Apr 5, 2015

Bullet Points: Alan Moore's Swamp Thing

Doing a Bullet Points format about 52 was fun, in that it enabled me to go through the entire series, write something, and not think too much about what I was gonna say. (I don't get paid for this.) It was fun enough I thought I'd make a regular feature out of it, going through entire series or runs and making notes, issue by issue.

In 2003, I was in my first summer after college, working on campus in another country. That country was the United States, and it had one thing that the Philippines didn't have that I loved so much, and that was Amazon.com. I wasn't reading current comics then (there was no comic shop nearby), but buying stuff online was easy, and for someone finally earning an income at the time, buying whole stacks of books was just something I couldn't resist. The first stack I bought was Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, the first five books of it, and I actually bought the sixth book in singles from The Alan Moore Store (now defunct) because I couldn't wait any longer for the sixth to come out. Also, back then, trade paperbacks weren't a guarantee to be printed. You live in golden times, 2015 comics fans. If you hate the new stuff, like I did back in 2003, you can dive into a whole bunch of the old stuff, which my options were limited for in 2003.

Moore's Swamp Thing was his first US work and he got the perfect artists for it, the art team of Steve Bissette and John Totleben. Better and more comprehensive histories than any I could write have already and will be written about Moore's run on Swamp Thing, so I won't go into detail here, but it won him a bunch of awards, led, indirectly though it were, to Neil Gaiman's Sandman, and led, even more indirectly, as Moore was already gone from DC by then, to the creation of Vertigo. It was a game-changer. And so, without further ado, here are...

54 Things About Alan Moore's Swamp Thing

Issue #20: This is Moore's first issue, and it's traditionally not included in Swamp Thing, because his story doesn't actually start until the next issue. This was just to wrap things up from pre-existing storylines, but you can see the talent is already there. In fact, given what he — and general comic book writing — would eventually become, he sometimes (a lot of the time) came off like he was trying too hard.

Seriously, Alec, while fighting?

Issue #21: It is now 12 years later and this issue still entertains me and makes me think of how horrifically beautiful it is. Woodrue's explanation about the nature of Swamp Thing, the polyptychs, the way the words come together with the pictures — I realized recently that if 80s Moore wrote a prose story, it would annoy me, but given the way text breaks up in comics, it just worked perfectly.

Issue #22: For all the talk about writers being the superstars of comics today, for all the talk about how they get all the credit, comics are a visual medium, and no writer, not Stan Lee, not Ed Brubaker, not Warren Ellis, not Neil Gaiman, and not Alan Moore, can do great work without giving their artists effective and suitable visuals. Moore was always best not when he was covering up his artists' work, but when he made them shine, and Swamp Thing rooted to the jungle is Bissette and Totleben shining, really creepily and weirdly, but shining.

Issue #23: Neil Gaiman has said that Moore's Swamp Thing got him back into comics, and that it was Moore who taught him how to write a comics script. I read Sandman right after Swamp Thing, and yes, the influence is obvious. This whole encounter with Woodrue is basically the same thing as the Dr. Destiny story from early on in Sandman (which I'm sure I'll be Bullet Point-ing later on). A villain meets a protagonist much stronger than himself.

Issue #24: I won't lie and say I liked everything about Bissette and Totleben's work — some of the figure work is wonky and some faces look off, but man, when they hit it out of the park, it's worth it. I love this rendering of Hawkman. I've always loved Katar's mask and how it doesn't actually line up with his face.

Issue #25: I like how Swamp Thing changes colors in the autumn, and how obvious that little touch should be.

Issue #26: I love the Demon Etrigan. Love him. One of Kirby's finest creations, for me, and obviously, Kirby created a lot.

Issue #27: Alan Moore, comics' most celebrated writer, can't write a poem without the reader working to force the rhyme scheme.

Issue #28: Shawn McManus isn't someone who, at the time, I would have thought could do even a fill-in issue of Swamp Thing, since his style is too cartoony, but he did two and he was great on both. Moore's said he pushed Abby Arcane-Cable for no reason other than he liked her hair and it was a good aesthetic. Comics are a visual medium; if a character looks good, explore that character.

