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 13th installment.
After proving his talents on everything from Star Wars shorts to “Captain Marvel” to the shockingly good first few issues of Warrior magazine, Alan Moore was ready to move up to the big leagues: American comic books.
Though some readers now tend to think of Alan Moore as a disdainful wizard, rejecting nearly everything in the American comic book landscape and insulting the current crop of creators, he was once a devoted fan of the superhero single issues that would make their way across the Atlantic. His early work at Marvel U.K. featured a lovingly-rendered essay about the history of the Captain Britain character, and the first issue of The Daredevils included a piece by Moore in which he expressed an admiration for the work Frank Miller was, at the time, doing on the Daredevil comic book series for Marvel. Even Moore’s mid-career work, practically the entire America’s Best Comics line from Wildstorm and his work on the Superman pastiche Supreme, shows his fondness for the American comics of the past, particularly the comics he would have read in his youth, from the Silver Age, when comic books were packed with imaginative, completely illogical ideas, and anything was possible.
But even with his success on the Marvel U.K. strips and Warrior, Alan Moore hadn’t yet written anything for the American market. All it took was a phone call from DC editor Len Wein to change all of that. Reportedly, Moore received the 1983 phone call and assumed it was a prank. “I thought it was David Lloyd doing a funny voice,” Moore has said. Wein wanted Moore to take over a poorly-selling monster comic that had been revived only a year-and-a-half earlier. It was a property Wein himself had created (with legendary horror artist Bernie Wrightson) over a decade before, in the pages of the old House of Secrets anthology. The comic was called The Saga of the Swamp Thing, a series about a muck-monster who was once a man.
Marty Pasko was the writer at the time and, with issue #19, he left (to concentrate on his work in television) the story he had been telling from issue #1 largely unresolved. I recently looked back at that Pasko run, and the final issue in particular, in preparation for the reread of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing comics, and found it to be a wordy mess of multiple plot lines.
Moore came in and tied up most of Pasko’s loose ends with The Saga of the Swamp Thing #20, and proceeded to write nearly four years of astonishingly good comic books under that title. But first, just as he did with Captain Britain in 1982, Moore had to kill off his main character.
The Saga of the Swamp Thing Book One (2009)
First a note: for this reread, I’ll be looking at DC’s hardcover reprints of Moore’s Swamp Thing run (circa 2009-2011), though the original issues would have been The Saga of the Swamp Thing #20-64, from January 1984 through September of 1987. These books reprint all of the Moore stories from the series, and except for one significant exception that I’ll talk about later, they remain faithful to the look of the original comics. These might be cleaned up and printed on slightly better paper stock, but these aren’t recolored or remastered editions loaded with extra features, they’re just nicely-bound collections of comics from two-and-a-half decades ago.
This first volume reprints issues #20-27, and it’s important to point out that earlier, paperback, collections of Moore’s run always left out The Saga of the Swamp Thing #20, presumably because it was his wrapping-up-Pasko’s-plot issue and Moore’s real story didn’t begin until the following issue, and while that may be true, it’s still important to see how Moore really kicked things off, even if he was largely saddled with someone else’s baggage. Then again, practically the entire history of mainstream comic books after the 1938 publication of Action Comics #1 has been saddled with baggage, so it’s nothing new. What was new was Alan Moore’s authorial voice. His Swamp Thing comics may have looked like the ones that came before (he inherited basically the same art team that had been on the series for months before he arrived), but they didn’t sound like anything that came before, swamp-related or otherwise.
These 28-year-old comics still hold up as smarter and more poetic than almost any comics before or since. Not bad for a then-30-year-old writer taking his first crack at American comics.
So here’s the streamlined backstory on the Swamp Thing character, from the Len Wein/Bernie Wrightson days, if you don’t know it: Scientist Alec Holland was blown up while working on a “bio-restorative formula” and his flaming, then decomposing, body mixed with the swamp and the chemicals in the formula to resurrect him as the Swamp Thing. He fought monsters. And was angry and sad.
When Marty Pasko resurrected the series in the early 1980s, he built an overarching story involving mysticism and the Phantom Stranger and global conspiracies. Though Pasko wrapped up most of the mystical stuff before he left, the conspiracy, and the sinister Sunderland Corporation’s hunt to kill the Swamp Thing and his friends was still an ongoing concern. That’s where Alan Moore comes in with Saga of the Swamp Thing #20, in a story literally titled “Loose Ends.”
