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Alan Moore’s Run on Swamp Thing – Saga of the Swamp Thing (Books #5-6) (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…

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing is a run to treasure. I mean, I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Scott Snyder’s new run on the character, especially since DC have decided to release it in hardcover, but Moore’s Swamp Thing remains one of Moore’s longer runs in mainstream comic books, demonstrating that it is possible for an extended in-continuity run on a (relatively) mainstream character to still transcend the expectations of the superhero genre. The eighties were full of fascinating creative ideas in comics, both in miniseries, independent and mainstream books, but I’d still argue that Moore’s Swamp Thing is remarkable due to its work redefining the superhero genre and its impressive length.

Into the sunset...

Don’t get me wrong. There were, of course, long runs on characters that are remarkable. Around the same time, of course, Frank Miller was writing Daredevil, for example. Not to mention high-quality self-contained series like Sandman or Starman, both impressive creations set within the shared fictional universe operated by DC. Still, Moore’s Swamp Thing feels like an entirely different beast. Not only did Moore take an established character, but he fundamentally reimagined the character’s central concept. Not only did he offer a bold and clever reimagining, he also stuck around on the title long enough to develop it and to give it a solid arc. Not only did he stay on the title for a long enough time, he also managed to bend the series to both the shared continuity of the universe and its major events – notably writing one of the most impressive tie-in stories of all time with his Crisis on Infinite Earths tie-in.

Here, in the final two volumes of this collection, we truly get a sense of how skilfully Moore integrates the story with the wider shared fictional universe. Those who visit regularly will know that I tend to balk at excessive continuity, worried that a shared universe driven by editorial mandate and written by those with encyclopedic knowledge of the minutiae of the genre strangles creativity – as people worry more about how it “connects”than about whether it is a good story on its own terms. I’ll still argue that continuity is as much a burden as it is a tool, but Moore makes a solid case for how it can work, taking his title character on the tour of the literal DC universe.

Strange places...

The fifth volume in the set collects the celebrated arc where Swamp Thing lays siege to Gotham, a shocking illustration of the creature’s power – and an illustration of just how far Moore has pushed him. “I met him once,” Batman confesses. “He was nowhere near as powerful then.” Things have changed since Moore took over. The final chapter in Moore’s run sees Swamp Thing ruminate on the implication that he is a “god”, and these collections give us displays of that sort of power, using them to frame truly fascinating narrative explorations. My Blue Heaven remains one of the most impressive issues in Moore’s run and – given the high quality of Moore’s output, that’s saying something.

Moore allows Swamp Thing to cross paths Batman and Lex Luthor on Earth, in small and effective roles. Like Grant Morrison, there’s a sense that Moore has an intimate grip on every character in his stories, even those in relatively minor roles. I love the idea of Luthor’s “consulting fee” while keeping his hands clean, and Moore’s Batman is a fascinating balance between the dark avenger he’d become in the nineties and the more polite vigilante he used to be. He’s still possessive of Gotham (“my city, Jim…”), but he’s also rational and willing to talk (“if I can find him, perhaps he’ll talk”).

On home turf...

More fascinating, however, is the stuff that Moore writes once he ejects Swamp Thing from Earth, and sends him traveling through the cosmos trying to get home. There’s all manner of crazy and imaginative stuff, but there’s also a clear sense that Moore is enjoying playing with the toys from the DC sandbox. He clearly has a bit of fun writing Adam Strange, for example, as the space hero discovers that the site of his zeta beam transport has been converted to a shopping mall. Not to mention the notion that Adam is a “stud-ape” being used to repopulate a sterile Rann is a fascinating modern twist on what felt like a colonial fantasy – the idea that his travelling to another planet and seducing a beautiful princess might be exploiting him as much as her is a deft take on the story.

