Sunday, January 27, 2013
With the first book of Swamp Thing, Alan Moore proved that his handling of the ancient Marvelman story wasn't simply a fluke; he could take characters, whether they hadn't been touched for years or had been used as recently as the month before, and turn them into something far greater than the sum of their parts. Len Wein and Marty Pasko had made the Swamp Thing a misunderstood beast, a throwback to the pulp comics trope of the good-natured but reviled giant (beginning with Frankenstein's monster and echoed by another big, green comic book hero, The Incredible Hulk) and Moore took all of one issue to turn it into something poetic, something subtle, something intelligent. In his hands, Swamp Thing became a greater tragedy than ever before, a creature who thought it was human and only later discovered it wasn't, it never was, it could never be, and of course it was more human than ever for that very reason. And the most incredible thing was that, after such a home-run, Moore was just getting started: at six books, forty-four chapters, and 1,208 pages, Swamp Thing is among Moore's longest novels, and if each additional book builds on the previous as well as Love & Death does, Swamp Thing may even end up topping Watchmen and From Hell as Moore's most accomplished, greatest work.
That being said, Book II starts off strangely with the first chapter, "The Burial". In it, Swamp Thing digs a metaphorical (and literal) grave for the man who he never was, Alec Holland, the final act of freeing himself from his misplaced humanity and embracing his role as a nature elemental and protector. As he digs, he experiences flashbacks/hallucinations of Holland's last days on Earth, finally tossing the long-preserved skeleton into the grave and closing that chapter of his life forever. Sounds like a meaningful, well-drafted chapter, right? Subtle and exploratory, it could almost be the equal of "The Anatomy Lesson" in terms of Moore's grasp on the medium, so what's the problem? The problem is in the art: Stephen Bissette and John Totelben were unavailable to work on "The Burial", so the work went to DC workhorse Shawn McManus. Shawn has a long career in DC/Vertigo, working on Sandman, Tom Strong, Fables, and plenty more, but his presence feels amazingly out of place in the contemplative darkness of "The Burial". McManus' work makes for great action scenes, all bold gestures and declarations, but it wouldn't be hyperbole to say that there is not a single action scene in the entire chapter, and his exaggerated, rubbery style so clashes with Moore's Shakespearean ruminating that it turns what could be a chapter awash in pathos into something that doesn't quite click the way it should. Luckily, this is the only chapter in which the usual artists are away (with one exception, see below), and Bissette & Totelben jump right back into things for "Love and Death".
"Love and Death" kicks off the remainder of the book's first arc, which gives us the return of Swamp Thing's nemesis, Anton Arcane, back from beyond the veil and wearing the thoroughly-posessed shell of Abby Cable's husband Matt. More than any other arc so far, Arcane's return and the subsequent battle with Swamp Thing wears the series' horror roots most proudly on its sleeve; as admitted before I haven't read the previous writer's takes on Swamp Thing, but here at least Arcane seems to have command over what can be broadly termed corruption: he summons hordes of insects, rotting corpses are his puppets, and his presence increases the evil in mens hearts throughout the country, increasing acts of depravity and malice. To this author, at least, this is an absolute goldmine of an idea: Arcane comes off as both wonderfully eloquent and disgustingly powerful, DC's very own Lord of the Flies in a most literal sense. He is also Abby Cable's uncle, something that I don't think was mentioned in the first book, but increases the disturbing quotient greatly (it's highly implied that he had sex with his niece while wearing her husband's skin). Even though the showdown between Swamp Thing and Arcane really only lasts a few pages, the tension is incredible, with the narrative moving into the past and back again, hints of Arcane's return brought up way back in Moore's first few issues coming to full bloom, small things behind the scenes that seem twitchy and decomposing coming to the forefront, all leading up to Arcane literally plucking his niece's soul from her body and throwing it to Hell, making sure that even if Swamp Thing wins the battle (and he does, of course) he loses his lady love.
It's with the stage set thus, Abby Cable alive but unthinking, her uncle seemingly destroyed for good, that Swamp Thing becomes something even greater than it was before. What was Moore's take on the slow-moving, contemplative Hamlet adds some Orpheus and Dante to its belt as Swamp Thing quite literally descends into the pits of Hell to rescue Abby's soul from the legions of the damned. The story suddenly becomes widescreen, its pulp horror augmented by an epic fantasy that other authors could only dream of, with Swamp Thing meeting more members of DC's fantasy pantheon: Deadman, The Stranger, and Etrigan all take turns playing the part of Virgil leading this Dante in reverse, from the lush gardens of Paradise (where Alec Holland is finally happy in an eternity with his wife) to the writhing walls of Pandemonium. There he witnesses the final fate of Arcane (which is really very satisfying) and quite literally carries Abby's immortal soul back to the surface. The arc is gorgeous in every way, and it shows that Moore can make his plots as grandiose as he can deconstruct them, ending with a single-panel page of a newly-revived Abby, clueless as to what her vegetable beau just did for her, questioning Swamp Thing's tears of happiness amidst the swamp in the dead of winter. It's short and sweet and a perfect way to end an arc that changes things up just as much as Moore's first few issues did.
