The dreaming gorilla
Rereading Swamp Thing #65-#66 and Annual #3 by Rick Veitch, Alfredo Alcala, and Tom Yeates.
There’s an episode of The Brave and the Bold, the Paul Dini animated series, where Batman, Detective Chimp, B’wana Beast and Vixen team up against an all-ape alliance of Gorilla Grodd, the Mod Gorilla Boss of Gotham City, and the Brotherhood of Evil’s beret-wearing machine-gun-toting Monsieur Mallah. It’s a fun episode, running rampant over continuity to pick the best bits as good stories should. But I doubt it would ever have happened without the Mature Readers comics of the late 80s and the archaeology into the forgotten and despised comics of the past they undertook so gleefully. More specifically, that episode owes a great debt to Swamp Thing Annual #3.
You can’t overstate how much the Mature Readers comics loved the DC Universe. Loved its high-end heroes, the flagship characters they make movies about, but more importantly loved its dark, neglected corners. The characters who appeared in three issues in the 1970s, the one-shot villains who deserved stardom, the back-up guys who were somehow always more intriguing than the cover stars. We’ve seen Alan Moore’s love for all the forgotten occult guys, his expert tying of characters created decades apart by diverse hands into a coherent cosmology. His successor, in only his second issue, wanted to emulate that success, to follow in the footsteps of the master, perhaps even to pay tribute. Only he wanted to do it to gorillas.
DC had – has – a surfeit of apes. And, apart from Detective Chimp, they’re all here. B’wana Beast’s help-ape Djuba. Monsieur Mallah of the Brotherhood of Evil. Comic artist and detective Ape, of Angel and the Ape. Congorilla. The Mod Gorilla Boss of Gotham City. And, of course, leading the pack, DC’s alpha male Gorilla Grodd, hypnotised and immobile but able to use the mind force to enlist the help of wildly disparate apes everywhere.
They’re all woven into the story seamlessly, as is Congorilla’s sidekick Janu the Jungle Boy, now all grown up, and detective Roy Raymond. The one who’s been shoehorned in is Swamp Thing himself, an anomalous minor player in his own title, but that’s kind of okay because it’s an annual and different rules apply. Mature Readers comics got a reputation for using up and ruining characters, for killing them or damaging them so badly they could no longer fit in to mainstream continuity, but here they’re treated with absolute respect. They’re given depth and dimensions they never had before without exceeding the boundaries set by previous appearances. B’wana Beast as a white god, petitioned by a despairing Bishop Tutu? Congorilla as an eternal refuge for an aging Congo Bill? The toxic, unacknowledged relationship of need between The Brain and his creation? They’re all here, and all wonderfully delineated in a few panels each as part of a supervillain-takes-over story that’s only missing the heroes.
Rick Veitch was picking up Alan Moore’s ball and running with it, self-consciously keeping Swamp Thing a title of modern horror, of a different angle on a shared universe, and of experimentation with storytelling techniques. But in this, like an ape storming Gorilla City, he was not alone. The movement of adult comics and graphic novels that later became known as The Dark Age had begun. Like most movements it had already been running unnamed and unrecognised for a while.
Let’s roll with the analogy: Alan Moore is Gorilla Grodd, shaggy-haired and unsociable but able to do wonderful, terrible things with the force of his mind. And the success of his comics, particularly Watchmen, proved there was a market for his point of view. So all kinds of others, the apes of this analogy, who’d been creating comics which experimented with character, form, ideas or just had a bunch of sex and violence in were roped into a single movement. Frank Miller, whose Dark Knight had at least the prominence and success of Watchmen and has certainly remained enduringly popular with a male adolescent audience. Howard Chaykin, whose second year on American Flagg! was bolstered with Moore backups and who moved to DC to bring his unique perspective to The Shadow. The philosophy and symbolism of JM DeMatteis, the urban realism of Mike Grell, the Gothic and Arthurian fantasies of Matt Wagner, the glossy-surfaced high-velocity sharp-angled art of Bill Sienkiewicz, the pop surrealism of Grant Morrison; all the artists and writers who’d dared to believe there could be more to the medium than the mainstream had bothered to explore suddenly became comrades-in-arms. And Rick Veitch, with a history of odd, creator-owned work behind him at Epic Comics, was at the wheel of the Dark Age’s flagship title.
