There is a house above the world

Rereading Saga of the Swamp Thing #22-#24 by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and John Totleben, available in hardcover or trade paperback in Saga of the Swamp Thing v1. 

Where Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing led, many followed. It proved that you could create comics that weren’t for kids in an industry that was still explicitly aimed at kids. It dug up treasures from comics’ history, forgotten characters woven back into the fabric transformed by a different point of view. It used the working practices of comics – fill-in issues, annuals, crossovers – to its advantage.

After it came Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and Doom Patrol, Peter Milligan’s Shade and, eventually, the establishment of Vertigo. All used, more or less, the same template, working within the mainstream while stealing, corrupting, making a part of it their own. It wasn’t just good comics, it was pioneering. And while I’ve got plenty of time for comix as well, and the people like Crumb and Sim who never wanted to be part of the industry’s mainstream, this is where I started in American comics. That’s why I’m starting here.

The Anatomy Lesson having severed the roots of the Swamp Thing, the next three issues are a mini-arc – something that happened but wasn’t exactly common back then – that reposition and redefine the character and the comic. First there’s that sense of place again. Swamp Thing, or the body of the beast, flees Washington DC but doesn’t go to Metropolis, Star City, Coast City or any of the other superprotected urban locales that crowd DC’s USA. He goes somewhere real, somewhere nobody with a gaudy costume and vaguely-acquired powers visits. He goes to Louisiana.

Moore clearly had his eyes set on the Southern Gothic. Recycling Spanish mosses and loon cries from William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Moore gave the monster that had lost its humanity a world to exist within, a context outside of his hard-to-track history and the shared continuity. The arc also cemented the genre the character would live within: horror.

Horror was big in the 1980s. Stephen King ruled the bestseller lists and was joined by a legion of copyists, most notably in Britain James Herbert. Teens were getting slashed in every cinema. Comics, the original home of horror for kids and teenagers, were locked out of the party they’d helped begin by the comics code and the perception that they were just for kids when, as any letter column proved, they were mainly being read by older kids, teenagers, students and adults who’d first read them as kids. Adults who could handle a bit of a scare in this obscure corner of their four-coloured world.

The arc wasn’t a traditional horror story. The haunted houses and hoary monsters wouldn’t be touched until American Gothic. Defined by its villain (and the only real motive force in these issues), the arc had the plot of a comic: an old Justice League one-issue adventure. Woodrue gets alarming new powers over plants and threatens the whole world with destruction. The execution had the literary class American audiences would soon associate with Moore; that lucid narration in captions, those florid descriptions, the elegiac language. Swamp Thing’s journey through his own subconsciousness is beautifully done, in spare art and simple, surreal sequence.

Moore used the tropes of modern horror to make a supervillain a horror villain. King and Herbert made deaths personal by giving the characters little potted biographies, telling you about their history, how they happened to be in a place where vampires, a clown, or rats were going to horribly kill them. (Herbert particularly used these mini-biogs to introduce female characters with salacious sexual histories before killing them.) Moore followed that lead on a smaller scale, telling us about these extras like Billy Anslinger and Luther Galen to underscore the seriousness of the situation, to make victims more than sketchy extras. And he deployed his clichés knowingly, as a postmodern writer should: the iconography of the chainsaw in horror movies is discussed before the damsel in distress, Abigail Arcane, plays her part as a staple of the supporting cast by running to the monster for help.

But where horror movies usually close off the possibility of outside help – the roads are blocked, the lines are down, the police won’t make it in time – Moore devoted pages of his horror story to a Greek chorus of gods. I wasn’t part of the comicsphere at the time, if there even was such a thing, but Moore’s use of the satellite-era Justice League caused ripples of admiration which got the comic an audience, however small. First: because of the wonderful descriptions that opened the chapter, another occasion of sheer good writing making the familiar new one caption at a time. Second: because this wasn’t a team-up or a crossover but a sidelining. The JLA only appeared to underscore the scale of the threat and to be impotent in the face of it. They only touched down after Swampy had won the day with simple reason, establishing a pattern he’d repeat, to clear up the mess that was left of Woodrue.

The arc closes by reversing the symbolism of The Anatomy Lesson. Woodrue’s mask of humanity, so gleefully washed away, is reapplied. For all his control of the world’s plantlife, he was acting as a human. He tries to spray a veneer of humanity back onto his face, in a beautifully horrific but still PG-rated scene, but remained a monster. Swamp Thing abandoned the totem of his humanity by refusing the identity of Alec Holland, but reaffirmed his role, his presence in the world; he looks like a monster but he doesn’t act like one.

The first character arc was complete. And the closing sequence gave us something never seen in mainstream comics, finishing not with a moral or what’s coming next issue but a character moment, a pause for beauty. Rather than angsting on about his lost humanity like Rom Spaceknight, we’re shown what there is left. We see what Swampy’s becoming at dawn after a night of terror, a sunrise over the swamp and the simultaneous human and plant instinct to respond to that. To reach out and meet the sun.

Saga of the Swamp Thing #22-#24 by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and John Totleben, available in hardcover or trade paperback in Saga of the Swamp Thing v1. 

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