Swamp Thing #4 (April, 1973)

As I’ve written in previous posts, I bought both the first and second issues of Swamp Thing upon their release back in 1972, and enjoyed them both very much.  Somehow, though, I managed to miss the third issue when it came out in December of that year.  And so, I had some catching up to do when I first picked up the subject of today’s post, back in February of 1973.

When I’d last seen the tragically transformed Dr. Alec Holland at the end of Swamp Thing #2, he’d just managed to defeat the evil genius Anton Arcane.  Arcane had brought Holland all the way from the southern United States to an unnamed Balkan country, solely for the purpose of appropriating the latter’s mucky body (which he then planned to use to wreak vengeance on his perceived enemies, naturally).  That adventure had ended with Arcane (apparently) dead, and Holland alive and free (as well as still mucky) — but nevertheless stranded somewhere in the Balkans… and on top of a mountain, to boot. 

As indicated by he opening splash page of issue #4, our hero may no longer be languishing in the heights of the Balkans… but that doesn’t mean he’s made it “home” (wherever that might now be), either:

We’ll pause here to note artist Bernie Wrightson’s striking use of screentone (aka Zip-A-Tone) to create a mood-setting shading effect for this splash.  The early 1970s saw a conspicuous increase in the use of this graphic tool by comics artists (see here for another then-recent example, this one from Marvel Comics’ Tomb of Dracula #7 [Mar., 1973]).  As Wrightson recalled in 2004 for an interview published in Comic Book Creator #6 (Winter, 2014):

I found this gradated Zip-A-Tone that goes from light at the top to darker at the bottom.  I got a couple of sheets and used it up on this.  I was experimenting, trying new things.

Also worth noting here is the dramatic title lettering by Gaspar Saladino, which — especially as colored* bright red against the grayscale of the screentone — really pops.

Back in February, 1973, my fifteen-year-old self knew that the “Cable” referred to by Swampy could only be Matt Cable — the government agent who’d been charged to protect Drs. Alec and Linda Holland while they worked on the bio-restorative formula project that ultimately got Linda killed, and Alec turned into the Swamp Thing; and now, having failed in that assignment, was now obsessively hunting Swampy, under the false belief that the muck-monster had been responsible for the Hollands’ deaths.  But when I’d last seen Cable, he was still in the U.S., having had to watch helplessly as the captured Swamp Thing was flown away via an airplane crewed by Arcane’s minions, the Un-Men.  When and how Cable himself had gotten on a plane, who these “others” accompanying him were, and, last but hardly least, how and why Swampy had evidently been traveling with them on the same plane, I had no idea.

With the story’s fourth page, Wrightson gives us another full-page splash — and another generous helping of gradated Zip-A-Tone.

Abigail Arcane“?  “Paul Rodman“?  Who they?

Obviously, my younger self recognized the surname “Arcane”.  But it would take several issues’ worth of references — both in the stories and in the letters pages — before I finally managed to figure out that Abigail was the niece of the “late” Anton, and that she’d decided to accompany Matt Cable back to the U.S. after the agent had tried and failed to capture Swamp Thing in the Balkans.  And I wouldn’t learn the complete, tragic story of Abigail’s father Gregori, “The Patchwork Man”, until DC got around to reprinting Swamp Thing #3 in 1978.

As for Paul Rodman, I never did learn much about that guy… though, as you’ll see, that didn’t really matter much in the long run.  (Sorry, Paul.)

Swampy muses how simple it would be if he could just walk into the house and explain to Cable that he’s really Dr. Alec Holland.  But he can’t, because Cable thinks Holland is dead, and as far as our hero is concerned, things need to stay that way.  “For Alec Holland alone knows the secret of the bio-restorative formula… the chemical that made me what I’ve become… and nobody else must ever be tempted to discover it again…!

That’s not really a very convincing rationale for Alec not letting Cable know the truth, if you think about it for more than a few seconds.  And it doesn’t become more convincing over time, no matter how often writer Len Wein reiterates it over the course of his run on this title.  But at this point, Cable’s dogged pursuit of the Swamp Thing is the series’ main narrative engine, so we’re stuck with it for the foreseeable future.

What did I tell you?  Ah, well… Nice knowin’ ya, Paul.

