It’s probably silly to say that a comic like this, a comic that features the first American work of legendary comics scribe Alan Moore, a comic that’s been kept in print for decades, a comic that is mentioned in hush whispers and cries of joy — that a comic like this can be considered underrated.
But it is.
“Saga of the Swamp Thing” Book One shows that sometimes even the best comics are better than you think they are. This is a masterpiece.
Honestly, as great as “Watchmen” is — and it is great — Alan Moore could have rested on his laurels after his “Saga of the Swamp Thing” run and still have been considered the best writer of superhero comics to ever live. And that’s ignoring “Marvelman,” and that’s ignoring that fact that “Saga of the Swamp Thing” isn’t even a superhero comic.
Still, it trucks in the world of the superheroes, whether it’s the use of the Floronic Man as a pathetic monster, the Justice League as gods on high, or Jack Kirby’s Demon as a ferocious force of natural justice. As the series progressed, it strayed from these kinds of superhero-heavy stories (with the exception of the “Crisis on Infinite Earths” tie-ins), but in the stories reprinted in this hardcover collection, Alec Holland — the Swamp Thing — couldn’t get away from costumed characters if he tried. And he tried like hell.
This volume opens with the never-before reprinted “Saga of the Swamp Thing” #20, an issue that kicks off Alan Moore’s run but doesn’t really feel like part of it. It’s a good issue, but it merely wraps up things from the Marty Pasko run. Moore’s run really shows its genius in the following issue, the famed “Anatomy Lesson” issue, a comic that would get my vote for the single best DC comic of all time. Its poetic captions (which haven’t lost their power even after being misused and parodied by a generation of writers since Moore), its sad humanism, and its beautifully evocative horror make it a sliver of greatness.
And Steve Bissette and John Totleben give it an earthy, unearthly feel. They make “Saga of the Swamp Thing” look unlike anything else before or since. Hyper-detailed but dream-like, disturbingly ugly yet stippled and feathered like some kind of alien etching, Bissette and Totleben are amazing. And when Dan Day and Rick Veitch come in to help them out, their work blends in without any of the seams showing. It’s masterful work, all around.
What eventually became the Vertigo line all started in 1984 with Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, and John Totleben’s collaboration on these issues. This is the birth of the Modern Age in American comics, and reading it now, even 25 years later, we see how few comics have lived up to this incredibly high standard.