Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over seventeen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today we’re checking out some small comic that gave a young British writer his big break in America. You might have heard of it, but probably not. This post was originally published on 15 March 2016. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!
Swamp Thing by Alan Moore (writer, issues #20-58, 60-61, 63-64; co-plotter, issue #59), Dan Day (penciller, issue #20), Stephen Bissette (penciler, issues #21-27, 29-30, 34-36, 39-42, 44, 46, 50, 64, Annual #2; writer, issue #59; co-plotter, issues #25-27, 59), Rick Veitch (penciler, issue #21, 26-27, 31, 36, 50-52, 54-59, 61-64; writer, issue #62; co-plotter, issue #59), Shawn McManus (artist, issues #28, 32), Ron Randall (artist, issue #33; inker, issues #42-44, 47), Stan Woch (penciler, issues #38, 43, 45, 47, 49), John Totleben (inker, issues #20-27, 29, 31, 34-40, 42, 44, 46, 50, 55, Annual #2; artist, issues #48, 53, 60; co-plotter, issues #25-27, 59), Tom Yeates (penciler, issue #64), Alfredo Alcala (inker, issues #30, 41, 45, 49, 51-52, 54-59, 61-64), Tom Mandrake (inker, issue #50), Tatjana Wood (colorist, issues #20-56, 58-64, Annual #2), Adrienne Roy (colorist, issue #57), John Costanza (letterer, issues #20-21, 23-59, 61-64, Annual #2), Todd Klein (letterer, issue #22), and Richard Bruning (letterer, issue #60).
Published by DC, 46 issues (issues #20-64, plus Annual #2, which comes after issue #31), cover dated January 1984 – September 1987.
Moore’s final issue on Swamp Thing came out almost 30 years ago, so I guess there are SPOILERS in here, but, I mean, come on!
I had to come, Arcane. I had to be sure. Oh, I know I saw your ship falling and burning. I know I saw it … drop like a wounded sun … exploding beyond the mountains. I know that you couldn’t have survived … But I didn’t … hear the rattle in your windpipe. I didn’t see … the glaze crawl over your eyes. I didn’t see the body, Arcane … And I’ve learned that … if you don’t see the body … then the rotten stuff … just keeps coming back.
Alan Moore’s first words in his first issue of Swamp Thing don’t quite resonate the way “It’s raining in Washington tonight. Plump, warm summer rain that covers the sidewalk with leopard spots. Downtown, elderly ladies carry their houseplants out to set them on the fire escapes, as if they were infirm relatives or boy kings,” which is the way his second issue, “The Anatomy Lesson,” begins, but given that “The Anatomy Lesson” is one of the best, if not the best, single issues ever published, that’s to be expected. Issue #20 (which DC inexplicably didn’t include in the very first collection of Moore’s run on the comic, although they’ve rectified that in more recent collections) is appropriately called “Loose Ends,” as Moore wraps up Marty Pasko’s run on the book and set up his own run by shooting Swamp Thing in the head, which ought to kill him but, of course, simply lets Moore perform one of the first and probably the greatest retcons in comics history. But it’s more than that, because in issue #20, Moore explicitly states one of the themes of the book and hints around at another one, which is kind of neat (Moore apparently had a great deal of this plotted out when he started, so he stuck to his guns). When Swampy finds Arcane dead, he wanders off, wondering what his purpose is now that his arch-foe is gone for good (although, naturally, he doesn’t stay in Hell where he belongs, because this is a comic book!). He thinks:
Maybe you were right … just to die like that. It’s a … new world, Arcane. It’s full of … shopping malls and striplights and software. The dark corners are being pushed back … a little more every day. We’re things of the shadow, you and I … and there isn’t as much shadow … as there used to be. Perhaps there was once a world … we could have belonged to … maybe somewhere in Europe … back in the fifteenth century. The world was … full of shadows then … full of monsters … not any more. Things like us … can’t survive in the light, Arcane. Perhaps you realized that … right at the end. Maybe you were right … maybe we’re better dead. Maybe the world has run out of room … for monsters …
You might think Moore immediately goes about disproving that idea (and you could also be forgiven for thinking that Moore, who was 29 when he wrote those words, was already putting words into his characters’ mouths that wouldn’t seem inconceivable coming from him), I would argue that he doesn’t. Yes, there’s plenty of horror in Moore’s run of Swamp Thing (especially the first 30 issues), but the nature of the horror has changed, so that the monsters are less obvious – the shambling mossy plant and the spidery one-eyed mad scientist are either not the monster at all or just a pale reflection of what it used to be – but more insidious, from Matt Cable to the Sunderland Corporation to social constructs like slavery, the oppression of women, and the puritanical American attitude toward sex. Moore moves quickly away from horror creatures and onto things that make us uncomfortable because they’re so “realistic” – yes, underwater vampires and werewolves aren’t “realistic,” but the vampires’ yearning for a safe place to raise children and Phoebe’s feelings of being trapped certainly are. Moore also places Swamp Thing under the microscope, as the light shines on him (and Abby) in uncomfortable ways, causing him to finally abandon the planet completely and then, when he returns, to retire from the world of humans. The world had indeed grown too light for him, although Moore makes it clear that doesn’t necessarily mean it grew better.
