Hasslein Blog: Nancy Collins on Exploring Cajun Culture and Breaking Up Swamp Thing's Family


Hasslein Blog

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Nancy Collins on Exploring Cajun Culture and Breaking Up Swamp Thing's Family

by Rich Handley

Swamp Thing's epic second series set the standard for horror comics in the 1980s and '90s, with solid and critically acclaimed runs by Martin Pasko, Alan Moore and Tom Veitch, and helped to launch Vertigo Comics. Unfortunately, the series lost a lot of its steam during the much-maligned tenure of Doug Wheeler. Hoping to remedy the situation and bolster declining sales, DC Comics brought in novelist Nancy Collins (who has made headlines in recent weeks for her awareness-raising regarding the sex-abuse allegations against Dragon*Con cofounder Ed Kramer) to rejuvenate the series. Collins quickly set about deconstructing Swamp Thing's family life, revealing a darker side to the earth elementals and examining Louisiana's Cajun culture, and in doing so crafted a wonderfully written (and sadly oft-overlooked) chapter of Swamp Thing lore quite unlike those of her predecessors. Collins recently discussed her work with Hasslein Books.

Nancy Collins

HASSLEIN BOOKS: You joined Swamp Thing at a crucial time, as the letters section (back when comics still had such a thing) showed fan reaction to Doug Wheeler's exploration of elemental history becoming increasingly negative. Were you aware of this, and how daunting was it to come aboard a series that had once featured iconic creators (Wein, Wrightson, Michelinie, Moore, Bissette, Totelben and Veitch) but had since begun to lose its traction?

NANCY COLLINS: When I was approached by Stuart Moore (who was then an editor at DC) about "auditioning" for Swamp Thing (I was one of several horror authors sought out by DC), it was made clear to me that their primary goal was to try and recover the audience they lost during Wheeler's tenure. Back then, any monthly book with sales below thirty thousand was considered "on the chopping block." Now, of course, they'd be thrilled if they had a monthly book—Vertigo or DC Universe—that pulled down those numbers.

But back then, the series was once more teetering on the verge of cancellation—and the only thing that was keeping them from axing it altogether was that godawful animated series (and its associated toy line) that was on the air at the time. I was very much aware of Swamp Thing's pedigree, as I had started reading the book in its original incarnation back in the 1970s. Later, I returned to the book in the 1980s, when Alan Moore and Stephen Bissette, and later Rick Veitch, were doing their magic. Today, I am proud to call Steve Bissette one of my dearest friends, something I never imagined when I picked up that copy of "An Anatomy Lesson."

I wouldn't say I was daunted by the prospect of having to come in and bail out a sinking ship, so much as eager. I'd wanted to work in comics since I was high school, almost as much as I wanted to be a novelist, so it was a realization of a lifelong dream for me, really.

Swamp Thing #119

HASSLEIN: Your run featured a large focus on Cajun culture (Labo's family, for instance), far more than any other writer throughout Swamp Thing's history. How well-versed in that culture were you prior to becoming the new writer, and how did the decision come about to explore the series' Cajun roots?

COLLINS: Well, I was living in New Orleans at the time, so I had occasion to interact with genuine Cajuns—and their big city cousins, the Yats—for the better part of a decade. Even before that, I grew up in Southeast Arkansas, known as the Ark-La-Miss, less than 20 miles from the Mississippi River. The area is famous for its bayous, swamps and gators.

DC made it clear that they wanted to get Swamp Thing back to his "roots," so to speak, and told me I could pretty much ignore the continuity from the previous run. I decided that in order to do that, I needed to "ground" Swampy in two things that are touchstones for us all: family and home. And in Swamp Thing's case, that meant the Cajuns of Terrebonne Parrish and townsfolk of Houma, Louisiana. I decided to give the series the benefit of my first-hand knowledge of the area and its customs.

One of the first things I did was take a weekend trip to Houma and Terrebonne Parrish, the "home base" for Swampy and his network of friends. I took a bunch of pictures of the area and town and sent them to Bill Jaaska for reference, who was originally tapped to be the regular artist on the series. I also used the occasion to work some of my local friends into the storylines as minor reoccurring characters. For example, a couple of the Bon Ton Rulers—Otter and Dr. Clark Johnson—were named after Brad Ott, a French Quarter activist, and ecologist Dr. John Clark, leader of the Delta Greens, while Office Rawls was a tip-of-the-hat to friend and local poet Alex Rawls. I also turned former Klansman-turned-gubernatorial candidate David Duke into the villain Ben Barron.

I also tapped into some of the rich folklore in Robert Tallant's Gumbo Ya-Ya, which has all kinds of weird stories about loup garou, pirates, voodoo queens and swamp monsters. That's also where I got the name for the friendly accordion-playing ghost who haunts the swamp. Sadly, the story of Ya-Ya's murder was based on something that actually happened to one of the founding fathers of zydeco music—but without the justice at the end.

Swamp Thing #120

HASSLEIN: You also injected a new element (excuse the pun) into the relationship between Alec and Abby, by introducing Lady Jane, breaking up their marriage, and revealing that the Parliament of Trees was not as benevolent as we'd been led to believe—something Mark Millar later ran with in spades. What can you recall about the creation of Lady Jane as a character, did you know from the onset you'd be ending the Hollands' love, and how did your own background as a writer—as well as your status as the series' only female writer—influence how you approached your storylines?

