Super Serial: Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Book 1

Swamp Thing Book 1

Super Serial aims to dissect series of pop art — be it a filmography, discography or run of comics — by looking at its individual components.

Alan Moore’s groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing seemed like a good topic for a Super Serial column for a couple reasons — beyond the obvious fact that it’s one of the definitive stories in modern comics, of course. First, I’m writing up Swamp Thing because my buddy Tom suggested it, and I thought it was a spiffy idea. Second, with the impending relaunch of DC Comics’ entire line of books, we’ll soon be getting the first Swamp Thing monthly to feature the character mingling with the mainstream DCU since shortly after Moore’s run. This seems like as good a time as any to revisit what’s no doubt the definitive work on the character, one that can be reasonably expected to hold significant influence over Scott Snyder’s upcoming Swamp Thing book.

We’ll begin with the first collected edition of Moore’s run on the character, simply titled Saga of the Swamp Thing. This book collects issues #21-27 of the 1980s series of the same name; the hardcover edition also contains issue #20, a weird combination prologue/epilogue that shows Swamp Thing being captured by the Sunderland Corporation after defeating Anton Arcane in battle. Omitting #20, volume one contains two separate stories, which for lack of anything better I’ll just title after their antagonists — “The Floronic Man” and “The Monkey King.” In keeping with the character’s original horror roots (as imbued in him by creators Len Wein and Berni Wrightson), each arc features our mossy hero locked in battle against some kind of supernatural force he doesn’t quite understand. In the first, the once-menace of the Justice League of America known as Dr. Jason Woodrue gains the ability to communicate with and manipulate all plant life on the planet, and he believes the plants want revenge on humanity. In the second, a Ouija Board session gone wrong summons a primate-like demon that thrives on fear and deigns to terrorize the mortal world.

Something that becomes apparent from reading even the slightest bit of Moore’s work here is this: he seems to be the ultimate expression of a modernist comic book author. I may be using my literary genre terms incorrectly, but I’ve always taken modernism to refer to work that pushes the boundaries of its form without breaking them. Unlike the comics of, say, Grant Morrison (who I’d deem the ultimate post-modernist comic book writer), Moore’s not really concerned with the fourth wall or with comics as objects here. Certainly there’s metatextual criticism (which I’ll touch on later), but Swamp Thing, although fiction, totally believes in its own reality. To me, that bars it from post-modern classification.

If you can accept my shaky definition (and please do), you’ll see what I mean about Moore. His work on this title is an ornately constructed piece of art, the complexity of which rivals any mainstream comic. The narration — sometimes first person, sometimes the now out-of-vogue third — drips with poetry and meaning. Often Moore transitions from scene to scene effortlessly; a repeated word of dialog or a constant background image will move readers from one segment of an issue to the next without pause. Even his panel layouts, courtesy of artists Stephen Bissette and John Totleben (and in issue #20 only, Dan Day instead of Bissette), strike one as a thing of beauty. Borders change shape on a whim to indicate tense emotions, panels are positioned to mimic the geographical structures the characters inhabit, and pages are framed by repeating images with symbolic significance. The sometimes-forgotten issue #20 provides a fantastic example of this; a dripping liquor bottle set in the white space on two of the pages indicates to readers in a way beyond dialog and narration that Matthew Cable hasn’t left his drinking problem behind, any verbal claims to the contrary.

If modernism (or at least what I call modernism) is the wheelhouse in which Moore works, what are some of the tropes that define him here? For one, he’s a rewriter; Moore likes to recast traditional narratives to suit his purposes. That’s abundantly clear throughout his run on Swamp Thing, and it makes itself apparent in his first key issue, #21, the renown “Anatomy Lesson.” In what surely must be one of the most bold introductory issues in all of comics, Moore completely rewrites the origin of the Swamp Thing character in a way that seems entirely organic (pardon the pun) but changes everything we know about him. Under Moore’s hand, Swamp Thing’s no longer a man who’s become a plant — he’s a plant who thinks he’s a man. That switch, made in but 22 pages, completely alters the course of all Swamp Thing stories to come. Moore’s attention to detail, to the nuts and bolts of what make a story and its inhabitants really work, is something that will come up time and again. I’m specifically interested to revisit how Moore recrafts and edits Crisis on Infinite Earths to suit his means in Book IV.

Another key Moore trope we’ll keep revisiting is his notion that opposites contain each other. Again, I think this finds its ultimate statement in Book IV, but we can see plenty of it here, especially in Swamp Thing’s relationship with his antagonists — Woodrue, Jason Blood and the deceased Anton Arcane (in issue #20). Like Swamp Thing, each of these characters provides some variation on humanity struggling with monstrosity. Swamp Thing’s a monster who wished to be a man, Woodrue and Arcane men who wish to be monsters, and Blood a man who cannot help but become a monster. Those are oversimplifications, of course; the point is that all four characters exhibit similar struggles. Despite their being opposed to Swamp Thing, our hero sees a bit of himself in all of these characters. In perhaps the most striking example, he delivers this information Hamlet-style to the corpse of Arcane in #20. The idea that parts of Swamp Thing reside in what he fights — and vice-versa — provides, in many ways, the thematic climax to this series. That interconnectedness also plays into the ideas of nature and ecology inherent in a character like this.

