Super Serial: Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Book 2

Swamp Thing Book 2

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

It’s time to talk about sex.

One of the surefire ways to tell if you’ve got a good run of comics on your hand is to see what that run’s writer does with its supporting cast. Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing is like a master’s course in developing an entire world around a title character, and nowhere does this become more clear than in his treatment of Abigail Cable nee Arcane, Swamp Thing’s young, white-haired love interest. When Moore took over Swamp Thing in issue #20, Abby had already been married to Matthew Cable and was trapped in an awkward, troubled marriage. Moore quickly made it very apparent, if it wasn’t already, that Abby loved and longed for the Swamp Thing over her creepy, secretly super-powered husband. Here, in “Love and Death,” that longing blossoms into a full-on relationship, but not before that marriage can be tidied up.

“Love and Death” is Abigail’s book through and through. Except for a couple one-shot stories that, while well-done, are essentially fillers, Abby provides the catalyst for every piece of action here. In the first chapter of what Neil Gaiman refers to as the “Arcane Trilogy” in his introduction, our initial impression of Abby takes the form of one of the most horrific images we’ve yet seen in mainstream comic books: a naked woman, broken and bloody, curled up on the kitchen floor doing her best to remove some uncleanliness (the source of which we don’t yet know) with a potato scrubber. This is horrible stuff, visceral and unsettling, and it sets the tone for what’s going to happen to Abby before “Love and Death” is over. She’s going to be the victim of sexual assault, necrophilia and incest, she’s going to be killed and her soul will be sent to hell. But on the other side her lover awaits, and “Love and Death” culminates with what’s famously known as the “vegetable sex” issue and her consummation with Swamp Thing.

Let’s talk about that lover. A major part of my first column on Swamp Thing was devoted to analyzing the titular character as a fairly inactive hero. “Love and Death” shows Swamp Thing totally cut loose, comic-book style, but it’s all for Abby. This isn’t the last time in the series we’ll see this happen; it’s clear that nothing gets Swamp Thing’s goat more than when people mess with his lady. The climax of the “Arcane Trilogy,” in which Swamp Thing mercilessly beats the shit out of his archenemy, is maybe the most superhero-y moment in all of Moore’s work on this title, and it wouldn’t have happened if not for love.

Despite Abby’s unfortunate tendency to be victimized in this volume, and indeed throughout the series, I think Moore presents her as a strong, individual female character. Beyond her impressive work with autistic children at Elysium Lawns (it could be argued she was more of a hero than Swamp Thing during the “Monkey King” story), it’s important to look at the atypical ways in which Abby finds herself happiness, particularly in relation to her sexual identity. She outright rejects traditional societal notions of marriage to date a swamp creature (and notice that typical male/female lovemaking is in her case disgusting and violent, while her unusual sex with Swamp Thing is beautiful and pure). Additionally, while her husband sought to make her more of a typical housewife, with Swamp Thing she lives exactly the life she wants. Not merely a background player, Abby is in Moore’s hands turns into an equal for our hero, one who often shares or even commandeers the narrative spotlight for issues at a time (#33, contained in this volume, stars Abby and doesn’t really feature Swamp Thing at all). It’s of crucial importance to pay as much attention to Abby as you do to the title character in the following volumes; in many ways, she’ll be the cause of everything he does proactively (though of course he’s about to be dragged on a world-changing journey of his own).

Speaking of Swamp Thing’s own journey, “Love and Death” sees the evidence of an impending crisis (pardon the pun) piling up. This is particularly evident in Swamp Thing Annual #2, “Down Amongst the Dead Men,” where the spirit of Alec Holland curiously tells Swamp Thing that “your world will need children soon.” There are also numerous references to Swamp Thing being an “elemental” or, as one demon puts it, “Earth-Genii;” this is the first we’ve heard of Swamp Thing maybe being a part of a larger chain of creatures, something confirmed by the mythical Abel in the aforementioned issue #33, “Abandoned Houses.” “There have come sour times when the Earth feels compelled to create an elemental champion for itself. Sour times are returning to your world.” In this issue, Abby (ever the heroine) learns from the dreamworld’s House of Secrets that her Swamp Thing isn’t the first such creature; unfortunately, she’s cursed with forgetting that knowledge as soon as she returns to the waking world. Of course, a wily Brit will be around to tell Swamp Thing what’s what soon enough.

