The last must-watch of the season is actually a must-read.
Now that it’s October 31st, Halloween devotees might be winding down on their horror must-watch lists, but there’s one more essential piece of frightful storytelling you should experience: Saga of the Swamp Thing, Book 3 (issues 35-41 of the Swamp Thing series, previously collected and published as Swamp Thing Vol. 3: The Curse). The entire series is a fantastic example of the pulp/horror genre, but this story arc is one of the best works to come from the brilliant collaborative team of writer Alan Moore and artists Stephen Bissette and John Totleben, certainly deserving of a place on your shelf between classic Frankenstein movies and Tales From the Crypt DVDs.
Some background information is helpful, but for the most part you’d be fine diving into the series at the point that Book 3 begins. Anthropomorphic vegetable swamp creature Alec just wants to protect his fellow humans, animals, and earth from threats to their existence, which usually take the shape of big game hunters, power-hungry scientists, and supernatural entities. That’s about it in a nutshell. From Book 3’s exciting plot featuring updated classic horror monsters to its mindblowing (and occasionally stomach-churning) artwork, below we’ve outlined a few of the reasons you should spend some valuable Halloween hours on this series, and give your Cronenberg and Carpenter films a much-deserved rest.
Warning: Light spoilers ahead, but we won’t ruin all the surprises for you.
It Brings the Gore
It might be tough for some readers to imagine a comic book delivering the same jumps and involuntary gag-reflexes the very best horror films and novels do; after all, nothing beats the immediacy of seeing arterial spray on the screen, and in a book, the absence of visuals forces your brain to do the imaginative work. But between Moore’s disturbingly creative take on supernatural violence and Bissette and Totleben’s execution, many of Swamp Thing’s images (and ideas) might keep you up at night.
The Swamp Thing story borrows from all sorts of pulp traditions, including science fiction, noir, gothic horror and supernatural thrillers; so there’s more than a few ways to skin a cat in this universe. And given Saga of the Swamp Thing was the first mainstream comic series to completely abandon the guidelines set by the Comics Code Authority, everyone and everything is fair game. Innocent children, artists and actors, and even newly-hatched fish creatures are merely fodder for Swamp Thing’s whirlwind of gore.
There’s a Special Guest Appearance
Imagine if Kurt Russell had wandered onto the set of Halloween, and could be spotted in the background once or twice. Now let’s imagine a film where Laurie Strode becomes a scientist and moves to Antarctica only to be stalked by Michael Myers while also running from The Thing. Wasn’t that fun? Anyway, Swamp Thing Book 3 is actually the genesis of cult-favorite occultist John Constantine. Technically, his first appearance was Swamp Thing #25, when Bissette and Totleben drew a character in musician Sting’s likeness in the background. But his true first appearance is right here in #37, where he teams up with Alec in an attempt to stop a series of escalating supernatural disasters which will usher in the return of Satan (or an extragalactic force, or Cthulhu, depending who he asks), helping him to develop and understand his abilities along the way.
Snarky and secretive, knowledgeable but withholding, Constantine’s character is extremely well-defined from his first panel. Burdened with knowledge of some extremely dark stuff and impatient with the slow, peaceful Swamp Thing, Constantine’s presence adds a dynamic element to this story arc. While Alec has remained almost exclusively in his swamp up until this point, Constantine’s inclusion in the story means that we get to meet all his assorted weirdo/genius/misfit associates – and subsequently, even more terrors.
Readers might already know Constantine from Moore’s Hellblazer series, as well as other memorable appearances in Sandman and Justice League Dark, but this original team-up of modern horror icons is not to be missed.
A Twist on the Classics
At the end of the day, Book 3 is the perfect October horror story because it features all sorts of classic monsters, but with interesting new twists. Werewolves, vampires, haunted houses and zombies are all pretty standard fare, and even just seeing the Swamp Thing go head-to-head with them in epic monster bouts would be worth reading. But with so many horror remakes and reboots consisting of the same stale tropes (raise your hand if you watched the most recent Mummy film; didn’t think so), Moore’s take on these monsters is still innovative more than 30 years later.
