The Saga of the Swamp Thing issue #20
It was 1984, Ronnie Raygun was the president and I was stationed at US Marine Corp Air Station Beaufort, South Cackalacky. My priorities had changed drastically since high school and two years of college. There were girls, of course, and beer (lots of beer) and then cars. That was about it. I mean, my testosterone pummeled brain just spun in circles trying to figure out a way of facilitating all three of these things at one time: Get beer, get girl, and get girl in backseat of car. Seemed like the hardest puzzle in the world for a young man with ADHD and an overactive libido.
Between thinking about girls and working through hangovers, it still amazes me to think that I could sit still long enough to read a 24 page comic. I remember that I used to smuggle comic books to work in the cargo pocket of my camouflage uniform and sit in the RIO cockpits of the F-4S Phantom fighter jets, pretending to repair radars while reading comic books. There was an intrinsic embarrassment of reading comics at my age around a bunch of jar-head Marines. It really wasn’t OK at that time for adults to be seen reading them; like a dirty secret that as it turns out, many, many adults were doing.
It seems looking back, that my emotional maturity didn’t begin until I left home for good and joined the Marine Corp. This began to change my taste in comic books and led me to what I recognized even then as “higher reading” in comics. With a small amount of fanfare and promotion, DC Comics hired a new British writer to take over Swamp Thing for issue #20. His name was Alan Moore and no casual comic reader knew who the heck this guy was. What we did know though, was this book, in one single issue, became really, really important.
Since its inception in 1971, the Len Wein creation was not much more than a DC version of Marvel’s Man Thing, with the same feeling and simple plot lines. It sort of fell into a corner of comic publishing that was a necessary evil; the corner where enough people (like me) would continually support creepy horror books of just about any kind. At about this age though, I kind of swore off Marvel and became a “DC guy.” And let’s be honest people, how many times have you gotten sick of the current truck load of dung being shoveled off on comic readers and in an act of pure desperation just chopped your pull down to one book? And when this happens how many times has that one book been a DC comic (Batman, Detective Comics has never left my pull)? Just sayin’…
In this comic, Alan Moore, singlehandedly changed the world of comic books perfectly and with grace. The depth, with which he wrote Swamp Thing for four wonderful years, is a present to those of us who continued to love this literary form through the nearly suicidal lack of effort from the big publishers of the day. Moore came along and waved his magic wand across the pages of this book and put us all in a spell which will never be broken. With subtext and imagery that went way over the heads of his readers, this bearded magician lovingly humored us with a morality play that addressed issues of true relevance: the interconnectivity of all living things, Man’s continual war with nature and the ability for love to transcend humanity.
In the early 80’s, Swamp Thing received a re-boot to coincide with Wes Craven’s movie of the same title. The writing was assigned to Martin Pasko whose star was on the rise as a writer in general and had to leave after issue #19 for other writing obligations. Enter the Wizard of Northampton.
In one single gesture, Moore swept aside Pasko’s entire story line and ret-conned this book into unknown territory. Several secrets of Swamp thing’s origins were revealed and the reader was introduced to “Parliament of Trees” and the dimension in which they live, known as “The Green.” It is then Moore pulls his craziest stunt and he has Sunderland Corporation (an absolutely horrifying villain) kill Alec Holland. Really, he killed the star of the comic book. Clean slate. Started literally from scratch and DC just stood by and let him go to it. I almost have to wonder if this was a book near its end and they just let this new British kid walk in and do whatever he wanted with it; save it, kill it, whatever.
Moore was then able to introduce us to a cast of characters that would leave an indelible mark across DC comics and heck, all comics in fact. By reviving some of DC’s best but then forgotten/abandoned magical characters (The Demon, Deadman and the Spectre to name a few); Moore began a tale that would develop into an existential masterpiece. If for no other reason we owe him a debt of gratitude, for it was in the pages of Swamp Thing that we were introduced to John Constantine.
The panel that has never left my head is the one where Abby sees an insect moving inside Swamp Thing’s arm and is repulsed, yet we see that she never stops loving Alec. This really still blows me away, the idea that the people we love can be revolting at times yet we never stop loving them, illustrated so perfectly in the small panels of a comic book. It also helped illustrate that Moore needed to remove Swamp Thing’s humanity in order to tell this tale. Alec Holland went from a man who was trying to regain his human form, to a man who was a self-acknowledged monster and no longer dreamed of being human but reveled in his disconnection from mankind. At times like these, Alan Moore began to show us the infinite possibilities of fictional story telling through the use of comic illustration.
So when we see images of Alan Moore and we think, “Wow, that guy looks crazy!,” in part we are correct. Moore is crazy in the best way possible: He’s a wizard!