Thursday, October 31, 2013
It has been fascinating slowly trudging through the muck and mire alongside the tragic mossy form of Alec Holland. The series was memorable and has proven to be one of the rare true iconic Bronze Age additions to the DC Universe.
The classic horror influences which permeate the first ten issues of the series are clearly the result of Berni Wrightson's vintage artwork, work informed by classic Graham "Ghastley" Ingels comics and Universal horror flicks. Berni outdid himself rendering some damn fine beasties to gyre and gamble across the unlucky path of the Swamp Thing.
Basic humanity can be seen clearly in the utterly fantastic image above by Wrightson, apparently his first of the creature after his House of Secrets version gave way to the modern Alec Holland variation. There is a lot of humanity in that rough shape.
It became increasingly clear to me as I read the stories that Swamp Thing is misnamed. He clearly should've worn the title "Man-Thing" while "Swamp Thing" more snugly fit Marvel's mossy monster. There is more of the man in Swamp Thing, more of Alec Holland aware and present in the moments which form the narrative. Ted Sallis is lost in the miasma of Man-Thing's emotional boil, more purely a creature wrought of the swamp. Swamp Thing ironcially has more of the man and less of the swamp.
One of my favorite moments is when Swamp Thing as rendered by Nestor Redondo in issue eleven stands too long in one spot in the swamp and begins to throw down roots. It's a moment clearly intended to showcase his inhuman nature, but showed me a creature still at odds with the swampy regions he inhabits. He lives in the natural world like a man, he is not of the natural world like a plant, at least not totally, though he himself seems to begin to doubt.
Also I got to thinking that I have overlooked the role Joe Orlando played in this series. Clearly he had something to contribute to the brew which emitted the Swamp Thing, but as is often the case with editors his role remains mildly mysterious, at least to this reader. It must've given him though a pleasant tickle to once again be producing quality atmospheric horror comics akin to those of the Atomic Age. Here's an interview with Wrightson talking about his years at DC, including his stint on Swamp Thing. In the interview he really gives a lot of credit to Orlando for developing his storytelling skills.
It's been a hoot this past month to read these classic books, some for the first time. I feel like I know Swamp Thing or Alec Holland if you will, better than I ever have before. Sadly I feel the likes of this wonderful comic will not shamble this way again.
Have a Happy Halloween!
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
A look at muck monsters would not be complete without a shout out to one of the most original created by science fiction master Theodore Sturgeon. Marvel adapted the long short story "It" in its debut issue of Supernatural Thrillers which sported this iconic Jim Steranko cover.
The story was later reprinted in glorious black and white in an issue of Masters of Terror. The Steranko design was given a makeover by ace artist Gray Morrow. The Steranko rendition has more four-color punch, but the Morrow version has much more atmosphere.
Here is more on how this offbeat tale adapted by Roy Thomas, Marie Severin and Frank Giacoia fits into the larger Marvel mythology. And here is a look at some of Severin's and Giacoia's artwork up close.
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
The original run of Swamp Thing rumbles along for several more issues, but in many ways the thirteenth issue of the classic comic can be seen as the last because it marks the final one done by one of the original creators. Len Wein steps away from his Swamp Thing after writing an issue which appears to want to tidy things up, a bit anyway.
