Rereading Swamp Thing #56-#64 by Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, Alfredo Alcala, John Totleben, Tom Yeates, and Steve Bissette.
Alan Moore’s writing is so good, it makes you feel cheap. It should be clear by now that I’m an admirer of the hirsute one; indeed, his work is one of the few passions that’s stayed with me from childhood into middle age. And when I’m writing about his writing, even work from earlier in his career that’s subject to all kinds of commercial pressure, I’m conscious that my writing isn’t the equal of his.
That self-consciousness is especially marked when I’m writing about the characters of the DC universe and Moore’s interaction with it. Is it childish to focus on Deadman and the Demon and ignore the complex literary structure they’re inhabiting? Am I an idiot to be thrilled by the Spectre’s guest appearance rather than the heroic odyssey of a monster redeemed by love? When Moore’s asking questions about power and the psyche why am I being some fanboy with a bone on about Batman? In a blog about the way Alan Moore’s influence reshaped the comics medium, why do I keep coming back to the effect he had on a bunch of company-owned characters? Like I said: cheap.
But when you look at the stories, when you scrape away the dense, multilayered prose that covers the architecture of plot and character like gorgeous lichen, when you get past the pioneering use of techniques from literature, from underground comics, and from a lifetime of study, when you actually strip these stories bare, then the truth is that the stories are kind of cheap. Is The Garden Of Earthly Delights really a mediation on the intoxicating effects of unrestrained power? Or is that a sophisticated way of disguising fun with Batman and Commissioner Gordon? Is The End really about the nature of evil, or is it a big slugfest with all Alan’s favourite DC occult characters?
The final arc of Moore’s Swamp Thing run, Swampy in space, lays its motivations bare. Thematically it’s about the nature of power, about how one keeps one’s self intact when your possibilities are limitless. Practically, having him explore his power is better done off-planet so there aren’t any repercussions in a shared universe. But really, I think this arc was about Alan Moore wanting to write DC’s science-fiction characters and taking Swamp Thing on a little tour to do it.
It’s a tour that’s interrupted by two fill-ins and which ends early. I only just noticed. These comics have been part of my life for so long that they seemed unquestionable, if that makes sense; no process, no behind-the-scenes production issues, they are the way they were always meant to be. But on examination, of course it’s a journey truncated. Discounting the fill-ins, there’s one issue of solitude, two of Rann, one strange encounter and one Green Lantern before we’re back on Earth. It wasn’t easy getting Swampy into space, and you have to imagine Moore would have done more with him when he was out there. The Omega Men? The Star Rovers? Fragments of the Superman mythology? Ultra, the Multi-Alien? Instead we’re back on Earth and at the end of the Moore run within a year, no doubt because Moore had gone from being every DC editor’s favourite to a superstar within comics and a rising star outside of them. The success of Watchmen meant the end of writing a quirky little horror comic which had once been a big break.
The two fill-ins are by Bissette and Veitch, artists trying their hands at writing well before the Image revolution. I kind of like Bissette’s issue but was always confused about who the Patchwork Man was. It’s only with hindsight I realise that I didn’t know who Adam Strange was, who Jason Blood was, who Liz-and-Dennis were and I never felt confused about their origins. My confusion was the result of writing which tries to pack too much into one issue. Arcane’s framing sequence is nice, (and typing those words has brought back where I was when I read this issue, walking home) but the pages on Abby’s job would have been better spent exploring her relationship with her father. The Veitch issue with Metron is poor, a diversion about the secrets of the universe that inexpertly teases the artist’s run as writer, and the Fourth World characters seem like day-glo intruders. It had me planning to give the series up, though I’m glad I didn’t.
My Blue Heaven is a farewell to the style that had made Moore famous; the issue-long prose poem, gorgeous words in harmony with gorgeous images. “Soles of azure suede leave inch-deep prints in soil like powdered sapphire,” or “The clouds below me, milk curdled with blackberry juice,” or “The drained ocean’s sunken garden where cryptic coral abstracts sit among salt puddles,” there’s a quotable line on evey page. Show-don’t-tell should be the rule of comics, or you get Claremont’s X-Men explaining their powers as they fight. Moore ignored that law and had the skill to pull it off. Veitch’s approach to storytelling, splitting full-page vistas into panels where only Swampy is moving, conveys his isolation and his slow progression from toying with madness to realising he’s in its grasp. And Moore writes Constantine for the last time here, a masterful cameo as a nagging part of Alec’s intelligence that understands the danger he’s in. Constantine had no real reason to appear post-#50 but this is the third time he turns up, the character’s magnetic pull acting on his creator as it has so many others in the 25 years since.
