Saturday, March 23, 2013

More Moore part 13: The Ballad of Halo Jones Book I

The Ballad of Halo Jones Book I (1984)

Like the previous year's "Skizz", The Ballad of Halo Jones was brought to us from the pages of boy's sci-fi mag 2000 AD, where Moore had previously given us 1- and 2-page 'future shocks' by the truckload. Also like "Skizz", Halo Jones was nothing at all like the publication's usual offerings; while both works have a definite sci-fi flavor to it, they examine concepts far beyond what you would get from other 2000 AD works like "Judge Dredd" and "Meltdown Man". And like "Skizz", Halo Jones is nowhere near Moore's best work, but it has a certain ramshackle charm that makes it work, at least as far as Book I is concerned.

The Ballad of Halo Jones Book I follows the life and times of Halo Jones, teen girl of the 50th century, as she and her friend Rodice set out for the mall with their robot dog companion. The first of the problems with the book crop up rather quickly: maybe I'm just an old curmudgeon but the girls Clockwork Orange-esque slang is grating from their very first appearance, spouting off lines like "Oobliay to Clara Pandy! The Rumble-Jacks'll be here for a Hoop-Scoop any minute now..." for page after page after page. The plot is mostly a comedy of errors, with Halo and Rodice missing the tram back home by mere minutes (the first time it's ever been early, of course) as having to sleep on the streets with a chatty alien hobo before they can make it back home. Though the slang never goes away, it does become more tolerable as the book goes on, simply because the situations get more interesting, or at least more entertaining: Rodice accidentally gasses herself with a 'zenade' which causes her personality to temporarily shift to that of a tripped out hippie, leading to probably the funniest lines in the entire book, at least for someone who grew up within reach of Santa Cruz, California's hippie Mecca:

"Beautiful, because Halo, you see, the inside IS the outside. It's so obvious!"

The book also does a fairly deft job at mixing comedy with tragedy, similarly to Terry Gilliam's own future-fable Brazil, when Halo and Rodice finally make it home to find Halo's roomie/mother-figure Brinna murdered by nihilistic street gang the Different Drums. Halo resolves to leave town, finds a stewardess job on luxury spaceliner the Clara Pandy, and takes off for parts unknown as Book I closes.

The story is almost painfully slight after Swamp Thing, but it's also written for an entirely different audience, so I'm trying to judge it on its own terms. And on its own terms it's...alright. Not Bad. Like "Skizz", Halo Jones is an attempt to ground a sci-fi story by giving it a familiar setting: really if we cut out the robodogs and the aliens and the 50th century lingo, Halo Jones is the story of a young woman growing up, leaving home, and staking out on her own for the first time. The novel is well-loved by those who dig a little deeper in Moore's catalog because Halo is relatable, she's an everywoman and we can all see ourselves in her situation. That said...ehh. It's a unique story, especially in the hyper-macho pages of 2000 AD, but it's really not anything special, especially not compared to what Moore's done before, and certainly not compared to what he'll do soon after. The dialogue and characters were better in "Skizz", tighter and more interesting, the first few chapters of Halo Jones are monotonous and made me fear for having to slog through the rest of it. Ian Gibson's art is alright, when he pencils large panoramas stuffed with people it looks great, but his faces only have a couple different expressions, and Halo and Rodice get stuck with 'pouty' for about 3/4 of the book. The Ballad of Halo Jones Book I is a decent start, and it did pick up enugh at the end to make me curious as to what Halo will get into next, but in the end the story is merely average, much like its protagonist.


Best quote: "You know what it is with you, Toby? You know why your personality's so hostile and twisted? It's because you've got cybernetic rabies..."


Up next: To infinity and further in The Ballad of Halo Jones Book II

Friday, March 15, 2013

Go Read Poisoned Chalice!

Looking back at the articles I wrote for Marvelman, one of the things I have wished I mentioned since almost the beginning was more about the novel's legal woes; outside of a brief mention that it's unavailable, I didn't delve at all into the mind-bending story of copyright wars being battled even today for the contents of the book. Luckily, someone has done it for me, and done it much better than I could ever dream of: incomparable Alan Moore historian Pádraig Ó Méalóid has written a 100,000 word book entitled Poisoned Chalice: The Extremely Long and Incredibly Complex Story of Marvelman, and being an altruistic sort in these tough times is serializing the book for your perusal on wonderful comic resource The Beat. The book is amazingly in-depth and brought to light several things I had never even thought of, and if you have any interest in the real-life story of Marvelman, which has enough epic moments and exciting battles to make a pretty damn good comic series in and of itself, you would be well-off giving it a read.

Here's everything that's been put on The Beat so far:

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7 
Chapter 8

Keep an eye on The Beat for forthcoming chapters, and keep an eye here: The Ballad of Halo Jones Book I coming soon!

