Into the Bronze Age: July 1971 (Special Edition)

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Happy Halloween dear readers and assorted Internet travelers!  As promised, I have a treat for you, hopefully avoiding any tricks you might be tempted to play on me!  I’ve got a special post prepared in honor of the spooky spectacle of Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Hallow’s (All Saints) Day, when Christian tradition calls for believers to remember and honor the departed saints (believers).  On the evening before that day, the traditions that led to modern Halloween called on believers to remember those poor souls in Hell and Purgatory.  You can see how some of the holiday’s modern trappings are a natural outgrowth from such practices.

And make no mistake, this was a Christian festival in its beginnings.  As a medievalist, this is one of the things that bugs me, one of my pet peeves, especially when folks get up in arms about the evils of Halloween’s ‘pagan past.’  We might as well get angry that we named the days of the week after Germanic gods!  The claims of a pagan origin for Halloween are true in the same sense as those for a pagan origin of Christmas, insofar as medieval Christians co-opted some of the symbols or dates of pagan celebrations, noting similar themes and ideas.  Ancient and medieval Christians recognized the synchronicity between such practices and their own celebrations, seeing in the pagan festivals the attempts of humanity to reach toward the divine, blindly and falteringly, but chasing after truth nonetheless.

Archetypally speaking, the symbolism, the mythic weight of these celebrations, was striving to deliver similar messages to their own.  Thus, rather than seeing the pagan tradition simply as evil and demonic, many of the Church Fathers saw it as a flawed precursor to Christian Truth.  This was, of course, never a monolithic and settled proposition, but it was general practice.  This was a natural position for medieval theology, which was built on the concept of types and antitypes.  They simply viewed much of mythology as the prototype that prefigured the eventual Christian revelation, a view shared by Christian archetypalists like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis.

In honor of these traditions, today I bring you a story that fits both the ancient and modern themes of Halloween.  We are fortunate that the first appearance of Swamp Thing happens to fall in this month, and he is a character uniquely fitted to the celebration.  He is both dead and alive, a soul trapped in his own type of Purgatory, while at the same time fitting the modern taste for monsters.  He is a tragic figure, both horrific and heroic.

The origin of this tale is itself an interesting story.  There have been several muck-men in comics, but the first was the Golden Age character, The Heap.  As my friend Daglob likes to say, he was the original ‘muck encrusted mockery of a man.’  The original mobile pile of muck was WWI pilot Baron Eric Von Emmelman, who crashed into a Polish swamp, but was kept alive by the nature goddess Ceres, though the character was reinvented a few times over the years.  Those of you with a fairly deep knowledge of comics can probably already see the similarities to the characters that would follow this fellow.

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Next up, just barely edging out DC’s own resident vegetable based hero, was Marvel’s Man-Thing, who was created by Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, and Gray Morrow.  This monstrous anti-hero was once a bio-chemist named Ted Sallis who, while working on an experimental serum, was attacked in the swamp by AIM agents.  Injecting himself with his unfinished formula, he crashes his car during his escape, and in the fetid waters of the Everglades, he transforms into the macabre Man-Thing!

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Sound familiar?  Apparently nearly everyone involved with his creation realized that the Man-Thing sounded an awful lot like the Heap, but no-one really wanted to mention it, which makes what happens next even funnier.  You see, Marvel had only published one story of the Man-Thing’s strange adventures when DC came out with their own swamp monster, so he was still brand new and not well established.  Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson created a Swamp-Thing in House of Secrets #92, but he isn’t quite the Swamp-Thing of later fame.  Interestingly, Wein was Gerry Conway’s roommate at the time, and the Marvel writer, thinking that the origins of their respective muck men were too similar, tried to convince the DC staffer to change his, but Wein refused.  Decide for yourself how similar they are as we travel into the House of Secrets in our search for some Bronze Age Halloween thrills and chills!

If you’re new to this little journey, you can check out the first post to learn what it’s all about.


Roll Call


(You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #402
  • Adventure Comics #408
  • Brave and the Bold #96
  • Detective Comics #413
  • Forever People #3
  • G.I. Combat #148
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #84
  • New Gods #3
  • Superboy #176
  • Superman #239 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Superman #240
  • Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #111
  • Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #139
  • World’s Finest #202
  • House of Secrets #92 (Special!)

Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.


House of Secrets #92


House_of_Secrets_v.1_92

“Snipe Hunt”
Penciler: Bernie Wrightson
Inker: Bernie Wrightson

Editor: Joe Orlando

“Swamp Thing”
Writer: Len Wein
Penciler: Bernie Wrightson
Inker: Bernie Wrightson
Letterer: Ben Oda

“After I Die!”
Writers: Jack Kirby and Mark Evanier
Penciler: Bill Draut
Inker: Bill Draut

“It’s Better to Give”             “Trick or Treat”
Writer: Virgil North            Penciler: Dick Dillin
Penciler: Alan Weiss           Inker: Dick Dillin
Inker: Tony DeZuniga    

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Our spine-tingling Swamp Thing tale begins with our titular muck monster making his slow, shambling way out of his marshy home and towards an old mansion, which looms out of the fog.  We follow the freakish form’s thoughts as he travels, but the perspective shifts several times throughout the tale.  Inside the house, we meet Linda Ridge and her husband Damian (with a name like that, he’s definitely not the bad guy!), who are recently married, but we learn that he is not her first husband.  In fact, the love of her life, for whom she still pines, was Alex Olsen.  Apparently Alex was a scientist (check) who died in an explosion in his lab (mostly check).

