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Super Serial: Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Book 6 | Comic Nothings | Nerdy Nothings

Super Serial: Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Book 6

Swamp Thing Book 6

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

Thanks to perennial DC Comics villain and asshole Lex Luthor, Swamp Thing has been exiled from his Earth home. After a startling battle with loneliness and insanity in the excellent “My Blue Heaven,” our hero’s thrown himself out into the cosmos, trying desperately to find a way back to the woman he loves, but not before he learns to realign his bioelectrical field, thereby connecting with his home planet again.

The journey Swamp Thing takes in the final volume of Alan Moore’s run, “Reunion,” inverts the formula established in book 3 and 4′s “American Gothic” storyline. There, Swamp Thing travelled across America as a makeshift hero, encountering the Other and learning how it wasn’t so different from himself. It was a journey of discovery that taught him the ways of the world, and a masterful story hardly matched in the horror genre. Swamp Thing’s space travels, on the other hand, fit squarely in the realm of science fiction. This time, Swamp Thing himself is the Other, the figure acted upon instead of acting (in fact, during one stretch more than an issue and a half goes by without him having any real dialog). Further, he’s not learning about the world anymore, he’s learning about himself, specifically the limits of his powers, his desires and his sanity. How interesting that John Constantine had to force Swamp Thing to self-knowledge when he traveled his own country, but a trip through light-years of foreign space gave our hero true access to the interior world.

Despite my appreciation of “Reunion’s” formal structure, I must confess this book doesn’t excite me the way “The Curse” or “A Murder of Crows” did. It seems very clear to me that Alan Moore was coming to the end of his engagement with these characters here, and Swamp Thing’s outer-space journey seems a good deal more aimless than his trip through America. No doubt this is meant in part to echo how Swamp Thing himself feels — lost to the stars, not sure if he’ll ever get home. But it still feels just a little tacked-on. It’s hard, I think, to top the unification of ultimate good and ultimate evil in which Swamp Thing #50 climaxed, though “The Garden of Earthly Delights” comes pretty close. To me, there’s just nothing in this book with that kind of power, and it’s probably the trade I pick up the least in Moore’s whole run.

Part of that may have to do with the fact that Moore was beginning to pass the reigns on to his Swamp Thing successor, artist and sometimes-writer Rick Veitch. Veitch scripts an issue here, one the series could probably have done without that involves, curiously, Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters. Veitch isn’t nearly as strong a writer as Moore, often going more over-the-top than he needs to to convey his message. You may know his run was famously entrenched in controversy. I’ve read the first three trades of it, and I can report that it’s also not very good. While Moore aims for subtle, psychological horror, Veitch pushes the book’s overt weirdness way too far; the most interesting parts of his run are those that bring in other aspects of the DC Universe (ex: Solomon Grundy as a failed plant elemental… yeah, I buy that).

But we’re here to talk about Alan Moore, after all, and the note on which he leaves Swamp Thing, while not his best story, does satisfy. In the end, our hero and Abby earn some much-needed vacation time from the world at large. In a way, that shows Swamp Thing returning to the passivity of earlier volumes, but this time with a deeper understanding of the things around him — one character here observes that Swamp Thing’s shoulders are “weary with the world” — as well as his girlfriend. Earlier I’d compared Swamp Thing’s journey to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, and now we’re clearly in the “return” stage. And even if you’re a little bothered that some of Swamp Thing’s passivity and resignation from the first book comes back, think about it: what has Alan Moore taught us if not that everything is cyclical? Good inspires evil inspires good ad naseum. Perhaps activity and passivity are on a similar cycle, much like the sleep-and-wake cycle of a human being, or the growth and death cycle of perennial plants… maybe an especially apt metaphor for monthly comics. Now it’s Swamp Thing’s turn to rest, but he’s resting with the knowledge he’s gained from America, from the cosmos, and from himself. How long before that rest is broken?

If you think about it, we really torture the characters we love — the very nature of serialized fiction, especially comic books, means that no happy endings are forever. But in September 1987, the Swamp Thing and Abby Cable got their well-deserved peace. For two such passionate lovers, that month might as well have been an eternity.