Issue #29: This issue is notable for being the first issue of Swamp Thing to be run without the Comics Code Authority Seal of Approval, and that's all Karen Berger sticking to her guns. The Third Most Important Editor of All Time was a big part of this book's success, so go thank her.

Of course, it just had to happen in a comic where a woman was sexually assaulted,
a repeating thing in Moore comics that gets easily pointed at two decades later.

Issue #30: "Matthew Cable no longer exists. Guess again." "Arcane." "ARCAAAANE!" That got me when I was 20, and that was my first exposure to these characters. (They were apparently in JLA: The Nail, but I don't care.)

Issue #31: Swamp Thing cutting loose is badass.

Annual #2: Basically a big tour along the magical side of the DC Universe (which wasn't really a big thing back then), and this is just fun. I'm a big fan of the Phantom Stranger, and definitely prefer the treatment of him not having a name and people just call him "Stranger." Also, Kevin Smith would totally rip this issue off in his Green Arrow run, not that I'm complaining.

Issue #32: Walt Kelly's Pogo has always been a comic strip I was curious about, but not enough to actually pull the trigger on and buy a collection of. Reading this reminds me of that.

Issue #33: Moore says this whole issue, which reprints the first appearance of Swamp Thing and wasn't Alec Holland, then out of continuity, happened because they were running late and Karen Berger said they might have to reprint a whole issue if they couldn't get it out on time. Moore came up with the idea of bringing the original Swamp Thing, Alex Olsen, into canon, enabling them to reprint the original story, build a framework around it that included bringing back Cain and Abel from the Houses of Mysteries and Secrets, and thereby plant the seeds of Swamp Thing being, essentially, a legacy hero. All because they were running late once.

Issue #34: This is just a beautiful cover by, I think just Totleben, but maybe also Bissette. The original art for this was stolen, I believe, but that doesn't stop it from being a popular commission request.

Issue #35: This is the first time I notice they put "Sophisticated Suspense" as a tagline, which just annoys me. Used in the way it is to market Alan Moore's work, it feels like "Look at me, look at me, this isn't kids' stuff, I swear!"

Join me next time, for more random statements that annoy me, like "Math is a science!" and "Chris Paul is the best point guard in the last 10 years!" (No, it's not, different sciences use different concepts of math, and yes, he's statistically the best point guard of the last 10 years, call me when he gets to a conference finals or doesn't choke in the last few minutes of a big game. You know that Blazers/Clippers match a month ago, when Paul had over 30 points and Damian Lillard was like 1 of 13 from the field or something? That's the perfect Chris Paul game. He gets big numbers then chokes at the end. On the other hand, it's also the perfect Damian Lillard game — he plays badly in one area, makes up for it in other ways (18 rebounds (yes, I know I just did a parentheses within a parentheses. I don't care)), makes the go-ahead bucket, and they win.)

Issue #36: Ugh, Nukeface sucks.

Issue #37: John Constantine came from the desire of Steve Bissette and John Totleben to draw a character who looked like Sting. A lot of the series was actually centered around what Steve and John wanted to draw. That's collaboration, and also goes towards why I think the series was never as good when they left.

Issue #38: Actually, now that I think about it, I don't think the series was ever really great again after "Rites of Spring" (number 34). But Swamp Thing's method of transportation is (was?) pretty novel.

Issue #39: Speaking of, Swamp Thing turning into a mountain is pretty awesome.

Issue #40: A woman turns into a werewolf during her menstrual cycle. Way to be subtle, Alan Moore.

Issue #41: Alfredo Alcala inking is always a treat. All that curved hatching in the back's all him.

She's referring to cocaine, but the story's about racism.
Get it? Because people would really talk with double meanings this conveniently.
Issue #42: This sequence of a skeleton literally rolling in its grave is the best thing about these issues.

