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Super Serial: Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Book 4 | Comic Nothings | Nerdy Nothings

Super Serial: Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Book 4

Swamp Thing Book 4

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

I’ve used this space before to talk about how Alan Moore’s not just a great writer but a great rewriter. He likes to take things that already exist in the world of fiction and twist them to better meet his needs. We saw that back in the first volume when Moore literally rebuilds Swamp Thing’s origin from the ground up, and again in volume three when he adds a touch to the typical vampire horror trope (living underwater) in order to find a new way to make the story shine, so to speak. Volume 4 contains maybe the best example of Moore’s editing proclivity, as he takes the massive (and massively impenetrable) comic book megaseries Crisis on Infinite Earths and turns it into something truly special.

First, some background: Crisis on Infinite Earths was DC Comics’ answer to a complicated universe of stories growing more unwieldy every week. Editors believed that the best way to simplify their saga was a year-long event in which all the various parallel worlds of the past would be merged into one new Earth where every DC story would take place. As a concept, it’s bold in scope but somewhat lacking in execution; other than a few dramatic story points, I find Crisis a pretty tough read for anyone not totally familiar with the ins and outs of the 1986 DC Universe. Fortunately, Alan Moore seems to have the same misgivings about it, because he twists Crisis into something much more universal and compelling.

In Crisis, see, there’s a supposedly ultimate bad guy called the Anti-Monitor who destroys worlds willy-nilly because he can. All the DC superheroes team up and defeat him at the beginning of time, end of story. But for Moore, Crisis is only a stepping stone to something larger. As we learn in this volume (entitled “A Murder of Crows”), the Crisis had an unintended side effect — it’s weakened the spiritual and psychic barriers between worlds. That makes it easier for truly evil, sick things to seep through cracks that shouldn’t be there. An ancient and wicked South American cult known as the Brujeria has anticipated this and plans to use the Crisis to bring back the ultimate evil, the original Darkness that existed at Creation but was cast out by God. Its return will spell doom for all eternity, but the superheroes are too busy with the Crisis to notice, so it’s up to Swamp Thing and his strange allies to save the day.

Moore here brilliantly takes DC’s biggest marketing push of the year and marginalizes it, letting us know that it’s not as important as what’s happening in his book — he even uses Swamp Thing‘s own Crisis tie-in, #46, to lay the major seeds of his story! It’s a bold move, and one that in my opinion works perfectly. The climax of this story, Swamp Thing #50, plays with higher stakes than Crisis ever could, and it ends up being a much more satisfying read. Here we come to the philosophical crux of Swamp Thing, and it takes the form of the classic question “What is evil?” Though Alan Moore’s answer is understandably nuanced, I think it comes down to something like this: good and evil constantly feed each other in a natural cycle. As Swamp Thing tells the darkness, “perhaps evil… is the humus… formed by virtue’s decay… and perhaps… perhaps it is from… that dark, sinister loam… that virtue grows strongest.” We’ve seen numerous times in these books that cycles of good and evil perpetuate endlessly, and now we’re told it’s because that’s natural. Good is done because it must be done… but evil must be done too. It’s a startlingly fresh revelation for a mainstream comic book, and also a serious reflection on the world in which we live. It encourages not defeatism but understanding… do not hate evil, for it is because of evil that virtue can exist at all.

That ambiguity feeds perfectly into our hero’s actions, for it’s Swamp Thing’s lack of charging into action that wins the day. Through the course of this series he’s grown from being passive and resigned (he’s ready to give up living in Volume 1) to synthesizing the seemingly opposite impulses of passivity and passion. He cares, but he cares enough to know sometimes there’s nothing you can do. His understanding of ethical complexity allows him to claim victory, a nuance not really present in Crisis.

The parts of “Crows” that aren’t concerned with Crisis are either odd little one-shots (here we meet the hippie Chester Williams, who becomes a major player later) or, in one case, the conclusion of the “American Gothic” string that has found Swamp Thing witnessing horrors throughout America. Volume 4 also shows Swamp Thing meeting his ancestors in the Parliament of Trees, although he does not initially accept what they have to offer. “Crows” is a busy volume, full of payoff and portent for future installments. In many ways, it’s the climax of Moore’s Swamp Thing. If we were to map the story to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth (a very college-y temptation, I know), I think we’d find Volume 4 fits in nicely with the “Abyss” stage. Swamp Thing’s conquered his nemesis — now he has to get back home with his girl, though forces will conspire to prevent even that simple pleasure.

