The frost is on the pumpkin

Rereading Swamp Thing #67-#76 by Rick Veitch and Alfredo Alcala.

There are all kinds of dichotomies in comics. The DC-Marvel split is one of them, with every fan of the mainstream leaning to one side or another. The mainstream-independent split is another: we’re a long way from the 80s, when superheroes were on the shelves at every newsagent and Love & Rockets was confined to comics shops and record shops. Now the Hernandez Bros are in the bookshops, where comics are doing better than ever before, and the superhero comics are the ones in the ghetto.

The fundamental dichotomy, to my mind, is the split between writers and artists and writer-artists. It draws much the same battle lines as mainstream-independent but brings much more clarity to the medium. Writing personal stories, autobiographical, memoirs? Then you’re a writer-artist. Work-for-hire? Writer and artists. Experimenting with the medium? Writer-artist. Superhero work? Writer and artists. Creator-owned work? Writer-artist.

There are obviously numerous exceptions. Harvey Pekar was an autobiographical writer who couldn’t draw, Frank Miller developed his style on superheroes, Grant Morrison wrote some of the most innovative creator-owned comics of the 90s, Dave McKean and Bill Sienkiewicz did their best-remembered work on mainstream superheroes, and Alan Moore, as I’ve discussed at length, has experimented extensively with the medium as a writer inside and outside big companies. In the majority of cases, though, the rule holds. The breakout hits, the comics that have won favour out in the real world, have consistently been from those who are adept with a typewriter and a brush. Fun Home, Palestine, Jimmy Corrigan, Maus, Asterios Polyp; all personal works, all changing the medium by either how they approach things or how they look, and all the work of writer-artists. Comics produced by the big two under their Fordist assembly-line system of writer, penciller, inker, colourist, letterer, editor are necessarily less personal and rarely reach a mainstream audience even when they deserve one. Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s Ultimates 1 and 2, for example, should be clutched to the heart of every boy who loves action movies, every guy with The Dark Knight on DVD. They’re available in bookstores but they never reached that audience. They never broke out of the ghetto. The literary audience is interested in work that does different things with the medium. The non-literary audience will pay to see their favourite superheroes in a movie but not in a comic.

The difference that a writer-artist brings to comics, the natural ease they bring to experimentation in storytelling, doesn’t become apparent until a few issues into Rick Veitch’s Swamp Thing run. #70’s The Secret Life of Plants, which breaks the comic into three tiers across double-pages and accelerates time on one track while slowing it to a second-by-second crawl on another, is the first example of him flexing his muscles. Having chosen to make Constantine an integral part of his run, Veitch does what Moore never did and goes behind the scenes to show the process by which he always knows everything: meeting with a spectrum of informants from acupuncturists to soothsayers to idiot savants to witchdoctors to gardeners, lighting a cigarette at the end of every sequence. Meanwhile across the middle, in silence and slow motion, Abby and Alec are getting it on. It’s erotic in a way that the wordy, intellectualised lovemaking portrayed by Moore never was. We’re doing, not saying, the intimacy conveyed in faces and flowers and burgeoning fruit. And it all comes together at the end when Constantine arriving in the marital chamber freighted with knowledge as always but this time we know how hard-won it is, how many different vectors of information needed to be brought together.

As the need to find the next Swamp Thing accelerates, so does Constantine’s work. Next time he gets three panels a time on the right-hand side of a spread, lighting a fag as the punchline to each one. The third time it’s two panels and a cigarette. It’s a beautiful way of conveying urgency, of the synchronicity storm raging around the Swamp Thing, of being at the heart of something that’s faster and faster and out of control. It’s also a technique I can’t imagine Alan Moore using, formal as it is. Much as he’s following in his predecessor’s footsteps, here’s where Veitch starts to make the title his own. The progress of Roy Raymond’s nightmare also strikes me as something only a writer-artist could do; after his introduction in the all-ape annual he begins his journey with the cajuns, then Chester, whose internal monologue is represented as a constant search for cosmic equations to make sense of the world, then he’s trapped in the limo with Wild Thing. We see Raymond and Lipschitz in traffic, in their own first-person section, in passing terror. They’re never abandoned but there’s none of the formality that Moore would bring to a subplot that’s running across eight issues. They just keep turning up, their situation deteriorating with every appearance, and despite all the other flash and noise going on in the comic the reader is desperate to know their fate. It’s gross-out horror, it’s creepy, it’s compelling. Reading it now, I realise that the horror disguises their function in the plot, keeping Wild Thing on ice until the denouement, but it’s handled so well it wasn’t apparent first time around.