COLLINS: I was told at the start of my second year on Swamp Thing that DC wanted the story arc to end with Swampy "on his own again," as they put it, and didn't care how I got him there. They even told me they were "okay" with me killing Abby (again), as well as the baby. That truly horrified me. I'd spent a lot of time making Tefé a fairly realistic toddler, with her own unique abilities and personality. The idea of killing her simply "for sales" was genuinely offensive to me. I had just undergone a divorce from my first husband, and you can see some of that reflected in Abby's response to the situations Swampy puts her and the family in.

And, lets be frank—no woman in her right mind would put up with the bullshit Abby Holland was subjected to on a regular basis. (In fact, the first time I spoke to Alan Moore, he commended me on giving Abby the guts to walk out of an unworkable relationship.) So I decided to end the story arc with the death of Swamp Thing's "marriage" and parental rights, as opposed to the murder of his wife and child. I admit, it was the equivalent of Pete Townsend smashing his guitar before leaving the stage, but hey, divorce is better than dead, right?

Wellll… not in comics, it would seem. Fans are used to characters being killed and brought back from the dead on a regular basis, to the point where it has lost all meaning. Characters getting divorced, on the other hand—there's no coming back from that, apparently. I guess it's because fans have never truly experienced death first-hand, but a good number of them have endured a divorce, and they know that shit's final. I got hate mail for months! And, in the end, my efforts to "rescue" mother and child were for naught, as the New Earth versions have been changed beyond recognition.

As for Lady Jane herself, I had wanted to create my own MP (Member of Parliament) since I first read the story that introduced them. The character was designed to be a tip-of-the-hat to the work of Charles Dickens, George Sand, Gustave Flaubert and Henry Ibsen, all of whom wrote about the social and physical mistreatment of women during the Victorian Age. I also incorporated a story about a family member—a relative on my mother's side of the family, from around the turn of the 20th century—who came home from work to find her house on fire and rushed in to save her children. In her case, she did not burn to death, but the knob on the front door was so hot it branded her palms, forcing her to wear gloves for the rest of her life.

Swamp Thing #133

HASSLEIN: It seemed, at the end of your run, that you weren't entirely done telling the story of Connie Sunderland and her Un-Man servant. Did you have more in mind for their story arc? If so, why did it end when it did?

COLLINS: No, I really didn't have anything else in store for Connie and Dr. Polygon. I simply enjoyed Connie as a villain so much I decided to let her loose into the greater unknown of the DC/Vertigo Universe, in case anyone else wanted to play with her. FYI: She was loosely based on the character of Connie Dobbs, the wife (and true power behind the throne) of fictional cult-leader and Dadaist logo J.R. "Bob" Dobbs of the Church of the SubGenius.

HASSLEIN: Connie later returned during the Un-Men monthly title. Were you aware of this, did you read it, and if so, how did you feel about the direction in which that writer took a character you'd created?

COLLINS: I was completely unaware of Connie being in the Un-Men monthly title until a fan pointed it out to me. (I more or less stopped following DC comics in 1998, when Quebecor took me off the "free books" drop-ship list.) I went out and picked up the graphic novel collections.

I thought John Whalen had a pretty good take on sweet, sweet Connie. And it was edifying to see some evidence of my run on Swamp Thing still banging around in the DC/Vertigo Universe, as I have no idea whether DC will ever get around to collecting my run in graphic novel format. I did wonder what had happened to poor old Doc Polygon, though. From what I've been told, Lady Jane was destroyed a long time ago, too.

HASSLEIN: Looking back, how do you feel about your Swamp Thing run as a whole? Did you accomplish what you set out to do? Or would you do things differently if you had the chance?

Swamp Thing #134

COLLINS: I feel that my run on Swamp Thing was very solid, in regard to storytelling. And I'd like to think I added some dimension to Swampy as a family man and father. And I did exactly what DC asked/needed me to do—I pulled the monthly sales figures out of the cellar. And I feel honored that I was one of the writers that helped launch Vertigo. As for doing things differently, at the same time I was wrapping up my second "season" on Swamp Thing, I was offered a choice between taking over Animal Man or creating my own series—and I opted for the creator-owned series (Wick), which eventually turned out to be a dead-end street. If I had it to do all over again, I would pick Animal Man.

FYI, a couple years after leaving Swamp Thing—when my second creator-owned series (Dhampire) imploded on the launching pad, thanks to the collapse of the speculator market—I came up with an idea for a miniseries involving all the DC/Vertigo supernatural characters: Phantom Stranger, Madame Xanadu, the Three Witches, John Constantine, Etrigan, etc., as well as Swamp Thing, Abby and Tefé. It was called Arcane Blood, and it was about the consequences of crossing a Constantine with an Arcane:

Swamp Thing and the others travel to the Parliament of Trees to find his daughter. Swampy discovers Tefé is now known as Rima the Jungle Girl. He also discovers that Lady Jane has born him a "son," known as the Page. As the Page is the first elemental born of elemental cross-pollination, they decide to transfer the "Sprout" energy from Tefé/Rima to her half-brother. Of course, Anton Arcane tries to fuck with things from beyond the grave, as he has formed an alliance with Nergal, the demon who contaminated Constantine's blood and now claims Tefé/Rima as his "grandchild." Abby is revealed to be descended from a long line of witches and necromancers, and uses her nascent occult abilities to battle her dead uncle. At the end, the Page becomes the new Sprout, Tefé becomes Rima (and retains certain occult abilities, such as an ability to talk to birds), and Abby goes off with Phantom Stranger and Madame Xanadu to learn how to use her new powers, and she takes the name "Arcana."

Of course, no one at Vertigo was interested in the proposal. And it has since been rendered a moot point, as that universe no longer exists.

Thanks to Nancy Collins for taking the time to answer these questions.

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