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Alan Moore’s Run on Swamp Thing – Saga of the Swamp Thing (Books #3-4) (Review/Retrospective)

This January, I’m going to take a look at some of DC’s biggest “events.” You can probably guess which event I’m leading into, but I don’t want to spoil it…

I have never read Swamp Thing before. This trip through these lovely (but sadly not oversized or filled with extras) hardcover editions of Alan Moore’s iconic run on the title has been my first encounter with the character. This is Moore’s longest tenure on a mainstream comic book, and the one which introduced him to the mainstream. What’s astounding here is not only how Moore manages to offer something which still stands up as something unique and challenging, but also offers a fairly exciting and well-written book on his own terms.

I have a burning desire to read more...

You can go to hell.

You… are… there… already… All of you… You must break… this terrible cycle. The pattern… you laid down so long ago… grown into a maze… that traps the living…

- Richard Deal and Swamp Thing, Strange Fruit

Having spent the early part of his run redefining the character (Swamp Thing was not a human in vegetable form, he was a vegetable who thought he was human), here Moore decides to tell a wider story. The bulk of the issues collected here can be slotted into a mega-arc called American Gothic, a sinister road- (or plant-) trip through modern America, with a chain-smoking English man who bares a remarkable resemblance to Sting as a guide.

Swamp Thing is a horror comic book, but not in the sort of crass manner you might expect from a series featuring a gigantic vegetable man as a lead character, encountering vampires and werewolves and such. Although there is some disturbing imagery – superbly rendered by artist Stephen Bissette and John Totleben – most of it is relatively dignified and restrained. It’s the words which give you the creeps and make your skin crawl – ideas and suggestions which are at once grossly fascinating and genuinely terrifying.

Ever Green...

The book was an experiment. It’s a testament to the quality that it still holds up as such. Believe me when I tell you that, unless you’ve read Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, you have not read a book like Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Of course, all the huge revelations (that Swamp Thing is not Alec Holland and serves as an avatar of the natural world) have been absorbed into pop culture and are facets of the run that everyone knows, even if they’ve never seen a single panel.

However, there are numerous other ideas which are equally fascinating – from underwater vampires to linking werewolves and the lunar cycle – all contained within these pages. Swamp Thing is perhaps Alan Moore at his most mainstream – behind, perhaps, Watchmen – but he never compromised his ideas, remaining true to the medium in which he was writing. Sure, American Gothic is, on one hand, a rich cultural thesis and examination of Reagan’s America and, on the other, a tie-in to the massive crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths. Neither suffers from being linked to the other – and, more remarkably, the series does both really, really well. There’s never a sense that Moore has to sacrifice comic book storytelling in order to explore his social issues, or vice versa.

Out of this world...

American Gothic is a tour through the American subconscious. It’s been remarked many times that horror is an outlet for the collective subconscious, an opportunity to give form to our many internal fears and uncertainties in a form where they can be vanquished. And America has many horrors – some modern (like Nukeface) and some historical (like slavery). “Some places just have a will to recover,” one character observes, perhaps ironically – American is nation festering with its scars. When confronted with the blood of a slave flayed by his master on a pillar “more than a century old”, the first response of the director is to “clean the whole place up before shooting starts”, so it won’t offend his star much longer. Perhaps, Moore suggests, that’s what the modern world is based on – tidying up the horrid history behind places like that and making them look respectable.

It’s worth noting that the majority of characters in American Gothic live at the sights of atrocities and sins past. The vampires live in the sunken town of Rosebud. Pheobe and Roy live in a house built on the ruins of the “red lodge” where menstruating women were sent in exile, and treated as worse than second-class citizens for a natural biological function. The Jackson House is a former plantation shined up in order to become the television set. Swamp Thing speaks of “the darkness stirring up within the country”, and he’s right – there’s a lot of dark corners for these things the brew.

Constantine is a strange bedfellow...

There’s a reason that the supermarket is so prominent in Moore’s telling of the tale (popping up as the place where the vampires hid from the flowing water or where Pheobe begins and ends her journey) – there’s perhaps no greater symbol of modern America than the huge anonymous shopping centre, filled at once with wonder and excess, light and darkness, delights and temptations.

Each of the stories focuses on a fear or a dark secret that’s an elemental part of the American psyche. There’s the notion that our own children may be monsters, a surprisingly prescient point made by Moore which reflects the current preoccupation with ASBOs and happy-slapping and hoodies. There’s the casual sexism which still exists, even in the post-feminist era. There’s the racism that we like to tell ourselves is long gone, but is really still there bleeding in at the corners of society. Social relevance is perhaps the key to classic, iconic horror – from Night of the Living Dead to Invasion of the Bodysnatchers – and Moore has crafted a suitable horror for Reagan’s America. It might be “morning in America”, but the night can be pretty dark.

Swamped...

To Moore, America is a haunted wasteland which sacrifices any number of people to its social ills. In Moore’s horror, these unspeakable evils feed on the children we ignore, or the women we repress, or the racism that we refuse to tackle head-on. It’s the way that the history of America is forever entangled with the sound of weapon fire, beating like the drum on the march of progress. Forward, onwards. Except we really haven’t moved too far. The protagonist in The Curse still feels the “anger, in the darkness turning” that the women in the Red Lodge felt and Angela can still make “an incredibly racist comment” even as she films a movie about intolerance.

