Thursday, June 25, 2009

Comics Review: Swamp Thing: Earth to Earth [Book 5] & Reunion [Book 6], Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, et al.

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Scriptwriter Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing is widely considered to be one of the best--some claim the best--continuing adventure-comics series of the 1980s. Fortunately for readers, it divides quite neatly into three parts.

In the first third, collected in Books One and Two, Moore moved the feature away from its original self-pitying premise. The Swamp Thing, who was once a research scientist named Alec Holland, abandoned his quest to regain his lost humanity. He accepted and embraced his life as it was, and, at the end of the second book, his friendship with the Abby Cable character blossomed into love. The first two books chronicle the character’s realization of himself as a well-adjusted individual.

The second third, known as the “American Gothic” storyline and collected in Books Three and Four, depicts the character’s growth from an individual to a citizen. Moore’s apparent view is that being exclusively preoccupied with one’s own circumstances, no matter how happy they are, is an inadequate engagement with life. One must recognize that one embodies a part that contributes to the whole of society, and that one has an obligation to make both the part and the whole as good as one can. The episodes have Swamp Thing encounter the various evils of human existence--racism, sexism, and environmental pollution, among others--and each contribute to the lesson that one cannot push evil away and compartmentalize it. The dangers it presents can only be minimized with direct engagement. One must also recognize that it is as much a part of any situation as the good.

The final third, which comprises Books Five and Six, is harder to pin down thematically. At times, Moore seems to be using Swamp Thing to tell modern fantasy versions of the Trojan War and the Odyssey. At others, he seems to want to explore the responsibilities of being a god. But it is hard to tell, as Moore repeatedly touches on these ideas and then backs away from them. He drops them entirely at points. This is not to say the collections are poor reads. Moore’s extraordinary sense of craft rarely falters, and the characterizations of Swamp Thing and Abby Cable remain vivid. However, Books Five and Six lack the richness of their predecessors. Moore doesn’t seem to have a strong sense of where he wants to go. It is hard to escape the feeling that he is coasting.

Book Five starts out with a bang. A subplot involving Abby in Book Four takes center stage. Her relationship with Swamp Thing has come to the attention of the local authorities, and she is arrested for breaking the laws against bestiality. The case becomes a media circus, Abby loses her job, and she becomes a pariah in the Louisiana community in which she lives. Disgusted by the way she is treated, she jumps bail and flees to Gotham City. (Swamp Thing is published by DC Comics, and it takes place in the same narrative universe as Batman and Superman.) The Gotham police arrest Abby by mistake, but before they release her, they receive a fugitive warrant from Louisiana. Swamp Thing returns from the “American Gothic” adventure just as she is about to face an extradition hearing. Now possessed of a god-like power to control the world’s vegetation, he demands Abby’s release and declares war on the city after they refuse. What follows is one of the most spectacular might-makes-right battles over a woman in all of storytelling. Agamemnon, Menelaus, and the fleet of a thousand ships are nothing compared to Swamp Thing.

The war on the city is awesomely imagined. Swamp Thing has vegetation overwhelm the city in a way that gives the term “urban jungle” a whole new meaning. (Picture the Manhattan of the film I Am Legend a few centuries down the road, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what is done.) As things progress, Swamp Thing ups the ante, such as heightening the vegetation’s scent to bring a plague of insects down on the city. Needless to say, Batman launches an offensive against Swamp Thing, and he gets put in his place as well.

The drama matches the spectacle. One sympathizes with Swamp Thing’s anger over the small-mindedness and bureaucratic obstacles that keep Abby from him, but one also respects the city’s refusal to turn her over. Their view is that they can’t just circumvent the law and acquiesce to what amounts to terrorism, despite their doubts that Abby’s relationship with Swamp Thing was somehow criminal. And Moore goes out of his way to make the reader uneasy about Swamp Thing’s actions. He draws explicit parallels between Swamp Thing’s war on Gotham and the destructive, self-righteous rampage of the Woodrue character in Book One. He also emphasizes that Swamp Thing’s actions don’t really solve anything. Abby is freed only after a legal argument successfully points out the absurdity of the crime with which she was charged. (The argument is hilariously witty, and one of the highlights of the book.) Moore also points out that what goes around comes around. Federal agents use the occasion of Abby’s release to ambush Swamp Thing, and they nearly destroy him.

