Swamp Thing: 40 years later

Swamp Thing, the movie adaptation of the DC Comics character created by writer Len Wein & artist Bernie Wrightson, was released 40 years ago, on February 19, 1982. The movie was written & directed by Wes Craven.

Back in the early 1980s Swamp Thing seemed to be shown endlessly on HBO, and six year old me saw it multiple times during its run on cable TV. Truthfully, though, I hadn’t thought about the Swamp Thing movie in years… at least not until this week.

I started following the blog Superheroes Every Day which is taking an multi-part examination of every modern superhero movie ever made, beginning with Superman in 1978. Superheroes Every Day is extremely detailed, insightful, and more than a bit tongue-in-check. So, having spent a couple of months worth of daily posts looking at the first two Superman movies, Danny Horn is now up to Swamp Thing.

Reading Danny’s initial entries on Swamp Thing, I was surprised to learn that it is generally regarded as a not-very-good movie, that the production was extremely troubled, and that Wes Craven had an unhappy experience making it. As I said, I loved Swamp Thing when I was a kid, but the last time I had seen it was nearly four decades ago, and could I really trust my childhood memories? I mean, there’s plenty of stuff that I liked as a kid that I have no interest in as a middle aged adult.

I searched about a bit online late last night and found Swamp Thing on YouTube. Yes, it had commercials, and the closed-captioning was laugh-out-loud awful, but it was the complete movie, the picture was crystal clear, and the sound was perfect. Three out of five ain’t bad. So I watched it… and, y’know, all these years later I still enjoyed it. It’s not necessarily a great movie, but it’s a good, fun, entertaining one.

Before I go any further, I need to mention who produced Swamp Thing: Benjamin Melniker and Michael Uslan. If you are a fan of superhero movies that second name should be a very familiar one. Michael Uslan has produced every single Batman-related movie since the 1989 one directed by Tim Burton. Uslan had actually purchased the movie rights to Batman in 1979, but it took him a decade to finally get a movie made. It’s probably difficult to understand if you were born within the last quarter century, but in the early 1980s NO ONE wanted to make a Batman movie. The campy mid 1960s television series was the general public’s predominant view of the character, and movie studios, including DC Comics’ very own owners Warner Brothers, were convinced a Batman movie, especially an attempt at a dark, serious adaptation of the character that Uslan envisioned, would be a huge, expensive flop.

Now this is the reason I love Uslan. He is a lifelong comic book fan, he taught the first accredited college course on comic book folklore, he wrote several stories for DC Comics during the 1970s, and he spent a decade in an uphill battle to get an authentic, true-to-the-comic-books Batman movie made because he loved the character that much. And while he was busy with that Sisyphean task, Uslan also acquired the movie rights to Swamp Thing, a comic book series that had debuted in 1971 to great critical acclaim & popularity, but which a decade later had fallen into obscurity, basically only remembered by fans such as Uslan himself.

Looking at the Swamp Thing movie in 2022, I consider it to be a relatively faithful adaptation of the series as it existed in the early 1980s prior to Alan Moore’s radical revamp of the character in 1984. In Wes Craven’s screenplay the Swamp Thing is still Alec Holland (Ray Wise), a brilliant scientist working on a bio-restorative formula who is transformed into a super-strong humanoid vegetable creature (Dick Durock) after his laboratory in the swamp is attacked by saboteurs led by a thug named Ferret (Don Knight). In the movie Linda Holland (Nannette Brown) is Alec’s sister rather than his wife, government security agent Matthew Cable becomes Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau), and rather than being an elderly sorcerer / mad scientist Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan) is the corrupt industrialist behind the saboteurs. But all of the basic, essential pieces are there.

Just as importantly, Craven plays it completely straight. As I said, at this time the Batman television show still loomed large in the public consciousness, and the average moviegoer saw superheroes as silly, with the accompanying “Biff! Bam! Pow!” nonsense. Craven, however, wrote & directed a serious, gritty, intense, intelligent sci-fi / horror movie, and he got solid, quality performances out of all the actors.

There is also a certain poignant, contemplative quality to Craven’s script, seen through Alec Holland / Swamp Thing’s love of the natural world and his relationship with Alice Cable. It’s actually quite surprising. Before this, Craven had helmed the brutal horror exploitation movies The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, and subsequently he created the supernatural slasher movie A Nightmare on Elm Street and the horror movie satire Scream. So it’s really interesting to look at Swamp Thing and see Craven really stretching himself creatively, producing a genre film that manages to be both philosophical and soulful.

