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Swamp Thing:
The Series

For a guy that swears no evil will invade his swamp, Swamp Thing lets a lot of evil invade. Of course, if it didn't, he would have no reason for various comic books, two movies, a cartoon and a television series. The mainstream may claim not to know about him, but Swampy has been strangely popular.

With all the work Warner Brothers has been doing to reclaim their properties and release them on DVD, it's surprising that the television series isn't from them. Instead, it comes from Shout! Factory, a label making quite a niche for more cultish product, and they've done a decent job with the package.

Only the first 22 episodes out of a rumored 72 (IMDB lists it as 71) are on this set. Interestingly, the package touts that they're finally placed in the order they were meant to be seen, which only partially explains why my memories of this show are so disjointed. No matter how you view them, the first few episodes jerk wildly around in tone and content as the series producers try to figure out what exactly they want to do.

Limited by being a half-hour and by trying to sell one of DC's most gruesome horror heroes to children, the series starts out focused around Jim (Jesse Ziegler), a young boy with a penchant for tall tales. Swamp Thing (Dick Durock) doesn't exactly reach out and play surrogate dad, but he does seem to lurk in all the right places to protect Jim from Dr. Anton Arcane (Mark Lindsey Chapman), the real star of the series no matter what turns it takes.

These early episodes try to leave subtle clues as to the larger Swamp Thing story, but also don't seem to want to tie things into a tight continuity. After the pilot, it looks like Jim will be living with his grandmother, but the second episode begins with her funeral and Jim's mom (Carrell Myers) returning from Philadelphia to live in Houma, the least Louisiana-like town in all of Louisiana. You know it's the bayou, though, because characters can alternately drive or boat back into town.

However, juxtaposing playful boy and his swamp monster stories against Arcane's Un-Men just doesn't work, and the show gives in to its darker source material. It becomes clear that Arcane has a purpose for his mutations, creating strange work forces for dictatorships world-wide. Why a muskrat/human hybrid would be superior is beyond me; maybe it's as simple as muskrat love.

So on the first disc, it's easy to skip episodes, maybe fast-forwarding to see if you missed anything of crucial importance. There's a nice touch of a graveyard scene with Jim mourning his grandmother and Swamp Thing's hand on Alec Holland's grave - the first reference to his origins. But Ziegler is admittedly a bad child actor saddled with often lame expository dialogue.

However, as Arcane, Chapman makes even the worst dialogue sound fun. Definitely a villain trapped in his time - poofy hair, padded shoulders and anatomy that may explain Rob Liefeld's art style - Arcane never drifts too far from center stage. On the second disc, his motivations seem to have been sorted out and producers clarify that he knows too well who the Swamp Thing is.

That crystallizes in the origin episode, "The Living Image," which is surprisingly well done. It's driven by an Arcane scheme that comics hadn't done - he takes an unknown woman and remakes her into the spitting image of Linda Holland. In flashback, everything gets put into place and the series can finally move forward with a solid mythos.

It's definitely a sense of house-cleaning, and you can see the seeds of the WB formula coming into place. Dispatching the pre-teen Jim in creepy fashion, the last episode of the first season introduces his older half-brother Will (Scott Garrison), a better actor with cuter dimples than the bayou boy Obo Hartison (Anthony Galde) that would occasionally pal around shirtless with Jim.

That ending actually leads to a somewhat downer conclusion, which sets the stage for a sharper second season that says "Screw it! We're ripping off Alan Moore!"

Still laboring as a half-hour show, Swamp Thing starts sprinkling in aspects of Moore's run on the book, introducing General Sunderland, referencing Jason Woodrue and retooling Abigail (Kari Wuhrer). It's a lot more fun to watch and generally better-acted, including a guest-spot by Terry Funk -- so hey, reading Chris Garcia HAS taught me something. Don't tell him.

Of course, even Dick Durock admits he's no Meryl Streep. Stuck inside a pretty good-looking rubber suit, he makes the most of his eyes, sometimes a little too most. Consider this is 1990, a low-budget show, and even in 2007 artisans struggle to make a Bat-suit that will allow Christian Bale to turn his head. This series pulls it off pretty well. (And tangentially related - Michael Uslan produced both Swamp Thing and all the Batman films.)

Durock can be seen in a decent interview, a stuntman turned actor who stumbled into the role of a lifetime, playing Swamp Thing over a period of fourteen years. Affable and honest, Durock has a few insights, but mostly memories of a career that covers a lot of classic television of the 70s and 80s.

For comics fans, the big get here would be interviews with Swamp Thing co-creator Len Wein. In addition to the formal piece on the fourth disc, the first and second have easter eggs that reveal Wein talking about his days writing the Justice League and his current work on a new version of Swamp Thing for producer Joel Silver. Glean what writing advice you can from him, too, because he has a few really good tips.

Aside from what we get as fans from these little interviews buried on superhero DVDs, I notice another great side effect - DVD has forced a lot of comics guys to take care of themselves. Wein looks a heck of a lot better than he did years ago. Could it be the spotlight? Then thanks, DVD producers, for making sure the giants of the business try to stay around longer.

And thanks, Shout! Factory, for gathering this up. Hopefully, it will be worth a second set finishing off the series and maybe including the five animated episodes. I have all the action figures from that one, and need to explain them to my kids.

Swamp Thing - The Series

Derek McCaw

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