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 14th installment.
As I described last week, Alan Moore launched his lengthy run on Swamp Thing in spectacular fashion, following up on Marty Pasko’s loose ends with the incredible single issue of “The Anatomy Lesson,” and then continuing to provide his spin on some of the more iconic DC characters, even if only for a few panels at a time.
This week, I’ll run through the bulk of what we might term as “Act II” of his Swamp Thing saga, from “The Burial” of issue #28 through the beginning of the “American Gothic” storyline which ultimately leads into “The End” in issue #50. It wasn’t the end, of course, since Moore continued to write Swamp Things for another fourteen issues, but it was the issue that marked the departure of the Steve Bissette and John Totleben art team (though they would each return briefly before the next year-and-two-months was up), and in many ways the oversized issue #50 provided a climax and conclusion for almost everything Moore was building during his run on the series. After that, Moore had nowhere else to go with the character except into deep space. So that’s what he did.
But I’ll save the wrap-up of the final stretch of “American Gothic” and Swamp Thing’s mysteries in space for next week. This week it’s all about the gothic of Americana, the growing love between the muck man and the niece of a monster, and the advent of John Constantine.
These comics originally appeared with cover dates between September 1984 and July 1986, and sometime around issue #40 the series officially changed its title from Saga of the Swamp Thing to just plain ol’ Swamp Thing. The confusing thing about that is that the indicia changed, then changed back, then changed to the Saga-less version for good, while the logo on the cover had dropped the “Saga” part months earlier. All that means is that I’ll consistently refer to the series as Swamp Thing, whether or not that’s the officially-recognized title of every single one of these issues.
Oh, and the hardcover reprints from the last three years keep the “Saga” title throughout, for the sake of inconsistent consistency.
But who cares, right? Let’s look at what Alan Moore and company actually did inside the pages!
The Saga of the Swamp Thing Book Two (2009)
This second collection pulls together Swamp Thing #28-34, and sticks 1985’s Swamp Thing Annual #2 right in the middle, where it belongs, narratively speaking. The first story in the volume, “The Burial” gives the Swamp Thing character some closure as he buries the skeleton of the man who was once Alec Holland. As we learned in “The Anatomy Lesson,” back in issue #21, Swamp Thing isn’t Alec Holland – never was Alec Holland – but he still has the memories of the man he used to think he was. So the burial sequence, in an issue that’s almost wordless by Alan Moore’s prosaic standards, puts his past at rest, and gives us what is, in effect, the end of the first Act of Alan Moore’s long-form story.
It’s also notable because it’s penciled and inked by Shawn McManus, and while other artists besides Steve Bissette and John Totleben contributed to Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, none was as divergent in style as McManus. While Bissette, Totleben, and other Swamp Thing artists like Rick Veitch, Ron Randall, and Alfredo Alcala consistently combined an illustrative style with the frenzied musk of underground comix artists like Greg Irons, McManus is from the “big foot” school of cartooning, where characters gesture boldly and characters move from panel to panel in rubbery exaggeration. McManus is a fine artist who has had a long career in the comic book industry, but he seems jarringly out of place on “The Burial.” His style gives a cartoonish pantomime to an issue that might have been more horrific and emotionally-charged if another one of the regular artists had a chance to draw it.
But by Swamp Thing #28, monthly deadline pressures were already throwing any sense of a “regular” art team out of whack, and McManus gives us his best version of the story. We can’t fault him for having a drawing style that doesn’t mesh with what comes before or after (though, he will soon return to the series for a fill-in issue that does perfectly suit his style, even if “The Burial” is a mismatch).
The ever-shifting art team – even if John Totleben or Alfredo Alcala provide such consistent inking jobs that sometimes the pencilers don’t matter as much as they usually would – is one of the fundamental problems of Moore’s run from beginning to end. His Swamp Thing is a highlight of American comics, without a doubt, but the one thing that prevents it from being hailed as an equal to his more widely known works like Watchmen or V for Vendetta (besides the lack of even a watchable movie version – because, boy, I’ve never been able to sit through either of the Swamp Thing feature films, I don’t know about you), is that Swamp Thing doesn’t have the same kind of visual consistency as his most-acclaimed comics.
