Super Serial: Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Book 5

Swamp Thing Book 5

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, our hero helped to settle the age-old dispute between good and evil… not bad for a night’s work. As the fourth volume of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing closed, we were left with the question — posed by Abel — of what stories would be about without that typical dichotomy in play. Moore gives us an answer as we move into book five of his series, titled “Earth to Earth.” To this point, Swamp Thing has mostly battled some kind of villain, even if he didn’t understand them and even if they weren’t exactly evil — Woodrue, the Monkey King, Arcane, vampires, werewolves, zombies, the Original Darkness, etc. Now that’s all off the table; in its place, he must fight to win back his woman, the saintly Abigail Cable, who was arrested at the end of Volume IV after her relationship with Swamp Thing was discovered and photographed — this was a “crime against nature,” we’re told.

And so the enemies Swamp Thing faces in “Earth to Earth” aren’t exactly typical: a corrupt justice system, a legendary superhero and, eventually, himself. In fact, it may be that Swamp Thing is the most traditionally “evil” character in this volume. We’ve tracked his growth as a hero from one full of passive resignation to one passionate enough to realize that sometimes resignation is the only caring choice. Here he retains that passion but abandons any notion of passivity, becoming a vengeful villain who craves justice for the wrongs done to his lover. We’ve seen Swamp Thing act like this before (notably in “Love and Death”), but he’s never been this angry — or this powerful. That brings Swamp Thing into direct combat with Batman, another hero looking to set right some past wrongs. It also sees him completely ignoring the advice given by the Parliament of Trees last volume, advice he seemed to be coming to understand in his battle with the Darkness. The Parliament told Swamp Thing to avoid anger and power, yet here he gives himself fully to both. The results are unpleasant for him.

In my opinion, there are two tentpole stories in this volume: issue #53, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” and issue #56, “My Blue Heaven.” The rest are more transitional in nature, moving Swamp Thing and his supporting characters from place to place and beat to beat, introducing a few new members to the supplementary cast and tying up some loose ends. Everything here’s good, of course (in particular, #55 — also called “Earth to Earth” — paints an incredibly compelling portrait of grief), but “Earthly Delights” and “Blue Heaven” are the stories I return to time and again. Each offers crucial insights into the character of Swamp Thing, and each has one of the straight-up coolest moments in the whole series, which I’ll mention in the notes. Even though Volume IV basically serves as the climax of Moore’s work on this title, it’s stories like those that make sure we keep reading.

“Home Free:”
-The Phantom Stranger continues to get great dialog throughout his brief appearances in this volume. “Some of us have homes… others simply keep walking.”
-This volume marks artist Steve Bissette’s departure from the series; at this point, Rick Veitch basically takes over full time. He does a solid job; his art’s a little more symbolic than literal (straight lines are not always his friends), but it works, and his faces are particularly expressive.
-Even though “American Gothic” is over, we’re not done with the horrors of Middle America; notice how angry everybody gets at Abby’s relationship with the Swamp Thing, something that should really have no effect on them. Abby herself attributes that to oppressive “small town values.”
-Poor Swamp Thing has no idea what awaits him: “I am home… and all my wars… are over.”
-In the parting scene between Swamp Thing and Constantine, we see the characters have come to an understanding. Constantine thanks Swamp Thing, and Swamp Thing acknowledges acceptance at Constantine’s cryptic actions.
-Abby again plays the victim in this story arc; unfortunately, that’s a role she finds herself in a lot. However, this will be the last time.
-To get away from her legal troubles, Abby flees to Gotham, which she calls a “dark city.” I’ve done a lot of work with another series of comics about Gotham’s inherent darkness.
-Batman mainstay and slovenly cop Harvey Bullock appears a couple times in this volume; he’s more caricature than character here, not quite the complicated man of Gotham Central and later stories.
-The last line of this issue tells us that Swamp Thing “promised war.” Contrast that with his narration earlier in the issue… I guess all his wars aren’t over.

