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

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