It’s at this point that the material seems to drift. Moore has Swamp Thing find himself far from home after the attack, and the remainder of the episodes are divided up between Abby’s life without him, and his adventures while trying to make his way back to her. (If the Gotham City section was Swamp Thing’s Trojan War, these stories are his Odyssey.) The episodes are well-crafted in themselves, but they don’t build any momentum; they often feel as if Moore was just marking time until his run was complete. He gives us an entire episode written from inside Abby’s grief over Swamp Thing’s apparent death, which is a cheat considering that Swamp Thing isn’t dead. Illustrators Stephen Bissette and Rick Veitch each script an episode in Moore’s stead that adds nothing to the overall. The only notable thing about Swamp Thing’s version of the Great Wanderings is that they begin with his Island of Calypso rather than end there. The most interesting aspect of the latter episodes are the supporting characters Moore introduces to Abby’s life, but he develops them only to kick them to the curb in his finale.

The feeling that Moore’s attention is wavering becomes quite conspicuous in the next-to-last episode. Those who familiar with the Odyssey know that Homer spent a good deal of time building suspense in preparation for Odysseus’ final battle with his wife’s suitors. It was the battle he needed to win in order to reclaim his throne and make his homecoming complete. Swamp Thing’s final clash with his enemies, specifically his revenge on the federal agents who ambushed him in Gotham, is nowhere as developed. It feels rushed, and parts of it seem truncated, as if scenes had to be cut in order to fit it into one issue.

Alan Moore and Swamp Thing wave good-bye to each other. From Swamp Thing: Reunion. Art by Tom Yeates, colored by Tatjana Wood. Copyright 1987, 2003 DC Comics.

The final episode is a shambles. Upon their reunion, Moore has Swamp Thing and Abby decide to abandon the outside world completely, which is a betrayal of the themes of engagement and responsibility that have driven the preceding series. Swamp Thing considers whether his capacity to end famine and hunger means he has a responsibility to do so, and he decides it isn’t his problem. One can’t help but feel that Moore is running away from the moral implications of what he has presented before. Moore’s sense of craft also seems to fail him. He frames the episode around having a stand-in for himself bid Swamp Thing good-bye, but he doesn’t integrate it with the main narrative. He also doesn’t do much to develop the metafictional conceit of giving himself a role in the story. One would only realize the character was a stand-in for Moore if one knows what he looks like. And if one doesn’t recognize him, the scenes featuring the character make little sense. The episode is an extremely disappointing conclusion to Moore’s run.

However, a bad final chapter certainly doesn’t undermine the entire series. Most of the disappointments of Books Five and Six come from considering them relative to what has come before. A similar dynamic affects one’s appreciation of the work of cartoonist/penciller Rick Veitch and inker Alfredo Alcala, who take over from Stephen Bissette and John Totleben. Veitch lacks Bissette’s intensity and command of detail, and Alcala’s rendering is nowhere as nuanced as Totleben’s, but the work is perfectly fine when considered on its own terms.

And that is ultimately what one comes away with. Even with its flaws, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing was perhaps the most humane and morally conscientious superhero series ever published. Books Five and Six are no exception. Moore may flirt here with questions about the responsibilities of godhood, and he may ultimately turn his back on the theme of the moral necessity of engagement with the world. But he never abandons the emotional heart of the material found in Abby and Swamp Thing’s relationship. One can fault him for not staying true to his themes in these closing episodes, but he always stays true to his characters. The moralist gives way to the storyteller, and if one has to choose between the two, isn't that how one would want it?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Fiction Review: "Monday or Tuesday," Virginia Woolf

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Virginia Woolf’s short 1921 piece “Monday or Tuesday” is generally described as a prose poem. Some, though, feel it is better characterized as a prose collage. They don’t feel Woolf sought to illustrate any ideas or create any larger narrative meaning. In their view, the piece functions like a writerly version of a collage painting. The point was to create abstract, non-narrative effects through the juxtaposition of unrelated elements.

