In 1971, Swamp Thing debuted in House of Secrets #92. Over the course of the following 45 years, the character would undergo a series of permutations. What started as a horror comic book would be refashioned by Alan Moore into one of the most iconic runs of the 80s. Moore’s darker, more psychological edge would stick with the character throughout the subsequent Vertigo years as various writers would take their turn with Swampy. Then in the early 10s, DC began shifting Swamp Thing closer to its mainline characters with the Brightest Day sequel, The Search. This process was made complete by arrival of the New 52. Writers Scott Snyder and Charles Soule might have kept some of the accumulated atmosphere and mythos, but the overall effect was that the character was closer to a superhero than ever before (this was especially true of the Soule run). Now, DC has course corrected once again, reconnecting Swamp Thing with his former horror roots. It is a welcome change, which, based on the initial outing, is generally successful.
Swamp Thing #1 definitely has a retro feel going for it. Writer and Swamp Thing co-creator Len Wein was a prominent author in the 70s and brings the flavor of that decade to this project. The narration is strongly descriptive, detailing a scene’s atmosphere in a manner reminiscent of horror comics of the period. Going hand in hand with that trait is an emphasis on the protagonist’s solitary nature. This Swamp Thing is more brooding monster, ala Frankenstein’s Creature, than misunderstood hero. Similarly, he is paid a brief visit by The Phantom Stranger who feels more like his old self than he has in years.
This spirit carries over to the art as well. Kelley Jones’ career may not stretch as far back as the 70s, but his contribution to the project has a sense of nostalgia to it as well. Jones first came to prominence in the early 90s as the illustrator of horror tales as diverse as Sandman, Batman: Red Rain and Aliens. His sensibility proved to be quite a match for the genre, which remains true today. His tendency towards grotesque, misshapen figures is as naturally at home in Swamp Thing’s bayou as it was in Lucifer’s Hell. At the same time, he brings out the otherworldly nature of The Phantom Stranger. The character possesses a weightless quality, while also being very much a creature of the shadows. Gone are the bright colors which dominated the Soule run, replaced by Michelle Madsen’s darker shades of green.
The story itself revolves around Swamp Thing learning of a zombie creature stalking a “new age self-motivational” school. The background info is relayed by a desperate couple who fear for their son’s well-being. Again, it is an old-fashioned story of a “monster” too emotionally sensitive to ignore the pleas of those in need. In fact, the main problem with this issue is that the narrative feels a bit too familiar. The reader can imagine Wein using a checklist for his outline (“eccentric science type, dabbling in the arcane” “concerned loved ones who should have left well-enough alone”). Wein and Jones hit a lot of the right notes, yet fail to craft something that sounds entirely fresh. The result is an enjoyable retro exercise which satisfies while failing to be completely compelling.