Saturday, March 2, 2013
More Moore part 11: Swamp Thing Book V
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.