The Roots of Swamp Thing –- A History of DC’s Horror Hero

Joshua Lapin-Bertone

Joshua Lapin-Bertone

May 12, 2019


From the dark and dreary depths of the Louisiana swamps, comes one of the DC Universe’s most horrifying and tragic heroes. The Swamp Thing is unlike any character who came before him, from his macabre roots to his elemental powers. But like most plant life, Swampy has grown over time, and thanks to his upcoming DC Universe show, a whole new audience is about to meet this beloved "muck-encrusted mockery of a man." Who is this creature, and where did he come from? Join us as we take a look at the roots of Swamp Thing…





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Before we get into the story of Alec Holland, we must go back to the beginning with Alex Olsen. Readers got their first look at Swamp Thing in a story in 1971's House of Secrets #92 (written by Len Wein and penciled by Bernie Wrightson). Set in the early 20th century, this tale features a scientist named Alex Olsen who was murdered in a lab explosion set by his jealous assistant Damian Ridge. After the explosion, Ridge buried Olsen’s body in the swamp. But Alex lived on. The chemicals from the lab explosion reacted with the surrounding swamp land, turning Alex Olsen into the mossy creature known as Swamp Thing.





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The one-shot horror story proved so popular that writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson decided to try their hands at an ongoing title. Unlike its Victorian predecessor, 1972’s Swamp Thing #1 took place in contemporary times and featured a government scientist named Alec Holland. Alec and his wife Linda had traveled to a secluded spot in the Louisiana swamps so they could work on a secret bio-restorative formula. Despite their hidden location, representatives from a criminal group known as the Conclave tracked the Hollands down and demanded the formula.


Alec and Linda refused to sell their formula to the Conclave, and the group soon retaliated by planting a bomb in their lab. The resulting explosion covered Alec in flames, and he dove into the swamp to extinguish them. At that moment, the chemicals from Alec’s experiments, catalyzed by the explosion, fused his body with the swamp to create a strange new lifeform. The Swamp Thing was born!


Swamp Thing followed the sound of a gunshot and found his wife Linda gunned down by the Conclave members. In his anger, Swamp Thing killed the men with his bare hands. Matt Cable, a government agent who had been assigned to watch over the Hollands, witnessed the battle and vowed to hunt Swamp Thing down.





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Swamp Thing #2 (written by Len Wein and penciled by Bernie Wrightson) introduced Anton Arcane, a dark sorcerer who would emerge as one of Swamp Thing’s worst enemies. Arcane lived in a spooky European castle, where he was served by his monstrous group of creations known as the Unmen. Growing tired of his own aged husk, Arcane wanted to use Swamp Thing’s body as a vessel and offered to restore him to Alec Holland as repayment. Once Swamp Thing discovered how evil Arcane truly was, he defeated the deranged man, but he would return many times inhabiting the bodies of Alec’s closest friends and family. Swamp Thing #3 (written by Len Wein and penciled by Bernie Wrightson) introduced Anton’s niece -- Abigail Arcane -- when Swamp Thing rescued her from the Patchwork Man, the reanimated corpse of her father. Abby would become the second most important figure in Swamp Thing lore, after the creature himself. 


Abby believed that her uncle and father had perished, and decided to join Matt Cable on his hunt for Swamp Thing. In Swamp Thing #7 (written by Len Wein and penciled by Bernie Wrightson), Matt and Abby’s search brought them to Gotham City, where the duo found themselves captured by henchmen of Nathan Ellery, leader of the Conclave. Swamp Thing rescued the duo and had his first encounter with Batman. Swamp Thing wanted to kill Ellery as revenge for the death of Linda, but the Dark Knight talked him out of it. Moments later, Ellery was killed by one of his own experimental creatures, bringing Swamp Thing a small measure of closure.


After months of hunting him, Matt and Abby succeeded in capturing Swamp Thing and turned him over to the United States government for study. By now the duo had been saved by Swamp Thing multiple times, and Matt was no longer sure he was responsible for the deaths of the Hollands. Alone in the government lab, Matt reached out to the creature, who revealed his origins to him for the first time. Realizing the scientists in charge didn’t have Swamp Thing’s best interests at heart, Abby and Matt faked the creature’s death and snuck him out of the lab.