My reaction upon reading it is that I don’t agree, largely because the juxtapositions illustrate the same thing: the contrast of light and darkness, of seeing and not-seeing. In the framing paragraphs, for example, these are present in Woolf’s rendering of the heron’s perceptions in flight. The opening paragraph includes the lines “A lake? Blot the shores of it out! A mountain? Oh, perfect--the sun gold on its slopes.” The closing paragraph ends with “the sky veils the stars; then bares them.” In both instances, a moment of darkness is followed by a moment of light. An author does not present similar contrasts in different ways unless he or she is working towards a larger point.

The juxtapositions are not as obvious in the four middle paragraphs, largely because Woolf only explicitly renders the light: “light sheds gold scales”; “the firelight darkening and making the room red”; “Flaunted, leaf-light, drifting at corners”; and “space rushes blue and stars glint.” The idea of darkness is there, though. Woolf closes three of the four paragraphs with the word “truth,” or more specifically, “truth?” Truth is an obvious analogue for light, and one infers from the accompanying question mark that the narrator is not certain if light/truth has been achieved in the impressions the paragraphs render. Darkness is suggested, but not shown, although its presence may be clearer if one equates darkness with another form of not-seeing, that of confusion.

The contrast of truth with confusion also leads one to another analogue of “truth” and “light”: the notion of “understanding.” However, it is hard to see how the idea of “understanding” fits into the overall. Understanding is a term for intellect asserting authority over perception--giving it a context--and that doesn’t occur anywhere in the piece. The narrator’s perspective has little sense of a larger whole to which the catalogued perceptions belong. The framing perspective of the heron doesn’t understand what it sees, either, but the references to the bird being “absorbed in itself” and “indifferent” emphasize that it doesn’t care. It just accepts what it sees, and this is what the narrator recognizes that he or she is doing as well. The middle passages end, before the heron returns, with the words “truth? or now, content with closeness?” The narrator asks, “Do I understand, or do I just accept what is before me?” It can also be read as, “Should I understand, or should I just accept?” Being content is synonymous with acceptance, and happy acceptance at that.

Woolf uses the juxtaposition of the narrator’s perspective with the heron’s to create a deeper understanding of the latter. The simplicity of the bird’s point of view is highlighted. It sees and not-sees, it experiences moments of darkness and light, but it doesn’t concern itself with understanding. It is just “content with closeness,” the condition of perception with acceptance that the narrator ultimately approaches. Creating this epiphany would appear to be the purpose of “Monday or Tuesday,” and that realization of meaning is what makes it a poem instead of a collage. Its contrasts create understanding, not effects for which understanding is beside the point.

Other reviews of works by Virginia Woolf

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Comics Review: The Alack Sinner Stories, José Muñoz & Carlos Sampayo

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Looking back on the 1970s generation of European cartoonists, it seems like the stars epitomized their own particular genres of potboiler fiction. Jean Giraud was the Western cartoonist. Vittorio Giardino was the master of espionage thrillers. Historical adventure stories were defined by the work of Hugo Pratt. A couple of genres had competing masters, like Milo Manara and Guido Crepax with erotica, and Giraud (under his Moebius pseudonym) and Philippe Druillet with science-fiction/fantasy.

