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Swamp Thing: The Power of Comic Book Storytelling

Swamp Thing: The Power of Comic Book Storytelling

By Rosie Knight Wednesday, August 7th, 2019

Welcome to the Couch Club, our recurring column devoted to all things #DCTV! This week, Rosie Knight looks back at the first and likely only season of Swamp Thing and shares her thoughts on its approach to adapting the classic character.

Though it feels like we've only just begun to fall in love with the Southern Gothic magic of DC Universe's Swamp Thing, the season—and series—has ended and left a whole bunch of devastated Swampy fans in its wake. The gorgeous horror-drenched show has been working under the shadow of its cancellation, which was announced after the first episode aired. But despite that, Swamp Thing has spent the last ten weeks showcasing just why that decision will likely haunt those who made it, just like the Phantom Stranger hanging around Danny Cassidy.

Throughout the season, the show has strayed from the dedicated comic book canon, instead centering on Crystal Reed's Abby Arcane rather than Andy Bean's Alec Holland, giving the often dark series a beating human heart. It was a powerful choice that—rather than taking from the narrative of the comics—learned from the thematic threads of the series. Abby has always been a vital part of Swamp Thing lore, even if she wasn't always the entry point. Here, Abby was more than a love interest. She was the protagonist, the hero, the scientist, and never defined by the evil of her family—who never made an appearance—or her love for the titular man-monster. This was one of the Swamp Thing's greatest powers: knowing when to take directly from the source material and when to balance adaption with innovation.

That's not to say that Swamp Thing ignored its comic book roots. In fact, the story of an elemental plant creature who thinks he's a man after being magically imbued with the powers of a mysterious swamp spirit known as the Green could only really happen in comics. And at every opportunity Swamp Thing has leaned into the strange and surreal story that anchors the show to its comic book origins. Straddling the line between the source material and the medium is often a hard thing to balance, but as viewers entered Marais, they were thrown into an authentic world filled with characters they cared about that also just so happened to feature some of DC’s most interesting and lesser-seen comic creations.

It can often be tough to weave a story that connects when you're dealing with psychics (Madame Xanadu), super-powered stuntmen (Blue Devil) and maniacal scientists that fans know will at some point turn into an evil plant monster (Jason Woodrue). Despite the esoteric roster of characters, Swamp Thing managed to create engaging and thoughtful representations of the inhabitants of Marais, and it wasn't just the magical denizens of the town. Jennifer Beals' Sheriff Cable may not have had a supernatural side, but she was a complex, flawed and interesting character who remained empathetic even when committing the most awful of acts. Her son, Matt, who in the comics is the first husband of Abby Arcane, got an arc that subverted the idea of who a hero can be while still never making him the villain.

Establishing a solid base to build an eccentric and unexpected story like Swamp Thing is key, and once the show introduced us to the world of Marais, it began to take risks. Not only was the series a straight-up horror show, but it was also a love story about the connection between Alec Holland and Abby Arcane. Reed and Bean crafted a brilliant chemistry in the first episode that never made you doubt the spark that they shared. But it was in the last acts of the story that they truly committed to some of the strangest and bravest storytelling that originally made Swamp Thing such a cult classic smash in the comics.

One of the most famous and groundbreaking issues of the series is 1982's Saga of the Swamp Thing #21. Though Alan Moore began writing the book with the issue before, it was "The Anatomy Lesson" where he and artists Steve Bissette, John Totleben and Tatjana Wood first truly made their mark on the character. Episode nine of the DC Universe series took the title and story from the pages of the iconic comic and put Swamp Thing under the knife of Jason Woodrue. It was here that both the comic creators and the show's creative team—working from their predecessors' blueprints—changed the backstory and meaning of the character forever.

In the original Swamp Thing stories, the origin of the character was always that the monster was a mutated version of Alec Holland, but after he was killed off by DC they had to find a way to bring him back. Moore came up with something almost criminally smart and simple: Swamp Thing was made of plants. His body, brain, and nervous system were nothing like humans and therefore had never truly died.

The issue—and episode—showcase a dissection of the character, one that reveals that the creature we thought was once Alec Holland never really was, and had been in fact "a plant who thinks he's a man" like Woodrue so succinctly put it in episode nine. It was shocking in the comics, but Moore and Bisette made it one of the key parts of Swamp Thing lore. Whether or not the show would commit to the unusual origin that separated the monster from the man was a much-discussed topic among fans, and so when it finally happened, it was monumental.

Another powerful moment happened as the credits rolled. It was the leap that many fans were most excited to see the show take as Abby committed herself to Swamp Thing despite knowing that he was not and had never been Alec Holland. It was a bittersweet end to the show as the pair promised to face anything that came their way together, though fans knew that's not a journey that they're ever likely to see. In the end, Swamp Thing was an exciting and boundary pushing experiment that offered up a new kind of comic book adaptation—one that loved the source material and paid homage to it while never being afraid to change or elevate it.


Swamp Thing Season 1 is now available to stream in full on DC Universe. Not yet a member? Click here to subscribe now.

Rosie Knight writes about comics, movies and TV for DCComics.com and DCUniverse.com. Check out her column on the Brilliant Women of Batman and be sure to follow her on Twitter at @RosieMarx.