The story begins as Matt Cable, Bolt and other men glide in a power boat through the swamps looking for Swamp Thing who is at the same time battling against mutant creatures which seem to increasingly populate his native swamp. He is reflecting on these weird beasties when Cable and his crew find and subdue Swamp Thing whisking him off to Washington D.C. where Swamp Thing is imprisoned in a laboratory habitat under the scrutiny of one Professor Coolidge Degrez despite Cable's objections. Swamp Thing escapes and Degrez is killed by guards trying to stop Swamp Thing. He is recaptured under the orders of Commander John Zero who eventually gives Cable permission to try and communicate (at long last) with Swamp Thing. Cable does and eventually and painfully Swamp Thing reveals finally that he is Alec Holland and describes how he came to be the Swamp Thing. Cable and Abigail Arcane decide they will work to free the Swamp Thing but are almost stopped by Bolt, still seething with rage. Cable talks him down and convinces ultimately to help them get the Swamp Thing out of the lab. The scene then cuts to the funeral of Professor Degrez and as the mourners leave the grave begins to rumble as Swamp Thing climbs up out of the earth. Cable had hidden him inside the coffin underneath Degrez and elude detection. Now that he is alone Swamp Thing finds his grave alongside that of his wife Linda and realizes painfully that the life he had hoped to return to is lost forever. He turns his back on Cable and Abigail and chooses instead to shamble into the swamps where he feels more at home.
You do get the sense that Len Wein wanted to tie up some threads in this story and to some extent he does by finally having Cable learn the secret he's chased for nearly two years. The fact that Alec Holland is Swamp Thing is a secret only the reader had known, but which going forward would be an aspect of the story open to others. It does somewhat shift the tone of the story from tragedy to one of mere sympathy, though it does open plot possibilities. For one, I'm glad it happened as Cable's ongoing quest was one of the few things which fueled the preceding issues. Also the fact that for now Swamp Thing has relented and no longer seeks to return to his former life as Alec Holland likewise winds up the saga, at least in this early stage.
This issue was a hodge podge of details, again more of a sci-fi outing than having much to do with horror. I find the naming of the characters fun in this one with "Coolidge Degrez" and "John Zero" both suggestive, particularly since they use extreme cold to trap and control the Swamp Thing. I guess this has thematic implications, counterpointed with the vital boggy nature of Swamp Thing himself, but it feels undeveloped here at best.
I did love that the totally awesome Nestor Redondo cover image of Swamp Thing erupting from a grave was not merely symbolic, though the idea he was squished into a coffin alongside a full-grown man seems speculative at best. Some plot devices work and some fall short. This one seemed a bit half-baked despite its decidedly horrific power.
I appreciate the final sequence with Swamp Thing shambling off into the wilderness of his swamp, the one place he spent most of the early issues returning to and which has become a haven of sorts now. It brings a reasonable closure to the saga.
Monday, October 28, 2013
I really enjoyed seeing these British Tales of Terror covers which re-use artwork originally created for Marvel's Tales of the Zombie magazine some years before. The artwork by Boris Vallejo and the painfully underrated Earl Norem is given a great fresh feel with some changes in hues.
Zombies seem to be the monsters of the hour, having displaced vampires from their lofty perch. Unlike vampires which have intelligence and so have evoked actual sympathy from some quarters (unbelievably), the zombie lacks anything other than the human form to make us feel kinship. The modern zombie is essentially an animal, voracious and implacable. I prefer the slow-walking zombies myself, their relentless stumbling tread seems surprisingly benign until it's not.
Some people seem to like zombie movies for the gore. That overwrought rot is often deadly dull, it's the people and their ability to deal with the dire circumstances which make these stories compelling or not. The stock zombie movie where everyone tries to be a tricked-out bad-ass zombie killer are dreadful as they lack the necessary component to make the "zombie apocalypse" scary, the notion that it's the problem of the everyman. AMC's The Walking Dead is frightening because we care about the people not the zombies. Terror is always about what could happen, not what does happen.
Sunday, October 27, 2013
Often Swamp Thing can seem like a bystander in his own comic. That's certainly not the case with the twelfth issue of the character's original run by Len Wein and Nestor Redondo.
