5 out of 5
Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run, while frequently bemarked by the writer’s often effortless-seeming mastery of form+function – blending deeper meaning with comic narrative – also had its struggles. As fascinating as it was to see Moore struggle within the DC Comics landscape, this possible encouraged its creatives – meaning artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben included – to push against the norm, resulting in some overwrought qualities in the writing and art. And the character and concept had to go through two rejuvinations of a sort, first divesting itself of the past while reforming as Alan’s version of the character, and then trying to shrug off the obnoxiousness of comic events via DC’s 80s Crisis, which – to my reading – way undermined the pacing and impact of what Moore was doing in the book at the same time.
With issues #51 – 56, collected in this fifth Swamp Thing Moore trade collection, so many things turn a corner at once it’s a miracle for a reader: we see / feel Alan maturing as a writer, with themes and styles echoed across his other books of the time (…meaning Watchmen) but fully tied to this title, and absolutely requiring the experience of the previous four volumes’ worth of issues to feel the full effect; Bissette has moved on to covers, which allows for Rick Veitch and Alfredo Alcala to establish their own, immediately grabbing look, which seems wholly entwined to the writing in a way that Bissette and Totleben – working with horror-leaning ideas that were growing contrary to Alan’s storylines and complex page layouts that soon became too complex to maintain – never really were able to maintain. The rather obvious commentaries Alan was jamming into the book with his American Gothic cycle (essentially everything leading up to this) can settle behind his more profound character work, which culminates in one of the most honest and emotional things he’s written: issue 56’s My Blue Heaven.
Elsewhere, Moore does the kind of stuff that will, for decades to come, make other writers envious, as well as curse many with the urge to replicate it and find they are unable to expertly do. Alan’s writing during this era may have typified the “mature” comic book, but I think Swamp Thing makes it clearer why just splashing blood and “reality” on to the spandex landscape isn’t the same thing as recreating Watchmen: Abby Arcane’s persecution by the law and the public for “crimes against nature” for being in a relationship with Swamp Thing and ST’s subsequent assault on the city where she’s awaiting trial – which just happens to be Gotham City – would seem to fit the picture of overlaying real world issues on the fictional, but it’s so much more complex than that, fitting people and emotions into the mix; not just violence and lawful reparations. When Swamp Thing dies as, essentially, a result of his scuffle within Gotham, it’s not just another superhero brawl from which we know the title character will be reborn – it feels important. It somehow doesn’t feel wrong or cheesy when Batman gives a eulogy at a memorial service later on. It’s weighty. It’s right.
And then My Blue Heaven, the surreal, otherworldly “return” of Swampy, will certainly bring to mind the time-skipping thoughts of Dr. Manhattan, but these are two separate beings with two distinct worldviews; here, Alan makes Swamp’s journey through his own mindscape both tragic and celebratory, in a cycle that consumes itself and, again, makes the journey not just a comic book arc, but an experience. As Bissette notes in the book’s intro, there’s certainly a note of autobiography here – a writer observing his own creation – and that lends this an upfront sincerity which is rare in Alan’s fiction work.
Veitch and Alcala and colorist Tatjana Wood are perfect on this stuff, and I say that as not-so-much a Veitch fan. Totleben returns for the Gotham issue and does amazing work on his lonesome.
I always try to imagine what standalone books are good to give to new comic readers, and while Watchmen is an easy sell, following it up is tough. Swamp Thing volume 5 is not that book – because you need the context of the preceding issues – but this would be my pitch for an ongoing series to get someone to see the potential of comics beyond the creator-owned worlds of Saga and the like. If they make it to this volume, I bet they’ll be comic fans for a long time thereafter.