Divined from the entrails of America
Rereading Swamp Thing #38-#50 by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Stan Woch, Ron Randall and Alfredo Alcala.
Vampires, werewolves, zombies, serial killers, ghosts; let’s have a new look at all those old clichés. Let’s bring them up to date, breathe fresh life into them, take a sideways look at creaky silent-movie monsters and put them into the complex, often divided, society of modern America.
Though there are obvious similarities between what Alan Moore wanted to do back in 1985 and what the TV writers of the 21st century have been doing recently, I’m not suggesting that True Blood, The Walking Dead, Dexter or American Ghost Story are directly descended from the 13 comics which make up the American Gothic storyline on Swamp Thing. (If there is a relationship, it’s distant and through Joss Whedon’s Buffy.) But the instincts that have brought us such a phantasmagoria of fantastical post-millennial TV were the same ones that powered Moore’s storyline.
Just as science fiction is usually about the present day it was written in, horror reflects our current fears. Zombies were fear of a black other, numerous and unstoppable, when they first became popular. In their post-Day of the Dead incarnation they’re about consumerism; in The Walking Dead they’re specifically about that uneasy, gnawing feeling that our consumer society has run off the edge of the cliff and will soon start to fall, that someone’s going to pay for all this and that the bill is due. Moore, writing about the long shadow of slavery from a dull town in the Midlands, made his zombies into a racial metaphor; they’re the wrongs of the past that can’t sleep, whose restlessness rises up to confront the modern world with its similarities to the past. It could use more finesse – the actors preparing for a TV show about the days of slavery are two-dimensional, and almost every interaction we see them in is about race, while the plot of the show and the past that it echoes are as lurid and unsurprising as a romance novel.
But the metaphor works; Louisiana is built on a bedrock of slavery, of contrasting values for human life based on skin colour, and on horrific, terrible exploitation which cannot simply be buried and forgotten. For the dead to confront the living, for the living to be trapped into repeating the past, is to use the machinery of horror to startling effect. There is no level, apart from the obvious, on which what we see in Southern Change and Strange Fruit is not true.
Then there are all the touches in the execution which let the story take wing and fly; the framing of pages with events from the voodoo calendar in the first half, the growing sense of unease marshalled through an issue where very little happens, that funny and horrific opening to #42, and the line drawn from the wrongs of more than a century ago to the recent past by bringing a character’s father back as a zombie. It’s believable, it’s horrible, and it’s human.
Not every story in American Gothic – and is this the first arc in comics that was named as it happened, or were things like Zatanna’s Search or the Dark Phoenix Saga named at the time? – is as successful. Not every story in the American Gothic run, in fact, which is reasonably measured from #37-#50, is entirely part of American Gothic. Windfall, the story that introduces Chester, doesn’t have much to do with the arc. #46, the Crisis tie-in, has beautiful art, cements Constantine’s position as a mover and shaker in the DC Universe, and does a nice job of building tension but is fairly disposable. Comics weren’t constructed in arcs back then. There needed to be something in every issue that would hook you into buying the next.
The horror stories themselves vary. The vampire two-parter pushes the idea that the community of vampires is no more evil than the neighbouring community of humans, establishing the idea of sympathetic monsters which repeats throughout the arc, but it’s a lot better at saying it than showing it. The vampires, who Moore half-explains are created by an anaerobic virus he’s stolen from I Am Legend, kill kids, let their children kill each other and are even dressed as submarine 80s punks. The zombies are established as righteous creatures; the vampires are nothing but a nest of predators we’re glad to see washed away. Likewise, the ghosts in #45 are horrors defined by their deaths and nothing more, freaking out and killing the sacrificial dare-you-to-go-in haunted house tourists. The serial killer isn’t even a new take on it: with serial killers still a novelty then, all Moore does is create one with a high bodycount and a numbers-and-eyes gimmick, call him the Bogeyman and let Swamp Thing passively take him off the map. All of them work as modern horror stories but they’re not exactly complex.
The Curse, linking werewolves with menstruation with Native American wrongdoing with the state of womanhood in 20th-century America, bites off more than it can chew. The metaphor stands up, but the oppressions heaped upon its lead character are both stereotyped and excessive, Swampy is once again an observer, and the werewolf goes from avenger of women to suicide in ten or so pages. The intention and the ideas are good, but too much is squeezed in.
