Back Issue Bin: Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing

Swamp Thing #20-53, 60-61, 63-64
Written by Alan Moore
Art by Stephen Bissette and Rick Veitch

Before Watchmen, Alan Moore was simply known as the guy who saved Swamp Thing from cancellation. The series was born out one story in the horror anthology House of Secrets in the 1970s. The unnamed Swamp Monster proved so popular that creator Len Wein recast the story in the present day and gave the character an origin. He was Dr. Alec Holland, a scientists working in the bayous of Lousiana on a “bio-restorative” formula. Its end purpose would be to turn arid environments into lush forests. His lab is attacked and a fire is started, engulfing Holland. The poor man runs into the waters of the swamp where he dies from the burns, blood loss, and trauma. However, he was coated with the formula during the attack and his essences mixes with the swamps. He is reborn as a plant humanoid, with the memories of Alec Holland. All in all, it wasn’t too spectacular of a series and sales reflected it. That is until the British comics writer Alan Moore said he would taking over writing the series. He was given a handful of issues to turn sales around and that’s just what he did.

Moore’s first issue (Saga of Swamp Thing #21) is very reader inaccesible, but he had tie up the plot point left by the previous writer and he did so fairly well in one issue, ending with the death of the main character. Odd way to start a run on a series. The next issue is where he really kicks into gear. In this single issue, Moore completely resets the status quo of the series, with Swamp Thing learning he isn’t Alec Holland, but merely a mass of vegetation given sentience by the dying Holland’s consciousness and the formula. Now that Swamp Thing realizes he isn’t human, his behavior becomes increasingly alien. The series itself switches from a standard superhero comic into some mish mash of that and a horror series. Artist Steve Bissette is incredibly effective with his macabre, otherworldly illustrations. The enemies the creature fights from this point are not one who can be defeated through brute force alone, and stories take on a very philosophical bent.

One of the standout issues deals with Swamp Thing’s long running relationship with Abby Cable. Even upon discovering he is not the man she thought he was, Abby refuses to abandon him, seeing goodness in the human nature of his soul. They have sex which is one of the strangest love scenes I guarantee you have ever seen. It involves Swamp Thing growing strange fruit on himself, and Abby eating some. The fruit secretes hallucinogens and cause Abby’s consciousness to leave her body temporarily and merge with the plant life. Its a very clear example of how Moore writes comics in a more intelligent and mature way than most writers. He acknowledges the superhero tropes but he also doesn’t feel constrained by them. On the other hand, he doesn’t see spandex outfits and extraordinary powers as “cheesy” or “lame”. He is a great appreciator of the depth and breadth of comic books.

While Saga of Swamp Thing was on the verge of cancellation around issue 30, it went on to run until issue 171, a feat that would have been impossible without Alan Moore’s writing. Moore didn’t change or reinvent comics, he simply wrote them better than they had ever been written before. All the melodrama and soap opera are there, they’re just done in a skilled and crafty way. I particularly remember the inclusion of Golden Age villain Solomon Grundy (familiar if you grew up watching Super Friends). Despite being created forty years apart, Swamp Thing and Grundy had suspiciously similar origins. Moore, being a comic book fan, knew this and made it part of the story. It is such a smart little note of continuity for him to have picked up on and its something that continues to resonate with the Grundy character today. If you are looking for an amazingly literary comic you’ll find no better than Moore’s work on this series.

Back Issue Bin: Marvels

Superhero comics are traditionally told from the point of view of the beings of great power. From time to time we glimpse the man on the street reacting to the “gods” battling above his head. In 1994, writer Kurt Busiek and painter Alex Ross united to create a ground breaking mini-series that would influence comics books still today. If you know anything about comic books in the 1990s, you know that it was the boom and bust period. X-Men #1 sold a million copies, a group of upstart creators left Marvel to form Image, DC gimmicked the hell out of the Death of Superman. There was a cynicism that underlined the majority of material being released. Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns had really colored everything that came after them, but were interpreted for all the wrong elements. It appeared the average comic creator saw those texts and thought “higher levels of violence and sexuality”, instead of “tightly crafted storytelling and manipulation of the genre tropes”. Busiek and Ross decided to take readers back to a time when heroes were objects of wonder, not agents of destruction.