“Mysteries in Space – Exiles”:
-This two-part story features Adam Strange, the star of DC’s silver age Mystery in Space series for about 50 issues; that’s where the first chapter of this story gets its name. It also stars several Thanagarians, the race to which familiar superheroes Hawkman and Hawkgirl belong, though the two Thanagarians we meet here exist solely in these pages.
-Here Swamp Thing visits the world Rann, currently undergoing a planet-wide food shortage in the wake of “nuclear folly” from “many centuries ago.” Clearly Rann’s meant to be a cautionary tale, perhaps a long-term payoff to a situation like the one set up in “The Nukeface Papers.” Adam Strange even notes that Rann is “like Africa.”
-When Swamp Thing first arrives on Rann, he’s thought to be a malicious intruder, and Adam Strange attacks him. Swamp Thing sadly replies: “Guns…? How far… must I travel… to escape from them?”
-Swamp Thing’s battle tactics have improved immensely. Here he has lots of clever tricks up his sleeve: encouraging random plantlife to grow as distraction, employing poisonous pustules, and even fighting without his head.
-In a moment of resignation, Adam Strange (Rann’s protector) sounds like Swamp Thing used to. “Why can’t these people ever handle their own problems?” Much like Swamp Thing, Adam longs only to be with his lover, and like Swamp Thing the people he protects mock him. He also has some pretty clever fighting tactics — check out how he uses his rocket pack to dispense of our hero.
-”Exiles” is not only the title of the second chapter to this story, but also a major part of its theme. Notice that almost none of the major characters in this story are native to Rann. Swamp Thing and Adam hail from Earth, the Thanagarians from, well, Thanagar. They’re all trying to make do in a land that’s not their own, though they each have different responses — to find a way out, to cohabitate in peace, to own it.
-In chapter two Swamp Thing grows extra arms to climb a building while carrying something. He’s learning all the time.
-Adam’s heard of Swamp Thing before, thanks to last book’s exploits in Gotham.
-Interestingly, Adam accepts Swamp Thing quickly after a common language is established.
-Adam asks Swamp Thing to stimulate plant growth on Rann like he did in Gotham, thereby averting disaster. Swamp Thing’s meditation on it: “People die familiar deaths… beneath unfamiliar suns.”
-Another new fighting tactic from Swamp Thing: a barrage of quills.
-The advanced Thanagarians have a device much like Luthor built, one that can disrupt Swamp Thing’s mind.
-Keela Roo calls Swamp Thing a “dryad,” or a wood divinity. This is similar to how many called Swamp Thing an elemental or “Earth genii” in book 2.
-Here, almost two years early, Alan Moore seems to lay the groundwork for DC’s Invasion crossover — we’re left wondering, after all, why the Thanagarians would want to acquire technology to instantly teleport to Earth. Was this editorially mandated, did Moore volunteer to play nice for DC, or was this an incredibly early example of the company taking nuggets of stories Moore suggested and expanding them into blockbuster series?
-At the end of this story, Swamp Thing gives Adam Strange a message to relay to Abby. “It would do… so much… to bridge the light-years… between us.”

-Weirdly, artist Steve Bissette scripts this issue. Here, we return to Anton Arcane in Hell. Through a couple of different framed sequences, we learn about his machinations with his brother/Abby’s father, whom he turned into a Frankenstein-style creature. This issue is really weird and seemingly a little pointless, unless you consider Abby’s father issues necessary knowledge. This kind of out-there story embodies what writers other than Moore tend to do with this character. If you’re in a hurry reading this volume, you can go ahead and skim this one.
-We’re told Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is Abby’s favorite childhood book — I guess she’s always had a soft spot for persecuted monsters.
-Abby’s moved from working with young troubled people to older troubled ones — she now earns a living at a nursing home. Unlike her position at Elysium Lawns, though, she feels this job is hopeless.
-Maybe the point of this issue is to let us check in on Abby while Swamp Thing’s off traveling the galaxy, but still… it doesn’t really work for me.
-In addition to taking care of the elderly, Abby also now takes care of Liz, whom we re-met last volume.
-Even though he’s in Hell being punished for his crimes, Arcane’s still an evil bastard — he’s so happy to have hurt Abby by making her confront her father.
-The ending of this issue is really unresolved, and future Moore stories refer to the events here very unspecifically. Perhaps of note, though, this is the last time we’ll see Arcane in a present sense.

