According to an interview with Bernie Wrightson published in Back Issue #6 (Sep., 2004), the artist was initially reluctant to take on Swamp Thing, in large part because he wasn’t sure he’d be able to handle the deadlines required in producing a regularly published full-length comic book — even one that came out on a bi-monthly schedule. What ultimately convinced him? Mostly, he said, it was because he realized he’d never get a better chance to draw a series that would be “wall-to-wall monsters”.
That opportunity didn’t come immediately, of course; as readers of Swamp Thing #1 (or our August 13 blog post on same) already know, there’s just one bona fide monster in that issue — and he doesn’t even show up until well into the story. But as we’re about to see, by only the series’ second installment, young Mr. Wrightson would be able to make his dreams come true.
This second chapter in the saga of the Swamp Thing picks up right where the first one left off. Our protagonist, the muck-encrusted mockery of a man who used to be a scientist named Alec Holland, is lingering at the scene of the previous issue’s dramatic events — including the lab explosion that was responsible for his transformation into the Swamp Thing; the subsequent murder of his wife and fellow scientist Linda by the same criminals who had caused that explosion; and, finally, his own revenge-killing of two of those criminals…
Another Back Issue article (this one from issue #36 [Sep., 2009]) includes this quote from Wrightson regarding his sources of inspiration for visualizing this issue’s indisputable abundance of grotesqueries, aka the Un-Men:
These were horror characters, so they were supposed to be creepy, unsettling monsters. My influences come from old Universal Monsters movies and EC Comics. I also might have just seen Freaks—the old Tod Browning movie (1932)—and that was probably an influence, too.
Whatever the artist’s influences might have been, I think it’s fair to say that, fifty years later, it’s virtually impossible to look at these remarkable character designs and not think of them as anything other than “Wrightsonesque”.
The only Un-Men who get a name in this story are Ophidian (whose moniker is basically a fancy way of calling him “Snake”) and Cranius (whose appellation beats “Head on Hand Guy”, I suppose). (UPDATE, 10/12/22: The original version of this post stated that Cranius wasn’t given a name until issue #10; my thanks to reader Brian Morrison for the correction.)
The source of that “Yip Yip!” sound effect is, of course, Swamp Thing’s canine companion of our story’s first few pages, who’s managed to escape the attack of the Un-Men without harm. That’s a lucky break for the dog — but it might not be so lucky for Lt. Matt Cable, the government agent who had been charged with protecting the Hollands, and now erroneously believes the Swamp Thing to be their murderer, for reasons we’ll learn a few pages on.
The narrative follows the plane bearing Swampy as it flies west, crossing the Atlantic, and ultimately landing in Southeast Europe…
In a cavern beneath the mountain, the Un-Men hoist their captive out of the water and onto a wooden cart, which they then pull along through twisting tunnels. The Swamp Thing remains unconscious through it all…
As we previously noted in our Swamp Thing #1 post, Wein and Wrightson reportedly got grief from DC publisher Carmine Infantino for using full-page splash panels anywhere but at the beginning of a story. Speaking personally, I’m pretty certain I didn’t feel cheated by the magnificent page above; I doubt that many other readers did, either, whether in 1972 or in the half-century since.
Seeing an open window, Swampy makes for it — but once he’s through, he immediately discovers he’s made an error — quite possibly a fatal one…
Arcane (whose first name, Anton, wouldn’t be revealed for years to come) may call the Un-Men his “pets” — but he doesn’t seem to care much about the one or more of them who’ve just fallen to their (presumed) deaths, does he? Not really what I’d call a responsible pet owner.
Arcane has described his knowledge as being primarily magical in nature (“occult enchantments — supernatural lore!”), but his “synthetic” Un-Men — not to mention his “cavernous laboratory” — suggest a facility with science… mad science, maybe, but science nevertheless. Wein and Wrightson are letting us know early in the game that the world which Swamp Thing inhabits is the world of classic horror fiction and vintage monster movies — a world where the uncanny scientific experiments of Dr. Frankenstein and the unholy supernatural exploits of Count Dracula can coexist more or less comfortably.
In taking Swampy’s vitals, Arcane determines that he has no blood pressure; his respiratory system works like a plant’s (meaning he inhales carbon dioxide and exhales oxygen); and the roots crawling across his form have a life of their own. “Yes, Doctor Holland,” he concludes, “I would say your body is exactly what I’ve been looking for!”
Meanwhile, back in the U.S. of A., Matt Cable and his crew are just finishing up with closing down the Hollands’ lab, when someone drives up to give our favorite Fed a report regarding the mysterious plane that carried the Swamp Thing away earlier…
As the transformed Arcane shows Alec to his room, he explains that he’s able to make the Swamp Thing’s body speak more easily than did its previous wearer due to a “beneficent side-effect of the enchantment“. Which is reasonable I suppose (though also awfully convenient, narratively speaking).
Alone in his quarters, Alec Holland at first feels grateful for the recovery of his humanity. Soon, however, his thoughts turn to Linda… and he decides to go see if Arcane keeps anything to drink around his castle…
Alec is aghast to realize that in accepting Arcane’s help, he’s given the latter man the means to carry out his homicidal dreams of revenge, “– and there’s nothing I can do about it — nothing!”
Seizing Alec in the grip of his four powerful arms, the Un-Man threatens to break his victim’s back — but the quick-thinking scientist manages to pull the sash of his robe free, and then…
“Gone — all of them!” Um, not so fast, big guy. Did you see any bodies actually hit bottom? I didn’t think so.