Squire McCobb continues: “The creature that stalks this fen by night… is not a natural beast!  It’s struck before, it has — killed some sheep — horses — an’ tonight it’s killed a man!”  Listening from a hiding place some distance away, Swamp Thing resolves to hang around the premises a while, in hopes of meeting this other monster…

Upon returning to the house, Cable expresses skepticism towards the squire’s portentous warnings about Scotland being an ancient land full of legends, mysteries, “and more than its share of monsters!”  But just then…

I dunno… I think that if Matt can’t take better care of his “poor mutt” than that, maybe it’s time to put him up for adoption.  (Of course, since the dog is secretly being used to monitor Cable, et al, by the Conclave — the organization actually responsible for the Hollands’ tragic fates — we know that’s not gonna happen.)

Hairy palms!  Y’all know what that means, don’t you?  (No, no… the other thing.)

Would this be a good time to remind everyone that Bernie Wrightson based the physiognomy of the dog on that of his friend and fellow artist, Michael W. Kaluta?  Yes, I believe it would be.

And while we’re paused, let’s take a moment to contemplate how this current situation eerily mirrors the scene in Swamp Thing #1 where this same dog went racing out the Hollands’ lab’s door into the night, and Matt Cable followed, leaving Linda alone and unprotected.  You’d think that Cable would remember, since that’s when Linda was killed…

Oh, OK.  Never mind, then…

As the Swamp Thing peers keenly through the mist, trying to determine just what he’s fighting, his adversary surges forward, breaking our hero’s grip…

Soon afterwards, back at the house, Matt Cable wonders aloud about the identity of his and Abigail’s savior, neither of them having gotten a good look at Swampy: “…if I didn’t know better, I’d swear… nah — it couldn’t be –!  We left him back in the Balkans!”

The werewolf Bernie Wrightson gives us here is noticeably more lupine than the comics readers of 1973 were used to seeing,  In his 2003 interview for Comic Book Creator, the artist recalled the thinking behind his design:

I thought, “Okay, I know when you do it in the movies, you gotta put a guy in make-up, so it’s obviously a man underneath the costume and make-up — this was way before [1981 movies] An American Werewolf in London and The Howling — and I just thought, “Okay, I’m drawing this creature, so I can do anything I want.  Why not give him a real wolf’s face and legs?”  Just basically do something nobody’s ever seen before.

The werewolf leaps upon the Swamp Thing, and the momentum carries them both down the attic stairs.  Swampy wonders how he can stop the man-beast; he remembers the legend that only silver can destroy a werewolf, but there’s none within reach.  “His parents have gotten… rid of it all…!

Ahh, Matt.  You’ll never learn, will you?  Because, if you did, our storytellers would have to come up with a new direction for the series — and we’re only on issue #4, so…

I haven’t said much about the specifics of this issue’s storyline in this post, mainly because, well, there’s not actually a lot to say.  Len Wein’s plot is an entirely competent execution of the classic werewolf trope; while it offers few if any (non-visual) surprises along the way, it also manages to stay clear of any serious lapses in its own internal logic.

And that’s all it needs to do, really.  In the end, “Monster of the Moors!” exists to give Bernie Wrightson the opportunity to draw the hell out of a werewolf, and it fulfills that role admirably.

There are some terrific comic books of which the writing and the art can be said to be equally responsible for their achievement of excellence; there are others, however, in which one or the other carries more weight.  In the fourth issue of Swamp Thing — and, frankly, in most of the issues produced by the Wein-Wrightson partnership — the art is more important than the writing.  Nevertheless, that doesn’t disqualify this run of stories from being one of the outstanding comic book experiences of its era; at least, not as far as your humble blogger is concerned.


*I’d love to give credit to the colorist here, as well; unfortunately, there seems to be some confusion as to who handled that job.  In the aforementioned Comic Book Creator #6 interview, Wrightson attributes the coloring of Swamp Thing #4, which he calls “one of the best-colored issues”, to Glynis Oliver; however, in the letters page of issue #4 itself, editor Joe Orlando credits the same work to Wrightson.  I’m inclined to give more weight to Orlando’s assertion, seeing as how he was writing more or less at the same time the job was done, whereas Wrightson was depending on his memory of events thirty years in the past.  That said, I don’t believe we’ll ever be able to to say with complete certainty which attribution is the correct one.



