Saga of the Swamp Thing: Swamp Thing #01
by Alan Moore
Reviewed by John Pistelli
In Alan Moore's inaugural issue of Swamp Thing, reprinted for the first time in Vertigo's hardcover reissue of the acclaimed mid-'80s fantasy/horror series, the titular creature muses about his place in a world "full of shopping malls and striplights and software" where the "dark corners are being pushed back." Had Moore brought his passionate lyricism and moral seriousness to bear on this theme alone, he would have been remembered for crafting a uniquely intelligent comic book in a period before the medium had earned the respect of academics, journalists, and readers. What sets Swamp Thing apart even today, however, is that Moore does not content himself with the often justifiable anti-modern lament of so much horror and fantasy fiction.
The storyline which follows Moore's first issue on the series redefines what had been a fairly cliche muck monster. It turns out, in Moore's story, that Swamp Thing is not the vegetally-mutated form of Alec Holland, a scientist murdered while working on plant-growth formula in the Louisiana swamp, but rather an ambulatory, sentient plant provoked by the formula to shape itself around the consciousness of Holland. Moreover, since he is a plant, Swamp Thing has access to the collective mind of all vegetation (called the Green in the language of the book's mythos). In one clever twist of the plot, possible only in genre fiction, Moore dispatches the Judeo-Christian ideology of humanity's sacred superiority to nature -- a worldview that legitimates man's often ruinous and wasteful dominion over the environment.
Swamp Thing's battle with his nemesis Jason Woodrue, a somewhat ludicrous minor DC Comics villain who can control plant growth, disabuses us of the notion that Moore is an eco-fundamentalist or deep ecologist who would countenance planetary depopulation for the sake of nature. When Woodrue accesses the Green and harnesses its anger against human aggression to begin a general slaughter, Swamp Thing reminds him that humans and plants literally provide the air each other breathes: the proper relationship between humanity and its environment is one of respectful, loving reciprocity, a theme brilliantly literalized in Moore's later stories of the visionary sex between Swamp Thing and his human lover, Abby.
Indeed, one of the pleasures of this volume, particularly of its second, harrowing storyline about a home for autistic children menaced by a fear-eating monster, comes from watching the credibly slow and uncertain development of romance between Abby and Swamp Thing. Their love is a quiet idyll in a genre too given to the sensational, and it serves to repudiate a mere reactionary protest against environmental depredation by envisioning a creative symbiosis between human and vegetable, between the Green's ancient mind and humanity's modern consciousness. Often mistakenly tagged as a postmodernist on the basis of his revisionary super-hero story Watchmen, Moore -- who has devoted the last decade and a half to the occult -- is actually a Romantic monist in the tradition of Wordsworth and Emerson. Like them, he argues that one soul streams through both humanity and its environment, and that political and social institutions which fetter the world-soul should be overturned. Whether one agrees or not, this indisputably powerful vision gives Moore's work its intensity.
Swamp Thing initially won acclaim for its lush prose, a poetic eloquence rare in the visual medium of comics. For example, while Abby is working at the demon-plagued home for autistic children, Swamp Thing dreams about Alec Holland's murder-by-dynamite even as he senses trouble ahead: "He is propelled, a blazing stringless puppet stumbling through the flames like some Catholic martyr...and he screams...and falls...and wakes. And thinks: 'What is it that comes with autumn?' And knows: It is fear." The worldly metaphors ("some Catholic martyr") and the epic dignity of parataxis (the repeated "and") swerve from what could be portentousness in passages like this. Similarly, Moore's precise verbal descriptions add authenticating dimensions of sound, smell, and touch to the visuals, as when a mentally disturbed boy thinks that "the most awful thing" about the demon that haunts him "was the way that the fur on its snout was sticky when it kissed his hand." But we should not neglect the visuals themselves. The book's primary artists, penciller Stephen Bissette and inker John Totleben, employ a style heavy on symmetrical two-page spreads and inky lines that sweep across and through their compositions, while colorist Tatjana Wood largely restricts her palette to unifying earth tones. Wedded to Moore's sensuous narration, Swamp Thing's art creates an immersive reading experience, a gesamtkunstwerk of the page that embodies the book's holistic ethos even as it catches readers up into a new world.
Swamp Thing set a tone for adult horror/fantasy comics to follow, and, given the great influence of Alan Moore on an entire generation of artists, it no doubt has heirs in the darker precincts of popular art more generally. However, Vertigo's reissue of Moore's early work gives us an occasion to reflect on what the adjective "adult" might mean. In this book, at least, it denotes not ingenious methods of torture or a cruel and cynical attitude toward sex. Instead, the adulthood of Swamp Thing stems from sophisticated ideas about humanity's role in nature, an expansive vocabulary, an aesthetic rooted in traditions older than those of comics and pulp fiction, a rich stock of allusions (to Bacon, Bulgakov, Hitchcock, Eno, Agee and others), and a tender portrayal of vulnerable, thoughtful people striving to make a life in often horrific circumstances.