Ten Questions with Swamp Thing author, Rich Handley
- Q) How did your writing and editing background culminate in your authoring a chronology for a fictional universe?
I’ve been in the publishing world for around thirty years now, starting in the mid-1990s with licensed fiction for West End Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying Game. Since then, I’ve written, edited, or contributed to dozens of books, both fiction and non-fiction, related to Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, Dark Shadows, Batman, and other franchises, working with DC Comics, Dark Horse, IDW, Topps, BOOM! Studios, Titan Books, Eaglemoss, Crazy Eight Press, Sequart, ATB Publishing, and others. (More info is available at richhandley.com.) I’m so pleased to add BearManor Media Books to that list, as Ben Ohmart and Robbie Adkins have been wonderful to work with.
I should note that Born on the Bayou is not my first published timeline based on a fictional universe. I also wrote Timeline of the Planet of the Apes (Hasslein Books, 2009), Back in Time: The Back to the Future Chronology (Hasslein, 2013, with Greg Mitchell), and Watching Time: The Watchmen Chronology (Hasslein, 2016), as well as shorter timelines for the Hellblazer 30th Anniversary Celebration (DC Comics, 2018) and From Bayou to Abyss: Examining John Constantine, Hellblazer (Sequart, 2020). Timelining is a passion of mine, and I’ve got several half-written chronologies on my laptop. Born on the Bayou, while published most recently, actually predated all of them.
- Q) How long have you been a Swamp Thing fan?
- A) My journey through the bayou began in the late 1990s, when my friend Joe Bongiorno brought The House of Secrets #92 into work one day and urged me to read the eight-page story “Swamp Thing,” from writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson. Joe had fallen in love with the Swamp Thing saga and he felt I would as well. I was reluctant to read it, though, as I’d assumed they would be too much like the Swamp Thing B-movies and USA Network TV show from back in the day. While I’d enjoyed those outings for the goofy fun they were, I had no great need to read 200-plus stories of that nature.
Joe assured me the comics were nothing like the show and films, and he was absolutely right. They were gothic horror, real-world horror, and mythology all rolled up into one, literately written and beautifully illustrated. After I’d perused that eight-page pilot, I was intrigued and had to read more. Joe began bringing in more comics each day, and I, too, fell in love with the bog god’s weird world and his macabre, mossy mythos. I was especially intrigued by John Constantine, a British occultist from Alan Moore’s landmark tenure, and in time I became even more a Constantine fan than I was a Swamp Thing fan. That’s saying a lot.
- Q) Reading comics is one thing, though—writing books about them is a much larger step that most readers never take. What inspired you to compile a chronology about Swamp Thing and Hellblazer?
- A) In truth, I hadn’t intended to do anything of the sort. I had immersed myself in these stories purely for the fun of reading them. But once I’d reached the end of Joe’s comics with the brilliant culmination of Mark Millar’s storyline, I wanted to read them again and see how the experience differed when I already knew all the revelations. I couldn’t keep borrowing someone else’s collection ad infinitum, so I scoured eBay and online shops to put together a full set of my own, and while I was at it I tracked down both spinoffs, John Constantine: Hellblazer and American Freak: A Tale of the Un-Men. Obsessive writing then followed this obsessive collecting, and Born on the Bayou was eventually the result.
- Q) This sounds like an enormous time investment, yet a labor of love. What was involved in turning your personal collection into professional research?
I had put all the issues in release order, starting at the beginning with that House of Secrets tale—first in comic boxes, and later on custom-made shelving in my office. My goal was to experience Hellblazer and American Freak simultaneously with Swamp Thing, in the same way that those who’d been buying them off the stands would have read them, so I could follow the evolution of the comics. (That’s just how my brain works.) I got the idea of taking notes while doing so, with the vague notion of maybe writing some articles about the comics at some point.
So I started back at the beginning again (which was no big deal—thankfully, I’d only gotten a few issues into that first reread), and this time I took copious notes about every storyline and every character. It was fascinating to discover how the lives of Alec and Linda Holland, Abby and Anton Arcane, John Constantine, Matt Cable, Kit Ryan, Chas Chandler, Chester Williams, Lizbeth Tremayne, Nergal, and even the Devil himself compared and contrasted when chronicled alongside each other. As Joe had said, this really was a mythology, and a compelling and complex one at that.
- Q) How quickly did you realize that mythology could become a book?
Admittedly, not right away. I’d had no idea how large a project it would turn into when I started taking those notes. Articles? Ha. It ended up being an enormous book heavy enough to double as a cement brick. Originally I’d gone in a different direction, as I’d first created a fan website. In the early 1990s, I’d bought the book HTML for Dummies to teach myself basic Web design. So I put my newfound skills to use by creating Roots of the Swamp Thing (rootsoftheswampthing.com), which provided a rudimentary chronology of Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, and American Freak, along with essays, creator interviews, comics news, cover galleries, and other features.
It was a lot of work to maintain, but also a lot of fun. Roots of the Swamp Thing amassed a following, and as the chronology grew, I came to realize I could turn it into something more. So I took the website down and transferred the text into a Word document, and as I continued writing, the manuscript became massive—unwieldly, even. I wanted to see it published, yet I knew there’d be a lot of work before it would be submission-ready, and so it sat dormant in my files for years, waiting for me to return. During the pandemic, I decided to dust off my age-old manuscript and complete this project that I had begun around the time George W. Bush had inherited the Presidency from Bill Clinton.
