Friends and other strangers

Rereading The Saga of the Swamp Thing #29 – #31 & Annual #2 by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Rick Veitch and Alfredo Alcala. 

Comics used to be full of fill-ins. They were a tradition older than having a regular creative team; the Fordism of American comics meant that the characters were more important than the creators and the monthly schedule was more important than either. Seeing a character delineated in unfamiliar ink, with strangers’ words in his mouth, wasn’t nothing. Only obsessives worried about who was writing. Fans cared about who was drawing. Collectors and casuals, the two markets collectively responsible for the bulk of sales, didn’t give much of a fuck.

We’ll return to the subject with reference to Swamp Thing. The first issue of this arc, as it’s collected now, is written by Moore with fill-in art by Shawn McManus. It’s an inconsequential story, a done-in-one that could be an introduction to the character and could have been written to tread water until the regular artists returned. Certainly that’s how it feels, and in some ways it’s surprising it wasn’t detached from the first collections like #20 was.

The fill-in is now an anachronism. The next issue saw a mortal wound to another anachronism, the Comics Code Authority, branding comics with its little white label since the 1950s. This issue, with its clear allusions to incest, broke the Code – presumably the bit about “illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed.”

But books had gone out without the Code before and increasingly creators, publishers and readers took no notice of it. There must have been trepidation, committing to regularly publishing a comic without Code approval for the first time in a generation or more, but the impact was nil. The publicity may even have attracted readers to an obscure horror title with an unknown English writer and a couple of neophyte artists.

What would they have encountered, these new readers? The return of an arch nemesis, a plot that was probably going on in at least ten other comics released that month, but a return in an unfamiliar guise. Arcane had always been evil and he’d always returned. All Moore did was kick away the architecture of the mad scientist and remove the cliché about “somehow I survived the explosion…” making Arcane a spirit who escaped Hell by sheer force of will to do demonic deals with humans and return to the mortal plane. All the pseudoscience that was bolted on to Swampy’s origin was removed from his signature enemy. Instead of a chase for the Swamp Thing’s body, Arcane’s mission was all about hurting his enemy, hurting his niece, twisting the knife as much as possible. There’s some background noise about an expanding web of evil, some reason for all those serial killers walking out of Louisiana in scenes from any 80s horror novel, but really it’s all about the supervillain’s primal motivation: revenge.

Over three issues, the threat is revealed, rampant and finally vanquished. It’s all mystical, setting the scene for what follows and repositioning the Swamp Thing within the DC Universe. There’s a callout to the big dogs of the universe when the Joker stops laughing, and a page (cut from the trades) with the Monitor and Harbinger from Crisis, but they’re really only there to amp up Arcane’s threat.

In the middle issue Alan Moore does a lovely thing where he delays the Swamp Thing title until 13 pages in, once again rearranging the familiar furniture of comics to new effect. And in the final issue it’s all down to a slugfest, Swampy beating Arcane and then Matt Cable sending him to hell. There’s no real logic to the swamps being a place of power, causing something that seemed unstoppably evil a few pages ago to meet a sudden end. It’s comic logic; a villain overreaches himself, underestimates the hero, forgets the power of good, and the return of Matt Cable to his body could be from a Stan Lee epic.

More interesting is what follows. Moore was used to writing epics in four pages. Skizz, the longest story he’d written at this point, was just over 100 pages. So the 40 pages of an Annual, at this point in DC’s history usually wasted on a story by new artists that had no effect on monthly continuity, was like a novel to him. There was room enough to create a whole universe; so that’s what he did.

Swamp Thing, after a hasty bit of thought-balloon exposition, abandons his body and visits the Green, the realm of the newly dead, heaven and finally hell. I can’t tell you if these visits were based on previous continuity, if a consistent heaven and hell had appeared in DC comics before, but I suspect not. They’re broadly defined, a little bit of detail for each, room left for other writers to do whatever they want without contradiction. But like so many Moore ideas – Earth-616 in Marvel a fine example – the order he suggests where there’s been none before proves elegant and attractive enough to be adopted as the standard. This hell lasted for years.

The guides that accompanied Swampy on his search for the soul of Abby changed a corner of the DC Universe and changed the comics industry. I’ve examined that statement, which seems a little bold and hyperbolic to survive the snark of the internet, but I believe it’s accurate. Deadman, rarely seen since his own series ended in the 60s, appears first and combines mysticism with wisecracks. The Phantom Stranger, most frequently seen before this in the Justice League, proves himself an able guide to the unearthly realms. The Spectre, a survivor of the Golden Age, appears as a gatekeeper. And Etrigan returns, still rhyming, as a guide to hell and a maverick among demons.

Moore constructs a cosmology from scraps here, winding in characters from wildly different stories and binding them together with a single mystical thread. They were all associated with the occult before, battling magical enemies, but they were never shown as natives of those realms. Moore lines them up and assigns them roles: one for limbo, one for heaven, one as a higher power, one for hell. The roles stuck. One comic created the underpinning of a whole universe and populated it. All these characters got their own series later in the 1980s. All remained regulars in the Mature Readers universe that sprang from this issue and which eventually led to the whole Vertigo line. Abby gets rescued and good, in the ever-passive form of the Swamp Thing, triumphs over evil, but what matters more is the impression of an impossibly rich universe we’re left with.

The pages that expresses itself most forcefully to me reading today are the few with the Spectre. They’re kind of clunkily handled, with none of the finesse of the Stranger’s dialogue earlier, but there’s something about this towering, all-powerful figure with his white flesh and his green bootees. This guy was around from the 1940s, I think, looking at him. He was there in the war years, he was there in the 50s, and that sense of age, of power, of something that pre-dates the universe I know, comes across in those pages. It’s something only continuity, for all its myriad failings, can give you; the Spectre is bigger than this comic, bigger than the story, bigger than life.

The Saga of the Swamp Thing #29 – #31 & Annual #2 by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Rick Veitch and Alfredo Alcala is available in hardcover in Saga of the Swamp Thing v2 and trade paperback in Swamp Thing: Love and Death. 

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