“Read a Damn Book – 133: Saga of the Swamp Thing – Book One”
Over the last several months I’ve been trying to work my way through some “classic” literary materials, foundational books that helped establish entire genres---and they are absolutely boring me to tears. I’ve decided that what I need to do, when I get to the point that I’m not enjoying a book anymore, (however important or foundational it may be or how much CRED I could establish by finishing it,) I’m going to set it aside and move on to something that I DO enjoy. (To thine own self be true…) And my first “ENJOYMENT” book is Alan Moore’s initial run of stories about a certain swampy beast---and let me tell you, I do LOVE this book!!! I read it two times in a row before writing this review, it's so damn good…
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual digital book that I read. The image is included for review purposes only!]
Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, and John Totleben – Saga of the Swamp Thing – Book One (1987/2009)
Swamp Thing, the character, was created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson back in 1970 for an issue of The House of Secrets, one of DC’s horror titles. The character proved so popular (this is all according to Len Wein’s introduction in this collection, and he seems like a reliable witness, to me) that the character was given his own series, and Wein and Wrightson kept him going until they got bored---a few other folks plonked on for a few issues---but then the title was cancelled and shelved. A few years after the book was killed, director and horror GOD, Wes Craven, decided he wanted to make a movie out of the character, (the film was released in 1982,) and DC figured they should resurrect the comic to coincide with (or “cash in on???”) the movie. Len Wein came back on board as an editor for the project, and it had a decent run under writer, Martin Pasko, and artist, Tom Yeats, but after 19 issues, Pasko decided to quit and Yeats went with him. Yeats’s two assistants, Stephen Bissette and John Totleben, asked if they could take over the project, and Wein said yes (a brilliant move, as the pair drew an exceptionally creepy world for the swamp creature to lurk in)---but Wein was still left without an author for the character he helped to create. He decided to call a fairly unknown (at least in the U.S.) British fellow named Alan Moore (who we now all know as a brilliant storyteller with a deep, slow Droogie voice, who is also a practicing magician) to offer him the job, and Moore promptly hung up on him. Eventually, according to Wein, he was able to convince Moore that his offer to write for DC wasn’t a joke---and we now have this delightfully ghoulish comic as a result of Wein’s foresight and instincts (and tenacity when conversing over the phone.)
This book collects the first eight issues of Saga of the Swamp Thing written by Moore. It starts with an issue called “Loose Ends,” (issue #20,) in which Moore BULLDOZES the storyline established by Pasko and Yeats, kills off a bunch of characters, blows a bunch of shit up, and ends with the Swamp Thing being shot in the head… In the very next issue, the TRUE horror begins, and this story, called “The Anatomy Lesson,” not only redefined the Swamp Thing, formerly known as Alec Holland, but completely transformed horror in mainstream comics. (Arguably, Swamp Thing is THE title that inspired the creation of the entire Vertigo line of mature horror titles for DC.)
Bissette and Totleben, who contribute magnificently to the title, make use of a sometimes scratchy, sometimes extremely precise line, frantic panel designs, frequent close-ups and “panel tricks” (like moving the “camera-eye” out from what we thought was just a clump of weeds and mud to reveal that it’s actually a BODY that has been covered by vegetation,) to unsettle and disorient the reader. Their artwork plays off Moore’s text, sometimes contrasting the language and tone of the text, as when a group of young kids at an institution all claim to be experiencing horrifying visitations in the night by an evil monster, but the drawings we see are all scrawled kid’s scribblings. The monsters are somehow silly and terrifying at the same time! Bissette and Totleben manage to capture the nightmare content that Moore is writing about in images that will help OTHERS have some fine nightmares of their own!
