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Comics You Should Own – Swamp Thing #20-64

by  in Comic News Comment
Comics You Should Own – <i>Swamp Thing</i> #20-64

When I first started writing these posts, over a decade ago, I might have skipped this, because I wanted to focus on things that weren’t quite so famous. That changed pretty quickly, however, so of course I’m going to write about these comics!!!

Swamp Thing by Alan Moore (writer, issues #20-58, 60-61, 63-64; co-plotter, issue #59), Dan Day (penciller, issue #20), Stephen Bissette (penciller, 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 (penciller, 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 (penciller, 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 (penciller, 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.

Next: The early horror in Moore’s run!

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