Hard-boiled crime fiction was the province of the Argentina-born, Europe-based artist-writer team of José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo. (Well, Jacques Tardi, too.) Muñoz and Sampayo’s signature character, Alack Sinner, was a lonely, cynical private detective whose experiences invariably exposed the corruption of the world around him. But Sinner ultimately proved too compelling a character for the crime genre to comfortably contain. The stories never lost their detective-fiction trappings--particularly their noir look and their hard-boiled tone--but they gradually moved away from the mystery-story format in favor of creating a remarkable character study. Seven of the Alack Sinner stories have been published in English--the first four in sequence, and three others from various points in the feature’s run. (Sinner is also a featured character in Muñoz and Sampayo’s Billie Holiday graphic novel, but the book is not primarily a Sinner story.) Even in this incomplete form, Muñoz and Sampayo’s achievement shines through. The crime genre, famous for its terse superficiality, became the setting for the sort of complex characterization typical of literature. The Alack Sinner stories are an accomplished example of crime fiction in comics, but that's not all they are.

The first two Sinner stories, “The Webster Case” and “The Fillmore Case,” are probably the least interesting. They are most notable for the contrast between them and the strip in its mature phase. The stories are conventional private-eye procedurals. The story elements are familiar: intrigue and decadence among the wealthy, the beautiful young woman to be saved, the sarcastic tough-guy detective hero. “The Fillmore Case” is the more compelling of the two. Muñoz and Sampayo originally conceived Sinner as a private detective in the Sam Spade mold. In “The Fillmore Case,” they begin breaking him away from this hackneyed characterization. The story’s opening sequence, which shows Sinner beginning his day, quietly highlights an alienated, depressed aspect to the character. We see him drag himself out of bed and force himself to make coffee and get cleaned up before heading to his office. The clutter of the apartment is emphasized--the overflowing ashtrays, the piled-up dirty dishes, the newspapers and magazines strewn all over the floor. The scene provides a counterpoint to the depiction of Sinner as an ultra-competent man-of-action. He may be extremely capable on the job, but his personal life is a barely maintained shambles.

It’s with the third story, “Viet Blues,” that Muñoz and Sampayo break free of mystery-story conventions and turn the feature into an exploration of Sinner’s character. It tells of his friendship with John Smith III, a young African-American jazz pianist (and Vietnam veteran) who has gotten on the wrong side of the Harlem mob. Sinner and Smith are contrasting studies in loneliness. Sinner’s man-of-action behavior is revealed as an escapist compulsion. He’s looking for trouble as a way to escape his disappointment with his life, whether it’s breaking up a mugging, telling off his clients, or mixing it up with the mobsters who are targeting Smith. Escapist compulsions dog Smith as well: he’s a heroin addict, he plays music to forget, and he hangs out with a pair of black militants for protection, even though he couldn’t care less about their views or their cause. Sinner acts out to escape; Smith retreats inward, although he finally lands on his feet. The story ends on a disturbing note. It’s pointed out to Sinner that his self-righteousness is borne of an impotent sense of justice. He tries to make things right in modest ways, but he’s doomed to disappointment because he inevitably acquiesces to society’s power structure--one in which the law is used as a weapon. In the story’s view, success only comes from making--and finding fulfillment in--one’s rules for oneself.

“Viet Blues” is also a leap forward in terms of the art. Muñoz’s early style clearly shows him to be among the comic-book heirs of Milton Caniff: rich blacks, detailed deep-space compositions, and loose (although highly knowledgeable) draftsmanship. In “Viet Blues,” he sheds the stiffness of his work in the feature’s first two episodes; almost every panel feels more energetic and intense. Muñoz also shows a greater dramatic range. He handles the violence in a Vietnam flashback with a virtuosity that would make the storied war-adventure cartoonist Joe Kubert envious, but he’s equally at home in the somber, understated pathos of the scene in which John Smith III goes cold turkey on his heroin habit. The Muñoz of “Viet Blues” is not yet the expressionistic master of the Joe’s Bar stories, but he’s a first-rate comics dramatist.