  1. frasersherman · February 8

    It never occurred to me what a difference missing #3 would have made (I had it).
    You’re right about Swampie’s motivation for staying silent not making sense, though it is standard comic book logic. But I imagine he’s still not thinking very rationally at this point in his life as a muck monster.
    This was a terrific read for me, like all the Wein/Wrightson run.

    Liked by 2 people

    • FredKey · February 9

      I see Wein doing a parallel between the werewolf not wanting anyone cursed with lycanthropy and Swampy not wanting anyone cursed with — eh, muckiness, and so refusing to admit the one person who knew the secret formula still lived. But yeah, comics logic.

      Liked by 1 person

    • FredKey · February 9

      I see Wein doing a parallel between the werewolf not wanting anyone cursed with lycanthropy and Swampy not wanting anyone cursed with — eh, muckiness, and so refusing to admit the one person who knew the secret formula still lived. But yeah, comics logic.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Chris Green · February 8

    When I first read this issue at the age of 11 in 1973, I initially assumed because of the Scottish family’s clothing and mode of transport, etc., that our cast of regulars had somehow gone back in time to the 19th century. As this wasn’t commented on in the course of the story, and there were references to aircraft and automobiles, it was a source of puzzlement for me.
    Also, rereading the story in later years, I was struck by the absurdity of the authorities not noticing multiple air disasters all taking place in the same small area. Are we to believe that the MacCobbs buried the wreckage of all those aircraft? How did they find the time to do anything else with their lives?
    It also seems that it would have been easier and less conspicuous if they had simply kidnapped a passing traveler or two to acquire the required blood.
    All part of the delightful silliness of comics, I guess. Best not to look into it too deeply, but just enjoy Wrightson obviously having a whale of a time.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Chris A. · February 11

      For me, as a pre-teen reading #4 at the time, the most absurd moment was the Swamp Thing using his body as a brake to stop the plane from breaking up on a non-existent runway. Even then I knew that the character would have become vegetable puree from the impact.

      After all, he was too gooey for the Patchwork Man to hold onto in #3 (he tried to keep Swampy from falling through a collapsing floor, and his fingers even dug into the green skin before Swampy slipped downward).

      Still loved the series!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. DontheArtistformerlyknownasfrodo628 · February 8

    Ah, Zip-a-tone…both the boon and bane of artistic expression in the 70’s. I used the Format brand of the stuff myself, and if it weren’t so time-consuming and contrary to use, it would have truly been a miracle product. Still, when used well (and not over-used as many artists did), as it was here by Wrightson, it does create some cool effects. And of course, Zip-a-tone opened the door for the Duo-shade paper that Howard Chaykin used so effectively on American Flagg in the 80’s, so there you go. I had boxes of the stuff lying around and it seemed like every time I left the house, I was picking tiny pieces of the stuff from my clothes. That and the eternal ink smudge on the first knuckle of the middle finger of my right hand were what made me feel like an artist.

    Anyway, enough of that. You’re right, Alan, in that Swamp Thing, for all it’s entirely entertaining and servicable scripts by Len Wein, owes it’s popularity to it existence as a showcase for the phenomenal talent of Bernie Wrightson. The problem with four-color printing back in the day was that the ink used to recreate the kind of tight detail work Wrightson preferred used to smear and blot during the printing process, resulting in a lot of that detail being lost. Wrightson, either through luck or skill managed to avoid a lot of that, and as a result, he work here is gorgeous. Wein, for his part, is smart enough to keep the story simple and uncomplicated to give Bernie the chance to show off. His stories here are solid and dependable, even if they are, from time to time, rife with examples of “comic book logic” that would never pass in the real world.

    I have one question. How did the Matt Cable of Swamp Thing become Matthew the Raven in The Sandman? Is there a series or a timeline that illustrates this? I’d also be interested to know how he goes from being a noble and no-nonsense Fed to the slightly pervy personality he displays in his avian form? Personality-wise, the two characters couldn’t be more different and I was really surprised when I learned they were supposed to be the same guy.

    Thanks for the rundown, Alan. I missed out on Swampy back in the days before Alan Moore, so it’s great to get a chance to read this stories for the first time.

    Liked by 2 people

    • frasersherman · February 8

      Matt became an alcoholic during Martin Pasko’s underrated run on the book, then Arcane kills him and takes his body in Alan Moore’s run (him banging Abby was creepy at the time; having noticed Moore’s fondness for rape scenes it’s creepy in a different way now). Matthew’s spirit eventually wound up in the raven though I don’t remember if it was Moore or Gaiman who did that.


