Super Serial aims to dissect series of pop art — be it a filmography, discography or run of comics — by looking at its individual components.
Last week in this column I talked about Alan Moore building Swamp Thing‘s supporting cast via Abby Cable, Swamp Thing’s lovely white-haired ladyfriend. While there’s a real case to be made that Abby’s the second most important character in this book, the fellow Alan Moore introduces in Book 3 is almost certainly his greatest invention. Here we meet John Constantine, the mystical, smart-mouthed Englishman who leads Swamp Thing on a tour of America. Constantine’s first appearance in Saga of the Swamp Thing #37 still pulls down major cash in the back-issue market, and thanks to recent marketing gimmicks at both major comics publishers, he now stars in the highest-numbered consecutive comic series at a major publisher.
Besides introducing Constantine, Volume 3 finds Swamp Thing truly embracing its horror roots. Certainly stories in both of the first two installments have been on the horrific side (and psychologically speaking, little trumps seeing Abby cleanse herself with a wire brush), but after we get this book’s three chapters of prologue out of the way Swamp Thing launches into what many consider its centerpiece story, so dubbed “American Gothic.” Here, Alan Moore leads us on concurrent journeys. One of them incorporates almost any old horror trope you can think of — vampires, zombies, werewolves, ghosts, etc. The other, much more interesting, line of thought uncovers what Moore sees as true American horrors — slavery, mistreatment of women, abhorrent violence and the like. How the two threads connect isn’t always totally clear (though my job’s to make an argument for some kind of connection, isn’t it?), but there’s no doubt that “American Gothic” is a terrific piece of Americana that both masters and transcends the genre and form in which it’s written. It’s hard to imagine any better zombie story than the one presented in the final chapters of this volume, for instance; it’s also hard to imagine many stories about slavery that are as multi-faceted and have as much of an eye on the present as they do on the past. Through all these issues, bear in mind that Moore asks us to question who the true monsters really are. Swamp Thing wonders this aloud often, but it’s a fair question in every case.
I’ve made a lot in my previous two columns about Swamp Thing being a passive hero. He’s more often led to react than act, choosing the serenity of the Green and his girlfriend over the affairs of the world. Ostensibly, that’s exactly what happens here as well. This time it’s John Constantine, offering the compelling promise of self-knowledge, that makes Swamp Thing leave his home and do semi-heroic things. But I think this volume starts to show us a little difference in how Swamp Thing reacts. One gets a sense, especially in the later stories, that inaction doesn’t necessarily equate to sitting things out; instead, he’s learning. I’m especially interested in the way he deals with his werewolf problem in “The Curse.” There’s absolutely nothing proactive about it, but he also doesn’t react the way the hero of volume one might have, choosing quiet sympathy over vocal apathy. What we’re seeing here is Constantine, always a step ahead, preparing Swamp Thing for his ultimate test.
And speaking of that ultimate test, this is the first book that really lets us in on the master malevolence plaguing Swamp Thing’s world. We don’t have all the specifics yet — actually, John Constantine’s buddies each have a different explanation for what it is, ranging from energy trapped in a black hole to Satan — but we know that some wicked group is trying to bring it back by raising “belief levels,” meaning that they pump the world full of supernatural events to prime it for the coming of this entity (note that Neil Gaiman basically takes this concept and applies it to all religious beliefs in Sandman). This volume also, albeit subtly, ties what’s happening in with DC’s then-current event series, Crisis on Infinite Earths. Our only real clue of that is Constantine’s reference to “bad weather and red skies,” but any longtime DC readers know what that means: the Crisis is upon us. Of course, the threat Swamp Thing ends up dealing with in volume four will end up eclipsing anything Marv Wolfman and George Perez had conceived.