Muñoz’s mature style is on dazzling display in “Talkin’ with Joe,” a story from much later in the feature’s run. Longtime comics fans would probably consider “Talkin’ with Joe” the Alack Sinner origin story, but it is probably best viewed as the story in which the Joe’s Bar and Alack Sinner material converged. We first see Sinner as another denizen of the bar, drinking away his troubles into the night. After closing, the owner sits down with him, and he relates the story of how he became a private detective. It’s nothing suspenseful, much less glamorous. Sinner was a Manhattan beat cop who became so demoralized by the self-righteous thuggery of the police force that he quit in disgust. It’s a portrait of a conscience in crisis; the story’s turning point occurs when Sinner has to decide whether to go along with the department’s brutality after his sister is attacked by a gang. Muñoz’s visuals are brilliant. His expressionistic rendering of New York gives the reader the city of one’s worst nightmares: a dark, crowded urban swampland of garbage. Every character besides Sinner and those he confides in is a monstrous grotesque. His fellow police officers are like a chorus of jeering gargoyles. The hallucinatory intensity of this milieu is only heightened by the calm in the scenes of Sinner with those he trusts, such as the bar owner and his sister. Alienation and loneliness have never been dramatized so effectively. It’s a piece that fits seamlessly with the character portraits in the Joe’s Bar series.

The masterpiece of the Sinner stories in English is “Memories,” another story from a later point in the series. It begins with Sinner getting up and looking at some pet fish he bought the day before. He ends up thinking back on various times in his life. The memories are all moments of helplessness. Some are mild, such as his teenage self not knowing what to tell his sister when she first gets her period. Others, though, are horrific, like when Fairfax, one of Sinner’s partners on the police force, murders his family in despair. Muñoz and Sampayo use the pet fish to dramatize Sinner’s emotional state. At first, their faces are benign and their markings harmonious. However, the panels featuring them bookend each new flashback, and the fish become gradually more grotesque. By the end, they’re monstrous, and Sinner imagines them as his dead parents, inviting him to join them, presumably through suicide. Muñoz and Sampayo build the story to a fever pitch, and they end it with an apt metaphor for Sinner’s rejection of despair: he flushes the creatures down the toilet. Muñoz’s expressionistic bravura is superbly used as a narrative counterpoint; the images of the fish provide the beat for the melodies of the flashback scenes, and they gradually heighten the story’s pitch as it progresses. Form and content are inseparable here; “Memories” is a story that would be impossible to execute in any medium besides comics.

The strength of “Memories,” “Talkin’ with Joe,” and “Viet Blues” leave a reader eager for more, as well as willing to overlook the clunkers among the rest of the stories translated into English. (“The Fillmore Case” and “The Webster Case” are examples of the feature before it found its voice, while “Life Ain’t a Comic Strip, Baby” and “North Americans” find Muñoz and Sampayo spinning their wheels.) The knowledge that additional stories are out there untranslated is especially frustrating. The Alack Sinner stories have not done well by Fantagraphics Books, their principal English-language publisher. Low sales caused a Sinner reprint series to be cancelled after five issues, and they also presumably derailed plans for a promised trade-paperback translation of the extended Sinner story "Nicaragua." One hopes it was only because the comics market of the late 1980s and early 1990s wasn’t especially amenable to a serial reprinting of the material in magazine format. We’re in the age of the graphic novel now, and a thick book-length collection of the stories would be especially welcome.

The Alack Sinner stories published in English:

  • "Memories," Prime Cuts #4, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, August 1987, p. 1-20.
  • "Talkin' With Joe," Sinner #1, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, October 1987.
  • "The Webster Case," Sinner #2, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, March 1988.
  • "The Fillmore Case," Sinner #3, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, May 1988.
  • "Viet Blues," Sinner #4, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, September 1989.
  • "Life Ain't a Comic Strip, Baby," Sinner #5, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, September 1990.
  • "North Americans," RAW, Volume Two, Number Three, New York: Penguin Books, 1991, p. 59-73.