The book ends with three remaining chapters, two of them fairly slight, and one of them anything but. Shawn McManus returns first for "Pog", an environmental fable set up as a sci-fi version of Walt Kelly's Pogo, for which both McManus and Moore won the Jack Kirby Award and I can't possibly imagine why. The plot is slight, and what little there is is hackneyed (aliens in the style of Pogo's swamp-dwellers land on Earth and are repulsed by humankind's polluting tendencies), and while McManus' art is certainly better suited for the slapstick of "Pog" than it was for "The Burial", honestly the whole story feels so out of place after Arcane's return and Swamp Thing's journey to Hell that I can't help but feel the book wouldn't have been any worse off if it wasn't included. They left Swamp Thing's goofy team-up with Superman out of the main narrative, they could have done the same with "Pog", even collected them together into their own book. After "Pog" is "Abandoned Houses", where Abby is visited in her dreams by Cain and Able of DC's old House of Mystery and House of Secrets anthology books, in which they retell Len Wein's very first issue of Swamp Thing and give a rather startling revelation: not only is Swamp Thing NOT Alec Holland, but there have been several Swamp Things before him, Moore giving the character a legacy to live up to and giving both himself and future writers nearly unlimited range to make Swamp Thing anyone and anything they wish. It's a clever twist, even if the chapter itself isn't anything terribly exciting.
Finally comes "Rite of Spring" which had to have been radical when it came out: it's an extended psychedelic sex sequence between Abby and Swamp Thing. She eats one of the fruits growing off of him and the art gets wild while the two lovebirds consummate their newfound relationship in ways that we humans couldn't possibly conceive. It's shamanic and paganistic, love of the Earth in the most literal sense. It's pretty damn weird, but it elevates Swamp Thing and Abby 's relationship past what we normally get from superhero comic love; like the birth scene is Marvelman it shows that Moore can take chances and make issues that would absolutely flounder in the hands of lesser writers, but that fit perfectly into the clockwork plots of his grand designs. And no doubt the love that Abby Cable (Abby Arcane? Abby Holland?) shares with her shambling swamp man will become a deeper plot later on.
Best quote: Cheated by a pawn, a cypher, a thing no more signifigant than the most despised of beetles.../This bug, this worthless speck, had with his death displaced deathless Arcane.../Condemning me to the dusk latitudes.../To the cobwebbed lands.../To the dismal region of the bodiless men."
Up next: A girl and her vegetable in Swamp Thing Book III
Friday, January 18, 2013
As noted last time, Swamp Thing is Alan Moore's second attempt in a row of taking over a pre-existing storyline in the middle of publication, picking up Marty Pasko's story starting on issue #20. When Moore attempted this in Captain Britain, the results felt rushed and awkward, introducing too many ideas in not enough space and not giving them any time to resolve, so how did he fare trying the same trick twice? The result, I'm happy to say, were better than ever could have been expected, and the first book of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing feature his best work since Marvelman, possibly even eclipsing that incredible work. In Moore's extremely capable hands, Len Wein's Swamp Thing goes from a pulp-ish 'monster vs. monster' style hero to a tortured, troubled soul, rife with interior monologues and a plush poeticism, finally proving that the comparison I made to Shakespeare way back when I started this was not only founded, but impressively accurate.
Unlike his attempt to wrap things up at the beginning of his Captain Britain run, here Moore's first issue taking the reins from Marty Pasko (humorously called 'Loose Ends') is fairly simplistic and easy to follow, yet still bursting with imagery and creativity; the only thing you need to know going into it is that the dead body Swamp Thing is mourning on the first page belongs to Anton Arcane, long-time nemesis. On Moore's first page he kills off the character's main villain, and it's done with so much grace and poetry that it works perfectly, Swamp Thing giving a soliloquy wondering what his enemy's death means for him that is some of the best writing I've ever experienced in the medium. Since Swamp Thing is already dealing with the same tropes Captain Britain did, only with more maturity and grace, it should come as no surprise that Moore utilizes the same shock ending: issue 20 ends with Swamp Thing's death, gunned down by agents of the Sunderland Corporation to collect for research. All this leads into issue 21, the breathtaking 'The Anatomy Lesson'.