Also, as much as Moore’s Swamp Thing doesn’t question its own reality, its author’s certainly interested in metatextuality. Numerous examples of references to other works of fiction pop up in this book. I think that allows Moore to simultaneously situate himself in the realms of horror and classical fiction but also to play with their tropes (perhaps another instance of his love of rewriting). Some of the many references that abound: chainsaws used as instruments of massacre in “meat movies,” the in-text representation of Goya’s “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” painting, a non-diegetic epigraph from the film Night of the Hunter, and strangest of all, a Burma Shave billboard.

One more thing we ought to note about our hero, and another thing that plays heavily into the Crisis story in Book IV — for a comic book protagonist, Swamp Thing is pretty passive. Things happen to him more than he causes things to happen. The Floronic Man arc seems him leaping into action only because his peaceful slumber’s been taken away from him by an eco-terrorist, while in his battle against the Monkey King Swamp Thing’s saved by a little boy. In a way, it almost seems like he’s a parody of a traditional superhero, but I think as the series goes on we’ll see that instead he’s another example of Moore’s narrative rewriting. This time, Moore’s turning the comic book hero into an agent that works for him.

One final thing I’d like to address before I move on to my notes: I’m sure many readers are familiar with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, certainly one of the must-read series of the medium. It’s not contentious to say that Gaiman owes a bit of a debt to Moore’s Swamp Thing, but rereading this first book of Moore’s, it’s kind of striking how much Gaiman actually lifts from Alan for his first Sandman story. There’s the obvious issue of supporting characters who show up in both arcs — Etrigan the Demon and Matthew Cable, the latter of whom becomes a key player throughout Gaiman’s work. But also, the structures of each story, specifically as they relate to their antagonists, are incredibly similar. In both, a relatively minor DC Comics villain (the Floronic Man, Dr. Destiny) somehow achieves a godlike apotheosis and then proceeds to commit horrible acts of terrorism, only to be stopped by a hero who’s recently been thrown back into the world on shaky grounds (for Dream it’s being powerless, for Swamp Thing identity-less). Both authors also briefly bring in typical DC Comics superheroes, in both cases to more or less show how ineffective they are (in Swamp Thing, Superman and Green Lantern apprehend Woodrue but do nothing to actually stop him; in Sandman, Martian Manhunter and Mr. Miracle take Dream to a storage warehouse). I think this is just a case of homage — or of a younger author finding his feet by imitating one of his inspirations — but it’s interesting to me to see how structurally similar both these classic comic stories are.

Throughout the next six weeks, we’ll be visiting a different collected edition of Alan Moore’s work about this plant who thought he was a man. If you’ve not read Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, there’s no better time than now, and if you have, take out your trades or hardcovers (or individual issues?) and follow along as we explore this broken hero’s quest to save all of existence… and then himself.

NOTES:

Issue #20 (“Loose Ends”):
- If nothing else, this issue’s helpful for introducing the character of Liz Tremayne. If, like me, you’d only ever read Swamp Thing for Moore’s issues, her sudden presence later on in his run doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
-One of the examples of Moore’s poetic descriptions: “It’s a new world, full of shopping malls and stoplights and software. The dark corners are being pushed back a little more every day.” Check out that alliteration!
-From the same scene, Swamp Thing’s entire meditation on monsters is really impressive writing. Little does he know, of course, how monstrous he truly is.
-This issue also helps to explain Matthew Cable’s hallucinogenic powers, another thing that kind of casually exists in the rest of Moore’s run.
-The images in the assassination page of this issue will be repeated again all the way in Book V, when Lex Luthor takes his shot at our hero.
-Much of the theme of this issue has to do with shadows, which coaxes a lot of powerful imagery out of Moore’s writing.
-Here, the Sunderland Corporation’s attempt to burn Swamp Thing recalls his birth by fire.
-Although this issue’s meant to trick us into thinking it’s Swamp Thing’s death, it’s actually his entry point into a whole new life (how Jungian).