Instead of being bitten by another werewolf, the central monster in #40 “The Curse” is a suppressed housewife who inherits an ancient thirst for revenge. Her transformation sequence, which resembles a snake shedding its skin, is fascinatingly repulsive, and Alec’s empathy for her plight and respect for her power lead him to question whether he has the authority to stop her. The zombies in the two-part story “Southern Change” and “Strange Fruit” rise up from an old slave graveyard when a historical soap opera set on their old plantation stirs painful memories (and rotting bodies).
Another two-parter, “Still Waters” and “Fish Story,” answers the kind of ultra-nerdy questions we love to ask ourselves about the mechanics of things like vampirism: What would happen if vampires established a community deep underwater, where the deadly sunlight never touches them? The answer is even darker than you might think.
Artwork and Storytelling That Break All the Rules
Alan Moore’s run as a writer for Swamp Thing is a fan-favorite for a number of reasons. Artists Bissette and Totleben weren’t just illustrating his ideas, they were helping to create them. Both the radioactive Nukeface and Constantine’s appearance originated from the artists and were integrated into the story. And the concept of underwater vampires was born from a conversation between Moore and Bissette, where they debated the elements of vampirism introduced in Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend.
The artwork is just as important to the development of this arc as the writing; take Bissette’s newspaper clippings in the Nukeface part of the story, which paint an increasingly bleak and terrifying picture of the perils of unchecked nuclear energy and corporate greed. (Fun fact: these were real headlines from Bissette’s daily newspapers during the weeks he spent illustrating this arc. Good luck sleeping tonight.)
Beyond just being gross, many of the visual elements of this story are surprising and aesthetically interesting. Take this scene, where Alec re-grows his body in a way that’s reminiscent of Frank’s reassembling body in Hellraiser (but way more pleasant).
Alec’s body being made entirely of vegetable matter means that the artists get to have fun injuring him in increasingly brutal ways without the requisite blood and guts of other violent scenes, which might become redundant otherwise. This leaves room for some truly stunning moments of visual storytelling, and illustrations that you’d swear were Stan Winston effects flattened into 2D.
You’ll Meet Proto Baby Groot
Before Baby Groot debuted in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 1, there was what we affectionately call the Swamp Seedling. The opening story is an environmentalist’s worst nightmare: a corrupt company dumps toxic waste into the swamp, and Nukeface, a man who’s been feeding off the stuff for so long he himself is a radioactive monster, stumbles around poisoning everything he touches. Like any good piece of horror, some moments of levity or camp are called for to keep from dragging viewers too deep into the fictitious darkness. This gives way to the original absurdly cute plant elemental that spawns when Alec is forced to regrow his body.
The creators of Swamp Thing knew they were making a brutally dark piece of American Gothic horror from the start, so throughout the series you’ll find moments of respite for Alec. Whether he’s relaxing in the swamp with his girlfriend Abby or testing his abilities to sometimes-comical effect, there’s always just a touch of comedic relief waiting to lighten the load of things like vampire kids devouring their parents or limbs dissolving off of bodies. So when we see him exercise his immense powers, literally moving a mountain at one point, it helps to remember that along the way, Alec had to squeak out instructions to Abby for helping him grow in a tiny Jiminy Cricket-voice.
To be honest, we’ve barely scratched the surface of everything that makes Saga of the Swamp Thing, Book 3 a worthy addition to your Halloween fright-fests. The story and artwork have held up remarkably over the last 30 years, like the seminal slasher and zombie films you’ve probably already watched this month. And the creators of this collection knew what they were doing; in one of the final panels, Bissette’s own collection of grindhouse posters adorns the walls of a movie theater, letting readers know this comic book is in good company.
Are there other horror comics you reach for when October rolls around? Let us know in the comments!
Lauren Lavin is a freelance writer who can be reached for horror film and comic rants on Twitter @YasBruja.