-This chapter’s got a nice title; it suggests surprising benefits from some past action, which in this case refers to the effects of Swamp Thing’s psychedelic tubers (last seen in “Rites of Spring”) on other people.
-Here we meet Chester, who looks a lot like the murdered bum from “The Nukeface Papers,” though he’s not.
-This issue draws a few parallels with Volume 1′s “Anatomy Lesson,” at least in the way Chester analyzes Swamp Thing’s tubers.
-We learn that the tubers amplify whatever’s inside of the person who eats them — like “cosmic litmus paper,” Chester says.
-That means that the two people who try the tubers in this issue have opposite experiences. One, a woman on her deathbed, imagines a very “Rites of Spring”-style lovely scenario with her husband, while another, a slimy junkie, has an “American Gothic” horror experience, complete with flashes of Arcane, underwater vampires and more. The art, by fill-in artists Stan Woch and Ron Randall, does a great job of portraying these two opposite trips.
-This issue’s also a great use of fill-in artists because they don’t have to draw any of the main cast!
-That said, it’s still obviously a fill-in, a bump in the road of “American Gothic,” but so it goes with monthly comics storytelling.

-”Bogeymen” is a weird quasi-”American Gothic” story. It does feature the requisite one horror trope /one real horror combo (in this case the boogeyman and serial killers), but somehow it feels less thematically important, possibly because instead of there being horror to discover the issue’s antagonist makes that connection himself. Beyond that, every “Gothic” monster has been incredibly sympathetic; not so with this guy, a stone-cold serial killer. Additionally, the story doesn’t really feature Swamp Thing travelling anywhere (we already had a “Gothic” story in Houma), and he doesn’t really seem to learn anything. This one’s a bit puzzling. I’d call it another fill-in, except series regular artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben work on it. A lot of this outing seems like a connect-the-dots issue, though — it’s the first time we solidly hear about the Crisis, and it also very plainly tells us Swamp Thing’s thoughts on the whole “American Gothic” saga.
-Here Swamp Thing grows himself from the algae in Abby’s sink. Gross!
-Swamp Thing’s visit to Abby’s home is interesting and full of tension. He’s forced to walk on newspaper to not mess up her carpets, for instance, and he can’t go too near the window.
-We learn here that Swamp Thing actually misses Constantine leading him around. He’s also picked up on the Crisis. “So much… seems strange about the world… the skies… the weather… even the constellations seem different.”
-This issue marks the first Swamp Thing appearance of Steve Dayton, aka Mento, a former member of superhero team the Doom Patrol who seems to have gone a little mad. What’s pertinent to us is that he has mental powers and is a friend of John Constantine (who isn’t?).
-Here Constantine first refers to the Crisis by name and tells us “it’s what comes after that you should be worrying about.” This is the first we’ve heard of that after-effect.
-Constantine’s banking on Swamp Thing’s involvement in matters, somehow. He’s “quite crucial, but I think I’ll let him stew for a bit longer.” He also references our mysterious antagonists. “He’s so caught up in the whole situation by now, they’re bound to have noticed him. There’s no need to send him looking for trouble. Trouble will be looking for him.”
-This comic might have the weirdest appearance of Batman ever. Here, he tells Constantine and Mento to get off the street because it looks dangerous outside. That’s a good use of the Dark Knight’s time.
-The “chase” scene between Swamp Thing and the serial killer in this issue is really cool, especially in how it involves Swamp Thing reconstituting his body numerous times.
-Swamp Thing’s monolog at the end of this issue is really helpful for figuring out what his take is on the whole “Gothic” storyline to this point.

Is there some pattern… that I should perceive… in this senseless pageant… of atrocity? Is there some truth… that may be divined… from the entrails… of America…? I struggle… to impose a structure… that has meaning… on the madness that churns… within this continent… within this world… but tonight… I looked into a man’s eyes… and glimpsed the abyss… and I fear… that it may… be bottomless… I know… that there must be an answer… a light in the blackness… but I don’t know… if I can find it… on my own.