- Q) Born on the Bayou’s foreword and afterword were written by creators with whom many Swamp Thing fans will be familiar. How did they become involved?
Fellow Swamp Thing fan John Boylan found my old domain name available when he launched his own Roots of the Swamp Thing website. John’s version is an invaluable resource for fans, so I’m glad the URL was up for grabs when he needed it. My abandonment of that domain turned out to be fortuitous for fandom. John didn’t just create a spiritual successor to my site—he surpassed what I’d done and has rightfully become one of the franchise’s most respected experts.
Amusingly, John and I hadn’t even known the other existed, even though we’d chosen the same URL and website designation, and even though we were both avid (read “insane”) Swamp Thing collectors. As far as I knew, the URL was non-working once I’d abandoned it, and as far as he knew, he’d come up with a name no one else had used. When a friend asked him about my site, John was surprised and reached out to me. We became great friends, and he later wrote the afterword to Born on the Bayou. John founded the Swamp Thing magazine Holland Files International, to which I’ve contributed articles, and he holds a Guinness Book record for the world’s largest Swamp Thing collection. He needs no introduction in swampy circles
- Q) The book’s other contributor also needs no intro: the legendary Stephen R. Bissette, who co-illustrated Moore’s run and co-created Constantine with Moore and John Totleben. How did you get Steve Bissette on board?
- A) Blackmail and coercion! No, but seriously, I lucked out in that regard. Back when I still had my website, I became fascinated by the idea that there were a lot of unpublished, rejected, and otherwise “lost” Swamp Thing and Hellblazer projects out there. Avid fans knew about the canceled “Swamp Thing meets Hawkman” tale (Swamp Thing #25), Rick Veitch’s ill-fated “Swamp Thing meets Jesus” saga (Swamp Thing #88), Warren Ellis’s controversial school-shooter tale (Hellblazer #141), and Peter Hogan’s in-limbo Sandman Presents one-shot featuring Constantine (Marquee Moon). Those “lost” chapters were well-documented, but what else was out there?
I reached out to Steve and numerous other creators, many of whom graciously shared their unused outlines and scripts. When I told Steve I was turning the website into a book, he immediately sent me an original painting for the cover and offered to write the foreword as well. To say I was thrilled would be an understatement. Seeing this book published after more than 20 years was gratifying already. Having my pals Steve Bissette and John Boylan provide book-end essays? Amazing. Plus, all of that research I’d done into lost lore made for a fascinating chapter in the book.
- Q) So what, in essence, is Born on the Bayou?
Simply put, this chronology details the interwoven histories of Alec Holland, John Constantine, and their enemies and allies as depicted in the pages of Swamp Thing and Hellblazer, as well as in The Books of Magic, The Un-Men, The Sandman, and other series, up to and including 2011’s Flashpoint. It incorporates every comic, graphic novel, prose novel, short story, and RPG book published prior to Flashpoint and The New 52—approximately a thousand tales in total—featuring Swamp Thing or Hellblazer elements.
As each writer picked up where their predecessors left off, the saga and the backstories grew. From The House of Secrets to Flashpoint, readers followed an ongoing narrative that was extraordinary, spanning millennia. If I’ve done my job properly, that is what this book represents: a breakdown of billions of years’ worth of established history, from the dawn of time until the end of time, with respect to Alec and John, their ancestors and descendants, their friends and loved ones, and the fascinating world they co-inhabit.
- Q) Why the Flashpoint cutoff, though? Why not include the stories published after 2011?
It comes down to Flashpoint’s effect on DC’s larger mythology. The Swamp Thing and Hellblazer casts had aged in real time before Flashpoint changed that status, but then The New 52 rebooted the entire DC universe, with 52 replacement titles wiping the slate clean. In doing so, DC erased 40 years of Swamp Thing and Constantine history. The post-New 52 era has flourished despite a rocky start, and the prior continuity has been revisited by some writers, yet what existed before the relaunch had been wonderful. A lot of fans have enjoyed the new hand dealt to them, but I chose to focus on how the game played out before DC played 52-pickup with its entire deck.
- Q) What about other media involving Swamp Thing and John Constantine?
The TV shows, cartoons, movies, and video games represent separate branches of the mythos. That’s not a mark against those media, mind you. Dick Durock’s Swamp Thing was great fun, if silly. Matt Ryan was brilliant on Constantine and Legends of Tomorrow, but he was part of the Arrowverse. Jenna Coleman’s Johanna Constantine, on Netflix’s The Sandman, is endearing but resides outside this book’s scope as well, as do Keanu Reeves’ Constantine and the prematurely cancelled 2019 Swamp Thing show. For this book’s purpose, it’s all about the comics, plus the novels and short fiction set within their continuity. At a thousand stories, that was more than enough to cover.
This project is the result of a quarter-century’s ponderings and analysis, of countless readings and re-readings, and I hope fans enjoy immersing themselves it it even half as much as I enjoyed creating it. Like Swamp Thing it was born on the bayou, and like Constantine it blazed through Hell before finally seeing publication. The saga of the muck-encrusted mockery of a man and his chain-smoking occultist frenemy holds great meaning for me, so I’m grateful to BearManor Media for helping me make Born on the Bayou: A Pre-Flashpoint Chronology of Swamp Thing and Hellblazer a reality at last.