Saturday, February 23, 2013

More Moore part 10: Swamp Thing Book IV

Swamp Thing Book IV: A Murder of Crows (1985-86)

Huge thanks to Sally of Mordant Airhead for directing me where to find a copy of Book IV, which is currently retailing for about $150 on Amazon. Thanks!

In April of 1985, in the fifty-first year of the existence of DC Comics, there began a maxi-series entitled Crisis on Infinite Earths, implicitly designed as a reboot to clean up fifty years of continuity madness among DC's various intellectual properties. The series, written by Marv Wolfman and penciled by George Perez, addressed and solved this issue with the grace of a sledgehammer by compressing every one of DC's myriad plot threads into one simple, easy-to-handle universe, starting over from square one. That here we are 28 years later and DC has rebooted itself three more times since then isn't an issue for today, this little introduction is a question of dates: not only did our friend Mr. Moore pen the final Superman story before the Crisis in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, which we'll get to...eventually, the dates that Crisis was running, April '85 to March '86, coincide well with the fourth book of Swamp Thing, entitled A Murder of Crows. In it, Moore will lend his pen to the Crisis in his own idiosyncratic way, and create an arc that has been hinted at since Book III and considered by many to the the absolute apex of the whole novel.

But not in the first chapter. We start off with 'Windfall', which barely features Swamp Thing himself at all. The protagonist when we first crack open Book IV is Chester Williams, an aging hippie who would be more at home in San Fransisco than Baton Rouge. Chester finds one of Swamp Thing's psychedelic tubers on the ground (not a fruit, like I had thought before) and, in giving a slice to acquaintances of two different temperaments, discovers that its effects serve to amplify that which is already present within each person emotionally: a kindly cancer patient is filled with the warmth of life and love, leading to the novel's second psychotropic sex scene which comes across as surprisingly tender, the cancer victim passing away during the waves of love and ecstasy, dying in the rain in her husband's arms. The second imbiber, an overweight cretin with a bad combover who basically bullies Chester into giving a slice up, descends into a hellish 'bad trip', lighting aflame and becoming a swamp monster himself while ghouls taunt and harass him until he runs in front of an 18-wheeler. Chester himself, unsure of what his true colors are inside, abstains from trying the tuber as the chapter ends. It may be setting up for something (we don't see Chester again during the events of the book) but even if it's just a one-off it gives Moore and his artists a chance to explore Swamp Thing's physiology and his effect on the human psyche. Even if Chester doesn't return, the lessons he learned will.

Swamp Thing returns, along with Bissette and Totelben, with chapter two, 'Boogeymen', continuing the one-and-done nature of Book III though thankfully without the heavy-handed moralizing that typified that unfortunate volume. In the next couple chapters Swamp Thing and Constantine take on serial killers and ghosts, fighting back against the darkness encroaching that is setting the whole world insane. Monitor, the protagonist of Crisis on Infinite Earths, summons the heroes of the world to his fortress, and in Swamp Thing we see that includes our street warlock and his verdant pal, giving Crisis fans a different angle of the events that they would already be familiar with from that concurrent volume, and giving Moore fans some more wonderfully evocative prose in his always-entertaining captions:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and it was all of them at once./It was the end.../...And in the end, there were not words enough to encompass it."

But even Swamp Thing among the shattering timelines of Crisis is not the main event, and the chapter moves on without Kal-El, or Monitor, or Barry Allen or any of the main players of that continuity-shifting saga, and it's there that Constantine reveals what he and Swamp Thing have been working toward since Book III, the Brujeria, a coven of male witches, are awakening the primal Darkness to smash the throne of heaven and usher in a world free of life. And with that begins the second half of Book IV, with Constantine recruiting DC's mystical movers and shakers, including Zatanna, The Spectre, Deadman, Mento, Etrigan (again!), Sargon the Sorcerer, and a score of others, to beat back the Darkness and save the universe. Let me say that the buildup to this confrontation is awe-inspiring, with Swamp Thing and Constantine each dealing with their own circle of friends, Constantine especially calling in favors and making deals, his character showing its fast-talking power convincing these uninterested warlocks to band together for a common cause. The forward momentum is tangible, I was unable to stop reading as Moore gives us his own Crisis, using these characters who didn't get anywhere near Monitor or his space station, very Swamp Thing allies moving to destroy a very Swamp Thing enemy. The battle itself is entirely collected in the oversized chapter fittingly titled 'The End', and if the chapter isn't quite as good as 'The Anatomy Lesson' it is broader in scope and it probably the novel's greatest moment of pure epic bombast. The battle shifts back and forth between Swamp Thing and his allies on the front lines, with Constantine and his allies observing the action telepathically in some kind of superhero seance. The Darkness removes Etrigan, Dr. Fate, and The Spectre from the action, Zatanna's father bursts into flames as the Darkness asks the assembled beings questions on the nature of evil and existence:

"And what of the tortured eons I endured, unable to broach this maddening brilliance and quiet the pain it woke in me? Do they not demand retribution? Little thing, you have taught me only vengeance.../Be gone that I might savor it in solitude."

In the end it is only Swamp Thing, entering into the Darkness by his own will, floating in the endless void, that can give it a satisfactory answer: that darkness begets life, that the fallen tree provides nutrients so a young sapling may live, that Darkness can not exist without Light. And with that, a golden, glowing hand of Light clasps the Darkness like a forgotten brother, and they depart. All of this before before Watchmen, before The Long Halloween, before Kingdom Come or Starman or Hellboy or The Invisibles or anything that we could regard as one of the Greatest Graphic Novels Of All Time (with the exception of The Dark Knight Returns, which started concurrently but ended a little earlier). The message is one that has been done to death by now, the darkness and light need each other, but in a comic series just coming out of Crisis on Infinite Earths this is amazing stuff and once again Swamp Thing shows how much comics have matured since the days of The Joker making his own utility belt full of gags to stop Batman.

