Tor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated the next twelve months to a reread of all of the major Alan Moore comics (and plenty of minor ones as well). Each week he will provide commentary on what he’s been reading. Welcome to the 16th installment.
Halfway into his multi-year Swamp Thing run, Alan Moore contributed a very special story to the Superman team-up book called DC Comics Presents. Guess who Superman “teamed up” with? I’ll give you a clue: he used to think he was Alec Holland until Moore showed up on the scene.
“The Jungle Line,” DC Comics Presents #85 (DC Comics, September 1985)
The formula for most of these Superman team-up stories goes like this: Superman and another hero team up. And fight some bad guy.
Comics used to be pretty simple.
Sometimes a writer and/or artist like Jim Starlin would contribute a story or two, and that would happen, but in outer space with cosmic stuff going on all around them. Other times a writer and/or artist like Keith Giffen would contribute a story or two, and Superman would get annoyed. But mostly, it was Superman, some other random (usually c-list) superhero, and some straightforward conflict resolved by the end of a single issue.
As Alan Moore was revolutionizing mainstream American comics over in The Saga of the Swamp Thing series in 1985, with Watchmen only a year away, he added to the canon of great Superman team up stories. By following the formula exactly.
Superman and Swamp Thing team up in this comic, drawn by soon-to-be-permanent Swamp Thing artist (until he was fired two years after Moore left, for daring to posit Jesus as the DCU’s first superhero) Rick Veitch. So it looks like a Swamp Thing comic far more than it looks like a Superman comic, though inker Al Williamson does his best Curt Swan finishing job whenever Clark Kent appears on the page. Without the inks of Alfredo Alcala, it doesn’t have the gothic overtones of Swamp Thing’s own series, but it is Rick Veitch, and he can’t help but make everything look a little absurd and disturbing. That’s what he does best.
Even though Moore follows the team-up-and-fight-a-baddie formula, and wraps it all up in a single issue quite a contrast to his longform plotting and layering in his ongoing work it’s not your typical team up. Nor is it your typical baddie.
What Superman faces, and defeats with Swamp Thing’s help, is the villainy of a two-inch sample of Kryptonian fungus.
Yes, that’s right, the cover may not boldly state the truth, “SEE Superman Battle the Frightening Fungus from Afar! READ This Thrilling Tale of Botany Gone Wrong!” but it is an Alan Moore superhero story, so while the overall structure may dabble in the realms of formula, the plot and characters are subverted at every turn.
Take, for example, the opening page, which shows us a haggard, sweating, stubble-faced Superman driving down a lonesome highway in a boxy red car. The caption at the bottom of the page reads, “The man of tomorrow is heading south to die.”
Not something you would have seen in any previous DC Comics Presents issue. Superman may have been fallible in a few of those stories (very few), but he was never as decidedly unheroic in appearance as his is here. No, this looks like a weird deleted scene from the much-derided (undeservedly) Superman III. But, of course, it isn’t. It’s just Alan Moore playing with the chronology of this story. And we have yet to learn how Superman ended up looking so shabby and un-super.
We soon learn that a space rock is to blame. Clark Kent covers a relatively lame story about a scientist and a meteorite, with a tiny patch of space moss on its side, and then things go bad. Superman begins to lose his mind. It’s no innocuous fungus, it’s Kryptonian Bloodmorel, “causing fever, bouts of incapacitation, hallucinations, chronic overexertion and eventually, in 92% of all known cases death.”
Swamp Thing doesn’t even appear until page 10 of the story, after Superman has already fallen victim to the space spores. After Superman’s haggard self has already crashed the car we saw on the opening page. Swamp Thing comes upon a burning corpse, but it’s no dead body after all. It’s a man with a big red “S” beneath his smoldering jacket.
Before I talk about the eventual Supes/Swampy team up, let me just note that page seven of the story shows a hilarious panel of the delusional Clark Kent waking up from a Bloodmorel-induced nightmare, and he looks to his closet, where he finds only two outfits. A Superman costume and a blue business suit with a red tie. The closet is empty except for those two pieces of clothing. It’s not that he has 20 copies of the same outfits. Nope, just one of each. That’s all he needs. One for each identity. Simple. Silly. But telling.
So Superman and Swamp Thing team up, at least psychically, as Swamp Thing enters into Superman’s mind somehow to help him fend off the Bloodmorel invasion of his body.
They fight, because (a) that’s another formulaic bit I forgot to mention, where the two heroes fight each other before they decide to team up, and (b) Superman is craaaaazy. Bloodmorel will do that to you. It’s true. I read it in this one comic 27 years ago.
Eventually, after some back-and-forth violence, hallucinations, and general conflict of the interior and exterior variety, Swamp Thing saves Superman by pulling him psychically, spiritually into the Green, where he is cleansed.
All of this happens, this whole second half of the issue, while Superman lies on his back and Swamp Thing tends to him. Sure, there are battles raging in Superman’s mind, in his soul, but physically, he’s just lying there. An unorthodox approach to the character who is the embodiment of “Action” Comics.
And though he was saved by Swamp Thing, he doesn’t even know it. When he awakens, he thinks he just rode out the delirium. The captions read, “He survived survived, when there was no hope of another morning as glorious as this one survived, when there was no one there to help him.” Superman flies into the sky, a self-satisfied smile on his face.
Swamp Thing shambles into the bayou, hidden from even Superman’s nearly limitless perception. Because even with super-vision, you still need to pay attention.
It’s hardly the kind of “Sophisticated Suspense” we saw from Moore in his Swamp Thing comics, or even the oddball sci-fi sequences of the final year of his run (though it’s more similar to the latter than the former, and I can’t help but think that the Rick Veitch influence is at least partially responsible, and not in a bad way). DC Comics Presents was more of a clearly-defined “all-ages” comic, even if it was never labeled as such. So this is an Alan Moore’s Swamp-Thing-lite story, with a substantial amount of unconventionality in its relatively traditionally formatted package.
One other thing worth pointing out, because I never mentioned it when I was actually writing about the Swamp Thing series: Alan Moore doesn’t have a problem with omnipotence.
Even in his earlier work, from the “Star Wars” short stories to “Marvelman,” Moore plays around with characters who are more physically powerful than any obstacle they might face. And with Swamp Thing, he basically wrote a character who could survive anything, defeat anyone. And here he is writing the pre-Crisis Superman, the hero known for using planets as bowling balls and flying forward and backwards through time at a whim. But Moore doesn’t depower his characters just to humanize them, which is the trap writers so often fall into.
So many writers tend to think that Superman, and his ilk, need to be stripped of their near omnipotence to become relatable. To struggle. But Moore punches holes through that lie, in this issue, and in the entirety of Swamp Thing. The struggle always exists. The person beneath the powers will always have doubts and fears, will always have passions and problems, no matter how much outward strength they exhibit. The humanity lies within the characters, not in the “Powers and Abilities” entry of their dossier.
Ironically, Moore is widely-known, at least in comic book circles, for bringing heroes down to Earth. For making them “realistic.” But that was just one of his many modes of storytelling, and even in this slight 23-page superhero team up issue, he shows that he can find the humanity in the less-than-realistic, the utterly fantastic, just as well.
NEXT: More Superman! Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, and What Do You Get Him for His Birthday, Anyway?