In my continuing effort to cover many of the classic comic runs, this spring, after much reluctance, I went to my public library and took out the first few trades of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, published by DC comics in the early 1980s and marking the beginning of the British Invasion of comics (which I discussed in a previous post here).
I’ve talked about Alan Moore’s work a few times, like when I recently read Halo Jones for the first time, and when I mused about what a Watchmen-like look at the planetary romance genre might look like, in four parts I, II, III, IV.
I’ve also talked a bit about horror comics of the 1970s, when I looked at Marvel’s Son-of-Satan, and also this spring, I was reading Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula for the first time. I’m not going to blog about Tomb of Dracula, but Black Gate‘s William Patrick Maynard did a 13 part (!) series on it, starting here.
Part of my reluctance in starting Swamp Thing was partly because I was a superhero guy, and second of all, I wasn’t really sure what kind of story might be in the offering with a swamp monster. And once in a hotel in Cuba, with nothing else to do, and with nothing else on, I watched about 15 minutes of the Swamp Thing movie, which (a) didn’t impress me and (b) was based on pre-Moore material anyway.
[Click the images for Swamp-sized versions.]
But strong recommendations from friends and industry pros on podcasts convinced me to try it, and boy am I happy I did. Some 45-year old and 35-year old spoilers may follow, so proceed with caution…
For those of you like me, who knew nothing about Swamp Thing, he was created by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson in the early 1970s and he very quickly got his own series.
Briefly, Alec Holland was blown up along with his super-plant formula and his corpse sank into the swamp. There, the swamp life mixed with the super-science formula to revive Alec Holland, but with the only materials at hand, like mud and weeds and rotting branches and stuff.
So the series is about a man turned into a monster, trying to regain his humanity and trying to bring to justice those who caused this. In this sense, Swamp Thing is a somewhat standard monster story, which plays on our emotions with the humanity inside the monster, the body horror of being trapped inside of something grotesque, and of the physical redemption arc of seeking back a physical humanity as well. I can see why this worked and much of the first series’ momentum in the 1970s can also be credited to Wrightson’s brilliant artwork.
Alan Moore was hired by Len Wein to take over Swamp Thing volume two at issue #20, presumably with a carte blanche, and the art team of Stephen Bissette, John Totleben and Tatjana Woods.
It is fascinating to see Alan Moore as a relatively new writer make full use of that carte blanche. In almost meta-hilariousness, Moore cuts off the previous storyline in a hail of bullets that would have made the Baptismal scene in The Godfather envious. And he appropriately calls this issue “Loose Ends.” Most of Swamp Thing’s supporting cast is either displaced or killed and most surprisingly, Swamp Thing himself is killed. No more loose ends.
Moore brilliant series thesis is revealed in issue #21, called “Anatomy Lesson.” This issue is the story of a powerful industrialist called Sutherland and the convict-scientist Woodrue, who is not a real human, but is the Fluoronic Man, disguised as a human. Woodrue has been sprung from prison to do an autopsy on the Swamp Thing. This is a mystery of the how-dun-it kind: how did a plant formula turn Alec Holland into a plant-based swamp creature?
The mystery deepens with a mood of body horror laid over Woodrue who is obviously nuts in the Smeagol-Gollum sort of way, and Sutherland who is mechanically evil. And the violent, horrific imagery of the autopsy, matched with flashbacks of the violence of Swamp Thing’s creation and death, get increasingly disturbing until Woodrue/Fluoronic Man makes his discovery.
Swamp Thing is not a man trapped in a plant body, trying to return to his humanity. Swamp Thing is a plant that accidentally absorbed the memories of a man, and has wasted years trying to recover a humanity it never possessed. Matt Draper did a fascinating 13 minute talk analyzing the series shift from body horror to existential horror. Check it out.
And, worse for Sutherland, Swamp Thing is not actually dead. A plant thing cannot be killed by bullets, just injured. And as the Swamp Thing slowly thaws, and sprouts, Woodrue leaves his notes and conclusions where Swamp Thing will find them.
Swamp Thing kills Sutherland, but then is left with the terrible agony of this existential horror of his entire existence, all his efforts and links to humanity being just lies. He was living with the memories of someone he never was, someone who has been dead for years.
Moore never slows down from there. The first arc is about Swamp Thing coming to terms with what he is and the terrible raw philosophical and existential choices before him, while simultaneously facing other, evil, destructive monsters that serve to some extent as foils to his choices.
His supporting cast gradually comes back, especially Abby, and a strange (very strange) gothic horror romance blooms in the subsequent arcs as Moore expands the Swamp Thing mythos, including providing him with a larger and more meaningful origin.
One of the reasons I mentioned Tomb of Dracula above is because I think the simultaneous reading helped me understand something more of the monster story form. One of the things that struck me in Swamp Thing was how little panel-time he actually got. His supporting cast and the other monsters often occupied a half to two thirds of the book.
This was strange until I remembered that Marvel’s Carnage series by Gerry Conway and Mike Perkins, had a similar structure. As much time, or more was devoted to the people chasing Carnage and the monsters trying to control him, as to Carnage himself.
And when I looked at Marvel’s 1972 Tomb of Dracula by (coincidentally enough) Gerry Conway and Gene Colan, the same formula seemed to apply: the vampire hunters take up about half the book.
These comparisons helped situate me into the way a monster story works, and showed me what new things Alan Moore brought to the table, and which parts of the monster genre he held onto because he needed to.
I’m really glad I read Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. I’m going to have to read it a few times for fun and learning, so I’m adding to my list of things I need to buy at my LCS. Strongly recommended. I’ll try to be back with more classic runs I get to soon, but WorldCon is first, then NYCC!
Derek Künsken writes science fiction and fantasy in Gatineau, Québec. His short fiction has been selected for several Year’s Best anthologies, including those by Horton, Datlow and Dozois, and he won the Asimov’s Award in 2013. His first novel, The Quantum Magician, a hard SF heist story 500 years in the future, is now available for pre-order here.