And Moore’s frequent slips into dream and hallucination also tend to jolt and unsettle the reader. Or, maybe what he’s doing is taking us into that liminal “thought realm” that he refers to in many of his interviews, where ideas have their own reality that is semi-independent of the dreamer / imaginer, but from which magicians and creative types can draw inspiration. Regardless of the source of his stories, the images and ideas presented in these pages work together to push the reader further and further from the known (and “safe”) world of normality and daylight into a shadow realm of monsters and madness. This is physical horror, psychological horror, gross-out horror, and---thanks to all the MONSTERS that show up, including the “star” of the series---WONDER-horror (being frightened and fascinated and unable to look away, all at the same time!) We do, of course, forget sometimes that the Swamp Thing, himself (ITself??), is a TRUE MONSTER, too---until he reminds us!
This all works because Moore’s writing is superb. He describes, in one scene, a creature that comes to an autistic child, just after it’s killed the boy’s parents. The child hears screaming, and then (in a series of creepily draw, angled panels) Moore (or the narrator) describes what happens as the screaming stops and the house falls silent: “And then the footsteps… / and the light as his bedroom door swung open. But that was not the most awful thing. / It was the way it nuzzled against him… / It was the way that the fur on its snout was sticky when it kissed his hand… / THAT was the most awful thing” (p. 14). The only real image we get of this creature, as it approaches the child, is a distorted reflection of the thing in the wide-open eye of the terrified boy, paralyzed with fear. But we get his reaction, his terror, and we share his paralysis with him…
What Moore brings to this title isn't just a literary sensibility, it's a way of telling a story so that WHAT is happening in the tale is far less important than how what is happening is affecting the people it is happening to! We get a perspective on the terror, which helps us relate to the terror. It’s a sophisticated technique that is rare (not only in comics but in horror in general, and the reason that something like Psycho is so much more effective than the thousands of “slasher kills naughty teenagers” films.) Moore takes the horror out of the abstract (he’s not reporting the news) and puts it into the lives of his characters. And Bissette and Totleben have found a way to visualize the horror for us, through framing, through repetition of images, and through atmospherics, (thanks in no small part to Tatjana Wood’s ferocious pallet and gruesome color choices. In one frightening sequence, Swamp Thing’s eyes are painted a ridiculous BRIGHT RED with little, yellow irises, which is HORRIFYING when we see them in close-up!) This creative team have came up with a sophisticated, adult horror package, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in mainstream comics since the glory days of E.C.’s Tales from the Crypt. (And, although there is SOME humor in this collection, it’s not particularly ironic, as E.C.’s books were---the stories in Swamp Thing are true HORROR tales…)
Unlike Watchmen or From Hell, this isn’t an extremely gory or sexual series. (It still had a Comics Code Authority emblem on the cover.) There’s no nudity, there isn’t much objectionable language, and the gore and sexual content are primarily off “camera,” but again, (as Hitchcock taught us,) sometimes the IMPLICATION can be more explicit, as our minds will conjure scenes of gruesome horror that far outstrip what an artist might be able to display for us. (Unless that artist is Eddie Campbell, in which case, as in From Hell, there is nothing more gruesome than what he can draw. He is a sick genius---a true Artist in the fullest sense of the word…) With that said, the stories in Saga of the Swamp Thing – Book One are disturbing. Moore has captured the world of NIGHTMARES, perfectly, and Totleben and Bissette give it disgusting and unsettling form. However, it is the sophistication, the TECHNIQUE, employed here that makes the storytelling so effective. I love this book. I’ve read it three times already (and bought it twice,) and I’m certain beyond the Shadow of the Valley of Doubt that I will read it again. I also need to get the NEXT volume, which I’ve never read! (If I were a wealthy man, I would have purchased it many years ago---but I ain’t.)
So if you’re looking for some solid chills, a little bit of gross-out, and some wonderfully freaky MONSTERS, there are few books (I can’t think of any off the top of my head---Sandman, maybe) that are going to give you more bang for your buck. It’s a great read, and it’s made me hungry for more ENJOYMENT titles to read (as opposed to those stuffy “classics” I’ve been suffering through.) Reading should be a joy---a delight---and if you are delighted by horror, then this is one book you absolutely need to read…
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
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