Into the green: A Swamp Thing (Alan Moore) retrospective

April 13, 2011 at 4:13 am (Articles / Interviews) (, )

An old article of mine about Alan Moore‘s run on Swamp Thing n__n. Was originally published in the Philippine Online Chronicles in August 2010. I take credit for the rather crappy photos n__n.

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Before Tim Hunter (of Books of Magic) came as a proto-Harry Potter, or Death of the Endless (from Sandman) arose to make the ankh a staple symbol among geeky goth girls, or John Constantine (from Hellblazer) made trench coats fashionable—even before the creation of Vertigo Comics, the DC Comics imprint from which these characters and stories came from—there was in the bayous of Louisiana a strange quiet creature called the Swamp Thing.

The Swamp Thing first appeared in 1972, in a stand-alone story in House of Secrets, a horror anthology then being produced by DC Comics. He later appeared in a series of his own, under the collaborative efforts of Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson.

The idea was that the Swamp Thing had once been a man named Alec Holland, a scientist experimenting on plants in the swamps. He (in typical superhero fashion) was caught in an explosion which transformed him into a hulking mass of vegetation with powers over plant life. Over the course of a few years (and a few writers and artists), the Swamp Thing aka Alec would go on pining for his humanity, seeking revenge on those who sabotaged his experiments, fighting the forces of evil and defending the swamp – everything one might expect from a plant-based heroic-type monster.

And then in 1984 a young British writer by the name of Alan Moore came along. Moore, whom comics-readers would later associate with comic high-points such as WatchmenV for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, essentially revamped the entire series, launching it in an entirely new direction – a direction which certain comics still trace today.

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Somewhere quiet…somewhere green and timeless…

(Another Green WorldSwamp Thing: The Saga of the Swamp Thing)

Moore introduced a distinctly literary flavor into the writing of this previously typical series, experimenting with story-telling, adding quirks to narration, and (together with artists like Rich VeitchJohn Totleben and celebrated Filipino comics makerAlfredo Alcala) playing havoc with the paneling.

Coupled with this technical innovation was the creation of a mythology which gradually spread around the Swamp Thing, and the stories which would in bits and increments, stretch the limits of comics as a medium.

He started by turning the original concept of the Swamp Thing on its head. In “The Anatomy Lesson,” it is revealed that the Swamp Thing was in fact, never a man. The explosion which supposedly turned Holland into the Swamp Thing actually killed him, and sent a shadow of his consciousness into the vegetation of the swamp, giving rise to the creature which only assumed it was Holland.

The Swamp Thing himself is only a tiny component of “the Green,” the psychic world created by plants, and ruled by a pantheon of ancient former Swamp Things who call themselves called the Parliament of the Trees. From being a mere comic book monster, the Swamp Thing becomes a conduit to explore just how deep one can take the concept of “plant-themed powers.”

The green body he walks around in is only a shell he can choose to disregard, or regrow from any kind of plant life anywhere in the world, whether from a cactus in the desert or slime in a bathroom pipe. He can travel into the Green as a mote of consciousness and arise anywhere in the world in a new shell (a sort of teleportation), or reorganize his molecular structure to stretch across miles of forest or moss life.

While expanding outwards, Moore’s story arcs delve inwards as well, into the psychological turmoil of the characters. Entire issues are devoted to the exploration of emotions like separation, bereavement or confusion over identity.

Issues like “Rite of Spring” explore the intricacies of the relationship between the Swamp Thing and the human being Abby Arcane (a relationship Abby says “is funny”). As a mark of their love (and a means to make up for the fact that physical copulation isn’t possible), Arcane and the Swamp Thing forge what can be loosely described as a psychic link, resulting in a sensuous, hallucinogenic sequence which melts away the strict forms and figures of comics characters, turning images richly fluid and panels perpendicular so the reader has to literally turn the book to the side in order to read it.

In the same way, the award-winning “My Blue Heaven” is an exploration of separation and solitude, trading the comics’ heavy green coloring for shades of blue. In it, the Swamp Thing finds himself lightyears from earth, on an uninhabited planet where he manipulates the blue-colored alien shrubbery to make simulacra of the people and places of earth – including a particularly convincing mannequin of Abby, whose actions and voice the Swamp Thing controls. However, the Swamp Thing eventually realizes that he has only created the plant mannequins and mock buildings in an attempt to forget his solitude, and finds that he only deepens his own loneliness in doing so.

