Monday, March 11, 2013
More Moore part 12: Swamp Thing Book VI
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