Regularly changing pencilers (and rotating between Totleben and Alcala on inks) is the equivalent of a great television series or a great movie that changes its directors and actors every few episodes, or minutes, then changes them back, then moves on like nothing has happened. Luis Bunuel can get away with it, when the purpose of the movie hinges on the technique, but a normal long-form or serialized narrative seems messy when major components constantly change from sequence to sequence. Comic book readers are so used to ever-shifting art teams that they may not even pay much attention, but it does radically impact the effectiveness of the story. Every artist brings a different tone, a different point of emphasis on the page, and even draws the characters slightly differently. It’s one of Swamp Thing’s great flaws. But Alan Moore’s impressive, groundbreaking work on the series overcomes that deficit.
Besides “The Burial” the stories reprinted in this hardcover collection include the horrifying return of Anton Arcane in issues #29-31, Swamp Thing’s Orpheus-like descent into the Underworld in Annual #2, the Walt Kelly tribute “Pog,” a framing story placing the very first Len Wein/Bernie Wrightson Swamp Thing origin in its new context, and issue #34’s “Rite of Spring,” the consummation of the love between Swamp Thing and Abby Cable.
Arcane’s return – through his infection of Abby’s husband Matt Cable – is a proper “comic book” moment, in the sense that the arch-villain never dies, and always makes his way back to torment the hero. What Moore does with the story, besides elegantly planting the seeds for Arcane’s return all the way back in his first few issues, even if we didn’t know what was causing the descending darkness and increasing corruption of Matt Cable at the time, is to consistently amplify the horrific elements, building toward an ever-increasing awareness of Arcane’s return, rather than providing a single moment where he pops back to life. Moore builds the “wrongness” of the world, and artists Bissette and Totleben give us flashes of imagery that shows us the underlying corruption. There’s one scene that’s particularly effective, where Matt Cable (clearly unbalanced but pretending everything is wonderful) shows Abby his new business and introduces her to his employees. Bissette and Totleben show us what Abby sees: a large house, a group of office workers, but juxtaposes those panels with brief glimpses in other images, of a run-down home and decrepit zombies. That kind of montage imagery is rarely used in comics – and if it was used in a DC comic prior to Moore’s Swamp Thing run, I can’t think of any examples, though it may be something picked up from old horror anthologies – but its impact is striking. It challenges our assumptions about everything Abby sees around her – everything we see on the page. We can no longer trust our own senses as we read this comic, because Matt Cable has the power to create illusions, and so does Alan Moore and his artistic partners. Illusions that hid the creeping evil beneath.
Swamp Thing, through Alan Moore’s typewriter, has advanced far beyond a book about a sad monster fighting other monsters.
And Alan Moore kills off Abby Cable.
In the tragic final pages of Swamp Thing #30, the title character silently approaches the Cable house, ascends the creaky staircase, finds Abby in her bed, and as he reaches out to her, his green, moss-encrusted hand twitches.
She’s dead. She’s been dead for a while. And Swamp Thing is just discovering it now. The hovering, vermin-and-insect accompanied Anton Arcane (wearing Matthew Cable’s body) merely cackles in response.
But remember, Alan Moore killed of Swamp Thing in his first issue on the series, so the death of a main character is nothing new. But Abby stays dead, at least through the following issue an into 1985’s Annual where our hero pushes though the Green (his connection with all plant life) and into the afterlife. Like Orpheus, or Hercules, or name-your-hero, Swamp Thing descends into the underworld to retrieve the soul of his beloved and bring her back to life.
It’s a chance for Moore and Bissette and Totleben to play with DC’s mystical pantheon. To not only provide the return of Jack Kirby’s Demon (in his natural habitat), but also bring back the Phantom Stranger (who had been an important part of the comic – and even the lead of the back-up feature, during the Marty Pasko run), and Deadman, and the Spectre. And to check in on the dead Alec Holland and the now-dead Anton Arcane (I’ll spare you the details of their final confrontation, but, as always, Swamp Thing wins in the end).
Swamp Thing literally saves Abby’s soul. And returns her to life on Earth.
