Toking down on some Kryptonese Red

Rereading Swamp Thing #77-#81 by Rick Veitch, Alfredo Alcala, Tom Mandrake, Jamie Delano and Steve Bissette.

We can think of Rick Veitch’s first year on Swamp Thing as a combination of Moore’s first year and American Gothic: the creation of a new modus operandi for the character interleaved with an odyssey of modern American horror. Veitch’s time-travel run is the equivalent of Moore’s space issues: continuity-porn, revisiting DC characters close to forgotten, alongside the expansion and deepening of the Swamp Thing’s power.

This short run of issues, therefore, occupies roughly the same space as #51-#53 in Moore’s run; an encounter with superhero royalty and an attack from a hitherto unsuspected enemy which sends Swampy spiralling into new realms while Abby, just as they should be celebrating a new era of togetherness, is left to mourn him. It’s a turning-around more than a turning point, another of those pieces of plot manipulation required to get the stay-at-home pacifist Swamp Thing to do anything. It’s an interregnum, nothing like as dramatic as the Gotham storyline, perfectly readable but mostly unremarkable.

Which is fine but makes for a dull week’s blog entry. So I planned to widen the scope a bit and make this a state-of-the-DC-nation circa the closing months of 1988. In these comics, in the marketing material which surrounds the story in the original issues, there are advertisements for Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Black Orchid, Gaiman, Kieth and Dringenberg’s Sandman, and the closing storyline of the truncated Andy Helfer-Kyle Baker run on The Shadow. All Mature Readers comics, the first two very directly following in the footsteps of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, the latter working from different origins and a different tradition but still part of the family. Hellblazer, under Jamie Delano, was beginning a run that continues today. The Question, by Denny O’Neill and Denys Cowan, was well into its run and about to begin regular team-ups with Mike Grell’s Green Arrow; both are Mature Readers comics, but both cleave much closer to traditional street-level superheroics. Grant Morrison and Chas Truog’s Animal Man, which didn’t bear the Mature Readers warning until #51 but was working in the same territory, had begun and the same writer was about to take over the Doom Patrol, which became a Mature Readers comic a year-and-a-half later. Morrison was self-consciously creating very different comics to Moore, bright and silly where Moore was dark and serious, but the sensibility was shared.

I was going to do that. But the events of the last week, and the announcement of the Before Watchmen miniseries, have soured me on writing a celebration of when DC Comics was bringing new writers and new creativity into the mainstream of the comics industry. Because it ended up as the same old rip-off; some royalties, sure, but no control over your intellectual property, no promises kept, and we’re still in an industry dominated by publishers who think that the characters are more important than the creators and that’s where the money is, despite every indication to the contrary.

I’ve been talking to people about Before Watchmen, sharing my geek hurt. I broke the bad news to three people who are occasional comics readers. Each one asked the same question: is Alan Moore involved in these Watchmen prequels? And when they heard he wasn’t, those people weren’t interested. I realised, then, that my geek hurt is as trivial and pointless as geek hurt always is because Alan Moore had already won.

He won 25 years ago when he became the brand. No matter what’s happened to the comics industry in that time, however it’s changed and however it’s stayed the same, the reversal has taken place in the minds of the audience. The creators have become more important than the characters. The people who read comics then and are confused about what comics are any good now know what brand to look for and it’s not DC. Alan Moore sells comics whether they’re superhero or pulp hero, pornographic or rambling guides to magic, cop soap operas or Victorian serial killers. He’s taken his audience with him. And that creator-led approach, following the guys who come up with the stories rather than the guys who own the copyright, has become the norm.

I got in touch with an old schoolfriend last year. We bought comics together back when we were 12, 13 – he remembers me buying Excalibur, I’m not sure I ever got any past that first special – but the comics bug hasn’t stayed with him. He doesn’t buy comics any more, but he buys Alan Moore’s. He had League: 1969 within a week of it coming out. He’s the rule, not the exception. I’m guessing he’ll ask the same question of Before Watchmen all my other non-comics interlocutors asked: is Alan Moore involved? And when the answer’s no, he won’t buy them.

So: these comics. The first couple, with lovely Dave McKean pen-and-ink covers, are fill-ins by other artists and other writers. Jamie Delano writes a decent enough story about Abby coming to terms with the strange circumstances of her pregnancy. The characterisation of Constantine’s good, and the repeated triangle motif makes something out of nothing, but there’s no real reason for the story to exist. Steve Bissette, who at around the same time wrote a Swamp Thing annual with Batman, writes an issue with a nice panel of a microscopic Swampy checking out his daughter and an embarrassing sequence where Swamp Thing gives birth to himself.

The Superman issue, #79, sets a precedent for what I’m calling the zipless guest appearance; you can have the big guns in your comic as long as nothing happens and you don’t mess with their continuity. None of that overgrown Gotham nonsense. Veitch brings Chester, Liz, his superhero commentator Huntoon and Swamp Thing himself to Metropolis for an encounter with the hero who sets the standard for the rest of the universe. Veitch shows hints of the familiarity with the Silver Age he’d really show off in Supreme, getting Clark Kent to zap a couple of Swampy incursions without exposing himself to Lois Lane. We get an alternative, intellectualised portrayal of Superman, his iconography played with and lightly analysed, at the same time as we see a Byrne-era Lex Luthor that doesn’t really jibe at all with the one who appeared in Moore’s run.

Next it’s the Invasion, capitalised as a reminder that this is an official crossover event. Following the disaster of Millennium this was a strong, simple concept; alien baddies from a host of books team up to take down Earth. It might not be a classic comic but it was a crossover done right, where writers got to choose their level of participation and how they wanted to be involved. Veitch plunged right in. The members of the Parliament sent to explore space discover Dominator vegetable technology but do nothing to stop it and Swampy, secure in his home and his power, gets his ass kicked back through time.

Finally we get an actual Invasion crossover issue, trailed on the cover no less, where Abby runs into a nice little nod to the title’s Weird Tales past and is introduced to her widowhood. Which she utterly refuses. It’s a character touch that works; she got told Alec was dead last time and he wasn’t, so this time she doesn’t believe a word of it and stays steadfast throughout his disappearance. You do wonder how it would have worked a third time, if the title had continued in the same pattern, but that never becomes an issue. Green Lantern Guy Gardner, popular in the late 80s for his unapologetic macho strutting and general obnoxiousness, makes a great guest appearance that’s completely true to his portrayal elsewhere and at the same time dark and threatening when viewed by characters from a different genre.

There’s nothing experimental in these issues. They don’t do new things with the form. Apart from a couple of allusive lines Veitch drops the Alan Moore toolbox as well. Apart from one issue it’s not picked up by the next storyline, which has too much story and too many guest stars to pack in. The fast-moving waters of comics had already moved on past the techniques of Watchmen, a pinnacle of the medium but not something the cutting-edge creators of the time felt they needed to emulate. Why walk in another’s footsteps when there’s so much virgin territory to explore?

Swamp Thing #77-#81 are available in the trade paperback Swamp Thing: Infernal Triangles. 

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