COMICS RETROSPECTIVE: Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, Book 1: Best Run Ever? Yes...it is
It was quite surreal when I got the first collected book of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing run, also dubbed The Saga of The Swamp Thing. It was even more surreal reading it. Many people were telling me for years that Swamp Thing was an overlooked masterpiece, and how Alan really revitalized the then-little-known monster comic. How he managed to move comics into being a medium that was more respected, and finally getting some recognition for it, rather than peers that had tried and not necessarily succeeded, like Gerber or Eisner. To be honest, I was actually afraid to read this at first.
Yet, I was quite pleased to see that Alan's take on this muck encrusted monstrosity was just as good as everyone had said it was. Alan writes with a deft hand, and in his first arc we see that he had no plans of playing it safe and littering in his ideas for a slow build, but rather walking up to the plate and swinging for a home run. "The Anatomy Lesson", in particular, proves itself to be one of the best singular issue of a comic book that has ever been done. The way that Alan Moore re-weaves the tale of Swamp Thing's origin is one of the finest twists ever pulled off in a comic, and one that I won't dare take away from the audience, it is meant to be experienced.
But I can't merely give Alan the credit, as the superbly illustrated work of Stephen Bissette and John Totleben also deserves praise. Few artists have the ability of getting under my skin and actually creeping me out (much as there's few books that can creep me out), yet Bissette and Totleben work together to create some of the most nightmare-inducing panels that I've ever seen in a comic. Few artists can achieve a similar effect for me: Paul Azaceta, Andrea Sorrentino, Richard Corben.
But it is the writing that sticks out more. Out of all the superhero deconstructions that Alan did in the '80s, Swamp Thing is the one that's not really even a superhero deconstruction, it's more of a deconstruction of old monster stories and American horror in general. While Moore's Miracleman is a deconstruction of the Superman/Shazam superego type (though the concept leans more towards Shazam) and his Watchmen is a deconstruction of caped crime fighters like Batman, Green Arrow, or Daredevil, his Swamp Thing is an odd book that sits in the middle, with Alan allowing himself a rare opportunity to try something fresh and new with such an unusual creature. I've never really considered Swamp Thing a tried and true 'superhero' much like how I consider Batman or John Constantine to not really be superheroes (though, funnily enough this book was where John first appeared.) Swamp Thing, for me, is an odd detour in Alan's journey with his commentary on superheroes and what they mean to us, and it was also a way for Alan to stretch his creative muscles and show that he wasn't a one trick pony. That he could play with more genres than just the superhero one, and as someone who likes reading more than just superhero comics, it's quite nice to see something so radically different.
As mentioned before, with it only being the beginning of Moore's run, one might expect that Moore would want to play it safe and use his first stories to try and set up what he plans to do with his run for Swamp Thing. While most writers may use six issues to set up the tone and the world of the run that they're going to write, Moore only needs two issues of set up and then spends the rest of the series telling strange, yet personal stories. Though Moore doesn't quite do the strange one-offs until later on with the series, the first two arcs are also strong and uniquely realized. Moore's knowledge of the DC universe and its more obscure characters, such as his inclusion of Etrigan The Demon, also comes into play throughout this trade. It becomes more apparent as the series goes on, that the inclusion of such characters like Etrigan, The Floronic Man, and The Monkey King showcases Moore's enthusiasm and love for the universe that he once had, which is quite apparent and rather nice to see as this series continued to take form.
Much like Miracleman, Swamp Thing is much more straightforward in what the story is about, but it just touches the edge of complexity that Watchmen would later bring. With Swamp Thing's commentary on the state of horror as well as its unique approach to the monster concept, Alan turned the book into an existential journey of a being unsure of its identity. He takes much of his tone from a variety of sources such as Lovecraft, EC Comics, previous DC horror comics, and even Stephen King, yet Alan's vision is purely his own. The way that he plays with the genre speaks to his understanding of the genre, and will be more apparent as the run moved forward.
Another thing that is apparent is Alan's respect for his audience, which is something I've always admired him for. He rarely ever talks down to his audience or tries to tell them how to think or feel, but allows them the treat of coming to their own conclusions. It is sad to see how Moore has started to teeter from this in From Hell and, to a lesser extent in Promethea.
Some stand-out moments from this first trade includes the reveal of Swamp Thing's origin from "The Anatomy Lesson" (I'd also just say that whole issue in general is one of my favorite moments from this series); the ending of the Floronic Man arc where Swamp Thing finally reunites with Abby and comes to accept who he is; and the conversation at the end of the Monkey King arc where the young kid and Swamp Thing walk back to the home and talk about fear. The kid says that even if monsters have fears, than perhaps being afraid isn't so bad (it might be one of the most touching things I've ever read in a comic).
Swamp Thing, much like Alan's other works in mainstream comics, is unlike anything anyone has ever seen before or after it was published. Many people have tried to follow up what Alan did with such titles as Swamp Thing, Miracleman, or Watchmen, but sadly there's so many who didn't comprehend what made such works so brilliant and eventually made pale imitations that lack. That's not to say that others have managed to follow Alan's footsteps and add a new twist to what he helped to start, but none have ever come close to ever repeating what he did to mainstream comics. But with this run, we've only seen the beginning...and it'll only become better from here.
Alan Moore's Saga Of The Swamp Thing Book 1 collects issues #20-27 and can be found at this link on amazon.com