Thursday, May 1, 2008

Hamlet Covered in Snot

Alan Moore and (Saga of the) Swamp Thing (1984 - 87)

Gabriele Dell’Otto’s rendering of Swamp Thing and Abby Cable appeared as part of Alan Moore: Portrait of An Extraordinary Gentleman, a book to celebrate the creator’s fiftieth year.

WRITER Alan Moore - along with American creative force Frank Miller - was responsible for the injection of comic book relevancy in the 1980s. The Northampton resident’s literary skills moved mainstream superheroes ahead of popular culture, lacing fantasies with the nihilism of the liberal-minded, disenfranchised youth of Thatcher's Britain and Reagan's America; and as DC’s second attempt at a Swamp Thing running title was heading for cancellation, the company agreed to give him an unprecedented free rein. By the time Moore’s tenure had ended, the series had won most of comics top awards, and monthly sales had risen from 17,000 to over 100,000.

(Saga of the) Swamp Thing ushered in a bold new age for American comics: the so-called British Invasion. Moore dismissed everything that had gone before on the book; readers who had followed the Bayou monster’s attempt to restore his lost humanity for more than a decade saw their hero swept into an entirely opposite direction - not only would Swamp Thing not regain his humanity, he never had it to begin with. In the masterwork 'The Anatomy Lesson,' an autopsy discovers that the creatures’ body was only superficially human, its organs little more than crude, non-functional, vegetable-based imitations. This meant the Swamp Thing was not scientist Alec Holland, but only thought it was: a “ghost dressed in weeds,” where the vegetation had absorbed his mind, knowledge, memories, and skills to create a sentient being. Moore would later reveal that there had been dozens, perhaps even hundreds of Swamp Things since the dawn of mankind, and that all versions were defenders of the Parliament of Trees, an elemental community also known as The Green that represented all plant life on Earth.

(Saga of the) Swamp Thing #21 - which contained 'The Anatomy Lesson' - would change the character forever. It was a revelation that, like the best of revelations, felt so obvious we ought to have guessed it all along.

This innovation opened up the boundaries for a title which had been painfully restricted. A plethora of intriguing new abilities were suddenly available, with Swamp Thing able to mutate, transport himself around the globe, explore space, and even experience love on both a physical and emotional level. The monster’s consummation with Abby Cable in the extraordinary 'Rites of Spring' saw the first comic to exclusively focus on a sex act between members of different animal kingdoms, and was an indication just how far Moore had brought the title in his first year. In the comic book world sex is usually limited to large breasts, rippling muscles and thigh-length boots, but it is made abundantly clear that Swamp Thing and Abby’s partnership is based on love. We watch as they navigate through their first sexual encounter, Abby as confused about the mechanics of the process as we are. By eating a fruit that the Swamp Thing plucks from his back, Abby is transported to a psychedelic wonderland; instead of an external sexuality for the delight of the readers, the two share a private fulfilment that we are allowed to observe. Their communion is beautifully rendered on the page, awash in spirals and orgasms, without showing anything that could be considered titillating or censorable.

Moore’s run provided other nuances, including the creation of John Constantine - who helps Swamp Thing evolve into an elemental deity - and Hippie Chester Williams. The writer also included several of the obscure or forgotten (Phantom Stranger, Floronic Man et al), cementing DC's supernatural characters into a consistent mythology. But no re-introduction was as illuminating than 'Pog', which resurrects Walt Kelly's funny animal character Pogo (created in 1943). More than a simple homage, the story is a commentary on the lost innocence of the old comics, the cruelty of humans (“the loneliest animal of all”), and the destruction of a natural beauty that can never be reclaimed. Moore also experimented with form that would affect the standing of the DC universe: his characterisation of the Justice League in #24 - for example - would become a touchstone for the deconstructionist super-heroics that followed.

Alan Moore’s work crosses genre boundaries like no other, ranging from farce and high comedy to the dark, grim work that epitomised the comics revolution of the 1980s.

It was during issues #29-31 that DC, seeing what it had, dropped from the title's cover the box showing approval by Comics Code Authority - the self-censoring body established to keep comics safe for kids. DC replaced this with Sophisticated Suspense, running above the title's logo, signalling readers as to the content. At the time, this was an unprecedented move. It would lead in time to the label “Suggested for Mature Readers” - the titles carrying this label would form the basis of the Vertigo imprint.

Moore's Swamp Thing is filled with aggressive metaphors and narrative structures; stories end with a line or an image from the opening, creating a satisfying circular structure. The scribe publicly regretted, not long after his run, the pretentiousness of such designs. But these were the thoughts of a successful artist attempting to stay new: whatever critical overtones we may add in retrospect, the literary intelligence of Moore's run on the title was the single most important work that made comics unafraid of experiment. Every time a mainstream superhero barely features in his own title - or tries to craft a psychologically compelling tale of human longing - we have Alan Moore to thank.