The fruits of my retribution

Rereading Swamp Thing #51-#56 by Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, Alfredo Alcala and John Totleben. 

So Swamp Thing’s in Gotham City, rightfully aggrieved by a wrongful imprisonment, with a government agency after him, and Batman’s there fighting injustice, and the city’s getting overrun by plants, turned into a wilderness. Swamp Thing #53? No, ten years earlier. The Brave and the Bold #122.

It’s a typically insane Bob Haney story, with those omniscient third-person captions written as if God was drunk in a go-go bar. Swamp Thing’s been captured by a huckster in a cowboy hat and is being exhibited as a freak, and there’s giant plants created by the government agency after him – they may as well be the DDI, they’re never identified – taking over Gotham. Batman frees Swampy, saving his “raunchy hide” so he can help, and then together they search the city for the King Root which Swampy severs before being downed by defoliant. He collapses, limbless and all but dead, but recovers and regrows when left in the swamps.

Did this story inspire Alan Moore’s Gotham storyline? I think it’s possible. Moore was well versed in the DC universe. He’d read a bunch of comics and knew the odder characters. Deadman and the Demon, after their series got cancelled, both got their main exposure in TB&TB. Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs was inspired by a scene close to the end of Hong Kong movie City On Fire, and this seems analogous; Moore is taking the elements that made up the earlier story and using them in very different ways. Swampy’s the antagonist, not just the beast, behind the greening of Gotham and he fights Batman rather than teaming up with him.

A lot more than horror happened in the issues that made up American Gothic. Monthly comics didn’t have the freedom to separate arcs completely. There always had to be something to bring readers back for the next issue. While Swamp Thing was finding out about himself and battling the Brujera, Abby was being photographed getting it on with a monster and arrested for bestiality. The couple’s cosy domestic situation, which had been a default since even before they were a couple, was torn apart. Finding out about this turns the passive Swamp Thing back into a monster.

We’d also seen Swamp Thing’s power grow. He’d always been possessed of impressive powers of recuperation, regrowing or reattaching limbs, but there’d been little exploration of the limits of that or how he did it. Moore had dissected the physical body and given the character a non-physical presence and a history consistent with previous appearances and even with characters from other universes. He’d been reassigned from accident of science to champion of nature. And he’d gone from slowly regrowing himself to spiralling out of Abby’s bathtub to becoming the vegetation of a whole town. His power no longer had constraints.

This kind of pseudo-scientific classification of superheroes, establishing how their powers worked and what they could and couldn’t do, became quite the thing in the graphic novel age of comics onward. There are arguments for and against. For: knowing a character’s limits provides tension. Swamp Thing’s quasi-mystical powers of regeneration in the pre-Moore days meant he could always come back, given a pool of stagnant water and some vegetation. Against: pinning down these abilities, making them concrete, also makes clear how invented, arbitrary and ridiculous they are.

Stepping out of the context, the creators also developed over the American Gothic issues. The art team changed from Bissette & Totleben with occasional fill-ins to a rotating team. Rick Veitch, another Kubert graduate, pencilled #37 and from then on Ron Randall, industry veteran Stan Woch and Filipino star Alfredo Alcala became regulars. Totleben pencilled as well as inked and Bissette bowed out after inking himself on some wonderfully grotesque demon scenes in #50. It sounds like a patchwork but it hung together – Totleben’s elegant hatching gives anyone’s pencils a veneer of class, Veitch had the same sense for skewed panel layouts as Totleben, Woch’s work was solid whether dealing with gatherings of mages, South American forests or contrasting drug trips, and Alcala gave a textured, woody feel to the pages that I actually associate with the comic far more than Totleben’s stylised beauty. From #51 onwards Veitch is our artist, Alcala’s the inker and Totleben’s an occasional guest. They’re not as distinctive as the Bissette/Totleben team and they’re suited to a different kind of horror, the skin-crawling gross-out kind rather than the pairing of twisted perspectives and smooth linework that made the title famous, but they take it dependably through to Moore’s end and beyond.

