Sunday, November 16, 2008

Comics Review: Saga of the Swamp Thing [Book 1], Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, and John Totleben

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

It’s funny how time overtakes perceptions of things. Twenty-odd years ago, when Alan Moore first came to prominence, the Swamp Thing series he wrote between 1983 and 1987 was considered his signature work, with projects like Watchmen treated like tangential undertakings. There was even a concerted effort on the part of Moore’s principal publisher, DC Comics, to distinguish Moore from the renaissance in comics he spearheaded with creators such as Art Spiegelman and Frank Miller. With the help of journalists in the mainstream U.S. press--Rolling Stone's Mikal Gilmore is the name that immediately comes to mind--they tried to create the perception that Moore, like prose author Clive Barker, actually should be considered part of the avant-garde in horror fiction.

Today, Moore isn’t seen as a horror writer at all. He is firmly identified with comics and graphic novels in the publishing community, with Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell seen as his major efforts. Critics by and large view him as a versatile postmodernist who specializes in deconstructive treatments of the superhero genre. His reputation has all but entirely eclipsed that of figures like Clive Barker, and Swamp Thing’s stature has faded as well.

The ebbing of its reputation is not entirely undeserved. Swamp Thing was undertaken as a journeyman assignment by Moore, and the editorial demands of adventure-comics series demanded that he reconcile his material with the work of the writers and cartoonists who preceded him on the feature. The creative personnel who followed him were also free to modify the concepts he introduced as they saw fit. As such, Swamp Thing has less of a stand-alone quality than any major project he’s worked on. By his own account, it wasn’t even a job he was terribly enthused about at the time. But it still deserves to be considered a major work in the artistically modest superhero genre. (Swamp Thing is not what one would comfortably call horror fiction; it is best described as a superhero series that occasionally employs horror-genre elements.) The episodes are finely crafted suspense pieces, and in terms of its values, it is perhaps the warmest, most humanistic work ever seen in adventure comics.

Moore’s initial goal in taking over the series was to get out from under the conceptual baggage that had dogged it since its first publication in 1972. As created by writer Len Wein and illustrator Bernie Wrightson, Swamp Thing was originally a scientist named Alec Holland. He had been working with his wife Linda in a swamp laboratory on a "bio-restorative" formula that was intended to speed up rates of crop growth. Saboteurs shot Linda and attempted to kill Holland by blowing him up in his lab. Holland was doused with the formula during the explosion, and, on fire, he ran running into the swamp waters. Some time later, he emerged metamorphosed into a humanoid plant monster. The series followed his adventures while he sought the people responsible for his wife's murder. He was also looking for a way of metamorphosing back into Alec Holland's human body. Moore, by his own account, was not impressed by the premise. His opinion of it was best summed up during a 2005 BBC interview (transcript here):

The whole thing that the book hinged upon was there was this tragic individual who is basically like Hamlet covered in snot. He just walks around feeling sorry for himself. That's understandable, I mean I would too, but everybody knows that his quest to regain his lost humanity, that's never going to happen. Because as soon as he does that the book finishes.

Moore's first order of business in taking over the series was to find a way of writing the character's adventures that didn't rely on this pathos.

Saga of the Swamp Thing, the first of six volumes collecting Moore’s run on the series, begins by revising Swamp Thing’s origin. The character’s fixation on finding a way to turn back into his human incarnation is treated as denial of what happened. In Moore’s treatment, Swamp Thing was never physically Alec Holland. The doctor’s consciousness had been absorbed by plant-life mutated by his formula when it consumed his body. The Swamp Thing’s body was simply that consciousness’s effort to reconstitute itself as Holland. The volume’s seven episodes follow the character’s efforts to come to terms with this reality and embrace the happiness to be found in his present circumstances, particularly his friendship with a young woman named Abby Cable.

