Retro Review: House of Secrets #92 (1971) – “Swamp Thing”
Retro Review takes a look at influential issues of DC comic books and measures their artistic integrity against their cultural and symbolic importance to the DC Universe and comic books in general.
House of Secrets #92 (1971) – “Swamp Thing”
Written by Len Wein
Art by Berni Wrightson
Published: July 1971 (DC Comics)
In 1972, Swamp Thing debuted for DC Comics and introduced readers to the exploits of Alec Holland, a scientist transformed by a freak accident into the horrific mass of plant life known as Swamp Thing. Over its many runs, this title has received critical acclaim time and again, as well as numerous awards for writing, artwork, and publishing. But many modern readers may forget that a year before Alec Holland, before the Green, and before he had any heroic calling, a different man possessed the mantle of the Swamp Thing.
Alex Olsen is the name of the man who appears in 1971’s House of Secrets #92, in the one-shot short story entitled “Swamp Thing”. Written and illustrated by creators Len Wein and Berni Wrightson, respectively, “Swamp Thing” takes place in the early 20th-century and follows the stories of three connected individuals: Damian Ridge, a scientist with romantic ambitions; Linda Ridge, his wife and widow of Alex Olsen; and the Swamp Thing, formerly Alex Olsen and now a shambling mass of vegetation. The story is narrated by the inner monologues of these three characters as each recalls memories of the same tragic event: Alex Olsen, not long after his first wedding anniversary with Linda, is caught in an “accidental” explosion caused by Damian, who claims to love Linda and wants Alex out of the picture. As each character ruminates on the nature of memory, a new threat develops – Damian turns his murderous eye to Linda, whom he believes now suspects his role in Alex’s death.
This plot sounds like standard fare for a comic book superhero: tragedy, betrayal, revenge. And yet the genius of Wein’s writing is that the story more closely resembles something akin to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This is due, in part, to the tone of the writing, which captures perfectly the heightened poetry of 19th-century literature, but also due to the narrative style. By having the three characters of the story serve as its only narrators, Wein reduces the scale of the conflict away from the heroic and down to the relationship between three individuals. There are no stakes for the world of science, politics, or the fate of humanity – the entirety of the story’s threat and danger and loss and joy exists between Alex, Damian, and Linda.
Much like Frankenstein, this story is primarily a portrait of loneliness. We open on the desolate swamp from which the title character derives his name. He guides us through his ritual of shambling through the swamp at night, gazing upon his former home, and shuffling away. In fact, Alex Olsen remains outside the house for nearly the entire story, isolated from the proceedings within. But even for Linda and Damian, this sense of loneliness is still very present – Linda’s mind can’t stray from memories of her lost love, and Damian notices, though he interprets her distance as suspicion. Whether or not he’s correct, his own loneliness while in the presence of his wife – his supposed love – is the driving force behind his present day actions.
Wrightson’s art in this comic is beautiful. From beginning to end, he visually captures the heightened poetic style of Wein’s writing through his heavy use of shadow. I hesitate to go so far as to call it chiaroscuro, but there is the sense that Wrightson is channeling the artistic sensibilities of the late 18th- and early 19th-centuries. After all, this was the time in which Mary Shelley lived and wrote Frankenstein, whose themes of fear, loneliness, and misunderstanding – as well as the significant role that science plays in exposing and stoking those crushing emotions – are already masterfully alluded to in the writing.
But beyond the strong stylistic choices made by both Wein and Wrightson, the comic’s main strength is its depiction of the man inside of the monster. From the get go, we have seen that the Swamp Thing still retains the full consciousness – and poetry – of the late Alex Olsen, but it is the final page of the comic where we truly see the man he used to be. Consumed by rage, he breaks through the window where he has been watching Linda and saves her from Damian’s attempt on her life. After killing Damian (“Slowly–certainly–I force the life from Damian’s black-hearted body…”), Olsen turns to his beloved Linda, whom he has longed to see and touch, but he is no longer capable of speech, and all she can see is the Swamp Thing. In the final panels of the comic, both Wein and Wrightson beautifully depict the pain and sadness in the Swamp Thing as he realizes that though his and his love’s lives are safe, their life together is beyond salvation.
This story was a true one-shot, and Alex Olsen only ever appeared in the Alec Holland Swamp Thing title as the writers attempted to retcon the character’s history, including him in a long line of Swamp Things, all of which served as avatars of the Green. But even if Alex Olsen and his particular tale of woe are contained to the few pages they occupied in House of Secrets #92, what lives on through subsequent incarnations of Swamp Thing is the deep sorrow and loss that is woven into the fabric of the character. It is the depth of emotion and motivation in the relationship between lovers, as well as the high stakes of love that have allowed Swamp Thing to transcend traditional superhero archetypes. Wein and Wrightson’s neo-gothic short story draws its strength not from phenomenal feats of heroism or incredible abilities but from demonstrating that those things are secondary to the ability to connect, to empathize, and to love. Indeed, “Swamp Thing” teaches us about humanity.
House of Secrets #92 is available for digital download on the DC Comics website.
– Either Damian is both confused and Irish, or I found a typo. I wonder if this was ever caught in a reprint of the issue…
– When the characters are considering what constitutes a memory on page 3, Wrightson’s panels lose their borders, and flow more seamlessly together. It occurs again on page 5 as Damian recollects his murder of Alex. This is a beautiful little touch that really adds to the ephemerality and flow of memory.
– The final panels of this comic may be the most heartbreaking I’ve ever seen. There’s an incredible depth in Swamp Thing’s eyes as he shuffles away from Linda for the last time.
– The idea of memory comes back beautifully at the end. Without his golden bracelet, Linda was Swamp Thing’s only tether to his past life. Without Linda, all that remains are his memories.