Swamp Thing might not be the first character who comes to mind when you think of mainstream superheroes, but the DC Universe—and comics as a medium—wouldn’t be the same without him. Debuting 50 years ago as a scientist-turned-bog beast and reborn 13 years later as a glorious swamp god, the character quietly paved the way for a seismic shift in mainstream American comics. In the process, he helped to dismantle a notorious comic book censorship regime and kicked off the so-called “British invasion” that brought writers such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison into the U.S. comics fold.
From his first gig as the doomed hero of a gothic romance to the time he was reincarnated as Bart Simpson, here are 10 things you might not know about the Swamp Thing.
1. Swamp Thing creator Len Wein conceived of the character during his subway ride to pitch ideas to DC Comics.
Comic writer Len Wein, who would go on to co-create X-Men fan favorites Wolverine, Storm, and Nightcrawler during a later stint at Marvel, worked as a freelancer for DC Comics in the late 1960s and early ’70s. According to an interview for 2014’s Swampmen: Muck-Monsters and Their Makers, he was en route to DC’s New York office, desperate for ideas to pitch, when the idea for the Swamp Thing struck him. (The character’s name came from Wein’s habit of referring to him as “that swamp thing” he was working on.) Wein, who died in 2017, was never able to pinpoint a specific inspiration for the character, saying only that it came to him “out of the blue.”
2. DC’s Swamp Thing and Marvel’s equally boggy Man-Thing coincidentally appeared within months of each other.
Comic book swamp monsters date back at least as far as the World War II era, with a character called “The Heap” making his debut in 1942. A steady stream of bog creatures popped up throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, but for whatever reason, the subgenre really caught on in the early ‘70s with stories like Gold Key’s “The Lurker in the Swamp” (Mystery Comics Digest #7, September 1972) and Skywald’s attempted resurrection of the Heap.
Swamp Thing outshone them all, but he did have some notable competition in the form of Marvel’s Man-Thing, whose publication history stretches back to Savage Tales #1 in May 1971—two months before the cover date of Swamp Thing’s first appearance in DC’s The House of Secrets #92 from July. Coincidentally, Wein was sharing an apartment with Man-Thing co-creator Gerry Conway when the two were writing their respective muck-man stories. Both maintained that neither was aware of what the other was doing.
In a curious twist of fate, Wein, who was freelancing for both DC and Marvel at the time, scripted the second Man-Thing story, which appeared in June 1972.
3. Swamp Thing’s debut outsold the Superman and Batman comics on shelves at the time.
In the summer of 1971, DC’s lineup included war comics, Westerns, romances, horror and sci-fi anthologies, and, of course, superhero books starring the likes of Batman, Superman, and Green Lantern. In 2016, Wein told Rue Morgue magazine that the first appearance of the Swamp Thing outsold Batman, Superman, and all their costumed cohorts; in fact, The House of Secrets #92 was DC’s best-selling issue that month.
DC was eager to give the character his own series, but Wein and his collaborator, the now-legendary horror artist Bernie Wrightson, had reservations. Their original Swamp Thing story—essentially a tragic gothic romance with a monstrous twist—was meant to be a standalone tale. Wein and Wrightson were intensely proud of their story and didn’t want to damage its legacy. Wein finally realized they could start an entirely new story rather than continue the first one, and the pair agreed to write and draw an ongoing series. Swamp Thing #1 hit stands in late 1972.
4. Stan Lee allegedly tried to sink Swamp Thing’s solo book.
Even though Man-Thing beat his DC counterpart to the newsstand by a couple of months, differences in each company’s production schedules meant Swamp Thing was probably in the works before Man-Thing. But that didn’t stop Marvel’s Stan Lee from allegedly trying to get Swamp Thing canned when he heard the character was set to get his own ongoing series.
According to Swampmen, Lee insisted Marvel got to the swamp first and threatened to sue if DC didn’t scrap its new book. DC editorial director-turned-publisher Carmine Infantino, who had worked on the Heap as an artist in the ‘40s, remembered telling Lee that both companies were drawing on the Heap and even implied that Marvel’s Incredible Hulk, whom Lee co-created with Jack Kirby, also had some distinctly Heap-ish qualities. Lee eventually dropped his objections.
5. Swamp Thing’s 1982 movie adaptation was such a bomb that director Wes Craven didn’t work for two years.
By the time the first Swamp Thing comic was canceled in 1976, sales had plummeted and multiple attempts to beef up readership had failed. The character’s fortunes began to change in 1982, when Wes Craven, then best known for violent exploitation films like 1972’s The Last House on the Left and 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, signed up to bring the character to the big screen.
