PROJECT: SWAMP THING

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If this doesn’t qualify as a triumphant return, I don’t know what would.

The following is the third chapter in my “Project” series, in which I have been going through all the issues of some very famous comic book runs. This installment takes an in-depth look at Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Moore’s run covered issues 20-64, including an annual, originally running from January 1984 to September 1987.

I screamed.

There may have been a couple of extenuating circumstances, but still, it happened: Not a quick yelp, but a real, honest-to-god, “Ethel-call-the-cops-I-think-Ricky-just-murdered-Lucy” kind of scream.

It was a midsummer night, at some late hour when anyone with a lick of sense was long since asleep. Yet there I was, nose buried in a comic, all because my recently purchased run of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing was really starting to pick up. Moore wasted little time in turning the book into a horror series, a comics genre I had not previously had the experience of reading. Anyone who has read Moore knows there has never been a writer more gifted at getting the reader to lose himself in the story. So when Moore did horror, it was only natural to get lost in the horror of his mind and the tales it spun.

Horror has taken on a different meaning these days. Most of us, myself included, typically associate the term with today’s horror films, a genre now based solely on serial killer violence and excessive gore. But real horror doesn’t really mean just slasher flicks, or at least it shouldn’t. I like to think of good horror as intensified suspense, with its merits not drawing on shock value but on disturbing concepts and well-crafted surprises. Moore got all that. He had a dark imagination and knew how to use it. Starting with issue 29, DC editors realized that Swamp Thing had become too edgy to get approval from the Comic Code Authority, and fortunately, rather than force Moore to tone it down and thereby ruin the book, they decided to stop submitting the series to the CCA and move along without approval (a radical thought back then). DC started running the tag “Sophisticated Suspense” in an effort to let readers know the book was a “mature title,” and shortened the title from Saga of the Swamp Thing to the simpler and shorter Swamp Thing. That “sophisticated suspense” phrase is about as apt of a description as you’ll find. There is a lot of violence and some gore, but what’s really horror about ST is that the stories themselves are just disturbing and have way of crawling under your skin and staying there.

So, that one night, there was a story that particularly crawled under my skin. Like I said, there were extenuating circumstances. I was tired, slightly on edge, and the story was dealing with one of my personal biggest fears. So there I was, sitting alone in my room, wrapped up in a story that was both captivating and deeply disturbing to me. Right about then, a moth, seemingly out of nowhere, landed on my arm.

And I screamed.

I was in the top floor of a three-story, well-insulated house, so (hopefully) no one heard. I didn’t wake anyone up, and I didn’t have to deal with anyone running in to see if I was OK, only to have to tell them that yes, I was fine, I just got too freaked out by a comic. I was alone with my terror as I sat panting for several moments, trying to calm down and remember that I was fine. It didn’t take long to do, but by that point it was official: Moore had already gotten to me, and the Swamp Thing himself had seeped into my blood. He wouldn’t be leaving any time soon…

But I get ahead of myself. What Moore accomplished on the Swamp Thing title is impressive by anyone’s standards, but perhaps even more so when you consider how his run started.

Moore’s first issue, #20, was the conclusion to the previous creative team’s run. For the life of me, I cannot think of another time when I’ve seen a writer have to wrap up so many loose ends before starting his own story. A lot of editors today give a new creative team heavy license to ignore most of what the old team did. But Moore took considerable care. He could have simply killed off the old characters, but instead he tried to treat them with dignity. He could have just ignored everything that had gone on before he joined the title, and frankly, it would have been hard to blame him; but instead, he gave the previous chapter in the book’s history a fitting end, and from that end, he started his own logical progression. He would find brilliant ways to link his re-imagined book to its older stories as his run went on.

Then, of course, Moore did make serious changes. Issue #21, “The Anatomy Lesson,” quickly altered the status quo for the title character, and did so in as complete of fashion imaginable. The book and character underwent a thorough 180, and things were never the same. The tonal differences immediately show up too, with Moore developing his use of suspense and horror as he builds to the issue’s fateful conclusion. If you consider #21 Moore’s debut, which it essentially was, then it was the best first issue of a run ever.