“The Burial”:
-This issue’s a planned fill-in, and it feels like it. Here Swamp Thing must reclaim the skeleton of Alec Holland from the bottom of the lake where he perished and give it a proper burial. Although it allows Swamp Thing to mostly come to terms with his new identity, it does take a strange detour from the rest of the series.
-This is the first of two fill-in issues where Shawn McManus provides art in this volume. In this particular case, I don’t think it works. It’s a little too cartoony, and I feel this story would resonate a lot more with a more horror-based penciler.
-Interestingly, this issue does retell Swamp Thing’s origin in a more personal way than “The Anatomy Lesson” from volume 1.
-Holland’s body is laid to rest in presumably the same place it arises from in Brightest Day #24.

The Arcane Trilogy:
-Swamp Thing #29 is the first DC Comic to go to stands without the Comics Code Approval seal. That explains why it can open with the image of a sexual assault victim horribly scrubbing herself clean with a potato brush.
-Apparently thanks to the events of “The Burial,” Swamp Thing is now okay with Abby calling him “Alec,” which she’ll continue to do. Again, Abby provides the one true human connection for Swamp Thing.
-Moore’s use of tactile descriptions here is totally amazing. He especially channels powerful smells and touch, two senses typically underused in comics.
-Arcane has some badass dialog in these chapters, like: “Dearest Abigail, your grasp of the inhuman is so limited and shallow.”
-Here we learn, if there was a doubt, that Arcane was responsible for freeing the Monkey King from Hell last volume. Even in death, he’s remained Swamp Thing’s primary antagonist.
-If you need any proof of Swamp Thing’s passivity as a hero, notice that he’s hardly anywhere to be found in these issues. Arcane literally has to track him down to bring him into the action, and that’s only accomplished by his threatening Abby.
-There’s a nice one-page detour to Arkham Asylum here, which lets us check back in on Woodrue from the last volume, and also learn that whatever’s happening is so bad “the Joker’s stopped laughing.” Moore would later work wonders with the Joker in The Killing Joke, surely one of the definitive Batman graphic novels.
-The initial confrontation between Swamp Thing and his nemesis in #30 is so cinematic, with incredibly sharp and portentous dialog. “Matt?” “Guess again.” “Arcane.” “ARCAAAAANE!”
-If Arcane gets great dialog, so does Swamp Thing. “You did not… have to kill her… to teach me despair, Arcane… but you have given me… a deeper understanding… of abomination.”
-Arcane’s the first sane (arguably) antagonist Swamp Thing has faced, and definitely the most super-villain-y.
-Notice in issue #31 Swamp Thing again tries to walk away from a fight.
-The image of Arcane spewing bugs from his mouth in #31, courtesy of Rick Vietch and John Totleben, is truly horrific, and it actually makes Swamp Thing run.
-Swamp Thing realizes that visions of Arcane’s plan have been apparent as far back as his hallucinations in volume 1.
-About halfway through #31, Swamp Thing finally decides to take a stand like a hero — again, for Abby. This entire page is so well-written and exciting, and it’s also the closest to a traditional superhero Swamp Thing ever gets. Of crucial interest to us, Swamp Thing asserts to Arcane that he is no longer Holland, but a new, stronger type of creature. Of course, Swamp Thing doesn’t yet realize how strong he’s become.
-Arcane’s the first to posit that Swamp Thing may perhaps have become some kind of elemental force, but not the last.
-Another great Swamp Thing line: “You make the world… worthless… with your lies! HOW… DARE… YOU??” This is the angriest we’ve ever seen Swamp Thing.
-Once Swamp Thing has delivered a punishing blow to Arcane, the possessed Matt finally gets to claim some redemption by re-condemning Arcane’s spirit to Hell and half-revitalizing Abby.
-Maybe it doesn’t mean anything, but the split Matt/Arcane visuals recall DC villain Two-Face.
-At the end of #31, Matt Cable basically explicitly delivers to Swamp Thing the overriding message of Moore’s run on the book: “There isn’t any evil… just weakness.” But our hero’s not yet ready to hear it, only replying with “you’re rambling.”
-The image of Abby’s eyes/mouth covered in snow even after she’s been brought back to life is creepy.
-Swamp Thing actually cries for Abby here… a very human reaction.
-Note: even though this is maybe the most active Swamp Thing ever gets, it’s actually Matt that really defeats the villain in this issue.