Marvels was originally released as four prestige format books. Each book focused on an era of Marvel Comics history, not paying attention to any sort of real time continuity. Issue one is the story of the World War II era heroes (Captain America, Human Torch, The Submariner). Issue two was a look at the beginnings of the Silver Age in the early 1960s as well as the anti-mutant sentiments beginning. Issue three was the invasion of Earth by Galactus. And issue four was the story of the Death of Gwen Stacy, a moment that marked the end of innocence for the Marvel Universe. All four issues are told from the perspective of photographer Phil Sheldon. Sheldon works for The Daily Bugle, and is even a casual acquaintance with young upstart Peter Parker. Sheldon lives in New York City with his family and is front stage for the rise and fall of the “gods” of his lifetime. This human perspective adds so much and the events being revisited even if you are a long time Marvel Zombie or someone totally unfamiliar with the key moments in the universe.

In many ways Marvels is the story of why people have faith and how they lose it. In the Marvel Universe, World War II is much different due to the participation of superheroes. Captain America in particular is a Messianic figure, saving the world from the Nazis, and “dying” while in battle with his arch-nemesis. His subsequent “resurrection” by the Avengers in the 1960s is the Second Coming for people like Phil. Mr. Fantastic and The Invisible Girl are like a royal couple when they get hitched atop the Baxter Building, an event Phil gets to cover for the Bugle. There’s definite parallels between this couple and the Kennedys, as well  as the optimistic Camelot atmosphere around them both. There’s also a story about anti-mutant hatred that is an obvious metaphor for the civil rights issues that were ongoing during the 1960s, and Phil even brings up the strange contradiction between a people that so easily accept The Avengers yet revile The X-Men.

Marvels is one of the first comics I read that elicited a strong emotional response from me. Its a story told by men who were children when they first read the original stories, and are now retelling them with a mixture of childhood nostalgia and tempered adult reality. The mix is what makes Marvels such a poignant story. Phil’s daughters grow up in a world of wonder, where men and women really can fly, and the good guys defeat the bad guys. Phil came of age during The Great Depression so this is the dream he always wanted for his family, the opposite of the cards he was dealt. When the moment comes that the Silver Age ends, and the Marvel Universe begins to head down a darker path, Phil is worried. Where the mini-series ends is a beautiful moment, Phil choosing to hope that the goodness he has come to believe in will always be there. If you are looking for a superhero comic that works as a perfect counterpoint to stories like Watchmen, this is definitely it.

Back Issue Bin: Y The Last Man #1-60

Here’s an entry from DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint. Y the Last Man ran from 2002 to 2008 and was written by Brian K. Vaughn, with art Pia Guerra. The covers were provided by the insanely talented J.G. Jones. If you’re a fan of Lost then you’re familiar wit Vaughn’s writing, he was a writer on staff for seasons 3, 4, and 5. He even received a Writer’s Guild nomination for his Season 4 work on the show. Y the Last Man is one of the comic book series that feels like a perfect framework for a television series as well. We have a regular cast of characters involved in one large arching story, with small six issues arcs along the way. The series looks at some issues of gender in global culture and is one of those great philosophical science fiction stories.

It’s present day, and Yorick Brown is an amateur escape artist practicing a classic Houdini trick while on the phone with his long distance girlfriend, Beth. In the middle of the conversation the world falls apart. It seems a virus has swept the globe in a freakishly quick amount of time killing every male animal on the planet, except for Yorick and his pet capuchin monkey Ampersand. The duo quickly find that the world is both different and depressingly familiar now that it is female dominated. The same sort of tribal mentality that ran patriarchal society is at work in the matriarchy. Some women believe this was an act of god to curse man for his millenia of foolishness. Some women are willing to kill any man they might see alive. Some women see this as biological catastrophe and are working to developing cloning technology to keep the human race alive. Into the mix is thrown Agent 355, a female member of a secret society dating back to the presidency of George Washington. Agent 355 is sent to protect Yorick as he journies from the States to Australia to find Beth.

The series has some wonderfully exciting moments. I’m reminded of a subplot that involves the belief that a group of male astronauts in the international space station might still be alive. Teaming up with scientists hiding out in a secret laboratory in the Midwest, Yorick and crew attempt to aid in the crew’s return to Earth. At the same time, a militant force of Israeli soldiers are closing in on Yorick whom they plan on using to reproduce. The Israeli angle is one of many interesting elements in the series. In real life, Israeli is the only military on Earth that have women as an integral part of defense. This means in Yorick’s world, the dominant military force are the Israelis. They are the only ones with battleships and air force pilots. There’s also some interest threads involving the Muslim world and what happens to it in a culture without men. If gender studies is something of interest to you, then Y will definitely leave you with some clever ideas to ponder.

