I’m a nasty piece of work, chief

Rereading Swamp Thing #32-#37 by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Shawn McManus, Ron Randall and Rick Veitch. 

Those bemoaning the parlous state of modern mainstream comics, an activity which has been popular for at least 40 years, sometimes point to the lack of new characters. Where are the Supermen and Batmen of the modern age? How come there haven’t been any new, popular superheroes since Green Lantern? Why are comics condemned to ceaselessly strip-mine the past?

It’s a blinkered view of the medium which ignores all the ways it’s expanded since the 1980s, of course, but there is a point there. However big all the Image heroes were in the 90s, they were nothing new and they’re nothing now. Where are the new franchises? How come we’re forced to promote guys from the 1970s like Luke Cage to the big league just to see a new face in the Avengers? Why were DC’s youngest heroes all legacy men, inheriting the mantle of their fathers and mentors? There are talented people working in mainstream comics and they do create new characters. So where’s the new blood? Where are the characters that everyone wants a go of?

John Constantine was one of those characters. His origins are ignominious – Bissette and Totleben wanted to draw someone who looked like Sting – but within a year he was a fixture of the comics, within three years he had his own title, and he’s remained enduringly popular ever since. Swampy’s seen three series cancelled while Hellblazer marches on, cultivating his own brand of occult nastiness. He popped up all over the DC Universe before being banned and no less than three analogues were created to use in his place. He went from nowhere, a supporting cast member in a fringe horror comic, to Hal Jordan’s funeral. One of a handful of characters created by Moore in 44 issues proved such a success that he’s still bringing in royalties today.

What’s the appeal? You can sum Constantine up in a sentence, and here’s mine: “Chain-smoking British magician walks the line between the streets of London and the depths of hell.” A modern, urban take on magic, where it’s not about having great power but about leveraging it. He doesn’t fire bolts of eldritch force from his hands, he doesn’t summon familiar or helpmates from mythology, and what rituals he can do take time and effort to enact. But he has knowledge, and knowledge is power. He can bend an Earth elemental to his will. His address book contains the names of superheroes and major occult players. He performs confidence tricks on demons. Half of it – probably more than half of it – is bluff, but attitude can take you where knowledge can’t.

In this first appearance we see some of that. We see the connections, though only to a team of people we’ve never met before. We see the knowledge, of who Abby is and how she can be used to get to the Swamp Thing. We see how he uses power, how he first blackmails a creature who could tear him apart, then seduces him into following his will by the promise of information. And we see that ability to bluff, to ride his luck into dangerous territory, both in his handling of Swampy and the following issue’s face-off with a Hell’s Angel. The man towers above him and shouldn’t be afraid of a pretty blonde Englishman, but there’s an intensity there, a commitment to beating the opponent regardless of the personal cost, that’s terrifying on a human and a cosmic scale.

For Swamp Thing he was a motive force. The character’s so passive that for the first year of Moore’s run everything – supervillains, demons, visitors from space, his nemesis – had come to him. To get him out of the swamp and travelling around America somebody needed to come in and crank him up. Constantine presents Swamp Thing with a choice that was no choice, a physical journey that continues his spiritual one. A rooted character goes on a road trip. It’s a trick that works so well that Moore repeats it for the second half of his run.

Before we get to Constantine’s first appearance in #37, though, there are two fill-ins, a horror story and a first date. The first of the fill-ins, Pog in #32, is the singular one. It’s a tribute to Walt Kelly’s newspaper strip Pogo filled with funny-talking funny animals. Moore crash-lands them on Earth and confronts them with the horror of what humans do to the animals they sentimentalise, and an alligator shows them that animals are little better. It’s interesting as an early example of Moore’s penchant for mashing fictional worlds together, it’s another example of the revisionism that would come to dominate these comics – pull the comforting rug away, push the faces of characters created for children into harsh reality – but best of all, it’s wonderful one issue story and a stellar example of how to handle a fill-in. Shawn McManus’s cute, bouncy, stylised artwork jarred in his earlier fill-in. When he returned Moore was ready with a story crafted especially for the artist, and it was a perfect marriage. If you’re a comics writer, if you’re a strong voice with something to say who can’t draw his own stuff, you have to be able to work with artists. If you attempt to forge a career without that, it will be inconsistent, confusing and ultimately frustrating for everyone.

The second fill-in, apparently a rush job, was half-reprint and dropped hints about the direction of the next 18 months while reintroducing a pair of DC’s horror hosts. Introduced but not integrated, they’re back for the end of American Gothic. And then we’re back to straight horror and the only new supervillain introduced during the Moore run: Nukeface. Though that’s not really fair. He has a codename and he has the superpowers of being invulnerable to toxic waste, addicted to toxic waste, and generally radiating death, he’s no villain. He’s a product of villainy, a Typhoid Mary with a magnetic attraction to toxic dumps and a misplaced enthusiasm for sharing them. Suggested, like Constantine, by the artists he’s the star of a terrifying pair of issues that show how Swamp Thing could have continued as a straight-up horror comic, without all that developing-the-character and wider-universe stuff. There’s a metatextual device employed with newspapers through both issues, a material that’s used as a texture, as wallpaper, by the artists but that contributes to the background hum of Cold War paranoia. And in #36 there’s the Rashomon structure, a hackneyed device in prose but a newcomer to the comics page, which boldly begins with Swampy’s death and ends with Nukeface, undiscovered and undeterred, setting off to intoxicate us all. Never seen again, to my knowledge: come on, DC, what are you doing? This is an Alan Moore creation and you’ve not made him into the star of a summer crossover event? Get on it.

#34, Rite of Spring, was a legend by the time I began reading this series. I couldn’t afford it; the back issue was three times what a usual comic cost. Even the painted cover behind the polybag set it apart from the rest of the run. And it was about Swampy having sex, and it lost the comic the Code, and it was the best thing ever. That’s what I heard. Reading the actual comic in trade five or six years later was a disappointment. Ridiculous, because this is a wildly ambitious comic that turned the format on its head, that explored possibilities the comics page had rarely seen, that married psychedelic art and prose poetry beautifully together, and that blazed a trail few have dared follow even today. But in part that’s what let me down. A music journalist once described a favourite album as an unanswered phone call to the future and that’s how Rite of Spring feels; after issues inspired by newspaper comics, horror comics and DC comics, this was Alan Moore showing how the language of underground comix could be repurposed and used by the mainstream. It was significant to the building of his legend and it’s a wonderful piece of work but it’s hard to fit it into the jigsaw. It was too much to take in, too much of a leap beyond what was thought to constitute a comic, and so occupies a unique and conflicted position in history; central to this run, central to the myth, but in a comic where almost every line of dialogue has proved hugely influential over the decades, this issue casts no shadow at all.

Saga of the Swamp Thing #32-#37 by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Shawn McManus, Ron Randall and Rick Veitch reprinted in hardcover in Saga of the Swamp Thing 2 and trade paperback in Swamp Thing: Love and Death and Swamp Thing: The Curse. 

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