“Loving the Alien”:
-Here, Moore turns in something of an experimental issue — full-page artwork with captions only, no dialog. It’s almost more like a storybook than a comic. It’s another meditation on otherness and sexuality, themes we explored in “A Murder of Crows,” “The Curse” and “Love and Death.”
-This book also somewhat troublingly involves rape, although since the perpetrator’s a sentient bio-mechanical planet and the victim is Swamp Thing’s consciousness in a body grown out of that planet, maybe it’s more like spiced-up masturbation. Yeah, it’s weird.
-Swamp Thing’s planetary suitor refers to him as “issue of no loins save the Cosmos” and “the ghost that swam through clockwork and was raped by an island.” I bet you will not find that combination of words anywhere else in history.
-When the alien planet scans the recesses of Swamp Thing’s consciousness, it notices three major dark spots: Arcane, our werewolf friend Phoebe and the underwater vampires. This seems to corroborate my argument that Swamp Thing’s episode with Phoebe in “The Curse” is one of the most important turning points for the character.
-Moore makes any discussion of Otherness very difficult here, since, as I mentioned above, Swamp Thing is constantly singled out as the Other yet his body is made of the same stuff as the planet that objectifies him.
-Interesting description of love: when our planet falls for Swamp Thing, it’s said that all her logical faculties “melt.”
-Since Moore’s lascivious planet is definitely gendered as a woman, we have an interesting example of a literal Mother Earth. Yet here Mother Earth is a rapist, or at least something of a sexual deviant. Never expect to get straight morality from Moore.
-In a way, with its graphic depictions of unconventional sex, this issue’s something of a companion to Book 2′s “Rites of Spring,” though the art (by John Totleben solo) is not quite as good (it is just as experimental).
-Does Swamp Thing’s space-babies that he has with this planet ever come up again? It would be really interesting if Scott Snyder had plans for them in his upcoming Swamp Thing series.
-Let’s leave this issue with a quote from the planet: “It is a universal truth, known to the humblest protozoa: sex is death.”

“All Flesh is Grass”:
-In maybe my favorite story from this volume — at least the one that sticks with me the most — Swamp Thing comes to a world of a sentient vegetable civilization. Unfortunately, that means that when he constitutes a body it’s made up of countless members of that vegetable race. Composite Swamp Thing provides a creepy, powerful image, and Veitch plus Alfredo Alcala do a great job drawing him.
-As if driving home this story’s inverse relationship to “American Gothic,” the vegetable people refer to Swamp Thing singly as “the horror.”
-Moore provides a great description of how it feels to be beset with unspeakable tragedy: “All pretense of a safe universe is planed savagely away… it is a gulf of silence, an event so large it can never be mentioned again.”
-Moore also has a lot of fun describing the Composite Swamp Thing’s actions: “In each hand a polite, well-mannered family clenched into a fist of bitterness and recrimination.” And when Swamp Thing begins to be dismantled: “The horror’s breast is torn, spilling people.”
-Several times in this issue, the plant aliens threaten to attack Swamp Thing with flamethrowers. Fortunately, they never do… we don’t need any more flashbacks to Swamp Thing’s birth!
-This issue also spins the theme of Otherness by forcing the vegetable people to share one consciousness. We track a few different characters through this experience, and it’s interesting how their shared experience with each other changes each of them: some grow to hate their fellows, some (previously aloof) experience amplified loneliness, and others renew their faith in vegetablekind.
-In this issue’s tag, Adam Strange delivers Swamp Thing’s message to Abby back on Earth. Of course, when he starts describing his encounter with our hero, Abby thinks he’s crazy. This is the second time that’s happened, recalling Deadman at Swamp Thing’s Gotham “funeral.” In a way, you’d think Abby would be used to her lover’s weird world by now.

