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Alan Moore’s ‘Swamp Thing’: Volume One | COMIC BOOK SPOTLIGHT

It’s kind of hard to imagine the modern day comic book medium without Alan Moore. From his work on V for Vendetta to the landscape redefining Watchmen, Alan Moore has probably had a bigger influence on the medium than any other writer in modern time. Yet for all of his work he’s only ever done one relatively mainstream reoccurring series where he wasn’t the creator. And since the show recently began and was sadly canceled on the DC Universe streaming service, what better time is there to take a look at said series? This is Comic Book Spotlight shining a spotlight on the first volume of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing.

Published from 1984-1987, Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing is often cited as the reason why anyone cares about Len Wein’s 1971 creation. What makes his run on the book particularly interesting, however, is that it’s an Alan Moore comic that doesn’t really feel like an Alan Moore comic while still absolutely being an Alan Moore comic. Confused? Well, it’ll become clear soon enough.

You see the thing about Alan Moore stories is that they’re distinctly his stories where he controls the beginning, middle, and end. Sure, he’s worked on other mainstream superheroes like Superman and Batman but typically speaking those stories were written on his own terms. Unlike many other contemporary comics, they were stories that felt like their own self-contained tales as opposed to being just another arc of an ongoing series. Take Batman: The Killing Joke for example. By modern standards, it’s very much a typical Batman vs Joker story but it tells a story that was wrapped up by the time the book reached its end. We had the Joker break out of Arkham, his kidnapping of Jim Gordon, and the final confrontation between the two that came to a rather conclusive ending. Sure, you have to be familiar with the relationship between the two to really get what is going on, but it’s not a story that is led into from a previous arc nor does it try to build up to any future stories. See also Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? and Superman: For the Man Who Has Everything for further examples of this. This, however, is where Swamp Thing is profoundly different.

When Alan Moore jumped onto the series it was well into its initial run with the first 19 issues having been handled by another creative team that had already established and/or created the main supporting cast of the series. By the time he wrote his first issues in the series the majority of the plot points that we normally associate with Swamp Thing, (mainly his conflict with Anton Arcane), had already been resolved with Alec Holland emerged triumphant over his arch nemesis. So, it begs the question as to what can Alan Moore do with such a story that was more or less already finished. Well, for a lack of better words, he Alan Moored it up!

The volume in question starts right after the apparent final battle with Anton Arcane. As he looks through the wreckage of Arcane’s machines another organization goes after Swamp Thing and apparently kills him and this is where things get interesting. When tasked with performing the autopsy, a relatively unknown DC villain named Doctor Jason Woodrue makes a troubling discovery. You see up until this point, Swamp Thing had been going on the assumption that he was his alter ego, Alec Holland who had been transformed into a plant creature. The truth, however, was a little more unsettling.

As it had turned out Alec had in fact been doused with an experimental chemical that was meant to help plant growth. When Alec ran out into the swamp while he was on fire he did, in fact, die. The plant life within the swamp, however, affected by the chemicals, ended up consuming Alec’s body and how took on his conscience as well giving this plant creature, or Swamp Thing, the impression that he was, in fact, Alec Holland. From then on, the story is all about Swamp Thing deciding what this actually means for him and how he will go forward with his life.

In this Alan Moore does what he always does with almost every property he touches. He completely reinvents said character and, in the process, recontextualize all of their stories since their inception. See also Miracle Man, The Joker in The Killing Joke and the classical literature characters in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for more examples of this. In this case, it takes Alec Holland’s previous struggles and hopes to reclaim his humanity and says that they were, in fact, all for not and takes away any hopes for the future that he and the readers may have had for that. It’s a fairly dark twist that subverts our expectations of stories like these that either make or break one’s perception of it. It’s just a shame that they don’t go anywhere particularly interesting with it in this volume.

Now to be clear the first volume is not bad. When all is said and done Alan Moore very rarely writes objectively bad books. But unlike his most underwhelming or offensive books, there is something that feels relatively generic with this volume. You, of course, have the big reveal involving Alec’s identity but the subversion sadly doesn’t go any further than that. The way Swamp Thing goes about deciding what he wants to do involves a supervillain and him fighting him off to reaffirm his identity. Again, it’s not bad but it almost feels like the story is a bit beneath him; almost like he had to do something a bit more traditional in order to get his more interesting stuff approved.

