I am sitting on my couch and I’ve just read the news that Len Wein, the creator of Swamp Thing and Wolverine and so many other great comic book characters, has passed away. My heart hurts. I interviewed Len last year for a cover story I wrote for Rue Morgue Magazine #169 on the 45th anniversary of Swamp Thing. I’m sharing it with you now, and I would encourage you to pick up the issue itself from the Rue Morgue store as well. Meanwhile, I wish all the best to Len’s family and friends. I hope they know what an incredible legacy he has left us.
The Saga of the Swamp Thing
Since the days of the classic Universal Monsters and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, there’s always been something ominous about the swamp that has made its environs ripe for storytelling. What surrounds it, amongst the overgrowth of vegetation? What lies beneath the boggy marsh and water? What things make their home in its depths?
Swamp and muck monsters have long been a part of horror comics, dating all the way back to the 1940s with The Heap, considered by many historians to be the original comic book swamp character. The Heap first appeared in Air Fighter Comics, and was originally a World War I German pilot who, after crash landing in a European marsh, experienced a strange transformation into a living monster of vegetation. Various iterations on the theme would manifest themselves over the ensuing decades in stories like The Thing in the Swamp, The Monster from Swamp Sinister and Beware the Man-Lawn (for further exploration on the vast history of the swamp monster genre, Comic Book Creators’ Swampmen: The Muck-Monsters and Their Makers from TwoMorrows Publishing is an absolute must-read).
Come 1971 and a new creature would arrive to join the pantheon of monsters from the depths. Debuting in Issue 92 of the DC Comics anthology series House of Secrets in July 1971, Swamp Thing would be the creation of two men – writer Len Wein, who had previously worked on titles including The Flash and Superman and who would go on to create Wolverine for Marvel Comics, and a young, up and coming artist named Bernie Wrightson.
Wein and Wrightson’s first Swamp Thing tale is a gothic exploration set at the dawn of the 20th century, crafted to be the stand alone tale of scientist Alex Olsen, killed in a lab explosion by colleague Damien Ridge, who had set his eyes on Olsen’s wife Linda. Chemicals and supernatural forces in the swamp change Olsen into a swamp monster, which then saves Linda from the murderous Ridge. The story ends with Olsen’s Swamp Thing heading back into the muck, realizing he was no longer the man Linda loved.
However, that wasn’t the end.
The sales figures for House of Secrets Issue 92 were the biggest for DC that month, and before long Wein and Wrightson began work on an ongoing Swamp Thing series for DC. Changes were made – the setting was now contemporary and the scientist in question was named Alec Holland. In the ensuing issues, the duo would introduce horrific characters including the mutated Un-Men, evil Anton Arcane and his niece Abigail, and federal agent Matthew Cable. Thought Wein and Wrightson collaborated on just ten issues of the Swamp Thing series together, their work would leave a huge impact on a audience of horror lovers, some of whom would make their way into the comics industry themselves (see sidebars).
The first Swamp Thing series only lasted 24 issues before it was cancelled due to dwindling sales, but the character returned in 1982 to coincide with the release of a Swamp Thing film from director Wes Craven. The film was a minor hit, and helped revive the character, who became a mainstay of DC Comics going forward, proving ripe for the creative juices of a variety of artists and writers. Among them would be future industry legend Alan Moore, who Len Wein, acting as series editor, handpicked to guide Swamp Thing through the mid-80s. Other notables who have put their mark on the character over the ensuing decades include luminaries like Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Brian K. Vaughn and Scott Snyder.
With 2016 marking the 45 anniversary of the birth of Swamp Thing, we spoke to co-creator Len Wein (Bernie Wrightson has struggled with health issues the last few years) about the inspiration for his legendary character, its horror roots, working with Alan Moore, the recent mini-series he worked on with noted horror artist and Wrightson acolyte Kelley Jones, and much more.
HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN WRITING COMICS IN THE FIRST PLACE?
Accidently (laughs). I spent my high school and college career training to be a comic book artist. That’s what I hoped to be. And when I submitted samples to (DC Comics editor) Joe Orlando of stuff I had written and drawn, I had only wrote it so that I had things to draw, Joe said, “Well, the art is close but not quite ready yet, but the writing is terrific. Do you want to write some stories for my new mystery books?” And the next thing I knew I was a writer.
HOW EASY WAS IT MAKING THAT TRANSTION FROM ARTIST TO WRITER? WAS IT SOMETHING YOU EMBRACED RIGHT AWAY?
