One of the reasons I like Halloween so much is the compendium of really terrible movies that are aired on channels like AMC in the week leading up to the whole trick or treating thing. A lot of old B-movies from the ’50s, like the one I watched last week called War of the Colossal Beast.
Yes, this movie was Bad with a capital B. AMC only needed one hour to air it, WITH commercials. At one point a lot of screen time was spent arguing where to house the Colossal Beast (see, this was a sequel and he used to be just a Colossal Man, but now…never mind, not important), with one character finally ending the disagreement by saying something like (paraphrasing here): “We can’t leave him out in the rain, even if he IS a giant.”
Well, when you put it that way…yes, giants have rights, too. No one should be forced into dampness.
(They ended up tying the Colossal Beast down Gulliver-style inside an airport hangar, by the way. I know the suspense was killing you.)
Year after year I watch the same movies during Halloween week. Er…some of them, anyway. There’s always at least one viewing each of Halloween and Halloween II, for example. The point is, these movies are trotted out to the Halloween public over and over again. I mean, I’m pretty sure I watched the Colossal Beast last year, too. These sorts of realizations are the kinds of things that make Halloween truly terrifying.
So I was a bit surprised when I checked AMC one morning and found them airing the old ’80s movie Swamp Thing. Now, to be sure, it fits the Halloween criteria (mostly):
1) It’s a truly terrible movie
2) It’s got monsters in it (Swamp Thing himself is a sort of monster, then there’s the creature his archenemy Arcane turns into…so yeah, I can see it…)
But I hadn’t seen Swamp Thing air in recent years. They were going off script. I sort of admired it.
I started watching the movie, not really planning to finish (I have, of course, seen it before) but I found myself getting really nostalgic as I did, so I stuck with it to the end.
Because, see, Swamp Thing – the comic book – is one of those things that taught me to love and respect writers and writing when I was young.
A little bit of history, first. I won’t say a ton, but if you’re interested in the full details, there’s always Wikipedia.
1) Swamp Thing was created in the early ’70s by a pair of really talented comics folks, Len Wein and Berni Wrightson. Specifically, he first appeared in House of Secrets #2 in July 1971. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), I first appeared on this planet myself in a hospital in Buffalo, NY…in July 1971.
2) The first real Swamp Thing series started in 1972, written and drawn mostly by the original creators. It lasted 24 issues before declining sales canceled it.
3) Around the time the movie came out, a second series was launched, Saga of the Swamp Thing. Through the first 19 issues of this series, it sort of meandered with the type of story you see in the movie – a scientist creating a formula is caught in an explosion and turns into a swamp creature, then battles other monsters with damsels in distress. Pretty standard comic book stuff.
But with issue #20 of that original series, something amazing happened. The current writer had to leave and so a relatively unknown British writer was invited to take over the series: Alan Moore.
On Sundays after church, my mom would take us to CVS where she would pick up essentials. This always gave me the opportunity to check out the small selection of comic books they had there.
(Incidentally, in 4th grade we had an assignment to draw a picture showing what job we wanted to have when we grew up. Most of the boys drew fireman, policeman, various sporting professions. I drew a pharmacist – beakers and test tubes everywhere – and my teacher was so impressed with the uniqueness of my choice. What she never knew was that the rationale for this was ENTIRELY my observation that pharmacists worked RIGHT UP THE AISLE from the comic books. All. Day. Long. It was obviously my calling.)
So one day – in CVS – I picked up two comic books and bought them – Saga of the Swamp Thing #19 and 20 – the last issue of the previous writer’s tenure beside the first issue of Alan Moore’s life altering (at least, for me) run on the series.
It was as if I was meant to not only discover this comic series in particular, but at that particular time, so I could see it transition from one writer to the next.
I couldn’t believe these were even the same characters. The writing was so different between the two issues. This is by no means an insult to the previous writer, but just meant to convey my admiration for Moore’s writing, his brilliant concepts and themes. In the space of just a few issues, he completely transformed the main character, the supporting characters, the tenor of the story happening around them.
Swamp Thing went from a man thinking he was a monster to a monster deluded into thinking he was a man (it turned out Swamp Thing wasn’t Alec Holland, the scientist in the explosion. He was actually a plant elemental being who had absorbed Holland’s consciousness. He thought he was Alec Holland, but never really was.)
This transformation in character opened the series to all sorts of compelling story lines. Ostensibly, the series was horror (it wasn’t for the faint of heart, and was the first mainstream comic to abandon the guidelines of the Comics Code Authority), but it became much more than that. Swamp Thing went to space, he battled Batman, he matched wits with John Constantine (who was created by Moore for the series and meant to “look like Sting” – not Keanu Reeves) and on and on.
I really could go probably go on forever about it – I own the entire run of both of these original series (yes, all 24 issues of the 70’s series and all 171 issues of the second series – though Moore would only write it through issue #65) – and (for some of you) I probably already have. Then again, I haven’t even touched on the incredible art or any of the writers that followed Moore, some more admirably then others. What I’ll just say is, if you’re interested at all after reading this, I definitely encourage you to check it out. The series has been collected into trade paperback form.
But I what I really want to say about Swamp Thing, what made me so nostalgic watching the movie last week and hearing the character names again, even though they were so different from the ones I grew to love, is that the writing was so incredible. On some level, Swamp Thing helped me see what could happen when the same characters were handled by a really talented creator – what the difference between writing and WRITING was.
I’ll always remember it. And if I use a few too many ellipsis’ in my dialogue, you should definitely blame Swamp Thing. Because…he always…talked…like this. And now…sometimes…I do…too. It’s also probably responsible for some of my political views, my thoughts about the environment and many other topics, but that’s definitely another post.
I hate to think what Thanksgiving will remind me of this year…