Thus ends the most beloved book of Swamp Thing, and it's easy to see why there are those out there who think A Murder of Crows represents the best moments in the saga: the excitement is palpable, the danger is limitless, and the band that Moore chooses to defend the universe are fleshed out  and damn interesting: I would read a hundred stories about Team Swamp Thing and Team Constantine if they existed, much quicker than I would read about Superman defeating Luthor yet again. Personally I still find the sweeping epic romance of Book II to be the untopped moment, but Book IV's apocalyptic designs, which sees the undervalued contingent of DC's pantheon joining together to stop a force of utter nihilism, is a close second.

And of course it's not the end of the story, no matter what the title of the last chapter is: just before Swamp Thing goes out to save the world from Darkness itself, a sleazy photographer catches Abby Cable in the embrace of her shrubby love and sells the photos to the local newspaper. And it seems the residents of Lousiana in 1986 are not quite as understanding of alternative couples as comic readers are.


Best quote: "I have community...destroy another...because it was different...and because it posed a threat.../And afterwards...I thought...did history's vilest any worse?/Is evil...unavoidable?"

Up next: Swamp Thing vs. Batman? in Swamp Thing Book V

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

More Moore part 9: Swamp Thing Book III

Swamp Thing Book III: The Curse (1985)

It seems appropriate that we find ourselves here, with me still fighting whatever illness has gripped me for the past week and a half, at Book III of Swamp Thing, thus far the weakest of an otherwise-incredible saga. Luckily that means that I won't have as many paragraphs full of praise, so I can get back on the mend sooner. So what's wrong with The Curse, especially after the one-two punch of Saga and Love and Death, two of my favorite comic collections, period? Let's find out.

The main issue with The Curse, which permeates the entirely of the book, is a lack of direction; after the crawling chaos of Saga and the grand Alighierian design of  Love and Death, The Curse feels like Moore scaling back his sights, returning Swamp Thing to the monster-vs.-monster one-shots of the Len Wein days, with our green hero battling some ghoul and then skulking back to the swamps, ready for another day. There's nothing wrong with this in and of itself, and unlike Captain Britain one can hardly charge Moore with wasting valuable pagetime on these skirmishes since we still have about 800 pages to go, but it feels like the team is spinning its wheels after the grotesque beauty of Book II. The stories aren't bad, but don't expect any crystalline story structure like we got in the last two books.

And then there are times when the stories aren't even that good. The Curse suffers most when Alan feels like he needs to use his comic as a platform to get the dreaded 80s Socially-Conscious Message across. The book kicks off with 'The Nukeface Papers', a two-parter about the danger of nuclear waste anthropomorphized into some kind of waste-obsessed hobo. It's no exaggeration when I say that the character, and his subsequent battle with Swamp Thing, feel like Moore was doing a test-run for what would become Captain Planet and the Planeteers. The danger from nuclear waste was, and still is, very real and disheartening, but the way Moore handles it here is ham-fisted and preachy to the point that it takes you out of the story. After that we get a brief sojourn with some underwater vampires, a woman who turns into a werewolf when she menstruates (and goes on the prowl for men to murder...seriously), and a bunch of racist ghosts possessing actors on a plantation. All of these stories have the same embarrassing moralistic preaching that Nukeface got (except the underwater vampires...I don't think they represent anything, at least) which takes an already-weak set of stories and makes them weaker. It's a bad sign for the memorability of the book (or possibly that I'm still hazy from my illness) that during this review I've had to go back and reread passages to remember if they were in Swamp Thing or the first book of Sandman.

That's not to say this book is without merit of course. The disparate stories have a purpose to serve, even if there was probably a better way to get the cogs of the plot moving; like when Anton Arcane reappeared back in Book II, something is approaching that is causing the evil of the world to well up, and Swamp Thing, even more divorced from his imagined humanity now, has to travel around the globe to put down these small fires before they coalesce into a raging inferno. He's gained new allies in the form of John Constantine and his posse, easily the best part of The Curse. I didn't even realize that Moore had created Constantine, but the sardonic British 'street warlock' is a blessing, snarky and irritating, his interaction with his worldwide web of contacts (all losers, freaks, and nobodies, naturally) and Swamp Thing himself elevate what could be a depressingly weak book to something at least enjoyable. Clearly, Constantine knows what's going on (though the reader doesn't, by the end of Book III at least) and he gives Swamp Thing the bare minimum of information to lead him to his next cleanup job while still keeping him (and us) in the dark about the larger picture. The Curse is far from Moore's best work, but I have faith that the second half of Swamp Thing will redeem what will be viewed as a hiccup in an overall stunning narrative, and Constantine's hints work in keeping the reader interested and reading ahead as much as it keeps Swamp Thing following the breadcrumbs.

One aside: As someone who has read Watchmen in the past but not Swamp Thing, it's interesting to see Moore basically doing a test-run for Dr. Manhattan in Swamp Thing's character in this book. Like the good Doctor, Swamp Thing rapidly begins to leave his humanity behind in these chapters, allowing his body to die and be regrown elsewhere in the world. He even has Abby Arcane playing the role of Laurie Juspeczyk, nervously seeing her inhuman beau becoming detached and Godlike. It just shows that Swamp Thing even had an influence on what is considered the Greatest Comic Book Of All Time.


Best quote: "They're all going crackers y'know. Except Benjamin. He was crackers to start with. I suppose it'll all be left up to me in the end.../Bloody Americans. All mouth and trousers."

Up next: Crisis on Infinite Swamps in Swamp Thing book IV