Moore also begins his examination of love and sex in issue #20, although that takes a bit longer to evolve, especially as “Alec” and Abby take a while to admit that they dig each other. Moore’s interest (some would say obsession) with sex doesn’t blossom into full flower in this series, but he does delve into it, as his run is a beautiful love story between Alec and Abby but Moore still goes into other, darker forms of sexual obsession as well, which he seeds throughout issue #20. He first checks in on Liz Tremayne and Dennis Barclay, who came together in extreme circumstances which only Liz, of the two, recognizes. “All we have in common is the horror in our lives, Dennis,” she tells him. “That’s all. That’s what holds us together. If we were living out in … oh, I don’t know, Miami county or somewhere, we’d be ripping each other’s throats out within a month. I mean, you understand that? Don’t you?” Dennis understands all too well, and later, when he and Liz are almost killed by Sunderland goons, he realizes that if he keeps Liz terrified, she’ll always need him. We don’t see them again until issue #54, when Moore revisits this idea and the horrific consequences. Moore also checks in on Abby and Matt Cable, and Matt admits that he had been creating monsters with his odd power. He lies to Abby and tells her that he destroyed them, but he only learned to control them, and he uses his power to create a female fantasy figure who “dances” just for him. Matt’s obsession with sex and power is slightly different from Dennis’s, but they’re both destructive, not only to Matt and Dennis, but to Liz and, to a lesser degree, Abby (Matt at least retains a shred of decency as he descends into madness). Abby doesn’t interact with Alec in issue #20, but it’s clear that her marriage is in trouble and that Matt is going down a dark path, which sets up her finding comfort and then love with Swampy. These two themes dominate Moore’s run on the title, and he does a nice job with them in his first issue.
The horror aspect is easier to see, because Moore is writing a plot-heavy book, Swamp Thing was always a horror book, and Moore himself was (and is) fascinated by horror. But in the first major arc of his run, when Jason Woodrue decides to destroy all animal life, we get an idea that Moore is going to twist the horror tropes a bit to examine more important issues. Many horror books, as good as they might be, exist simply to show us horror. They could claim that our entire lives are seeped in horror, but they don’t necessarily make a bigger point than stripping away the veneer from the surface of our lives. In Swamp Thing, Moore isn’t interested in that. When Woodrue begins his spree, even the Justice League isn’t quite sure what’s happening right away. Firestorm says, “The Floronic Man’s never given us much trouble in the past. Okay, so it looks like he’s controlling the world’s vegetation, but …” and Zatanna interrupts with, “No! That we could handle … but the world’s vegetation is controlling him!” Moore turns Woodrue from a petty supervillain into someone who has a different agenda, one that readers should be sympathetic to – the destruction of the world by humanity. The way Woodrue goes about destroying man is horrific, but his goals aren’t simply to create horror – he is in pain, and he believes the plants are in pain (and they are), but Moore deftly mixes his own psychosis to blind him to the consequences of destroying all animal life. Alec knows that plants and animals must co-exist, and after he defeats Woodrue (not by beating him physically, but simply by showing him this truth), Abby says that the plants backed down on their own, and Alec responds, “Will your people … do as much?” It’s a terrific statement, not only because it shows how smart Moore can be, but also because, even after everything Swamp Thing learned in “The Anatomy Lesson,” it’s strange to hear him separate himself out from humanity. It becomes easier to do as Moore has him explore his abilities, but this early in the run, it shows already that “Alec” is distancing himself from people.
The Monkey King story in issues #25-27 is perhaps the most “straight horror” of any of Moore’s run (it’s also, you’ll note, co-plotted by Bissette and Totleben), as Kamara is called up by a boy’s parents, kills them, and then lives in his head, feeding on fear. The story features Jason Blood and his demonic alter ego, Etrigan; the return of Anton Arcane in a cameo; a hilarious yet macabre series of coincidences that ends in death; Matt Cable reaching his ultimate state; and lots of unpleasant nightmares. I’ll get back to it, though, because it doesn’t quite fit into the first theme Moore is examining in Swamp Thing but does fit in with the second one. Moore’s Arcane story, which comes in issues #29-31 plus the second Annual, is a nice horror story, sure. The image that begins the story, of Abby lying naked on her kitchen floor, having used a wire brush to try to scrub away the stench on her skin, is terrifying. Once again, though, Moore taps into a very real fear – a woman growing apart from her husband and the things she misses – to create his narrative, and like the Monkey King, this also gets into his second theme a bit, so I’ll table it for now. After Moore dispenses with Arcane, he can begin to pivot the book toward what he implied in issue #20: the true horrors lurking in the light.
In issue #32, “Pog,” we get a beautiful homage to Walt Kelly’s “Pogo,” but more than that, we get Moore once again showing that the true horror exists out in the open, as humans continue to destroy the planet and the aliens aren’t even safe from animals that look a bit like them. It’s a tragic tale, made more so by how mundane the horrors Pog sees on Earth. Moore continues with this theme as he moves past the “traditional” enemies of Swamp Thing and begins to do his own thing. “The Nukeface Papers” in issues #35-36 deal with, unsurprisingly, nuclear waste and what it does to the environment and people. While Swamp Thing’s body is destroyed by a man “infected” with nuclear waste (which gives him horrific powers – this is still a comic book, after all), we soon learn that Alec can regrow his body and it’s his comic anyway, so we’re fairly sure nothing too bad will happen to him. Moore digs into the real horror – the man inadvertently wrecks everything around him, as he radiates Treasure Monroe and her unborn baby, which causes her husband, Wallace, to recoil in horror from her, much to his eternal shame. Of course, the true horror is that nothing is resolved – the company is still dumping nuclear waste into the swamp, and “Nukeface” wanders free to destroy what he can. Moore is not what you could call “subtle” in this story, as he uses actual newspaper clippings about various nuclear accidents to make his point, but the final image of the story, with Nukeface saying, “Heads up, America … here I come!” is well done, even if, again, it’s on the nose.
“American Gothic” begins in issue #37, the first (okay, second, but officially the first) appearance of John Constantine, and Moore uses this platform to again write about traditional horror tropes but still putting his unique spin on them. The problem with delving into more traditional horror is that Moore constrains himself, so that the vampire and werewolf stories, while presenting us with a slightly new take, are still just vampire and werewolf stories. Moore links the werewolves to the suffering of women, which is fascinating (I don’t know if anyone at this time had linked the full moon to female menstruation when it comes to werewolves, but it’s a neat idea) but comes off as heavy-handed and even a bit condescending. In issues #41-42, he gets into American racism, and it’s also fairly facile. Of course the liberal would be a secret racist. Of course the bigot would fall in lust with the black man, but only because, Moore implies, he’s a fine physical specimen, not because of any change of heart on her part. It’s a scary story, sure, and Moore makes the point that racism is something that can’t simply be eradicated overnight, but it’s still a vaguely insulting tale.