Sometimes you find a piece of art that defies all expectations, where everything fits together like clockwork, and no matter how many times you experience it you feel the same sense of awe and wonder as the first time. Beethoven's 3rd symphony, the Zeal arc from Chrono Trigger, Savage/Steamboat at Wrestlemania III, Akira Kurosawa's Ran, Roy Batty's death soliloquy from Blade Runner, and Algernon Blackwood's 'The Willows' all give me this sense of perfection, and now we can add 'The Anatomy Lesson' to that list as probably the best single comic I have ever read. The comic is told in flashback by Jason Woodrue, the Floronic Man, a D-list DC villain I had never heard of before reading this, who was hired by General Sunderland to do an autopsy on the recently-deceased Swamp Thing. Woodrue gives reams more poetic monologues throughout the chapter, all of it with the same sense of muted despair we got from Swamp Thing's thoughts in the first chapter, through the lens of a madman:
"I'm here in my apartment. I'm watching the rain/...And I'm thinking about the old man./He'll be pounding on the glass right about now.../...Or maybe not now./Maybe in a while./But he'll be pounding and...and will there be blood? I like to imagine so. Yes, I rather think there will be blood./Lots of blood./Blood in extraordinary quantities."
Woodrue discovers that Swamp Thing was never scientist Alec Holland at all, as Len Wein and Marty Pasko had taught us since 1972. Instead, it is some sort of verdant elemental spirit, infused with Holland's memories at the moment of his death in the swamp all that time ago. Naturally, you cannot kill a plant by shooting it in the head, and so Swamp Thing revives, and its grappling with its newly-discovered inhumanism is the crux of the conflict in the first book. Swamp Thing battles The Floronic Man, driven insane by the whispers of 'The Green', the plant world, and later assists Jack Kirby's awesome demonic character Etrigan to destroy a being that feeds on children's fear. It's similar to the situations Swamp Thing was in before, but the creature has taken on the qualities of a verdant Hamlet, spouting off interior monologues about the nature of humanity and what it means to be human (a guilty pleasure topic of mine if there ever was one), all the while defending the humanity he has become detached from. There to keep that link to humanity alive is Abby Cable and her husband Matt, and while Abby struggles to assist Swamp Thing and protect the children she was charged to watch, the couple's marriage dissolves before our very eyes into a nightmare of arguments, drinking, and regret, a very real tragedy in the middle of this supernatural maelstrom. Even as Swamp Thing and Etrigan stop the fear-devouring Monkey King, Matt crashes his car and, to save himself, makes a pact with something that's sure to be a very, very bad idea.
Moore is joined by the art team of Stephen Bissette and John Totelben, the latter of whom you may remember last appeared on this blog as the artist of Moore's superhero Ragnarok in Marvelman issue #15. Though the colors may feel washed out for readers of today's sumptuously-shaded comics, the art itself is rough and ragged, as befitting Swamp Thing and his legion of deranged adversaries. Swamp Thing most certainly has its roots (ha!) in pulp horror stories, and one look at the disturbing imagery of the Monkey King or the Floronic Man's reign of vegetable terror will let you see that Moore's own love of pulps has helped propel this story even further.
I can't recommend Swamp Thing Book I enough. The prose is hauntingly beautiful, the lead speaks with such grace and elegance, and the villains are both disgusting and despicable. 'The Anatomy Lesson' is arrestingly well-written, and the rest of the book manages to keep up that high level of quality that Moore's previous work, no matter how good (and it's all been good so far) couldn't yet hit. Swamp Thing Book I is the zenith of Moore's first years in the industry, and indisputable proof that not only was he the best writer of his time, but he has yet to be topped today.
(Caveat: As of this writing, there are two different printings of Swamp Thing Book I readily available, and the older of which, with a 1987 copyright date, is missing the first issue Moore wrote for, starting up with 'The Anatomy Lesson'. 'Loose Ends' is an excellent chapter and I couldn't possibly imagine why DC/Vertigo cut it for the original trade, but the more recent pressing, which came out about 2009/2010, restores the issue to its rightful place.)
Best quote: "I had to come, Arcane. I had to be sure./Oh I know I saw your ship...falling and burning. I know I saw it...drop like a wounded sun...exploding beyond the mountains. I know you couldn't have survived./But I didn't...hear the rattle in your windpipe. I didn't see...the glaze crawl over your eyes. I didn't see the body Arcane.../.../So it's true./You're dead./Really dead./I don't think I realized before...How important to my life you were, Arcane. I don't think I really understood...before this moment./You were my opposite. I had my humanity...taken away from me. You started out human...and threw it all away. You did it deliberately./We defined each other, didn't we? By understanding you...I came that much closer...to understanding myself./And now...you're dead./Really dead./And what...am I going to do now?"
Up next: Swamp Thing, Book II.