(Aside: there’s a place on the penultimate page where Swampy says: “Better to fling my intelligence out into endless nothing than into the welcoming arms of insanity,” that seemed to me, as a youngster, to be a wasted opportunity for another blue reference: the Swamp Thing is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea…)
Adam Strange vs the Hawkmen contains one of Moore’s repeated storytelling tics, a long stretch presented in a language that the average reader won’t understand. We see it in Big Numbers, at the opening of v1 and v2 of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but as far as I know this is its first appearance. It’s another of those touches that flatter to deceive; the use of a created Rannian tongue makes the reader feel like he’s on an alien planet and serves to disguise the fact that this is a egregiously unoriginal science-fiction scenario cribbed from Saturday matinee Flash Gordon. The Spectre’s green underpants were legitimised by careful build-up and Totleben’s art, the very opposite of the Golden Age. Adam Strange spends most of his time out of costume. When he suits up, we bulldoze through the ridiculousness of the finned helmet with caption monologues that are first sexy then violent.
It’s a revisionist piece where Adam’s concerned. The inherent absurdity of a man being zapped across the universe by accident is exposed and an alternative explanation presented; Adam is a stud-ape, mocked by the citizens of Rann, brought to their post-nuclear infertile planet to impregnate the Queen. Presumably his heroism is a bonus. It’s classic revisionism, contradicting nothing that’s come before but transforming it. A child’s fantasy of secret heroism somewhere else is brought blinking into a more mature world. But it’s revisionism later abandoned and an example of why owners of intellectual properties became afraid of these British writers and the vandalism they do to characters. Likewise the recasting of the Thanagarians as fascists with wings and their desire to invade Earth; this is a plot point DC decide to go with in the Invasion a couple of years later, but it doesn’t really have any business happening in Swamp Thing. Moore’s Twilight of the Gods pitch was presumably made around this time, and it’s likely this is a piece of foreshadowing for that thrown in because hey, it’s a shared universe, do what you want with it. Swamp Thing’s a spectator in these issues. All he does is regrow wilderness, taking his power to new limits, and move on.
#60’s the only issue in this closing run where the experimental Alan Moore, the guy trying to take the medium into new places, shows up. It’s a torrent of disorienting science-fiction, 22 pages where we’re never sure the terms used refer to the same concrete elements as in our language. It still tells a coherent story of a ghost raped by clockwork, a life-form native to the vacuum of space which plucks Swampy from the aether, realises he can give her what she needs, screws with time to dismantle him and make him a father to children he could never recognise or know. Maybe there would have been more of this if Alan hadn’t been writing Watchmen, and rewriting the grammar and vocabulary of comics, at the same time. The next issue sees the omniscient third-person narrator return, along with the ordinary-people-about-to-become-victims-of-horror trope not seen since the pre-Arcane days, as Alec meets the vegetable civilisation of a bit-player Green Lantern. The entire world of a guy with leaves growing out of his head who used to fight space crime with Hal Jordan is created for the first time, but it’s not done with the deft economy that created a world of occult friends and rivals back in #49. This is a very, very wordy comic written by a guy whose focus is elsewhere, and apart from one page where the panels make up the Swamp Thing’s face there’s no attempt to do anything new.
Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing ends with a whimper, not a bang. Comics had to back then; all the toys back in place for the next player. The final issues are barely notable. A return to horror and the righteous vengeance of a wronged monster, a theme of this series since its beginning, in #63 which is stuffed with overworked transition moments: Matt Cable in a coma becomes Liz Tremayne in bed, ambulances with sirens become answering machines, etcetera. And the final issue is a farewell gig focusing on the series’ most unlikely achievement, settling beauty and the beast into cosy domesticity. The problem of the Swamp Thing’s power, the big question of this storyline, is dealt with in a night’s thinking. It’s anticlimatic considering everything that had gone before but probably wasn’t intended to be permanent: Alan Moore had become one of DC’s most valuable assets, he was on the slate to write all kinds of stuff for them, and presumably he’d have written Alec again somewhere. It was a goodbye to a launching pad, a series that had taken a sensibility, a point of view, from a dark corner of the universe to centre-stage. What happened next was what other people did with it.
Swamp Thing #56-#64 by Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, Alfredo Alcala, John Totleben, Tom Yeates, and Steve Bissette available in hardcovers Saga of the Swamp Thing books 5 and 6, or trades Swamp Thing: Earth to Earth and Swamp Thing: Reunion.