Swamp Thing 21-27

What Is The Swamp Thing?

Saga of the Swamp Thing

volume 1

swamp thing vol. 1 cover

includes issues 21 to 27

Alan Moore took over the writing chores of Swamp Thing in issue 20 and people haven't stopped talking about his run ever since. I remember some DC books of that period sporting 'Best of' or 'Top Ten' style listings and Swamp Thing was always near the top of the most critically acclaimed books. I wondered about that comic, and kept on wondering - at fourteen years old there was just no way I'm going to spend my allowance on a comic about a plant creature in a soggy swamp. In hindsight, it was a good decision, I don't think I would've properly appreciated Swamp Thing at that age. When I picked it up as an adult, it blew me away.

I did say that Alan Moore started at issue 20 right? You'll notice that volume 1 of the trade paperback starts at issue 21. That's okay. Issue twenty was spent transitioning from the previous storyline. All you need to know about issue 20 is that Swamp Thing gets cornered by an elite army unit and gets shot full of holes, finally collapsing in a heap. With that, you're ready to dive into the 21st issue.

swamp thing 21 cover

It's been weeks since Swamp Thing's shooting. His corpse has been taken for study by the Sunderland Corporation; the very same company that ordered the Swamp Thing's assassination. Old man Sunderland, head of the firm, had a problem. He needed a specialist. The world was full of botanists, who knew plants, and medical doctors, who knew people. But where to find someone for a plant man?

In the DC Universe, if you really wanted some eccentric specialists you go to one place. Arkham. And in Arkham Sunderland finds his man, or rather plant man. The issue starts with Dr. Jason Woodrue, the Floronic Man.

floronic man

Who better to study a man-plant than a man-plant himself? Unlike the Swamp Thing, Woodrue didn't become a man-plant by accident. He became the Floronic Man by choice. How could somebody choose to do that to himself you say? Well, Jason Woodrue isn't like one of us. He wasn't born on Earth. He wasn't even born in the same dimension. Woodrue comes from another planet in another dimension, and where he comes from, well, the plant world was much more highly regarded then in our rain forest-burning orb.

By the way, Woodrue looks like this in most of the pages in this issue.


The red eyes are the dead giveaway. It's really amusing how Woodrue manages to look human; he uses an aerosol can of 'Flexi-Flesh', a sort of spray on skin. A moment's consideration will inform that something like that will simply not work in concealing bark-like skin and leaves for hair, but it's a nice, campy touch.

So they took the Swamp Thing and put him in cold storage. I love the rendering of the big cryogenic 'tomb' they put him in.


By the way, the excellent art is by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben. Reminds me of Gene Colan, this art.

Here's a close-up of the Swamp Thing in cold storage.


General Sunderland gives Jason Woodrue a clear objective : Find out what the Swamp Thing is.

If you've ever had the kind of boss that likes to stress you out with a deadline, that's General Sunderland. As an office worker myself, I hate this guy immediately. Woodrue is seething as well, but his hands are tied. He goes up against the 'boss' and its back to Arkham. It's Sunderland who's the idiot here though, it's stupid to mess around with a villain who can control plant life. Anyway . . .

As the deadline looms, Woodrue has an ever growing problem: He can't figure out what the Swamp Thing is. Woodrue has put the Swamp Thing on the slab and has began an autopsy. Inside the Swamp Thing, he finds things which look like organs but when Woodrue looks at them closely, these so called organs don't' work, and never have worked. It's baffling, normally a scientist would be happy with such a mystery but Sunderland keeps breathing down his neck.

I love the way this whole mystery gets resolved. It happens when Woodrue is taking a break from the problem and is reading up on some unrelated scientific journal articles. Incidentally, the article is about planarian worms.


The experiment using planarian worms was conducted to test if memory could be passed on chemically. The first step was that a planarian worm was taught how to run a maze. This worm was then cut up into pieces and fed to other worms (these scientists are right out of a horror comic - EC Comics would love this shit). Anyway, the other worms were found to have absorbed the memory of the maze-running worm and were able to run the maze perfectly also. We'll get back the connection to Swamp Thing in a bit, first, just a brief note on the worms and the experiment.

I searched the Net and planarian worms are real, indeed very common all over the world; they're a type of flatworm. Secondly, the maze experiment is real too, conducted by James McConnell in 1962. But. . .  but,  the experiment was refuted because, first, it could not be repeated, and, second, the other worms seemed to be following chemical tracks of the original worm in the maze. So there.

But what has all this got to do with Swamp Thing?

After reading this article, Woodrue had one of those flashes of insight so commonly commented upon by everybody who has had a breakthrough. As the saying goes, if you stop wrestling with the problem and just be with it, the solution will arise. This is what happens to the Floronic man - everything just suddenly fell into place. The revelation is amazing.