Issue #43: Hallucinogenic fruit coming from Swamp Thing is another Bissette/Totleben idea, and it gave way to great visuals.

Issue #44: Batman being an idiot is one of my favorite things in comics.

Issue #45: OOooOoooOOoh, Will Eisner–style logotechture (or architexture).

Issue #46: Okay, the Invunche is really dumb. I get they're trying to go for a deformed human, but it's a dude with a backwards head and one working arm in a diaper. My niece could kick its ass.

Issue #47: Hey, look, Man-Thing.

Issue #48: Okay. Ew.

Issue #49: The Spectre's pretty awesome, and things like this make me want to read the Ostrander/Mandrake series from the 90s. But, you know, not enough to hunt it down.

Issue #50: Bit too on the nose here, for my tastes. It'd be at home in a series like Sandman, but here it's just the author talking.Also, this made one of my five disappointing moments in Alan Moore comics.

Issue #51: Why do Swamp Thing's thought bubbles also include his pauses while he's talking?

Issue #52: I love Rick Veitch, and I love Alfredo Alcala, and in a vacuum I love them more than either Bissette or Totleben, but on Swamp Thing, these two guys take a backseat. Even the layouts don't look as dynamic anymore, but that could be because Moore stopped trying too hard.

Issue #53: Batman standing up for Swamp Thing and Abby, citing other inter-species relationships in the DCU, is pretty cool. The coolest part of the issue is Swamp Thing beating him up.

Issue #54: Abby crashing down in grief is a powerful panel.

Issue #55: Hey look, it's one half of the Trenchcoat Brigade. Also, one fourth of the Trenchcoat Brigade showed up a few issues earlier.

Issue #56: Swamp Thing missing being Alec Holland, while simultaneously forgetting more of Linda Holland, is a nice touch. Also, this issue was terribly boring.

Issue #57: I'm sure someone, somewhere, translated all this Rannian dialogue between Adam and Alanna Strange. I like this kind of effect, since it does give the feeling of being in a foreign land.

Issue #58: That's a nice effect.

Issue #59: Steve Bissette scripts this one, and you can tell it isn't Alan. The issue mostly bored me, but I have to wonder if it would have been more effective from a horror standpoint if Steve and John drew it.

Issue #60: This is a photo-collage story about Swamp Thing being violated by some alien organism, and that's all I'm going to say about it.

Issue #61: Landing on a planet where everyone is a sentient vegetable, Swamp Thing takes on the form of the whole planet, and this is a nice effect. At this point though, it felt like the space road trip was more about nice effects than telling the kind of engaging, character-driven stories that drove this book.

Issue #62: Rick Veitch does this whole issue, to set up for his run after Moore's, and it stars some Jack Kirby creations: Metron and Darkseid of the New Gods, and the 70s Sandman.

Issue #63: I don't really know how I feel about Swamp Thing killing his murderers. On the one hand, I get wanting to not have to look over your shoulder for the rest of your life. On the other hand, he had just learned a lesson about controlling his anger and the nature of the circle of life.

Issue #64: I have never read Rick Veitch's Swamp Thing run that came after Moore's. Moore handpicked Veitch, and I like Veitch. His story ideas from what I know of the run were intriguing, and certainly sounded like things I'd have wanted to read at one point in time. But knowing that Rick Veitch never got to finish his run coupled with the storybook ending that Moore gave Swamp Thing and Abby has just prevented me from getting into the character afterward. For me, this is where the saga of the Swamp Thing ends. For all the unevenness between this issue and "Rites of Spring," it was worth it to get to this. I doubt I'll ever really get into different iterations of the character. It just won't be the same.


Shlomo Ben Hungstien said...

Moores's writing on ST was really ahead of it's time I was collecting ST back then but honestly you can't appreciate his work in your early teens like you can as an adult.

The King of Thessaly said...

Excellent post!

I agree with Shlomo, I had quite a few of these issues back in the day- I always liked them; but I appreciate them WAY more now, as an adult.

I never knew about that little hidden Man-Thing cameo... that is awesome!

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