For example, Alan Moore had done these kinds of stories before but there is usually more to it. In Watchmen, for example, this kind of arc was there with Night Owl but it also tied into his feelings of impotence in the current world that directly contributed to his erectile dysfunction. It’s only after he puts his cape and cowl back on and, in a sense, takes control of his life back, can he actually get it up again. In Miracle Man, flawed as the series was, the midlife crisis metaphors were obvious and showed just how destructive they could be to those around you. Unfortunately, Swamp Thing lacks any kind of subtext that comes close to this level making the titular character’s arc feel rather by the numbers. Once again, it’s not bad but it feels extremely underwhelming when compared to his other works like Watchmen or V For Vendetta.

In the end, the first volume of Swamp Thing is just fine. It has the mechanical qualities you come from a writer like Alan Moore but sadly lacks the depth that he is otherwise associated with. Is it the best place to start with Swamp Thing? Probably not. By it is an otherwise decent read that you’ll go through quickly and you won’t feel like you’ve wasted your time. Perhaps the later volumes are better but, as it stands, volume one is a perfectly adequate book.

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DOES X-MEN’S ‘DARK PHOENIX SAGA’ STILL HOLD UP? | COMIC BOOK SPOTLIGHT

The Dark Phoenix Saga is often considered to be one of the best and most influential storylines in not just the X-Men franchise, but in the entire comic book medium. Since it was first released in the early 80s the storyline has influenced countless other X-Men stories and has had an effect on its characters and history to this day. It has been adapted into two different live action films, as well as, two story arcs for two different X-Men animated series. And with the latest live-action X-Men film taking another crack at the story, what better time could there be to ask questions about the source material. Mainly this: Does the original Dark Phoenix Saga still hold up?

For those of you who may not be aware, the Dark Phoenix Saga was an extended X-Men storyline that ran in the Uncanny X-Men #129-138 throughout 1980 by the X-Men powerhouse creative team that was Chris Claremont and John Byrne. The storyline itself was more or less a continuation of the original Phoenix Saga which was also told in the Uncanny X-Men series, running from Issues #101-108. In that story, iconic X-Men member Jean Grey merged with a cosmic being known as The Phoenix and together the two saved the universe with the process apparently killing the two. Later on, however, Jean resurrected, taking up the new name, Phoenix and rejoined the X-Men. And this is where the Dark Phoenix Saga really started.

The storyline itself focuses on Jean and the other X-Men as they search for new mutants after Professor X returns to the X-Men from an extended absence. At the same time, the higherups of a secret, Illuminate-like organization known as The Hellfire Club began to hatch a scheme to manipulate Jean to become one of their members while planning to rid the world of the X-Men once and for all. Unfortunately, their plans have unintended side effects which allow Jean to access the full range of her Phoenix abilities, endangering not only those around her but the entire universe as well. And to answer the question from earlier, yes. The story absolutely does hold up and it’s easy to see why the book is considered to be such a classic. And yet, at the same time, it doesn’t.

You see, the actual plot of The Dark Phoenix Saga is otherwise solid. It mainly concerns the version factions within the X-Men corner of the Marvel Universe battling for control of Jean Grey and the Phoenix Force. The X-Men themselves are just trying to protect their friend. The Hellfire Club wants her to expand their own power. Jean herself eventually decides what she wants is at odds with everyone else and an additional faction comes into play with motivations of their own. And pretty much all of this is about as good as you would expect from a comic by Chris Clairmont in the early 80s. The challenges that the X-Men face within the book itself never stop being fun. The antagonists’ powers and strategies have a nice variety to them. The actual issues keep the reader engaged with plenty of action and constantly escalates the stakes. But, above all else, it knows how to invest the reader into the characters and their fates. And that’s where the story comes in and where things get a bit…debatable.

The actual story revolves around what is essentially the corruption and fall of Jean Grey. And this, unfortunately, is where the book gets into the eye-raising territory in terms of its themes and execution. Essentially Jean’s arc in The Dark Phoenix Saga can be summed up by calling it a good girl goes bad story and that would be fairly accurate. Before the events of the Phoenix Saga, the character of Jean Grey was about as milk toast as you could possibly get. She was the standard issue good girl character that writers love to use in love triangles or as a means of developing an otherwise loose cannon male character but are seldom interesting on their own terms. But then Jean gets her Phoenix powers and suddenly she’s not quite the wonder bread good girl she was in previous stories. This manifests in two way throughout the book. Jean has more power and seems to get more agency as a character than she otherwise had before. The second is that she seems to be more sexually adventurous than she was in previous books. The problem is that the creative team seems to view this as an absolute negative and this is where it gets a bit cringeworthy.

