Thursday, August 20, 2015

Retro Review: Alan Moore's Swamp Thing

The Revolution

In 1984, when Alan Moore began writing Swamp Thing, Barry Allen was the Flash; Superman was edited by Julius Schwartz; Batman's canonical origin was from The Untold Legend of the Batman; the Justice League lineup was mainly intact from the Sixties; and Justice Society stories took place on Earth Two. In 1987, when Moore's run on Swamp Thing ended, Barry Allen was dead; Superman was under the creative control of John Byrne; Batman had been reimagined by Frank Miller; Max Lord ran the Justice League; and, the Multiverse had been wiped away by Crisis on Infinite Earths. Moore's work on Swamp Thing was not the cause of these changes, but it played a significant role in setting the creative tone and direction of DC Comics while these momentous changes took place. It directly begat the Vertigo imprint, the home to some of comicdom's best works for over two decades. Moore's Swamp Thing greatly influenced Neil Gaiman's later Sandman series, which itself is one of the genre's finest works.

In the midst of his Swamp Thing run, Moore wrote other stories of outstanding quality, including the Batman-Joker classic, "Killing Joke," the Superman stories "For The Man Who Has Everything" and "Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?" and the Green Lantern story "Tygers," which revealed sinister reasons behind the death of Abin Sur. Concurrent with Moore's last year on Swamp Thing, his landmark work Watchmen appeared as a miniseries, and later as one of the best-regarded graphic novels of all time.

There was, in short, a revolution in progress, and Moore's work for DC played both direct and indirect roles in that revolution. Perhaps Watchmen was the climax of Moore's work for DC, but Saga of the Swamp Thing (later retitled simple Swamp Thing) was where he began, where he honed his skills and is, by page count, by far the greatest portion of that work.

A Lab in the Swamp

Swamp Thing neither is nor was, one of DC's most celebrated properties. This was a double-edged sword: Stories about Swamp Thing do not reach as wide an audience as Superman or the Batman, but with an obscure feature, the writer has greater latitude to make unconventional creative decisions. Swamp Thing was, in effect, Alan Moore's laboratory out in the swamp, a dark, dirty, almost forgotten backwater where he could make strange and wonderful decisions, and let them take root and grow. This could never have happened with Moore writing Green Lantern or the Flash, but with Swamp Thing, Moore introduced elements of mystery and horror that had never before been seen in a DC superhero comic.

Indeed, he pushed the boundaries of acceptable content beyond what the Comics Code Authority would allow, and near the end of his first year, that label was removed from the cover. While Moore frequently brought DC's occult characters such as the Spectre, Etrigan, and Deadman into his stories, he also used characters such as Batman, Adam Strange, and the Green Lantern Corps but still incorporated sex, drugs, and brutal violence in a way that was completely at odds with the tone of those lighter works. Perhaps the defining difference in tone was that Moore had innocent victims suffer heinous injustices that were never avenged. But even the manner in which his villains suffered was darker than the DC superhero titles were accustomed to showing. Month by month, Moore put darkness and horror into the obscure title that he wrote, and month by month, it seemed like the sort of thing that other writers might want to put into other titles.

The Saga of the Swamp Thing

Moore's greatest change to the DC superhero culture might have been in the construction of sprawling storylines that spanned about a year each. This could not have worked in a more popular title, whereupon DC wanted readers who skipped an issue or two to be able to return to a title without having missed too much. By telling long, intricate plots, Moore made his work something suitable for adults rather than kids in ways besides the infusion of sex and violence.

In Moore's first year, Swamp Thing faced an escalating series of demonic menaces, which escalated with rescuing Abigail Cable from Hell itself. To top this, the second year's "American Gothic" storyline brought forth evil incarnate on a march that might culminate in the destruction of heaven but for an understated conversation between Swamp Thing and Evil. The final year of the run had Swamp Thing in exile, pining for his love Abby while he teleported from one world to another until, like Odysseus, he returns home.

For all of the journeys on Earth, space, and other realms, the greatest changes happen to the character of Swamp Thing. In a momentous redefinition, Moore has Swamp Thing learn that he is not the man Alec Holland transformed into something else, but is, rather, a plant creature that never was Alec Holland but that had gained his memories. Given that very unreal situation, Moore, a gifted writer, gives the creature anguish that feels real, and is more human than other DC characters even as, ironically, he finds that he has never been human at all.

