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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Reread: Saga of the Swamp Thing Books 2-6

After reading Swamp Thing Vol 1, I realized that I'd never actually read the entire Alan Moore run of the Swamp Thing in one go, so I set out to do just that. Book 2 (love and death) launches the Swamp Thing's relationship with Abby Cable into being one of the most fully detailed relationships in comic books (especially in a comic book set in the DC superhero universe). It ties up all of the previous storylines neatly, and serves to prepare the reader for the next segment.

Vol 3 ("The Curse") introduces John Constantine (whose spin-off Hellblazer has proved so popular that it became a TV series)  ramps  into the American Gothic series of horror tropes, and while it might have been innovative at the time, has least withstood the test of time. The tropes (vampires, werewolves, etc) just don't seem that terrifying today, and I'm pretty sure even as a kid I probably wouldn't have been scared.

Vol 4 ("A murder of Crows") is marred by DC's need to tie in "Crisis on Infinite Earths" the first of many reboots. While the other tie-ins during that era were rather ham-fisted, Alan Moore cleverly stitched it into his American Gothic series by postulating that the rise of the horrors in previous issues were part of an attempt by a South American group of shaman/wizards to summon the ultimate evil. But even Moore's virtuoso can only do so much: there are many untied mysteries (for instance, the evil/shaman-wizard group is never heard from again, despite never having been dealt with properly, and one never learns why they thought summoning the ultimate evil was a good idea --- it didn't seem that they were able to control it or wanted to have anything to do with it). The introduction of most of the DC universe's mystic characters (Sargon the Sorceror, Zatana, Zatara, Doctor Fate, Deadman, the Spectre) is cursory, and while the death of some of these characters might be a big deal if you were a big fan of the DC universe, were never given sufficient build up that the pay off was worth anything. Even worse, it never feels as though their deaths made any difference to the plot, since the titular character seemed to have resolved everything without any of the sacrifices prior having done anything.

Vol 5 ("Earth to Earth") gets to start from a fresh slate. This is by far one of the most impactful (and politically courageous) volumes of its time. It features Abigail Cable being arrested for "indecent relations with a non-human", and then resolves in an all-out assault on Gotham City. One might expect the traditional "Superheroes fight and then become friends" trope, but Alan Moore, having established that the Swamp Thing is an Earth Elemental, takes that to its logical conclusion --- the outcome was never in doubt. The logical argument Batman makes for releasing Abigail was great: "What about that guy in Metropolis. Didn't he have a relationship with a human? Don't you have to arrest him too?" Perhaps the only weakness was that Luthor finds it too easy to deal with the Swamp Thing, but that's easily forgiveable, since the second half of the book deals very well with the apparent death of the titular character.

Vol 6 is a transition from the story arcs previously introduced into a series of  science fiction/horror stories. It is nothing short of a tour de force, showing off Alan Moore's virtuosity. Not only does he adept to different artists, he romps from various DC comics properties (Adam Strange, Green Lantern, and even Jack Kirby's New Gods) without missing a bit. There's a science fiction story in here illustrated by Bill Sienkewicz that not only takes advantage of his art style, but also ties together time travel, the Swamp Thing, and John Varley's Titan series of books while being its own story, all in a tightly knit 23 page comic book story. Nearly every 23 page chapter in this volume would be considered the pinnacle of any other comic book writer's career, but this being Alan Moore, I still don't think it compares to Miracleman. Some of the contemporary events of this volume sets the dates (there are references to Iran-Contra), and it's quite clear in the final polemic that Moore is a bleeding-heart liberal as he takes to tasks most of humanity's valuing of money and material possession over everything else, even the ecosystem that supports humanity's existence. But reading this in 2020, none of it is outdated, and in fact, Moore's indictment of the nasty aspects of humanity still stands as accurate, salient, and relevant, remarkable for something written in the 1980s for a comic book, which explains why the books remain in print today, while many of the much hyped and marketed contemporaries (e.g., Crisis on Infinite Earths) has faded away and no longer remembered (or even ignominiously ret-conned out of existence!).

Taken altogether as a volume of work Alan Moore's Swamp Thing is a masterpiece. It contains all of his hallmarks: a rewrite of a moribound and cheesy character and flipping around and demonstrating how much could be done with the character while holding on to its initial concept. Then Moore would play around with the concepts and take everything to its logical conclusion. In many ways Alan Moore's approach in later volumes feel a lot like Joss Whedon at his best. ("Oh yeah? You think my best stuff is in the dialog? Let me show you an episode with no dialog!") There are entire issues where Moore (to various degrees of success) explores an aspect of comic book writing (e.g., there's an entire issue of Swamp Thing rendered entirely in monochromatic blue!), and by and large he succeeds. If you haven't read any of Alan Moore's work, I still think Miracleman or The Watchmen is still far more accessible (and in the case of Miracleman, I actually think is superior to Swamp Thing). But if you've skipped Swamp Thing because of its horror-B-movie reputation you owe it to yourself to ignore that reputation and read Alan Moore's run. You will not be disappointed.

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