The toys about the nursery
Rereading Saga of the Swamp Thing #25-#27 by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and John Totleben.
There’s a wonderful line in Moore’s foreword to the original trade of The Saga of the Swamp Thing about the pleasure of working in a universe with “a rich and fertile mythic background with fascinating archetypal characters hanging around, waiting to be picked like grapes on the vine.” It’s notable, looking back at Moore’s run, how central that vine is to his plan for the series. He’s not interested in creating characters. The only significant character created in the run, John Constantine, arrived at the request of the artists. Moore was doing this work-for-hire and treated it that way, a jobbing writer coming in to give the place a lick of paint, to uncover all the period details and synthesise them into a workable whole. He wasn’t tearing down and rebuilding; he was using everything from the character’s long history to furnish his modern incarnation. So the next arc, continuing Swampy’s character development, brought in another counterpoint to the central character, another monster able to hide behind the skin of a man, another sinister Jason: Jason Blood, The Demon.
The first issue with Blood in is a little jarring, to be honest. It sets the tone well, horrific goings-on beneath the surface of a small town that one mysterious stranger knows more about than anyone, but it’s like no Blood appearance I’m aware of before or since even in this comic. I’m convinced it’s borrowed from somewhere, too, this man going around saying gnomic things that foreshadow and lead to deaths, and again there’s something very Stephen King about it, horror sketched with a deft pen-line but still sketched. The line between a man impaled on a swordfish and a priest bisected by a sheet of glass in The Omen isn’t so long. The nightmares that the monkey-demon conjures for the children in the home aren’t so different from the many shapes of Pennywise the clown in It, each one a one-line story in itself but only there to contribute atmosphere.
Another Moore trademark that’s introduced here and casts a long shadow over the industry: references. Quotes. “Trot out the Nietzche and the Shelley to dignify some old costumed claptrap,” as Grant Morrison later says beside a Glasgow canal. In these three issues we have the etchings of Goya and the Charles Laughton film Night Of The Hunter, the former fitting well enough but the latter seeming rather shoehorned in, as does the whole framing sequence and the “began with blood” line which is too similar to Woodrue’s line back in #21.
The opening issue is setup. The middle issue is framed by Swampy and Abby’s desperate rush to the scene of the horror, telling its story in flashback. But the arc doesn’t take off until Etrigan arrives at the end of the second issue. It’s not the appearance of the Demon that does it – yellow, red and blue aren’t great colours for the horror genre – but his rhymed narration. First his little prelude, the acknowledgement that all the pieces are in place, then the recap in the third issue.
Partly it’s because Moore writes those rhymes so well, each one begging to be read aloud to get the emphasis and the cadences right, and partly it’s because we’ve broken out of the naturalistic template into something more theatrical and fantastic. You can’t stay grounded when you introduce a demon from hell. He narrates the final issue of the arc, the gem of the arc, entirely, opining on events he has no way to see. By his very presence, and unsubtly in a couple of couplets, he provides yet more foreshadowing of the arc to come, the return of Arcane which began building momentum only two issues after his definitive death. There’s the obligatory slugfest, ended again not with fists but with an assault of lateral thinking. There’s the revelation of Jason Blood’s struggle for humanity to Abby, the beginning of her sharing the burden of Swamp Thing’s new struggle to stay human, and a note of tragedy for the Demon which had never been sounded before.
It also cemented something. As far as I’m aware – and I’m not a comics historian, just a specialist in my own little corner – the Demon hadn’t been seen anywhere but in The Brave and the Bold for a few years. His adversary, the Monkey King, was a one-shot baddie from Kirby’s original run suggested by Steve Bissette. Having the Justice League appear was a statement of intent and contrast; they were defining Swampy by what he isn’t, a superhero and a known quantity. Moore was far more interested in picking up the minor characters, the forgotten ones of the DC universe, rehabilitating them and giving them a place to stay. And of all the ripples this singular comic created, that’s probably the one which had the most palpable effect.
Saga of the Swamp Thing #25-#27 by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and John Totleben, available in hardcover or trade paperback in Saga of the Swamp Thing v1.