Back Issue Bin: Animal Man #1-26

Animal Man #1-26 (1988-1990)
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Tom Grummett, Chas Truog, and Doug Hazelwood

It’s no secret that I love Grant Morrison’s work. He’s like the second coming of Julius Schwartz, the crazy DC Comics innovator of the Silver Age mixed with metaphysical, post-modern sensibilities. Just a year after Watchmen’s publication, Morrison wrote what was in many ways a response to Watchmen’s attempt at realism. With Animal Man, Morrison created a hyper real look at the comic book reality and its the relation of creator and creation. The fact that these were mainstream comics published by DC, yet so innovative and experimental is amazing. Its hard to see anything like this happening again, though there was a brief attempt with Brian Azzarello’s Architecture and Morality mini-series in 2006, more on that later.

Animal Man was created decades before, in 1965 in Strange Adventures. The character could take on the abilities of what ever animal life was in the vicinity, so if a bird was around he could fly, if an elephant was close he could charge with massive strength, etc. The character was pretty flat an uninteresting, and even ironically became a member of a team called The Forgotten Heroes in the early 1980s. It was in the late 1980s, that the young upstart Morrison, newly imported from the UK was given the character. DC deemed it fairly safe to test the young writer out on a superhero with little fanbase invested in him, so if he screwed up it wouldn’t cause very much damage. What Morrison managed to do was turn Animal Man into one of the most complex and interesting characters DC published. The character continues on in popularity, having been a major player in events in the last five years, as well as getting his own eight issue mini-series.

Morrison began things by making Buddy Baker, the civilian identity of Animal Man, a family man. He had a wife, Ellen, and two kids, Cliff and Maxine. In the first story arc of the series, Buddy become involved in a battle between fellow animal-linked hero B’Wana Beast and a company using animals for scientific testing. The story is dark and poignant and there aren’t your typical hero versus villain battles. B’Wana Beast dies and Buddy is changed significantly. In resulting stories he goes vegan, his powers now linked to the emotional spectrum of animals, feeling their suffering. Morrison doesn’t let him get away with this easily, and Buddy ends up in some heated arguments with Ellen who doesn’t appreciate Buddy forcing his personal lifestyle change on the rest of the family. As you can tell, this is not the sort of thing you expect from comic books and its incredibly refreshing.

The most mind blowing story up this point came in Animal Man #5, “The Coyote Gospel”. In this story, a humanoid coyote wanders the desolate roads of the American southwest. He’s hunted by an obsessive truck driver who kills him, only for the coyote to rise from the dead again and again. Animal Man, who plays a very backseat role in this story, shows up and the coyote hands him a scroll. The story shifts to the content of the scroll which explains that this coyote came from a universe very much like that of the Warner Brothers cartoons. The inhabitants lived in a state of un-death, dying but constantly ressurecting. This coyote finally became fed up and question his world’s creator. The creator, depicted as a man in a plaid pants and wielding a paintbrush condemned the coyote to wander other worlds. Morrison pulls us back to show that to Animal Man’s eyes the scroll is unintelligible chicken scratch. He tells the coyote that he can’t read this and at that moment the trucker fires, shooting the coyote point blank in the head and killing him. The final full page panel is off a hand drawing this scene which has faded away partially at the bottom as just a simple pencil sketch.

This single issue serves as the thesis statement for the rest of Morrison’s run on the series. He begins to deconstruct the ideas of continuity in comics and how Animal Man’s original creator and his own intentions for the character are drastically different. Morrison looks at the idea of the multiverse and about what happens to comic book characters who are forgotten and never used. All of this culminates in a meeting between Animal Man and Morrison himself. What also has to be one of the trippiest moments in comics books occurs during this run, as Animal Man has gone to a mountaintop and taken peyote in an attempt to break free from the physical constraits of his universe. In this moment, he suddenly feels that he is being watched, then looks right up at the reader, shouting that he can see you, that he knows you are watching. Chills!

As further reading, Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang got together for a very small series of back up stories in the mini-series Tales of the Unexpected (2006). Much like Morrison’s stories, these explore the nature of forgotten characters and their relationship with their creators. The series is a lot of fun and features some crazy characters (Genius Jones, Infectious Lass, The Gorilla Brigade) as well as poking fun at DC’s editorial staff. It’s available in a collected edition titled Architecture and Morality.