“Down Amongst the Dead Men”:
-Alan Moore ends the Arcane saga with this oversized annual that for the first time finds his Swamp Thing getting metafictional. Check out the opening lines:

There are people. There are stories. The people think they shape the stories, but the reverse is often closer to the truth. Stories shape the world. They exist independently of people, and in places quite devoid of man, there may yet be mythologies.

This strikes me as more of a Grant Morrison thing; it’s rare that Moore ventures into the realm of self-reference, at least in Swamp Thing (obviously by the time we get to stuff like Supreme, that’s his primary interest).
-I want to keep harping on this idea that Swamp Thing is an atypical comic book protagonist. In the opening, note how Moore’s narration refers to him: “The hero, slow and massive, comes too late.” That doesn’t sound too heroic.
-We get a bit of foreshadowing of Swamp Thing’s future capabilities here. “I… am shackled… to this body. No I’m not.” Currently he’s only aware he can release himself mentally, not physically. And of course, after his respite in Volume 1, this is only his second journey into the Green.
-Though it’s certainly not his primary concern here, Alan Moore does a great job of setting up the framework of DC’s mystical characters that seem to have recently come back into vogue. Deadman, the Spectre, the Demon and the Phantom Stranger are some favorites of Moore’s and they’ll keep coming back.
-Moore’s representation of the afterlife is pretty fascinating. It lets us get a sense of his cosmological beliefs. This is something borrowed later by many authors, including Neil Gaiman (Sandman), Mike Carey (Lucifer) and even filmmaker Kevin Smith in his Green Arrow run.
-Not for the last time, Alan Moore uses the classic “waiting for the bus” joke.
-Wise words from the Phantom Stranger: “Coincidence is the secret thread that knots the world together.”
-This volume’s full of chances for Swamp Thing to come to closure with his new identity. In this chapter, he meets the spirit of Alec Holland in Heaven. It turns out Alec couldn’t be at peace until Swamp Thing gave him a proper burial in chapter one.
-Even with all that closure happening, though, Swamp Thing can’t seem to bring himself to talk to the spirit of Linda, his once-wife (kind of). Is it because the wound still hurts too much, or because of his love of Abby? Maybe both?
-Phantom Stranger with more gold, this time on what we know of God: “A few jigsaw fragments of a design that spreads outward forever.” And more: “The ordered universe is but a microscopic bubble in an ocean of seething madness.” All these quotes play into the framework which shapes not only Alan Moore’s comics but, in theory, his worldview.
-Moore’s recasting of the Spectre as this giant guardian of Hell is amazing. He really makes these characters’ cosmic sides pop.
-Also, major props on all the Spectre art from series regulars Stephen Bissette and John Totleben.
-Second to Arcane, the Spectre also refers to Swamp Thing as an Earth elemental. “How strange – I had thought them all long since destroyed.”
-Swamp Thing gets ridiculously angry when Spectre tells him Abby’s soul has to stay in Hell.
-After that, Phantom Stranger and the Spectre get a little catty, though it’s a pretty cool debate.
-According to Moore, Hell rests on the edge of rationality: “the last place that can truly be called a place.”
-Stranger, on Hell’s punishment: “Each soul must enter alone… otherwise, how could it truly be Hell?”
-Our old friend the Demon reassesses Swamp Thing’s value in this book, finding him to now possess “courage, free from hesitation.” That’s because he’s now after his lady.
-A weird repeating trope: the Phantom Stranger causes two of DC’s mystical characters to laugh, for totally different reasons.
-Of Abby, the Demon notes that she stood out against the backdrop of Hell “like a flower.”
-In Hell Swamp Thing sees Sunderland, the corporate executive he murdered in “The Anatomy Lesson.” He seems a bit remorseful about it.
-More on cosmology: the Demon tells Swamp Thing that men, not God, built Hell: “God is no parent or policeman grim dispensing treats or punishments to all. Each soul climbs or descends by its own whim. He mourns, but he cannot prevent their fall.”
-Swamp Thing also visits Arcane in Hell, and we get a sense of the scope of his torture. “How many years have I been here?” Arcane asks, to which Swamp Thing replies “Since yesterday.” This scene is awesome.
-Again we see Swamp Thing really only spring into action when Abby’s threatened; this time, it’s because of salacious demons. It’s implied that they, like Arcane before them, have abused Abby sexually. Fortunately all this is about done for Abby.
-Really all the Hell art is superb. It’s great that the two main series artists could work on this annual.
-Arcane swears revenge on Swamp Thing again, but this time his rationality’s gone out the window. We probably won’t be hearing from him again.
-Just as it was Matt, not Swamp Thing, who defeated Arcane in the last chapter, this time it’s the Demon who takes care of the Arcane problem.
-The Demon’s motivation for helping Swamp Thing: to install something beautiful in the underworld. “A flower grows yet in Hell that’s named for her.” One suspects that’s his human side fighting against the darkness of the Demon.
-Like the last chapter, this issue ends with Swamp Thing crying again, though for a wholly different reason.