Amidst all the whirring pieces of the plot already in progress, Moore provides a distinctively different kind of texture than readers had seen from Pasko. While Pasko’s Swamp Thing was a tormented mess of a former man, trying to be a hero while covered in muck, Moore’s Swamp Thing is instantly more reflective and insightful. Pasko gave us a tortured Romantic. Moore pushed it a bit farther and gave us a vegetable Hamlet.
As Swamp Thing picks up the withered body of his nemesis Anton Arcane (who had died in a helicopter crash at the end of Pasko’s final issue), and cradles the head of his old enemy, Moore’s captions – reflecting Swamp Thing’s internal narration — read: “You were my opposite. I had my humanity…taken away from me. I’ve been trying to claim it back. You started out human…and threw it all away. You did it deliberately. / We defined each other, didn’t we? By understanding you…I came that much closer…to understanding myself. / And now…you’re dead. / Really dead. / And what…am I going to do now?”
It’s “Alas, poor Yorick” and “To be or not to be” rolled up in one melodramatic monster/superhero horror comic book scene.
Unfortunately for Swamp Thing – for the creature who was once a man named Alec Holland – what he was about to do was die.
The Sunderland Corporation sends some flamethrower-wielding minions down to the swamps, disguising the whole operation as some kind of government clean-up of a UFO situation. They chase our hero out into the open with their blasts of fire. Gunmen await. The former Alec Holland takes a dozen bullets to the head and chest (or maybe they’re lasers – it’s hard to tell when their trajectory is colored a blazing red) and falls to the ground. Swamp Thing is dead.
What’s next? “The Anatomy Lesson” in The Saga of the Swamp Thing #21. A compelling answer to the question – and this may sound like crazy hyperbole unless you’ve actually read the comic – of “What is the best single-issue of a DC comic ever?”
This is where Alan Moore shows his stuff. And artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben make it all look amazingly creepy and beautiful.
Alec Holland is dead, we discover. And he’s been dead for a long time. The shocking reveal of this issue comes from Dr. Jason Woodrue, a long-time plant-controlling DC villain who used to fight guys like the Atom and the Flash, and went by the name “Plant Master” or “The Floronic Man.” An a-list supervillain, he was not. Moore puts Woodrue in the spotlight here, giving him a deeper characterization than most would have ever thought possible. Woodrue has been brought in by the Sunderland Corporation to perform an autopsy on the Swamp Thing.
Structurally, Moore doesn’t give us a linear narrative in this single issue. It begins at the end, with Woodrue narrating the whole thing, ominously. We get lines of poetry in his captions like, “Plump, warm summer rain that covers the sidewalks with leopard spots. / Downtown, elderly ladies carry their houseplants out to set them on the fire escapes, as if they were infirm relatives or boy kings.” Then we get a picture of what’s to come: “I’m thinking about the old man. He’ll be pounding on the glass right about now… / …and will there be blood? I like to imagine so. Yes. I rather think there will be blood. / Lots of blood. / Blood in extraordinary quantities.” Then we flash back to see General Sunderland bringing in Woodrue to examine the body. And within the overarching structure, of Woodrue later narrating what had transpired, we cut to flash backs (or flash imaginings) of what must have happened to create the swamp monster that was lying, cold and dead, on the lab table.
It’s an ambitious, complex, yet easy-to-follow narrative, but it’s the secret of the Swamp Thing that’s most astonishing. He has never been Alec Holland. When Alec Holland’s flaming body fell into the swamp, the bio-restorative formula mixed with the vegetation and as the vegetation consumed Holland’s body, something strange happened. As Woodrue puts it, “We thought that the Swamp Thing was Alec Holland, somehow transformed into a plant. It wasn’t. / It was a plant that thought it was Alec Holland! / A plant that was trying its level best to be Alec Holland…”
Moore disposed of Alec Holland, only to resurrect the Swamp Thing. For surely bullets (or lasers) wouldn’t be enough to kill a walking plant. There are no vital organs to hit. And with the bio-restorative formula in its system, it was only a matter of time before the husk of the Swamp Thing would start to regrow. And when it did, in freshly green form, it would awaken and read the file about who it was and how it came to be. It would learn the truth: that Alec Holland died in that swamp, years before. That the creature was merely a sentient plant with delusions of humanity. And the Swamp Thing would be angry. And General Sutherland would pay the price.
Woodrue concludes his narration on the final two panels, continuing the refrain from the opening: “And will there be blood? / I don’t know. I don’t know if there will be blood. / It isn’t important. / It won’t spoil things if there is no blood. / The blood doesn’t matter. / Just the dying. / The dying’s all that matters.”
Woodrue, alone in his hotel room, himself a man who had tried to turn himself into a plant, considers what would have happened next. How the Swamp Thing surely would have gone back to the bayou.