Perhaps the most far-reaching of Moore's creation in this run is John Constantine, a cynical, chain-smoking mystic who eventually earned his own series and two live-action renditions. Constantine dominates the second season of Moore's Swamp Thing run as a mysterious manipulator/faciltator of the crucial battle against evil, and is more generally established as an important cosmic player in his own right. Moore would later make John Constantine the central figure of his unwritten Twilight of the Superheroes proposal.

One tactic that Moore plays to elevate the stature of the obscure character headlining his series is to demonstrate his superiority to more popular characters, most notably when he upstages the entire Justice League by defeating a global threat led by the Floronic Man, Jason Woodrue. Later, he is more successful than the Spectre in confronting the center of all evil. Less impressive but more theatrical, he wins a very uneven fistfight against Batman. Near the close of the run, Swamp Thing accomplishes, in short order, a journey to the Source, succeeding where New Gods like Metron and Darkseid cannot. These and many other demonstrations of Swamp Thing's power elevate the character in terms that are always important to the superhero genre – sheer power.

For as much as Moore does to overturn conventions of the genre, it is, in fact, curious that he sticks so often to the conventional playbook by making his hero unfailingly moral when he is able to aid innocents. He is less than magnanimous, however, when confronting those who have made him their enemy, as he lashes out in rage against the officious sadists in the U.S. Government who torment him at the beginning of the run and later those who exile him from Earth in their effort to destroy him. Swamp Thing is in those cases willing to kill without mercy, and with a touch of sadism in deaths delivering his enemies poetic justice. Moore plays a middle route when Swamp Thing besieges all of Gotham City with an overgrowth of plant life, and his rage affects millions without discrimination, yet Moore implies that this attack yielded almost as much benefit as harm.

A recurring theme, natural to the subject matter, is alienation, with Moore focusing relentlessly on selecting something as "The Other," then narrating from that alien perspective for several panels or even an entire issue. Frequently, he effects a role reversal between plants and animals, with plants thinking, moving, and eating, while animals become still and their prey. Elsewhere, Moore observes both sides of the boundary between the living and the dead. People become aliens as seen by the cutesy swamp animals in an issue devoted to a Pogo homage. Spiritual planes, human society, and fictional alien civilizations alike become the strange backdrop of some narrator or another who walks us through fear, confusion, and wonderment.

A confession: I read Neil Gaiman's Sandman before Moore's Swamp Thing, and so only later realized the breadth of the influence that Moore had on Gaiman. Moore mixed the DC superheroes with Cain and Abel from the DC titles House of Mystery and House of Secrets; later, Gaiman did this. Moore had his hero go on a mission into Hell to rescue a woman he loves; later, Gaiman did this. Gaiman uses John Constantine and Swamp Thing himself in cameos. Most tangible, Gaiman uses Swamp Thing's friend-become-menace Matthew Cable as a recurring character. A second confession: I am uncertain how readers detected and accepted that the reincarnated raven Matthew was precisely the Matthew from Swamp Thing. This is correct, but it's not quite spelled out anywhere that I found. Perhaps someone can offer their answer in the comments?

Several of Moore's inventions were later tapped by Geoff Johns. Characters such as Sodam Yat and the entire plotline of "Tygers" were brought into Johns' "Blackest Night" epic. Johns used Moore's Black Mercy in a story where it attached to Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen. Some have commented that this borrowing highlighted the very high degree of inventiveness-per-issue that Moore showed in comparison with Johns and other writers.

One of many innovations in the run is the use of metatextual storytelling. While dreaming, Abigail Cable visits the House of Secrets, and finds out that her lover, the current Swamp Thing, is not the first Swamp Thing. She learns this as we see the origin of another, quite similar version set several decades earlier. This was, in fact, the first Swamp Thing story, published in 1971, while the second story, published over a year later, reinvents the character – slightly – by changing the characters' names and retelling the origin in the present of 1972. For Moore to make an alternate version into its own, distinct story, is an early version of the metatextual techniques that he later uses in his briliant run on Supreme.