Monday, March 11, 2013

More Moore part 12: Swamp Thing Book VI

Swamp Thing Book VI: Reunion (1987)

And here we are, at last: The final book of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, collecting last eight chapters and wrapping up his saga of the plant elemental and the woman he loves. Except of course that, when we last left Swamp Thing, he was light years away from Earth and the arms of his lady love, his biorhythmns out of sync with our planet, seemingly unable to return. What's an Earth guardian to do when he can't make it back to Earth?

According to John Totelben's forward to Book V, around issue 55 or so Moore was looking to take Swamp Thing into a new direction, which meshed well with new artist Rick Veitch's love of classic sci-fi and gave us a shift in tone for the end of the saga from pulp horror to something akin to Silver Age sci-fi. This, coupled with the more freewheeling, experimental style adopted by Moore in terms of plotting for the last book, seems to have split opinions: witness the user comments on Goodreads to see that people don't really know what to make of Swamp Thing's zipping around the galaxy, befriending carrot people and Flash Gordon pastiches. Really though, Reunion functions more of an extended epilogue to the last five Books: the real conflicts, brought to a head in Books IV and V, are long over. All that's left is to get Swamp Thing back here he belongs.

The chapters in Reunion, more than any other Book in Moore's run (with the possibility of The Curse), function less as an overarching story and more of a collection of small adventures, with Swamp Thing landing on a planet, assisting its inhabitants with any problems they may have, and departing for the next adventure. The first story is probably the best, with Swamp Thing interacting with the mythology of Adam Strange, a sort of combination John Carter and Flash Gordon. Swamp Thing lands on the planet of Rann and assists Strange and the Rannians in fixing the planet's botched ecosystem, with a brief antagonistic interlude with a pair of Thanagarians, the same race which beget Hawkman. The story is a classic sci-fi tale, pulpy and fun, and the invented Rannian language will be done again, to much greater effect, in the opening of Moore's much later League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Book II.

I had said earlier that Reunion is a more experimental book compared to the earlier parts, and that comes through mostly in the mercurial teams working on it, not just in art, but in writing as well. The first example of this is the eponymous next chapter, where former Swamp Thing artist Stephen R. Bissette pens a story which Moore, Bissette, Rick Veitch, and John Totelben collaborated on. Sad to say, this does not work well at all, and 'Reunion' might very well take the prize as my least favorite chapter in the entire novel. The problem is that it is absolutely all over the place, possibly as a result of too many 'conceptualizers' initially. It cuts back and forth between Anton Arcane in Hell, Abby Cable in present day, and young Abby with her father Gregori sometime in the past. As far as I can tell, Anton killed, or experimented on, or did something to Gregori, and now Anton is being punished in the afterlife because of it. Meanwhile, Gregori emerges in present day looking like, and I swear I'm not making this up, Frankenstein's monster. He runs into Abby and they share a tearful farewell, or maybe it's a dream, or something, because the story is so muddled and schizophrenic that anything could be happening. It's a poor mark on a Book that already needs as many good points as it can get, and easily one of the weaker moments in the entirety of Moore's 80s work.

The next chapter continues the experimental bent of the material, but with Moore back at the helm, 'Loving the Alien' comes off as much stronger, and even with it's sci-fi trappings it manages to be very disturbing. John Totelben does the art, and his dark, Ridley-Scott-esque sci-fi blends with mixed-media collage to tell a story of a sentient, planetlike machine speaking to her children to be. Swamp Thing becomes trapped in the machine's endless, labyrinthine interior as her inner being chases him and melts down his essence to fertilize her mechanical ovaries. It's pure sexual horror, Swamp Thing is raped with shards of steel in jagged blacks and burgundies, trapped in a clockwork body while the planet devours his sexual energy for its own hybrid children. Alan Moore gets a bad rap now and then for how often rape is used in his stories, and while 'Loving the Machine' certainly can make readers uncomfortable, it's also a tremendous success in storytelling. There's nothing pulpy about it, this is pure science-horror in the same way Alien is, and the visuals, along with the soothing words of the planet-machine to her unborn daughters, will stay with you long after you've closed the book.

After the mechanical body-horror of 'Loving the Alien', the rest of Swamp Thing's travels in space are slight and simple. Swamp Thing ends up on a planet of sentient plant-people, first running afoul of, and then assisting, a floronic Green Lantern. Rich Veitch writes a story about Swamp Thing's interactions with the Celestial Metron, ending with Metron seeing the whole of Earth's history in an instant. He reports this discovery back to perennial DC supervillain Darkseid, which leads to some cringe-worthy hokey writing:

"An element that had escaped me until now.../One which Darkseid was not capable of anticipating./Love."