The Anatomy Lesson

The Anatomy Lesson

Swamp Thing is a book built around two characters, Swamp Thing himself and a woman named Abigail Cable. They are two of the roundest characters you will ever read in comic books. Let’s face it, comics are built around primarily flat characters — archetypes representing virtues and vices who rarely change long-term in significant ways. Even when creators try to do big shakeups, like Marvel has done with Iron Man over the past five years, it’s more about the changing the character’s circumstances than the character him/herself. There’s often not necessarily anything wrong with that. Flat characters can still have exciting adventures and intriguing interactions, even if they are largely grounded in the same general moral codes.

Swampy and Abbey are different, though Moore is subtle at first in the ways he develops them, particularly Abbey. At times, they stand in stark contrast to the darkness of the world around them; at times, they reflect it. At times, they are vessels of social commentary; at times, they are catalysts for change. But at their best, they mirror each other, complementing each other’s hopes, fears, quirks, flaws, successes, failures, potential, and above all else, love.

For the book is also a love story — unconventional yet beautiful.

The book is hope for all you elemental creatures with a body literally made of the swamp itself — yes, you too can get a beautiful woman to fall in love with you. Yes, there can even be a physical relationship. And for as bizarre as I’m sure that might sound, what’s interesting is that it doesn’t feel weird at all when Moore writes it. It all develops quite easily and naturally, and you come to care for the relationship in the same way you might care for Reed and Sue, Scott and Jean, Oliver and Dinah, or any of the other classics.

The One Where They Fuck

The One Where They Fuck

Now, as with Project: Fables, I’m going to take a quick break here in the middle for a favorites list. Instead of characters this time, since this book doesn’t have as much of an ensemble cast, I’m going to do Top Five Best Things About Swamp Thing — Outside of the Story Itself.

I bought Moore’s 46-issue run on eBay, and one fun part about reading them in their original form instead of trades is getting to see all the original ads and such. Here’s some of the best of what I found:

5. Crisis is Coming: One of the cool thing about taking a trip to more than 20 years in the past is that you can watch history unfolding. As always, the company advertised all its new releases. Some of which were so bizarre they were probably canceled swiftly and never thought of again until I saw the ad. Others, like Wolfman and Perez’s Teen Titans, were destined to become classics. But one stood above the others. When Moore was already more than a year into his run, the biggest story in comics history was just starting. Issue #34’s full-page ad with the shadowing outline of the Monitor announced the coming storm: “For the past 12 months, he has been monitoring the DC Universe… Watching… Waiting… Scheming… Now you will find out why! Crisis on Infinite Earths: The DC Universe will never be the same!” As the months go on, there are a few other ads for Crisis, but I don’t think DC had to pimp it too much; the event was already huge enough. Swamp Thing would have its own Crisis tie-in in issue #46, and it was perfectly executed. Someone should show that issue to Brian Michael Bendis as an example of how you actually do a crossover tie-in so that he can do the honorable thing and kill himself.

4. The Birth of Obesity: If you want to know how America became by far the fattest nation on earth, look no further than an ad for Oreo in issue #31. In a black-and-white drawing of a kid in a living room, there are small Oreos hidden all around the room. And I do mean everywhere. The ad encourages you to try to count them all, then eat as many as you find. The answer at the bottom of the page reveals there are 62 Oreos!!! Yes children, after you’ve completed this arbitrary task, please eat your alloted caloric intake for the next year. My god, I do like Oreos, but I think I got diabetes just looking at this ad.

3. Lost Science: Comics used to have what was essentially a classified page, usually containing a copy body building ads, some comic collecting services, then random shit. I easily could have made this entire list from just those. But one of the best came in issue #25, when a true scientific breakthrough was announced in a small square-inch ad. X-Ray Glasses: Apparently see bones thru skin, see thru clothes! Regular size glasses with built-in optical illusion. $1.98. Are you shitting me? They invented x-ray glasses in 1984? And no one fucking told me? Where did these go? Can you still find them? And why the fuck would you only charge two bucks for technology this powerful? Fuck.