Anton Arcane and the Un-Men (y’know, that wouldn’t be such a bad name for a band, when you think about it…) would be “gone” for all of eight issues (or sixteen months, if you prefer). And once they’d returned, they’d never really leave; at least, no more so than Swamp Thing himself ever would. Arcane would soon become Swampy’s unquestioned arch-foe, in ancillary media as well as in comic books, while the Un-Men would eventually be featured in two separate series from DC’s Vertigo imprint: American Freak: A Tale of the Un-Men (5 issues, 1994); and The Un-Men (13 issues, 2007-08).
But well before that — only two months after the release of Swamp Thing #2, in fact — Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson would extend the Arcane legacy in issue #3’s “The Patchwork Man”. There, readers would become acquainted with that story’s titular character (who’d already been glimpsed in shadow in ST #2, first on page 11 and then again on page 24), a fellow who had had the ill fortune to have been born Anton’s brother Grigori. Grigori, you see, had been all but blown to bits many years earlier when he stepped on a land mine, and had then been “saved” by Anton by being rebuilt as an ersatz Frankenstein’s monster (an early foray into this thematic matter by Bernie Wrightson, who would of course return to it several times thereafter, always with fruitful results).
The Patchwork Man appeared to perish at the end of Swamp Thing #3 (a circumstance which wouldn’t prevent DC from bringing him back three years later in House of Secrets #140 [Feb.-Mar., 1976] for what was supposed to be the first installment of a new series, though only a single episode was published before that project was scrapped). But in doing so, he saved the life of yet another member of the Arcane family — his own daughter, who believed that he’d been killed in that land mine accident years before. This was Abigail Arcane, who would with this issue join the small but critical supporting cast of Swamp Thing, accompanying Matt Cable in his misguided quest to bring Swampy to justice for the deaths of Alec and Linda Holland. Eventually, of course, “Abby” would become even more significant than that, ultimately emerging as the single most important character in the whole Swamp Thing corpus (outside of the Avatar of the Green himself, of course) by way of restoring the “Beauty and the Beast” romantic element that had helped make the original “Swamp Thing” short story in House of Secrets #92 an instant classic, but which remained missing from the ongoing series version of the character concept until Alan Moore came along.
So, some of you out there may now well be wondering, if Swamp Thing #3 is such a key issue, why am I discussing it here as an addendum to a post about Swamp Thing #2, rather than giving it its own blog entry? Well, regular readers might actually be able to guess the reason… which is that I failed to buy the book when it came out in December, 1972. (I have to believe that I simply never had the opportunity to do so, because fifteen-year-old me could not possibly have been benighted enough to have actually seen this comic in the spinner rack, and then have chosen to pass on it. Could I?)
Anyway, you’ll be glad to know that whatever problems there evidently were with my acquiring Swamp Thing #3 (whether due to the vagaries of local periodical distribution or to my own temporary [?] stupidity), they were resolved by the time issue #4 came out in February, 1973. I did manage to buy that one, and every subsequent issue through to the end of the Wein-Wrightson run, which came with issue #10 (the very same issue, incidentally, that featured the return of Anton Arcane and the Un-Men [they’ll be playing here all week, folks! …sorry]). And fear not, we’ll be returning to feature further issues of that run in future posts. However, I’m not sure yet exactly when that will be — and I just couldn’t wait to introduce you to the rest of the Arcane family… well, to Abby, anyway. And so, here we are.
Before we take our leave of Swamp Thing #2, I’d like to share something from the comic’s letters column that I think is pretty interesting, especially from a historical perspective.
By way of setup, let me first note that, as this was only the series’ second issue, editor Joe Orlando hadn’t received any regular reader mail on Swamp Thing #1 yet. He’d managed to secure written comments from a few fans who were given a sneak preview of the story while visiting the DC offices, but even after including their contributions, he still had half a letters page to fill. And so, readers of ST #2 were offered this look behind the scenes at how the comic book they held in their hands had come to be:
Orlando goes on to describe how in the particular instance of “The Man Who Wanted Forever”, there was a temporary crisis relating to the last step described above, when twelve pages of the story went missing in the mail while en route from letterer Gaspar Saladino (whom I’m sure appreciated the shout-out Orlando gave his work here, especially considering that DC, unlike Marvel, still didn’t give letterers a published credit in this era) to Bernie Wrightson for inking. After waiting two weeks for the pages to arrive, Wrightson had been forced to begin re-drawing them, and had just about completed two of them, when, as the lettercol text puts it, “the lost pages finally found their way to his apartment.” Whew!
That climactic episode of near-disaster may have been the main point of sharing the story of Swamp Thing #2’s production process as far as Joe Orlando was concerned (though it may just as well not have been). But modern comics fans and historians are likely to be more intrigued by the details of the process itself — a process which looks an awful lot like what many of us have come to call “the Marvel method” of comic-book production. (And indeed, that’s what both Wein and Wrightson themselves would call it when interviewed in later years about their collaboration on Swamp Thing.)
I’m not prepared to say that Swamp Thing was the first DC comics title ever to be produced Marvel-style. But there’s no question that, as Orlando himself says, this method was “very different” from the way that “most National comics” were put together in 1972. The way I see it, the willingness of Orlando as the book’s editor to allow his two young creators to work in the way they thought best — and then to discuss that way publicly, in the form of ST #2’s letters column — can only have helped to put a few more cracks in the monumental edifice of How We Do Things at DC Comics. As the decade progressed — and as creators like Len Wein not only assumed editorial positions themselves, but also moved ever-more-easily back and forth between the two major companies — the supposed wall that existed between the Marvel and DC methods of making comics became more and more porous, so that by the end of the decade, the aesthetic difference between the two publishers’ output had become much more narrow — though it hadn’t disappeared completely, of course, and wouldn’t, for some time still to come. (Of course, some might say it never has, down to this very day… but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion, I reckon.)