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The Anatomy Lesson and Alan Moore's Vision That Forever Changed the Saga of the Swamp Thing

Updated on September 12, 2018

A plant with the memories of a man might seem like an absurd plot convention and, in many ways, it is. In his landmark run on Swamp Thing, Alan Moore set the stage for a radical departure from the original conventions the heroic swamp monster and helped launch a bold new direction. The new direction was achieved when the former mysterious creature was eventually revealed to be an elemental champion with demigod like powers. The new journey of the title character all begin with the innovative story arc beginning with an issue titled ''Anatomy Lesson''.

Who Is The Swamp Thing?

Long time fans of Swamp Thing comics are familiar with the character's early and later origins. Those who are only peripherally aware of the character thanks to catching to airings of the movie on cable TV in passing may find the following short primer a little enlightening.

Swamp Thing is a character with a tumultuous history. The debut of similar character in the horror anthology House of Secrets #92 took place in July of 1971. The issue was among the best selling comic books in history at the time. The incredibly garish cover caught people's attention and helped boost sales immensely. Set in the 19th century, the simple tale featured a murdered man returning to life in the form of a Swamp Creature to predictably seek revenge. Strong sales certainly meant the character would return.

An update was on the horizon.

The real Swamp Thing garnered his own series, but it (sadly) only lasted 24 issues. Only the first 13 of these issues featured the work of original creators Len Wein/Berni Wrightson. The vision of Wein and Wrightson was firmly rooted in the horror mold along the lines of what was established in House of Secrets.

In the first series, we learn of a scientist named Alec Holland who is trying to create a biorestorative formula designed to help cease world hunger by generating vegetation in arid lands. The lab he works in is sabotaged and bombed. Holland, caught in the bombing, bathed in the biorestorative formula and set in flames, jumps into the bayou swamp waters surrounding the Louisiana lab.

The proverbial startling metamorphosis occurs. The biorestorative formula saves his life, but turns him into a swamp creature. Holland spends the next several years trying to find a cure and restore himself to human form.

Then, the series experienced a completely new spin when Alan Moore took over the reins as writer.

An Anatomy Lesson for a Swamp Creature

Although the first series' run only lasted 24 issues, the character was brought back into a new series.

The second series ran over a decade and gained quite a bit of notoriety when Alan Moore began writing the series with The Saga of the Swamp Thing #21 in February of 1984. The debut story was entitled ''Anatomy Lesson'' and it presented one of the more stunningly original change in a character's origin ever. It was rare the major characters in DC or Marvel that would be open to experimentation (that would come later) due fears that altering an established character could turn off loyal audiences. Newer versions of the series certainly do vary in quality with the newest run being fairly good. Not surprisingly, the narratives follow many of the characterizations common in Alan Moore's material.

Swamp Thing was far from a number one seller so it seems there was little concern about making changes to the character. Often, books that had a decent, small following and a limited market share saw various different approaches taken to try and increase interest. Frequently, such steps were desperate in nature and failed. In this case, the new direction worked.

In the issues leading up to ''Anatomy Lesson'', it is assumed Swamp Thing was killed by a bullet to the head. When Woodrue, the Floronic Man, performs an autopsy on the corpse on behalf of the Sunderland Corporation, Woodrue comes to the conclusion the Swamp Thing is purely a plant. The human anatomy and internal organs are merely replicas. Woodrue accurately realizes that the Swamp Thing is not Alec Holland and never was Alec Holland. Sadly, when The Swamp Thing revives (''You cannot kill a vegetable through shooting it in the head.''), it learns the sad truth.

Therein comes forth the central question of ''Anatomy Lesson:''

How would you feel if you were not who you thought you were?

To say the effect on the Swamp Thing was devastating would be a dramatic understatement.

Of Swamp Creatures and Philosophical Musings

The earlier incarnations of the Swamp Thing actually reflected centered on an utter misnomer. There was no real Swamp Thing alter ego. Alec Holland is The Swamp Thing as Holland simply exists in a new physical form, the result of the lab explosion and exposure to the experimental formula.

A shock to the system goes through Swamp Thing and the creature commits its first deliberate murder in an act of revenge shortly after making the discovery of its true identity. The violent touch by Moore truly does get across the notions things now have become tremendously different.

