In 2016, Justice League Action premiered on Cartoon Network. Each episode featured two fifteen-minute segments during which members of the Justice League face off against any number of villains. The series lasted for one season and although the format was geared toward younger viewers, references to Silver Age heroes and concepts kept older fans interested as well. One aspect of the show startled me, however, the inclusion of Swamp Thing as a full-fledged member of the Justice League. He plays well with others while shooting vines left and right . . . and he smiles . . . yes, I said smiles. During DC’s New 52, Swamp Thing worked with Justice League Dark, a combination of mystical outsiders not quite right for full JL membership. I was okay with that, because this was the brooding Protector of the Green, the Erlking I’ve known and loved for decades, not smiling – I can’t get over the smiling – and voiced by Mark Hamill, the only redeeming factor of this characterization.
Then I remembered: this wasn’t the first time DC tried casting Swamp Thing in such a light. Swamp Thing’s always been part of DC’s main continuity, and he’s always interacted with other characters in that universe, but there was a brief period when editorial staff wanted him to fill more mainstream shoes, making him less horror and more superhero. I’m speaking about when Swamp Thing joined the Challengers of the Unknown.
Here’s what happened.
Swamp Thing #1 hit shelves in 1972. A year before, Gerry Conway and Bernie Wrightson had produced a short-story version for House of Secrets #92. Now writer Len Wein and Wrightson expanded upon the original, reformulating the character and moving events into the twentieth century. In the early 1970s, the Comics Code Authority loosened rules that had been dictating comic content since 1954, so horror comics enjoyed a renaissance during the early and mid-1970s. Marvel Comics published The Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf by Night, The Monster of Frankenstein, The Son of Satan, and Man-Thing, for example. DC went with House of Mystery, House of Secrets, The Witching Hour, Ghosts, and Swamp Thing. The first twenty issues were excellent, including runs from Wein and Wrightson, and then Wein and Nestor Redondo, and finally David Michelinie and Redondo. But with issue #21, the mood changed.
Sales were lagging, and writers working on later issues – David Michelinie, Gerry Conway, and David Anthony Kraft – included science-fiction and superhero-related elements. Most notably they introduced Swamp Thing’s brother, Edward, and concocted a serum that transformed Swamp Thing back into Alec Holland! The series ended with #24, although a projected #25 entitled “The Sky Above” was to introduce Hawkman into the title. Editor-in-Chief Carmine Infantino, says Kraft, wanted Hawkman “to become a co-star in Swamp Thing, in the hope of attracting superhero fans.” Although completed, the issue never appeared, and the series died.
The Hawkman option didn’t fly (ahem) but attempts to bring Swamp Thing’s into herodom continued briefly. From 1976 to 1977, The Challengers of the Unknown came to life again after years of inactivity, from issues #81 to #87, written by Gerry Conway. At first, Alec Holland connected with the team living on borrowed time, but he ran out of the formula keeping him human and reverted to Swamp Thing. With the Challengers, Swamp Thing encountered an old enemy, M’Nagalah, and his group of monstrous cultists, alien fungi, mutant lizards from the future, and Rip Hunter and the Sunset Lords. The final issue sees the team traveling to 12,000,000 A.D. to face mutants and Lawspeaker, leader of the rebellious Sky Riders. Are you stunned that this revival didn’t last long, dying, I suspect for reasons beyond the oncoming DC implosion that finished off many series?
As if all that weren’t enough, Deadman joined the team as well. Nobody knew it, however, since they could neither see nor hear him. I’ve seen fine work from Gerry Conway, but as Horace notes, “Homer sometimes nods.”
Thankfully, in 1982 DC began running The Saga of Swamp Thing to mark the release of the Swamp Thing film, and efforts at “superhero-zing” the character were abandoned. When Alan Moore took over writing duties with issue #20, Swamp Thing finally begins evolving into an arboreal demigod . . . hold on a minute. With issue #21, “The Anatomy Lesson,” Moore reveals that Swamp Thing never had been Alec Holland, but a separate being with his memories, whose birth sprang from Holland’s fiery death. What then are we to make of that period when Swamp Thing with chemical aids regained his humanity? What about the Challengers of the Unknown? Continuity check! Continuity check! Relax. We’re to make nothing of it at all.
Walter Bitterman from Collegeville, Pennsylvania, wrote to series editor Len Wein about these questions. I cite from the letter page of The Saga of Swamp Thing #6:
I’m glad to see Swamp Thing back again, though I was a little disappointed in the first issue, being a fan of the original run in which we were left with a normal Alec Holland and not with the Swamp Thing. I was hoping for an explanation of how he transferred back. I’m sure some of the unpublished stories from the first run (e.g., the Hawkman vs. Swamp Thing story promised for issue #25) and would love to see them in this book.
I hope to see Matt, Abigail, and Bolt again. Your mystery man Mr. G. can’t be Nathan Ellery so he’s either from the Conclave or Colossus.
Wein bluntly replies:
Sorry, William, but you comprise a minority of one in your fondness for those last stories in 1976, in which some misguided soul tried to turn Swamp Thing into a crypto-superhero. As far as we’re concerned, the stories published after issue #21 never happened, that is Alec never became predominately human, he never had a brother, there was never any Colossus, etc. The rabidly continuity-minded among our readers may consign these stories to “Another Earth” or to the trash heap – it’s their choice. As for Matt Cable and the rest they may turn up some time in the future – but remember that the current storyline takes place six years after the previous saga . . . and when we meet Matt and company again, we will find them much changed! And now you’ve seen that your guesses about our “mystery man” were – Sorry again! – way off base.
Consign those final issues of Swamp Thing and the short-lived Challengers of the Unknown to your long boxes, friends, because that’s the only place they retain any meaning. Move along. Nothing to see here, like when Disney pared down the Star Wars expanded universe but on a smaller scale, of course. Thank you, Len, for this and for everything. Alan Moore would have fun years later, when in Swamp Thing Annual #2, Swamp Thing encounters Deadman who expresses that it’s nice to see him again, referring to their shared experiences with the Challengers . . . maybe.
Or maybe not.