Underappreciated comics: Nancy A. Collins’ Swamp Thing

Some writers are better than others. Craig reckons Nancy A. Collins's run on Swamp Thing needed its praises sung...

When DC unceremoniously removed Rick Veitch from his writer/artist duties on Swamp Thing (for being too subversive – pah!), they were at a loose end for what to do with the title. I wouldn’t like to speculate where they found his successor Doug Wheeler, but words like “canteen worker”, “latrine cleaner” and “office janitor” spring to mind. Possibly the most unappreciated labour of all time, Wheeler was maligned constantly in the letters page and book sales dropped faster than dead aphids from one of Swampy’s vines.

No, this article isn’t going to be a belated love letter to an underrated genius. I haven’t been lobotomized. Wheeler sucked ass. It was when DC finally got their act together and roped in splatterpunk vamp Nancy A. Collins, that Swamp Thing got his groove back. In fact, I think Collins’s time on the title (issues #110 to #138) is probably my favourite run on any comic ever.

Alan Moore and Rick Veitch set the scene. They provided a dark, intelligent and original mythos; a canvas on which Collins painted genuine, human characters. Her run on the title was compassionate, funny, moving and – as is only right for a horror title – quite frightening at times. Whereas her predecessors had concentrated on his origins and the various supernatural energies surrounding Swamp Thing, Collins zoomed in on his personality and his heart. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Usually, when superhero comics concentrate on the character and their family – their ‘normal’ life – rather than villain-pounding adventures across the cosmos, it’s a death knell for my interest too. Cue the emo whining and the trite, self-indulgent angst. But not here. Weirdly the ‘at home with the Swamp Things’ (Alec, Abby and baby Téfé) motif that Collins based her run around is nothing short of captivating.

Of course, it helps that Swamp Thing’s home life is populated by elemental Gods, ghost pirates, spectral zydeco players, buried treasure, masquerade balls, snake-toting homicidal evangelists and even a brief try-out for governor of New Orleans! Collins makes the book’s geographical setting a significant part of the story. In doing this, she also vividly captures the city and how it was in the early 90s. She exploits local legend and folklore to create formidable bad guys; she has many of the characters speak in patois and doesn’t exclude the gay/lesbian population (something barely heard of in comics at the time); she takes swipes at Southern politics and media; she sets stories around local pursuits like crawdadding; she writes from the heart with a deep love for all things Orleansian and, for once, Swamp Thing’s locale feels like a real, authentic one that’s as important to him as any normal person’s home should be.

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As the run progressed, it became evermore enchanting, tense, witty and imaginative (not to mention the fact that it produced the first ever comic to be released under DC’s mature Vertigo imprint). Criminally, it has still never been collected in trade paperback format, but I can’t tell you how much it’s worth tracking down in the back issueboxes.

The scant few other comic titles Nancy Collin worked on tended to be novelty tie-in crap like Predator, Jason, Leatherface, etc and, to be honest, even her vampire novels (damn fine in themselves) aren’t in the same league as the magic she created with Swamp Thing. Like I say, it’s some of the finest comic work I’ve seen and the fictional world created within it is by far the most believable and absorbing I can think of. A perfect combination of reality and fantasy; humour, horror, human drama and social commentary.

Petition to bring her back to the franchise, anyone?

Nancy A. Collins’s blog can be found at www.livejournal.com/heart8/