A few interesting “non-horror” horror stories follow this first part of “American Gothic,” as Moore takes a bit of a break from the main plot to focus on some ancillary things. In issue #43, “Windfall,” we meet Chester Williams, who finds one of Swamp Thing’s tubers and ends up giving it to two different people who experience it differently. It’s an interesting concept – Moore is pointing out that your state of mind when you take a drug is important, which is apparently true for, say, LSD (which I’ve never done, but a good friend has, and he confirms this), but it seems even more true in the case of Alec’s vegetables. The horror part comes from the second person who takes it, as Milo is a nasty piece of work who hallucinates that he’s Swamp Thing beset by all his enemies before he walks in front of a truck. In issue #44, Moore not only has to ramp up his own “American Gothic” story, but Crisis on Infinite Earths was taking over DC comics, so Moore has to incorporate that, as well. He makes allusions to it, but the real story is about the serial killer, the Bogeyman, who remembers his victims by their eyes. Moore tells us the story from his point of view, which is chilling, until he runs into a true monster – our hero himself. Swamp Thing kills the Bogeyman almost as an afterthought, simply letting him drown, and it’s interesting that the first thing he thinks after watching the Bogeyman drown is “Another monster dead.” It reminds us of Moore’s first issue, when Swampy was worried about his place in the world and whether he’s an outdated monster. The Bogeyman deserved to die, true, but Swamp Thing’s chilling stance as a human being drowns in front of him is fascinating, because it shows once more that “Alec” is becoming more and more divorced from the world, even as earlier in the issue we get a strange portrait of domesticity when he visits Abby in her home. The horror of the Bogeyman, like so many others in this run, is in his bland evil. He kills people because he’s insane. It’s all too common. The third issue of this mini-break (which, of course, isn’t really a “break,” just less focused on the bigger picture) is about the Winchester House, and while there are scary ghosts in the story, once again the true horror comes from the mundane reality of people cheating on their spouses.
Issues #46-50 are pretty much full-blown horror, as “American Gothic” comes to its shattering (and, according to some readers, anti-climactic) conclusion. Swampy meets the Parliament of Trees, fights the Brujería and the Invunche with John Constantine, Swampy teams up with a bunch of DC’s supernatural characters (he’d already met them when he saved Abby’s soul), and Moore kills off some of DC’s sorcerers, much to the chagrin of some readers. It’s all very apocalyptic, but again, Moore isn’t that interested in exploring the more modern and mundane tropes of horror. This is END-OF-THE-WORLD stuff, and subtlety, for the most part, gets left behind. But after it wraps up, Moore, although he only had a little over a year left on the title, decided to leave straight horror behind completely and get more into the “mundane” horror that he had been exploring to a mild degree before the big conclusion to “American Gothic.” Issues #51-53 are the culmination of the subplot about Abby getting arrested for consorting with a vegetable, and fit more into the love story Moore is telling, but it’s linked to the “horror” of people fearing things they don’t understand. Lex Luthor seems to figure out how to kill Swamp Thing, and the end of issue #53 sees his body destroyed and his mind … elsewhere. Moore, it seems, is just a DC fanboy at heart (or at least he was in 1986-87), so he tossed Swamp Thing into DC’s crowded universe, probably because he couldn’t quite figure out how to fit Swampy into a universe where his abilities made him close to a god. For whatever reason, during Swampy’s “exile in space” (issues #56-62), he sends our hero to Rann, has him fight Thanagarians, gets him raped (I’ll get back to that), has him almost destroy a vegetable civilization protected by a Green Lantern, and Rick Veitch (guest-writing issue #62, setting up his own run on the series) has him meet Metron. The DC Universe, as I noted, is a crowded place. (If you recall, James Robinson basically had Jack Knight follow Swamp Thing through the universe in Starman a decade later, because that’s how influential Moore is!)
The Swampy-in-space issues allow Moore to get into more psychological and “realistic” horror, beginning with issue #56, “My Blue Heaven.” Moore examines the horror of utter loneliness, as Swampy slowly goes insane on a planet where he is, essentially, the only life form, as he creates an entire world out of plant life and animates Abby and others simply because he doesn’t want to be alone anymore. It’s a psychologically tense tale, and even though it’s a bit heavy-handed, the idea of Moore shifting from the more concrete horrors of his earlier issues to the more abstract, existential terrors of Swamp Thing alone in the universe marks a shift in his writing style. He still does straight horror, even today, but after Swamp Thing, his work began to take on a more “mundane” horrifying aspect, as Moore began to look at despair in the “real” world more than the threat of supernatural horrors (naturally, this is a broad generalization, but even something like From Hell, which deals in terrifying, bloody horror, is largely concerned with existential angst as well). Alec manages to escape the blue planet, and he ends up on Rann, which is dealing with its own environmental disaster. Not only is Rann, the planet, largely sterile, but its population is declining (Adam Strange muses that he never sees children on Rann, but Moore doesn’t go much further into it, just showing us the absolute joy on Alanna’s face when she conceives a child with Adam). This is a “mundane” horror, one readers can identify with because it’s happening on our planet. Swamp Thing uses his powers to “seed” the planet (interestingly enough, Moore never lets him do that on Earth, even though the Rannians are as foolish and short-sighted as Earthlings are), which is a nice solution, but it doesn’t change the fact that environmental catastrophe is far more realistic than, say, vampires. Moore also portrays the Rannians as racist buffoons, which doesn’t come into the story too much, but is an interesting take on the culture. After a few issues – one written by Bissette that deals with Abby’s father and another, “Loving the Alien,” which I’ll get back to, Swampy ends up on a planet with a sentient vegetable civilization, and he accidentally causes disaster when he tries to animate already-animated vegetable matter. Moore is good at the more garish aspects of this horror, as Swamp Thing destroys people simply because he creates a monstrosity that blends all their bodies together, but he also digs into the psychological aspects of the horror, as all the minds are linked and not everyone comes out okay. One couple realizes how far apart they really are, an artist gets her wish to be left alone and realizes it’s not really what she wanted, and a religious man regains his faith. Again, Moore doesn’t dwell on the more obvious disturbing aspects of the story, preferring instead to delve into the more identifiable parts of it, which draws the reader in more because these are things we can relate to. Even the Green Lantern who saves the day, Medphyl, is dealing with his own crisis – his mentor has died and his commitment to the Guardians’ cause is weak, but Swamp Thing’s appearance gives him a chance to regain his strength and even “speak” to his teacher, as Swamp Thing inhabits the dead body while he learns to tune his bio-electrical field so he can return to Earth. Once again, Moore takes a realistic situation, highlights the horrific aspects of it, but also offers ways to work through it, as Medphyl eventually does. The straight horror that Moore was writing earlier in the run is more memorable, but his later work on the title is a bit more mature.