And, hey, all that aside, there’s tons of action in Swamp Thing. I doubt six year old me really picked up on the subtler aspects of Craven’s script, but I definitely enjoyed watching the transformed Alec wade through Arcane’s seemingly never-ending army of mercenary thugs. Even better, at the end of the movie Arcane ingests the formula that created the Swamp Thing, transforming into a ferocious monster who engages Alec in a brutal battle-to-the-death in the swamp.

The suit for the Swamp Thing incarnation of Alec Holland looks great. It must have been absolute torture for Dick Durock to be wearing that heavy rubber costume in the middle of a hot, muggy swamp. But the end result is that the character looks almost exactly like he was envisioned by Bernie Wrightson, as seen by the side-by-side images above.

I appreciate that Craven wrote Alice Cable as an intelligent, competent, assertive woman who repeatedly attempts to hold her own in the face of overwhelming odds. The only reason why Swamp Thing needs to keep rescuing her is because she unarmed, exhausted, and outmatched 20 to 1 by the sadistic Ferret and his mercenary thugs. Adrienne Barbeau did a great job playing the character.

Another aspect of Swamp Thing that I feel has aged well is the reimagining of Arcane as a handsome, sophisticated, cultured man of wealth, a dangerously charismatic sociopath with delusions of grandeur.

It occurs to me that the movie version of Arcane actually presages the post-Crisis version of Lex Luthor by several years, foreseeing Superman’s own arch enemy being reimagined into a respected captain of industry who secretly controls the criminal underworld. And much like the revamp of Luthor into a corporate raider by John Byrne & Marv Wolfman, the movie version of Arcane has a staff of stunningly beautiful women slavishly devoted to him, following him with literally a cult-like fervor.

I certainly appreciated how the script establishes that Holland’s formula doesn’t actually create anything, in merely enhances the qualities that already exist in a subject. So, yes, it turned Holland into a walking plant, but it enhanced his strength, his intelligence, his nobility, all the positive attributes he already possessed. The egomaniacal Arcane with his aspirations to divinity is convinced that the formula will transform him into a literal god; instead in an extended, graphic sequence Arcane’s appearance is reshaped to match his true inner self, and he becomes a hideous monster.

Quite a few viewers, as well as Craven himself, were disappointed by how the transformed Arcane ended up looking. Honestly, though, when I was a kid I thought it looked awesome, and forty years later I still think it holds up. The best description I can come up with for Arcane’s monster form is an amphibious werewolf.

I know some people have suggested that the movie should have tried to have Arcane transform into something like the grotesque, twisted, elongated form that Len Wein & Bernie Wrightson gave the mad scientist when he returned in Swamp Thing #10 (May-June 1974) as seen below on the cover for that issue.

Yes, that worked brilliantly in a comic book, especially with Wrightson’s macabre, hyper-detailed art style. But there’s absolutely no way I can see Wes Craven and his crew pulling that off in live action, not in a movie made in the days before CGI was a thing and whose entire budget was a mere $2.5 million… that’s only about $8 million in 2022 dollars! We’re talking super-low budget here! Sorry, but what the costume & special effects folks came up with for Arcane while filming in 1981 was probably the best that could be achieved under the circumstances.

And, really, that’s how I would sum up the entire movie. Given the circumstances — a miniscule budget, an extremely difficult location shoot, behind-the-scenes creative struggles, all within an era in which movie adaptations of comic books were barely taken seriously — it’s practically a miracle that Swamp Thing turned out as good as it did. Wes Craven, the actors, and the crew all did a fantastic job of taking what could very easily have become a huge disaster and creating an enjoyable, quality movie.

So, yeah, after all these years later I still like Swamp Thing.

Martin Pasko: 1954 to 2020

Longtime comic book & animation writer Martin Pasko passed away on May 10th.  He was 65 years old.

DC Comics Presents 1 coverBetween 1973 and 1982 Pasko wrote a great many stories for the various Superman titles at DC Comics.  On quite a few of these he was paired with longtime Superman penciler Curt Swan.  In 1978 Pasko, working with artists Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez & Dan Adkins, launched the Superman team-up series DC Comics Presents with a well-regarded two-part story costarring the Flash.

In the mid 1970s Pasko also wrote Wonder Woman.  The first part of Pasko’s run had him wrapping up “The Twelve Labors of Wonder Woman” storyline.  Several issues later the series shifted focus to the Earth-Two’s Wonder Woman during World War II.  This was an effort to align the book with the first season of the live-action television show starring Lynda Carter.  Pasko’s final two issues, #231-232, were plotted by his friend Alan Brennert, his first work in comic books.  Brennert & Pasko’s story, which was drawn by Bob Brown, Michael Netzer & Vince Colletta, had Wonder Woman teaming up with the Justice Society.

