Crashing into history

Rereading Swamp Thing #82-#87 by Rick Veitch, Alfredo Alcala, Tom Yeates and Tom Mandrake. 

Time in comics is weird, as Scott McCloud noted in his short chapter on it in Understanding Comics, because of the movement of the reader’s eye. Time is strictly linear in movies, and it’s linear in books with the option to flick back a few chapters and find out who that minor character is, but in comics whole stretches of time are laid out before you and exist simultaneously. A surprise in the final panel of a double-page spread won’t be a surprise because, consciously or unconsciously, you’ve already seen it. A relentless action sequence means you read faster, cramming pages with dialogue or panels slows time down, full-page splashes can transfix the reader and provide a natural interval. The language of music best describes time in comics, and there’s also a commonality in that both music and comics are little understood by the people who enjoy them.

Time in a shared continuity has altogether different problems. Monthly comics can’t be in real time because they don’t have the room to describe a year of activity, so characters are continually receding back into the past. Synchronising time between tens of different comics across one company is a nightmare. And when you’ve got a bunch of comics running in different eras and characters who regularly travel through time then contradiction becomes the norm.

In five issues travelling back through time, Swamp Thing visits five different eras: World War Two, World War One, the Wild West, the American Revolution and Camelot. He encounters, by my count, 15 different DC-owned characters, each a product of a different era of publication. If you like to see shared universes explored, if these characters are realer to you because they existed before and continued after their appearances here, you’ll love these comics. And in the middle of that there’s the first ever Sandman crossover, unheralded and uncollected.

There’s no overall structure for these issues and there are no formalist experiments. Stepping out of his predecessor’s shoes, Veitch lets his instinct for storytelling take precedence over any desire to experiment with the medium. We get nice little effects that most mainstream comics weren’t using, like the close-up of linework on Rock’s face at the beginning and end of #82, the epistolary narration of #83, and the sideways panels of #87, but they’re luxuries that all come second to the story. Veitch drops into Alec’s thoughts, through captions, whenever he needs to and uses other narrators for expediency. The medium-stretching element of the title is gone. There’s no time for it. There’s too much else to do.

In #82, Rick Veitch is: telling a Sgt Rock war story, establishing Swampy’s presence in a different era, setting up the relationship between him and the Claw of Aelkhund, visiting Anton Arcane and reacquainting ourselves with why he’s this title’s nemesis, and winding up and setting going on the backwards arc of Swampy’s journey through time. That’s a huge amount to do in 24 pages and we rocket through it at Silver Age pace. There’s none of that feeling of scenery laboriously being moved that we’ve had in earlier issues, because the title character’s been made a walk-on in his own story which works perfectly well. Veitch’s objectives are all wonderfully achieved. Rock represents war here, any war, and the fatalism of the veteran. Accepting the realities of war means accepting your own death and denying the existence of the rest of the world, the civilian life that pretends death is an absent stranger. It’s Rock’s world, Rock’s story, and we – and Alec – are only passing through.

Arcane, an unseen legend to readers who, like me, had joined the title in the last four years, was due a return to the title. Foreshadowing that by seeing his origin as a Nazi occultist claiming responsibility for Hitler’s rise was a visionary move on Veitch’s part, bringing him back as a prelude to bringing him back. We get to see him close-up creating the Un-Men, shrugging off bullets, beginning a lifelong obsession with immortality and with the Swamp Thing. Arcane’s evil, as visceral and grisly as maggots on a corpse, never encounters Sgt Rock’s unswerving, grizzled devotion to duty. That’s fitting, though Rock encountered far weirder in his time; any part in a war is a walk-on part. Even Arcane is a footnote, a plot gone awry.

What I didn’t realise, until I started Wikipediaing for this entry, is that star of the WWII issue Sgt Rock was a contemporary of the Swamp Thing. His title finished in 1988, by which time Veitch’s run was well under way. When I was buying the Moore Swamp Thing I would have been flicking past Sgt Rock on the racks. The continuum of comics, existing as they did back then only as a monthly flow of narrative, was self-defined; I assumed that Rock was as much an artefact of history as the Western characters who’d hardly been seen since the 1960s. Time in comics.

From war story we go to Gothic horror, World War One and the Enemy Ace. The Arcanes, European castles, white hair and all, have always been a Gothic proposition. Abby is Frankenstein’s fiancée who falls for his monster. Anton Arcane himself is a more extreme monster than most Gothics are used to, openly glorying in the death and mutilation of war and sexually abusing his sister, a modern villain depraved in every aspect in a world not ready for him. But Hans von Hammer, a biplane pilot weighed down with all the chivalry and futility of the Great War, fits the Gothic perfectly. We first meet him stalking the woods with a wolf by his side, for God’s sake. He’s at once a minor character in this story, a walk-on at the beginning and the end, and its thematic heart. He is what war makes men and women into. By the end of the story Anais Arcane, Abby’s grandmother and Anton’s mother, has become him too.

The Wild West issue, which is almost as comprehensive in its inclusion of DC’s Western characters as the gorilla Annual was, isn’t actually a Western. Western tropes don’t allow for team-ups unless everyone dies. No, it’s in the superhero tradition. As Jason Blood says in his butte-top commentary: “Battles between beings of super-human power will be a common occurrence a mere century from now,” and we’re here seeing the first. It starts like a Western, admittedly, with Hawk and Firehair riding into mist, then takes a turn to Weird Western with Jonah Hex’s appearance as a herald of doom, but by the time Super-Chief hits the scene we’re in no doubt that this is a cartoon version of the West. Again, Swampy barely appears and again it works a treat. After reading and writing about more than five years of his adventures I’m amazed that he ever sustained his own title. The vegetable, understandably, has a tendency to vegetate. If Chester had become the Swamp Thing he’d grow a cannabis body and sit around getting high on his own supply.