Moore returns to some good old-fashioned straight horror in issue #63, as Swamp Thing returns to Earth and kills everyone involved with his “exile” (except, of course, Lex Luthor, which in-story is because he didn’t know about Luthor’s involvement and, out-of-story, is because you can’t just kill Lex Luthor), and then in issue #64 he and Abby reconnect. This, of course, ties in more with the second big theme of the book, but it’s interesting that Moore, apparently, couldn’t figure out what to do with Swamp Thing, so he had to leave the book. He had written a great straight horror comic and then a more disturbing “realistic” horror comic, and he had brought Swampy full circle, so he left. But his second big theme is also fascinating, because Moore wrote a great love story but also showed how twisted love could be, and he did it without falling into standard clichés (for the most part).
If we return to issue #20, I wrote above that he showed us both Dennis and Liz and Abby and Matt dealing with the Sunderland fall-out, and neither is very pretty. After Dennis and Liz barely escape getting blown up by Sunderland’s minions, Moore writes something that is far more chilling than most of his straight horror work, as Dennis comes to a realization:
… But maybe horror was all it took. Maybe they don’t need anything else to make it work. Maybe things would be okay between them … just so long as they never ran out of horrors. She leans against him, scared, vulnerable, the way a woman should be. And Dennis Barclay runs … and Dennis Barclay smiles.
Moore sends them out of the book for almost three years with this horrific situation, and they become one of the couples that he uses to contrast to Abby and Alec, whose love is a far healthier. In issue #54, after Swampy has left Earth and Abby is mourning his “death,” Liz and Dennis re-enter the book. The time has not been kind to Liz, who was once a strong woman broken by the horror in her life. Dennis has convinced her that she can’t use electricity because it’s deadly, so of course she never watches television and therefore doesn’t know that Sunderland is dead and no longer an issue. Fascinatingly, Dennis still can’t completely crush her spirit, and she actually turns on the television, which provides the inciting event for her to discover that Abby is still alive, which sends her out into the world to find her old friend. Moore gives us a terrifying portrait of a man whose love turned evil, as he couldn’t imagine a world without Liz so he changed her world to fit what he wanted and can’t let go. We also get a sense of the old Liz, as she finds Abby and discovers that Dennis has been lying to her. When Dennis finds them and tries to kill Abby, Liz begins to figure it out: “He’s kept her safely shut away for years. Isn’t that love? She’s terrified of life without him. Isn’t that love?” Moore’s prose is so effective because he knows that love and passion can be irrational, and so many grand romances include declarations like Liz makes, that the lovers wouldn’t want to live in a world without the other. By tweaking it just a bit, he shows how it’s curdled, and Liz doesn’t understand the difference. She tells Abby that maybe she, Liz, should apologize, even after Dennis sprayed Abby’s house with bullets. Abby has been moping around the house, but Liz’s appearance makes her realize that she could have it a lot worse, and rescuing Liz makes her remember her time in the swamp, which helps her lure Dennis to his death, and inspires her to begin her life without Alec. Moore juxtaposes Liz and Dennis’s twisted love affair with Abby’s healthy mourning and acceptance, as she can let Swamp Thing go while Dennis couldn’t let Liz go. It’s a horror story of love gone bad, but Moore manages to tie it into his bigger love story.