For Woodrue, it was enough to sit back and plan “…and to listen.” To listen to what? The possible screams of his former boss? To the rain?
No, as we find out in the next issue, Woodrue is listening to the plant life all around him. Woodrue is listening to what will later be termed “the Green.” And he has gone insane.
Alan Moore has managed, in one issue, to pull off the everything-you-know-is-wrong gambit, radically revise and humanize a formerly pathetic bottom-rung supervillain, establish that his title character is nothing more than walking vegetation, tell a genuinely creepy horror story, and set up a new kind of plant-mythology that will be deeply explored before the end of his run. Yeah, it’s a pretty great single issue, well told.
The Saga of the Swamp Thing #22-24 follow up directly from “The Anatomy Lesson” as the plant-who-thought-he-was-a-man goes back home to the swamp and tries to reconcile his new understanding of his identity with who he always thought he was. Meanwhile, Dr. Jason Woodrue begins making his – later to be proven completely insane, yet somehow understandable – move.
The other significant players in this mini-epic are Abigail Cable (formerly Abigail Arcane, niece of Swamp Thing’s now-dead nemesis), Matt Cable (husband to Abby, imbued with the ability to make hallucinations from his delirium tremens come to life through psychic projection – he’s a wreck), and later, the Justice League who live in, according to the narrative caption, “…a house above the world, where the over-people gather.”
Woodrue has declared “the revenge of the grass.” With his enhanced powers of plant control (aided by a bite from one of the tubers growing out of the newly revived Swamp Thing), Woodrue has begun to speak on behalf of nature, and reverse the deforestation and decades of neglect and abuse brought on by humanity. In one memorable scene in issue #24, a civilian fires up a chainsaw to try to take Woodrue down. Woodrue easily dispatches the human and picks up the chainsaw himself, wielding it as an ironic symbol, against the defenseless Abby Cable: “Close your eyes,” he says, “and shout ‘timber.’”
Swamp Thing stops him and reveals that what Woodrue is doing on behalf of nature – the destruction he has already caused, so vast that even the Justice League has taken notice in their satellite headquarters – is actually “hurting the Green.” “The Green did not do this,” Swamp Thing says to Woodrue. “You did.”
Woodrue loses contact with the Green, he can no longer feel “the steaming, fertile presence” in his mind. And he screams in horror at his loss, and runs away, later to be nabbed by Superman and Green Lantern.
Swamp Thing and Abby are left alone, destruction around them, and they walk back into the bayou. Abby asks the essential question: “And who are you?” knowing, as she does, the truth from Woodrue about the creature’s origin as a plant-who-thought-he-was-a-man. “I am…the Swamp Thing.” And that’s enough.
Curiously, in an unfortunate oversight, the final page of The Saga of the Swamp Thing #24 as reprinted in this hardcover edition, omits the final phrase of the Swamp Thing’s closing soliloquy. Originally written as, “I want…to struggle…with the alligators…turning over…and over…in the mud… / I want to…be alive… / …and meet the sun.” The “and meet the sun” part is completely dropped in this new edition, leaving Swamp Thing hanging in mid-sentence, even as he stretches out his arms in the final splash page, with the gigantic looming sun providing a reddish halo behind his head.
The symbolism’s still there, even if the words are missing.
Book One ends with a three-parter running through issue #27 that returns the Swamp Thing character to the kind of conflicts he generally had in the past – monster vs. monster, but Alan Moore provides an evocative, haunting context for the three-part battle, layering in plenty of humanity among all the claws and teeth and shrieking. He also brings in a classic Jack Kirby creation: Etrigan, the Demon. So it’s really more like monster vs. monster vs. monster in a highly-compelling story about childhood horrors and the true terrors of adulthood.
Matt Cable becomes increasingly unstable, and you can see Alan Moore building the foundation of a future relationship between Abby and Swamp Thing in these later-in-the-volume stories. The Swamp Thing, for all his interactions with people, seems content to head back into the bayou whenever he gets a chance. It’s his former glimmer of a human soul that compels him back into these relationships with the people around him, and as this first reprint volume comes to an end, we’re left with the sense that Alan Moore could continue along the same lines as the old Swamp Thing stories, with the monster coming out into the world to face challenges, then returning to the swamp. And the evidence from this volume shows that Moore can tell those stories masterfully. But there were bigger things in store for Swamp Thing by the time Moore was done telling his tale, and this was just the beginning.
A great, groundbreaking, highly-influential, still-worth-reading beginning, for sure.
NEXT: Swamp Thing Part 2 – Love Awaits, and a Crisis Looms