“Ghost Dance”:
-The last proper “American Gothic” story takes us to San Miguel, CA (an actual real place!), where we get a sweet haunted house story combined with the tale of gun violence in America. In many ways, this tale’s similar to the zombie/slavery one at the end of volume 3 (right down to featuring a house full of evil), especially in its focus on the ways the past shapes the present. Still, it’s a really solid one-off with some great characters and moody scenes.
-The lead suburban fellow investigating the haunted house, David, brings up the phrase “knock (on) wood” and connects it to ancient wood elementals. He knows a little something about Swamp Thing’s people, and when Swamp Thing appears later in the issue he recognizes what he is right away.
-Unlike the figurative maze of the zombie plantation, this house is literally a labyrinth.
-The narration connects all the readers have seen in “American Gothic:” “Like the creatures of Rosewood and Kennescook and Lousiana before them, the ghosts of San Miguel were animated by some barely understood and distant impulse… a shadow from far away, reaching out to touch them.”
-Swamp Thing, on the ghost house: “Passageways… as complex and twisting… as guilt itself.”
-Constantine tells Swamp Thing he’s “got a couple of front row tickets for the end of the universe.”
-David discovers his wife’s infidelity in this issue, which spurs him to go out and buy a gun with which to murder her. Again, we see that the cycle of violence perpetuates.

-This issue does most of the work of connecting Crisis to Swamp Thing. It’s a bit expository, but awesome nonetheless.
-Moore here even literally rewrites Crisis, employing his beautiful prose (and Bisette/Totleben’s pens) to make readers feel the madness of its events. We see Neanderthals in a disco, and we get perhaps the most brilliant way to describe the event: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and it was all of them at once.”
-The page of Swamp Thing teleporting off Earth here is awesome.
-Constantine knows the end of Crisis. “It’ll work. A lot of people will finish up dead, but it’ll work.” Whoa, spoiler alert, guy!
-A hint at volume 5: Swamp Thing spots Alexander Luthor and gets a chill of premonition at his last name.
-Great interchange between Swamp Thing and the returning Phantom Stranger: “Constantine… you promised me answers… instead… the questions… keep getting bigger.” “That is surely the human condition. Mr. Constantine can hardly be blamed.”
-Alex Luthor here first introduces the notion that Earth’s “spiritual dimensions” are out of whack, and a “South American cult” plans to take advantage of the disturbance.
-Constantine’s blunt words to Swamp Thing: “everything’s interconnected, stupid.”
-Here we learn the cult’s name: Brujeria. And more on them from Constantine: “This Crisis has been brewing since time began. The Brujeria simply foresaw it and used it as a springboard for their own plans.”
-For the first time, we see Constantine get truly emotional, when he describes the Invunche creature.
-Constantine gives surprisingly un-cryptic advice to Swamp Thing: “It’s important that you understand all you’ve seen, because later that understanding will be vital… but you must also understand that the darkness you’ve seen in the heart of America is not a fraction of the darkness that the Brujeria hope to drag down upon us. They plan to bring something back… I’m not even sure what or from where.” Their goal: destroy Heaven.
-Constantine promises to take Swamp Thing to the Parliament of Trees; it’s the first we’ve heard of that institution.

