Column: Retronomicon: Saga of the Swamp Thing, Book 1

Moore, Alan; Bissette, Stephen; Totleban, John. Saga of the Swamp Thing Book 1. Vertigo/DC Comics (April 10, 2012). USD $13.59. ISBN 13- 978-1401220839.

When you actually take the time to think it over, the Swamp Thing could easily make the Top 10 list of Comic Characters Least Likely To Become An Icon. As co-creator Len Wein tells the story, he was always intended to just be a one-shot character for a story in the 1970s DC anthology comic, House of Secrets, conceived when he got into a conversation with fellow co-creator Bernie Wrightson (who had just broken up with a girlfriend) in a car on New Year’s Eve.

But the fan mail and sales on that particular issue were phenomenal, enough so to have the powers that be in the form of editor Joe Orlando and publisher Carmine Infantino push Wein and Wrightson to make the character star in a regular series. Wein resisted for months on the grounds that the original story was, by design, self-contained … until he realized that he could do it all over again with a completely new character. What followed was a remarkable ten-issue run that made up for in imagination what it lacked in true horror (though issue #8’s monster, the very Lovecraftian flesheating blob M’Nglah, was a fine exception), since chronicled in the collection “Dark Genesis.”

Afterwards, both Wein and Wrightson went on to other things and a number of creators followed with admittedly inferior quality writing and/or art, leading to a much-needed cancellation of Swamp Thing.

Then, in the early 1980s, a new creative team would come in the new Swamp Thing title (called “Saga of The Swamp Thing,” in deference to the now-forgotten 1982 movie that had gained enough attention to make them want to relaunch the character) to raise the creative bar so high that nobody who has worked on the character since has been able to clear. For all his acclaim on V For Vendetta and Miracleman (or, as it was called in the UK, “Marvelman“), Saga of the Swamp Thing would be the first major stateside success of the literary-minded writer Alan Moore. His fellow creators, Stephen Bissette and John Totleban, would also profit from this run. Today, we’re looking at the opening salvo of their efforts, which shares the same title as the series proper that it hails from.

The collection begins with no less a personage than Ramsey Campbell giving an introduction, using the text to assert in his usual, cutting fashion that though comics’ early efforts to grow up would likely be booed in any other medium, it did lead to Moore’s own efforts in the volume. Then Moore himself gives a follow-up introduction that gets the reader up to speed on the overall plot before his own contributions (probably a bit unnecessary, given what follows, but a little background does go a long way).

Then we’re thrust into “The Anatomy Lesson,” which opens with a hope for blood by its narrator, Dr. Jason Woodrue AKA the Floronic Man (who played a part in making Pamela Isley turn into the lethal femme fatale associated with Batman, Poison Ivy). Several weeks before, he was hired by one General Sunderland to figure out what actually makes the currently refrigerated body of the Swamp Thing tick.

Initial findings have shown that every assumption anyone has ever made about the Swamp Thing is way off the mark. Woodrue’s autopsy of the “corpse” (it is assumed that the Swamp Thing is dead at this point, courtesy of a bullet to the head) hits similar brick walls, no matter how many organs he extracts. He eventually does figure it out … only to get dismissed by Sunderland before he can tell him the really important part. What follows should be a bit familiar to anyone who has ever watched John Carpenter’s The Thing and an excellent argument on why you should never exclusively rely on technology.

The revelations of his true nature drives the Swamp Thing back to the Louisiana swamps that birthed him and into a psychic coma as he tries to come to grips with what he’s learned. The dream imagery on display (something Moore has always excelled at) encompasses the classic five stages of grief if you care to look at them the right way. But the world outside his psyche is far from idle. In addition to his longtime companions and friends, Matt and Abigail Cable, finding his comatose body and Abigail insisting on keeping watch, Woodrue decides to use the Swamp Thing for some personal experiments … which culminate in an ecoterror campaign against the nearby town of Lacroix once the experiments overwhelm his mind. Moore makes it a crisis such as even DC Comics’ iconic heroes in the Justice League can’t handle, due to the ecological nature of the threat. Only the revived Swamp Thing, more plantlike than ever from his ordeals, stands a chance. I would say more, but the plot and ending are just too special to really talk about out loud.

The second half of the collection deals with very familiar supernatural territory: demons. Thus, who better than Jason Blood, the human cage of Etrigan the Demon (one of comic legend Jack Kirby’s lesser-known creations, which was inspired by the battle mask of Prince Valiant) to be our guide?

Blood is actually one of the most unlikeable characters in the volume, villains included. He flaunts his ability to see the fate to the future victims of a bizarre accident, buys a print of Francisco Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters, and does a few other things that make the reader both fear him and loathe him.

But he’s got a reason to be in Louisiana, one that ties into Abbie’s new job working in a home for kids with psychiatric conditions (a job which is causing the growing rift between her and Matt to get worse). One of the kids is obsessed with spelling names correctly, a consequence of watching his parents play with a Ouija board and letting something loose that feeds on fears. The Monkey King, as this thing is called, finds plenty of fears to feed on in this place.

The dire omens that come with the threat are what give this story its special touch. The Swamp Thing feels the earth itself whispering of something coming with the autumn (a nice touch, as autumn has long been associated with fear). The children, after a long night of being fed on by the Monkey King, all wind up drawing pictures of the same subject the very next day. One can see an ugly hidden presence in Bissette and Totleban’s work as Matt indulges in psychic powers (the results of experimentation prior to this volume), and as he rages at Abbie. Then there’s our spelling bee champ, who knows what this thing is, but feels helpless to do anything about it. It all culminates in a three-way struggle between the Swamp Thing, Etrigan and the Monkey King. But fisticuffs don’t win the night here. You may be surprised by what does.

For all the talk of Moore’s writing that I’ve expended on this justly classic volume, I should spare a word for Bissette and Totleban’s rich and textured artwork. When compared with many of their contemporaries especially, the level of detail of their drawings is insane. Their version of the Swamp Thing alone, with its Spanish Moss hangings, heavy foliage, and other touches of plant life, is an Impressionistic marvel of details. The same level of work is applied to everything from character faces and acting to the often-outrageous proceedings that flit around the edges.

One final note: there are a few details here that tell us that there is no happy ending in sight by volume’s end. Without giving too much away, I will say that Matt does something stupid which will set up the next round of storytelling. In fact, I encourage you to read my previous review of what has to be my favorite part of Moore’s run on this title, formerly known as Love and Death. Be assured, dear readers, we will talk about the third leg of this journey in due course.