“The Nukeface Papers”:
-This strange two-part story serves as a prologue to “American Gothic” (or maybe even as a prologue to the prologue). I must confess that every time I read it I feel like I’m missing something. Its villain comes and goes without warning; we’re left only with the “rumor” that he dies off-panel a few issues later. It certainly ties in to Moore’s themes of environmentalism and American horror, but it feels so disconnected from the rest of the series. That said, what it really serves to accomplish is utterly obliterating Swamp Thing’s body, forcing him to the realization that he can regrow it as necessary.
-Issue #35 opens with a nice full-page image of Swamp Thing and Abby together courtesy of series artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben.
-Bob the Vagrant that “Nukeface” meets here bears a really strong resemblance to a character named Chester that Moore will later introduce.
-Moore’s tour of the U.S. is frustratingly half-fictional. The backstory of this issue’s predicated on Blossomville, PA, which doesn’t exist (and probably was given its name for its plant connotations). However, according to Wikipedia it’s a stand-in for Centralia, PA, which, due to a coal mine fire in 1962, was made basically uninhabitable. Moore couldn’t have known that Centralia would essentially become a non-town; the U.S. Postal Service even revoked its zip code in 2002. Despite government efforts, the 2010 census claims that ten people still live there, though the land and buildings on it have all been condemned.
-When speaking of natural disasters, Moore’s poetic narration really comes out. “Something bright and awful kissed the world.”
-Another issue, another example of Swamp Thing crying, this time at the devastation in Blossomville, which he calls “Deathtown.”
-I feel as though Moore’s environmentalism here is maybe a little preachy. That said, the story’s central antagonist certainly presents an interesting twist: he’s a derelict who now cannot live without imbibing nuclear waste runoff from an industrial outlet (tellingly called only “the company”). Does Moore intend Nukeface to stand in for all of us? Are we all addicted to the waste of capitalism and don’t know it?
-It’s obvious but cool that Nukeface’s touch is especially toxic to Swamp Thing.
-Note the repeating visual motif of floating newspaper headlines telling of nuclear events. Moore wants us to know that these things are really happening.
-Another important motif comes in the form of color; we’re taught that blue equals numbness. Remember that come volume six.
-Examples of Swamp Thing’s inactivity abound in these two issues. Our hero here stumbles upon Nukeface and is instantly incapacitated; he dies within three pages. He’s almost completely absent from #36; instead, the story’s told from the multiple perspectives of the people around the antagonist. It’s a cool tactic and a nice comment on truth and reality that we can only get the whole story by synthesizing the perspectives of lots of characters (both major and minor) involved.
-Moore seems to be able to gaze into the future; a hyper-conservative heavyset blonde Christian woman who provides a moral perspective in this story looks exactly like Victoria Jackson.
-Speaking of Swamp Thing’s inactivity, here knowledge is forced upon him — only when confronted with death does he come to realize he can discard and regenerate bodies on a whim.
-I want to bring up again how bizarre I find it that Nukeface just walks off at the end of this story, and none of the plotlines that are raised find any kind of resolution. Is this Moore’s commentary on the way things really are, perhaps?
-Here we officially meet John Constantine for the first time. Nice. Much like the Christian woman in the above story looks like Victoria Jackson, here Constantine ends up recalling rocker Sting.
-Interestingly, this issue runs together two narrative strains: Swamp Thing’s regrowth is contrasted with the introduction of the eventual “big bad,” whatever it is. Moore often likes to run two stories simultaneously, but this may be one of his best uses of that tactic.
-Speaking of introducing that malevolent force, Constantine’s friends helpfully put a time limit on its arrival — one year. That seems to tie in perfectly with Crisis on Infinite Earths, a 12-issue series which, had it kept on schedule, would have run for that same length of time.
-Every volume seems to feature some kind of rebirth for Swamp Thing. This time, that rebirth is very literal.
-The attention to detail in the scenes of Swamp Thing’s growth is amazing. Also, Abby’s a tremendous girlfriend.
-The Jiminy Cricket comparison when budding Swamp Thing manages to grow a tiny mouth is hilarious (and notice that Swamp Thing does not look amused with Abby’s laughter).