As the story goes on, Jean essentially becomes the most powerful member of the X-Men. She’s ultimately the one who defeats Emma Frost in the first act of the story and the X-Men can’t even come close to defeating her when the Hellfire Club turns her against them. In addition, this expansion of her power is signified by not so subtle ques of her…well essentially allowing her freak flag to fly. Early on in the story she ends up at a night club with Cyclops and keeps reading everyone’s minds, discovers that they all have sex on their minds and she’s kind of into it. Right after this, she materializes her and Scott’s uniforms out of thin air much to Scott’s shock and concern and her storyline goes on like that. It directly connects Jeans increasing power to her increasing sexual desires before they drop all subtlety and just turn her into a straight up dominatrix midway through the story.

Later on, they drive the point completely home in the last two issues of the Saga. In it they completely manage to suppress the Phoenix side of her, essentially reverting her to the character she was before she obtained the Phoenix force. It’s at this point that the X-Men are once again fully ready to fight and die for her once again. Not the powerful sexually driven Phoenix, but the milk toast Jean Grey that everyone loves. They even give her her old Marvel Girl outfit from the older X-Men comics just to make sure nobody missed the metaphor and the whole thing is very weird and uncomfortable.

Now, to be clear, it’s highly unlikely that Chris Claremont and John Byrne are or were sexist. One only need look at all the female characters the two created and the way they two wrote them to form a solid argument against that. It’s also worth noting that they try to get ahead of this with Professor X saying that the absolute power of the Phoenix will corrupt absolutely and do briefly dig into this idea. But the Dark Phoenix Saga does contain a lot of tropes that, if used in a modern story, would absolutely be considered sexist. It’s basically a storyline about a woman who gets power, discovers that she likes sex and is into less vanilla stuff before going nuts. But the weird thing about it though is that it never quite crosses into a full-blown sexist territory and still, on the whole, works as a story.

The storyline itself, of course, mainly centers on Jean and her transformation and it’s very debatable as to how well all of that stuff holds up. However, a good chunk of the story also revolves around the supporting characters as well and this is where the book is just flat out great. Cyclops’ reactions to all of this helps to cement him as the team’s biggest prick, (he’s the only one who seems to object to Jean becoming more powerful and more aggressive), but for the other characters, it’s a bit more complicated. Essentially, they’re watching one of their oldest friends turn into an unstoppable force of nature and the story is also about them trying to figure out how to deal with it. Wolverine still has feelings for Jean and isn’t sure that he’ll be able to do what needs to be done for perhaps the first time in his life. Storm views her as a sister and even Professor X feels like he’s failed one of his children by not preventing this from happening. And even if the means to get there are a bit cringeworthy, the actual drama surrounding these characters and how they deal with having to fight a surrogate sister is possibly the most compelling part of this entire endeavor.

There are, however, some aspects of the book that just flat out don’t work and/or don’t hold up. There are a lot of character moments that are done in a single thought bubble and rarely seem to be the focus of the panel often feeling like background noise. It has a weird tendency to explain what is going on in the panels even though the artwork clearly conveys what is going on. It also contains constant massive dumps of exposition that turns it into a bit of a slog to read. It’s not a deal breaker, but the style will undoubtedly cause some whiplash if say you’re coming from reading the latest X-Men story from Jonathan Hickman, and really shows how much the medium has changed over the past forty years. But if you can get past this initial hurdle it is absolutely worth checking out.

This, of course, leads us back to that initial question. Does the Dark Phoenix Saga still hold up? And, once again, the answer is yes and no. It’s kind of hard to look at Jean’s arc in the story and not see a “women shouldn’t have power” message or “women who are sexually empowered are bad” ideology behind it. And in today’s political climate, the #metoo movement, and the general rise of more left-oriented ideologies in mass-marketed fiction, it’s kind of hard not to see the Dark Phoenix Saga as part of the problem. But the actual plot itself and the drama the characters go through is still solid stuff and it’s easy to see why the book has remained an influential storyline for so long. It’ll be interesting to see just how future generations look at and interpret the book but the question of whether or not The Dark Phoenix Saga still holds up is one that is going to result in a very long and complicated answer.