“Pog”:
-After the madness of the Arcane saga, this fill-in issue was conceived of by Moore to pay tribute to the classic comic strip Pogo by Walt Kelly, which featured political and social commentary delivered by cute swamp creatures. Shawn McManus returns on art, but this time, given the lighter subject matter, it works.
-As Neil Gaiman’s introduction to this volume points out, Moore has a lot of fun with language here, seemingly accessing an endless supply of portmanteau words in something of a tribute to Kelly’s style. Probably the most important of them for us is Pog’s referring to Swamp Thing as a “guardiner.”
-Though one might be tempted to read this issue as a simple condemnation of selfish, slovenly human beings, Moore complicates things a little. For instance, the aliens (generally presented in a positive light) are incredibly hostile to Swamp Thing when they first meet him. Second, it’s Earth animals, not humans, that end up killing one of Pog’s crew. Although perhaps Moore’s ultimate point is that it’s Earth, not any one species, that eats life up and spits it out.

“Abandoned Houses”:
-This clever one-shot issue finds Abby, in her dreams, entering the realms of the House of Secrets and House of Mystery, guided by the Biblical characters Cain and Abel. This is especially pointed as Swamp Thing, in a prototype stage, made his debut in an old House of Secrets comic. Moore reprints that entire story by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson here, but recontextualizes it to show how this once-forgotten tale starring Alex Olsen could possibly apply to the Alec Holland character we know.
-Art here’s provided by DC stable artist Ron Randall, who does a great job conveying the horror-y look of the ’70s House of Mystery/Secrets books.
-Moore again gets a bit metafictional in Abel’s dialog to Abby, although she’s dreaming so it may not be so unordinary. “Some strange stories have intruded on your life lately.” “Everything is made of stories.”
-Not really apropos to Moore’s own writing, but the original Wein/Wrightston story presented here is pretty cool. I like how it’s made up of a bunch of different narrative layers and perspectives; it puts readers in Linda’s head, as well as Swamp Thing’s and rival suitor Damian’s.
-In Abel’s revealing to Abby about Swamp Thing’s “place in the scheme of things,” we learn that there’s another master nemesis out there bigger than Arcane… although really we should have suspected that all along.

“Rite of Spring”:
-Neil Gaiman’s introduction tells us that this issue, the fabled “vegetable sex” installment, brought more attention and new readers to Swamp Thing than anything before it. Coming at this book from a 2011 perspective, it’s hard to see why. Sure, it’s a little racy and risqué, but other than having some tremendous art (again from Bissette and Totleben) it doesn’t seem too revolutionary. Yet scared retailers were forced to sell the issue in black polybags as though it were pornography. Ah, the Reagan years.
-”Rite of Spring” is heavy on the poetry, both visually and textually. Moore’s opening lines are beautiful and feel like they’d fit right in in any love ballad: “Spring came, and everything in the world woke up.”
-Abby here wonders whether it’s even legal for her to mate with Swamp Thing. Although it seems like a throwaway line, that issue will come back majorly in a few volumes.
-In the midst of the psychedelic “lovemaking” pages, the book takes on a vertical orientation. These are drawn fantastically.
-This volume has an amazingly sweet last few pages; finally, the relationship of Swamp Thing and Abby has been consummated.

tags: alan moore, john totleben, rick veitch, ron randall, shawn mcmanus, steve bissette, super serial, swamp thing

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