Anyway, my frustrated digression aside, #85 is a great issue and a 24-page testament to the foolishness of DC’s eventual construction of a firewall between the good writers and the superhero mainstream. The love for these characters shines through and none are vandalised or left changed. A comic company’s history, at this point long-forgotten, is remembered and made part of the modern day. There are creative opportunities and, if the right choices are made and the right risks taken, commercial opportunities. The Western enjoys a cyclical resurgence; why not let comics be part of that?

Veitch is once again keeping himself too busy to get fancy, leaving Arcane behind, introducing Jason Blood and Hawk as the next threadholders for his backwards continuity, and turning the Claw of Aelkhund into the Claw of Elk-Hound. The formalism that doesn’t show up on the page is all poured into the clockwork machinery of the plot; we find out just enough to make sense of the next instalment but not too much. Narrated by Hawk, there’s a smooth move at the close of the issue from his captions to the book they’re written in more than a century later, but the reader isn’t dazzled by the use of the medium or the elegance of the storytelling. They’re turning the pages wanting to know what comes next.

Courtesy of Rip Hunter we hit the Civil War next with Tomahawk, father of Hawk, the focal character. Tom Yeates takes over on art, inking himself, and his fine lines suit a move into history that’s becoming increasingly distant from the modern age. They lend finesse to another action-packed narrative steeped in DC history. The first half of the issue’s narrated by Tomahawk’s arch-enemy, British spy Shilling, whose thoughts are presented as if from his memoirs though he’s close to death by the time we leave him. The second half goes back to Hawk’s memoirs.
In between we get a fantastic one-panel cameo from the Demon and the secret origin of the Batcave, I shit you not. The next comic to come along that worked as hard to establish a solid history for DC, to reconcile decades of comics that didn’t care about each other into a single narrative, was James Robinson’s Starman. That was hugely acclaimed by fans, is in many ways the natural successor of the Mature Readers comics, and remains venerated. These comics, in contrast, are unreprinted and pretty much forgotten.

In the middle of all that there’s the Abby issue, #84, which ties up the loose end of Matt Cable and lets him fly, free as a bird, to pastures new. It’s more formal in its storytelling than the time-travel issues because there’s less to do; Abby’s battles with the hospital are punctuated by four pages of Matt’s dream-life with Eve, encountering her as mother, crone and maiden in that order, waking him up from the selfish pursuit of his earthly wants which began before his coma to the acceptance of responsibility for his actions. The Sandman helps him with that and takes the character over to his own title six months or so later. A major plot point for DC’s best-selling title since Watchmen; the origin of the raven that’s by Morpheus’s side for the whole run. And , except for the few who bought this comic at the time, it’s known to none of the millions of Sandman readers.

There’s a nice sequence playing with dis- prefixes in the captions in this issue, enacted so smoothly I missed it first time around, and the state Cable ends up in is the final example of that gross-out horror Veitch excelled at. His death ties up one loose end while tugging on another; in #76, when Arcane made a guest appearance from Hell, we’d been reminded that he was kept there by Matt Cable’s power. Now that power was gone, and a shadow at the issue’s close reminds us what that means. It isn’t exactly subtle but the return of Arcane’s been nicely trailed.

The final issue sees Swamp Thing at Camelot, brought there by the Shining Knight. It’s a Camelot oddly positioned in terms of realism; besieged by demons and supported by magic makes it as fantastical as anything in DC’s universe but King Arthur’s brain injury, the source of his madness and obsession with the Grail, is a depressing realist touch. The ending, after Swampy’s accidental destruction of Camelot, is hopeful. The Shining Knight is the last of a parade of characters, from Adam Strange to the Phanton Stranger, to visit Abby in the swamp and give her bad news about her husband. Pregnant, abandoned, a fugitive from justice, she begs him for help and this knight without a kingdom vows to find her husband and return him to her. It’s not a good ending to Veitch’s run, but it’s better than it could have been.

The next issue of the run saw Alec meet Jesus, and was never published. The rights and wrongs of this have been discussed extensively, and there are still hopes that the few issues which would complete Veitch’s remarkable run will be published one day. Clearly, given that I’ve spent a month writing about it interspersed with castigating DC for bad creative decisions, I’m on the side of it being published. The trades up to this point are out so it would make sense to finish the story. Comic companies, however, don’t base their decisions on sense.

Time in comics… 23 years on, the run doesn’t feel incomplete to me. I’ve been living with it all that time. Back then I heard only rumours about why it had finished and bought the next few issues regardless when they eventually came out. The idea of mature sensibilities mixing with mainstream properties died a little with Veitch’s run. Today we’ve got the worst of both worlds; gore and the wrecking of much-loved characters has become mainstream, while intelligence and the determination to change the medium has been marginalised. Time has, I think, been kind to these comics, but the idiotic instincts within the comics industry that ended this run have only got worse.

Swamp Thing #82-#87 have not been reprinted since their original publication. 

2 Responses to “Crashing into history”
  1. Hasse says:

    Whenever I read these issues it strikes me how unfortunate it is that Veitch never completed it. He’s expressed regret in leaving the series because of what it meant to the story as well as interest in actually doing the intended ending which I think would be a great addition for a reprinted collection.

    Anyway, glad to read some appreciative words on this story!

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  1. […] contains the second unheralded Sandman crossover in the comics I’ve covered. The first was the journey of Matt Cable from husband-in-a-coma in Swamp Thing to raven-in-a-coma in Sandman which is, considering the […]

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