-Here, in Rick Veitch’s issue, we spend some time in the world of Jack Kirby’s New Gods. It makes an effective capper to Swamp Thing’s galactic adventures, I suppose (since it employs DC’s major cosmic heroes) but its only real in-story use is to set up Veitch’s upcoming run on the title. This issue seems styled after Kirby both artistically and narratively; what really drives this home is a page in which the floating head of Metron speaks lengthy captions to describe what we’re seeing below. Moore tributed Kirby much more fittingly in Volume 1′s Monkey King story.
-Swamp Thing seems surprised that Metron calls his Mother Box a “her.” “It is strange… that you would addresss… a machine… as her.” I guess he forgot about the rapey planet a couple books ago.
-Yet Swamp Thing has an interesting experience with Mother Box. He assesses that it’s “alive… and trying… to tell me something… everything.”
-At least Veitch puts a pretty good stamp on Swamp Thing’s adventures. “Some of the most difficult lessons… in my journeys… have concerned… power and ego. I’ve learned it is not wise… to let self-image… get in the way of understanding.”
-Swamp Thing also gives us a physics lesson: “Mother Box indicates… that all existence… is purely vibrational… at the most basic level…. And that to explore… areas beyond our own… one needs to only oscillate at other frequencies.” That’s so DC.
-This book briefly returns to a musical description of Swamp Thing’s abilities. Swamp Thing notes that Mother Box “makes it so easy… to play subtle variations… upon the harmonic scale… of nature. I have been doing it… crudely… for a long time. Only now… am I beginning to fathom… just how far… it might take me.”
-Metron and Swamp Thing have a classic disagreement about the genesis of life. “The Source is the center of everything. Therefore, it must be at the highest part of the spectrum.” “Hmmm… I would have thought… just the opposite.” Swamp Thing has learned that life is created and fostered from the ground up (the soil), not the top down. It’s kind of an atheistic standpoint, though, so it might be hard for a character classified as a God (Metron) to accept.
-The most specific point here to watch for, in case you’re thinking of going on to Veitch’s run: the implied relationship between Abby and John Constantine. It’s not what you think, but that idea will come back pretty quickly.
-Something Veitch does very well here: gives a two-page recap of Abby and Swamp Thing’s relationship. Truly this is the emotional core of this book, and Veitch captures it well.

“Loose Ends (Reprise)”:
-With one issue to go, Moore decides to have Swamp Thing take brutal revenge on the team of folks who assassinated him in volume 5. The murders here recall his killing of Sunderland back in book 1, though much more creative and violent. Curiously, Swamp Thing doesn’t attack Lex Luthor… probably because he doesn’t know. Rick Veitch picks that thread up later in his run, and in my opinion it’s one of the more compelling reasons to check out his work on the book.
-Are Swamp Thing’s murders problematic? They’re hardly meditated on in the text at all; we’re just given that they happen as cold facts. Surely one gets the sense that Swamp Thing’s justified, though these aren’t really heroic actions… but then Swamp Thing’s not a typical hero anyway. Perhaps these murders are just another aspect of Swamp Thing coming back to parts of himself we haven’t seen since the first book.
-Wallace Monroe, our friend from “The Nukeface Papers” and “Garden of Earthly Delights,” checks in again. We learn that his wife Treasure (Victoria Jackson) has died, but she was able to find some peace in her final moments thanks to a segment of Swamp Thing’s tuber Chester gave to her.
-We also see the comatose Matt Cable again. Abby mentions she feels like she doesn’t have enough energy to mourn both Matt and Swamp Thing.
-Speaking of Chester, he tells Abby that Swamp Thing’s siege of Gotham was the best moment of his life.
-Some of Swamp Thing’s awesome murderings: trapping a guy in a hedge maze, growing out of a tomato in someone’s sandwich and then growing a tree from inside that person’s body.
-The last page of this issue, where Swamp Thing and Abby finally embrace again, is great… it’s so happy.

