Red and Angry World
“We’re things of shadow … and there isn’t as much shadow … as there used to be.”
—Saga of the Swamp Thing, Issue 20
In its basic conception, the Swamp Thing is a not unfamiliar variant on that old comic and fantasy staple: the misunderstood monster. Frequently the monster in question is a gentle giant, saving the little boy who believed in him but was about to get run over by a speeding car, just before the monster itself is gunned down by a paranoid detachment of National Guardsmen. Although the Swamp Thing does indeed get pursued by squads of soldiers, weapons bristling and teeth clenched against the dark unknown, and has been known to save the innocent from time to time, nobody would ever really refer to him as a gentle giant—particularly after Alan Moore got done with him.
Swamp Thing, the story of a doctor who is almost killed by a rival only to be resurrected in the form of a massive and ape-like creature made up of rotting vegetation and imparted with some sentience, had a short run at DC Comics in the early-‘70s, but never became one of the comic giant’s superstar titles. After Wes Craven made a film out of the character in 1982, DC resurrected the series with the name Saga of the Swamp Thing under the tutelage of its originator, Wolverine creator Len Wein.
After 19 issues authored by Marty Pasko, up-and-coming British comic writer Alan Moore was brought in to retool the series— the result created something of a tectonic shift in the comics world. Moore’s literary sensibility and penchant for thick webs of emotive storytelling are showcased particularly well in DC’s hardcover edition Saga of the Swamp Thing: Book One, which collects the first eight issues of Moore’s, first published in 1984. The volume also gives an indication that eight issues at one sitting might be plenty; in the case of the Swamp Thing in particular, a little Moore goes a long way.
The first issue slashes through the dangling plot strands left over from Martin Pasko’s work, in the process turning the series rather starkly away from old and tired notions of the misunderstood monster. It begins in fact with the Swamp Thing running from soldiers who are tightening a noose of helicopters, flamethrowers, and searchlights. Once this chase is done with, however, and the Swamp Thing is sent off to the Sunderland Corporation, whose evil work provides much opportunity for villainy, then Moore’s take on the creature can really begin.
Over the next few issues, the Swamp Thing is not so much chased by the forces of human civilization as he is put through the wringer in order to test what shreds of humanity still remain inside his vegetative carcass. In the process he becomes something of a proto-environmental hero, defending the mysteries of the unknown natural world against mankind’s bright-lit and bulldozing rapaciousness.
“This ghost dressed in weeds” has a mordant bent, his mostly-solitary nature giving the narration-happy Moore plenty of opportunity to soliloquize in dark poetic strings of thought. Moore’s creature moons over his lost humanity and the tragic quality of his love for the human Linda with a zestfully (and sometimes too obviously) literary spirit: issue 22 even has the Swamp Thing debating these issues, Hamlet-like, with a skull.
Before this part of the series has run its course, the Swamp Thing has gone to battle against a more homicidal version of himself, who takes its desire to protect the wild against mankind to the level of mass homicide, and even the devil himself, in an episode that brings to mind the dark theatricality of early Sandman comics. It’s a dense story to get through in just eight issues, and by the end of it, some of Moore’s more annoying tics can become particularly wearying.
Although Moore’s fractured narratives can be rendered with fluid but daunting complexity by the inspired team of artists (Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, Rick Veitch, Tom Yeates), it’s all the comic can do to sustain the weight of his apocalyptic bent. Moore’s writing here is still fresh and the ideas still inspire chills, but there’s the hint of the showoff here at times, almost as though Moore knew exactly what he was being allowed to get away with, and wanted to dump everything he had right out there on the page, just in case this experiment in artistic license was going to come to an end.