And Moore developed. The purple prose that was once his calling card – check out the opening to #35 for it as its finest – got reduced, as did the reliance on third-person captions to guide the reader through a story. Captions stay but generally they’re first-person, giving Alec’s or John’s or Abby’s take on events. Those Watchmen transitions, where the closing panel of one page relates to the opening panel, appear as a structural device for the first time in #43, Windfall. (And they’ve become a reviled device that nobody would ever use, but what have we got instead? Transitions that just happen? A big improvement.) In the same issue we get two pages which delineate Chester’s character without wasting a word, as he first studies his psychedelic root and then deliberates on whether to take it, showing us how careful, painstaking, and contemplative this counterculture character is. Ghost Dance in #45 uses the repeated image of a rifle’s hammer to create a drumbeat throughout the issue, keeping the dialogue flowing over it. And the signature Alan-Moore-of-the-80s device, the dialogue that runs over a sequence of unrelated images but comments on them or alludes to them starts to appear for the first time.

That said, in these issues there’s work to be done. The transitions are there but so is the third-person narrator, hustling the action along and describing the new Gotham. After 30 issues of passivity and a storyline in which his tendency to stand and do nothing was crucial to the conclusion, the Swamp Thing is spurred into violent action, flexing his muscles and getting in the face of the law. Some heavy lifting’s required to get our couple on Batman’s turf and Alec’s anger eclipsing every other facet of his character is a little jarring, but it’s worth it for the double-length #53. After the noisy climax of three issues ago this is a surprisingly quiet one. It begins after the fact, Batman alone in a city that’s very different to the grim grey canyons he’s used to, and there’s a big wedge of contemplation of what this imposed wilderness does to the human soul before the Batmobile wheels back, bristling with circular saws. Our green hero gets put down by defoliant, takes down Bats with multiple bodies, and apart from a show of strength later on that’s it for conflict. The climax is about power and overreach but it’s a gentle kind of power, nobody’s hurt and improbably there’s no structural damage. The question being posed is utopian: why not use this power? Why not change the world for the better rather than maintaining it as is?

These are the issues I bought as a kid. #52 was my first. And throughout these comics, from #51 to #55, we’re right in the middle of the DC universe. There’s only one guy bigger than Batman, and he’s the punchline of Batman’s list of characters that should have their lovers prosecuted. There’s been a shift from the fringe to the centre that follows Moore’s own rising prominence as a writer; a list of other gigs in the letters columns has culminated in Watchmen, the defining work in his career. Swamp Thing is now popular enough as a comic that it can use the big guns. The Batman of blogger culture today, who’s beaten you before you turn up to the fight because he always has a plan, isn’t in evidence but we get Lex Luthor instead, in his Man-of-Steel business suit but solving the Swampy problem easily. Why not? Moore was trusted to conclude the previous continuity of Superman, so what issue could anyone have with him using these toys in his own comic?

His death causes Swamp Thing to skip almost two whole issues. A big deal in those days, when the failure of the titular character to appear in his own comic guaranteed angry letters from fans who felt swindled. Abby mourns her lover silently, allowing the words of others to wash over her and collapsing on the kitchen floor while the background is hatched and crosshatched. It’s nice but these are comics so we need a fight. The story of Liz and Dennis is one of those that seemed mature at the time but is weak in retrospect; men in abusive relationships are powerless in the world, not gun-toting veterans, and those alligators are awfully convenient. The funeral, with its guest list and flashbacks, is an experiment in pacing; page-long panels, no action but in fantasy, a farewell from the supernatural community and then the long zoom, the lightyears of zoom, until we see that Alec’s alive, well and blue on another planet.

Turning that final page, seeing Swamp Thing there, was powerful. I remember it hitting me: boom. Did I genuinely think he was dead until then? I can’t remember. Probably not. But it remains a fantastic example of the thinking that Alan Moore brought to comics. There were few splash pages in British comics because there wasn’t the room. Here, the rhythm of the pages turning is masterfully controlled so we don’t realise we’ve been led out of the galaxy for a reason. But the splash I loved most was in #53, the giant redwood Swamp Thing towering over the city. I’d never seen anyone do that, build the tension through dialogue until a single silent images hits the reader between the eyes. It seemed to me, not even a teenager, a perfect example of something comics can do as a narrative form that prose never can. And, abused and overused as splashes have been in the decades since, it still does.

Swamp Thing #51-#56 by Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, Alfredo Alcala and John Totleben available in hardcover Saga of the Swamp Thing book 5 or trade paperback Swamp Thing: Earth to Earth. 

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