I embraced it. I just wanted to be in the business. I mean if he had offered me a job stapling the books I would have taken it.
TO MANY SWAMP THING IS THE DEFINITIVE HORROR COMIC. DID YOU GROW UP READING HORROR COMICS, THE EC COMICS?
Sure, I collected Creepy and Eerie. I saw all the Universal monster movies and the Hammer films. I loved monster movies. What kid in his right mind in America didn’t love the old-fashioned horror movies?
DID THE SAME THINGS THAT APPEALED TO YOU IN HORROR FILMS APPEAL TO YOU WHEN READING COMICS?
Yeah, they both grip you; hopefully give you a little jolt.
YOU MANAGED TO DO THAT WITH SWAMP THING. HOW DID YOU AND BERNIE WRIGHTSON COME TO CREATE THE CHARACTER FOR HOUSE OF SECRETS?
Out of all the characters I’ve ever created, I have no idea. I do not remember what inspired me. I was on the subway on my way to the office to pitch some new short story ideas to Joe Orlando, and it simply came to me as one of the ideas as I was riding the train. I know where the name comes from. While I was writing the story I kept referring to it as that ‘swamp thing’ I was working on. And so when I needed a title, I called it ‘Swamp Thing’.
It really did (laughs). Bernie and I were buddies. I had finished the script and I really loved the script. Bernie and I were at a party at (famed DC/Marvel writer and editor) Marv Wolfman’s then house in Long Island for whatever reason. It was a winter’s night. Bernie was depressed. He had just broken up with his then girlfriend, whoever it was. And we went out to my car to sit and chat for a while. And I said, “You know, I just finished writing a story that sort of expresses all the feelings we’ve got right now. Interested in drawing it?” And he said, “You betcha.” And that’s how we got involved.
CONSIDERING HOW SELF-CONTAINED THAT FIRST STORY WAS, DID YOU EVER THINK IT COULD BECOME AN ONGOING SERIES?
Absolutely not. In fact, when the book, several months later, turned out to have been the best-selling DC title that month, even outselling all the super hero titles, (DC editor) Carmine Infantino and Joe Orlando came to us and said, “Well, this is a great hit, we want to make it an ongoing book.” And Bernie and I said no. And they looked at us like we had three heads. “Why not?! It’s an original book, it’s money!” But that story was a very special story to us and we didn’t want to ruin that or do anything that would weaken the story. But they argued with us for eight or nine months, and then one Saturday morning I was walking around my apartment and a little light bulb went off in my head and I said, “Wait a minute, where does it say that I have to continue that story? Why not just start over with a second story?” So I called Joe Orlando and I said, “Joe, I found a way to do Swamp Thing as a book,” and he said, “That’s great.” I said I’d call Bernie and see if he’s interested and he was.
DID YOU HAVE THINGS PLANNED OUT SIX OR SEVEN ISSUES IN ADVANCE?
No, nowhere near that far. There were very few sub-plots that carried over between an issue or two. We actually had a vague idea of where we were going, and then we would plot out each issue by panel in Joe Orlando’s office. What Bernie would do is take typing paper and break it down as if it were a comic book page. He would do almost stick-figure sketches in each panel. And then he’d go back and do that amazing thing he’d do (laughs).
HOW MUCH OF YOURSELF WOULD YOU SAY YOU PUT INTO THE CHARACTER?
73.2% (laughs). I have no idea, but I know there’s a bunch of me in there. A number of people have said to me, “You know you are Swamp Thing, right?” And I would go, “What? Oh, I guess so.”
THOSE EARLY STORIES FROM THE FIRST SWAMP THING SERIES YOU AND BERNIE DID TOGETHER HOLD UP SO WELL. WHAT WOULD YOU ATTRIBUTE THE LONGEVITY TO?
If I knew that, I would do it on every book I work on (laughs).
YOU’VE DONE PRETTY WELL!
(Still laughing). I suppose. Well, it’s love. We loved what we were doing. We were having the best possible time. I think the fact it was set in the DC Universe but not bound to the continuity at the time freed us to do whatever the hell we wanted to do. It was really the love of what we were doing. We went back to the old playground horror that we loved growing up.
We decided early on that we would do, at least the first couple of years, was to pit him up against stereotypical monsters, but do a singular, hopefully unique take on those monsters.
YOU’VE GOT THE ESSENCE OF FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER, YOU’VE GOT THE ESSENCE OF THE WOLF-MAN, BUT THEY’RE NOT RIP-OFFS, BUT YOU PUT YOUR OWN SPIN ON THEM.
