Before Alan Moore was the superstar writer of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V For Vendetta, Watchmen or even From Hell, he was a writer at DC Comics. While he wrote some truly fantastic Superman stories (collected in the well recommended deluxe edition of Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?), he was most famously associated with a run on Swamp Thing. When he took over writing duties on the title, Swamp Thing was a series on the verge of cancellation. Which meant that he had a huge amount of freedom to work on the title, with the capacity to do just about anything he wanted.
DC has begun reissuing Moore’s entire run on the title. It’s a run which has been covered many different times, and part of me wishes that Vertigo would either spring for an oversized edition or even a complete omnibus, but that’s really the only complaint I can level against the volumes collected here. There’s a lot of discussion over Moore’s work and he is rightly regarded as a visionary in the field of comics. It’s somewhat depressing to see how bitter his experiences with DC and Marvel have made him, but there’s no denying his talent.
He is generally credited as the most definitive force in the history of Swamp Thing, crafting the most iconic depiction of the character and perhaps single-handedly ushering in a wave of post-modernism into the world of American comic books. The most obvious and important change which Moore made the character – and from which most of the rest of his adjustments to the character flows – was the revelation that Swamp Thing, previously the reincarnated murder victim Alec Holland and lead in a series of pulpy horror comics, was never really Alec Holland. He was, instead, a plant who thought that he was Alec Holland.
The revelation comes in only Moore’s second issue – the respected and renowned The Anatomy Lesson – and becomes the core of Moore’s run on the character. Identity becomes an underlying theme, with the identity of various characters being influenced and distorted by other worldly forces (most notably Matt Cable). Suddenly the pulpy exploitation comic becomes something else entirely – a breath of fresh air. Indeed, it makes such a logical starting point that this reissuing of his run represents the first time that Moore’s actual first issue, appropriately titled Loose Ends, has been collected.
The Swamp Thing spends most of Moore’s run looking for his own identity, culminating in someway laying his humanity (in the form of the bones of Alec Holland) to rest in The Burial. Is the creature a man or a monster? What does either mean? Moore suggests that it isn’t necessarily to composition of one’s body which makes one a monster – Arcane and Sunderland are both monsters in human form – but rather one’s desire to connect to humanity. Woodrue and the Swamp Thing share a similar physiology and both end up in communion with nature. Though Woodrue has the benefit of being able to spray on his skin to give him an appearance of a human being, he has no real connection to the world. Nothing to anchor him as he merges with ‘the green’. On the other hand, Swamp Thing’s humanity (which is shown to be more than just his perception of himself as Holland) helps tie him to the real world.
It is Abigail that represents this bond, and Swamp Thing seems to honestly love her (their relationship is ultimately consummated in a famous sequence at the end of these two volumes). It is Abigail who ultimately demonstrates that Swamp Thing has a soul, which he uses to embark on an odyssey through heaven and hell in pursuit of her. Unlike the demon Etrigan, who – despite his noble intentions – is a demon, Swamp Thing’s humanity is what gives him pause to think of the children involved in the escape of the Monkey King. Though Swamp Thing may not be entirely human, he certainly retained his humanity (and, as some of the creatures on Moore’s dreamscape suggest, it is the best part).
Moore balances a progressive environmental agenda throughout (but is never too on the nose about it), but suggests that balance must be the key. Any solution to the environmental crisis must look at both humanity’s needs and the needs of the planet itself. Woodrue forgets this, attempting to fashion a new paradise from nature alone. Swamp Thing’s shared heritage (having the memories of being human and the knowledge of being plant) helps balance him. It is faintly suggested throughout the title that maybe there is a reason that the Swamp Things all share something resembling a human identity – it helps them to serve as a conduit between the green world and the red world. Unity and balance.
Moore is at his best forming a junction of high-, middle- and low-brow (most obviously in his combination of obscure literary references and trashy popular culture in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, for example), and Swamp Thing is a fine example of that tradition. One hand we have structural nods to Dante’s Divine Comedy, but Swamp Thing’s guided tour of the afterlife isn’t given by philosophers and iconic historical figures but The Phantom Stranger, Etrigan the Demon and Deadman (with several other supernatural characters popping on). You’re as likely to see references to obscure scientific experiments (admittedly discredited even at the time of writing) as a fond nod to the bright and colourful Pogo character from the newspaper strips (in the lawyer-friendly guise of Pog).