Moore is known – partially because of Marvelman but mostly because of Watchmen – of grafting a realistic sensibility to fantastic characters. But with Swamp Thing, he’s pushing the boundaries of horror and epic romance, and though some of the light he shines on the darker corners of these conventional genres might emphasize some slightly unusual details, he doesn’t worry about grounding this series in a literal reality. It’s internally consistent, but it’s a magical world, full of gods and heroes and monsters. But he keeps the emotions genuine, and the relationship between Swamp Thing and Abby is the core of that.
So of course the hero had to save her soul. What else would have sufficed?
After the rescue and revival of Abby, Moore gives us a few obvious fill-in issues, clearly scheduled to give artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben time to complete the pages for the Annual and to get back on track for the final issue in this collected edition: Swamp Thing #34, “Rite of Spring.”
A few notes about the fill-in issues and “Rite of Spring,” before we move on to take a look at Volume 3 of the hardcover reprints.
1. Swamp Thing #32 is the Walt Kelly tribute issue I mentioned, a story titled “Pog,” an allusion to Kelly’s famous Pogo comic strip. Drawn by Shawn McManus in an appropriately elastic style, this one-shot Alan Moore tale recasts Walt Kelly’s comic strip characters as alien visitors on Earth. It’s a sentimental story about humanity’s abuse of nature, and as a single issue it’s quite good. But coming after the grandly tragic/heroic Arcane/Underworld cycle, it feels a bit too clever and slight. It does manage to mash the seemingly comical with the exceedingly dark and tragic, and Moore’s a master of that tonal clash, but it’s ultimately an extended riff on a kind of “no intelligent life on this planet” gag, with Pogo characters playing the lead roles, and Swamp Thing as a supporting character.
2. Swamp Thing #33 is a frame story about Cain and Able from the DC House of Mystery and House of Secrets anthology, wrapped around a reprint of the Wein/Wrightson original Swamp Thing story, which featured a different incarnation of the Swamp Thing character. The genius of this story is that Moore used the reprint to further his own Swamp Thing mythology, to build what would later be known as “The Parliament of Trees,” through the direct reveal that Swamp Thing, as we know him, is not the first or the last “thing to walk the swamps.” He’s a legacy character. So much of Moore’s run on the series would influence the comics that followed (and still follow), but this combined effort of killing off the main character then reviving him by revealing that “everything we knew was wrong” and then showing how the character is actually part of a much larger tradition, well, that’s deeply embedded in mainstream comic book DNA by now. But Moore was the one who sparked the fondness for these trends, even if he wasn’t necessarily the one to do any of them first. He just did them all together. And better than anyone before, mostly because he was clearly not writing for an audience of children in his Swamp Thing comics. It lacked the “Approved by the Comics Code Authority” seal. It even said “Sophisticated Suspense” right on the covers!
3. Swamp Thing #34 features no heroes and villains. No grand conflicts or costumed characters. For a superhero/monster comic from DC, available on the newsstand (as far as I know), it’s a radical issue. It’s basically the consummation of the love between Abby and Swamp Thing. It’s a sex scene, involving biological hallucinogenics. Abby takes a bite out of one of the tubers growing on the “man” she loves, and Steve Bissette and John Totleben and colorist Tatjana Wood give us page after page of trippy collage-style imagery, as Abby and her man-monster commune on a higher plane. That was a comic published in 1985, and it would still seem experimental today.
The Saga of the Swamp Thing Book Three (2010)
I won’t go into such length with this reprint volume, mostly because the stories here, though they have merit, aren’t as interesting to me. I originally came to Swamp Thing late, and Alan Moore’s final issue (#64) was the very first of his issues I read, though I owned a couple of the Pasko issues in my younger years. But I completely missed Moore’s run until it was over, and then went back to fill in my collection in the late 1980s/early 1990s, after I had already seen what he did on Marvelman, and V for Vendetta, and Watchmen. After he had already become disillusioned with the whole of American comics.