      • Alan Stewart · February 8

        Moore had already left, and while I have no doubt Gaiman at least approved the idea of Cable becoming Morpheus’ new Raven (and maybe came up with it), the story that set that business up ran in Swamp Thing #84 (Mar., 1989) and was written by Rick Veitch, with art by Tom Mandrake and Alfredo Alcala. https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=1410306569471380&set=a.113987025770014

        (BTW, frasersherman, I have to say that I think your “Moore’s fondness for rape scenes” aside is an overstatement, to say the least, though that’s not an argument I’m really inclined to get into in this space.)


      • Steve McBeezlebub · February 8

        Matt became the raven because he had died while not awake so it pretty much had to be all Gaiman. And Moore’s overuse of rape as a plot point is the second strongest reason I’ve never really cared for his stuff.


    • Zip-a-tone, when utilized judiciously by artists, could create some incredible mood & atmosphere that was otherwise unachievable with the cheap printing comic books had 40 or 50 years ago.

      You are correct, though, that like any tool it could be overused, or used poorly.

      Wrightson definitely knew how to use zip-a-tone very effectively.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. frednotfaith2 · February 8

    Totally agree with your assessment about Wein & Wrightson, Alan. It’s Wrightson’s art that made his issues classics. Wein, in my estimation, was a good but not great comics writer, and too often engaged in cliches and lapses of good logic. I got several of the Wein/Wrightson Swamp Thing stories in glossy reprints in the 1980s, when I was also reading the far better written Alan Moore Swamp Thing stories (and Bissette and Tottlebon made for excellent artistic collaborators). Moore made a point of stomping out old cliches and turning readers’ expectations on their heads.

    Seems to be standard that pretty much any comics story set almost anywhere in a rural area or small village in Europe that the story goes into a time warp wherein everything seems much more like it’s set a century or two in the past, especially anything with a heavy gothic sensibility, as in this tale. In the words of Riff Raff & Magenta, “let’s do the timewarp again!”

    Over at Marvel at this time 50 years ago, Gerber hadn’t quite yet gotten into his full grove on the Man-Thing, but IMO, once Gerber really got going, Man-Thing was one of the best written comics of its time. And aside from the origins and both being muck monsters, there wasn’t really much overlap in the sort of stories Gerber wrote and those of Wein. And while Wrightson is in the upper echelons of great comicbook artists, Mayerik, Ploog and Mooney, as regular artists on Man-Thing, weren’t too shabby either.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Steve McBeezlebub · February 8

    I didn’t check out yet! I remember readin this. For the life of me though I don’t get why I stuck with Ghost Rider, Son Of Satan, Werewolf By Night, as well as most anthologies and It and Marvel’s Frankenstein despite my dislike of horror. I certainly didn’t stay with any of the DC versions very long.

    Liked by 1 person

    • frasersherman · February 9

      The only one I bought back in the day was Son of Satan as the most superhero-ish. I’ve’ enjoyed Werewolf by Night, Tomb of Dracula and Ghost Rider in trade paperback.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Matt Cable: I’m conducting an unrelenting pursuit of an inhuman “Swamp Thing” that it is so stubbornly single-minded that Inspector Javert himself would probably tell me to chill out. And I’m accompanied on my quest by a woman whose father was turned into a Frankenstein-like monster by his mad scientist brother.

    Also Matt Cable: Monsters on the Scottish Moors?!? Come out, that’s just ridiculous!

    Yes, you are correct, Matt Cable really is a complete & utter imbecile.

    Seriously, no one drew werewolves like Bernie Wrightson. He had such a distinctive way of rendering the creatures. It’s not surprising that Steven King later collaborated with him on that Cycle of the Werewolf illustrated novella.

    By the way, thank you for featuring scans from the original printing of Swamp Thing #4 and not from any of the recolored reprints which obliterated a great deal of the detail in Wrightson’s artwork. Recently colorist supreme José Villarrubia did a full restoration of the color work on the original Swamp Thing stories for the Absolute Swamp Thing collection. On his Facebook page Villarrubia has been posting scans of the original printings side by side with the various reprints DC previously released and his own coloring for the Absolute edition, and his work really makes the art look the best it has since it was first published in the early 1970s.