Of course, Moore’s take on Strange is more fascinating than a slight twist to character’s fictional construct. Instead, Moore uses Adam Strange’s trips to Rann to explore the notion of the “monster” or the “outsider”in DC comics. After all, the sixties had seen Marvel rise to prominence on their decidedly outsider superheroes – heroes who weren’t part of the establishment, or who weren’t always happy or successful. A lot of commentators suggest that many DC characters are too simplistic or too shallow or too bland to compete with their more conflicted Marvel counterparts. Moore’s exploration of life on Rann seems like something of a response to this argument.

The Greenest Lantern...

Moore seems to make the point that DC’s stable is composed of a lot of characters who could be viewed as “monsters” or “outsiders” or “horrors” in the way that Swamp Thing is. Perhaps they are more acceptable because they can pass as human, but the subtext is there. After all, Batman points out that any laws that would consider the sex-life of Abby and Swamp Thing to be obscene would also apply to “what’s-his-name… the one who lives in Metropolis.” As Moore explores in All Flesh is Grass, a Green Lantern’s knowledge of the cosmos tends to separate them from their fellow individuals – as if they have some greater understanding of the universe.

However, it is most apparent with Adam Strange on Rann. “They call me names behind my back… ape, throwback,” he concedes, “then expect me to bail them out.”Strange is, after all, a reverse Superman – a lonely human on an alien planet. Moore brilliantly illustrates how cold and alien it must be by allowing his characters to frequently converse in the native language, no translations provided for the reader. It truly demonstrates how foreign all this must seem.

Spaced out...

According to Moore, the cosmos is a truly alien place. I’ve a soft spot for Swamp Thing‘s trip to the cosmos, which is also perhaps why I like James Robinson’s extended Starman homage to it (the Stars my Destination arc). Hell, Robinson even has Jack stop off on several of the same planets and encounter several of the same people on his trip. From a world where green is blue to one populated by sentient plants to a self-aware space ship that sexually assaults our protagonist, Moore paints outer space as a strange and exotic location. It’s interesting to think how much depth Robinson added to the shared universe, with his character journeying from the depths of hell to the outer reaches of the DC universe.

And yet, amid all these alien planets and races, there is so much that appears familiar. All these civilisations, no matter how far we might travel, hold up a mirror that might reflect back towards us. Even the planet of sentient trees, J586, has pretentious art criticism. “A stout conifer wearing an expensive feather face asks her to explain an arrangement of dyed meats,” we’re told. “Shulo tells her that it represents social integration, and the conifer seems satisfied.” It has the same social structures (organised religion) and social problems (suicide) as our own. When Adam Strange is confronted with the famine on Rann, he responds with something like shocked recognition. “Oh, God,” he states. “Here too? It’s like Africa…”

Dinosaurs just planted themselves there...

Collected here is an issue written by artist Rick Veitch, who would take over the title (briefly) once Moore left. Ironically, it seems that Veitch pushed the title even further than his collaborator, to the point where an issue was pulled for tackling religious themes. While these titles are very clearly “Alan Moore” collections (to the point where the covers even include “from the Award-winning writer of Watchmen”), I’m glad to see it included. Too many collections are undermined because bridging stories are omitted (here’s looking at you Legends of the Dark Knight: Marshall Rogers), and it’s nice to see it included here. It’s not as strong as Moore’s writing, but very little is. That said, I wouldn’t mind seeing some of Veitch’s run collected, or even later runs like Mark Millar or Grant Morrison, in a nice hardcover collection.

It’s also worth discussing the mature readers imprint on the book, which I find absolutely fascinating. Moore’s Swamp Thing has retroactively been swallowed by the Vertigo line, which didn’t exist when it was being published. Instead, each cover comes with a “For Mature Readers”recommendation, as it’s clear that the title isn’t quite all-ages appropriate. However, what is truly fascinating about this warning is that Moore and Veitch don’t treat the label as an excuse to provide excessive brutality or sex, instead they use it as an opportunity to explore more mature themes.

Metron could lighten up a bit...

