DC History: Saga of the Swamp Thing Book 1 (of 6)

Going back through comic book history, especially with DC, is always a magical and often surprising experience, and, boasting some of the most established and respected writers and artists in the business, there are generally no shocks in finding some of the best comics series ever created among the legends that make up that history. And adding into that mix a name that has always created controversy, but also wonder, respect and awe—such as Alan Moore—you can expect to be impressed by the work.

Saga of the Swamp Thing Book 1 Cover

However, even with these given biases (as well as my own biases surrounding the character), I was truly blown away by the first installment of Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing. Taking over from creator Len Wein and forever cementing Swamp Thing’s position as a staple of the DCU, Moore took a last minute piece of horror fiction (something Wein admits freely in the Foreword to the book) and turned it into an incredibly in depth, intricate and beautiful piece of character development surrounding one of the most complex characters in superhero history without losing the strong and haunting aspect of horror key to the telling of a Swamp Thing story.

Remixing and re-writing Wein’s interpretation of the Swamp Thing, Moore creates gold from air (to quote his most famous work) by reinventing the Swamp Thing from his own previous story with the introduction and exploration of another old DC Villain, the Floronic Man; sharing aspects of his creative make up with the Swamp Thing as a part man/part plant, Moore uses Jason Woodrue (Floronic Man’s human name) as an introspective into the Swamp Thing by using the similarities between the characters and making Woodrue the narrator and centre of the tale, whilst effectively killing off the lead of Swamp Thing himself. This allows the reader to sink into Swamp Thing’s mental state through an exploration of the opposite, by showing what the Swamp Thing isn’t before showing us what and how he really is.

Image from Saga of the Swamp Thing Book #2 Featuring Abigail & Anton Arcane
Image from Saga of the Swamp Thing Book 2 Featuring Abigail & Anton Arcane

This in itself to me, is an incredibly risky but extremely rewarding technique that pays off brilliantly under Moore’s direction. Setting up the reader in order to delve deep in Swamp Thing’s extremely emotionally complex world through the medium of a “false Messiah” to the Green’s overgrown thrown gives a very good measure of the grandeur of Moore’s storytelling and prose.

Also, Moore elegantly and beautifully expresses, through the use of the Floronic Man, the element of horror-fiction.

As the first regular comics series published by DC without the Comics Code Authority seal, Swamp Thing stood head-and-shoulders above other comics series in creative freedom and with this new found freedom, Moore chose to take readers to a new a much darker place within the DCU and really push the boundaries on what a comic book is or was; to do this Moore demonstrated his mastery of prose and particularly horror itself.

Drawing on standing elements of the human condition (from loneliness to fear of the unknown) Moore beautifully taps into the readers sense of fear and confusion at understanding what, at times, is a tale more complex and multi-levelled than most actual novels. Adding to this with extremely clever narrative that only ever takes its direct first person perspective from the Swamp Thing himself, within the first few issues the reader feels completely at home with the Swamp Thing and his individual take on the complex and ever-evolving world around him.

Accompanying Moore’s scripts is the incredibly beautiful, detailed, and complex artwork of Stephen Bissette and John Totleben—artistic assistants to the Swamp Thing’s original artist, who worked with Len Wein—who master the Swamp Thing’s style and intricacy with ease.

Cover of Swamp Thing issue #34, one of the most iconic images from Moore's run on the series featuring it's namesake and Abigail Arcane
Cover of “Swamp Thing #34,” one of the most iconic images from Moore’s run on the series featuring it’s namesake and Abigail Arcane

Now, when I first started going back through Swamp Thing history, I thought this much older style of artwork would put me off. Today, with the New 52 and the back-history of DC, we are spoilt with some of the incredible artists and individual artwork produced in astounding complexity, and utilising incredible feats of technology (such as David Finch’s work with 3-D modelling on his recent Justice League run) and, at times, it can be hard to regress back into the history of comic artwork simply to feel somewhat let down by the standards of artwork we have come to know and love.

However, this was not the case. Bissette & Totleben’s artwork leads the reader into an almost dreamlike state, a feeling of following both the artists and Moore down-the-rabbit-hole to discover the entire world they have created in which the Swamp Thing exists in a sometimes shockingly real way. The panel structure and intensity of the artwork, accompanied by its amazing array of colours and textures creates a fractured reality, in which the chaos and weirdness of the Swamp Thing’s world become next to normal. Add to this the iconic imagery that seems to be so subtly introduced (one of my personal favourites being Swamp Thing rooted to the swamp, the indentations of his face slowly filling with rainwater) creates something completely opposed to the uniform quality of work in the New 52; it creates a world in itself, a haven of the imagination which the reader can delve in and out of at their will; it gives the Swamp Thing his own life and reality away from other imaginary constructs and away from other comics themselves. The artwork cements itself as something separate and unique, creating a world within a world, within the mind of the reader, and (therefore) lending itself perfectly to Moore’s writing style.

Together, it seems, this creative team could move mountains with their work.

And with the creation and introduction of characters still around today in the New 52 (such as the Demon Etrigan, a prominent figure in the New 52) and seeds cleverly sown for story arcs in upcoming issues, it quickly becomes easy to see why Moore & Bissette/Totleben’s work on the Saga of the Swamp Thing is still considered some of the most influential and downright impressive work in the medium of comics to date.

I simply hope the next five books offer as much wonder and inspire as much awe as this first installment has, and I look forward to reading and reviewing the entire body of work for all you lovely comics-lovers out there!