    Liked by 3 people

    • frasersherman · February 9

      Having seen stories where Batman declares “A ghost coming back to avenge its murder? That’s not possible!” — and this years after he first met Deadman — I don’t think Matt’s worse off. And after all, Cable has never claimed to be the world’s greatest detective.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Fair enough. Matt obviously belongs in the same category as Dr. Terrance Thirteen and Dana Scully, characters who, no matter how much weird phenomena they encounter, are automatically skeptical of anything bizarre.

        Liked by 2 people

        • frasersherman · February 10

          Dana’s worse off than Terry in this regards. Being a rationalist in the X-Files universe means she’s always wrong; Dr. Thirteen has found plenty of fake supernatural cases that confirm his worldview.

          Liked by 2 people

          • frasersherman · February 12

            As Kurt Busiek once put it, part of the allure of comics is that they take place in a world just like ours. Acknowledging how weird the DCU and MU are would weaken that illusion. Much as HOM and HOS take place in a world that’s rife with the supernatural but nobody seems to know that.

            Liked by 1 person

  7. frednotfaith2 · February 9

    Seems a lot of comics writers in the ’70s put words in the mouths of superheroes who had been around awhile and seen many bizarre things but still expressed incredulousness in the face of more bizarreness. You’d think at some point they’d just roll with it realize they’re in a universe where all sorts of crazy things can happen. But then same thing for New Yorkers in the Marvel universe.
    Under Wein’s writing, Cable comes off as a mostly mindless jerk, the world’s worst detective! But then things got really bad for him under Alan Moore — seriously injured while drunk driving and becoming an unwilling host for his ghastly uncle-in-law.

    Liked by 1 person

    • frasersherman · February 9

      Brian Cronin had a column pointing out how often New Yorkers dismiss whatever they’re seeing as “a publicity stunt.”

      Liked by 2 people

      • frednotfaith2 · February 9

        Apparently in an effort to maintain their sanity. Otherwise, they might go stark raving mad. “What? A 30-foot tall giant come to eat up the Earth and leave it a lifeless husk??? Must be a publicity stunt! That’s can’t really happen! I hope …”

        Liked by 1 person

    • Chris A. · February 12

      I’ve read comments here and elsewhere in which others echo those negative sentiments about the Matt Cable character….but I do not for a moment believe that writer Len Wein intended him to come across as a “mindless jerk.” There is irony and even humour in how wrong he was about the Swamp Thing, and it all came to a head in #13 when the truth of the Swamp Thing’s identity was revealed.

      However, it seems that Alan Moore disregarded the non-Wrightson issues of the original series (#11-24), paving the way for some radical changes in the Swamp Thing’s true identity.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Chris A. · February 9

    One would think it was never sunny in Bonnie Scotland if this comic were all a young person in the U.S. had to go on in 1973. Of course, Steranko did the same with “Dark Moon Rise, Hell Hound Kill” in Nick Fury #3 in 1968.

    The weather was gorgeous in Edinburgh when I went by rail from London some years ago to visit friends (and to see the castle, the Royal Mile, Princes St., etc.). But if Swamp Thing #4 were supposed to take place in Inverness or points farther north, especially during fall or winter, then perhaps…

    Loved some of the droll puns Len Wein came up with for character names (MacCobb/Macabre, and the like).

    Wrightson coloured most, if not all, of his Swamp Thing run, except for #2 which Glynis Wein helped on because of deadline problems (when original art went missing in the post for several weeks).

    Though I loved his werewolf, I heard one person complain that his feet looked too tiny to support his upper body, especially on that last splash page.

    Sometimes Len’s scripts did not match Wrightson’s art. Case in point: after Ian MacCobb offers his hairy palm to Matt Cable in a handshake, Ian is clearly angered in the next panel — but Len waxes philosophical in an expositional caption instead of Cable making an “ugly American” comment whilst abroad. This happened more than once in the series because, after a plot conference, Wrightson went straight into the art, and Wein wrote the finished script afterwards (Marvel style).

    Still my favourite comics series of the ’70s!

    Liked by 2 people

    • frasersherman · February 10

      Some Canadians took pot-shots at a Howard the Duck in Canada arc that showed our neighbor to the north entombed in ice in the middle of summer. The letter column response was that they’d kicked around having Howard and Bev arrive in winter wear and find everything warm and sunny, but for some reason that idea fell apart.

      Liked by 2 people

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