Alec Holland, the man who the Swamp Thing thought he was, died as a result of an explosion when his lab was sabotaged. During the explosion, two integral elements got thrown into the surrounding swamp waters. The first, was Alex Holland himself, or rather, bits and pieces of his body, torn apart by the explosion. The second element was the chemical Alex Holland was working on, an agricultural experiment which merged with the surrounding plant life giving the plant sentience. Moreover, this sentient plant life absorbed the physical bits and pieces of Alex Holland's body and, by doing so, just like the planarian worms, absorbed Holland's memories too. More than that, the plant actually thought it was Alex Holland somehow changed into a Swamp Thing.

This revelation, Woodrue's discovery, has the following implications:

First, Alex Holland died in the explosion - he was never the Swamp Thing.

Second, the Swamp Thing is a sentient plant. He isn't like the Floronic Man, there is no man inside him (Woodrue really envies this aspect of the Swamp Thing). His human memories caused the plant to create fake organs and copy human behaviors like breathing, even though it was unnecessary.

Third and last, Swamp Thing is alive. As Woodrue put it 'you can't kill a vegetable by shooting it through the head'.

Woodrue wrote all of this up and submitted it to Sunderland. Here's the most emotional panel in the comic


Swamp Thing, who possesses the reading ability of Alec Holland, reads about the truth concerning himself. All along he thought he was Alec Holland. You can imagine how shattering this revelation is. He goes on a rampage and kills General Sunderland and storms off into the swamps.

Long after I read this issue I was rolling the story around in my head. The Swamp Thing isn't human. It's all very brilliant.

swamp thing 22 cover

Fast forward several weeks later. The Swamp Thing now looks like this.

lying down

It's a bit hard to tell so I've highlighted where his head is in red. After his initial panic the Swamp Thing has realized that he has no choice but acceptance. He's a plant. He is not Alec Holland. So he lies down and he surrenders. Once again Woodrue puts it best 'giving up the illusion of meathood and sinking back into the soft and welcoming green'.

Woodrue has followed him into the swamp; set up a small lab near where Swamp Thing is, and is now studying the Swamp Thing. Now, here's a bit of a, well, slightly icky twist. The Swamp Thing is starting to take root, the swamp ecosystem is literally growing over him; insects nesting and vines creeping and all that. He's also started to produce tubers like yams or sweet potatoes like the one below. 


Woodrue, who is envious of Swamp Thing's totally 'planty' nature, cooks these things and eats it. It's not out and out gross but there is an ickiness factor to it.


Woodrue is more and more becoming a hater of non-plants, specifically humans. Listen to the terms he's been using lately: "so squeamish . . . What can one really expect from creatures made of meat?"; "Annoying, stinking cattle"(referring to Matt and Abby): "I hate to hear a sobbing steak". Woodrue, the scientist, gives in and manages to hotwire himself to the swamp. To his surprise, linking himself to the swamp links him will all the other fauna in every part of the world. It's all too much for the Floronic Man. It drives him insane, he breaks through the walls of his lab and runs across the swamp all the way to the next issue.

While the Floronic Man is rejecting his humanity, Swamp Thing is coming to realize that he is not all plant after all. Even though he is not Alec Holland he has been stamped, indelibly, with the mark of humanity. A mark that is still important to him. With this realization he starts to climb back to sentience.

swamp thing 23 cover

When the Floronic Man patched into the 'green' and went crazy he became the self-styled avenger of all plant life on Earth. An extremely violent avenger.

This is a massacre issue. We have the Floronic man walking into a small town on the edge of the bayou and commanding the greenery to kill the townspeople. He even has himself recorded while doing it. The video makes it to the higher ups and they call the Justice League.

In the meantime, Swamp Thing is still lost among the shared consciousness of all plant life. He's on his way back to full sentience when he senses an anomaly in the peaceful consciousness of plants. That anomaly is the man, Jason Woodrue. He senses Woodrue's hate and violence, the mark of men. Swamp Thing knows Woodrue to be no avenger but invader and violator. At this point Swamp Thing returns.


The issue ends when Swamp Thing and the Floronic Man confront each other.

swamp thing 24 cover

The Justice League is on the cover, their appearance being foreshadowed the issue before. This is strictly a wild guess on my part, but I can't help thinking that the League is here because of Editorial dictate. You know, put in some capes to help sales. Speaking as an exclusive superhero reader during the year when this issue came out, the Justice League cameo would not have made me pick the issue up - there's still that big green yucky creature on the cover. I mean, this is absolutely no match for, oh, the New Teen Titans, for example, the hottest cape comic from DC at the time.

Moore must have shaken his head at this 'necessity'. But, Moore being Moore, the Justice League inclusion was handled - there is no other way to say it - brilliantly.

From the start of the issue, the narration is very different from the typical superhero book. The JLA satellite is called the 'house above the world'. The JLA are called 'the overpeople'. Superman reference: 'A man who can see across the planet and wring diamonds from its anthracite'. Flash reference : 'A man who can move so fast that his life is an endless gallery of statues'. I find the JLA's discussion concerning the Floronic Man particularly astute. They realize that Jason Woodrue is not their enemy. He is an agent of all the plant life on Earth. It is the plant life of Earth that is their foe. This is a huge problem that has the JLA stymied. Luckily, Swamp Thing will solve it for them.

