Sunday, December 7, 2008

Comics Review: Swamp Thing: Love and Death [Book 2], Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, et al.

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Rereading Alan Moore’s run on DC Comics' Swamp Thing series, one notices that the trade paperback collections aren’t ideally divided. The run is collected in six volumes, but in terms of thematic and other story concerns, there are only three overarching storylines: the revamping of the character featured in Saga of the Swamp Thing and Love and Death, the “American Gothic” story arc reprinted in The Curse and A Murder of Crows, and the homecoming travels in Earth to Earth and Reunion. I note this largely because, in retrospect, I should not have reviewed Saga by itself; it and Love and Death would have best been considered together. Both books are about discovering and embracing the joys of one’s present circumstances. It's an affirmative approach to life that necessitates accepting the past as the past and ultimately putting it behind one.

Love and Death opens with “The Burial,” an episode that unambiguously dramatizes this theme. The story begins with Swamp Thing being haunted by the ghost of Alec Holland, the scientist whom he once believed himself to be. Knowing that, in absolute terms, he never was Holland, he angrily rejects any suggestion that he and Holland are the same person. He asks himself, “How deep? How deep do you need to bury the past before it will stay dead?” The answer is that, as he shares Holland’s memories, he can’t deny that past, and his wrestling with recollections of Holland’s dead wife and his murder only emphasize the dilemma. Swamp Thing ultimately realizes that denial cannot be a part of moving on; mourning is necessary. Moore dramatizes this in simple, effective terms: the story resolves itself by Swamp Thing locating Holland’s lost bones near where he was murdered, and giving those bones a proper, if humble, burial. The story closes with Swamp Thing thinking, “He [Holland]’s there. I know that he is there. And I know that he is smiling. But I don’t look back.” Swamp Thing’s personal account with the past is settled, and he can now go on with his own life. It’s a modest episode, with none of the spectacle one associates with adventure comics, but it is extremely affecting nonetheless.

The bulk of Love and Death is taken up with a four-episode sequence featuring Swamp Thing’s final battle with his most popular recurring nemesis prior to Moore’s run: the mad scientist Anton Arcane. Moore isn’t settling the character’s account with the past with this continuity; he’s settling the series’ account with its hackneyed recurring storylines and characters. The major goal seems to be to get rid of Arcane once and for all, and Moore’s disinterest in the character and his assorted schemes is obvious. This time around, Arcane’s worldbeating plot relates to having dead criminals rise from their graves and descend on the local community, but Moore spends so little space on it that he might as well skipped including it at all. Arcane’s defeat at Swamp Thing’s hands isn’t particularly interesting either--all Swamp Thing does is clobber him with his fists. The victory is notable only for its finality: Moore makes clear that this time Arcane is dead, and he isn’t coming back.

Arcane is a dull antagonist, but the episode arc featuring him isn’t dull at all. That’s because the drama doesn’t center around the conflict between him and Swamp Thing. Its focus is the crisis of well-being--both emotional and physical--for the Abby Cable character. Moore established her as a deeply sympathetic presence in the Saga of the Swamp Thing episodes, and he takes her conflicts to their limits in this sequence. As seen in the first volume, her marriage to the Matt Cable character is in its final stages. A once-promising intelligence official, he’s become a slothful drunk. He deeply resents any demand on Abby’s time that takes her away from him, specifically her job as a caregiver to autistic children. (One imagines that her friendship with Swamp Thing might be an issue as well, but it’s never highlighted.) The story begins with Abby finding hope that Matt and their marriage have turned around. He’s stopped drinking, he’s found a well-paying job, and he even moves them in to a beautiful new home. He’s become confident and supportive in every way. The rug is horribly pulled out from under her when she realizes that Matt has become possessed by Arcane's consciousness. (It's especially disturbing because she's had sex with him since he's been possessed; her uncle has used her husband to rape her.) Her dream becomes a nightmare, and Arcane ultimately uses her in an attack on Swamp Thing. He ostensibly murders her and damns her soul, and the only reason is to demoralize Swamp Thing over his inability to save her. Swamp Thing’s easy defeat of Arcane is ho-hum by itself, but the combination of that triumph with his failure to save Abby gives the sequence its power. He has won a Pyrrhic victory; it's an irony that invariably makes for powerful fiction, and this continuity is no exception.