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Swamp Thing grew tired of traveling the country and putting his newfound friends in danger. Seeking an end to his eternal torment, he swallowed his pride and journeyed to the home of his brother, Edward Holland. After recovering from the initial shock of learning his brother was alive, Edward began working on a cure. Edward reasoned that if he recreated the conditions of Alec’s transformation, he’d be able to return his brother to his human form. With the help of his assistant Ruth Monroe, Edward recreated a swamp in the backyard of his home, and placed dynamite under a table of chemicals. When the dynamite ignited, Swamp Thing dove into the make-shift swamp and emerged as Alec Holland once more.


Alec tried to find his place in humanity again and began a relationship with Ruth. Although Ruth tried to help Alec move on with his life, nightmares of his time as Swamp Thing continued to haunt him. Alec and Ruth settled in Oregon, where he resumed his work as a government scientist. One day Alec noticed strange moss on his arms, and worried he was transforming back into Swamp Thing. He tried to redevelop the bio-restorative formula so he could get a permanent cure, but his work was interrupted when a group of adventurers known as the Challengers of the Unknown requested his services.


While assisting the group, Alec transformed back into Swamp Thing. He reasoned that since he hadn’t finished the cure in time, his change was now permanent. When the Challengers discovered his plight, they invited Swamp Thing to become a permanent member of their group. He traveled with the team for a time, with the ghostly hero Deadman secretly assisting them behind the scenes. Swamp Thing eventually parted ways with the Challengers, feeling more at home in the swamp than on planet hopping adventures.





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Throughout the early issues of Swamp Thing’s second comic book series, he found himself the target of the Sunderland Corporation. The group, led by Carlton Sunderland, sought to capture Swamp Thing and learn the secrets of his bio-restorative formula. Matt and Abby, who were now married, got caught in the crossfire of Sunderland’s hunt when the corporation blew up their home. One of the biggest changes in Swamp Thing’s life occurred in 1984 when famed English writer Alan Moore took over The Saga of Swamp Thing. During his time on the title, Moore took the series in a brave new direction and the book became one of the first titles to permanently drop the Comics Code of Authority.


Moore gave readers the shock of their lives in The Saga of Swamp Thing #21 (written by Alan Moore and penciled by Steve Bissette), when it was revealed that Swamp Thing had never been Alec Holland in the first place! During the previous issue, the Sunderland Corporation had finally captured Swamp Thing and seemingly killed him. Dr. Jason Woodrue, who is also a plant-based villain known as the Floronic Man, performed an autopsy on the creature and discovered its true origins. When Alec Holland had dove into the swamp, his consciousness had been absorbed by the plants. Alec Holland had been dead all along, and Swamp Thing was merely an overgrown plant with the consciousness of the deceased scientist. When Swamp Thing awoke from the morgue, he found Woodrue’s report and killed Sunderland in a rage.


The news of his true origins sent Swamp Thing into a deep existential crisis. For years he had been hoping to regain his humanity, only to learn he never had it in the first place. Without the mind blocks that convinced him he was human, Swamp Thing mentally retreated into the Green for the first time. He discovered the Green was a powerful elemental force connecting all plant life. Swamp Thing was now able to communicate with the Green, and discovered it was under attack by the Floronic Man. Woodrue was attempting to use the Green to wipe out humanity, and even the Justice League was powerless to stop him. Swamp Thing confronted Woodrue and thwarted him from carrying out his evil plan. Swamp Thing now felt at peace with his life as a plant and returned to the swamp feeling rejuvenated. The mossy waters once made him feel like an outsider, but he now felt truly at home.


Thanks to his new understanding of the Green, more abilities soon opened for Swamp Thing. He had the power to transfer his consciousness to any plant life on Earth, no matter how far. He was able to make replicas of himself and could regrow his body from the smallest sprout.