RELATED: Lucifer: Book Two | One Hell Of A Read | Comic Book Spotlight

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‘Lucifer: Book Two’: One Hell Of A Read | Comic Book Spotlight

When it comes to the original Lucifer comic series it’s hard to imagine another book that starts out on such a flawed note. While not objectively bad the first book is one that is hard to flat out recommended. It’s not particularly well paced. It didn’t seem to have a clear idea as to where it was going. The arcs within the book seemed to go on forever and weren’t all that compelling unless it was flat our copying the format of its parent comic, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. The book was, to put it, quite frankly, a mediocre read and could easily permanently turn one off from the series even if, once again, it is not objectively bad. Luckily however the second book is a vast improvement over the first in every conceivable way and almost makes the first book worth reading through. And since the show’s fourth season was recently released on Netflix what better time could there be to take a look back at the comic that started it all? This is comic book spotlight shining a light on Lucifer: Book Two.

The story for Lucifer: Book Two picks up right where the previous story left off. After a series of events, Lucifer was able to find a way out of Gods domain and decided to create his own universe with newly gained abilities. In response to this, various factions across the cosmos begin to draw lines in the sand with some looking to reap the benefits of this new universe, others merely wanting the chance to serve Lucifer again while others look at this creation with more malicious intent. And, once again, it is a vast improvement over the first book in nearly every conceivable way.

You see the problem with having the main character be the actual devil is that it is a bit difficult to have narrative tension. Like Morpheus in Sandman, Lucifer is a nigh-omnipotent character who can make most of his problems go away with a wave of his hand. This, unfortunately, makes compelling stories revolving the character a difficult task at best and nearly impossible for a writer with no previous experience with an ongoing series. The first book would often attempt to level the playing field by either depowering Lucifer, throwing things just as powerful at him or have him go up against enemies that just might be smart enough to get one over on him. The end result was a bit mixed with only the latter of these really working and only just so. The more compelling stories, however, always followed the little people who got caught up in Lucifer’s schemes for better and for worse. And this is where Lucifer: Book Two makes its biggest improvement.

With a few notable acceptations, Lucifer: Book Two doesn’t actually focus on Lucifer as the main character. Writer Mike Carey clearly picked up on the fact that the best stories in those early arcs didn’t focus on Lucifer as the protagonist. They centered around Jill and her friends who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when Lucifer was in town. Or they more effectively focused on Elaine and her bizarre connections to all of this and how Lucifer irrevocably changed their lives. And just about every story arc in this book focuses in on these kinds of characters and is immediately more compelling as a result.

The story that perhaps best sums the quality of the entire book is the Nirvana story that takes place after the first arc. The story itself mainly revolves around a woman named Cai Yue who is currently grieving after the apparent suicide of her husband. At the same time an ancient immortal being, known as The Silk Man, as cuts a deal with a vengeful angel to destroy Lucifer once and for all while Lucifer himself is hot on his trail.

What makes this story so special is that it perfectly encapsulates everything that is good about this book. Our main character is the definition of an ordinary person who gets caught up in cosmos schemes and has her life irrevocably altered as a result. In this particular instance, Cai Yue’s arc her getting over the death of her husband, realizing what kind of person he actually was and does so by being exposed to forces that no mortal should ever look upon. At the same time, it gives us a worthy antagonist for Lucifer to face off against who just might be smart enough to take him down. It knows how to keep us interested in its characters. It’s perfectly paced in a way that helps build suspense. It keeps us guessing as to how antagonist plans on taking Lucifer down and how Cai Yue fits into all this while knowing that the answer cannot be good. All the while it shows just how resourceful and utterly horrifying Lucifer can be and just about every arc in the story follows in a similar suite.

Some of the arcs further the development of supporting characters like Jill and Elaine. Other introduce original characters and quickly invest us in their worlds and stories. Sometimes it involves the complicated hierarchies of demons in hell and the new status quos without Lucifer at the top. Other times it gives us a look at the world that Lucifer created and just how insignificant the people are to him in the grand scheme of things. The actual quality of these stories is consistent from story to story ensuring that its reader won’t stop midway through any of the stories, making it a constant page-turner of a book.

That’s not to say, however, that the book doesn’t have its flaws. It never quite gets to the same level of profound as say Sandman even though its clearly trying. Lucifer himself is kind of a difficult character to root for given how unambiguously evil he is and many of his actions almost make you want his enemies to win. It also has to be said that the writers still haven’t quite figured out how to build up to a big finale as the books last story arc isn’t properly foreshadowed or build up to in any previous arc. But there are all minor complaints in the grand scheme of things.

In the end, Lucifer: Book Two is a massive improvement over its predecessor. Its story arcs are better written. Its characters are more interesting and the worlds they inhabit are more fully realized. And, above all else, it never bores you and makes you want to know what comes next. It’s hard to say if it’s worth going through the first book to get to this one but, on its own, Lucifer: Book Two is a hell of a read. Check it out!

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