2. NBC Saturday Morning: This two-page ad from the Annual is so good it should probably be No. 1. Eight cartoons, and they look like they were all classics, from Snorks to The Pink Panther and Sons. You also had Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, which I’ve actually seen, with characters that “will join forces to make the whole world safe for democracy… ‘specially on your block!” There’s Smurfs, which Smurfette promises is “going to be smurfier than ever!” Which is incredible, because I was just saying last week that it couldn’t get any smurfier than this. And of course, there’s Alvin and the Chipmunks, who “will be waiting to rock your socks off with their versions of hits like ‘Beat It’ and ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’!” But all of those pale in comparison to the second cartoon in the Saturday morning line: MISTER T. And what does cartoon Mister T say? “Pity the poor fool who messes with the channel changer!” Apparently T couldn’t think of the word “remote.” Still, sweet Jesus fucking Christ, there was a Mister T cartoon? I’ve even more upset that I didn’t know about this than I was about the x-ray glasses. My only significant goal in life now is to see an episode before I die.

1. Swamp Things: The title of the letters page, which is something very cool to check out. We can make asses of ourselves on the Internet in our comics postings, but comics criticism seems to have been, if not an art, at least something to take seriously. I by no means read them all, but I got to the point where I at least glanced at the letters page in about half the issues I read. There were some highly intelligent criticisms and compliments. Sure, even then there were still the short “Love this book! Keep up the good work!” letters. But there’s many others that make you think (I’ll mention one later on). Once, after a particularly controversial issue, a woman wrote a lengthy, pointedly critical response that DC not only published, but Moore himself replied to in his own lengthy justification. Both her letter and his response weren’t attacking at all, but well-reasoned throughout and thought-provoking. It’s a fascinating tradition that has largely died.

Pity the fool who doesnt try to find this on dvd

Pity the fool who doesn't try to find this on dvd

But back to the story.

The core story of Moore’s run was “American Gothic.” Watchmen is untouchable, but aside from that, “American Gothic” stands side-by-side with the likes of V for Vendetta, The Killing Joke, and From Hell as some of Moore’s finest work.

The story follows Swampy as he goes around America, facing various supernatural threats while learning his own true nature, as well as the true nature of evil itself, all leading up to one climactic confrontation with all of existence at stake.

Key to the story is Moore’s creation of a mysterious new character who becomes Swampy’s cryptic guide on his journey: John Constantine. Yes, the same Constantine who would get his own classic spin-off series, Hellblazer. Yes, the same Constantine who was visually based on Sting in the comics but played by Keanu Reeves in a movie.

I’ve never read Hellblazer, or anything else with John in it. But in Swamp Thing, he is one of the best characters I’ve seen. Moore doesn’t attempt to give much background on Constantine, and he doesn’t need to give much. He’s an immediately likable, extremely entertaining and always intriguing character. After the story was over, one reader wrote into the letters page with his extremely insightful theory one what/who he thought Constantine was supposed to represent. The editor didn’t quite explicitly confirm that this was the same interpretation that Moore was intending, but it fits perfectly and gives both the story and character an added depth and literary brilliance.

Today, Swamp Thing would almost certainly be a Vertigo title, but thankfully that line didn’t exist yet, because it allowed Moore to set the story (and whole run) very much into continuity. “American Gothic” uses virtually every major magical character in the DCU, and Moore writes them all beautifully, particularly Etrigan and the Phantom Stranger. But he never loses sight of Swampy himself, and the uniqueness of the character and the aspects he brings that no one else possesses. It all leads up to the conclusion in issue #50, a work of eloquent grandeur.