Abby and Matt’s marriage is more complex, mainly because it is a marriage and Matt doesn’t conveniently die so Abby can move on to Alec. Matt becomes twisted in his own way, but he doesn’t take it out on Abby – they grow apart, of course, but he doesn’t physically attack her until he becomes possessed by Arcane. Moore hints at the darkness in his soul after we first see it in issue #20, but he keeps it from Abby. She hears him talking to a “woman” in issue #22, but everything disappears before she opens his door. When Swampy “wakes up” after he learns about his true nature, Abby begins spend more time with him, because she’s friends with him and because Matt is growing increasingly distant. When she gets a job at the center for autistic kids, Matt reacts poorly, as Moore makes it off-hand commentary about women working and what husbands expect that was far more relevant in the 1980s but is still something that comes up today. Again, Matt doesn’t abuse her physically and only backhandedly insults her, but he uses his powers to animate her clothing and make “Abby” apologize to him. Her job becomes more of a bone of contention, as Matt points out that the kids are monopolizing her and they might not be worth her time. Again, Moore has Matt react angrily, but he’s not necessarily wrong – Abby is not spending enough time with him to make their marriage work, so even though Matt has many problems of his own making, he’s making a good point and Abby doesn’t want to hear it (and to be fair, Matt does make it in the worst way possible). She walks out on him, and in one of the last decent things he does, he tries to go after her. Moore gives us another great line as Matt, still drunk, crashes his car: “The night can make a man more brave … but not more sober.” Then Matt accepts Arcane possessing his soul, which leads to a bunch of other problems. He begins, of course, by apologizing to her and giving her a ride, but of course it’s no longer Matt running the show. In the Arcane saga (issues #29-31), “Matt” gets a job, a new house, and new “respect” for Abby. Moore’s preoccupation with rape may not have started in issue #29, but Arcane’s incest with his niece (as Matt, of course, so Abby doesn’t know about it) is another commentary of the kind of twisted love that Moore uses as a contrast to Abby’s and Alec’s love. In the story of the Monkey King, the marriage of Bobby and Selena has devolved into rancor, and it leads to Harry Price’s horrific death by swordfish. One of the fears of one of the children that the Monkey King attacks is rape by a relative – it’s not clear whether it’s her brother or father. So Moore was already delving into the disturbing aspects of love and sex, and with Arcane’s rape of Abby, he goes further than ever, causing Abby to clean herself with a wire brush. Moore gives us another twist to Matt and Abby’s romance when Matt does the final decent thing in his life, rejecting Arcane, sending him back to Hell, and accepting his death instead of allowing his soul to suffer any more torment. That he doesn’t die is another nice twist by Moore. He finally realizes what happened when Alec tells him that Arcane possessed him and did all the evil, telling his old friend, “I let him in. I was weak … There isn’t any evil, Alec … no special blackness reserved for demons and monsters. There’s just weakness … I had a choice …” As we saw with Moore’s straight horror stories, he wants to examine true tragedy, and that doesn’t come in the form of vampires or werewolves, but what lives inside every “regular” person. Matt slips into a coma, but he tries to redeem himself before he does so.
After Matt falls into a coma, Abby and Alec move forward with their romance, but Moore keeps throwing roadblocks in front of them and contrasting their love with others. First we get Wallace and Treasure Monroe in issues #35-36. I noted above that Treasure and her unborn baby are contaminated by Nukeface, and Moore shows us the dissolution of their marriage from both points of view. First Wallace narrates, as Treasure tells him where she’s been (which Moore keeps hidden from the reader until later in the issue): “I turn, and I begin to run … knowing already that I shall never stop.” A few pages later, we get the story from Treasure’s point of view, and Moore ends her narration with a full-page splash of her kneeling on the ground, holding her pregnant belly, and everyone backs away from her (and Wallace runs off the lower right corner of the page, his face hidden by his arm) as she asks, “What have I done wrong??” Treasure is a model Christian, so she tried to comfort Nukeface in the night, but that act of charity leads to her death (Moore can be very nasty when he wants to be). In issue #53, Wallace shows up in Gotham and meets Chester Williams, and we learn that the baby was stillborn. Finally, in issue #63, Treasure herself dies, and Wallace doesn’t even make it to the hospital in time to say goodbye to her. Moore contrasts their horrible fates with Abby’s and Alec’s, as Wallace involved himself in a horrific business and his child and wife paid the price. “The Curse” in issue #40 might be a werewolf story, but it’s also about a man treating a woman terribly and her desperation to get out of the relationship, even if it means her death. Moore explicitly contrasts this with Abby and Alec, as they’re spending some quiet time out in the swamp while Phoebe endures the emotional abuse at the hands of her husband. Her husband, Roy, tells their dinner guests that his house is built on a site where the “Indians sent their squaws when they started getting cranky around that time o’ the month.” He then says, “Myself, I don’t blame ’em” before having a good laugh. The other husband tells Phoebe, “No more cookies for Joannie here! She’s still trying to get her figure back after the kid … and that was two years ago!” Bissette does a great job drawing the husband looking crass, while Totleben shadows his face in black, and Bissette gives us down-looking Joannie who symbolizes everything Phoebe ends up rebelling against. When she finally turns into a wolf, she attacks Roy, but Moore doesn’t allow her to be completely free – as she raises her claw to decapitate her loutish husband, she realizes that she can’t do it, and “she understands at last the nature of woman’s curse.” Moore implies that her love for Roy, no matter how undeserving he is, is still strong enough to keep her from becoming a murderer. It’s a tragic love story, again unlike the main one in the comic. Moore continues in this vein, as we get the ham-fisted story about racism and the bigot falling in love with the black man, but he never really examines it too much, and it remains a plot device. Chester Williams using the tuber he finds in issue #43 is another place that Moore shows what true love can do, as Chester gives Dave a slice of the vegetable to give to his wife, who’s dying of cancer. Dave and Sandy use it unselfishly, so Sandy experiences something like what Abby experienced in issue #34, when she and Alec first had sex. Sandy and Dave are able to have sex one last time before she dies, and it’s a nice mini-encapsulation of how Abby and Alec feel about each other. There’s more twisted love in issue #45, as I noted above – Dave and Linda are not a good couple, and of course Linda is cheating on him with Rod, the virile husband of Judy, who remains ignorant of everything until buffalo stampede her to death. David isn’t as meek as he seems, however, and once he knows that Linda has been cheating on him, he plans his revenge (which doesn’t come before the end of the issue, but it’s about to happen) carefully. Moore, once again, is showing us a dark version of love and passion and how unhealthy it is.
