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!"
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
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.
Thing - The Series