More than anything, the run should be judged by its artistic merit, and here it's on a high, but not the highest, level. Some of Moore's horror plots are lifted from elsewhere. This is perhaps the case when ghosts of a slave-era crime with sexual overtones possess people in the present, making them walk entranced through a reenactment of a murder; this is the plot of a minor novel, Night Stalks The Mansion, recycled in Moore's issue #41. Moore utilizes the themes, dynamics, and even names of H. P. Lovecraft creations to the point that it is debatable whether he is engaging in homage or imitation. And, in perhaps the most shocking moment of the series, when a young boy-turned-vampire says, "Oh, mom," and kills his mother, this is tremendously new and shocking for a DC Comic, but is lifted right out of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. The Brujeria, who kill and torment before they unleash the forces of evil are wonderfully horrible, but they're not Moore's invention, but from a book by Bruce Chatwin that Moore quotes. It's clear that Moore is very well read and draws well from his sources, but his 46 issues of Swamp Thing, remarkably good as a run of this length, doesn't quite match the issue-per-issue or line-per-line creative excellence of his other DC work, which is at essentially the highest level the genre and medium have ever achieved. A list of Moore's 16 best issues of DC work might arguably contain the entirety of Watchmen, his two Superman classics, and the story of Abin Sur's cursed visit to Ysmault without an issue of Swamp Thing displacing any of that sterling output.

But the run does have its moments. Perhaps none is better than the alienation-driven introduction he gives the Justice League, across two issues:

"He called Morgan City… and Morgan City called Washington… and Washington called the Justice League."

And, the Joycean:

"There is a house above the world where the over-people gather."

These sparing words work a small miracle in making the reader forget that the Justice League's existence is a basic fact of DC stories, and force us to consider them in terms of our real world, with their tremendous power made alien and almost frightening when their superiority is described with no mention of their benevolence. This is a level of virtuosity of which few comic book writers have been capable; it is seen, if rarely, in Moore's Swamp Thing.

Blues for a Green Planet

Among the many innovations in Moore's Swamp Thing that make it more suitable for older readers – or, at least, unsuitable for younger readers – is the prevalence of sex, drugs, and violence (violence with brutal consequences) that lost the title its Comics Code Authority seal and began a major shift in the tone of superhero comics. This began in issue #29, with a plot that involved serial killers, torture, rape, and incest, all wrapped in a layer of supernatural horror. Once the CCA was removed from the cover, there was no going back. The title went on to murder its innocent victims, delving into the details of sexual activity by established characters such as Zatanna and Adam Strange, and spend large portions of several issues exploring, such as a comic books can, drug-induced states. Swamp Thing became the first in a wave of works that achieved critical and commercial success while blending the superhero genre with content regarded as taboo in 1983. Whether that success depended on the taboo content is subject to debate, but the medium was unquestionably changed.

Whether this was a positive change for the medium as a whole is also subject to debate. It is interesting to note that Moore was writing a series that he considered to be in the horror genre, and felt that the series' goal was to "scare its readership."  Though he felt that that horror had permeated the culture "to excess," he was soon incorporating horror elements, as well as social and political commentary, into his stories about Superman, Batman, and the Watchmen. The roots of his other work were often found – literally – in Swamp Thing: "The Man Who Has Everything" has a plant feeding on Superman, disgusting little blood drops going airborne when the Black Mercy is pulled off of him; plants feed on people several times in his Swamp Thing run. Watchmen has a giant mutant octopus devastate New York; in Swamp Thing #46, as part of his Crisis crossover, we see a large octopus in the middle of a city over a year and a half before Watchmen's conclusion.

This was clever and powerful material, but if he felt that horror was found in culture to excess, he contributed to its spread, as soon thereafter, writers like Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, and John Byrne followed Moore's lead by scripting torture and sexual violence in successful works starring Superman and Batman.

What Moore began was a tectonic shift in the genre, with DC, under Moore's editor Karen Berger, spinning off the Vertigo imprint that carried much of the darkness and occult themes with it, leaving the rest of DC's lineup certainly not as dark as the Vertigo titles, but still considerably darker than DC superhero works had been before Moore. In my view, allowing such themes certainly offers opportunities for excellent horror and excellent gritty (often urban), potentially realistic crime drama, but is also used as a crutch for weak storytelling, with gratutitous sensational imagery appearing in the place of more compelling ideas.