This run of comics is about the quest for a new Swamp Thing and, just as American Gothic uses the hoary horrors of Hammer to explore the demons of the United States, the quest uses a spectrum of new candidates to be earth elemental to explore a set of modern horrors. Terrorism as a corporate takeover tool, fear of flying, the evils that the grasping, get-ahead yuppie can do. But that’s it for modern horrors. The first candidate, Solomon Grundy, is a great comic and an innovative exploration of a character’s past, revisionism in a benign form, but there’s no way Grundy can be classified as a modern horror. It’s DC universe porn and very good at it. Likewise the close of the quest, where Swamp Thing fights Swamp Rex and Chester’s drawn into the synchronicity storm, isn’t exploring any horror unless it’s the fear of getting set on fire. The ending, by way of a brief Hellblazer crossover, works fine but doesn’t necessarily bear up to serious thought. As Mark Millar writes 96 issues later, “What’s a flesh elemental mean anyway? It doesn’t even make sense.” The drafting in of Etrigan and the Phantom Stranger as observers is meant to give the conception a bit of that old cosmic weight but misfires; they seem out of place in this domestic drama. And though having a child is the natural next step for our leading couple the route there’s a little convoluted and the payoff in story terms a little dubious. It’s hard enough getting the Swamp Thing out of the house at the best of times. How much worse will it be when he’s a family man?

What’s wonderful about these issues isn’t the story they tell as the way it’s told. The commercial freedom given to New Format comics at the time means Veitch doesn’t have any advertisements to work around. They were clumped together at the back of the book, which allowed the artist the freedom to build the book around double-page spreads. He makes the most of that freedom. #68’s Reflections In A Golden Eye plays with the idea of caption monologues; Alec’s ponderous purple prose narrating the summoning of the new Swamp Thing is one reflection, the mocking, corrupt imaginary monologue of whoever’s behind the bomb plot is another, Chester’s search for meaning is a third, and Abby’s story, told in a silent sequence with her thoughts running in long paragraphs across the bottom, is a fourth. All four plates are spinning simultaneously, domestic drama side-by-side with cosmic consciousness, and it’s so fluidly done that the reader doesn’t even notice. Under Alan Moore the same trick – four first-person monologues in 24 pages – would have been showier, more formal, more consciously an attempt to push the envelope. Under Veitch, a writer-artist, it seems organic, natural, easy.

Alden Hollandaise, the yuppie candidate for Swamp Thing – and those Holland names begin to seem a bit ridiculous in this run, like the D-names of Gaiman’s Endless do if you think about them for a moment – has an experimental monologue of his own, the stream-of-consciousness linked captions that wind around the page in whatever order Veitch likes. The technique, the kind of trick Dave Sim liked to mess with in Cerebus, breaks the flow of reading and ties us tightly to the narrator; much as we might despise him we have to follow him, our thoughts forced into the same pattern as his. Only he can make sense of these pages. There’s the climb of the lift in the Sunderland building, reading down to up as he goes up, and the spiral of panic as he heads to his office. It’s brilliant, a portrait of an individual that shows what’s wrong with society in Reagan’s America, but it’s also only ten pages long. The issue, wonderfully titled Gargles In The Rat-Race Choir after a Dylan lyric, has time for Constantine’s truncated search for information, a portrait of General Sunderland in the same place Swampy began his modern era, a slice of limousine horror, Alec loves Abby and all the other stuff that keeps an ongoing title flowing and bubbling away.

Likewise, the climax of the Search for a Swamp Thing in #74 is mainly conventional – there are fights, chases, explosions – but Veitch sets the rhythm for the issue with the opening page and two further pages of nine-panel grids where the camera rotates around Abby, the first two with allusive captions about the night, the last silent and communicating clearly how she feels about a disembodied elemental spirit, how bereft the decision to end its embryonic life leaves her as she walks into the darkness and distance.

The conception issue, following a crossover with Constantine’s own title which seems, on his side, forced and unnecessary, is conventionally told with some fine moments – the tree on the arse tattoo, the meeting with Kirby’s Funky Flashman, the outsider’s description of male lust. The issue preceding, titled The Thinker but which to me will always be Swamp Think after the cover, is more Moore than anything else we’ve seen in this run. It’s an exploration of the universe, which in this case is explicitly the DC universe, from the Parliament of Trees to the ineffable God, and an elegant way of having Swampy solve his own problem for once.

Veitch was stepping out of Moore’s shadow with these issues: keeping faith with the character, the relationship, the take on modern horror and the different angle on the DC universe while pushing the boundaries in his own way. His idea of horror was less melodramatic and more creepy, in the EC-sense of the word. And as an artist his sense of experimentation was less formal, less “We’re going to spend an issue doing this,” and more instinctive, using different techniques to get the job done.

Swamp Thing #67-#76 by Rick Veitch, Alfredo Alcala and Brett Ewins are collected in the trade paperbacks Swamp Thing: Regenesis and Swamp Thing: Spontaneous Generation. 

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