Issues #21-24 (The Floronic Man):
-Although including issue #20 in early trade printings would’ve been peachy, there’s no doubt that #21 does feel like a beginning.
-The structure of issue #21 is brilliant. Readers are swept along with Dr. Woodrue as he investigates the question of how Swamp Thing could even exist. This forensic storytelling is fascinating; we make discoveries as he does. I don’t know about you, but I remember being blown away when we finally learn the major revelation of this issue.
-Key quote arises from #21: “You can’t kill a vegetable by shooting it in the head.”
-Much like in the recent Brightest Day #24, Swamp Thing’s first act upon resurrection is to kill a corporate executive. Of course, this time it seems more personal.
-From what my research can tell, this story marks the introduction of The Green, the web of plant life that runs through our planet. It’s a key concept in all of Moore’s Swamp Thing and for most of the character’s stories that follow.
-Probably in keeping with the conventions of its horror genre, Swamp Thing‘s a very psychological book. This arc spends a lot of time getting us to ponder how Swamp Thing must feel now that the identity he’s held on to for so long has been shattered.
-I want to give credit, probably not for the last time, to series letterers John Costanza and Todd Klein, who do an amazing and inventive job here. I love the way that lettering so often isn’t confined to dialog or thought balloons.
-This arc also finds Moore introducing the concept of the Green’s antagonistic force, the Red, although perhaps accidentally.
-An amazing piece of art courtesy of Bissette and Totleben — The full-page splash of Swamp Thing finally awakening to battle Woodrue.

-Issue #23 marks the first appearance of a popular trope throughout this run: vignettes of everyday people whose lives intersect with Swamp Thing’s adventures.
-In issue #24, Green Arrow perhaps puts things too succinctly when he cries “We were watching out for New York, for Metropolis, for Atlantis… but who was watching out for Lacroix, Louisiana?” At least such complaining fits with his character.
-An amazing description of Woodrue, via a random townsperson: “Uglier than death backin’ outta the outhouse readin’ Mad magazine and as crazy as a football bat.” Hah!
-I’ve always been a little unclear as to whether the ultimate antagonist in this story is Woodrue or if it’s really the Green itself. Abby and the Justice League are pretty convinced the world’s plant life turned on humanity, although the bulk of the story drives at Woodrue being an imperfect medium who misinterprets the Green’s message.
-I love the end of this story, where Woodrue foolishly tries to (literally) reclaim his human skin, as Swamp Thing once did, to avoid being captured by Superman and Green Lantern. It’s a nice illustration of how farcical Swamp Thing’s desire for his humanity is.
-Much like Green Arrow earlier in the issue, Superman helpfully puts a finger on Swamp Thing’s role: “There’s something watching out for the places no one watches out for.” Notice Superman says “something;” Swamp Thing’s inhumanity’s driven home yet again.

Issues #25-27 (The Monkey King):
-From this point out, pretty much every arc will devote at least some of its pages to Swamp Thing literally growing into his new identity. Here, he learns he doesn’t have to breathe anymore.
-In issue #25 we learn that, although consciously Swamp Thing’s purportedly accepted that he’s not Alec Holland, he still has Holland’s dreams.
-A great touch when Jason Blood meets Abby: he’s familiar with her family, the Arcanes. Of course he is.
-This seems like it’d be another quote from a foreign text, but Google seems to think it’s all Moore’s. I love it. Blood, to Abby, re: children: “You know less than they of madness, and less than I of evil.”
-Here Abby states that Swamp Thing’s the only person she knows who “isn’t stupid or messed up.” Though Abby certainly has a strange source of stability, there’s definitely a point to her saying that about ostensibly the least normal character in the book.
-Moore’s poetry’s given a chance to shine in Etrigan’s dialog and narration. Side note to comic authors: if you write Etrigan without rhymes, you’re doing it wrong.
-Both of these arcs have moments where Swamp Thing’s forced to embrace himself as a monster. They’re quite touching.
-A cool use of Swamp Thing’s new powers now that he’s not so tied to his body: when Etrigan removes his arm, he just reattaches it right back. Of course, stuff like this will really be explored once John Constantine comes into the picture.
-Upon his exit, Etrigan warns Swamp Thing and Abby that a bigger enemy approaches. An author like Moore always has to have a reason behind his plotting — why would a monkey-fear demon come into the world without a reason? I mean, come on guys.
-The whole conversation between Swamp Thing and Paul here is heartbreaking. It’s easily one of my favorite moments in the entire series. Because of my commitment to excellence, I will quote it all:

Paul: Were you scared when the Monkey King jumped on you? What did you see?
Swamp Thing: I… saw fire…. Once I… knew someone… who died… by fire…
Paul: And were you afraid?
Swamp Thing: Yes… a little…
Paul: That’s good. I mean, y’know. It makes me feel better. I mean, if even monsters get scared sometimes, then… well, then it isn’t so bad, is it?

-It occurs to me that that passage really says it all about where Swamp Thing’s at mentally. He actively disassociates himself from Alec (“someone I knew”) but Alec’s visions remain with him and hurt him. This is heavy stuff for a mainstream comic book hero from 1983.
-As always, mad respect must go to any creator who dedicates a story to Jack “The King” Kirby.

Next week: Swamp Thing gets a little more active when old enemy Anton Arcane returns.

tags: alan moore, john totleben, steve bissette, super serial, swamp thing

  • Latest Nothings
  • site design: haystack needle design    privacy policy©2011 nerdynothings.com     RSS