“The Parliament of Trees”:
-Here, photos of Abby and Swamp Thing taken by a tabloid journalist bring back a topic raised all the way back in “Rites of Spring” — how will people respond to their relationship? Is it even legal? Moore always likes to lay the seeds of the next challenge before the current one’s complete, and that’s exactly what’s happening here.
-Swamp Thing gets a little cocky: “Now… that I can… regrow myself… I am beyond… any harm.” Really?
-He’s also coming to a better understanding of his abilities as they relate to travel. “Distance… isn’t the same… when I’m in the Green.”
-Abby flashes back to her dream from book two (brought on by Swamp Thing talking of “secrets” and “mysteries”) though she still can’t remember what it was about. That’s okay, Abby, Swamp Thing’s about to figure it out.
-Not to be a perv, but there’s a pretty fellacious panel in here (check page 100 of the trade).
-Swamp Thing’s learning about his ability to take on local flora, and enjoying it. “The Green about me suggests exciting new possibilities… for form… and color.”
-The initial two-page spread introducing the Parliament of Trees (by Stan Woch and Ron Randall) is fantastic.
-To Swamp Thing, the Parliament elicits feelings of nostalgia. It reminds him of being home.
-Swamp Thing’s disturbed by the so-called “giants” in the Parliament, who he believes choose “to spend eternity… motionless… unspeaking… rainwater pooling… in the sockets… of their eyes.” Of course, back in volume 1, that was Swamp Thing’s choice as well. We hate that in others which we most fear about ourselves, I suppose.
-The wisdom of the Parliament: “Flesh… speaks… wood… listens.”
-On Swamp Thing’s creation: “Spring… follows winter… autumn… follow summer… There are… no accidents. You… are a necessary creation… of the world… as are we all.”
-By the way, those lines are being spoken by Alex Olsen, the turn-of-the-century Swamp Thing who originally debuted in House of Secrets (the story Moore re-used in volume 2 to give Abby her strange dream).
-”Coincidence… is the pattern… of the world’s bark.” – We’ve heard words like this before, both from the Phantom Stranger in book 2 and our serial killer friend a few issues ago. Basically: everything happens for a reason.
-Alex asks Swamp Thing if he’s come for his final rest, and Swamp Thing tells him he’s not ready yet. It’s nice to know that, when actively presented with the choice to quit, Swamp Thing chooses in the negative, at least for now.
-The Parliament is a bit hoity-toity. “You are… an Erl-King. Knowledge… is your birthright.”
-When subsumed into the Parliament, Swamp Thing again realizes how human his thinking has been, just like when he fought the underwater vampires.
-The Parliament sequence lays out all sorts of story possibilities — multiple body control, time travel — for the future. Some of those Moore will explore, and others will be left for his followers.
-Moral time: “Power is not the thing. To be calm within oneself, that is the way of the wood. Power tempts anger, and anger is like wildfire. Avoid it.”
-Also, the CRUX of Swamp Thing’s lesson: “If you wish to understand evil, you must understand the bank, the roots, the worms of the Earth. Aphid eats leaf. Ladybug eats aphid. Soil absorbs dead ladybug. Plant feeds upon soil… is aphid evil? Is ladybug evil? Is soil evil? Where is evil, in all the wood?”
-After his journey into the Parliament’s consciousness, Alex rebukes Swamp Thing: he’s not ready to rest yet.
-This issue ends with Swamp Thing feeling alone against, cast out by the family he just met. Now he clings to Constantine and saving the world… quite a reversal for the guy.

“A Murder of Crows”:
-South American Swamp Thing, as drawn by John Totleben, looks awesome.
-Great callback from Constantine on Swamp Thing’s power: “I mean, he rattles me, and I’m his manager!”
-This issue basically gives us our first time really inside Constantine’s head, and his narration is surprisingly relatable.
-Constantine keeps bringing up this awful event from his past, Newcastle. Much like the zombies and the ghosts of “American Gothic,” John can’t escape his past horrors.
-Here we learn that Swamp Thing has shunned the advice of the Parliament. Who needs ‘em? He also truly cares about saving the world; he’s come a long way since volume 1.
-We finally meet our ultimate villains here, and they’ll be dead by next issue; it’s strange we spend so little time with them. They say they’ve existed before man and own the world. Maybe they’re paint-by-numbers enough that we don’t really need to spend a lot of time with them to figure them out.
-Cool panel: we see the Brujeria working their dark magic over a stone map of America.
-Swamp Thing goes into action hero mode again (first time since volume 2) when he brings the cult down; it’s brief but cool.

“The Summoning”:
-The Brujeria’s plan, in Moore’s creepy language: “The pearl it carried was grown within the cold oyster of everyone’s worst nightmares, a distilled mouthful of horror. The bird would take it to a place beyond maps, where it would wake something beyond naming.”
-Constantine lets us know he’d been planning this whole thing for two years, and still he was foiled.
-Interestingly, Swamp Thing here refuses to give into hopelessness, unlike Constantine. This fight with the Brujeria recalls his battle with Arcane. “You are in a cave… beneath the clean Earth… in the center… of a rainforest… You… do not even… have a chance.”
-Swamp Thing dispatches the Brujeria by flooding them with mud; this isn’t dissimilar from how he defeated the vampires in volume 3. Also note he’s straight-up ignoring the Parliament’s advice about power and violence here.
-Swamp Thing physically defeats the Brujeria quickly… clearly he’s quite tough.
-After the Brujeria battle, this issue’s split into two streams: Constantine recruits some of DC’s mystic characters to help Swamp Thing’s battle on the Earthly plane, while Swamp Thing himself rounds up the cast of spectral characters from “Down Amongst the Dead Men.” This volume has more than a few parallels with Book 2.
-Phantom Stranger tells Swamp Thing that his current mission has more urgency than his quest to find Abby’s soul. I wonder, would Swamp Thing agree?
-Here we finally have a name for what’s coming back — the “original Darkness.”
-The Spectre, it turns out, is kind of an asshole; he can’t wait to fight the Darkness.
-Nice exchange between Zatanna and Constantine: “You’ve still got a hell of a nerve.” “Yeah, well… it’s a hell of a world.”
-In Hell, Etrigan tells Swamp Thing that while the rank-and-file demons are excited for the original Darkness to come back, the higher-ranked creatures prefer “the devil they know.”
-Constantine’s weird friend Steve/Mento returns here, this time with new facial hair. Seems like the last few months haven’t been too kind to him.
-Mento helpfully gets us inside Etrigan’s mind: “The yellow thing has a mind like a tub full of boiling cats.” Nice image!
-The closing line of this issue is great: “Here comes the night.”

