Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

June 17, 2012

Comics I Read In Series Form In The 1980s: The Saga Of The Swamp Thing


Of all the comics I've been thinking about from the time period when I bought them almost exclusive in comic book form, Saga Of The Swamp Thing is the one I'd most like to re-read. I don't have any idea how good it is. Alan Moore played such a different game than the bulk of his peers that it was hard not to be wowed. While there were certainly fans of previous iterations of DC's muck creature -- there are probably fans of all of them, that's how comics works -- I was one of the young people having a hard time believing that I was anticipating this comic that much. It was certainly an odd-looking thing: everything had a mossy appearance, even the people, some of whom looked outright crazed -- all despite this kind of faded coloring the sight of which today causes instant, voluntary, sense-memory time traveling for any person that bought comics in that era, like every comic was left out in the sun for a day before being racked. Swamp Thing had the same visual quality as a smeared bug on a window screen, a kind of texture that I can't remember seeing in a lot of places before and maybe fewer since. Swamp Thing had more in common with S. Clay Wilson and with various collage-type artists than with Justice League and Team Anatomy. It was a deserved career-maker for Steve Bissette and John Totleben, although to say that in comics always implies that comics then provides a suitable career.

While the art on Saga Of The Swamp Thing was odd and likely under-appreciated, the star of these comics was Moore's writing, at least for me and I suspect most others. It was a very self-conscious star turn in which the audience was more than complicit, in the same way we might take in an HBO prestige series after buying into the buzz surrounding its writer/creator. I think I watched Alan Moore's writing on Swamp Thing more than I read it, if that makes sense. That is a terrible thing to do to a writer, although it's a fine way to tease out moments and place them in mylar in some memory longbox. The scene I remember telling people water-cooler style -- by which I mean I was so excited about it I thought I could maybe communicate enough of it to impress others even though I wouldn't come close to the full effect -- was a few pages where Swamp Thing goes to hell and sees a tortured Anton Arcane who asks our hero how many years he's been in his current state to which the answer is... well, you either remember the scene yourself or will recognize it now. My point is that I don't know that I've ever so self-consciously read a comic book as a performance -- my choice, I think, not Moore's. When I scrambled for interviews with the writer I wanted to find out about Moore, not the characters he wrote. With Swamp Thing, it's difficult for me to remember on overarching point to the Moore run or even a specific kind of horror being explored in a way I could begin to tell you what Moore and the artists achieved in a grander, more rigorous context. Various story moments (the swordfish, the bug in Matthew Cable's car) and the occasional tightly-disciplined single (like the one above), I recall quite a few of those. It's the way we started watching performances from method actors when Brando showed up. I'm not certain it's all the way healthy.
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