-Here Abby unsatisfyingly tells us she heard a rumor that Nukeface died. That’s all the closure we’re ever going to get on the last two issues.
-With the introduction of the “horrific events increases belief levels” plot point here, we’re basically primed for “American Gothic.”
-Swamp Thing in his own words on why Abby is so great: she’s “remarkable… adapting… so quickly… to a situation… even I… am only starting… to comprehend.”
-Perhaps only a minor plot point, but at this point Swamp Thing no longer needs to biorestorative formula to grow a body. His consciousness is enough to will one into being.
-Swamp Thing in a reflective moment: “I am learning… so much… about what I am… and the knowledge… is gradually… changing me…. But what… is it changing… me into? … Sometimes… I am almost frightened… by my own possibilities.” Swamp Thing now begins to realize that his power may be far greater than he ever imagined, though it’s going to take Constantine to really push him all the way.
-Constantine’s first line to Swamp Thing is brilliant: “I’m a nasty piece of work, chief. Ask anybody.”
-Again Swamp Thing gets angry at someone (Constantine) purportedly threatening Abby, even though at this point he’s just half a body growing out of the ground.
-Constantine’s ominous threat/promise to Swamp Thing: “I know what you are, mate… and you don’t.”
-Constantine does helpfully confirm for Swamp Thing that he’s a plant elemental, something Arcane and Abel alluded to in volume 2.
-Like the fruit in the Garden of Eden, Constantine’s promise of knowledge tempts Swamp Thing. The Brit points out that without it there’s “something in his life that’s incomplete.” But with it, there may be something missing too: the end of this issue suggests that Swamp Thing’s search for self-knowledge may tear him away from Abby emotionally as well as physically.
-”American Gothic” officially begins by taking on the horror genre mainstay of vampires… except this time, brilliantly, they live underwater, thus negating the need to hide during the day (since the sun doesn’t shine underwater). As he did with Swamp Thing’s own origin, Moore has looked into the nuts and bolts of a classic story and found a new way to make it work.
-Yet these two issues have always confounded me in what actual horror they’re meant to represent. After a long discussion with my very good friends Ben Rathert, Craig Colbrook and Tom Foss I’ve come to realize that the underwater vampires are meant to shed light on America’s less-than-perfect treatment of immigrants. We keep hearing throughout these two issues that the vampires want only to establish their own community in peace; they want a safe place to live their lives and raise their children. Tom even brilliantly noticed that this issue opens with an example of immigrant culture co-opting white suburban youth (when a vampire turns Nicky). Don’t buy the analogy? Perhaps it’s a bit of a hard sell, but realize that America’s past is full of dark episodes wherein immigrants have been subjected to terrible treatment and outright violence (the same kind of violence, perhaps, that led Swamp Thing to originally drown their home way back in Saga of the Swamp Thing #3, where these creatures first appeared?). Of course Moore seldom presents uncomplicated morals; we see here that in his vision immigrants are forced to feed off the indigent culture to survive, much as those coming to America look for it to sustain them. The point: although presented as victims, the vampires are also victimizers. The circle of life continues.
-Speaking of Rosewood, IL, much like Blossomville, PA, it’s not a real place (though both have the flower motif in their names). Unlike Blossomville, it doesn’t seem to have a real-life stand-in. Rosewood appeared in Swamp Thing before, prior to Moore’s run; 1982′s Saga of the Swamp Thing #3 saw our hero defeat regular old vampires in this Chicago suburb. There is a Rosewood Heights, IL, though it’s much closer to St. Louis than Chicago. If you Google search “Rosewood, IL” it thinks you mean Shorewood, IL, which is a Chicago suburb, so for geographic purposes let’s place it there — it really could be any suburb anyway.
-How do we know Rosewood can be any suburb? A destroyed road sign we see at the beginning of issue #38 marks it as “the pride of the Midwest.” Yes, this could be anywhere in Middle America. That’s the point.
-And the American imagery abounds here. My favorite part of it: some of the vampires sleep in hollowed-out pinball machines.
