Friday, August 26, 2005


Saga of the Swamp Thing (#21 - #27)

Am I allowed to say that I don't think this is a masterpiece? This is one of those books which it seems everybody adores. When I bought this, back in 1987, it made little impression on me. I come back to it, and nope, I'm still indifferent. Am I missing something, or is everyone else seeing something that's not there?

In one of those strange-but-true moments, DC's Swamp Thing and Marvel's Man-Thing were created simultaneously but independently by flat mates Len Wein and Gerry Conway. Each is the story of a man who becomes a murky creature who hangs out in swamps doing ... well, not doing much, actually. Man-Thing soon fell into the hands of Steve Gerber, who (I'd better declare an interest here) is in my opinion the greatest comic book writer of them all, and the only one who inspires me to Wayne and Garth "We are not worthy" devotion.

God forbid I should ever meet Gerber - I'd probably say something idiotic and then wet my pants.

The temptation with these Swampy characters is to have them be a struggle for the man inside the monster to find his lost humanity. But if he should ever manage it, that's the end of the series. So you soon twig onto the fact that, no matter what magical or scientific remedies are tried, they're just never going to work. Then you tend to lose interest damn quickly.

Spotting this, Gerber decided not to bother, and instead made his Man-Thing a fulcrum for his supporting characters, and made his swamp a nexus for strange, arcane happenings. Out of which one day waddled Howard the Duck, who has been scientifically proven to be the greatest comic book character of all time, and I think we need to all accept that and move on.

The Swamp Thing, on the other hand, I don't know too much about, but by reputation was nothing compared with the Man-Thing. Up to the point where Alan Moore took it on.

Moore starts with a massive retcon in the form of a remarkable story. A minor villain, the Floronic Man (Jason Woodrue) is performing an autopsy on the apparently deceased Swamp Thing. He discovers that its organs are non-functional - pretend kidneys and brains rather than real ones. It turns out that his Swamp Thing is not the mutated body of Alec Holland. Rather, it was a load of vegetation which had become imprinted with his memories. Moore, as Gerber, had recognised that Holland was never coming back and was setting up the series to progress away from finding his lost humanity. I wouldn't be surprised if regular readers felt extremely cheated, but this issue is beautifully written (and drawn).

We then get into the first of two arcs making up this book. In the first the Floronic Man becomes possessed of a hatred for humanity, and convinces the plant world to up its production of oxygen in order to kill off all animal life. A great scheme if plants and animals weren't co-dependent, something you might have thought a scientist like Woodrue would have noticed. The scenes in the swamp with the deranged Woodrue are fantastically creepy. There's an unwelcome spandex interruption in the form of the JLA (Moore pretty much apologises for this in his introduction, saying that pointless crossovers were sometimes necessary in struggling books - not the last time we would hear that one). The whole threat to humanity device was there to get the spandexes in, but once a swamp creature becomes globe threatening it loses its mystique. And the JLA don't really achieve much, except destroy the mood with a loud pop.

Then the Swamp Thing gives Woodrue a sorting, and that's that.

There are some good scenes here, especially when the Swamp Thing, realising it has never been Alec Holland, starts to take root. Some of Moore's descriptions are wonderful, and his ability to keep you involved as he moves the story along is peerless. But the Woodrue threat is just overdone. What Moore has, though, and which Gerber (whose fascination with ideas could overcomplicate his stories) sometimes lacked, is ambience.

The second arc, involving fear, demons, an evil homonculus and the mentally ill is much less original, strongly resonant of Gerber's stories. There's a drunken man crashing in the swamp and being possessed before death, which I swear I've read somewhere else. And the nature of fear is very much the province of the Man-Thing, who hates fear and burns upon touching anyone who shows it. The second arc also suffers from having a demon who talks only in poetry:

I am the one who comes to cage the ape
I pay no need to youth or purity
I'll roast each fool that aids the beast's escape
And drink their health tonight in purgat'ry

It's not awful, I suppose, but, lord knows, it's not good. If you're not a talented lyrical poet, it's probably best to stick to prose.

Not quite up to the first arc, then, but a reasonable story nonetheless.

Perhaps (I haven't read them) Moore's run on Swamp Thing goes on to produce truly classic material. But, first issue apart, I can't bring myself to believe this is more than a well-written piece typical of the Swamp monster genre.


Blogger Greg said...

Sorry, but I like them. I really like them. The second trade is a little better, and the first half of Moore's run is truly great, but then he sent Swamp Thing into space and although the stories are fine, they got weirder and weirder. But you're right - making Etrigan a rhyming demon has led to some incredibly awful poetry. So stupid.

12:42 am  
Blogger Marionette said...

I wouldn't be surprised if regular readers felt extremely cheated, but this issue is beautifully written (and drawn).

I was a regular reader. I was completely awestruck when Moore took this pedestrian concept and flew with it. Every month the title was adding new layers of depth to the story, and I recall the letters column as becoming an amazing debating forum discussing the themes and connotations of the stories at a time when most letter columns were composed of simplistic praise or petty observations about a character's boots being the wrong colour in one panel.

It's probably lost its sheen now because DC built the entire Vertigo comics line off this title, and so much has been copied so often that coming to the original is like watching Hamlet and being distracted because you recognise every other line as a quote.

I'd recommend reading a little further. It really takes off once John Constantine takes a hand and leads Swampy a merry chase across the country. If you can get past the American Gothic sequence and remain unmoved then I guess it's not for you.

4:48 am  
Blogger Jim Roeg said...

Yeah--what greg and marionette said. I agree that vol. 1 doesn't set the world on fire, but as with most runs, this one gets stronger as the series progresses--and being that this is a Moore book, that's really saying something. The second volume contains two classic stories: POG and Rite of Spring, and things really start to get scary in volume 3--these are the stories that still chill me, all these years later. Weird as they are, the Swamp Thing in space stories are some of my all time favorites, particularly My Blue Heaven (vol. 5), which is a genuine masterpiece. I haven't read Gerber's Man-Thing, so I can't compare them, but I'll certainly keep an eye out for it now!

2:56 pm  
Blogger Stef said...

I've not read Swamp Thing and so won't comment on it but I actually don't like The Watchmen much and get pilloried for it every time I mention it.

Now V for Vendetta is a different kettle of fish. That rocks!

9:25 am  
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