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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