If you watch Swamp Thing on DC Universe and read the original Alan Moore comics, you knew all along where all of this was heading. The show was heading towards an adaptation of Moore’s original 1984 story “The Anatomy Lesson” in Saga of the Swamp Thing #21. “The Anatomy Lesson” is one of the most influential stories in mainstream comics. This was before Watchmen or Frank Miller‘s The Dark Knight Returns. It deepened a theme that was lurking around in many ongoing comics for years: that everything the hero thought about himself was wrong.
Moore wanted to solve a dilemma in the premise of Swamp Thing: the false promise that Alec Holland would one day find a way to become human again. That drive was a cheat – if Holland ever found a way to be “cured”, there would be no more series. The point of a comic series meant to run indefinitely can’t have a promised ending. There was no way that “happy ending” could or should ever happen. So what was the solution?
Moore killed Swamp Thing… or rather, he killed Alec Holland.
Death, Rebirth, and Reboot (Spoilers)
Moore ended his first issue of issue #20 with a shocking cliffhanger: Sunderland Corporation mercenaries fatally shot the Swamp Thing in a hail of bullets. In the next issue, Sunderland had the corpse brought back to the lab and hired Jason Woodrue to dissect it. Sunderland wanted to find out how Alec Holland’s chemical formula could have transformed him into a swamp monster when it didn’t work on anyone else.
Woodrue, a minor supervillain with powers linked to plants, duly dissected the body and found it didn’t make sense from an anatomical level. None of the plant-like replicas of human internal organs could possibly function the way human organs did. Woodrue deduced that the Swamp Thing was not a man who turned into a plant monster, but a plant that copied the consciousness of the dying Alec Holland. It only thought it was Alec Holland as it grew a crude replica of a human body from plant matter. It had been under the delusion that it was Alec Holland, yearning to regain a humanity it never had.
This meant the Swamp Thing wasn’t dead. You can’t kill a plant by shooting holes in it. It was merely hibernating while it recovered from the cellular damage incurred from the bullets. When the Swamp Thing woke up and discovered the truth of its existence, it had to come to terms with this new status quo. It was a plant that adopted a human-like consciousness to act as an avatar of the swamp and the Green, Earth’s collective consciousness.
Swamp Thing #20 blew the minds of everyone who read it back in 1984. It marked the first time an American comic rebooted the entire underlying motivation and mythology of a character. Moore had done that a few months earlier to Marvelman. He treated comic book stories as more than just low-brow pulp fiction. He introduced layers of literary ambition, authentic scientific research, a philosophical sense of the greater world and cosmos beyond just comics, mixed with genuine pathos and emotion. None of those ideas would have mattered if they didn’t carry an emotional stake for the hero.
Thanks to “The Anatomy Lesson”, many series from Marvel and DC have recycled the “hero discovers his powers are part of something bigger and cosmic all along” theme ever since. Along with his original Marvelman stories published in Warrior magazine, this has been the most influential comic of the last 35 years. Then Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns changed how superheroes were written ever since.
“The Anatomy Lesson”: The TV version
The 9th episode of DC Universe’s Swamp Thing adapts the comic story but takes a different approach. It’s another episode that feels nowhere near as intense, important or special as the original comic book did.
The original comic devoted an entire issue to the autopsy of Swamp Thing’s body and Woodrue’s gradual discovery of the truth before it descends into Horror. The TV episode is overstuffed with characters and situations. The Swamp Thing has been captured and taken to a lab where a still-human Jason Woodrue dissects his body to find out what makes him tick. Meanwhile, Abby Arcane (who’s ostensibly the show’s main character and not Swamp Thing) tries to rescue him. Avery Sunderland exacts revenge on his wife Maria by having her committed to a mental institution. The Phantom Stranger sends Daniel Cassidy to prevent Abby and Liz Tremayne from getting murdered by mercenaries at the lab – which help complete Cassidy’s Blue Devil origin story in the process.
With all that happening, by the time Woodrue reveals the truth about Swamp Thing, it feels like an afterthought. It’s a major revelation in the story but lacks the horror and impact felt in the comic. Swamp Thing being reduced to a supporting character in his own show is part of the problem.
The Problem with Television
Don’t get me wrong – the show is fun. It has plenty of things happening to stop it from being dull. Unfortunately, it feels like the result of network development notes. It insists on a large ensemble show like every other television show. The producers seem to lack the confidence of letting its title character carry his own show.
Moore took the time to show all the emotional impact of the revelation on Swamp Thing. In the comic, he commits murder in a bout of rage and despair. In the series, he just… gets slightly more depressed than he already was and mopes, which is what he’d already been doing throughout the entire series!
Maybe it’s a central problem with much of American television writing. There’s an over-emphasis on plot where emotions are just pitstops before the next plot point and action setpiece. The episode had too much going on. It never really stopped to let the horror and despair of Alec Holland never coming back sink in. It had none of the emotional punch of the original comic.
The original comic story “The Anatomy Lesson” is a masterclass in suspense and horror.
The TV episode “The Anatomy Lesson” is just another episode of network television.
There’s only one episode left and that’s it for this show. It started out quite good but got messier and more overcrowded as it went on. That makes it harder to improve down the line. Maybe it’s just as well it was cancelled.
Swamp Thing is currently streaming on the DC Universe app.