Of course, Swamp Thing is forced to leave Earth because of his love for Abby, but I’ll get back to that in a moment. Once he’s in space, there’s fewer opportunities for Moore to highlight various kinds of love, but he still manages to do it. “My Blue Heaven” is interesting because it’s a reflection of Matt’s animating of Abby’s clothing and making “her” do what he wants – Swampy does the same thing on the blue planet, but in a more benign way, as he just misses his lover. But it’s still a twisted version of his love for Abby, and luckily, he realizes it before he goes completely insane, but it’s still unsettling (“All love … is madness,” faux-Abby tells him in his own voice, and it’s terrifying to contemplate how quickly that becomes true for Alec). We see another “good” version of love when Adam Strange and Alanna show up, but there’s still the fact that Adam is considered an outsider and is a different species than the Rannians. Moore isn’t particularly subtle about making the connection between Adam and Alanna and Alec and Abby, but the Rannians tolerate Adam and the fact that (in their eyes) he’s putting his disgusting paws all over their princess because he’s useful. The difference between Adan and Alec is that the people of Earth haven’t figured out how to use Swamp Thing yet so they can tolerate his alien-ness. Then, in issue #60, Moore and John Totleben give us one of the strangest single issues ever published by the Big Two – “Loving the Alien.” Swamp Thing, traveling across space toward the vegetable planet guarded by the Green Lantern, is caught by a semi-organic sentient spaceship, given a body of metal and organic materials, and raped. His body is ripped apart as the spaceship takes what it needs to spawn and discards the rest. Swamp Thing’s consciousness, of course, continues through space, so this destruction of his body isn’t as traumatic as it would be for a human being, but it’s still a disturbing issue, Moore’s countervailing view of pure love taken to its most extreme.
All of this stands in contrast to the love story between Abby and Alec, one of the great romances in comics. Moore showed us many dysfunctional relationships (and a few good ones) to highlight how well Abby and Alec worked together as lovers and also to distill some of their travails into a more concentrated form (David and Sandy’s final act of lovemaking, Adam and Alanna’s cross-species fertilization). At the beginning of his run, Abby and Matt are still together, but it’s clear that Pasko had moved Matt to a dark place and Moore just went with it, as he wants to kill off or incapacitate Matt from the beginning just so he can get to that sweet, sweet vegetable lovin’. Abby is clearly better friends with Alec than she is with Matt, as she’s much more concerned with Swamp Thing’s vegetative state than with the fact that her husband is drinking too much and creating weird visions (neither of which she knows about, but Moore makes it pretty clear that she’s actively ignorant of Matt’s state of mind, perhaps because she already has feelings for Alec and wants to cleave from Matt at some point). She begins spending a great deal of time in the swamp, hanging out with Alec, and Swampy comments on it when he notes that Matt didn’t come to visit him. Moore makes Abby at least somewhat self-aware: “Well, me and Matt, we aren’t spending a lot of time together right now. It’s my fault, mostly. I’ve … well, you know … been a little high strung. I sometimes imagine that …” She’s being too hard on herself, but it’s interesting that she knows she’s living inside a horror comic (I mean, she just saw Jason Woodrue try to destroy the world, and there’s the fact that her best friend is a plant) but can’t bring herself to realize that Matt has changed. Moore does a very nice job showing how good friends they are before they become romantically involved, so that her “betrayal” of Matt (they’re still married, even if he’s in a coma) doesn’t feel spur-of-the-moment. Alec saves her from Hell, after all, which is a pretty good indication that he cares deeply for her.
So of course, in issue #34, “Rite of Spring,” they confess their love for each other and have sex, or at least as close to sex as a human can have with a plant. “Rite of Spring” is a terrific issue, despite some problems (which I’ll get to in a moment). When Abby and Alec finally admit they love each other, Moore writes it really well, as Abby thinks she’s messed up and foreshadows the problems to come: “I mean, it’s just so ridiculous, right? It’s impossible, it’s bizarre, it probably isn’t even legal …” Moore moves on from that quickly, though, and Alec produces a tuber for Abby to eat, which allows them to commune sexually even if it’s a bit unconventional. This is where Bissette and Totleben make the issue magnificent, because for someone who’s awfully preoccupied with sex, Moore doesn’t write about it too well – his prose in the second half of “Rite of Spring” is sweet but a bit overwrought, but Bissette and Totleben make it sing, because the art is so tremendous. The pages get turned on their sides, and Bissette gives us astonishing nature, part drawing and part mixed media (which, given his work on issue #60, I wonder if is Totleben’s contribution). It’s an amazing look at the cycle of life, with sex and death and birth linked (as Moore loves to do), all depicted with wondrous beauty and hard-edged violence. Totleben’s delicate inks are always superb, but they look even better here, as he contrasts the sublime and diaphanous Abby with the brute force of nature. It’s eight pages of some of the most beautiful artwork you’ll ever see in a comic book, and it helps us get through Moore’s somewhat precious prose. It’s a wonderful statement on how Abby and Alec are, for a time at least, a perfect couple.
“Rite of Spring” isn’t the end of Moore’s examination of their romance, of course, it’s the beginning, so they have to grow together, just like all couples have to. The relationship is put to the test immediately in issue #35, when Nukeface kills Swampy. He gets to talk to Abby before his body disintegrates, and he tells her he’s going to send his consciousness out into the green and see if he can grow a new body. Of course he can, but it’s interesting that Moore ends the Nukeface story without resolving whether Alec is alive or dead. So in issue #37, we see him growing and Abby taking care of him (poorly, as it turns out), and Moore can write some playful dialogue between him. This is where Moore shines in writing about their love – not in the spectacular love pronouncements that we saw in “Rite of Spring,” as charming as that could be, but in the way Abby and Alec joke with each other, which shows how comfortable they are with each other and makes their love more obvious. When Abby laughs and tells Alec that he sounds like Jiminy Cricket (because his “vocal chords” aren’t developed enough), it’s a wonderfully funny moment that makes it clear they can have a good time with each other outside the confines of strict romantic behavior. Then John Constantine shows up and tells Alec he needs to stop the end of the world. So there’s that.
