker.
These early stories mostly dealt with Alec/Swamp Thing seeking the men who caused his transformation (and murdered his wife), as well as searching for a cure to his monstrous look. These comics also introduced Abigail Arcane (a character played by Crystal Reed on the DC Universe show), as well as her husband Matt Cable, who befriends the Swamp Thing.
The Anatomy Lesson
In 1982, Horror director Wes Craven made a live-action Swamp Thing film, the success of which prompted DC to hire young up-and-comer Alan Moore for a new ongoing title. Moore decided to throw everything the readers knew about the Swamp Thing out the window, with the first issue of The Saga of the Swamp Thing literally showing the autopsy of a supposedly deceased Alec Holland. As they cut open the vegetable-human monster, we learn that this is not a human that looks like a plant, but rather “a plant that thought it was Alec Holland. A plant that was trying its level best to be Alec Holland.”
This, of course, led to a very existential and cosmic comic book that is still regarded as a cult classic today. Moore also went deeper into the horror roots of the character and had Swamp Thing encountering several archetypal horror monsters including vampires, werewolves, and zombies.
If this wasn’t enough, Moore then added a ton of mythology to the character, starting with making Swamp Thing an avatar of an elemental energy field called “The Green” which connects all plant life on Earth. In order to incorporate Alex Olsen’s version of the character into his new continuity, Moore introduced the Parliament of Trees, a council of elders made out of thousands of Swamp Things who in their time all died in a fire and were reborn as plant elementals. This connection to “The Green” added a whole lot of new powers for dear old Swampy, including being able to destroy and build bodies at will and teleport anywhere in the planet instantly. He also could increase his own size to be bigger than Godzilla, and even control the tiniest amount of microscopic algae inside people’s bodies to kill them from the inside.
Oh, and he made Swamp Thing fall in love with Abby Arcane, and even had them conceive a child (yeah, don’t ask.)
Everything Old Is New (52) Again
When Scott Snyder took the reins of Swamp Thing following the New 52 reboot, he decided to bring Alec Holland back to life, separating him from the vegetable that called himself Alec. Even if he ends up becoming the green monster eventually, he now has Alec’s real consciousness instead of just a copy or replica of it.
Snyder introduced the idea of “The Red” which was an energy field for animal life that served as an explanation for Animal Man’s powers. He then went further and added “The Black” to give an elemental to death and decay. Most of Snyder’s run then dealt with the war between elementals, as we got cool action scenes with characters as powerful as Swamp Thing and an exploration of what balance means when one elemental clearly wants to destroy everything but the other wants to fill the world with life.
After Snyder left the series, Charles Soule took over and went even deeper into the mythology. In his run, Soule focused the politics of the Parliament of Trees and the flaws and humanity of Alec Holland as he grows disillusioned with their demands and going to war with them. This run also introduced other elementals, including one for fungal life and an energy field for all machinery.
Because of the untimely cancellation of the show, it remains to be seen how much of this mythology Swamp Thing will explore. The showrunners have said they were mostly inspired by Moore’s run, so here’s hoping the 10 episodes explore at least some of the many, many themes and ideas introduced in the pages of the Swamp Thing, as that’s the only space it will get to do so as it will not be renewed for a second season.