Thursday, January 3, 2013
The very first thing to keep in mind when you crack open Captain Britain is that it's Alan Moore's first time taking over a pre-existing series from another writer (not counting Marvelman, but since no one had touched that property in 20 years when Moore got to it, I give it a pass). Captain Britain was created by writer Chris Claremont and artist Herb Trimpe back in 1976, and thus Moore had six years of character development and plot arc ahead of him when he took the reins in 1982. This may explain the disorienting feeling you get reading the first couple issues, where things are happening at a rapid-fire pace and someone who hasn't read the previous work might be totally overwhelmed. Characters are introduced and you get the distinct feeling you should really know who they are, but Moore is too busy moving forward to make any concessions for those of us who feel lost, and by the time you realize that this breakneck pacing isn't going to let up, it's too late.
Moore's time on Captain Britain focused the good Captain and his friends hopping through parallel dimensions, and the threat posed by two villains who are really the draw of this whole story: reality-warping mutant (a la X-Men) Mad Jim Jaspers, and his pet 'cybiote' robot/killing machine, The Fury. The story starts up on Earth-238, far away from Eath-616, the dimension where the Marvel stories usually take place. The problem is that you would never know that if you weren't already reading Captain Britain because the story never tells you. Moore's writing is as strong as ever (his captions regarding The Fury's unstoppable quest to kill all superheroes are especially well-done) but there's no substance at the beginning. Mad Jim shows up and it's heavily implied that the reader should be shocked that the evil mutant is behind Earth-238 warping and breaking down, but I didn't even know who the guy was, and so the meaning was lost. Luckily Moore does pick up right at the end of the Earth-238 arc, when The Fury, who had previously killed several of Captain Britain's companions, shows up (in a graveyard, no less!) and vaporizes the good Captain himself. Two issues in and the title character is dead.
Shocking as Captain Britain's death is, Alan Moore proves he really DOES lead the comics industry by predicting the whole kill-off-a-character-and-then-bring-him-back song and dance that DC does every six months now, by having the shapeshifting alien Merlyn (again, not introduced before this scene) literally rebuild the Captain from his component molecules, sending him back to Earth-616. A verbose and surprisingly well-done issue, even though I was clueless about Merlyn and his daughter Roma, Moore managed to get his point across in a way that made me think maybe I was being too hard on Captain Britain. And after all that, right on cue, Moore tosses a bunch of unconnected one-shot superhero fights for about 3 issues. In a book where space for scenes and characters that could use exposition are at a premium, this feels unforgivable to me; the time that Captain Britain spent fighting Slaymaster could have been used to explain just who the hell Jim Jaspers or Saturnyne or any of the relevant characters were.
The story does pick up eventually, but by then it's too little, too late. Jaspers' descent into madness happens off-panel: you expect to watch his mind coming unhinged slowly, but instead we go from Lord James Jaspers to a goofy lunatic in-between issues. There are too many heroes jockeying for pagetime in a story that already feels rushed; why kill off Captain Britain's erstwhile buddies in the first issue if you're just going to clog the pages with Wardog, Fascination, Captain Britain's sister, Legion, and a bunch of others? Moore seems like he's on the right track by introducing a bunch of alternate Captain Britains from the parallel universes (with punny names like Captain England, Captain Albion, Captain Airstrip-One, Captain Commonwealth) which would have made a GREAT team to take down Jaspers and The Fury, but then they get action for maybe 2 or 3 panels, tops. The story does end with a bang once Jaspers finally makes his move and starts warping reality, the effects are a ton of fun and artist Alan Davis is allowed to cut loose and make some gorgeous psychedelic splash pages, but by that point the story's already 3/4 of the way finished. The climactic final battle is even better, with The Fury turning on his creator (because the Mad Jim who built him is Earth-238 Jim, not Earth-616 Jim, and so he's a superhero that needs to be exterminated and...eh, just go read it) in an 8-page brawl which has Jaspers warping everything into strange weapons and animals to destroy the indestructible Fury...but again, it doesn't even take up a whole issue.
In the end, perhaps Captain Britain would have been more tolerable if it were 100 pages longer, bringing it in line pagecount-wise with Watchmen, but what we're left with is a book fertile with great ideas and not enough time to execute them. Read it for Lord Jim (the final battle is everything Marvelman vs. Gargunza should've been) but don't be surprised if Moore's breakneck storytelling leaves you confused.
Best quote: "Fury. Cybiote. Mechanical half-steel, half sinew. Logic of a computer, intuition of a dog/It looks at the grave. Logic says Captain Britain is dead. Intuition says otherwise/It will have to think about this, and when it has thought, it will have to do something/It never gives up/Never."
Up next: Swamp Thing, Alan Moore taking over yet another pre-existing series...uh oh.