The story begins where the last issue left off, with a time lost Swamp Thing face to face with a prehistoric Tyrannosaurus Rex-like dinosaur. He fends it off but is helped by an anachronistic caveman who attacks the beast and between the two of them the brute is killed. But the caveman too is killed and expires as two purple lights gleam in his eyes, purple lights similar to a great jewel which might responsible for transporting the Swamp Thing through time. Swamp Thing beings to fade as the caveman recovers and grabs the large jewel. A series of interludes finds Matt Cable trying to recruit Bolt to work with him to find the Swamp Thing; Bolt finally agrees despite his inexplicable anger towards Swamp Thing over Ruth's death. Swamp Thing finds himself transported to ancient Rome and ends up in the arena battling gladiators and lions. One gladiator who fights with him seems blind until he is killed and reveals the same odd purple gleam as the caveman. After Swamp Thing disappears this time the warrior rises and wanders off. Swamp Thing ends up in the Middle Ages in Europe during the Black Plague years and finds a man named Milo and a witch. Swamp Thing learns that Milo has stolen a great purple gem from her which gives him eternal life but she places a curse on him that he will become trapped in a never ending cycle of death and rebirth through time.
Soon enough Swamp Thing is transported to American swamps he came from but during the Civil War where he encounters the man with the purple eyes who dies yet again. Then we at last return to the present where the man who was Milo confronts Swamp Thing to kill him since being killed by a friend is the only release from the curse, but Swamp Thing refuses. The man is killed when he falls into quicksand, doomed to begin his journey through time again and again. But Swamp Thing merely wanders off.
This is a densely plotted story and the connection between Milo and Swamp Thing isn't really explained all that well, but it does serve to put the Swamp Thing in some really intriguing scenarios. Seeing him battle a dinosaur was really fun. Despite that, the story does shamble a bit before it stumbles to a conclusion. Maybe this was intentional given the theme an endless time loop, but the story seems merely to stop and not end.
It's refreshing to see Cable at long last give up his hatred of Swamp Thing if not his search. The replacement of Cable with Bolt who hates our hero is odd, almost as if the fundamental scenario of the series requires someone to hate Swamp Thing irrationally.
The sci-fi elements of the character are again fully explored but once again at the cost of the classic horror touches which informed the Wrightson era. I respect and admire the work of Redondo in this issue, but his Swamp Thing while nicely rendered lacks the weird punch of Wrightson's rendition.
One more issue for Wein and one more for me as "Mucking About" heads to a conclusion.
Saturday, October 26, 2013
What an utter delight is Frankenstein Jr.. The character is a wackadoodle blend of classic monsters, run-amok sci-fi, Japanese anime, and the totally ironic and self-aware campy super-heroics which dotted the 60's pop culture landscape. A lot of the memorable trends of the era find a blithe fusion with this vintage cartoon.
Bracketed by another cartoon superhero concept, The Impossibles, Frankenstein Jr. had a remarkable pace for a cartoon of this type and also featured many memorable images. The sight of Franky with Buzz atop his shoulder rocketing out of the mountain lab is a keeper.
I recently pulled the trigger and picked up the dvd of the series, afraid that these might someday go off the market and I'd regret not having them. Lots of great childhood memories watching this wild series.
Franky didn't really have much penetration into the broader cultural market aside from the durable cartoon show, but has managed a couple of clever comics appearances. Gold Key made a one-shot in 1967 which along with the one-shot Space Ghost introduced the trend to comics.
Many decades later Archie Comics knocked out an issue of Hanna-Barbera Presents which showcased the giant superhero alongside his Impossible cast mates. This cover is a fun one since it clearly pays homage to the classic Fantastic Four #1.
One of my personal favorite Franky items is the Big Little Book featuring the big guy. I've owned since I was a tyke and loved every single-page panel of it then and now.
Ted Cassidy, famous for his spin as Lurch on the Addams Family, added a great quality to Frankenstein Jr., making the character distinctive in the Hanna-Barbera universe which sad to say could get a bit familiar with the stalwart voice actors it used and used again -- all good, but all the same.
Enough of this though, I need to watch a few episodes.
