Thursday, September 10, 2009

Adventures of a snot-encrusted bog monster

The key this time is Swamp Thing Annual #2.

* * *

I finally completed my collection of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run a couple of weeks ago, managing to get the last three issues over the internet.

That only took 20 years.

* * *

I’m 12 years old and think I’m cool because I’m smoking out behind the golf course, when my mate says he has a couple of comics he doesn’t want any more. I can never turn away from free comics and come and have a look.

There are a few issues of Battle Action Force, an Uncanny X-Men from 1984 and the second Swamp Thing annual, drawn by Steve Bissette, and written by some bloke named Alan Moore.

It’s the Action Force stuff I’m most excited about at this stage, although that interest in the X-Men is about to be taken to the level of obsession. I don’t even get around to reading the weird looking Swamp Thing for a couple of weeks. When I finally do, it blows the back of my head clean off, leaving my brains splattered across the wall in a lovely Rorschach pattern.

* * *

That annual remains, to this day, one of my single favourite comics of all time. A brief tour of heaven and hell and everywhere in-between, it was still weird and confusing to this 12-year-old, but it was also strange and beautiful.

The quest to rescue an innocent soul from the horrors of hell is one of the oldest stories we have, but few of them gave the story as much weight as Moore slapped on the back of his muck monster.

It’s funny, it’s clever and it raises so many storytelling possibilities that there are still bits and pieces being picked off it now and used to spark off new stories. It’s also my first proper introduction to many of the weirder denizens of the DC afterlife, including the Spectre and Deadman. I’d seen them in other places – usually in the hip super fun of the Brave and the Bold - but this is the first time they feel like real characters, instead of pure plot-movers. Even the great Swamp Thing stories by Wein and Wrightson never really clicked, despite being spooky as hell.

With its sweet, quiet ending, I'm floored. This is one of the first genuinely moving comics I’ve ever read, and I want more.

* * *

Since then, I’ve always had my eye out for the Swamp Thing and have picked up issues here and there, from literally all over the world. It all got horribly confusing, especially when various reprints got involved and I couldn’t remember which ones I needed any more, reduced to relying on an ever-dwindling list.

I’ve never read a single storyline in Moore’s run in order. Always piecemeal, missing vast chunks of the over-reaching narrative, only picking it up, one slice at a time. Fortunately, Moore is good at crafting single-issue stories that do tie into that much bigger story, while standing as an entertaining item on its own merits.

* * *

Looking at it all now, it all comes together so nicely. The first shuffling, unsure steps, growing steadily in confidence, the first major climax against Arcane and the depths the hero must plunge in order to save a loved one. Then more spreading out of ideas and thoughts, blossoming into some American Gothic horror that takes on some very large metaphysical threads. And then up and beyond, before coming home again. That’s the story of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing.

But it’s more than that. Moore’s Swampy wasn’t about the big battles for all reality, it wasn’t about the conflict and horror. It was about the love that shines through in the darkness. In almost every storyline after the first year, Swamp Thing is motivated by love, pure love.

His love for Abby almost sees him destroy Gotham City and ultimately sees him banished to the cold cosmos. He comes back, of course, as Moore finishes off the series with the main character going off and living happily ever after, or as happy as they could get under subsequent writers.

But Moore’s attempts to bring a little love and empathy and compassion into the series still sing, more than two decades after they were first written. Even in the massive climactic battle of #50, with all the forces of heaven and hell joining forces to face off against the ultimate darkness, it’s Swamp Thing’s compassion that saves the day. The others try to fight and fail, but our hero is taken willingly and throws questions instead of weapons, and emerges triumphant.

Love leads the way!

* * *

Sometimes, reading it in such an incredibly piecemeal fashion means certain moments are surprisingly effective. Especially when the last one I get to complete the series is the exact issue where Alec and Abby actually get together. It’s lovely, but it’s like seeing your parents make the glad eye at each other. As far as this reader goes, they’ve always been together, and always will be.

* * *

Sometimes Moore gets a little crazy with the overwritten prose, but it’s still hard to hate when this much thought goes into it. When so many creators are happy just to churn out the same old shit, Moore was one of those creators who sat down and thought about the possibilities. Put a bit of effort into it. Took ideas to their logical conclusion and saw how it all fit together.

It’s not that hard, is it?

* * *

I managed to completely miss Moore’s blitzkrieg into the American comics scene at the time, and only became aware of the impact of his Swamp Thing run long after the fact.

It’s almost like Woodstock. If everybody who claims to have been reading Swamp Thing in the eighties was actually reading it, the comic would have been the best-selling of all time. As it was, it was more like the Velvet Underground – never really that successful, but massively influential.

* * *

Sometimes the art actually makes me feel a bit sick, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Bissette or Veitch providing artwork that was anywhere near as effective.

The swamp can be a horrible, dangerous place, stinking and hot and humid. Everything is decaying and dying. But it can also be a place of great beauty, of light shining through in unfamiliar patterns, of natural art forming in the still waters, of life clinging on.

The Swamp Thing artists captured it all.

* * *

It’s the last year that remains my favourite of Moore’s run, with our hero going through all sorts of Strange Adventures during an exile in the depths of outer space. It saw some of Moore’s most experimental work in mainstream comics, mixed up with some good old fashioned space monsters and ray guns.

Loving The Alien in #60 - an eerie tale of space rape and truly alien life forms – somehow ends up as one of my favourite single issues ever, alongside that annual that got me into Swamp Thing’s world in the first place. With some stunning John Totleben art and a truly alien subject, it was something so vastly different from anything I’d ever read before and still manages to have real emotional weight.

* * *

Moore’s ending was a good place to stop. Despite some really lovely work from Rick Veitch (with the climactic exile storyline again becoming a favourite) and Mark Millar & Phil Hester, it’s still nice to think of Swamp Thing ending like this. Settling down in his organic mansion in his kingdom with the wife, content and fulfilled.

Under Moore’s guidance, Swamp Thing travelled the lands of the dead and flew across the universe. He showed compassion to those who didn’t deserve it, but was not above a bit of righteous vengeance. He questioned his own existence and came up with an interesting perspective on the world around. He pushed his own limits and became massively powerful, but was still happy to find contentment in the simplest pleasures.

He was a snot-encrusted bog monster with more depth and humanity that most of us, full of love and compassion. He was Swamp Thing, and it’s bloody brilliant to finally read his entire saga in the right order.

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