-It bears mentioning again here that Constantine is crazy well connected. It seems he knows everybody and everything.
-The vampire’s narration (it’s interesting that we get inside their heads) refers to whatever evil’s coming as the “dark millennium.”
-Every time Swamp Thing regenerates, he can do it more quickly. Also, when he regrows in a new place, he takes on the look of its native plantlife. This is pretty cool and will be exploited to great effect later on.
-Constantine humorously refers to himself here as Swamp Thing’s new “manager.”
-He also remarks, very tellingly, that “knowledge don’t come cheap. In fact, sometimes the price is astronomical.”
-A scene late in issue #38 shows us that, for all his bravado, Constantine is rightfully terrified of Swamp Thing’s power.
-A great description of Swamp Thing’s body: “The Earth-strength moves within it, ancient and crushing and terrible.”
-Moore also introduces the idea of natural selection here, specifically in the scene where the vampire’s offspring eat each other until only the strongest one survives. Again Moore’s careful to always complicate and re-complicate any moral messages he might include. Maybe to the vampires humanity is the true monster, but human babies also don’t literally devour each other. “The grass is always greener,” right?
-Another lackluster example of heroics from Swamp Thing: he’s quickly taken care of in the fight with the vampire offspring, forced to take on a new body basically as soon as he enters the battle.
-However, that defeat allows Swamp Thing to develop new fighting tactics, as well as to come to new realizations. “I am… too human… in the way I think… in the way I fight….” Swamp Thing’s now looking to let go of his humanity, where before he clung to it. “I must learn… to exploit… the possibilities of what I am.”
-The use of powers Swamp Thing comes upon — to regenerate his body as the entire reservoir of water above Rosewood and then flood the town — is brilliant and impressive, definitely one of the strongest displays we’ve yet seen from our hero.
-It’s also another act of total violence, one which the vampires’ narration calls attention to: “Why must we be destroyed? We asked for so very little… only a home that we could call our own… some livestock to provide our food… and a safe place to raise our children.”
-Here in #39 is where Constantine specifically makes reference to red skies.
-Constantine also gives us our second use of the “waiting for the bus” joke, which Moore apparently loves.
-Our second installment of “American Gothic” takes on werewolves through the lens of institutionalized sexism.
The connection: Native Americans believe that menstrual cycles and lunar cycles connected, and as traditional horror stories tell us, lunar cycles also relate to werewolf appearances. Specific to this story, Moore invents the Pennamaquot Indians (not a real tribe) who lived near Kennescook, ME (not a real city) and made their menstruating women crouch in huts for their entire period; Moore’s narration tells us “they were forbidden to stand, or lie down, or see the moon.” Some sources believe that in reality these menstruation huts (which did exist) weren’t actually that cruel, although the forced seclusion seems harsh.
-If we were to try to give this story real geography, a fair guess would be to place it near Pemaquid, Maine, which sounds pretty close to Pennamaquot. It’s probably not important to nail down a literal place, but I think it’s fun to try (of course, DC Comics have a history of not using real cities for their adventures anyway).
-Swamp Thing on his current abilities: “It is strange… to know that I am but a step away… from anywhere in the world… and comforting… to understand… that anywhere in the world… I am only a step away… from you….” Swamp Thing here continues to assert his love for Abby; this positive relationship will be contrasted with the negative one our werewolf heroine Phoebe feels.
-Swamp Thing on Constantine: “He offers… no knowledge… that I could not… have arrived at… by myself.” Is that true? It seems as though Swamp Thing actually wouldn’t have pushed himself to any of the knowledge he got in the vampire story without Constantine. Maybe he needs to tell himself this.
-And a positive female figure speaks of her positive relationship: “You don’t ask me to feed you, or tidy the swamp, or iron shirts, and I get fresh flowers all year round. You’re just the sort of person I imagined marrying when I was little… except, y’know, not green….”
-Swamp Thing refers to the werewolf power he senses as primal and elemental. Is there such a thing as a female elemental?