Friday, October 25, 2013
With its eleventh issue Swamp Thing trudges into new territory, at least in terms of creative input. This issue features the debut of Nestor Redondo as the artist and sports a very atmospheric cover by Luis Dominguez. The cover is a dandy if the Swamp Thing himself were a bit more on model. He seems too like Marvel's Man-Thing here and not the somewhat more heroic figure that Swampy traditionally cuts.
The story begins in the swamp where Swamp Thing muses about his lost opportunity to save himself now that his lab is utterly destroyed by the spaceship which launched from within it a few issues previously. Just then Matt Cable and Abigail Arcane arrive with the new mission to find the Swamp Thing and uncover his mysterious connection to the death of the Hollands. Cable has finally shaken off his hatred of Swamp Thing. Soon though the pair are attacked by a mutant alligator which Swamp Thing shows up in time to battle. Meanwhile two giant hideous worm creatures capture Cable and Arcane and drag them back to a mysterious sealed laboratory beneath the swamps. They meet four other captives -- an old man named Luke, a mute sheriff named Kain, and a young black couple called Bolt and Ruth. All it seems are being held by a madman named Zachary Nail who built his lab as a defense against a polluted world. Nail battled Dr.Thirteen previously in the pages of The Phantom Stranger and was defeated. He was found and nursed back to relative health by the giant worms who he imagines want to accomplish the same things he does. Swamp Thing meanwhile finds the lab and enters to find and save Cable and Arcane yet again. It's then revealed that the worms don't want to save the world or mankind save to keep them as livestock to be consumed. This revelation drives Nail over the edge and in his maniacal frustration he shoots and kills Ruth before activating the lab's self-destruct sequence. Swamp Thing arrives to help the people escape and stops Bolt from killing Nail. All the survivors leave the exploding lab, but Swamp Thing disappears having found a mysterious purple jewel which transports him back into time to face a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Redondo's lush artwork is a good replacement for Wrightson's moody work. That said, there is a loss of the classic horror feel the comic had developed and a turn toward a more straight-forward science fiction adventure. The characters are more traditionally handsome than before in the hands of Berni who is magnificent at creating slightly odd human beings.
There also seem to be too many characters in this one. Luke and Kain add almost nothing to the story but are there right along. The death of Ruth is shocking and does set up a future storyline with Bolt, but seemed in the final analysis a bit gratuitous. Wein clearly wants to pivot the series at this juncture, but it's not at all clear to me what he is aiming to do with that change of direction.
Maybe next issue will say more.
Thursday, October 24, 2013
The Trail of Fu-Manchu, the most recent Fu-Manchu novel from Titan Books is a humdinger. Picking up the story quickly after the last installment, we find Fu-Manchu on the run and seemingly without his elaborate support system which made him so seemingly invincible. Against this more vulnerable Fu-Manchu, Sir Nayland Smith once again steps up to tackle his arch enemy.
The story begins when Fleurette, the daugher of Dr.Petrie is kidnapped by Fu-Manchu in a typically baroque and complicated scheme. Her lover Alan Sterling is beside himself throughout most of the tale and is himself captured soon enough. Smith and a reasonably competent police force track Fu-Manchu through and eventually under the streets of London, specifically his old haunts in the Limehouse district.
There seems a real attempt in this one by Rohmer to evoke the old mystery surrounding the character and invest the very streets of London with a sense of the unknown and potential danger. The story is typically a fireball with a wonderful pace with keeps the reader bouncing along eager for the next revelation.
One thing I find I love about these books are the titles Rohmer uses for his chapters, almost always intriguing and they almost always payoff. That kind of minor mystery each chapter which are often very short makes for a totally involving read. Rohmer seems keen not to let the reader lose interest even for a moment and in this story almost always succeeds.
The scope of the threat this time is diminished as the Devil Doctor wants only to reclaim his own youth and his resources for world domination. But there is no specific threat to the world this time, only to the close friends and confidantes of Nayland Smith himself. Dr.Petrie is not in the story at all until the end, but plays a critical role in the denoument which is at once surprising and satisfying in a weird way.
