Apparently, you can have more than one Beatles.
Okay, that’s not exactly true. But, although I compared the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four to the Fab Four in the latest episode of Baxter Building in terms of modern audiences’ inability to fully comprehend what it would’ve been like to experience them as they were coming out for the first time — scroll down and find it for yourselves, Whatnauts — I’ve actually been struggling with a similar thing when it comes to an entirely different series recently, thanks to a long-overdue trip through Alan Moore’s (Saga of The) Swamp Thing run.
I’d read bits and pieces of this before — the opening issues at least three or four times, in ultimately-abandoned attempts to get through the series, and the “American Gothic” issues more than once as well, due to my misguided belief that Moore and my shared love of DC continuity meant we could work it out somehow — but this was the first time that I’d ever made it from start to finish, and a lot of the material was brand new to me… almost.
Like the Lee/Kirby FF — and, for that matter, Moore’s Miracleman, which I’ve also been revisiting lately — it’s impossible to come to Swamp Thing fresh, because so much of it has seeped into the heart of comic book culture in the decades since its release. That’s both a blessing and a curse, because on the one hand, it means that the stories can be appreciated for their plots and characterization instead of those being overwhelmed by how new and exciting and groundbreaking the book felt at the time. On the other hand, of course, it means that the problems with said plot and characterization are all the more apparent when the “newness” is stripped away — and, worse, the reputation of the work can lead to increased expectations that it has no realistic chance of meeting.
As someone who’s famously “not that into Alan Moore,” it’s unsurprising that a lot of his Swamp Thing felt underwhelming and, at times, almost comically so — the showdown with Arcane, for example, is so bluntly “You’ve come back stronger, but so have I!” that it’s hilarious to read today, feeling surprisingly and amusingly lazy. Similarly, some of the early horror material (“The Nukeface Papers” in particular) falls short, relying on shock tactics that undoubtedly worked in context, but feel too simple and lacking in impact from today’s perspective.
It’s also a series that doesn’t necessarily sit right in collected editions. I read this in the recent Saga of the Swamp Thing hardcover collections, one after the other in quick succession, and I feel as if that was oddly disrespectful to the deliberate pacing of the series, as if the stories needed more space between them to… well, I’m not sure what, exactly: Not feel repetitive, perhaps? (People really need to stop believing that Swamp Thing is dead when he’s clearly not.) Have more time to sit in the brain and branch out into particular directions that bring the very 1980s horror to life? Both?
There were surprises, however; Moore’s original John Constantine — as much as fans would like to declare otherwise — has far more in common with his current DC Universe incarnation than any of his Vertigo versions, right down to his eagerness to interact with the superheroes and villains of the day. The space sequence that ends Moore’s run is a pleasure, albeit one that’s shaded slightly by having already read James Robinson’s Starman, which was heavily influenced by that particular run of issues as it also headed to a conclusion. (It’s also enjoyable in a perverse way how anti-climactic Moore’s run is; Swamp Thing comes back to Earth and that’s it. “American Gothic” was really the big finale, and that happened ten issues earlier; I can’t imagine another writer attempting to just… finish like that, instead of building to a grand climactic statement.)
Overall, what finally finishing the run left me feeling was disappointed. Not in the work itself, but in the fact that I missed out. I’m sad that I couldn’t be there when it was happening, and actually feel how different the book was, how daring and unusual. Time has passed Swamp Thing by, and all we’re left with are reprints and reputation to try and convince newcomers that it was once a sight to see. Like the Beatles, I’m jealous of those who were there when that wasn’t the case.
My two cents: I was there, but was too young when Moore’s Swamp Thing was coming out (Blue Devil was more my speed at that age and gloriously so). However, I truly fell in love with the Swampy stuff when I read the single issue black and white reprints that Vertigo put out for a while about a decade ago… I think they only got halfway through the run, but dear God, the artwork looks 100 times better in b & w. The coloring of that era just absolutely destroyed the fine line work of Bissette and Totleben. The rendering and the inking is masterful at its best; it adds a tremendous amount to the horror and experience of the series. I believe Titan books also issued black-and-white reprints of the entire Moore run some 25 years ago… And I have a couple of those, as well. Harder to come across, but I highly recommend that anyone looking to experience that run find a way to read the black-and-white reprints. It is an excellent point that it is impossible to fully appreciate the impact of Moore’s work now, because we exist in a comics landscape that has been largely built in his bearded snake-god shadow. Overall, this was a surprisingly balanced review, Graeme, from a known Moore-hater such as yourself. Jeff, would love to read your own review of these issues that speaks to the points raised by Graeme, while actually celebrating the extraordinary heart and magic that still resonates from these stories. It’s a highly heartfelt, emotional storyline from Moore with more than a few transcendent moments. I think in the shorthand view of Alan Moore as a cerebral or political writer, it’s often overlooked how deeply felt and moving his writing can often be, mostly in the early days (Swamp Thing, The Birth Caul, Pictopia, This Is Information).
I read the anatomy lesson when I was 18, so almost 20 years ago and that blew my mind. And I recently read my way through the series for the first time, and some issues were just good, some of those issues, like the “sex” issue – (#34 I think) – I read that a couple of years ago and thought it was amazing. So maybe reading it young enough could give you the Beatles experience? But some stuff later in life after much comic mind pollution can still be pretty great.
I’m not overly familiar with a lot of Moore’s work, so Swamp Thing is the first time I’ve read a significant chunk of his work all at once, and I really enjoyed it. His reputation for being a prickly intellectual did not prepare me for the real earnestness and emotion that comes across in these stories. Reading this, I felt that connection you get when a talented author is honestly trying to tell you something about himself and the way he sees the world.
I like the way all the horror in the book is contrasted with a nonetheless positive view of the universe. Despite the terrors he faces in each issue, Swamp Thing maintains the ability to love honestly and believe there’s a reason to fight evil. He remains so un-hardened to suffering that he takes a moment to reassure a dying bird that “the universe is a kind place.” Whoa.
And the Rite of Spring issue is just an amazing trip.
Well, my clearest specific memory of being blown away by an Alan Moore comic was reading Warrior #1, travelling by train from Dundee to Liverpool. I have a very clear memory of how excited I was by the parallel storytelling of Eve getting ready to go out and the radio broadcast. I read it now and I still see a good comic, but I don’t feel that excitement.
The most long lasting impact Swamp Thing had on me was the image of Matt Cable using his reality altering powers to create masturbatory fantasies and then going, ‘Oh, you mean our imaginations.’