Sunday, January 27, 2013

More Moore part 8: Swamp Thing Book II

Swamp Thing, Book II: Love & Death (1984-85)

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


  1. I never had any interest in anything Swamp Thing-related until I read your reviews of the Moore books. Fine work, sir.

    1. Thanks! It's weird how Swamp Thing isn't at all given the respect that a lot of his other work is; prior to starting these reviews I had read all his 'big hits' (Watchmen, Marvelman, V for Vendetta, etc.) but I hadn't read Swamp Thing and I honestly don't think I had heard anyone talk about it. The fact that it's incredibly well-done makes it even weirder...a lot of his other big works are big on deconstructing superhero tropes, maybe that this one isn't, people aren't interested? If so, they're depriving themselves, seriously.