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There’s clear tension between Damian and Linda, with her thinking of her lost love and him pressing her for affection and wondering what is going on behind her eyes.  Outside in the cold rain lurks a miserable monster, watching the tableau within.  Then our perspective shifts again, and we learn from Damian’s ruminations that he had always loved Linda and arranged Alex’s “accident.”  In a nice piece of visual storytelling, we literally see an earlier panel from a different perspective, which puts a different light on the moment, revealing the false friend’s fatal fury.

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After the blast, Damian hauled his burned but still living partner into the swamp, burying him there, where, presumably, the chemicals from the lab mutated him, though this is never explicitly stated here.  The reminiscing finished, Linda retires to her room, but her heinous husband is afraid that she is beginning to suspect him, so he plans to murder her.  As he approaches his would-be victim, the vengeful vegetative monster lurking without sees and bursts in.  The Swamp Thing kills his former friend, but unable to speak, he cannot communicate to his lost love, who is horrified, as one might imagine, by the sight.  Sadly, he turns away and walks forlornly back into the swamp.

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This is a good, though short, horror story, well told by Wrightson and Wein.  The shifting narration is a little awkward, but it does provide some nice opportunities to develop the characters in a small space.  It’s interesting to me how much is not said in this first story.  The nature of the monster is left entirely up to the audience’s imagination, with his identity strongly implied but his origin never explained.  This adds to the air of mystery and heavy Gothic atmosphere that surrounds it.  I’ll give this one 4 Minutemen, with the wonderfully tragic ending helping to raise the score.

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Of course, Alex Olsen is not the Swamp Thing that fans will come to know and love.  His appearance is still over a year away.  Nonetheless, this brief little tale obviously made quite a splash, with its swamp-creature star proving popular enough to encourage the powers that be at DC to task his creators with reworking their concept into a more heroic character to star in his own strip.  Thus, this Swamp Thing proves a true prototype for the ‘real’ one, and if we consider that later creation, we can see the similarities already.  There was not far to go.  Ironically, the revamping of the concept would bring him even closer to Marvel’s own muck-man.  In the new character’s origin, he was Alec Holland, also a biochemist, also working on a secret formula, and also killed by evil forces intent on stealing his work.
house of secrets 092 011We can already see the basic design of Swamp Thing in evidence here, most notably, the distinctive sloping, jowly structure of his nose and cheeks.  Mute here like his predecessors, the character would gain the ability to speak in his second incarnation, though speech would remain difficult for a long while.  Significantly, already present and something that sets him apart from the previous swamp monster characters is Swamp Thing’s internal eloquence.  He may be unable to articulate his thoughts to those that fear and hunt him, but this just amplifies his tragedy, as the reader, let in on his internal monologue, knows the intelligent, sensitive soul within the shambling bulk.

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This is an important distinction, and it separates the character from the standard misunderstood monsters like the Heap, Man-Thing, or the Hulk (some versions), with their almost animalistic intelligence.  The fact that this characteristic is present from the very beginning helps to establish the originality and uniqueness of the concept, despite the obvious similarities he has to the other muck-men.  It is arguably this quality which makes the character the enduring favorite that he becomes, elevating him into something more highly tragic, one of the ultimate romantic outsiders, the great soul isolated from the rest of humanity.  I think this helps to explain his enduring popularity.

Of course, Alan Moore would later revamp the creature once more for what is considered the definitive run on the character, changing him from Alec Holland to an avatar of nature itself and expanding his adventures in amazing ways.  I’ve never read this run (if only there were world enough and time), it having fallen in the gaps of my comic reading, but I’ll get to it one of these days.

For my part, I first discovered Swamp Thing in the same way as I imagine many from my generation did, through the early 90s cartoon. and later the live action films (the first of which I remember being quite good).  I loved that show, with its rocking opening, a take off of “Wild Thing,” and its standard 80s/90s cartoon format, with plenty of merchandisable allies, villains, and vehicles.  I fell for Hasbro’s pitch hook, line, and sinker, but there was something about the show and the character that I really responded to.  There is a roughness, a horror flavor, to the designs and the strange, creepy swamp setting, even with everything toned down to PG standards.

To this day, that show is still the first thing I think about when I think of Swamp Thing.  It actually made reading through his original run of comics a little challenging at times, because they were so different from the show.  Obviously, the comics have a lot more going for them, but it was still an adjustment.  More importantly, the show, the movie, even a few video games go to show you how far Swamp Thing penetrated the zeitgeist.  After all, this strange muck-man got a movie long before most of the rest of DC’s top characters!  Discounting the serials, he even beat Batman to the big screen by several years!

And that wraps up our overview of Swamp Things secret origin!  Thank you for joining me tonight.  I hope you enjoyed our journey through the House of Secrets.  Have a happy Halloween and stay safe.  Until next time, keep the Heroic Ideal alive!

2 comments on “Into the Bronze Age: July 1971 (Special Edition)

  1. FredKey says:

    What’s really great about that story is that Wein doesn’t much try to conceal the identity of the swamp monster, which is the kind of twist readers of these comics (and fans of “Twilight Zone” et al) would see coming even if the story had been structured another way. But when she gives him the gold bracelet, the reader thinks “Aha! At the end of the story she will see the bracelet on his swampy wrist and realize the monster is her husband!” And then it… just doesn’t happen. Beautifully tragic.

    • Benton Grey says:

      Very true, Fred. Wein nicely subverts expectations with the braclet. If he had more space to work with, I think more could have been done with that element, but it still works nicely. This story is very conventional in a lot of ways, but it manages to stand out because of the little touches of originality and cleverness.

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