Monday, 11 March 2013

Saga of the Swamp Thing Book Five Review

The fifth book collecting Alan Moore’s legendary run writing Swamp Thing is the second collection of Swamp Thing that I haven’t read previously. So far, the first three volumes have been rereads for me. During my first attempt at reading Moore’s Swamp Thing, I had mixed feelings. I recognized the sheer revolutionary power of his first 18 months on the title but after reading several issues consisting of Moore commenting on the mythology of America, I gave up. It was too preachy and, at the same time, hollow for my tastes. Last time, in my review of volume four, I mentioned the greatness that is to be found in the second half of the American Gothic storyline and I was once again spurred to continue reading Swamp Thing.

Once again I encountered my main problem with Alan Moore written comics with the first two issues of Book Five: momentum. I realize that it’s unfair to Moore that I seem to dislike all the issues of Swamp Thing that are less than spectacular. It’s either an excellent issue or an ok issue when it comes to his writing on this book. The thing is that’s how these issues read. My read problem though, isn’t exactly momentum. Moore’s formalistic approach to writing comics sucks the life out of whatever it is his writing. There is little or no energy at all to his writing and when a comic he wrote does display some kinetic and energetic storytelling it’s more often than not due to his collaborators than to Moore’s writing. His comics are too rigid; they’re not allowed to breathe under Moore’s guidance. On some occasions this style works really well but other times the story just falls flat.

Swamp Thing vs. Batman? Yup, and this
is Moore's run changing into a lower gear.
After the last book’s issue #50, I was expecting issue #51 to be a quieter story and it is. The problem is that it a set up for Swamp Thing’s Space Odyssey that truly begins in issue #56, the last issue in this collection. But, as you can imagine, Alan Moore sets up the story very well and he adds some nice element to the Swamp Thing mythos and there are even several good character moments which should not be surprising after 20+ issues. Swamp Thing is one of Moore’s most contemplatively moody series I’ve read and that tone leads to quieter stories. I didn’t know it at the time but issue #50 marked the last bombastic Swamp Thing story that Moore would write (yes, I’m aware of how ridiculous that sounds). The rest of the series is composed of quieter stories that still tell horrifying and moving stories about Swamp Thing and Abby Cable.

This collection turns the focus to Abby. The story deals with her relationship with the law after photos of her intimate relationship with Swamp Thing are revealed to the public in a newspaper. Swamp Thing returns from his war against Evil to find that Abby has seemingly disappeared. With these issues Moore juggles interesting character drama with Abby while also setting up an introspective journey through space for Swamp Thing.

An interesting thing about this collection is the similarities with Moore’s other comic work at the time, notably Watchmen with Dave Gibbons.  The similarities between issue 56 and the Watchmen issue where Dr. Manhattan goes to Mars are fascinating. I would really like to reread both those issue and discuss them further. For now, I’ll settle by saying issues 56 is one of the most interesting issues of Moore’s entire time as writer on Swamp Thing because of the way it encapsulates so much of what has already happened in the series and turning it against his main character in strange and frightening ways.

Swamp Thing is blue and he's alone on
a deserted planet reminiscing on the past.
Sound familiar? It should.
There are also similarities between Swamp Thing’s funeral issue in Gotham and the Comedian’s funeral issue in Watchmen (rain, a statue, people having flashbacks and what if scenarios intercutting the funeral scenes, one vigilante talking about another not quite vigilante). These elements may seem like elements that don’t share much with one another but it certainly doesn’t read that way. Was Alan Moore trying out storytelling techniques in Swamp Thing before leaving the title? Was it a way for him to practice before writing a work that was newer to him and maybe more important to him (I would argue Swamp Thing was ultimately more important to the world of comics than Watchmen). He seems to have done what he wanted to do on the title already. As far as I can tell, based on what Steve Bissette wrote in the introduction to volume 5 and volume 6 Moore’s story was being led in directions that Rick Veitch was more interested in and Moore agreed to go in that direction having done all there was to be done with horror in comics (no kidding).

In short, volume five goes off in a new direction for both the creators and the readers. Swamp Thing continues to be a very good comic even though it’s going through some changes in tone, characters and a change in art teams.  

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