But this is all context for making one particular point: when I came back to these earlier Swamp Thing stories – the ones reprinted in this hardcover collection – I loved them. Here we get Swamp Thing #35-42, which are the bulk of what Alan Moore would term the “American Gothic” cycle of stories. In volume 4, “American Gothic” would continue and blend into DC’s larger Crisis on Infinite Earths event but then go in its own direction via Alan Moore to climax in kind of an unofficial “International Gothic Crisis of DC Magical Realms” – my unwieldy title, of course.
“American Gothic” was Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing road trip story. Each one-or-two-issue sliver of narrative would introduce some new monster who was really a metaphor for a social problem in America. It was perfect fodder for teenage me, but much less interesting for the me of 2012. It’s certainly an example of Moore in social protest (or at least social commentary) mode, and the stories are, as always, well-told and appropriately vicious. It’s not the treacle of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams from Green Lantern/Green Arrow, when the two heroes would fight interstellar racism and other social ills with the subtle delicacy of a wailing rock and roll sledgehammer. But it’s in that same ballpark, though Moore is better at making the actual story worthwhile and horrific, even if you happen to miss the quite overt social message.
“American Gothic” begins with the two-part “Nukeface Papers” and that story ends with a horrifically, toxically-scarred Nukeface holding his arms out to embrace the newspaper clippings that surround his image on the page. The newspaper clippings are “real,” a collage of actual newspapers, and all the headlines and bits of articles are about hazardous waste and toxins in the water and nuclear power plant contamination.
I retract my previous assertions. Some parts of “American Gothic” are just as sledgehammer-like as that “relevant” storytelling of the Green Lantern/Green Arrow days. It hasn’t aged well, though you can feel the sincerity oozing from the pages.
Just to be clear, I don’t want to dismiss the genuine, and still present, problems of water contamination and toxic dumping and all that really terrible stuff. But it’s presented as heavy-handed moralizing in a comic book that mostly used those concerns as story devices or background (other than in the also-overt fable of “Pog”). And the heavy-handedness, the thing that was likely so appealing to me when I read these stories 20+ years ago, seems overwhelming now. Like someone you agree with, ranting in your face about something that you already believe.
Fortunately, the rest of “American Gothic” isn’t as oppressively pedantic as “The Nukeface Papers,” but later installments reprinted in this volume give us a werewolf metaphor for menstruation (only, it’s literally a werewolf, so it’s not really a metaphor, ultimately), and a voodoo/zombie story that explores the lingering effects of the racist social structure of the plantation legacy in the south.
Yup. Those are stories or mini-arcs within Alan Moore’s larger “American Gothic” structure, and it’s not quite enough to derail the overall narrative, but it’s some of the weaker Swamp Thing stuff in Moore’s overall run. Still readable. Still with some nice (or nasty) bits. But also examples of Moore trying to push the boundaries of what comics can and can’t do well and perhaps finding that, oh, superhero/monster comics are not much in the way of elegance when it comes to exploring complex social issues.
They are pretty good at juxtaposing images of beauty and ugliness, though. And that’s a contrast embodied not only in the Abby/Swamp Thing dynamic, but in most of the best Swamp Thing stories where terrible things happen to innocent people.
Also, someone comes along who embodies beauty and ugliness in the very same person. It’s John Constantine, officially appearing in Swamp Thing #37 (though he popped up in the background of an earlier issue featuring the Demon, as an unnamed “extra”). Constantine, if you haven’t seen the quite-bad movie version, is an enigmatic magician in a suit and trenchcoat. He looks like the 1980s version of Sting – quite intentionally – but he acts like a hard-boiled detective who already knows where all the bodies are buried. He’s a noir wizard, with a punk rock spine.
All-in-all, John Constantine is a great character, and a powerful addition to the Swamp Thing comic, maybe not least because he offers a respite from the heavy-handed moralizing of so many other sections of the “American Gothic” uber-arc. Constantine isn’t one to preach to the reader. He’s a manipulative bastard who may be leading everyone toward their demise, or he may be helping to save the world. It’s uncertain, to the reader, and to the characters, and yet he seems impossible to ignore. You can’t help but follow him, even as he’s asking you to do the impossible.
NEXT: Swamp Thing Part 3 – The Impossible! Super-Crisis! And Swampy in Space!