Then it's back to Earth for a chapter titled 'Loose Ends (Reprise)', hearkening back to the very first chapter Moore wrote, where Swamp Thing was killed by agents of the Sunderland corporation. This time the tables are turned, and our hero destroys those responsible for sending him off this planet to begin with, each in clever ways (buried in peach blossoms, stabbed to death by rose thorns, a leafy lunch expanding and exploding a thug from the inside). With his 'loose ends' most assuredly cleaned up, there's just enough time for the finale, and after a whole book apart Swamp Thing has Abby Cable in his arms again, leading to the very last chapter, 'Return of the Good Gumbo'.

I said that Reunion mostly functions as an epilogue, and 'Return of the Good Gumbo' is an epilogue to that epilogue. There aren't any villains left, there's no conflict, no meetings with cosmic beings or demonspawn; instead we have a narrator in the form of Gene LaBostrie, a Cajun skip-operator who looks suspiciously (and most assuredly intentionally) like Moore himself, watching at a distance as Swamp Thing and Abby build a beautiful, verdant home for themselves. Swamp Thing has realized that if he keeps assisting in human affairs, we'll never grow to not need him, so our happy couple leave the human world, and LaBostrie/Moore bids farewell to the hero he had worked with so closely for the past four years. So long, friend.

Swamp Thing is unreal. Prior to this read-through I had never even considered it, and now I can't imagine being without it. Even if there are no more hidden gems in Moore's oeuvre, my eyes have been opened to one of the sweetest, most disturbing, most beautiful stories in the medium. It's a true literary epic in the purest sense of the word, and anyone interested in what potential comics have as storytelling devices owe it to themselves to pick it up. It took me 2 1/2 months to complete Swamp Thing (admittedly with a pretty rotten illness in the middle) and I don't regret it for a second. Absolutely essential.


Best quote: "They'd run toward each other, kissed, embraced, then he had burned as if the arc-flash of their contact had transformed him into a thing of ash, incinerated by his love, by his desire, condemned to a mad afterlife beyond the further stars.../Amongst the keels of rocks he thinks of her, and of them men who'd kept her from him.../Of a love too long unconsummated and unfinished wars."


Up next: Not Watchmen. The Ballad of Halo Jones, Book I

Saturday, March 2, 2013

More Moore part 11: Swamp Thing Book V

Swamp Thing Book V: Earth to Earth (1986)

Since the beginning of Alan's work on Swamp Thing, the work has been at its core a love story. There have been deviations of course, the biggest being in Book IV where Swamp Thing and Abby Cable barely interact at all, but even in Book I, when Abby and her husband Matt were still together and Swamp Thing was grappling with his humanity, Mrs. Cable was the lynchpin for Swamp Thing to return to the human world. She was a princess to rescue, a wife to protect, a lover to caress, to the point where Swamp Thing abandoned his swamp to descend to Hell itself and save her soul. Even when Swamp Thing was busy teaming up with the mystics of DC Comics to save the universe from unending darkness in Book IV, his relationship with Abby still bubbled up through the cracks in the form of a paparazzo snapping a few lewd pictures of the happy couple, and it is these pictures which kick off Book V, the end of which will see Swamp Thing and his world changed permanently.

Earth to Earth starts with the pictures sold to a newspaper, Abby hauled into court for consorting with "A genuine non-human organism", losing her job, and being hounded by the intolerant masses of Houma, Louisiana while her viridian lover is heading back home from the shores of the netherworld. Unable to cope with the abuse when Swamp Thing is so far away, she flees, jumping bail and taking the next bus out of town, heading up the coast to the dark, grimy, criminal-filled Gotham City...anywhere is better than Louisiana, I guess. She doesn't even make it a day before she's picked up by Batman mainstay Detective Harvey Bullock, ready to be extradited back to Houma.

The first thing to notice is the completely different aesthetics in Book V: Stephen Bissette and John Totelben are gone, and though John would return for a single chapter later on in the book, Rick Veitch and Alfredo Alcala are to be the primary artists for the rest of the novel. The new art team does things differently than the old one, more traditional, more solid: Bissette and Totelben's Swamp Thing looked like a shambling vine monster, in the hands of Veitch and Alcala, he looks more leathery and firm. While I prefer Bissette and Totelben, it's a personal choice, and Rick Veitch will continue working on Swamp Thing for a long time, even taking over writing after Moore leaves.