There are two ultimate evils behind all these reworked myths: the Brujera, who are mainly plagarised from p102-105 of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, and the Original Darkness. Plagarised is probably too strong a word. It didn’t really exist as a concept in comics back then. Stealing from a literary source, carrying information from one medium to another, was presenting it to two very different audiences. And comics weren’t permanent. Anything printed in 1986 would be rare within a few years, known only to collectors within a decade. Still, it’s a massive info-dump and whether you read the book or the comic first, you’ll encounter nothing new in what you read second.
The Original Darkness remains occluded until the climax of #50, but it’s a big enough threat to need a recruitment drive. Batman had already cameoed in #44 – and Batman? Seriously, I know you’re not cosmic-level, but you have nothing better to do than tell drunks to stay indoors? – and Mento, previously of the Doom Patrol and more recently of hot 80s comic The New Teen Titans, had been set up for a role. #49 is a big old recruitment drive for the next issue, bringing in Sargon the Sorcerer, Dr Occult, Zatara and Zatanna, Baron Winter, the Phantom Stranger, Etrigan, the Spectre, Deadman… The characters that Moore had made a part of his universe before were joined by three Golden Age magicians who’d made only sporadic appearances since. The cast was assembled and the stakes were high.
Cain and Abel return for #50. Moore adeptly uses them just as they’d always been, as horror hosts introducing the issue and explaining what happened as it closes, but does so naturalistically and without breaking the fourth wall. Two arenas of conflict are set up and a battle against ultimate evil focuses on what it is, how to fight it, how to even comprehend it. The battle in the ether is bloodless, almost, with heroes being spat out and recovered. The Original Darkness itself is given a personality and a need, a hunger for knowledge of the world and itself. On the homefront, a device to keep the story grounded and stop it getting too Galactus and the Watcher, two of the Golden Age mystics are killed in flames. They may not have had much time in this series, a handful of panels for each, but they’re well-sketched and their age is made palpable. The deaths, and the grotesque circumstances of them, are affecting.
In terms of legacy, however, the deaths of Sargon and Zatara are problematic. This is comics so their deaths are reversible; over the last decade we’ve seen that every death is reversible. Both are back on the DC block right now. They weren’t characters anyone cared about at the time. But to introduce them in one issue and kill them in the next purely to amp up the size of the conflict is the kind of stunt that gave Mature Readers comics a bad name. Give your characters to these people, the weirdo writers from Britain or independent comics, and that’s the last you’ll see of them. They’ll either be killed in the name of gritty realism or have their origins revised until they become untouchable. And though when I first read these comics I loved those deaths, loved the threatening, powerful rhythm of the circle and its racing energy, they’re hard to justify from a storytelling perspective. Moore’s new character Constantine, who only really takes shape in the closing issues of the arc, walks away. A character who shared Action Comics #1 with Superman is dispatched. The writing’s better, the exits are dignified, but are they really so different to Bendis killing the Wasp to make Secret Invasion look like it had consequences, or Grant Morrison killing the Martian Manhunter to make Final Crisis a big deal?
And what’s the Swamp Thing doing in the middle of all this? Now established as an earth elemental, a green good guy with a girlfriend, no longer tormented and no longer a horror, what’s his role? He’s in the supernatural world Moore’s pulled together around him, and it is kind of a shame that first use of this world is for a big knockdown traditional fate-of-the-universe superhero fight, but he’s not a major player. But this is what Constantine’s prepared him for. Not to fight but to reshape reality, to redefine the conflict. Everything he’s seen, the ghosts he’s laid to rest, the horrors he’s beaten or been powerless against, has taught him and the reader a new way of understanding and assimilating horror. The journey becomes the answer and evil isn’t defeated but accepted. It’s a good ending, a clever ending, and it’s nice to have it explained to us by Cain, but it’s also an ending where nothing happens. The fight is over and… yeah. It’s another consequence of working in a shared universe. The comic’s popularity was growing, but Swamp Thing was still an obscure horror comic in a superhero world. Nothing of real consequence could take place in its pages. Punches have to be pulled. As he does again at the close of his run, Alan Moore does a great job of disguising this enforced stagnancy. Swampy becomes a major player in a major conflict because of his passivity and saves the day by fence-sitting.
Swamp Thing #38-#50 by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Stan Woch, Ron Randall and Alfredo Alcala available in hardcover in Saga of the Swamp Thing books 3 and 4 or trade paperback in Swamp Thing: The Curse and Swamp Thing: A Murder of Crows.