That Annual is a thing of beauty. Every gorilla in the business, whether an A-list villain like Monsieur Mallah, a forgotten joke villain like the Mod Gorilla Boss, an aged lead like Congorilla, or the teams of B’wana Beast and Princess or Angel and the Ape; every one of them got a new angle, a new look. The Mod Gorilla Boss becomes a TV addict quoting movies, Mallah becomes Carlos the Jackal, Angel becomes a girl with a thing for gorillas and the Ape becomes a parody of the new movement in comics, a prima donna with a pencil who scripts his own work years before Image. Congorilla’s decision to abandon his humanity, to let Congo Bill become an ape in a man’s body while he’s not quite the opposite, was a plot point in Moore’s Twilight of the Superheroes and might be stolen from that – Moore is thanked in the credits for some role in its production. Solovar, leader of the intelligent, pacifist apes of Gorilla City, gets a page to lament the destruction of his civilisation and a page to reflect on how it was saved. Veitch had never written company-owned characters before but proves himself equal to the task of revitalising them, something that had become a core element of this title.
Over the course of his run he becomes equally adept at writing the relationship that keeps the comic together, but in his first couple of issues that’s not apparent. Veitch doesn’t seem to be able to find anything for Abby and Alec to do. 65 sees the latter visiting the Parliament of Trees via the Green, represented as an aquatic trench of ancient trees that Swampy swims down between. While he’s there, getting the Sprout plotline that’ll take us through the run started, Abby’s tripping around the swamp high on tubers. It tells us nothing about her or their relationship. The annual’s seemingly designed to be modular and detachable – it’s not included in the collections – so what happens there, with Swampy running through his origin and Abby watching, confused – isn’t of consequence except for the introduction of Roy Raymond. Then Abby gets sent off in astral form to meet the Sprout and it’s Alec’s turn to moon about the swamp.
Constantine’s back at the end of 65 and stars in 66, breaking into Arkham Asylum to meet Woodrue and find out more about where this storyline’s headed. As he was back in American Gothic, he’s the motive force getting the vegetable moving with a connection inside Arkham that gets him to Woodrue and gets him a ringside seat at a Batman fight, as the Dark Knight takes down Killer Croc with nerve gas. It’s the subtext of the issue: we begin watching Batman summoned to deal with an explosion while reading quotes from a book about the conflicts, both physical and symbolic, between the human and superhuman. We see him in action as Abby soars off to heaven, we see him cripple a villain without remorse and we see him huddled and broken at the rear of the asylum waiting for Alfred to pick him up. Does he fight these battles at humanity’s command? Are we mere spectators at the brawls of giants? Is he our representative, the sum of us?
The subtext has a subtext. Woodrue would be taken from Swamp Thing after this issue to become – in theory – a key player in the DC universe. He was one of the chosen in DC’s summer crossover Millennium, one of those the Guardians of the Universe picked to guide humanity on its next evolutionary step. Hence Constantine’s reference to the “kind of caper that comes along once in a thousand years,” in #65, hence the reference to the millennium in the closing panel of #66, hence all the stuff about man vs superman. It’s an unofficial crossover, if you like.
The thing is that I bought Millennium, bought all eight weekly issues, and it’s an awful piece of shit. It has nothing to say and says it at length. I can’t remember how they padded those issues out – the comics are thankfully long gone and I have no desire to revisit them – but Swamp Thing was lucky not to be involved, because the series demanded that one person from every comic’s supporting cast be revealed as a robot spy. (In Swamp Thing’s case it would probably have been Chester, and it was just as bad an idea everywhere else.) This one issue has more to say on the subject than the whole crossover did elsewhere. But it shows a willingness to get out of the backwaters of the universe and take part properly, to be a player, that characterises Rick Veitch’s run. If Swamp Thing’s selling as much as the Flash, why can’t he have the same kind of profile? Other comics, notably Morrison’s Animal Man, would answer that question. #66 shows what a Mature Readers comic could bring to the party at the same time as it demonstrates its disadvantages. Woodrue’s time as Floro in the New Guardians, a team of stereotypes and painful stabs at modernity, is not well remembered and it was a hundred issues before he came back to the comic. Making a character toxic works both ways.
Swamp Thing #65-#66 and Annual #3 by Rick Veitch, Alfredo Alcala, and Tom Yeates are available in the trade paperbacks Swamp Thing: Regenesis and Swamp Thing: Infernal Triangles.