Friday, January 18, 2013

More Moore part 7: Swamp Thing, Book I

Swamp Thing, Book I: Saga of the Swamp Thing (1984)

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 understanding myself./And're dead./Really dead./And I going to do now?"

Up next: Swamp Thing, Book II.

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