Consider, for example, how Moore deals with the idea of sex during his run. It is present throughout, but it’s never gratuitous. Instead, he actually address the idea of sex, and how a character like Swamp Thing could have a sexual relationship. The entire storyline about Swamp Thing’s attack on Gotham is based around a very mature idea, but it never feels trashy or sensationalist – it’s merely a vehicle. Consider the sexual assault that the lead sustains in Loving the Alien, it’s documented in a considered and matter-of-fact manner, rather than anything over-the-top. I think Moore deserves serious credit for handling his themes with such skill – “sophisticated suspense”, indeed.

Towards the end of the run, however, you do get the sense that Moore might be tiring a bit of the conventional superhero plots. Indeed, Moore’s run ends with a fitting ending for Swamp Thing and Abby, as the pair decide to withdraw from the world and live in peace. They bid fairwell to the trappings of superhero life (“tired… of quests and enemies..”) and settle down. “If you desire,” he suggests, “there need be no more horror… or adventure.” At the end, Swamp Thingends with the title character rejecting the trappings of the superhero genre, and deciding to live a happy life in modest conclusion. Alan Moore himself even shows up in the form of bearded Gene LaBostrie, to wave fleetingly at his creation through the long grass.

Funeral for a friend...

Fittingly, the final issue sees Swamp Thing contemplate what might be termed “the superhero paradox”, the idea that the hero could fundamentally alter the world, doing something more constructive than fighting costumed heroes, but won’t. Of course, this is because the books need to resemble the real world in order to become perpetually successful, but several writers have tried to tackle the subject within the confines of the superhero narrative – the logic seems to be that the paradox needs to be solved before we can take these silly people in spandex seriously.

On returning home, Swamp Thing is reluctant to tell his lover that he could end famine on Earth. “Why did I hesitate?” Swamp Thing asks himself. “Why didn’t I reveal… What I’d done on Rann, preventing famine… Should I not feel proud?” He clarifies, “Had I avoided mentioning… my capabilities because…? Because there’s famine here on Earth? Because I might be asked… to end that too? But then… why not?” He concedes, “I could end famine… here… on Earth. Those children… starving… dying at this moment… Why… don’t I… just tell her?” He admits, “I could save mankind. I could do anything.”

He's got the blues...

I’m not convinced that one can reach a satisfactory answer to the dilemma, but Moore does a pretty good job. He reaches pretty much the same conclusion that Morrison did during his run on Justice League, but Moore’s argument makes slightly more sense – if only because it fits easier with the character he’s writing. Like Morrison, Moore has his character rationalise that mankind must learn to solve their own problems with famine and disease and war. This works much better for Swamp Thing than for Superman, because Superman is too moral a character to abide the deaths of countless innocent children to teach mankind a lesson, while Moore’s Swamp Thing is amoral – well on the road to godhood joining Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen. The logic is more convincing for Swamp Thing.

Indeed, one can see a lot of Watchmen in what Moore is writing here – the same themes suggested, and the same underlying frustration with a genre that had grown increasingly stagnant. Aren’t all superheroes how Swamp Thing describes the Parliament of Trees in that final chapter? “A dynasty of gods… yet gods who’ve chosen never to exert their power… content to sit and stare…”? That line certainly puts a new slant on his trip to the Justice LeagueWatchtower back at the beginning of his run. It seems that Moore is just as tired as the generic do-gooders as Swamp Thing is, and we see how far Moore has set his character apart from the fraternity.

Darkseid's swamped with work...

Swamp Thing is a fascinating read under Moore, a book that deserves to be considered with the best the medium has to offer. I think it’s a compelling exploration of the superhero genre – its strengths and its weaknesses, its confines and its freedoms – and I think it’s fascinating to see Moore work borrowing elements from the stew brewed by generations of other writers, while bartering his own contributions in return. It makes me very sad that we’ll likely never see Moore’s Miracle Man, another early mainstream superhero title, properly collected.

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

One Response

  1. It should read:”Like Moore, Morrison….”

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