“Return of the Good Gumbo”:
-Here, to close out Moore’s run, we have a quiet issue where the only real conflict is internal. Swamp Thing, having ended famine on Rann, wonders if he should do the same for Earth. It’s a fair question, and one he debates for many pages.
-Steve Bissette returns to art duties after over a year of absence for some parts of this final issue. It’s a welcome return.
-Swamp Thing sums up his space travels nicely: “I’ve been so far… and learned so much. The blue world… where I learned… just how insidious a trap… is solitude. That mad half-living/half-machine environment… that may have been a nightmare… suffered between worlds. The fascinating flora-culture of J586. The sterile wastes of Rann….”
-Our hero realizes the scope of his powers. “I could save mankind. I could do anything.”
-I’d like to take another moment here to single out the excellent work of colorist Tatjana Wood, one of this series’ most consistent contributors. Her work really emphasizes Swamp Thing’s homecoming, just as it did his alien environments before; this issue has all the warm greens and blues we expect of a humid Louisiana environment. It’s good to be back.
-Abby’s reflections on fighting for environmentalism: “You hold the line one place, your problem’s just dumped on some other person’s doorstep. Sometimes I think for us to really help the environment, we’d need a different world… someplace that taught people how everything from the environment to politics was connected.”
-Swamp Thing reconnects with his lover passionately in a beautiful segment: “Having seen further suns… I’ve witnessed nothing… so inflaming… as the shyness of old lovers… becoming fascinating strangers once again.”
-As part of Swamp Thing’s dilemma, he realizes the rest of his elemental lineage, currently snoozing in the Parliament of Trees, has never done much to help the Earth either. He wonders why.
-Swamp Thing’s whole dilemma here is not dissimilar to the one faced by Superman in many of his stories… how much can he do? How much should he? It’s an interesting way to drive home a point Moore’s been subtly making all along… Swamp Thing is just as powerful, perhaps moreso, as costumed superheroes. He just expresses that power differently, and as a result takes a different place in the world.
-Swamp Thing even puts a point on a Superman-style dilemma: “Is this, then, what it is to be a god? To know, and never do? To watch the world wind by… and in its winding find content…?”
-Swamp Thing comes to a decision by realizing that even if he ended famine, men would not change — they’d just find new ways to exploit an evergreen environment. In a way, it’s a restatement of Book 4′s lesson — virtue and vice must always coexist. So Swamp Thing comes to realize why the Parliament has done nothing.
-Swamp Thing puts into words his “terrible decision”: “Mankind must stand or fall… by its merits alone… save for this one (Abby). This one I’ll keep with me… until she dies… beyond, if I am able….”
-Swamp Thing makes a promise to his lady: “If you desire… there need be no more horror… or adventure.”
-Let’s get back to that resignation: “I’m tired… of quests and enemies… mankind must learn… to manufacture… glories of its own… and to atone… for all its sins… without my prompting… or my aid. It is… the only way… they’ll grow. The way of the wood.”
-Here Wallace Monroe joins Chester’s environmental group (which Abby’s leaving behind). Liz joins up too. Actually, that conversation nicely echoes back to a key moment in book 5. Chester: “Don’t worry, Ab. The environment’s safe with us.” Swamp Thing: “Yes… I do believe… that it might be….” Remember what Swamp Things says to Batman on their final meeting.
-The panel of Liz embracing Swamp Thing is sad and excellent. The art here conveys that she’s finally going to be able to pull herself together, it seems. And it’s clear that Swamp Thing does care for this human.
-Swamp Thing’s parting words to them all (but maybe mostly to Liz): “I am sure… that with your courage… you can both do anything.”
-Abby has some great words for Liz too: “When I was alone, and you were alone, it wasn’t just me helping you, okay?” Neil Gaiman writes a great Liz/Chester story in a future Swamp Thing Annual. It’s collected in the odds-and-ends book Neil Gaiman’s Midnight Days.
-The last line of the book: “Laissez les bontemps rouler,” or “let the good times roll.” That simple phrase kind of says it all, doesn’t it? We know both good and bad will come in time, but maybe for now our characters can enjoy the good. Hence the line’s tag: “Please. For us. For all of us… laissez les bontemps rouler.”
-And speaking of that good: it seems that at least for natives of the Bayou, Swamp Thing’s return is a good thing indeed, making the environment they habitate a little richer. This recalls something the superhero Green Arrow said all the way back in book 1: “Who was looking out for La Croix, Louisiana?” Swamp Thing is, and even in his retirement his environmental presence is a boon to his people.

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

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