How SWAMP THING Promises to Bring Horror to the DCU

DC Studios co-CEO James Gunn gave us a lot to be excited about in his opening announcement slate for his regime. From both a new Superman and a new Batman movie, to (finally) a Green Lantern show, Gunn promised some heavy hitters. But for me, the one project that made me literally cheer at my desk was the last one. A new, big screen Swamp Thing movie. You really can’t do “Gods and Monsters” as chapter 1 without including perhaps DC continuity’s biggest, most important monster. And with Swamp Thing could come a whole universe of DC horror begging to hit big screens.

Swamp Thing in the snow in DC's Swamp Thing Winter special.
DC Comics

Gunn said in the Swamp Thing portion his announcement video:

“…a very dark horror story and the origins of the monster who is Swamp Thing. And although it’s tonally outside of the rest of the DCU, it will still feed into the rest of the stories.”

This is a pretty exciting idea. A dark horror story that feeds into the DC movie and TV universe but which has a completely different tone. This is as it should be. Right from his beginning, Swamp Thing was an outsider, in some ways both a god and a monster. Over time, Swampy has intersected with major portions of the greater DC Comics universe and even joined the Justice League…Dark.

Swamp Thing began in a single issue of DC’s House of Secrets anthology. Writer Len Wein and artist Berni Wrightson delivered a one-off story about a man in the early 20th Century who became a swamp creature in a chemical explosion and longed to reunite with his lost love. It’s got a Gothic horror vibe oozing throughout the short page count. The 1971 comic issue weirdly intersected with, but never copied from, Marvel’s Man-Thing. It’s a whole wild story. But, that issued proved popular enough that Wein and Wrightson returned for a full ongoing comic in 1972. Wrightson drew the first 10 issues; Nestor Redondo drew a further 13 issues, the last issue being drawn by Fred Carrillo. Wein, meanwhile, wrote the first 13 issues with David Michelinie and Gerry Conway finishing up.

The cover of Swamp Thing #1 features the titular green hero towering over Abigail Arcane and Matthew Cable with his gun drawn.
DC Comics

This version of Swamp Thing was Dr. Alec Holland, a brilliant scientist who had developed a new plant growth formula in the bayous of Louisiana. Unfortunately, rivals killed his wife and would have killed him too, were it not for his body melding with the formula and turning him into a giant mucky man. Swamp Thing fought against all sorts of mad scientists and monsters, most notable his archenemy Dr. Anton Arcane and his Un-Men mutations. At the same time, Holland grew closer to Abigail Arcane, Anton’s niece, and federal agent Matthew Cable who had originally assumed Swamp Thing had killed Alec Holland. The story continued on for the rest of the 24 issues, but ended unceremoniously.

And that could have been it. One very ’70s comic from 1972 to 1976. But in 1982, an up-and-coming grindhouse horror filmmaker named Wes Craven was making a movie based on the Swamp Thing. That movie is dumb and bad, but it did lead DC to relaunch the comic series. The Saga of the Swamp Thing under writer Martin Pasko and artist Tom Yeates sadly did not live up to sales hopes either. Pasko brought back Abigail and Cable in the hopes to rekindle interest, but after 19 issues, he left the title.

The cover of Saga of the Swamp Thing depicts the titular character amid gorgeous greenery and flowers.
DC Comics

In a last-ditch effort, editor Len Wein and DC handed the reigns of the series to a young British writer named Alan Moore. Moore had written for 2000AD and Marvel UK to some acclaim, but had yet to pen his famous later works. They gave Moore complete creative control to revamp the series in any way he wished. Along with artists Stephen Bissette and Jon Totleben, and later Rick Veitch, Moore’s 44-issue run turned Swamp Thing into something much more than a man-turned-monster.

Right away, Moore established that Swamp Thing was not actually Alec Holland. Instead he was an ancient, powerful entity in the swamp who merely thought it was Alec Holland following Holland’s death. Moore would later reveal, in an attempt to connect back to the original one-off Swamp Thing story from House of Secrets, that there had been dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Swamp Things since the dawn of humanity. All versions of the creature were designated defenders of the Parliament of Trees, an elemental community also known as “the Green” that connects all plant life on Earth. And later, on other planets. Wild stuff.

A panel of Saga of the Swamp Thing showing Abigail Arcane asleep next to Swamp Thing who contemplates their romance.
DC Comics

But more than that, Moore made The Saga of the Swamp Thing a metaphysical, spiritual treatise on existence and love. He had Abigail and Swamp Thing’s romance remain, even though he was no longer even tangentially human. We even get a psychedelic plant-sex scene amid the Gothic Beauty and the Beast-esque drama. At one point, vile racist hicks (a favorite villain group in Moore’s run) tried to put Abigail on trial for her “unholy” union with Swamp Thing, a direct allegory to the attacks on interracial and homosexual relationships at the time. Eventually, Swamp Thing took over Gotham City to protest Abigail’s treatment and Batman himself would side with the green defender. After all, Superman’s not human; he has a human girlfriend. Got ’em, Batman!

And while dozens of great writers and artists have worked on Swamp Thing titles in the years since, it seems almost assured that it’ll be a mix of Wein/Wrightson and Moore/Bissette/Tutleben that will end up in the DCU’s Swamp Thing movie. These are the most popular runs, but also the ones that best fit the horror inherent to the character. A man—or not a man—becomes a monster and then learns what it means to be human while fighting off other terrors both scientific and demonic.

The covers of Swamp Thing Annual shows Swampy, Etrigan, Deadman, Phantom Stranger, and the Spectre; cover of Swamp Thing #58 shows Swampy fighting Hawkman and Hawkgirl.
DC Comics

Gunn mentioned the Swamp Thing movie will tie in with other DCU titles and characters. This happened all the time in the comics! Swamp Thing interacts with Superman and Batman; fights Hawkman and Hawkgirl; teams up with Etrigan the Demon, the Phantom Stranger, and Deadman; goes into the spirit realm and meets the Spectre; and even introduced the character of John Constantine. All of these—and indeed many, many more—such characters can and possibly will get their own movies or TV shows.

This could even, finally(!), give us the Justice League Dark movie we’ve been wanting for years. The team consists of magic, mystical, and monstrous DC characters like Constantine, Zatanna, Deadman, Man-Bat, Doctor Fate, Madame Xanadu, and of course Swamp Thing. At one point Guillermo del Toro was in talks to make such a film. We’d still love to see that, but in any permutation, a dark and magical team is a great way to distinguish the DCU from the MCU.

Berni Wrightson's cover of Swamp Thing.
DC Comics

The DCU has a real opportunity to prove that horror can exist alongside more mainstream superhero fair. Gunn and Peter Safran are smart to recognize Swamp Thing as not merely a monster character but one of the most popular and fascinating DC characters in the whole canon. There’s a reason he’s had movies and TV shows before—as recently as 2019. Announcing Swamp Thing right away allows for more horror to influence the continuity. Vampires, werewolves, and zombies all exist, via Swamp Thing. We may finally get big screen Clayface, Solomon Grundy, Blue Devil, Floronic Man, and more! Hence my cheers. DC Comics does horror very well, and I’m jazzed to see where it goes.

Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Instagram and Letterboxd.

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