“Natural Consequences:”
-There are a few moments in this book where Moore’s language really shines, and the intro to this issue’s one of them. Swamp Thing’s sudden encroachment on Gotham City is written incredibly, with vivid, powerful descriptions. “The swamp god is coming, out from Louisiana like an underground hurricane… leaving a razor slash of furious green across the gray fields behind him… scarring the autumn with summer.”
-Similarly, Moore excellently describes Gotham as a “numb, deadened area in the Green; a fugue in cement.” That musical metaphor extends throughout Swamp Thing’s journey; for instance: “the suburbs, with their crew-cut lawns and nervous shrubbery, are the first sour whispers of the woodwind” (and how great is it to describe suburbs as having “crew-cut lawns?”).
-Swamp Thing’s learning fine control over his body growth; the pollution in Gotham causes him to create a tougher membrane over his eyes.
-According to the Batman Wiki, Moore lays a lot of groundwork for future Batman writers here with his descriptions of the city’s history and layout. I guess no one ever thought of it before.
-Blast from the past: agents from the DDI (Defense Department Intelligence) are still on the trail of Swamp Thing for the murder of Sunderland (way back in “The Anatomy Lesson”); the pictures of him and Abby have given them their first lead in ages. The DDI agents, in talking to Commissioner Gordon (another Batman cameo), also mention that Abby’s comatose husband Matt worked for them.
-Gordon’s words to the DDI, full of portent: “Gotham has its own ways of dealing with menaces and monster.”
-Swamp Thing briefly visits Arkham Asylum, and we get a wealth of cameos from other Moore stories, including the Joker (The Killing Joke — not yet written) and the Preston Payne Clayface, in love with a department store mannequin (Batman Annual #11 — also not yet written). Swamp Thing also checks in on his friend Woodrue, of course, who now seems like a penitent criminal who’s upset he hurt the Green back in Book 1. Swamp Thing forgives him, but he’ll be “the last… that shall be forgiven this day.”
-Abby’s the one who lets us know Swamp Thing has never been angrier.
-Swamp Thing’s also a little arrogant about his ability to destroy Gotham… not that he’s incorrect. “Do… you warn… the hurricane? Do… you warn… the Earthquake?”
-Another cameo: Lex Luthor, hired by the DDI to deduce a way to actually kill Swamp Thing. Remember, Swamp Thing got a bad premonition at the name “Luthor” back during the Crisis of Volume IV.

“The Garden of Earthly Delights:”
-This issue: Swamp Thing vs. Batman. Awesome.
-Lex Luthor uses Woodrue’s research from way back in Volume 1 to figure out a way to end Swamp Thing’s life. Too bad no one thought to keep reading what he wrote back then.
-This issue features the return of Chester Williams (from “Windfall”) and Wallace Monroe (from “The Nukeface Papers”). Chester will continue to be a key character; Wallace basically disappears, though I suppose his appearance here gives us a little closure on that super-weird Nukeface story. The closure we get: Wallace’s baby was stillborn and his wife Treasure (aka Victoria Jackson) will die soon. Chester thoughtfully gives Wallace one of Swamp Thing’s tubers to help make Treasure’s last days palatable.
-Batman’s role as Gotham’s uber-serious and dangerous guardian makes up for his bizarre appearance in Book IV, when he warned John Constantine and Mento to get out of the street because basically it looked scary outside.
-In his first tussle with Batman, Swamp Thing discovers he can grow and manipulate multiple bodies, an idea that first came to him when he communed with the Parliament of Trees in Book IV. This idea will come back in a major way at the end of this book.
-In a very non-Batman moment (at least as we know him now), he’s not at all prepared for how powerful Swamp Thing has become and is bested rather easily.
-At one point in this issue Swamp Thing grows himself a body out of giant redwoods, which is totally awesome-looking.
-It’s worth stating again how passionate about his city Batman is in Moore’s hands. The hero will do anything to protect Gotham.
-In the midst of his anger, Swamp Thing tries to remember the Parliament’s advice about power and cannot.
-As much as I love this issue, the way Batman argues that Abby should be let go… by pointing out that there are other non-humans among us that shack up with humans… is pretty weak. He states that if you arrest Abby you have to arrest Superman too, but wouldn’t you actually have to arrest Lois? I don’t know. I suppose Moore’s trying to show how Swamp Thing should stand amongst the pantheon of DC’s superheroes but is kept forever outside, I just think it’s kind of a weak argument on which to base a dramatic turn.
-That said, the scene where Batman and Swamp Thing discuss Abby’s release is amazing, one of my two favorite moments in the series (the other being the final page of the Monkey King battle). “If you ever do this to my city again… I’ll kill you.” “Yes… I do believe… that you might.” And Swamp Thing says it with a smile on his face! This moment is just so, so good. Batman knows he’s “lost” but still acts the tough guy, and Swamp Thing takes amusement knowing the Dark Knight’s not one to take defeat easily.
-Swamp Thing’s murder scene here, complete with inset panels of Newton’s Cradle growing more and more cacophonous, is a direct call back to Swamp Thing #20, Moore’s first (and seldom reprinted) work on the title. This won’t be the first callback to that oft-forgotten issue in this volume.
-Once again Swamp Thing is consumed by fire, and once again we’re reminded of Alec Holland. This death scene is quite moving; Swamp Thing is forced to go through not only his own death but again to relive the death of Holland. As he burns from the DDI’s napalm, he finally recalls what the Parliament told him: “anger is like wildfire.”

“The Flowers of Romance:”
-This issue returns to the fold Liz Tremayne, a journalist and Swamp Thing expert also last seen in Swamp Thing #20. For readers who didn’t know DC’s Swamp Thing collections had a missing issue, her re-introduction is really jarring — I remember being confused as all get-out the first time I read this issue.
-Here we get to see the goodness in the Swamp Thing/Abby relationship by contrasting it with the abusive, awful Liz/Dennis one. In that way, it recalls elements of both Volume 2 and “The Curse.” It also provides a great sounding board for Abby, and lets us see where she’s at the issue after losing her lover. “With you I felt like a goddess. You gave me so much respect, made me feel so beautiful, so special… now, just like that, you’re gone, and I’m ordinary after all.”
-In fact, I mentioned above that Abby was done playing the victim in these books — here, she’s the hero. “Flowers of Romance” is the only story in the volume with a clear, personified antagonist (except for maybe Swamp Thing himself), and Abby defeats him by imagining what Swamp Thing would’ve done. She will carry on with his example.
-Liz’s abusive boyfriend meets the same fate as our alien friend in “Pog” — chewed up by gators.
-This issue says a lot about what it takes to both help and be helped by someone, I think. Does Liz’s essentially broken state make it easier for Abby to come out of her would-be shell and get back into the world without her man? I think so.