-The werewolf birth scene here, in which the wolf pushes itself out of Phoebe’s mouth, is super creepy. Another great job from Bissette and Totleben.
-As with the vampires, Swamp Thing realizes that his intervention may not be just, though it is necessary to save lives.
-However, also like with the vampires, Swamp Thing is outstripped in power. In fact, his realization when battling the werewolf is almost the opposite of his forest battle with Arcane in volume two. “This… is not… my place of power… it is hers….”
-Werewolf Phoebe cannot bring herself to kill her husband, presumably out of love. Despite all her rage, she still feels trapped by the emotions she has for the man. Moore’s narration refers to this as “the nature of woman’s curse.”
-It’s important here that those things which keep women oppressed are institutionalized. For instance, marriage is referred to as women’s “slavery.”
-Put another way, the narration states that “the Red Lodge is everywhere.” We’ve seen this idea before — that the world is built to foil people (consider “Pog” in volume 2).
-Other institutions that the Phoebe-wolf attacks: pornography (via an adult bookstore) and a supermarket.
-The wolf’s narration, too, recognizes the inescapability of her situation, speaking of “this stifling place that has been built for me.”
-Phoebe’s suicide in this issue may be the biggest tragedy in all of Swamp Thing. It’s so sad, seemingly needless, and she doesn’t even get to go out the way she wants, impaling herself on a display of supermarket knives. “It’s a poor kind of moonlight. It’s a poor kind of freedom… but, in the end, it is the only kind she has.”
-Again, this story provides an example where Swamp Thing basically stands and watches things happen. However, I think this is a turning point for our hero — it seems that this time he watches not with disinterest but with sympathy verging on understanding. He wants to help Phoebe, but he knows there’s nothing he can do about it except offer her some comfort on her deathbed. “I leave her there… doused… in blood and moonlight… and I walk away.” Yes, it’s not really a heroic victory, but it doesn’t feel like an anti-heroic moment either. It just feels like a resignation to life’s ways, which ends up being Swamp Thing’s greatest lesson.
-Bringing back “the curse,” Phoebe’s still concerned about her husband on her deathbed.
-I want to raise a final question about this issue: is its message complicated by the fact that it’s written by a man? Since I, too, am a man, I feel that’s not a judgment call I’m willing to make. I can say, though, I am really moved by Phoebe’s plight, and this may be my favorite story in the book.
-Our final “American Gothic” entry in volume 3 combines the horror trope of zombies with the ugliness of racism. It’s a brilliant piece focused on the effects of past violence on the present day (and it’s not the last time Moore will explore this). This installment takes place in the real-world locale of Houma, LA, where most of Swamp Thing occurs.
-Is there actually a connection between zombie lore and slavery? Yes. Beyond the fact that early African religions in America sometimes included the practice of voodoo (of which zombies are a part), the thematic connection seems clear: slavery is something America thinks it has buried in the past but in fact cannot be kept down.
-Speaking of voodoo, we also have exact dates for the events in this comic, since all major segments fall on a day celebrated by those who practice voodoo. Handy!
-A great example of the past/present connection I’m speaking of comes up in this chapter’s opening narration: “As with roots and trees, all things above are determined by what lies buried beneath.”
-The narration tells us that the dead are “dreaming amongst the foundations of the world.”
-It’s interesting that none of the antagonists in these last three stories have been able to see the sky… the vampires live underwater, the menstruating women were denied it and the dead are, well, buried. I think this is both a commentary on our interconnectedness (isn’t it the sky that lets us know we’re part of something greater?) and a neat nod towards Crisis where, as we’ve already established, the red sky is what lets us know bad things are happening.
-Abby and Swamp Thing have a conversation which puts this whole story into perspective: “All these descendants of liberated slaves are earning good money by becoming slaves again (for a television show). Is that funny, or sad?” “It’s human.” It seems as though Swamp Thing is learning that sometimes one can’t assign valuation to an action… it’s just how things go.