All of this was slightly before my time as a reader, as I was born in 1976.  I have read some of those Superman and Wonder Woman stories in back issues or trade paperbacks.  However, the first work by Pasko that I vividly recall from my childhood was his early 1980s revival of the Swamp Thing with artist Tom Yeates.Swamp Thing 6 cover

Pasko wrote the first 19 issues of The Saga of the Swamp Thing.  He and Yeates created some genuinely weird, spooky, unnerving stories during this year and a half period.  I vividly recall the two-part story from issues #6-7, which had Swamp Thing encountering a bizarre aquatic creature with eyeball-tipped tentacles that could transform people into one-eyed monsters.  The shocking cliffhanger in issue #6 definitely seared itself onto my young mind and left me wondering “What happens next?”

I think Pasko’s work on Swamp Thing is often underrated, overshadowed by the groundbreaking Alan Moore run that immediately followed it.  I know that I’m not alone in this estimation.  A number of other fans also believe Pasko’s Swamp Thing stories are due for a reevaluation.

Swamp Thing 6 pg 17

During this time Pasko was also working in animation.  Among his numerous animation credits, he wrote several episodes of Thundaar the Barbarian, which had been created by fellow comic book writer Steve Gerber.  It was Pasko who devised the name Ookla for Thundaar’s massive leonine sidekick.  As he recounted years later, he and Gerber had been attempting to come up with a name for the character when…

“We passed one of the entrances to the UCLA campus and when I saw the acronym on signage, the phonetic pronunciation leapt to mind.”

I was a huge fan of Thundaar the Barbarian when I was a kid.  I doubt I paid any attention to the credits back in the early 1980s, but years later, after I got into comic books, when I watched reruns of the show, the names of the various comic book creators involved in it, including Pasko, leaped right out at me.

E-Man v2 5 coverPasko was the writer on the first several issues of the revival of E-Man from First Comics in 1983, working with artist Joe Staton, the character’s co-creator.  As I’ve previously written, I just don’t feel that Pasko was a good fit for E-Man.  It really is one of those series that was never quite the same unless Nicola Cuti was writing it.  Nevertheless, I’m sure Pasko gave it his best.  There is at least one issue of E-Man where I think Pasko did good work, though.  I enjoyed his script for “Going Void” in issue #5, which featured a brutally satirical send-up of Scientology.

Pasko got back into writing for DC Comics in late 1987, writing a “Secret Six” serial drawn by Dan Spiegel in Action Comics Weekly.  He soon picked up another ACW assignment, featuring the revamped version of the Blackhawks conceived by Howard Chaykin.

This past January on his Facebook page Pasko recounted how he came to write Blackhawk in ACW.  When asked to take over the feature from departing writer Mike Grell by editor Mike Gold, Pasko initially accepted it only because of the lengthy, ongoing strike by the Writers Guild…

“I took the assignment because I had no choice–I needed the money–but it turned out, in the end, to be the most fun I ever had writing comics. I haunted the UCLA Research Library, immersing myself in everything I could learn about the post-WWII era in which the series was set, making Xeroxes of visual reference for the artist and having the time of my life.

“But my greatest thanks are reserved for that artist, my fantastic collaborator, the impeccable storyteller, Rick Burchett. Which is why this stuff is tops among the work of which I’m most proud. That stuff was all YOURS, Rick.”

Pasko & Burchett returned to the characters with an ongoing Blackhawk comic book that launched in March 1989.  It was a really enjoyable series, and it’s definitely unfortunate that it only lasted a mere 16 issues, plus an Annual.

Blackhawk 2 pg 19

In 1992 Pasko became a story editor on Batman: The Animated Series, working on 17 episodes of the acclaimed series.  He wrote the episode “See No Evil” and co-wrote the teleplay for the episode “Paging the Crime Doctor.”  Additionally, Pasko co-wrote the screenplay for the 1993 animated feature Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which was released theatrically.

DC Retroactive Superman 1970sIn the later part of his career Pasko contributed to several nonfiction books.  He also wrote the occasional comic book story for DC.  Among these was the special DC Retroactive: Superman – The 1970s penciled by Eduardo Barretto, which gave Pasko the opportunity to write the Man of Steel and his Bronze Age supporting cast one last time.

