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?