Friday, June 15, 2012

Nostalgia Theater: Swamp Thing: The Series -- DC's Leafy Hero Hits the Small Screen

Swamp Thing has been a DC Comics mainstay since his debut in the early '70s. Created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, the character was originally envisioned as scientist Alec Holland, who merges with the vegetation of the surrounding swamp following an accident in his Everglades lab. Though the comic books took some bizarre "mature readers" turns in later years under the pen of fan favorite writer Alan Moore, Swamp Thing still achieved a crossover success in the mainstream that can't be claimed by very many DC heroes outside of Superman and Batman.

It started with 1982's Swamp Thing feature film, starring Ray Wise as Holland, and the late Dick Durock as his mossy alter ego. This low-budget schlocker is most notable today for being directed by Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream helmer Wes Craven. I can't really say much good about it, but nonetheless the movie has its fans (though I have to assume many of them are just fans of co-star Adrienne Barbeau). The much-reviled, mostly-ignored sequel, The Return of Swamp Thing, which brought back Durock launched in May of '89 -- one month before another DC movie reset the paradigm for superhero flicks.

That brings us to Swamp Thing: The Series, which aired on the USA cable channel beginning in July of 1990 as one of the net's first tries at giving its viewers original programming. Bringing back the hulking Durock (who, appropriately enough, also played the evil Hulk in "The First," a popular episode of TV's The Incredible Hulk), the skein strove to eschew the kitsch and lowbrow jokiness of the last feature film, while still going a little more mainstream than where the Moore comic run ended up situating the character. Whether it succeeded or not is open to discussion:

Gotta admit, I still dig that intro. It perfectly sets the mood and the mission.

The thinking here was to position Swamp Thing as sort of a protector of the environment who would stand up for nature (here's a PSA from the era that punctuates that point). However, the serious intentions of the producers were undercut by the skimpy (even by cable standards) production values, which manifested in cheesy villains (Mark Lindsay Chapman played main baddie Arcane), and a fake, rubbery title character. Nonetheless, for awhile there, Swamp Thing was the number one show on the station (which may speak more to the qualitative lack of their other offerings than anything else). Swamp Thing: The Series even spawned a cartoon version on the then-new Fox Saturday morning lineup:

*sigh* Yes, that's "Swamp Thing" sung to the tune of the Troggs' "Wild Thing."

Lest you have any doubts even after that intro, yes, the series was every bit as awful as it looks. Teaming the muck monster with buddies like "Tomahawk" and "Bayou Jack" as they battle the evil "Un-Men," it never made it past a five-episode "trial run" in fall 1990. That in turn led to a short-lived action figure line from Kenner, then the go-to toymaker for all things DC. This was actually where I became aware of the sudden, brief burst of Swamp Thing saturation in the mainstream, discovering the toys at the now-defunct Service Merchandise chain while visiting Chicago in summer of '91. 

Without a cartoon to sustain it, the Swamp Thing toys eventually went away, and the live action show ended its run shortly thereafter in May of 1993, running a not-bad 72 episodes over the course of three seasons. Today, twenty-plus years after Swamp Thing's turn in the media spotlight, he still remains one of the few DC characters to actually generate some degree of multimedia heat, however short-lived. Green Lantern couldn't do that. Jonah Hex couldn't do that. Heck, right now the jury's still out on whether Superman can even do that anymore! 

Both of the Swamp Thing TV shows have been available on DVD for awhile now, though the animated one is now out-of-print and probably not worth the prices sellers are asking for it on Amazon. The live action series, however, is a little easier to acquire, having been released in its entirety by Shout! Factory a few years ago. Be forewarned, however, that it doesn't hold up especially well -- and considering that it wasn't all that terrific to begin with, that means it can be a pretty tough, muck-encrusted slog!

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