‘A leap into the dark with fingers crossed…as always’

(My Blue Heaven, Swamp Thing: Earth to Earth)

All the while, the reader encounters dialogue about the nature of the universe, heaven and hell, good and evil. The weight of the ideas which come with the stories might very well crush the characters who have to bear them, if they weren’t as steady and persevering as the Swamp Thing.

The first few collected volumes finds the Swamp Thing dealing with strange versions of vampires, zombies and werewolves, all in preparation for the awakening of a primordial evil. The narratives follow the pattern of average horror stories on first sight, but they serve as jump-off points to a more philosophical treatise.

At the culmination of Swamp Thing’s first major story arc, in an issue titled “The End,” Swamp Thing accompanies a group made up of DC’s magically-endowed characters (among them DeadmanThe Spectre, the demon Etrigan, and thePhantom Stranger) in confronting a living, conscious darkness that, unlike many other comic book incarnations of the “ultimate evil,” demands to know its place in the universe. Does evil exist simply to be destroyed? Is evil merely the residue of good? One character remarks that it’s all simply “too big” for the mind to hold.

The theme of encountering concepts which are “too big” continues throughout the series, until the last two volumes when the Swamp Thing has left earth far behind and has begun exploring deep space.

In “Wavelength,” the Swamp Thing confronts the mystery of the Source Wall, a recurring image in the DC Universe, which stands for the final barrier between the conscious inhabitants of the universe and what could possibly be God. The Swamp Thing and his companion for this particular story, the DC character Metron, find themselves experiencing “every moment of the universe” in a series of 25-panel pages which encapsulate the entirety of creation from the beginning to the end of the known universe, and every single moment ever experienced by every being ever to have been born, lived and died.

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‘He has come seeking the assistance of friends…the comfort of strangers’

(The Summoning, Swamp Thing: A Murder of Crows)

The Swamp Thing has a supporting cast which includes many characters in the mainstream DC universe, marking “crossovers” with many different series and events.

Early on in the series, the Swamp Thing finds himself wandering into the Great Crisis, the reality-collapsing event at the heart of the 1980s DC multi-title crossover special Crisis on Infinite Earths (which in turn would spawn the more recently-produced Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis). He also runs into mainstream characters such as Batman (a far more verbose version than the contemporary Dark Knight) and the Green Lantern (albeit one from a distant vegetable planet who quotes quite a different Green Lantern oath: “In forest dark or glade befurned/ no blade of grass shall go unturned/ let those that have the daylight spurned/ tread not where this green lamp has burned”).

There are also those characters who have since become staples in other Vertigo comics series. Most notable among these is John Constantine, the cynical, street-wise magus who eventually came to star in Hellblazer, a series which has stretched from the 1980s to the present day, and became the basis of the less well-received movie starring Keanu Reeves.

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The Swamp Thing series also featured the first time Cain and Abel were used as parts of a larger story – the brothers originally started off as “hosts” to DC’s 1970s horrors anthologies – Cain with the House of Mystery and Abel with the House of Secrets (the same title Swamp Thing first came from). Cain and Abel would later be used to greater effect in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and in the ongoing series House of Mystery (a revamping of the original title).

Matthew Cable, who started as a supporting character during the Wein days, and during the course of the Moore run gets killed during a car crash, finds second life as the raven Matthew, once again in Sandman. Anyone who reads Sandmanafter having read Swamp Thing will discover numerous references to the previous series, among them Matthew’s hints of his past life, and why he is uncomfortable with cars.

Other characters would make cameos in other books, like Etrigan, who travels with Dream of the Endless in Sandman, and the Phantom Stranger and Constantine who act as mentors for Tim Hunter in the Books of Magic series. The Source Wall is also revisited by Lucifer in the Sandman spin-off Lucifer.

Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, however, came to a definite end with the Swamp Thing settling in with Abby in a seemingly peaceful if somewhat unusual home in the swamp. After Moore, the series was taken over by Moore’s main penciller Veitch, who set the Swamp Thing on a similarly twisted course (including the experience of fatherhood for a swamp monster, and time travel). Veitch’s run was cut short when DC refused to publish a story involving the Swamp Thing travelling back in time to the Crucifixion and encountering Jesus Christ. After a few more turnovers, and a switch of focus from the Swamp Thing to his daughter with Abby (a girl named Tefe), the series came to a halt in 2004.

Nonetheless, Moore’s mark on comics – specifically the comics in the Vertigo line, which cropped up around 1980s titles like Swamp Thing and Sandman – has well endured through the years. All of Moore’s Swamp Thing issues have been collected into six volumes, marking a compact, remarkable series that continues to affect the run of comics thirty years after its time.

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