Once the shock wears off, the former Alec Holland, now solely the creature called Swamp Thing, eventually returns to his home state of Louisiana and enters into a comatose state and enters the green, the microscopic world of plants where the consciousness of the creatures stays while the body becomes a useless shell lying on the ground. (This occurs in issue #22, the second part of the story arc started with ''Anatomy Lesson''.)

The Swamp Thing is unable to answer ''If I am not who I am, then who am I?''

The notion of living a life that has turned out to be a lie is not exactly something anyone would ever wish to experience. Most do not. Others, however, do have to contend with the fateful realization that all they have known has been a lie. The great Karl Popper once famously noted the right approach to life is to accept the possibility everything we believe may be wrong. Few can accept such a belief for the obvious reasons.

Yet, there can come times in a person's life where circumstances do lead to an earth shattering moments when all previous belief systems are thrown asunder. While some might be in denial of such a situation, those who are honest with themselves can accept the notion their life has been a lie. The resultant pain and shock can be devastating. If you are not who you are then who are you?

Such is the question the former Alec Holland refuses to answer in the aftermath of ''Anatomy Lesson''. Alec Holland did not take on a new form others have dubbed The Swamp Thing. Alec Holland died in the lab explosion. The creature that arose out of the swamp was a born of the biorestorative formula as Alec Holland died. The formula Holland was bathed in never had an effect on him. Rather, the formula rubbed off of him and was absorbed by the plant life in the swamp. Energized by the formula, the plants started to feed on Holland and, in doing so, absorbed his collective consciousness. The plants unintentionally appropriated a dying man's memories and then sought to replicate the physical form of him.

The end result was, in essence, a plant with the memories of man. The plant never realized this and thought it was always a man.

The Swamp Thing can never go back to being Alec Holland because he never was Alec Holland to begin with. In Anatomy Lesson, the first day of the rest of the life of the Swamp Thing begins and the experience is far from a pleasant one.

Moore points out the one thing that kept The Swamp Thing sane was its connection to humanity. The creature believed it was human. All throughout western literature beginning with Beowulf, the scope of most works of fiction is the discovery and search for the individual. Until ''Anatomy Lesson,'' this same focus was found in Swamp Thing. Instead, the search for the individual and the individual's identity are both lost. The Swamp Thing is not an individual and has no real identity.

Or does it?

A more positive theme, and the one the book would eventually follow, is one that centers on rebirth, renewal, and rediscovery. While not Alec Holland, The Swamp Thing still lives and exists and can do good. In some ways, the creature's plight can be seen as a journey of a newly renewed self. The past must die so the future may live. The rebirth of the Swamp Thing may reflect a new, liberated future. Since the creature cannot become Alec Holland once again, then The Swamp Thing is free of the burden of trying to become Alec Holland. He simply can accept and be who he is.

Steve Bissette's Contribution

Steve Bissette does deserve an enormous amount of credit here. Swamp Thing was considered a horror title in the DC line, but it still maintained quite a number of the familiar trapping of a hero style comic. Swamp Thing, like Marvel's Werewolf by Night, was clearly a good guy.

Yet, there is still an element of horror to the comic. The very eerie artwork of Steve Bissette contributes to this. In many ways, it is evocative of Graham Ingles' work in EC Comics. The sequences where Swamp Thing goes berserk on Sunderland maintains a very EC style. Bissette creates a horrifyingly creepy look to the proceedings that complements Moore's somewhat melodramatic narrative.

After Moore

Other writers would have their turn with the series and it had its ups and downs with each writer delivering their own unique spin. The second series ended up being canceled and a third, fourth, and now a fifth series have kept the character alive in the DC Universe. There are the occasional homages to the Len Wein/Berni Wrightson original run, but the series has firmly been rooted in the mythos created by Alan Moore.

For those interested in learning more about Swamp Thing, Alan Moore, and Swamp Monsters in general, please check out the excellent "Swamp Monster in Comics" book issued by TwoMorrows Publishing.

Fans of the old Swamp Thing TV series may be thrilled to learn a new one is forthcoming. The new version plans on being more horror-oriented and adult-themed....just like the Alan Moore comics.


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