Bookmarked: ‘Saga of the Swamp Thing’ is a Thought-Sodden Epic

Writer Brendan Parr reminisces on the existential horror of comic legend Alan Moore’s “Saga of the Swamp Thing.”

A sweeping odyssey of existential horror barely summarizes Alan Moore’s tenure on “Saga of the Swamp Thing.”

Looking for a series with more depth than your average superhero fanfare, I discovered “Saga of the Swamp Thing.” A philosophical twist on the classic monster formula? Sign me up. I was immediately sucked in by its rich writing and striking aesthetic, finishing the series faster than any other I’ve read.

From writer Moore (“Watchmen,” “V for Vendetta”) and illustrators John Totleben and Stephen Bissette, “Saga of the Swamp Thing” is a comic following a freak of nature finding his humanity.

Created by writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson in 1971 for DC Comics, Alec Holland was a biochemist-turned-abomination after a lab accident in the Louisiana bayou. Becoming the foliage heap known as Swamp Thing, Alec sought a cure for his deformity with federal agent Matt Cable and his wife Abby Arcane. 

Wein’s “Swamp Thing” was as hammy as a Saturday morning cartoon. Cyclical structures featured Alec endlessly searching for his cure, confronting a different cryptid each issue. The formulaic premise led to dwindling sales, only for “Saga of the Swamp Thing” relaunching to coincide with Wes Craven’s 1982 “Swamp Thing” film.

Joining on issue 20, Moore preserved Alec’s monstrosity but rejected all else. His opening issue “Loose Ends” saw the Swamp Thing caught and killed for government study while his supporting cast were unceremoniously written out.

Ensuing chapter “The Anatomy Lesson” revealed Holland had died in his initial accident, making Swamp Thing a manifestation of dead memories and experimental flora. He wasn’t a man seeking a cure but a monster that believed it was human.

Moore built a story about a creature longing for a life it never had. In the following issues, Swamp Thing reevaluates his existence, posing the question “What does it mean to be alive?”

In 45 issues, the series encompassed everything from romance to universal Armageddon. “Swamp Thing” navigates an existential crisis by journeying through Southern wetlands to hell itself.

As the narrative’s tone matured, so did the art. Penciling from Bissette (“Tyrant,” “Heavy Metal”) captured the elegant beauty of a sunrise as often as the grotesque body horror of a hellspawn. The ink coloring from Totleben (“Miracleman,” “1963”) lent ominous shading to mossy textures, fusing nature with mystery.

Each setting is intricately detailed. Simple Louisiana bogs to the vast Amazon rainforest are given equal care, while otherworldly realms and psychedelic dreams hypnotize with uncanny shapes and eerie colors.

Moore’s “Swamp Thing” featured supernatural antagonists with heightened purpose — allegories for hyper-nationalism, race relations and gender disparities.

One-note zombies are reinterpreted as undead enslaved people, reclaiming land from sanitized Hollywood dramas. Monstrous werewolves are rewritten to manifest via linked lunar and menstrual cycles, satirizing ‘80s gender roles. Radioactive vagrant Nukeface espouses American patriotism while corroding everything he touches.

The series’ weighty subject matter reflects the inner turmoil of its protagonist. Swamp Thing accepts being referred to as Alec but is constantly aware of his inhumanity. To cope, he devotes himself to understanding his form.

Connecting to the organic network known as The Green, Swamp Thing learns to control mass forestry and regrow his body at will. His abilities widen in scope but his spiritual presence becomes less tangible, being able to throw his consciousness like a rubber band between continents and galaxies.

For all his exploration and introspection, it’s Swamp Thing’s love for Abby that keeps him grounded — and oddly human. After Matt’s death from demonic possession, Abby finds solace with the mud man in a romance akin to “Beauty and the Beast.” 

The duo’s pairing is shockingly heartfelt. Abby shares her altruistic values of nature while Swamp Thing finds a confidant to express the revelations of his adventures.

By the end of his run, Swamp Thing accepts his role as a guardian of life and observer of humanity. He’s neither Earth-incarnate nor Alec Holland, but something independent and new made up by both. Swamp Thing leads as an example of peace and conservation, knowing Mother Nature will last — whether humanity does or not.

What Alan Moore did with “Saga of the Swamp Thing” 40 years ago ushered in a wave of existential, supernatural stories lauded as the British Invasion of comics. Subsequent books such as Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” and Grant Morrison’s “Animal Man” led to the DC offshoot Vertigo Comics, publishing unconventional comics with literary weight.

Even Moore’s side characters gained relevance. John Constantine, an occult con man guiding Swamp Thing through his journey, headlined the groundbreaking “Hellblazer” series from Vertigo.

Wes Craven’s “Swamp Thing” struggled to make an impact. James Wan’s 2018 series captured a gothic atmosphere but was unexpectedly canceled. With a new film from James Mangold (“Ford v Ferrari,” “Logan”), perhaps there’s hope the gentle green giant can find mainstream appeal on the silver screen.

Success or failure, life will move on and Alan Moore’s “Saga of the Swamp Thing” will continue to compel.

All 45 issues of Alan Moore’s “Saga of the Swamp Thing” are available digitally and physically across six volumes or one compendium.

Featured image by Hanna House / The Phoenix

Brendan Parr

Brendan Parr