Upon its release in February 1982, the movie underperformed so badly that, according to his audio commentary on Shout! Factory’s 2013 Blu-ray release, Craven didn’t work for two years; he had to live off his savings and ultimately lost his house. Still, the movie set the stage for the next major chapter of the character’s story: DC launched a new comic titled The Saga of the Swamp Thing, which includes writer Alan Moore’s legendary run, mainly in hopes of capitalizing on the film’s release. As for Craven, he had considerably more luck with his next film, 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, which he first conceived while working on Swamp Thing.
6. Swamp Thing also appeared in a bizarre PSA for Greenpeace.
Though Craven’s movie flopped at the box office, it was profitable enough on home video to get a sequel—1989’s decidedly campier The Return of the Swamp Thing, which saw actor Dick Durock reprise his title role. Durock donned the muck suit once again the following year for USA’s 72-episode run of the first Swamp Thing television series—which, according to a 2008 interview with Durock, had an enthusiastic following in the Netherlands. Fox’s short-lived Swamp Thing animated show also hit the airwaves in 1990, mainly to promote Kenner’s tie-in toy line. DC floated another live-action series in 2019 for its streaming service, but that effort ran for only 10 episodes.
Somewhere in all this, Swamp Thing even found time to give back to his community (and make a pun!) in the form of a 1989 Greenpeace PSA about the dangers of littering.
7. A Swamp Thing series is credited with defanging the Comics Code Authority.
Swamp Thing comics had repeated run-ins with the Comics Code Authority (CCA), the body responsible for enforcing the rigid censorship mandate the comics industry offered up in 1954 in response to the moral panic over midcentury horror and crime comics. At one point, there was even a kerfuffle over the fact that Swamp Thing—a giant plant with no discernible genitalia—had been walking around for six issues without any pants on. In every instance, a compromise was reached and Swamp Thing made it to newsstands with the CCA seal of approval.
That changed in 1984 with an issue of The Saga of the Swamp Thing titled “Love and Death,” scripted by Alan Moore and drawn by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben. According to a 2008 interview with Bissette, the CCA initially rejected the comic because of a disturbing spread depicting the Swamp Thing’s love interest, Abby, being set upon by zombies. When CCA screeners gave the issue a more careful read, they picked up on even more troublesome content, including rape and incest.
This time, though, there would be no compromise as DC backed its creators and distributed the comic without Code approval. This was a measure that had been taken only once before by a mainstream comic book publisher, when Marvel temporarily sidestepped the Code in 1971 with a government-sanctioned anti-drug story in The Amazing Spider-Man. By The Saga of the Swamp Thing #31, DC stopped submitting the book for CCA approval altogether, instead branding the title as “Sophisticated Suspense” and aiming it squarely at older readers. It was the first DC comic to permanently drop CCA approval, and over the next few years, every publisher would follow.
8. John Constantine made his debut in a Swamp Thing comic.
DC’s wisecracking occult investigator made his official debut in 1985 with The Saga of the Swamp Thing #37 (though some fans claim he can be seen lurking in the background of an earlier issue). According to Moore, the character mostly owes his existence to the fact that Bissette and Totleben wanted to draw a character who looked like Sting.
9. DC deemed that one Swamp Thing comic was too controversial to publish.
In an ironic twist, it was DC itself who pulled the plug on the series’s most controversial story, years after the publisher famously defied the Comics Code Authority.
Swamp Thing #88, as scripted by Rick Veitch and titled “Morning of the Magician,” had the character traveling back in time and interacting with Christ just before the Crucifixion. The cover would have shown Swamp Thing molded into the shape of the cross, complete with bloodstains where Christ’s hands, feet, and side wound would have been. The issue made it well into the production process, only for Veitch to get the news from editor Karen Berger that DC would not be publishing the story, due to what the company deemed as offensive subject matter.
The incident was covered widely by mainstream media outlets such as TIME and MTV, even earning a few inches of column space on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in June 1989. Veitch was so incensed that he resigned from the series. He has reportedly tried on multiple occasions to get the story published, to no avail. Thanks to leaked pages, fans can read a version of the story online.
10. In 2003, computer hackers turned Swamp Thing into Bart Simpson.
Swamp Thing’s first foray into gaming was a less-than-enthusiastically received NES platform game released in December 1992. The title’s clunky side-scrolling gameplay failed to impress fans, but it found new life in 2003, when hackers modified the graphics to turn Swamp Thing into Bart Simpson and the game’s villains into various Simpsons characters to produce The Simpsons: The Return of the Space Mutants, an unofficial sequel to 1991’s The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space Mutants. The hack wasn’t much of a stretch, since both official Nintendo games used the same core software.