Upon seeing the returned Swamp Thing, Woodrue welcomes him as ally, wrongly thinking that the Swamp Thing, being a plant entity, will join him in his bloodbath. There is a bit of a struggle between the Swamp Thing and the Floronic man during which the Swamp Thing manages to break Woodrue's arm


This broken arm is very symbolic. Plants have no arms to break; only a man can have a broken arm.

What follows next is even more important. The Swamp Thing points out to Woodrue that the destruction he has wrought is more of man's signature than plant's. Swamp Thing is slowly leading Woodrue to a realization. The Floronic Man's original plan was to exterminate mankind by commanding the plant life to produce oxygen to levels so high that a fireball effect would ensue. It seems to be a fiendish and solid plan until the Swamp Thing points out an inherent flaw: Once the gasses are all converted to oxygen who will convert it back to plant nourishing carbon dioxide if there are no more creatures on Earth. Just like that, the Swamp Thing brings home the very important point of a self-sustaining ecosystem. And just like that the connection felt by the Floronic Man to all plant-life is withdrawn and Jason Woodrue screams like an abandoned child.

The transition from Jason Woodrue thinking he is a plant to considering himself a man again is so abrupt but very appropriate. Witness his statement when confronted by both Superman and the Green Lantern.


It's back to Arkham for this guy.

The best part of this issue comes in three rows of panels showing a discussion between Abby and the Swamp Thing. The first panel is about Alex Holland.


The second is about the identity of the Swamp Thing.

swamp thing

The third, best of all, is about how the Swamp Thing is holding up.


At this point, I'm beginning to really appreciate how good a writer Alan Moore is. Nothing is forced in the storyline. The tale is growing organically. Wonderful stuff.

swamp thing 25 cover

I like this cover but somehow it works better in black and white


I thought the issue begins with the arrival of Satan. The panel sequences of this new arrival gives such a huge sense of foreboding. It's not Satan though, it's Etrigan, the half-man half-demon, DC's favorite demon.

More on that later. Bissette and Totleben gives us this wonderful splash page of the Swamp Thing under water


We also see the Swamp Thing and Abby relaxing together in the Swamp. Abby comes to visit her friend from time to time.


You've heard about Ouija boards right? Wooden boards with letters on them purportedly used for talking to spirits. Ever since I was a kid I was always warned against these things. They are not playthings. Keep away. Well, when I saw a couple conjure up a demon that murdered them in this issue I was like 'Uh-Huh'. The couple was lucky, it was the kid who was terrorized by the Demon. Paul was so traumatized that he got institutionalized. Just look at this drawing.


In the last panel of the drawing Paul is hurting another kid because of his fear. So true, fear leads to violence. The demon, who eats fear, followed Paul to the hospital and began to torture the other children. When I realized that Etrigan, for reasons never explained, was out to get this fear demon I cheered him on.

swamp thing 26 cover

Continuing from last issue, the evil of the Fear Creature (sorry about that name, the demon is never named), is also being sensed by the Swamp Thing who, like Etrigan, also makes his way to the children's hospice.

Back at the hospice, things take a frightening turn as every single kid is distressed and draws the same thing.


At last, Etrigan makes his entrance.


Etrigan is a rhymer. Moore gives us a great rhyme:"I am the one who comes to cage the Ape. I pay no heed to youth or purity. I'll roast each fool that aids the beast's escape, and drink their health tonight in purgat'ry. Innocents? Why to hear the tales they tell you'd think there was no guilty child in Hell. Feast Jack-An-Ape! Eat hearty while you can upon your neck's the breath of Etrigan!". Not bad. Try this one from Gaiman, this is Etrigan in the Sandman books: "Back to your gate and duty Squatterbloat! I'll take the Dreamlord, play his guardian for innocents abroad need guides of note and who notes more than Etrigan?".

We end the issue with a three way confrontation: Monkey Demon (Fear Monster), Etrigan and Swamp Thing


swamp thing 27 cover

This is it! Action! From the start the Fear Demon and Etrigan go at it.


Etrigan goes down!


Swamp Thing takes over. Unfortunately, we don't see the rest of the fight because Abby bolts with Paul in tow and we follow them into the Swamp. It is Etrigan who catches up to them. It seems there are two options to end the chaos: Destroy the Fear Demon or kill Paul. White Monkey is tough so Etrigan is ready to take option 2. What, how cold he? The guys a demon, check him out in hell in Sandman no. 5. Guess who comes in to save the day? Yup. It's Swamp Thing vs. Etrigan and our favorite muck monster gets his arm dismembered.

arm off

But here's a little Swamp Thing trick.

arm in

Paul is the key. Paul is beginning to realize this. This is the most powerful part of the issue. Look at this kid, his parents have been killed and he's been terrorized ever since. He's a baby. But he makes this stand right here


Face your fear and what happens? It shrinks


As an added bonus fear gets eaten by Etrigan


At the very last page is this heartwarming dedication: "This issue is dedicated with awe & affection to Jack Kirby" - this is ten year's before the King's death in 1994.

Posted by  Pete Albano - October 2, 2011

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