Abby doesn’t exactly get pushed out of the book when Alec goes off to save the world, but she does get put on the back burner for a while. Moore contrasts their love with the marriage of Phoebe and Roy in issue #40, because that’s kind of point. In issues #41, Abby spends a good deal of time with Alec in the swamp, and Moore does some nice work with them, as she’s learning more about his abilities and he’s trying to remain “human” for her. She takes an active role in trying to contain the evil at the plantation, leading to a nice line by Swampy when she suggests it might be too dangerous: “I have too great … a respect … for your strength … the idea would be ridiculous,” and Abby hesitantly agrees – Moore toys with the idea that she really doesn’t want to go and is giving Alec an excuse, but he misses the cue because he’s not human. She helps out at the plantation, showing that Alec’s faith in her is justified, and is another example of how she’s a true partner to Swamp Thing rather than a “love interest” to the star. Alec finally visits her house in issue #44, and Moore does a nice job showing that it’s a bit awkward, as he’s completely out of his element and Abby is worried about the neighbors seeing. It has nothing to do with sex, but it’s more foreshadowing of the trouble to come. Abby doesn’t appear in issues #45-46, but in issue #47, we find out that an enterprising photographer took pictures of Abby and Alec together. He sees her eat one of Alec’s vegetables, and he has the reaction most people would have: “I almost threw up. I tell ya, I saw things that’d turn a man’s stomach before they finally up and left!” What Moore has done is very interesting, because while the photographer is obviously quite vile, the first time Abby heard of eating one of Swamp Thing’s tubers, back when Woodrue mentioned it in issue #22, she too threw up … and that was just the thought of it. So while Moore is obviously setting up a situation where the reader is going to be sympathetic to the lovers, it’s worth mentioning that the reaction of the world isn’t completely out of character, even for those who claim to be inclusionary. It’s a clever trick by Moore. The editor of the newspaper immediately goes to the “won’t someone think of the children” well, as he knows Abby works at the autistic kids’ clinic, so he decides to publish them even if it’s just Abby banging some dude in a rubber suit, because that’s weird enough for him. So while Alec is off in South America trying to save the world in issue #48, Abby is getting arrested on some vague sexual perversion charge. Her ex-boss pays her bail – the only decent thing she does for Abby – in issue #51, and Abby skips town for Gotham, where she immediately gets arrested in a prostitute sweep and identified.
This sets up Swamp Thing’s terrible vengeance on Gotham, where he does what Woodrue wanted to do – return the city to an Edenic state, where the plants have taken over. His vengeance feels completely earned, because Moore has done such a good job making their romance feel true and deep, so we can easily believe that Alec would do this to a major city. Abby begins to realize it, too, as she can feel Alec coming for her, and she doesn’t care any longer – while she’s standing in court in issue #52, she says, “See … you brought all this on yourselves. You understand that? I mean, you just couldn’t leave it be, you couldn’t leave us alone. And now it’s too late.” Abby convinces him to resist using violence, so he gives them an hour to hand her over. When they don’t, he takes his revenge, and that brings him into conflict with Batman. Moore can’t resist the lure of Batman, so of course he’s the coolest dude around, even though Swamp Thing trounces him pretty handily. He suggests turning Abby over to Alec, and when Commissioner Gordon says he didn’t think Batman surrenders, Bats responds level-headedly that he’s not sure what law he’s defending and what harm Abby and Alec did to anyone. Batman demands to see the mayor and insists that they turn over Abby because he doesn’t want to see Gotham die, and when the mayor insists that Abby was having sex with something non-human and they can’t make exceptions to the law, Batman again shows why he’s the coolest dude around when he says they’d have to arrest Hawkman, Metamorpho, Starfire, J’onn J’onzz, “and then of course there’s what’s-his-name … the one who lives in Metropolis.” With that mic-drop, Batman gets Abby released, but of course Lex Luthor has already given the government a means to “destroy” him, which they do. But this just moves the romance to another stage.
By separating Abby and Alec, Moore not only temporarily solves the problem of what to do with Alec becoming too powerful (he pretty much destroyed a major American city with very little effort) and allows Abby to come into her own. I’ve already mentioned the way she saves Liz and takes care of Dennis Barclay, which comes in issue #54, the issue after Swamp Thing “dies.” She has no time to wallow because someone else worse off needs her help. In the same issue, she decides to join Chester Williams’s environmental group, which gives her a new purpose. She goes to the dedication of his statue in Gotham in issue #55 and reminisces about the times they spent together and imagines their perfect world, while Boston Brand tries to give her some hope. Moore doesn’t write issue #59, but Bissette does some nice work with Abby, as she has a new job at a nursing home and she manages to help stop a villain there (a mundane villain, but a villain nevertheless). She also sees her father one last time, which helps her reconcile her conflicted feelings about working at the nursing home. Adam Strange visits her in issue #61 and tells her that Alec is alive, but of course she thinks he’s crazy (he does, after all, tell her he saw Swampy on another planet), and it’s interesting because Moore shows her as stronger but still not over Alec’s “death.” Finally, Swampy returns in issue #63 and issue #64 is about them reconnecting. It’s a beautiful issue, a wonderful culmination to all they’ve been through, as Moore decides that he can’t really reconcile the fact that Swamp Thing is the most powerful being on the planet (probably) and could easily fix the world. Instead, Alec chooses love over responsibility, and while it might feel like a cop-out, the way Moore has written the romance makes it conceivable that Alec thinks he deserves some alone time with the woman he loves. It’s a nice issue, as Abby has become a strong woman in her own right, so joining Alec in the swamp doesn’t feel as much of a cop-out for her, as she has endured far more than Alec has and also deserves some time alone with her lover. It’s a sweet ending, and it’s about the only way Moore could go, so it feels earned even though it is a bit of a cop-out.