Everything of course works out in the end, and Abby is returned to her old self, but Moore has put the final nails in the coffin of the series he originally found. Swamp Thing’s self-pitying quest to regain his human identity is past, the cheesy archenemy is gone, and Moore even clears the deck of the distraction of the Matt Cable character. Swamp Thing and Abby are the series protagonists, and the volume’s concluding episode shows their relationship taken to its logical conclusion: their rapport has gone beyond friendship and becomes love. Couples in adventure comics before Swamp Thing and Abby never really seemed to be in love with each other--the feelings always came across as mutual infatuation. There was lots of kissing and “I love you,” but there was never much of a rapport between the characters. (This can also be seen in the movie adaptations of the material; just look at the way the Peter Parker and Mary Jane characters interact in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films.) Swamp Thing and Abby come across as loving couples do in real life: they find comfort and a sense of security in each other’s presence. The outlandishness of a romance between the two aside--as Moore has Abby say, “I mean, it’s just so ridiculous, right? It’s impossible, it’s bizarre, it probably isn’t even legal”--the relationship Moore depicted rang truer than any shown in adventure comics when these episodes first saw print in the mid-1980s. It was a signal achievement in the field.

But like most innovations, its handling was imperfect. Moore has Swamp Thing and Abby consummate their relationship in a shared hallucinogenic trip, and he uses it to indulge the worst aspect of his writing: namely, the purple verbal incontinence he falls into whenever he writes descriptive prose. His ear for voices is terrific, and his expository prose is admirably concise--the dynamic he creates between it and the images is especially effective. But when Moore is called upon to be descriptive, he launches into a faux-poetic extravagance, and the reader gets passages like this:

A smear of platinum scales breaks the surface, rolling, resubmerging. There is a delicious ambiguity. Looking up through his eyes: The pale woman gazes down, a burning waterfall adrift on the milk waterfall of her hair. Its lank tips draw clear sable brushstrokes between the lichens engraving my chest.

There’s just one descriptive trope piled on one after another; Moore doesn’t develop them into a conceit, and he doesn’t create a dynamic between them. It’s rhapsodic blather. The context offers some justification, as the passage reflects perceptions while intoxicated, but that doesn’t make it enjoyable to read. It’s most reminiscent of song lyrics from ‘70s acid and progressive rock bands, and I find those embarrassingly indulgent as well.

The trip sequence is somewhat redeemed by the gorgeously hallucinatory art provided by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben, ably complemented by the work of colorist Tatjana Wood. Their work throughout the rest of the volume is superb as well, with their atmospheric handling of settings being particularly strong. I also was struck by their effective use of near-abstract rendering in facial close-ups. The weakest aspect of the art is the occasional use of fill-in talent. Rick Veitch does a seamless job of substituting for Bissette in one episode, but Alfredo Alcala’s collaboration with Bissette in another lacks the delicacy of the latter’s teamwork with Totleben. Shawn McManus and Ron Randall’s styles seem completely incompatible with that of the Bissette-Totleben team. McManus’s renderings have an exaggerated sculptural dynamism that comes on too strong in comparison, and Randall’s work is tacky in the manner of Hammer horror films: a woman in a nightgown is embarrassingly used for cheesecake fodder, and everything’s blowing in the wind. Bissette and Totleben have a sense of nuance and propriety that most of the substitute artists lack.

In Love and Death, Moore completes his redefining of the Swamp Thing series. The character’s new core is the fulfillment he finds, both in his acceptance of his circumstances and his relationship with Abby. It’s also clear that the foundation of the strip will be the tension between maintaining the happy aspects of his life and the demands on his sense of duty. Moore starts and ends with a self-centered hero, but he gives the character a self-centeredness that is admirable: Swamp Thing now has faith in the present rather than the past. And uniquely among superhero characters, he trusts the world around him. The effectiveness with which Moore and his collaborators bring it off clearly mark his Swamp Thing as one of the most noteworthy strips in the superhero genre.

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