DC Sends Swamp Thing Back to the Swamp

Canceled Before it Gets to Put Down Roots

Last week, DC Universe launched Swamp Thing, a southern-backwoods-set horror series based on the comic book character created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson. This week, after airing only one episode, they canceled the show.

To understand why anyone would actually care enough to make a show about something called Swamp Thing in the first place is to understand both the original creation, and then the literate, floral spin that Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette and John Totleben put on the character and its expanding universe. It’s about the impact a wave of British creators had on comics in the mid-’80s, an impact that still reverberates today in all media.

Wrightson was one of the greatest artists in comics, with an instantly recognizable rubbery yet somehow naturalistic grasp of anatomy and faces. He combined this with deeply intricate pen and brush work. He and Wein took Alec Holland away from his swamp and his lab and his hot wife Linda and threw him in the muck on fire. Holland came out a shambling beast who proceeded to tour the country backroads, scaring the bejeezus out of everyone and bemoaning his lost humanity. He even met Batman.

This primal subject was enough to merit attention at the time. Fans developed an ongoing, abiding love of the character. Burgeoning film producer Michael Uslan fought for years to bring Batman to the screen, and wound up giving us the Michael Keaton blockbuster. He was also a Swamp Thing fan.

Uslan raised enough money to make a Swamp Thing movie directed by Wes Craven, starring Louis Jordan and Adrienne Barbeau. He also persuaded Embassy Pictures to distribute it widely enough that people at least heard about it. Some of them even went to see it because it was PG and you could see Barbeau’s boobs.

Alan Moore Enters the Swamp

 

And that begat the rebirth of Swamp Thing as a Saga. Dutifully enough, DC called the comic The Saga of the Swamp Thing. Writer Marty Pasko introduced new characters and dragged out old bodies until, joined by artists Stephen Bissette and John Totleben, he’d helped create enough movement that DC brought in brash British upstart Alan Moore to see if he could do anything with the beast. What proceeded to happen under the watch of Moore, Bissette and Totleben–as well as a handful of other artists and inkers such as Stan Woch and Rick Veitch–was nothing less than the reinvention of how comics could work.

Comics biographer and scholar Douglas Wolk says that Moore not only writes well, he needs to tell you he’s writing well while he’s doing so. Moore’s florid style raised the storytelling to epic lengths, while also bringing in every American horror trope, environmental politics, contemporary sexuality, drug and alcohol abuse, and anything else he felt compelled to cram into a comic about a plant monster.

His well-read mindset and respect for craft combined with a British sense of humor and darkness created the template that would spawn Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, most everything Grant Morrison created, a long running line of comics under the aegis Vertigo, and copious other comics, books, movies, and TV series. It’s no surprise that Gaiman’s Good Omens debuted the same day that we both got and lost this new Swamp Thing TV show.

Streaming the Swamp

DC obviously knows more than I do about what it wants to do with its streaming universe, but I thought the pilot was trashy fun.  It wastes no time in establishing key elements from the long evolving comic character’s canon, but tweaking them slightly, such as having Will Patton play the broadly southern, villainous local baron, and giving Virginia Madsen some mean stuff to say as the head of the Sunderlands,  the name of the comic book’s archetypal evil corporation. And the show dutifully replaces Abby Arcane, who in the comics sports a gigantic mop of white hair and has sex with plant(s), with a brunette. That’s all the better for the eventual transformational dye job, which you just know is coming by season’s end, not like it matters since there won’t be any more seasons.

Extended characters such as Madame Xanadu and Jason Woodrue (“The Floronic Man” in comicspeak) threaten to appear. Arcane’s uncle Anton, the comic’s grand nemesis, is nowhere in sight yet. Nor is Moore creation John Constantine, the British dark magician once played by Keanu Reeves but now essayed in other DC television universes by fan favorite Matt Ryan.

Producer James Wan’s rooting of horror in the everyday is clearly in effect here, although he pays little heed to reality. A a man in shorts and Tevas easily infiltrates a CDC ward.  And a woman who will shortly do an autopsy wearing pretty much just gloves and a hair net warns an entire staff is to wear goggles so as not to catch the tree-ebola.

The Late, Lamented Swamp Thing
Abby Arcane gets swampy with Swamp Thing

But this is no campy Craven, nor is it the earlier sequel’s Jim Wynorski (the Dollar Tree of direct-to-video movie directors) in action. Director Len Wiseman, ex-husband of Kate Beckinsale and helmer of the Underworld series keeps everything moving fast in the first episode, so you (hopefully) don’t see the boom mic, or catering table, or notice some ghastly continuity errors. The script presents character notes with giant exclamation marks. It’s all very efficient stuff, mostly so we can get to Holland’s eventual, and of course inevitable, transformation into the moss-covered monster.

The show’s mix of CGI and practical effects is welcome, with some garishly attractive set design. The swamp and its living tendrils make for some gruesome set pieces, and the monster design appears to come straight from the bristly, branch-and-moss-covered aesthetic scrawled by Bissette and Totleben. The pilot has a hospital scene that’s straight out of John Carpenter’s The Thing. The swamp’s vine laden attack scenes conjure, variously, the “When Plants Attack” grisly horror of Scott Smith’s The Ruins and the tree rape scene from Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead.

Narratively sticking closer to the Wein and Wrightson original, at least so far,  this isn’t the tapestry of American horrors Alan Moore presented in the ‘80s so well. Yet. This is The Walking Dead territory, with the requisite slo-mo credits of people falling into water in miniature, creeping vines, and broken family photos. It mostly looks like someone wanted to update the look of old Tool videos but with a better computer. But the night-set swamp scenes have a sense of horror and urgency that The Walking Dead lacks.

Later episodes hint at introducing other characters from the Moore years, though, so clearly that material will briefly intrude upon the proceedings. It’s only one episode so far, but if you squint enough, you can see the latticework that formed a great comic series. But we will never know.

Nick Tangborn

Nick Tangborn runs a company called Otter Network and previously was Editor in Chief of Listen.com, did time at digital chestnuts Napster and BitTorrent, started the Jackpine Social Club record label, and has an abiding fear of bears.

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