Swamp Thing returns to Louisiana to find his lady love gone, her windows smashed with bricks, and a copy of The Houma Daily Courier with the whole sordid tale on the front page. For the next two issues we get Swamp Thing in a 'force of nature' mood, racing through the undergrowth to Gotham to exact vengeance on the populace. On the way, he inhabits some moss on the side of Arkham Asylum and we get a couple amusing brief captions on the inhabitants:

"Elsewhere, a disfigured killer irritably flips a disfigured coin, roaring threats at his lawyer before crossing the cell to answer himself in calm, reasonable tones, his handsome profile lined with understanding"

As Swamp Thing causes the plant world to take over the city, two antagonists appear: one is the remains of the Sunderland Corporation, who we haven't seen since the second chapter, hiring Lex Luthor to eliminate their nemesis. Outside of Lex's admitted expertise in this situation ("We need to destroy an indestructible being. My contact is a specialist in that area.") there's hardly any reason to include him in the story other than to placate fans, his thoughts on Swamp Thing's invulnerability could have come from anyone, and the inclusion just feels cheap. This isn't the case with our second antagonist though, because when Gotham is threatened, who but the Batman will come to defend it? All of these elements tie together into the novel's second double-length chapter, the apocalyptic 'Garden of Earthly Delights', where John Totelben reappears one last time to draw one of my top chapters for the novel, along with 'The Anatomy Lesson' and 'The End'...and one more we haven't quite gotten to.

During the course of 'Garden of Earthly Delights', Swamp Thing attacks Gotham with nature itself: vines clogging streets, subway tunnels choked with foliage, roots strangling buildings. Chester Williams reappears after sitting out nearly all of Book IV, leading the people of Gotham into a kind of worship of Swamp Thing, shedding their clothes, partaking of the hallucinogenic tubers, and creating a modern-day Eden. Batman's attempts to defeat Swamp Thing (using some Bat-defoliant...clever!) are brushed aside, Swamp Thing using the full force of his connection with The Green to demand the safe return of his lover.In the end, the law in Gotham can't take much more of Swamp Thing's green assault, and they broker a truce to send Abby back to her lover's arms.

I want to make a special mention of the use of Batman here, as well as the Justice League appearing in the pages of Swamp Thing in general. Twice before, in Books I and II, Moore his shown the Justice League to be cold, dispassionate Gods in Swamp Thing's universe, watching as Jason Woodrue and Anton Arcane ravage the country with a detached air similar to how Moore presented Marvelman in the last Book of his story. Moore mirrors and adds allusion to his own work, time and time again showing that superheroes are not as benevolent as we hope they would be.

Not that the supervillains are any better, of course. With the hatchet buried and Abby running to her lover's arms, Luthor enacts his plan, disorienting Swamp Thing and frying him with napalm. Totelben's broad strokes illustrate the scene, Abby recoiling in horror as our hero burns, and is unable to retract into the Green, dead...again.

Of course this might have worked better when these chapters were single issues, as we still have a third of the Book to go. But Swamp Thing doesn't appear in the next chapter, focusing on Abby grieving her loss and trying to protect a friend from a disturbed, abusive husband. Nor does he show in the next, which is Swamp Thing's funeral, in which Abby, Chester, Batman, Bullock, and Commissioner Gordon eulogize the fallen warrior, while The Stranger and Constantine stay a distance away to watch. The camera pans out as we listen to Abby's internal monologue, wishing a goodbye to her lover...while incalculable light years away, on a barren blue planet, a single shoot sprouts, and grows. Separated from his love and his life, Swamp Thing is reborn in alien blues, leading into the final issue of the Book, the gorgeous 'My Blue Heaven.'

Moore again plays with convention in 'My Blue Heaven', not only is there no villain, no action...there is nothing but Swamp Thing and his thoughts, time passing on this unknown blue planet, alone with his monologue as he builds a blue mirror of Houma with the flora of the planet, populating it with plant-fiber automatons of people he remembers. He makes love to a homunculus Abby, controlling the words and movements of every being in the town. It's incredibly tragic, Swamp Thing torturing himself with his memories of a past he will never see again, making a purgatory of his own mind, and finally he destroys it, jumping off into the unknown, the last panel the head of the false Abby smiling blankly at the camera. The chapter is existential and horrific, showing that even thought Swamp Thing is a God in his own right, his mind is a gallery of love, loss, and regret. It's another of the really great, special chapters in this incredible novel, proof that Moore in the mid-80s was on top of his game to an extent that is almost incalculable. And there's still one book to go.

And as an aside...where else have we seen a blue, Godlike being, exiled to a barren planet, build and then destroy a home made from the component parts of the planet, all while reflecting on the life and humanity he left behind? Soon, ladies and gentlemen, soon...


Best quote: "The planet turned away from you, at the end, shutting you out from its warm green bosom, and where else could you go?/The Earth rejected her elemental, delivering him into the fire.../And the wind and rain placed dice for his ashes."

Up Next: The Adventures of Space Thing in Swamp Thing Book VI.