They’re all monster archetypes.
SOME OF YOUR MOST INSPIRED CHARACTERS YOU CREATED FOR THE SERIES WERE THE EVIL ARCANE AND HIS UN-MEN, THEY FEEL VERY TODD BROWNING AND FREAKS TO ME.
There’s a tiny bit of that in there. I mean, Freaks is one of the great horror movies of all-time, and there are aspects of that in there. As I said, every one of the issues was a monster archetype. Issue number two was the mad scientist and his creatures. Issue three was Frankenstein. Issue Four was the Wolf-Man. Issue Five was a witch.
IT MUST HAVE BEEN FUN TO EXPLORE THOSE ARCHETYPES.
It was, and I got to do it again in the new book. I started off specifically by doing a zombie story just to remind you of what the old Swamp Thing was.
THAT WAS A GREAT ISSUE. KELLEY JONES DID A GREAT JOB.
Kelley Jones is as close to Bernie as you’re going to get.
HOW HAS IT BEEN FOR YOU REVISITING THE CHARACTER AGAIN? IS IT STRANGE OR IS IT LIKE RIDING A BIKE?
When they asked me to do the two-part Convergence (a 2015 DC mini-series) event, I managed to get Kelley who I had always wanted to replace Bernie. I had the best time of my life, it was wonderful. So when I came to (DC co-publisher) Dan (DiDio) right after DC finally moved out here to Los Angeles, I said “What am I writing?” and he said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “How about Swamp Thing,” and he said, “Yeah, sure.” So we got the book going and I figured, I wanted to clean the air. No disrespect to anything anybody did after me. Everyone is entitled to their take on the character. But there’s so much baggage after 45 years, so the first thing I did was throw everything away (laughs). I shouldn’t say that. Put it in the closest. Just to clear the air so that I could do whatever the hell I wanted. I wanted anybody who had never read the character to be able to pick it up and go, “I got it. Let’s go.”
One of the things that Dan asked me to do was take a tour of the DC supernatural universe. Let us know where the other characters are at the moment. So there’s a bunch of guests. Deadman is a major player in Issue 5. It’s been great fun, and because I said I’m not going to touch (previous stories) unless I want too, it’s been a very open field.
APART FROM THE EARLY YEARS OF SWAMP THING AND THE WORK THAT YOU AND BERNIE WRIGHTSON DID, THE WORK THAT ALAN MOORE DID IS ESSENTIAL READING FOR BOTH COMIC AND HORROR FANS. WHAT WAS YOUR TAKE ON IT?
People always ask me what I think about what Alan Moore did on Swamp Thing and my response is, “I’m the guy that hired him. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have let him do it.” I just like the fact that he had an original take.
A little bit of ego for a moment. My business card does not say writer. It says wordsmith, and I consider myself one of the best wordsmiths in the history of the business. Except for Alan, who is better than anyone ever. When Alan was one, no one ever mastered the language the way like Alan did. It was breathtaking. On the other hand, Alan, I realized after I left the book and Karen (Berger) took over as editor, that while his dialogue and his wordcraft was never less than stunning, he was telling the same story over and over. Every story had the same three beats. Issue one – the monster would rise and show how terrible it was. Issue two it would do even worse things while the Swamp Thing became aware of its existence. Issue three the Swamp Thing would final cross its path and stop it with a single action. It was never a big long fight. It was something that he’d say or something he would do, and it was done in an action.
First there were three issue arcs and they were constructed that same, and then they started making them one-issue arcs and it was the same construction.
WHY WOULD THAT BE?
Because he’s a better wordsmith than he is a plotter. So am I, so he can’t complain about it (laughs)! But it makes the man human to me. Back in the early days, I’d go “this man is not human.” No one can do work this brilliant constantly. And it turns out, neither can he (more laughter)!
NOW, 45 YEARS OF SWAMP THING LATER, WITH SO MANY DIFFERENT ITERATIONS, THE CHARACTER STILL RESONATES. WHY DO AUDIENCES STILL CARE ABOUT HIM?
What I write about is humanity and the quest for humanity, for what it is that makes us human. And Swamp Thing is all about that. A hideous creature that, at the heart of it, wants to be human more than anything else. Since Batman, I’ve never found another character than I could write forever. And now I’m back to one that I can.
Thanks to Len Wein, Steve Niles, Kelley Jones, Jacen Burrows, Chris Ryall and Christine Valada for their help on this article. This interview first appeared in Rue Morgue Magazine #169.