The central images of horror in this one are classic as the heroes are threatened with death in a most horrifying manner, and the threat seems quite palpable. Fu-Manchu takes them to hell itself, a place where he is master.
I highly recommend this one, but be sure to read the previous installment first for full enjoyment.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
The tenth issue of Swamp Thing is momentous because it is Berni Wrightson's last on the series. Wrightson had developed a reputation on small horror stories around the industry, but it was Swamp Thing which still defines his career. Not unlike Wrightson's The Studio mate Barry Windsor-Smith who stepped away from Conan the Barbarian, Wrightson too seemed to want to distance himself from his signature work at the peak of his influence. They say you should always leave making the audience want more and Berni sure did that with Swamp Thing. The final issue in fact gives him a plotting credit in addition to his regular art credit.
The story begins in the swamp where Swamp Thing runs across an escaped prisoner threatening an old black woman named Auntie Bellum and saves her. The escaped convict soon enough dies of bullet wounds and Auntie takes the moment to tell Swamp Thing a story. Her corncob pipe clenched in her aged teeth, she relates the saga of slavemaster Samson Parminter who tormented his slaves and took special notice of a beautiful slave named Elsbeth. Elsbeth though was the love of a powerful slave named Black Jubal who despite having only one arm battled Parminter though it cost him his life. Parminter returned to his evil ways but was then found torn limb from limb in his home soon after. Auntie's story ends when Swamp Thing is distracted by odd figures running in the swamp, odd but familiar. He follows them into a graveyard where he finds his old enemy Arcane surrounded by his Un-Men, but this time Arcane wears the misshapen form his loyal followers built for him when they took him barely living from the cliff he seemingly died on in the second issue. Then Arcane and his Un-Men began to search for Swamp Thing, following him back to his swamp even if that meant swimming across the Atlantic Ocean. Arcane still wants to take possession of Swamp Thing's body. Arcane and Swamp Thing fight, but Arcane wins. But at that moment the graveyard itself seems to buzz with strange activity and ghostly figures of slaves led by Black Jubal rise and defeat Arcane and his Un-Men. Swamp Thing recovers and finds new headstones, one each for the Un-Men and one in particular for Arcane. He shuffles out of the graveyard no noticing another grave with the name "Elsbeth Bellum". He convinces himself it was all a dream as he stumbles away but also fails to notice a corncob pipe snap beneath his mossy feet.
Once again we are presented with a parable of sorts. The saga of old Southern slavery is counterpointed with Arcane's malignant desire to convert Swamp Thing's body to his use. Where Parminter beat his slaves into compliance, Arcane has fashioned and built his own small army of slaves in his Un-Men.
This is really a classic ghost story with Swamp Thing tumbling from situation to situation. There's enough evidence to convince us, the readers this is real, as real as anything Swamp Thing has confronted, but he seems oddly reluctant to give into this belief in spirits.
There is another curious clash here of the occult and the scientific as Swamp Thing confronts the scientist-sorcerer who first battled him so long ago in the early days of the series.
Part of me feels there's maybe just a smidgeon too many elements in this story, and they fight for prominence. But the upshot is neatly handled and it does seem sad that Swamp Thing's changed circumstance doesn't seem always to give him a keener understanding of what is happening to him. It does make him more identifiable for the reader I will say.
This is Wrightson's final stroke on the character. This is as far as I've ever read in this vintage series. For me it will be all new going forward. I've been waiting a long long time to read about those worms pictured in the final panel. Next time should do it.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
The movie puts forth for your viewing pleasure a carnival's worth of "freaks", men and women of dramtically different physical and in some cases mental shapes, sizes, and configurations. These are people who vary from the norm so drastically, that they make a stranger stop short, perhaps even gasp unavoidably. Some suffer in their existences, and some revel in their differences, but as we learn in this movie all are people with the full range of emotions and beliefs which inform and motivate all of us. While apart, we know they are still with us, that's the attraction and the repulsion. There, but for the grace of God go we.