Despite the amazing horror chops that Moore brings to the book and the chilling impact of “The Anatomy Lesson,” his run on Swamp Thing resonates not simply because he could freak the readers right the hell out. His straight horror stories are perhaps his least effective, with the creeping horror of incest, rape, isolation, mob mentality, and separation hitting harder than the water-borne vampires and the Monkey King. Moore writes the straight horror very effectively, with great lines (Woodrue’s “If there’s one thing that I despise, it’s the sound of steak sobbing” is a good early one), but the stuff that really gets under your skin is less about the obvious horror and more about the stuff that could happen in the “real” world. Moore contrasts this wonderfully with the love affair between his main character and Abby, which remains one of the great ones in comics. Despite the horror in their lives, they figure out a way to love each other. The juxtaposition with the many failed romances in the book is clever, because it allows Abby’s and Alec’s true love to shine through even more. Liz and Dennis live through imagined horrors (well, imagined by Liz, although her actual situation is more horrific than anything Dennis dreams up), and their romance is poisoned beyond repair. Alec and Abby live through actual horrors, and it just makes them stronger. Swamp Thing works so well partly because it’s the longest comic Moore ever wrote, so he has plenty of time to make the characters feel real and make their emotions hit the reader harder. This makes their fates of particular concern to us, and we cheer for Abby and Alec to make it through everything so they can enjoy the swamp without anyone bothering them. Swamp Thing remains one of Moore’s most beloved comics, mostly because DC published it and it was more accessible to a larger audience than much of his other work, but also because it’s the most human and humane of his works, and that makes it a joy to read even when he’s digging under your skin with all the nastiness.
This run of Swamp Thing has been collected in several different formats, of course. There are six trade paperbacks of Moore’s run, but I could have sworn there were larger hardcovers. I guess it doesn’t matter, as the trade paperbacks are plentiful, and DC would be foolish to ever let this slip out of print (although DC has done foolish things in the past, so that’s no guarantee!). This has finished #5 (2008) and #3 (2012) in Brian’s “Top 100 Runs of All Time” polls he’s done (yay, another one this year!!!) [In 2016, this finished #4, and then back to #3 in 2020], so obviously many of you have already read it, but those who haven’t really should, and those who have … well, nothing’s stopping you from reading it again! It really is as good as they say!!!! If you don’t want to revisit Swamp Thing, might I suggest you check out the archives for other awesome comics you might like to read?
Next: More Swamp Thing!!!!! But which Swamp Thing will it be? And am I just messing with you and we’re totally done with Swamp Thing??? Come back and find out!!!!
(I realize that I didn’t write about the art on this run very much – occasionally these are more about the art, but this one was more about the themes Moore was working on – but everyone does a good job on it, with Bissette’s pencils inked by Totleben a particular highlight. I bring this up simply because it was Bissette’s birthday yesterday, so Happy Birthday, sir! I thought I might get this posted on Pi Day, but alas, it was not to be!)
[As I noted directly above, I didn’t write much about the art, but it ran quite long just with everything I wanted to get to with regard to Moore’s writing, so I figured I should skip the art, for the most part. I apologize to all the excellent artists who worked on the book! I noted when I first did this that when I began Comics You Should Own, I probably would have skipped something like this, because I wanted to focus on comics that might not be so well known, but that conceit quickly went by the boards. Obviously, most comic book fans over the age of, what, 30, 40? have read this, and it’s still really good. Moore hadn’t crawled up into his own butthole at this time, so he could still write a cracking good yarn! DC finally figured out that issue #20 should be included in collections, and it’s in the cheaper trade I linked to below, but of course there are high-end collections of this, too, because it’s, you know, damned good. And as for my teaser at the end of this … you can go back and check to see that there’s more Swamp Thing on the way!]
Burgas: I don’t know if you noticed this or not, but Alan Moore sure didn’t get a lot of love in the comments in one of your previous posts.
Which one, sir? There’s always some back and forth with Moore, which I suppose isn’t surprising.
I was reading Swamp Thing before Moore took over and loving it but Moore blew my mind as a tween/young teen.
I also love Bissette and Totleben. It is a shame that Bissette has left the industry and a huge same that Totleben is legally blind and so can’t really draw any more.
Reading this makes me want to reread the series. So many moments stick out: Woodrue, the Monkey King, the space issues (although Moore’s depiction basically ruined Adam Strange ever since.) Batman getting beat down.
I’ve read that Moore wrote the Adam Strange stuff to tie in with the crappy Rich Brunner reboot that was to follow. It’s one of the weakest moments.
The Batman “You’ll have to arrest Superman!” was hysterically funny the first time I read it, then collapsed into crap on rereading. The DA isn’t charging anyone, he’s simply extraditing Abby; he could reasonably respond “Well, if Metropolis ever charges Lois Lane for banging Superman I’d extradite her too.”
The werewolf woman got a deserved amount of flak at the time for handling the woman’s plight.
But those flaws don’t change the overall awesomeness of Moore’s run. It’s a remarkable piece of work.
Not a hot take here, but yes, this is a very good series. It just might be Moore’s finest work, precisely because he was able to spend so much time with the characters making them feel real. (Note: I used to think Moore “crawled up into his own butthole” circa 2005ish, but I’ve been on a completionist kick lately and started reading/watching some of his later work… Providence is pretty good! And I also really enjoyed his film, “The Show,” from last year. It’s a delightfully fun story that leans a bit heavily on David Lynchisms but it has more heart than you might expect).
You’re right, you didn’t change ANYTHING, including Bissette’s birthday shoutout. I KNOW when Steve’s birthday is because it’s a week (and two years) after mine. I have issues 20-27 in a book signed by Steve.
I try to keep everything as close to the original as I can! I changed Morrison’s pronouns for All Star Superman, for instance, but I don’t want to change too much. It’s more fun to leave it as is and see what I was thinking about at that moment in time! 🙂
Yes, definitely one of the great(est) comic book runs. I’d just disagree about the single best issue – that would be #32, “Pog.” Such a wonderfully told, bittersweet story with so many layers.