Last year Vertigo relaunched, giving fans of the revolutionary line reason to revisit classics of the imprint such as Transmetropolitan, Preacher, Sandman, and Animal Man.
While well-loved by audiences of all kinds and indisputably highly influential on the current comic book climate, besides the work of editor Karen Berger it is also true that Vertigo was headed up by predominantly straight white male creators, and the books didn't always centralize female characters. One of the exceptions to this was Volume 3 of Swamp Thing, in which the at-the-time highly unsympathetic daughter of Swamp Thing underwent a personal journey to learn to use her awesome power more responsibly.
The Origins Of The Swamp Thing
The character known as Swamp Thing was introduced in the early ‘70s in the series House of Secrets, a horror comic that ran for a few years alongside the likewise influential anthology series House of Mystery. This franchise would serve as precursors to DC’s eventual Vertigo line, and several characters later used in comics like the Sandman, such as Cain and Abel and the Furies, saw their origins here. Swamp Thing was popular enough to warrant his own series, which ran for 25 issues under writer Len Wein and primary artist Bernie Wrightson. Initially, it was a fairly standard horror story, focusing on a man who was seemingly murdered for his brilliant scientific ideas but who would reappear as the righteous, vengeful Swamp Thing. The original series also introduced an important romantic interest in Abigail Arcane, the niece of Swamp Thing's greatest enemy, Anton Arcane.
Canceled due to poor sales, Swamp Thing was revived in the early ‘80s as the basis for a Wes Craven film, which in turn birthed a sequel and even a truly bizarre animated series in the '90s. The comic returned to a great deal of acclaim with a second volume featuring stories by Alan Moore alongside primary artist Stephen Bissette. In this series, Swamp Thing took an even darker turn by eliminating the pretense of humanity from the character. It was revealed that rather than being Alec Holland in monster form, a sentient plant god bonded with Alec’s body and took on some of his characteristics to become the Swamp Thing. This volume, titled Saga of the Swamp Thing, was the first mainstream comic book to completely forego the inclusion of the Comics Code, the notorious attempt by mainstream publishers at self-censorship that appeared on all comics released by Marvel or DC for decades. Books that sprang from Swamp Thing, like Hellblazer, would go on to necessitate the inclusion of a mature content line at DC, thus birthing dozens of now-classic series by the Vertigo imprint.
Of all the Vertigo characters, perhaps none are quite so truly bonkers in both concept and execution as Tefe Holland. To begin with, she was introduced in Swamp Thing Volume 2 #65 as a sort of floating spirit. The creature then called Sprout was created by The Green, a sort of collective consciousness representing vegetation in all its forms. Believing Swamp Thing dead, they made Sprout to protect them, but when they discovered Swamp Thing was alive, they attempted to execute their creation. An alarmed Sprout found an escape from The Green when Abigail Arcane gave birth to a baby that Sprout’s spirit immediately possessed. The child in question was itself conceived when Swamp Thing possessed the body of John Constantine to impregnate Abigail, thus making Tefe Holland a psychic spirit that became the daughter of Alec Holland, John Constantine, Abigail Arcane, the Swamp Thing, and the demon Nergal, whose blood was at the time in John Constantine’s veins. (As for how it got there, as with most things Constantine-related, it’s kind of better if you don’t ask.)
Tefe’s very strange circumstances of birth gave her powers beyond any of her parental figures, which initially excited her parents, who felt that she would be able to bridge the worlds of vegetation and flesh to create a Utopia on Earth. This obviously did not happen. The Parliament of Trees, a sort of retirement community for The Green, completely rebelled against the concept and instead spent their time convincing Tefe that she was intended to punish humanity for the harm we had done to trees. Tefe thereby grew up convinced that it was truly her purpose in the cosmos to destroy humanity. She committed murder several times and felt no remorse for it. In her eyes, she was simply fulfilling her calling.
Swamp Thing Volume 3
Swamp Thing Volume 3 is Tefe’s story. Written by Brian K Vaughn, who would later go on to see success with his series Y: The Last Man and Saga, Swamp Thing is one of his early works. In the first arc, we find that her parents had ultimately decided that something needed to be done about their child’s murderous impulses, and while they could not outright kill Tefe, they did place her in the body of a terminally ill young woman in hopes Tefe would quickly die. Tefe survived and murdered several more people when she finally reverted to form. After that, she drifted aimlessly, eventually getting a job on a crab boat where a disturbed young writer tried to go full meta with his novel by actually killing Tefe for being “too one-dimensional.” This plan, of course, did not come close to succeeding, and he met a brutal end at her hands. In the following arcs, Tefe’s coldness began to become something she regretted as it cost her close relationships. She encountered John Constantine, who swore he would live to see her downfall.
When the series started, Tefe was a mess of a character. Her heel turn was shocking and brutal for her parents, but once it was all said and done they still had a child with godlike powers and no real sense of morality on their hands, and they were forced to take action. In the end, it’s not her parents that save her, but Tefe herself. Throughout Volume 3, she dealt with very disturbed people but found herself to be the most disturbed of all. She slowly began to reach out to others, developing a friendship with a woman named Heather and even had a few brief flirtations, although none of her supporting cast here would survive to her next incarnation. In short, via one of the most violent and disturbing coming-of-age stories of all time, Tefe began to establish a sense of self.
The Story Continues
Tefe’s narrative resumed in Swamp Thing Volume 4 under the creative team of Joshua Dysart and Enrique Breccia. The sense of peace she achieved in the previous arc seemed mostly to stick, and she lived with her mother, who she had previously been at odds with to say the very least. Her powers were under better control, but, most importantly, she was establishing relationships with the humans she had once set out to annihilate.
Tefe also got a girlfriend named Zaina, who waited by Tefe’s bed after she’d been injured and bonded with Abigail’s temporary boyfriend. Zaina was an intriguing character that unfortunately went nowhere after that storyline. Meanwhile, the fact that she was completely out of depth with the Hollands but still knew how to rely on her own survival instincts to survive an attack by swamp monsters made her seem like the rare partner that might actually be able to survive in the world of the Swamp Thing. Like Tefe, she hasn’t reappeared often, and one wonders why not, considering how interesting and underdeveloped their dynamic was. Most mainstream comics are pretty low on queer women of color, so bringing back Zaina in a regular role would only make sense.
The story of the Swamp Thing and his family is a very strange and wild ride, and that story neither begins or ends with Tefe Holland and Volume 3. Still, Tefe’s unique origins offer more storytelling potential than most. Tefe started out as an intriguing concept low on character, but she grew more interesting as her story progressed. Guilty of crimes beyond imagining before she even reaches her teen years, Tefe is difficult to relate to, but it’s worth the energy. Her run as Swamp Thing might have been its shortest, but it still rates as one of its best.