The End

American Gothic conclusion: "The End"

Throughout his run, Moore’s story were impeccably put to life by incredibly gifted artists. Most notable were Stephen Bissette and John Totleben, the art team who did about two-thirds of the run. Bissette would have been a great artist for any comic, but especially for Swamp Thing. His style fit what the book required in a very specific way. He was a master of shadowing, capable of the subtleties of John Romita Sr. or the heavy-handed darkness of Jae Lee. The art adapts fluidly to fit the horror or beauty of the stories.

A couple other artists were also particularly notable. Stan Woch did some fill-in issues throughout the run, as did Rick Veitch. Veitch and Alfredo Alcala took over as the regular art team later in the run.These guys were really a testament to the DC editorial staff, which did a spectacular job of keeping the art consistent. Bissette and Totleben established a very particular style and mood with their art, and somehow, the editors always found artists who could mimic the same methods and look. The result is not only consistently good art throughout, but also consistently similar art, even with different people on board.

It should be noted that Moore didn’t always succeed. He tried a number of ideas that were extremely outside the box, and while the vast majority worked in a big way, some didn’t. The price of being revolutionary is that you’re going to fail some, and I think it would be fair to say that Moore had his own speedbumps.

Early on, “American Gothic” was a string of fairly self-contained episodes that Constantine kept loosely connected. Not all of those episodes were classics; the vampire story, although creative, fell fairly flat for the most part. Then, later on, there were the space stories, which I must say, I was not a fan of on the whole.

But Moore is so good that even his “failures” aren’t bad. Every story gives you something to enjoy, some growth in the character to marvel at. And most importantly, he ended strongly.

Issue #64, Moore’s last on the title, was a beautiful tribute to all he had done with his two main characters and how far the book had come under him. Veitch was to take over the writing after Moore, but I honestly have no interest in reading his stories or any Swamp Thing by any other author. The way Moore ended his run was perfect, and the way he left his characters is the way I want to imagine them forever.

Moores Final Issue

Moore's Final Issue

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing is unlike anything you’ve experienced in comics. It gives you the stench of horror, the sweet taste of beauty, and the unrivaled sight of a world without limitations. It takes you on a journey that sweeps you off your feet yet forces you to walk an endless array of paths.

In conclusion, this qualifies as a true classic run. If you never read Moore’s Swamp Thing, then there’s a part of the comic book world you’re missing out on.

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3 Responses to “PROJECT: SWAMP THING”

  1. gokitalo Says:

    If this doesn’t qualify as a triumphant return, I don’t know what would.

    You took the words right out of my mouth, David. That was a brilliant, well-written, insightful post. It was also very funny.* I’ve only read bits and pieces of Alan Moore’s legendary run myself, but I’ve always come away impressed.

    It’s funny: up until now, I was pretty much set on buying Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing in trades, but it sounds like the letter pages make buying the singles worth it. I’ve heard similar things about the letters pages for Starman and The Invisibles, actually. It’s times like this I wonder if getting rid of the letters pages from most comics was really a good idea. Oh sure, we have the Internet these days, but it just isn’t the same. Not to mention most comic fans don’t visit comic web sites, blogs and message boards.

    *Go YouTube “Mr. T cartoon intro”: it’s for your own good. While you’re at it, “Chuck Norris’ Karate Kommandos intro.” They have to be seen to be believed.

  2. spiffyithaca Says:

    This was a masterful post, as always. The “Project” series is probably the best thing GGG has produced.

    You went over everything necessary to realize how important Moore’s work was, and the fun bits about the letters and the classifieds were a great little interlude. I had no idea the series itself was so innovative, I just knew it was damn good, so this was very informative and a love letter to Alan Moore at the same time (you should send it to him with a copy of your screenplay for Teen Wolf Three).

    I must have these issues. I feel like it’s something I have to own for myself. Maybe my kooky Uncle owns them.

    Question: Did you read any of it high? I hear that makes it even better/more terrifying.

  3. PROJECTS return; suggestions welcome « Goki’s Giving Groin Says:

    […] three installments so far, all of which deserve your attention: PROJECT: FABLES, PROJECT: Y, and PROJECT: SWAMP THING. They’re long, especially the first one, but they’re also the best thing I’ve […]

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