The movie is a rough adaptation of a bleak 1923 short story by Tod Robbins. The story is titled "Spurs" and its not like the movie actually save for the fact that the story revolves around a small man who falls in love with a beautiful woman who mistreats him mightily and suffers for it. The themes remain intact, but the details are wildly and vividly different. If you've never read "Spurs" the story will not ruin the movie and if you've seen Freaks, you will not be disappointed I think in the story it sprang from.
I found the story in a collection edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler titled The Best American Noir of the Century. But if you like you can find the tale here.
Monday, October 21, 2013
It might be argued that the ninth issue of Swamp Thing showcases the series most famous image. The cover of the Swamp Thing erupting from the ooze has been used as the cover for most of the reprint packages the character has seen, and the one I'm currently reading, Roots of the Swamp Thing, is no exception. (See below.)
The story begins on a train where to hobos try to mug a another only to discover the victim is Swamp Thing. The two miscreants are thrown from the train, and Swamp Thing swiftly follows since he realizes that he has at long last returned to the place of his birth, the bayous and swamps of Louisiana. The scene shifts to a Florida beach where Matt Cable and Abigail Arcane recuperate from their torture at the hands of the Conclave. Cable is perhaps having doubts about his relentless pursuit of the Swamp Thing when he gets notice he is to return to Washington immediately. Because of his familiarity with the swamp areas he is assigned to assist with "Operation: Space-Face" which has detected a UFO in the immediate area where the Hollands did their research. The leader is Captain Brad Samson and Cable doesn't cotton to him. Meanwhile Swamp Thing returns to the barn in which his lab had once been located with the meager hope he can find a cure, but instead finds a spaceship inside along with its alien pilot. A battle ensues and Swamp Thing is defeated and his wounded body is deposited into the swamp. Soon after the team led by Cable and Samson arrives at the barn and likewise confront the alien who seems befuddled by their hostile behaviors. The alien is captured while contact is made with leaders outside the swamp. Samson though has sabotaged the equipment making contact impossible. Swamp Thing emerges from the swamp healed and returns to the barn to find the team still trying to make the radio work and debating whether they should just kill the alien.When the others sleep Samson tries to kill the alien but is stopped by Swamp Thing. Cable awakes and a battle breaks out in the camp while Swamp Thing takes the alien back to his spaceship. The squad composes itself and confronts the alien just as he prepares to leave. He speaks sufficient English to condemn mankind for its violence then blasts off destroying the barn once and for all time. The tattered squad survives and watch as the spaceship rises but fails to escape the atmosphere and explodes. A sad Swamp Thing visits the crash site and wanders away.
The details of this "stranger in a strange land" fable make for a decent Swamp Thing story, but for some reason the morality seems to ooze a bit too strong in places. The squad of military types are overwhelmed by a xenophobia which erupts from nowhere. I suppose we are to think they brought it with them. Maybe Samson's unreasoning hatred of the alien is meant to counterpoint Cable's hatred of Swamp Thing, something Cable is at long last re-thinking.
The alien as designed by Wrightson is magnificent, one of the most odious designs I've seen. Berni's ability to bring a palpable physicality to his drawing works to great effect here with this creature who is not much human in most respects. There's a neat blend of classic BEM design and something more subtle at work. Mike Kaluta, Wrightson's future The Studio mate, steps in to ink about half this issue, and the blend (as can be seen from the page above) is very atmospheric.
It's nice to see Swamp Thing actually back in a swamp after all these issues. He looks great tromping around in the oozed and muck and it's dandy to see those vines and fronds in the background. With this issue Swamp Thing's odyssey comes full circle but somehow I don't think his journey has ended by any means.
That might have to wait until next time.