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Anton Arcane continued to cause trouble, and secretly possessed the body of Matt Cable. Arcane killed his niece and condemned her soul to Hell, sending Swamp Thing on a journey to rescue her. During Swamp Thing Annual #2 (written by Alan Moore and penciled by Steve Bissette) Swampy is assisted by the Phantom Stranger, Deadman, the Spectre and even the spirit of Alec Holland in his quest to save Abby. After Abby is brought back to life, she internally closes the book on her marriage to Matt, who is now in a coma. Abby and Swamp Thing’s friendship becomes something more in The Saga of Swamp Thing #34 (written by Alan Moore and penciled by Steve Bissette), when the two confess their romantic feelings for one another. Despite the biological differences, they agree to start a life together, and Swamp Thing grows a hallucinogenic plant for Abby to ingest. The experience briefly unites their souls and lets Abby experience a commune with the Green. The couple considered this their wedding and began referring to each other as husband and wife from that point on. Despite learning of his plant origins, Abby continued to refer to Swamp Thing as “Alec Holland”, which he accepted. Abby also adopted Holland as her own last name, and the couple lived their own blissful existence in the Louisiana swamp.


An English sorcerer named John Constantine entered Swamp Thing’s life and taught him more about his relationship to the Green. Constantine introduced Swamp Thing to the Parliament of the Trees, who were the guardians of the Green. The Parliament revealed that Swamp Thing was not the first of his kind, and that there had been generations of elementals serving as avatars to the Green, including Alex Olsen. When the elementals work is done, they take root with the Parliament and make way for the next one.





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After being attacked by government agents in Gotham City, Swamp Thing found himself temporarily cut off from the Green and was forced to transfer his consciousness to vegetation on another planet. Assuming that Swamp Thing was dead, the Parliament created a Sprout, with the intention of it having it bond with a host to become the next elemental. When Swamp Thing returned to Earth, his future as an elemental was called into question. Since there can’t be more than plant elemental active once, the Parliament gave Swamp Thing a choice: become one with them or destroy the Sprout. Swamp Thing was not ready to leave Abby, but was unwilling to kill the Sprout, which lead to a long conflict between him and the Parliament. Swamp Thing and John Constantine unsuccessfully tried to bond the Sprout with a few hosts, including Solomon Grundy.


Constantine and Swamp Thing came up with a bizarre solution to the Sprout problem in The Saga of Swamp Thing #76 (story and art by Rick Veitch). Swamp Thing used his powers to take control of Constantine’s body, and used it to impregnate Abby. The Sprout bonded with their child, who they named Tefe. Unfortunately, the demon Negral had tainted Constantine’s blood before the conception, giving Tefe supernatural powers. Raising a daughter was a complicated adventure for Swamp Thing and Abby, as Tefe’s dark nature kept her parents on their toes. During 1996’s Swamp Thing #171 (written by Mark Miller and penciled by Phil Hester), the comic’s final issue ended with Swamp Thing gaining additional abilities from the Parliaments of Waves, Air, Flames and Stone. Swamp Thing become a godlike elemental, with control over the entire planet. He later gave up these new abilities and returned to a simple life serving the Green from the Louisiana swamps.





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After the events of Blackest Night, the Green became corrupted by dark forces and Swamp Thing became a vessel for the demon Nekron. During Brightest Day #24, the White Lanterns sought to tip the scales by reviving Alec Holland. The scientist awoke bewildered and disoriented and soon found himself joining with the Green to become a new version of Swamp Thing and battle Nekron. Alec defeated the demon and reverted to human. His last memories were of the bomb going off in his lab, but his brief symbiosis with the Green gave him partial memories of Swamp Thing’s life.


During DC’s New 52 event, writer Scott Snyder launched a new Swamp Thing series which featured Alec trying to make sense of his twisted memories. Alec attempted to adjust to being alive again, but the Green kept calling for him to become Swamp Thing again. Alec was resistant to the call, but when the forces of the Rot (an elemental force focused on death) attacked, he asked the Parliament to change him back to Swamp Thing. As Swamp Thing, Alec was able to defeat the Rot and gained a few new abilities like the power to form wings. Readers can currently find Swamp Thing on the monthly title Justice League Dark, where he fights alongside other supernatural heroes led by Wonder Woman.


As you can see, Swamp Thing has quite a rich history. Although he’s one of DC’s most inhuman heroes, he’s among their most powerful. With all the rich storytelling the character has experienced, it’s exciting to imagine all things the upcoming live-action series will do. Swamp Thing premieres May 31st exclusively here on DC Universe. Will you be watching?



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