Friday, April 17, 2009

Comics Review: Swamp Thing: The Curse [Book 3] and A Murder of Crows [Book 4], Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, et al.

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Alan Moore's initial goal with the Swamp Thing series was to divorce it from the self-pitying tone that had hobbled the efforts of his predecessors. When Moore took things over, the character was a man whose body had been transformed into a monster's, and his purpose was to find a means of changing himself back. Moore identified this premise as a metaphor for denial. The solution he came up with for the problems it posed was ingenious: turn it inside out. The point of the strip became the character's implicit quest for self-fulfillment. The hope of returning to the life he led before his transformation was abandoned in favor of embracing the happiness to be found in his present circumstances. The crux of this was his relationship with Abby Cable, which blossomed into love in "The Rite of Spring," the final episode of Book 2. Moore began with what he called a "Hamlet covered in snot," and ended with a "happily ever after" moment--sort of.

The material was originally published as part of an ongoing monthly comic-book series, so after Moore reached this endpoint, he had to answer the question of where to go next. He responded by taking the character's engagement with the world around him to the next level. The "American Gothic" storyline, which comprises Book 3, The Curse, and Book 4, A Murder of Crows, of the collected series, begins with Swamp Thing in a state of self-absorbed contentment. But this is no happily ever after. His body dies after being accidentally poisoned, which leads to the discovery that he can grow new bodies at will. He also meets John Constantine, a British occultist and psychic who goads him into a series of confrontations with supernatural phenomena across the U. S. The journey is a parade of evil and horrors, with Constantine in many ways acting as the Virgil to Swamp Thing's Dante. One of Constantine's goals is to bring Swamp Thing to a greater understanding of the nature of good, evil, and how they function in the world. This sets the stage for the storyline's climax, an apocalyptic encounter between divine manifestations of good and evil in which Swamp Thing is a full participant. Ultimately, the knowledge he has gained from his experiences is what brings things to a peaceful resolution. The "American Gothic" has him grow from an individual to a citizen. The story ends with him becoming one who takes responsibility in making the world a better place. At the very least, he is now one who works to keep things from getting worse.

In essence, Moore continues to see denial as something to be overcome; he just moves his focus from the personal to what denial means relative to society. "The Nukeface Papers," the two-part episode that begins things, is built around the issue of one of the most conspicuous examples of societal denial: environmental pollution, specifically the handling of nuclear waste. No one Moore presents can think beyond their personal circumstances. Two nuclear-industry workers pitch drum after drum of nuclear waste into a bog, telling each other, "outta sight is outta mind... an' what the eye don't see... the heart don't grieve over." The local sheriff is too caught up in his card game to pay much mind to local troubles. As for Swamp Thing, he is completely caught up in his happiness with Abby, seeing everything outside of it as "the carefully logged hysteria of a world he no longer belongs to." Everyone's so oblivious to the pollution and its dangers that they might as well be boozing it up with the stuff, and Moore gives us a character who does exactly that: Nukeface, a wandering derelict who downs the toxic waste as if it were the finest cognac. Everybody has their preferred poison, after all, and Nukeface, figuratively speaking, introduces everybody to the latest in throwing up and hangovers--the sort that would leave everyone nostalgic for the old kind. They'd at least survive.

"The Nukeface Papers" doesn't come to a proper resolution--everyone just keeps going their own way. This seems fitting, as the evils the story illustrates really can't be resolved. Crimes of convenience, indifference, and denial are a constant in life. The same is true of the other evils Swamp Thing encounters, which are explicit metaphors for such things as the cycles of violence between men and women, different races, opposed communities, and others. None of these resolve themselves in a way that leaves Swamp Thing with any sense of pride or accomplishment, but Moore has him recognize that they are, to a degree, the extreme expressions of constants. Good and evil feed each other, and the best that can be hoped for is that the two maintain a balance be maintained. It's this knowledge that allows Swamp Thing to bring about the resolution of the storyline's climactic conflict.

Moore constructs the "American Gothic" storyline in order to give Swamp Thing (and the reader) a metaphysical understanding of good and evil, and the climax turns the character into something of a metaphysical politician. Moore makes Swamp Thing a negotiator--one with no sense of guile--and the character's earnestness is highlighted by pairing him with Constantine, who's a different sort of political animal: a manipulator. But, repellent as he is in some respects, Constantine is a do-gooder at heart. He knows the danger that is coming, and one senses that he jerks people around because he knows he couldn't get them to do anything otherwise. Almost everyone whose assistance he needs is either an egomaniac, a flake, or some other kind of headstrong personality. Constantine talks in hints and circles, and as infuriating as that can be for Swamp Thing and others, it's the quickest and, at times, only way to get them where they need to go.

"American Gothic" has flaws. The episodes that comprise Swamp Thing's journey through the American landscape are fine by themselves, but they seem arbitrarily placed relative to one another--they feel as if they could have been presented in almost any order. The knowledge Swamp Thing gains in one episode has no bearing on the ones that follow until the storyline arrives at its climactic section. The material might have been more effective if Moore had dramatized Swamp Thing's accumulation of wisdom--if the character had confronted each of the individual horrors using the knowledge he had gained in his dealings with the previous ones. The material's format as an open-ended serial also becomes annoyingly conspicuous at times. One can comfortably read these volumes without having read the first two in the series, but about halfway through Book 4, Moore introduces a subplot involving the Abby Cable character that has no relevance to the other material. Worse, it's left hanging after it's been developed to a crisis point. One needs to come back for Book 5 to find out where it's going. Serials do not make for tidy reads.

But one is more than willing to come back for Book 5. The reasons go beyond Moore (complemented by the able efforts of artists Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, and others) making the "American Gothic" a compelling read in its own right. He builds on the thematic material of his first two Swamp Thing collections to leave the reader with a more complex starring character and philosophical worldview. The "American Gothic" is far richer and more resonant than what's come before, and it leaves one happily anticipating what Moore will use Swamp Thing to bring the reader next.

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