-Here Abby begins to wonder if Swamp Thing’s adventures are starting to disconnect him. She thinks his body’s “just something you dress up in occasionally.” She’s probably right.
-Because of that, Swamp Thing thinks he must restrain the use of his abilities to remain anchored to humanity. He’s changed his tune a little from when he fought the vampires.
-Swamp Thing tells a dying bird “the universe is kind,” but is it? Has he learned his lesson yet?
-However, speaking of lessons, he also tells the bird “Death… shall nourish life… and nothing… shall be wasted.” This kind of phrasing will come back in volume 4.
-Another nice bit of narration about the past imprinting itself on the present: “Buried mazes… that still determine the paths… of those who walk above.” Doesn’t this recall the opening narration from the Swamp Thing Annual in book 2, where we’re told that “stories shape people?”
-Swamp Thing, on the buried slaves: “Their prison… has not been allowed… to decay.”
-The TV show director posits, quite correctly, that the plantation house at which they’re filming has “a will to recover.”
-Even though it’s very brief, Moore also connects slavery to drug addiction, specifically cocaine (“you don’t need to be a slave to that white junk”). History perpetuates itself in the strangest of ways.
-There’s a great joke in this book about the equal partnership between Swamp Thing and Abby when he brings her along on a potentially dangerous investigation. “You, uh, aren’t going to say that it’s too dangerous and that I should stay here, or anything?” “I have to great… a respect… for your strength… the idea… would be ridiculous.” “Uh, yeah. Yeah, that’s right. Ridiculous.”
-The end of the first part of this story finds history literally repeating itself.
-The opening chapter of Volume 2, “The Burial,” seems a bit like preparation for this story, inasmuch as it features a haunted spirit coming back to find justice. Of course, this story’s much better and more fleshed-out.
-The second chapter of this story opens with a terrific few pages of the dead rising. The combination of the art and words is terrific. “Buried grievances have poisoned the roots of the world and all its cultures.” This isn’t only the key to this particular story, but also to “American Gothic” in general.
-Abby relates the feeling of this event to her battle with the Monkey King. That’s interesting. Why? Is it just the pervading atmosphere of fear?
-Here’s the most literal explanation of the mechanism that drives this story: “A pattern… has been etched upon this place… by emotions… so fierce and caustic… that they buried their imprint… into the soil itself.”
-According to Swamp Thing, the people are caught up in the plantation’s dream.
-”The pain… cannot remain in the past…. That which is planted… will grow.” That’s exactly what I said above slavery. All events have consequences (and this line connects nicely to the Green).
-The zombies let us know that this particular night will be repeated endlessly if they’re not given freedom.
-Swamp Thing believes the zombies to be in Hell, and to break their curse he must end the cycle. “The pattern… you laid down… so long ago… has grown into a maze… that traps the living.” Again, this is a pretty handy way to view not just the zombies’ plight but all life.
-To end their suffering, Swamp Thing rushes into the plantation house while on fire to burn it down. This is a great connection to his origin; where once fire consumed him, now he uses it to free others from their chains. “You must burn out the roots,” as he says. Also: “for an instant… I recall… another man… who burned. Holland died like this.” But he quickly puts it out of his mind. Swamp Thing is a new creature now through and through.
-In an interesting post-script, Swamp Thing posits that Richard Deal, the overly liberal white activist, was the easiest character for the past to trap. Is this a comment on people who try too hard to overcome the troubles of the past?
-In the awesome epilogue in which an escaped, risen zombie takes a job at a movie theater, note that all the movie posters on display glorify violence. Even if the zombies’ particular night of horror was ended, it still persists in the world.
My Best of 2012 Playlist by Eric Garneau
After being inspired by some friends, for the past few years I’ve been really into documenting my musical exploration with year-end mixes. I realize this is not a particularly novel thing to do, but hey, who has original ideas any more? Anyway, this has gotten even easier to do thanks to new technology like Spotify. read more