What’s somewhat surprising in reading this – particularly given how Moore is credited with birthing the dark age of comic books (however unintentionally) with Watchmen – is the warmth and affection demonstrated here. Not only does Moore (somewhat appropriately) us Swamp Thing explore the forgotten roots of the DC universe, revisiting obscure (and, in some cases, forgotten) characters, but he seems to have a great time doing so. Nothing is outright farce (indeed, most of the subject matter is relatively dark), but Moore realises that that playing the stories entirely straight would undermine the sheer “far-out-ness” of the concept. So, though Etrigan is to be feared, his rhyming is mocked by the other demons. The Pog characters – despite landing on a really terrible planet (and in spite of some of the bad stuff that happens) – remain gloriously ridiculous.
It’s hard to read Swamp Thing without seeing all the countless subsequent stories it has influenced. The most obvious bing Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman (Gaiman himself provides an introduction to the second volume here). Notwithstanding unspoken links (it is, for example, presumed that Matthew the wise-cracking raven is actually Matthew Cable), there’s a huge structural link between the two sagas – both feature an early repositioning of an almost forgotten DC comics villain (for Gaiman it was Doctor Destiny, here it is Jason Woodrue) and a relatively early trip by the titular character to hell itself. In fact, among several of the characters effectively resurrected by Moore are the houses of mystery and secrets, which would later become staples in Gaiman’s dreamscape (along with their hosts, the biblical Cain and Abel). It’s really impossible to overstate the influence that Moore’s tenure on Swamp Thing had on the mainstream comic book establishment.
He never underestimated the genre, which is quite refreshing. Even though he’s writing for a trashy horror comic, that doesn’t mean he can’t play with big ideas or spiritual notions or even just with ridiculously small ideas – like the Justice League referring to each other by their first names – that work together to create an interesting new perspective on comics. The eighties were an interesting time to work in the medium, and that’s down to the role that authors like Moore played in fashioning comic books into what they are today.
As much as Moore shifts the focus towards existentialist philosophy and all manner of trippy escapades, he doesn’t stray too far from the comic’s horror roots. His conception of hell and demons are as dark as one might expect, not to mention his wonderful capacity to boil down the horror to an almost personal level with his fantastic narrations (witness as Woodrue seals families into their homes and as we are individually introduced to each of Cable’s new ‘friends’ during Arcane’s resurrection). Even as Moore plays with his high concepts (for example when establishing the Swamp Thing as an elemental creature that has existed for millenia), there’s more than a hint of gothic horror in the story of a widow seduced by her husband’s murderous best friend. Tottleben’s art perfectly compliments these creepier aspects of the story – and some of the stuff is quite unsettling. Not in an excessively gory sort of way, just in a generally creepy manner.
The truth is, as fascinating as it is to discuss the philosophical implications of Swamp Thing’s crisis of identity or the macabre presentation of the supernatural, all this would be for naught if Moore wasn’t simply one of the best writers in the medium. Even if you aren’t interested in experiments involving worms or haven’t read Dante’s Inferno, the book works based solely on its own merits. Moore clearly enjoys what he’s doing and the truth is that most of the revolutionary content of this collection flows smoothly and organically, feeling natural rather than forced – the only time the series really seems to draw attention to its more ‘out there’ aspects is the consciously stylistic sequence at the end of the volume where Swamp Thing and Abby ‘hook up’. Outside of that, everything flows naturally.
The artwork looks incredible, full of muted colours and images which never really seem entirely solid, bleeding like the swamp itself. I was initially quite disappointed at the pulpy quality of the paper DC issued the reprints on, but maybe it’s part of the experience. I’ve just read through the collection for the first time and the paper feels older between my fingers. It helps give the story a bit of a timeless feel, which somehow suits the winding narrative.
I should probably close with an observation about how essential Swamp Thing is to read as an example of the evolution of the artform, but I think that’s a tad disingenuous. The real reason to read Swamp Thing is simply that it is a great piece of storytelling featuring a hugely talented writer and artist. Anything else, however fantastic, is just a bonus.
Read our complete reviews of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run:
- Saga of the Swamp Thing: Books 1 & 2
- Saga of the Swamp Thing: Books 3 & 4
- Saga of the Swamp Thing: Books 5 & 6
Filed under: Comics Tagged: | alan moore, alec holland, arts, comic books, Comics, dc comics, John Constantine, john tottleben, league of extraordinary gentlemen, review, swamp thing, Swamp Thing: Earth to Earth (Vertigo), the anatomy lesson, the monkey king, the saga of the swamp thing, vertigo