06th Jun2017

Catching Up With the Classics: Saga of The Swamp Thing – Book One

by Dan Clark

Written by Alan Moore | Art by Stephen Bissette, John Totleben | Published by Vertigo

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Synopsis: Before WATCHMEN, Alan Moore made his debut in the U.S. comic book industry with the revitalization of the horror comic book THE SWAMP THING. His deconstruction of the classic monster stretched the creative boundaries of the medium and became one of the most spectacular series in comic book history.With modern-day issues explored against a backdrop of horror, SWAMP THING’s stories became commentaries on environmental, political and social issues, unflinching in their relevance. SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING Book One collects issues #20-27 of this seminal series including the never-before-reprinted SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING #20, where Moore takes over as writer and concludes the previous storyline. Book One begins with the story “The Anatomy Lesson,” a haunting origin story that reshapes SWAMP THING mythology with terrifying revelations that begin a journey of discovery and adventure that will take him across the stars and beyond.

My Background:

When it comes to the character of Swamp Thing I have very little experience. As a kid I remember always confusing him with the Toxic Avenger. Both were green, had cartoon series that aired around the same time, and R rated films that I was not supposed to watch but ended up seeing on anyways. So it makes sense I would confuse the two.

I never thought much of Swamp Thing as I assumed he had not much more than your typical creature feature stories until I heard Kevin Smith talk about Batman’s encounters with Swamp Thing on his podcast and specials. Say what you will about Smith but when he is talking about something he loves you cannot help but be engulfed by his eloquent and passionate descriptions. Since then and learning more about the most acclaimed series I saw that Smith was not alone in his admiration for Moore’s run on Swamp Thing.

When looking at what are considered some of the greatest runs on comics Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing tends to be listed near the top. Personally I do not have a lot of experience with Moore’s writing. Yes…that includes Watchmen. (Pause for gasps and screams) Do not worry too much as it will soon be covered in this series as well. Considering this series was the one that he broke out of it seemed like the great place to start.

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My Thoughts:

When it comes to the creature feature there are different ways to approach the story. On the most basic sense they can be used for some thrilling scares as they terrorize the local town folk. The best creature stories go for something deeper. Films and stories like Frankenstein broke those limited barriers to get to some deeper meaning by using these monsters as vices for humanity’s misgivings.

From the start Moore took the character of Swamp Thing and redefined who or perhaps a better word would be what the character was up to that point. Previously Swamp Thing was the mutated version of Alec Holland who turned into muck-encrusted mockery of a man after a freak accident. Moore took that idea and went further to show that Swamp Thing was not in fact Alec Holland but a natural entity that thought it was Holland.

Using tape worms working their way through a maze as an example he showed how nature has shown the ability to absorb consciousness and knowledge through consumption. How basic organisms would absorb the essence of another, and how Swamp Thing was another extensions of that phenomenon.

Changing a character to that level is a bold choice. Comic book fans are a fickle bunch so when a retcon or major change happens there is always the chance of a major backlash. Based on how much this series is adored I would assume that did not happen, but it was also a different time when showing your distain for something took a lot more work.

Still I do not see many having an issue with Moore’s choice based on how well it was executed. In one of the more fascinating scenes I have read in some time we see the actual body of Swamp Thing autopsied. Moore takes his time before he completely rewrites this character’s origins. Slowly the body is examined and questions are raised. Instead of the organs you would expect he is filled with vegetation that imitated the shape of the human body. Eventually it is discovered that Holland had long been dead, and what remains is a swamp bush with an identity crisis.

As someone who never read a Swamp Thing comic an internal exploration on this level interests me far more than the common Swamp Thing fight against evil polluters. I ignorantly assumed most Swamp Thing stories centered on the idea of man’s technology evolution against the necessity of nature. What Moore’s run on the character immediately showed is how the character can be used for a far deeper purpose. One that asks the question of what happens to a person or being when their connection to humanity is completely lost, and how drastic are the effects when that link was the only piece holding together the psyche of a damaged yet powerful being.

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Concerns for New Readers:

Considering the last Swamp Thing was in the mainstream was in the early nineties many may go into this comic with less background than I did. With that considered some may assume Moore was the creator of the character of Swamp Thing. It is like how many think Henry Ford invented the automobile but what he did was create a more efficient process for their creation.

Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson were the ones who created the character and when his comic first came out it was a major success. As time passed sales dwindled and the book was eventually canceled. It was not until Wes Craven decided to make Swamp Thing into a major motion picture that Swamp Thing had another rebirth. Even when this rebirth occurred Moore did not take the book over right away. It was not until then writer Martin Pasko left the book to focus more on television that Moore took over. Although new to the scene of comics Moore was given complete freedom to make the book he wanted to make.

Why that is important is due to some of the plot threads and characters that carry over. You do not need to go back and read what came before but it will take some time to fully understand the roles of all these different characters.

One other issue that also stood out was in the second story of the first volume. Part of it centers on children with autism and reading it now decades later it seems woefully ignorant over what it means to have autism. Now to be fair to the book it was going based on the understanding of the time, and how many of those kids who shoved into hospitals to be forgotten about. Knowing how sensitive an issue autism has become I could see it posing some problems for some people. Personally I see it as a reminder of how far we have come as a society in understanding children and people with disabilities.

Worth The Hype:

What I have noticed with this series is how hard it is to determine if a book is worth the hype when I have only read part of multiple volume run. You would not walk out halfway through watching Godfather feeling you would be able to properly rate its overall quality. You need to see the entire picture to fully understand.

Comics are a little different as you do get some completed pieces that do make up the whole. The opening storyline of this first volume includes some of the greatest pages I have read in comics. Moore sets up the fall of Swamp Thing beautifully in his first issue. There we see how he has become to rely on Arcane, his once archenemies, as an important part of who he was. How with Arcane now gone he feels his connection to his past self slowly slipping away. Once Swamp Thing learns he was never Holland the proverbial flood gates open and his sanity shatters.

What follows are some of the best panels I have ever seen in comics. As a writer Moore can paint a marvelous picture. He can write in a way where you do not need to look at the art on the page to understand what is occurring. It is not that his words are replicating verbatim what is happening on the page rather what is underneath. He is the ultimate poet, the Shakespeare of comics if you will.

That title is fitting as many panels in here feel like they are directly referencing Hamlet and other infamous Shakespeare work. When you see Swamp Thing directly speaking to the skull of Alec Holland about his connection to the morality of man Moore and artist Stephen Bissette know exactly what they are doing.

Where I struggle is although the first story arc is pure genius I was not as enamored with the second story. By no means is the second story about a Ouija board that summons an evil monkey demon a bad story. It is a well-crafted and rather insane horror story. The issue is it does not transcend the genre like Moore’s first arc. Instead it lives within it taking common pieces you would expect like kids and danger and a lessons about not messing with the demonic. Imagine setting the world record then in your next racing only winning a silver medal. That’s what reading this first volume was like.

So at this point this is a “In progress’ grade. Great runs required consistency so if that maintains for the next few volumes I will be more comfortable making a final assessment. For now I do have to say if you are a comic fan this is a must read even if you have not like Alan Moore’s work in the past or care little for the character of Swamp Thing. If you enjoy experiencing greatness then this is a must read.

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