Many of Moore's works highlight the destruction of superheroes and their fictional worlds, with Moore's plots taking previously invincible, previously sacrosanct paragons of virtue and breaking them down, psychologically, morally, and physically. An early and pure example of this is in Swamp Thing #32, when, in an homage to Walt Kelly's newspaper strip Pogo (like Swamp Thing, set in a swamp), Moore scripts a tale in which aliens resembling Pogo's characters arrive on Earth seeking a new home. "Pog" and his compatriots are fleeing the hunters who drove them from their home planet, and find a potential sanctuary on Earth and a friend in Swamp Thing. Their hopes turn to tragedy as they find that the people of Earth are just as bad as the hunters they are fleeing, and one of them is heartbreakingly killed by terrestrial alligators whom he thinks might be his friends. This in many ways encapsulates the darkness of Alan Moore's superhero work: He takes characters that are lovable and cute and subjects them to treachery and violence, destroying them. It's powerful, it lingers in the memory, but it's inherently horrible, and part of the "excess" that Moore himself calls out. If it is excess, he added to it as few others have.

The Roots of Modern Comics

In my Retro Reviews, I put the spotlight on some works of notable impact in comics history. Many of these appeared in the mid Eighties or later and changed the entire genre of superhero comics that came after them; many of these owe, in turn, a debt to the comparatively brief, but brilliant, DC work of Alan Moore. While some of these, like Gaiman's Sandman, draw directly from Moore's Swamp Thing run, even more refer to Moore's other DC work, which, in turn, draws on that base that began with his 46 issues of Swamp Thing.


Reading, as I did, Moore's Swamp Thing run after I'd read so many things that drew upon it, I didn't find it to be particularly compelling as the first reading of a great work usually is. So much of what he did was digested and repackaged by later writers, it wasn't new to me. And in other regards, it wasn't all new when Moore first wrote it into Swamp Thing scripts, which contain ample support for the adage, "…great artists steal." But it was certainly brilliant at times, never less than good, and is crucially important to comics history. It was a valuable experience for me to read Moore's Swamp Thing now, thirty years after it appeared. A valuable experience, but not scary, and not – in comparison to the undeniable importance of the work – all that entertaining.

5 comments:

  1. I'll have to re-read the whole run at sum point.

    I have read the Abigail-Swampy sex scene which led to the Batman guest appearance. It speak to Moore's talent that he could do moar to make Lex Luthor a badass in a single cameo that most writer's could in an entire arc.

    And of course even though Swampy thoroughly dominates Batman, it''s a nice touch that Swampy's last line concedes Batman could eventually win. That Swampy seemingly taking pleasure in admitting that some how makes me like even moar.

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  2. Good points on both Luthor and Batman sakei, and it brings up a point I didn't mention: Those appearances happened precisely at the end of Crisis, making it interestingly ambiguous, or undefined, which Luthor and which Batman we were seeing. Was that mad scientist master criminal Luthor? Probably, because magnate Luthor wouldn't have been showing up in person to contract a mere $1 million project, and didn't look like the early Byrne Luthor who was introduced within weeks of the S.T. appearance.

    Likewise, it wasn't yet the "Bat God" version of Batman who made an ineffective attack on S.T. and then said, "oops." Still, Batman already had great cachet as a major player in the DCU, and Moore kept utilizing him in order to put big-name stardom (but from the darkest choice possible) into his issues.

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  3. Great blog Rikdad!

    I just pulled out my Sandman tpb's to check on any Matthew Cable information I could find. Just flipping through and rereading any pages that feature Matthew the Raven.

    In Sandman vol. 2 Dolls House there is a conversation and Matthew says a few times about disliking hospitals and doing something rotten in another life before he was a raven.
    In Sandman vol 7 Brief Lives Matthew mentions, in a conversation with Dream, that he died "the first time" in a drunk driving accident.
    Later in the run he plays an even larger role in the story, (teaming up with the Corinthian to find Daniel, etc) but details about his life pre-raven aren't delved into.

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  4. Jonny, I think you may have found it all. The timing is another thing that should be mentioned: Matthew died in Swamp Thing (long after Moore left) shortly before he appeared in Sandman.

    It seems beyond question that it's the same Matthew, but I'm a bit amazed that there's no one arguing the opposite, because it isn't absolutely stated as an objective fact. But, then again, there isn't that much discussion of 28-year-old works in general, much less arguing the fine points which are long past the point when the creator might slip us a surprise twist.

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  5. There was a storyline in the Sandman follow-up series called The Dreaming where it is made explicit. It involved Anton Arcane and Abby Cable, who is referenced as Matthew's wife from his previous life. Matthew dies, and Lucien (the librarian) becomes the raven for Daniel, the current Sandman.

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