You are back… in the place… of pain, Wesley Jackson… We are all back in the place of pain… because the pain… cannot be buried… and forgotten… The pain… cannot remain in the past… or beneath the soil… The which is buried… is not gone. That which is planted… will grow… There is a weed… that thrives upon neglect, and flourishes in darkness… Untended, it becomes a tree of the night… and its boughs sag… beneath the unbearable weight… of what it has brought forth.

Although these stories are all separate, Moore is building to something. You can feel it chipping away in the background. You could arguably take the individual adventures and read them out of order without really noticing, but Moore does create a heavy atmosphere and a sense of dread in his writing. “Big things are happening in the world, mate,” Constantine explains as underwater vampires prepare for “the Dark Millennium.” Constantine and his friends know something is coming through the darkness. “He’s cuh-coming back,” one explains, even though they may argue over what it is – it might be Satan or simply an alien lifeform. Moore cleverly even suggests Cthulu, tying his horror back to H.P. Lovecraft, one of the great American horror writers. This is the sort of American darkness Moore is hinting at.

Under a blood red sky...

In a nice little meta-fictional moment, Moore suggests that this horror is powered by belief. “To generate the energy necessary for something like that,” Constantine’s lover suggests, “they’d have to increase the belief-levels of the entire population.” Horrors and terror are only powerful when we believe in them, after all.

I’d argue that Moore’s tie-in to the big DC even that was happening at the same time, Crisis on Infinite Earths, might be the best comic book tie-in ever written. It stands completely independent of the events in the main comic book, as Moore handles a spiritual threat to the world seeking to capitalise on the instability that the collapse of the DC multi-verse brings.

The Constantine Gardner?

It’s possible to read this collection with no knowledge of the big event and still understand it – Moore pitches the crisis in biblical terms, giving his chapter the title Revelations. It’s a novel approach and one genuinely get a sense that the world is collapsing on itself as various moment sin time, that were and never could be, find themselves forced into the present – fighting for space. It’s the standard by which I judge crossover tie-ins – because it works so perfectly.

This is the collection of issues which introduced John Constantine to comic book readers. Since the end of Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, I think it’s fair to say that Constantine – clearly modelled on Sting here – has appeared in more comic books than the creature itself. He’s even had a run of comic books written by writers as distinct as Garth Ennis, Brian Azzarello and Peter Milligan. The British Occult expert is something of a cult figure – even if the god-awful Keanu Reeves movie might lead you to doubt it.

Sea of green...

What is fascinating is how fully formed Consantine seems when he appears here. He’s clearly just a plot device to shepherd Swamp Thing to save the world and to connect to his (literal) roots as an Earth elemental, but that doesn’t mean that Moore skimps on the character. Here the character is a British trickster. “I’m a nasty piece of work, chief,” Constantine explains to the lead at one point. “Ask anybody.” It’s hinted that Constantine is still recovering from an exorcism that went bad, seeking to atone for his own mistakes. “The kiddie died and I was in a looney bin for a few weeks,” he confesses to the Stranger with his traditional gallows humour, “but other than that it went really well.”

He goads and manipulates people into taking risks that he couldn’t dare admit to them (for fear they’d turn him down). He’s a morally ambiguous character who undoubtedly has the safety of the world weighing on his mind, but doesn’t hold any sense of personal decency above that. He’s absolutely fascinating, and it’s no wonder that the character caught on after Moore departed the title. He’s clearly a break-out character and yet another of Moore’s fantastic gifts to the DC universe.

A Sting in the tale...

The artwork continues to be top notch. It’s scratchy and rough, but also haunting. It can be quite disturbing in places, which is exactly what you’re looking for. However, like Moore’s writing, it’s never ashamed to be “comic-book-y” as we’re treated to fantastic sights like Swamp Thing and Etrigan riding through Hell on the back of strange looking demons. I honestly don’t think the run would be the same without it.

Swamp Thing is a fantastic comic book. If you’re at all interested in the medium, you should read it. It’s a brilliant story in its own right, but it’s fascinating how cleverly Moore could integrate it within DC’s shared universe without compromising his own storytelling or his plots. There’s a fantastic scene where Constantine bumps into Batman during the Crisis (who he greets as “squire”) and remarks, “That’s the thing about nights like this. You never know who you’re going to run into.” It’s small, it’s understated and it doesn’t distract from the story Moore’s telling.

That’s the thing about stories like this. You never know what you’re going to get.

Read our complete reviews of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run:

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4 Responses

  1. Would I be okay just picking up these two volumes without having read Vols 1 and 2? Hard to find Volume 1 around here for some reason or another…

    • You should be able to understand it easily enough. Moore’s arc does break into a three-act structure that fits nicely over the two books. 1 & 2 are the intro, 3 & 4 are the middle and the core of the superhero/social consciousness narrative, and 5 & 6 are arguably just a gigantic conclusion where Moore and Swamp Thing literally outgrow the conventional superhero narrative.

      I would recommend hunting down the first volume, if only to read The Anatomy Lesson. It’s easily one of the best comic books ever written. I think they might release a trade paperback soon, and there are probably absolute editions in the pipeline.

      If you can’t find it, all you need to know is Moore’s central twist on the Swamp Thing narrative: Swamp Thing is not Alec Holland. Alec Holland was murdered, and Swamp Thing rose from the ashes. He believed that he actually was Alec Holland, whose body had mutated. Moore instead suggests that Swamp Thing is an ancient protector of nature who simply absorbed Alec Holland’s memories. The second act really explores who or what Swamp Thing really is, once you make that leap.

  2. Thanks so much for that! I’ll try to nab some copies of these two volumes. It’ll be interesting to compare this run to Grant Morrison’s Animal Man (another set of books I treasure).

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