I never had an opportunity to meet Martin Pasko.  I narrowly missed him at Terrificon a few years ago.  Fortunately, Pasko was very active on Facebook, and I was one of the many fans who he enthusiastically interacted with there.  He wrote some really great stories in his time, and will definitely be missed.

Bernie Wrightson: 1948 to 2017

Comic book, horror and fantasy artist Bernie Wrightson passed away on March 18th at the age of 68. Wrightson received well-deserved acclaim for his atmospheric artwork in a career that spanned four and a half decades.

Swamp Thing 9 cover

Wrightson is probably best-known as the co-creator of the Swamp Thing character with writer Len Wein. The initial incarnation of the character debuted in a stand-alone story in the DC Comics horror anthology House of Secrets #92 (June/July 1971).  The “Swamp Thing” story was an unexpected hit, and it led to Wein & Wrightson introducing a revamped incarnation of the character a year later.  This ongoing Swamp Thing series was set in the DC universe.  Wrightson drew the first ten issues.  Issue #7 featured a guest appearance by Batman, and Wrightson rendered a stunning, moody depiction of the Caped Crusader.  He would have several more opportunities to draw Batman over the course of his career.

Wrightson was friends with fellow artist Michael Kaluta. In 1974 the two of them had an opportunity to work together on the third and fourth issues of The Shadow, which adapted the pulp vigilante created by Walter Gibson.  A year later Wrightson and Kaluta, along with Jeffrey Jones and Barry Windsor-Smith, began sharing studio space in Lower Manhattan loft, an arrangement that lasted until 1979.  Known as “The Studio,” the four artists influenced one another, each of them creating some of the best works of their careers.

Bernie Wrightson Frankenstein

One of Wrightson most stunning efforts was his illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Wrightson worked on this project for seven years years, and it was finally published in 1983.  The breathtaking, intricately detailed artwork Wrightson created for Frankenstein is considered to be one of the greatest achievements of his career.

(Honestly, I don’t think you can overdo the superlatives when it comes to describing Wrightson’s Frankenstein illustrations.)

Wrightson collaborated with horror novelist Stephen King on several occasions. In 1983 Wrightson drew the graphic novel adaptation of the movie Creepshow and provided illustrations for King’s novella Cycle of the Werewolf. The extended edition of King’s mammoth novel The Stand released in 1990 featured illustrations by Wrightson.  He also provided illustrations for Wolves of the Calla, the fifth book in King’s Dark Tower series, published in 2003.

Wrightson remained involved in the comic book biz over the years, drawing numerous covers, pin-ups, miniseries, graphic novels and short stories in anthologies. In the second half of the 1970s he illustrated a number of stories for Warren Publishing’s line of black & white horror magazines.  Wrightson also worked on a handful of projects for Marvel Comics, among them the graphic novels Spider-Man: Hooky (1986) and The Hulk and The Thing: The Big Change (1987), and the four issue miniseries Punisher P.O.V. (1991).  The Big Change and P.O.V. were both written by Jim Starlin.  The two of them also collaborated on the DC Comics miniseries Batman: The Cult (1988).

Batman Aliens 1 pg 41

Among the later comic book work that Wrightson did, I especially enjoyed the two issue Batman/Aliens miniseries published in 1997. Written by Ron Marz, this was one of the more effective of the crossovers released by DC and Dark Horse in the 1990s.  Batman is a superhero who is grounded enough in reality that the Xenomorphs posed a legitimate threat to him without having to ridiculously amp up their powers.  Wrightson’s artwork provided the story with a genuinely moody, intense tone.  As always he drew a striking Batman, and his Xenomorphs were effectively menacing.

I also enjoyed the beautifully grotesque painted covers that Wrightson created for the four issue horror anthology Nightmare Theater published by Chaos! Comics in 1997. They were an excellent showcase for his talents and sensibilities.  Wrightson also penciled a werewolf story for the first issue, which was inked by Jimmy Palmiotti.

Wrightson’s last major project was Frankenstein Alive, Alive! published by IDW between 2012 and 2014.  Written by Steve Niles, the three issue series served as a sequel to Wrightson’s illustrated edition of the Mary Shelley novel.

Nightmare Theater 1 cover signed

I was fortunate enough to meet Wrightson on a few occasions, at a couple of comic book conventions and at a store signing in White Plains NY. He struck me as a very friendly individual.  Others had similar experiences meeting him.  When the news broke that he has died, it was clear that not only had we lost an immensely talented artist but also a genuinely nice person.  Wrightson will definitely be missed by friends, colleagues, and fans.