“The End”:
-Cain and Abel open this issue, and one makes a quick joke about watching a “reanimated valley girl” on TV. This is totally over my head. Any thoughts? Might this refer to Elvira the Late-Night Vampire?
-Cain spells out the nature of this conflict for us: “This is ultimate dark, ultimate light. The forces and stakes here are fundamental and absolute… and whatever side meets its final destruction this day, everything will be changed.” Note how Moore, through Cain, even uses the over-hyped marketing language of Crisis to describe the battle they’re about to witness. “All our stories of right and wrong may come to their inarguable conclusion.”
-Swamp Thing wisely notes that “even Hell… has its status quo.”
-Swamp Thing’s also pretty perceptive about our returning friend the Phantom Stranger: “I sense… a deep sorrow within him… born in silence.”
-A reverse of volume 2: where once Swamp Thing stormed Hell, now it’s the site of his valiant stand.
-Swamp Thing’s whole recap of his adventures here is incredibly on-point, so rather than quote it I’m just going to paste the panel.

-Nice image from Moore: the demons use living armor.
-Wisdom from Etrigan: “‘Tis better times should change… than they should end.”
-To give readers an idea of the stakes here, angels and demons literally unite to fight the original Darkness.
-Another good callback, this time in one of Etrigan’s rhymes: “Fear’s but a monkey!”
-Mento tells us the nature of the enemy here: it’s “been barred from this universe since it began and it’s hungry… hungry for knowledge… understanding… oh, it’s in so much pain…” The Darkness represents ultimate Otherness; it has no one to connect to and craves any kind of foothold of understand as to what it is.  I imagine some of us can occasionally relate.
-All of the “Little Thing” pages here, in which the Darkness interrogates members of Swamp Thing’s party to gain knowledge of itself, are fascinating and excellent (one’s pasted above these notes).
-For those keeping track, here’s everything the Darkness wants to know: what it is, what defines evil, what evil is for.
-And here are the things it rejects: fatalism, inevitability, contempt and vengeance (technically it doesn’t so much reject the last one as decide to savor it later).
-DC characters Abnegazar, Rath and Ghast — collectively known as the Demons Three — pop up several times throughout this issue.
-Here Constantine’s séance is responsible for Zatara’s death — no wonder Zatanna hates him so much in The Search for Swamp Thing.
-Yet that death seems to bring Constantine real remorse: “My father’s dead and it’s on your hands.” “Yeah, they always are.”
-Artists Bisette, Totleben and Rick Vietch imbue impressive scale into the page where the Spectre tangles with the Darkness (and of course gets his ass beat).
-When Swamp Thing enters the Darkness, it’s said he comes in “resignation,” but I think it’s the kind of resignation he had with Phoebe the werewolf in the last volume — he’s not giving up, he just doesn’t know what he can do. “I cannot fight you… but I cannot… stand and watch.” There’s passion and care behind this resignation; that’s the difference.
-The picture of the Spectre weeping is a crazy image.
-Another good one: Mento, subsumed with the image of ultimate light and dark embracing, dies with a yin-yang symbol in his eye.
-Constantine calls what happened a “no-score draw.” In a way, haven’t we learned that’s what all battles amount to?
-This issue ends with, we’re told, dark and light being permanently intertwined — the world will now be more gray. Could Moore see the future? Cover-dated just two months after “The End,” Watchmen #1 saw its release and forever brought gray into the world of mainstream comics.
-Abel wonders what stories will be about now that the good/evil conflict has subsided. Even though the very nature of this moral tells us that these stories persist cyclically, Volume 5 will do a pretty good job of showing us what new territory Swamp Thing has to conquer.

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

  • Marvelmiracleman

    The “reanimated valley-girl” is Abby.  She’s on the TV because of the media circus that followed her arrest for “crimes against nature.”

  • Anonymous

    Wow… I never would have thought of that. Awesome, thank you!

  • George

    no, it was Elvira. DC published a comic that she hosted around that time and she and Cain had a little rivalry

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