“Earth to Earth:”
-The titular chapter of this volume is all about grief, specifically how Abby moves on after losing a lover. Both the opening and closing pages of this issue are filled with great descriptions that really speak to how it feels to lose someone. The writing is also complemented by great zoom in/out panels by Rick Veitch, Alfredo Alcala and John Totleben.
-Commissioner Gordon’s very honest words on Swamp Thing: “a unique and special being walked amongst us and we didn’t look after him well enough.” The same could be said, perhaps, about Mother Earth.
-More great dialog from the Phantom Stranger: “There is something in death akin to that which exists in love: both spur men to eloquence.”
-Speaking of the Stranger, both he and Constantine make covert appearances at Swamp Thing’s memorial service; both believe him to be truly gone.
-We’re back to the kind of weird presentations of Batman; it’s strange that he would speak at a public memorial, no?
-I already complimented this issue’s artistic trio above for their opening and closing pages, but really this whole story looks great; the rain really does wonders for the pencils here.
-Another service-crasher: Boston Brand, in some random guy’s body — and he tells Abby Swamp Thing hasn’t shown up in the afterlife, although she has no idea who he is.
-More weirdness from Batman — his eloquent eulogy: “I think all of us were a little awed by a love that could stop a city.”
-One of the best lines about grief I’ve ever read, narrated by Abby from Moore’s brain: “There are people all over America right now; all over the world, and they’re acting like nothing’s happened. How dare they?”
-More from Moore: “Their meaningless repetition, their consolation that dulls the senses like cheap wine…. We had a year together. That isn’t much in the reaches of eternity, but it was a good year, and thank you, God, for giving it to me.”

“My Blue Heaven:”
-I’m not sure if critical consensus would agree with me, but I find this one of the defining issues of Moore’s work on this title. If “Earth to Earth” is a meditation on grief, “My Blue Heaven” is one on loneliness — what will Swamp Thing do when he’s stranded by himself? How far will he go to not be lonely?
-”My Blue Heaven” kicks off almost an inverse of the “American Gothic” storyline: instead of traveling America learning about horrors, he’s traveling the galaxy learning about himself.
-Swamp Thing explains how he managed to transfer his consciousness to another planet: “It was a leap into the dark… with fingers crossed… as always.” We’ve seen him go offworld before, during the Crisis, but that time he was guided by a teleportation beam. Clearly he still has more power than he thinks.
-More of Swamp Thing’s clever transportation methods: “I clung to blots of moss on lonely meteors.”
-Swamp Thing doesn’t think he’ll ever get home again. As such, he’s trying not to think of Abby “or I shall scream forever… into the silent blue.”
-The colors on this issue by Tatjana Wood, by the way, are exceptional. Tatjana always does a great job, but “My Blue Heaven” must have presented an especially difficult challenge, since everything is in blue hues.
-Swamp Thing here seriously experiments with growing multiple bodies to keep himself company, something he did a bit in his fight with Batman. Now he’s controlling them more precisely, and using them for amusement, not violence. It’s really interesting seeing the things Swamp Thing figures out to do with himself, and it leads to some really cool art from Veitch and Alcala.
-Swamp Thing’s breaking point is when he creates a synthetic Abby. “But, oh, she is beautiful… and I am lost.” This in fact makes Swamp Thing cry again, something we haven’t seen for a few volumes.
-That also brings up the point that Swamp Thing could seemingly shape his body into anything he wanted it to look like.
-Shit starts to get real for Swamp Thing when he creates facsimiles of Alec and Linda Holland to populate his fake Houma. On Alec: “I am surprised… by the aching nostalgia… that walking in his shape… awakes within me.” And on Linda: “I am saddened… by how little I recall… of her.”
-One of my favorite moments in Moore’s whole run is Swamp Thing’s accidental creation of Constantine, who ends up forcing him to the realization that he’s going mad. Swamp Thing even has John’s speech mannerisms down perfectly.
-Fake Abby’s temptation for Swamp Thing to stay with her, coupled with her wrong smile, is totally creepy. It drives Swamp Thing over the edge, although really, that outburst of anger may be what saves him from madness.
-Swamp Thing’s conclusion: “I kill the world…. How… have I built myself this prison…? This purgatory?” And so Swamp Thing obliterates the fake world he’d made for himself and sets off for home, if he can even get back.

tags: alan moore, alfredo alcala, john totleben, rick veitch, super serial, swamp thing

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