Moore had to develop this narrative idea in the context of adventure material, so he begins by treating the episodes’ antagonists as counterpoints to the personality-ideal he has devised for the hero. The initial episode, titled “The Anatomy Lesson,” is centered on the characters of General Sunderland and Dr. Jason Woodrue. In the episodes previous to Moore’s run, Sunderland’s interest in the alleged transformative aspects of Holland’s “bio-restorative” formula has led him to try to capture Swamp Thing for study. Just prior to the events of “The Anatomy Lesson,” Sunderland’s men had apparently killed Swamp Thing in a shoot-out, with the body being brought back to Sunderland's headquarters. Woodrue was then hired to determine exactly how Holland’s transformation occurred. Moore immediatey sets Woodrue and Sunderland up for conflict. They are both exceptionally unpleasant and self-absorbed egomaniacs who prefer to deal with other people as little as possible. They naturally can’t stand each other, and Woodrue ultimately decides to kill Sunderland in response to the older man's belittling treatment. Moore expertly orchestrates this narrative strand with that of Woodrue’s gradual discovery of Swamp Thing’s true origin. The tension he builds is extraordinary. When Sunderland’s murder finally comes, it hits with the force of a crescendo. But what’s most horrifying about the climax is not the circumstances of Sunderland’s death. It’s the realization of how vicious a personality Woodrue is. The story is ultimately a portrait of a genuinely evil person.

Moore expands on the negative ideal he creates with Woodrue in the subsequent episodes. Swamp Thing suffers a catatonic breakdown after learning the truth about himself. His metaphysical journey back to sanity runs parallel to the scenes of Woodrue’s descent into psychotic megalomania. Woodrue identifies himself more and more with what he sees as the concerns of the world’s plant life, and when he finally goes insane, he regards himself as “"Wood-rue, green messiah [...] annihilating agent of the thorns." He sees it as his calling to avenge humanity’s despoiling of the environment, and having the ability to control plant life, he goes on a murderous rampage through a local town. (In his climactic moment of madness, he threatens a woman with a chainsaw, telling her, “"Close your eyes and shout 'Timber.'") Woodrue's every action is guided by his need for self-aggrandizement and his willingness to subjugate others through violence. Like all real-life villains, he’s a hero in his own mind, and it’s satisfying to see him brought down when it’s impressed upon him that his actions are entirely selfish and work against the plant kingdom he thinks he's championing. Swamp Thing, in contrast, doesn’t view himself as a hero; he just acts like one. He is always shown as selflessly concerned about the needs of others, and he helps in any way he can. He’s oblivious to achieving glory. Moore highlights the difference between Woodrue and Swamp Thing with a pair of images. When Woodrue insanely believes he’s found his messianic calling, he reaches to the sky in triumph. Swamp Thing does the same after he comes to terms with the truth about himself. It signifies how happy he is with his circumstances now that he's accepted them. It's a potent reversal of meaning--an uplifting moment of fulfillment versus a sick, twisted one--and it makes for a fitting ending to the Woodrue story.

The collection’s final three episodes develop a complement to Swamp Thing's personality with the character of Abby Cable; she enhances the positive traits Moore is setting up for him. An easy rapport between the two is quickly established, and Abby's empathy and altruism spurs his own along. The depiction of Abby and Swamp Thing dramatizes how a friendship brings out the best in both people. One only wishes the thriller story that showcases their relationship was more imaginatively realized. It centers on the autistic children with whom Abby works being threatened by a supernatural force, and it follows the basic reactionary structure of most superhero and horror stories: a threat emerges, and then it is contained. Fantastic elements are ladled on, such as a demon ally against the threat who speaks in rhymes of iambic pentameter, but none of these feel particularly integral. The best part of the plot is its resolution: an autistic boy’s affection for Abby is what defeats the threat to the children. Evil is defeated by transcending oneself and reaching out through one’s regard for others.

Like virtually all of Moore’s work, this volume’s seven episodes are exceptionally well-crafted. He makes deft use of flashbacks, parallel plotting, and elliptical structures, and his pacing is nothing short of remarkable. He often uses narrative captions to move the story forward, but his use of them goes far beyond accompanying the pictures with text. He creates a dynamic interplay between the words and images, and the effect is like listening to a masterfully played duet between two musical instruments. Each makes the other's contribution more effective, and the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. The artwork, by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben (with occasional assistance from Rick Veitch) almost doesn’t need this heightening. The layouts create dynamic contrasts of their own, and the attention to detail in character gestures and facial expressions is exceptional. These strengths are only exceeded by their atmospheric realization of the swamp setting. Gorgeously rendered images of greenery and fauna abound, and they’re integrated seamlessly with the story’s action. Everything seems organic and interdependent, and given Moore’s emphasis on self-realization through embracing one’s circumstances, the art is ideal for the stories they illustrate. Saga of the Swamp Thing is modest in its goals, but it achieves many of them masterfully. And while it doesn't rate consideration as one of Moore's finest achievements, it does provide some of the most enjoyable reading out there for fans of the superhero genre.

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