Monday, 28 October 2013

Saga of the Swamp Thing, Volume 1 by Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette and John Totleben Review

I know this is a beloved book and so, so many people adore this and everything else Alan Moore wrote, especially in the 80s, and that all kinds of superlatives are thrown around when discussing Swamp Thing – and I’m not being contrarian when I say this isn’t all that and a bag of chips, either. Paul O’Brien from the House to Astonish podcast nailed it when he said that “if Alan Moore’s books were as good as everyone said they were, they’d cure cancer”. Which is to say, I think this isn’t a bad book but suffers somewhat from the enormous praise that’s built it up to an impossibly high standard, and when I finally read it, I found that it’s actually just an ok book.  
First off, the numbering – “Volume 1”. Readers unfamiliar with Swamp Thing – and let’s face it, there are a lot! – might think this would be the best place to start but it in fact isn’t. At least, not if you want to see Alec Holland’s death/rebirth as Swamp Thing, or his relationship with Abby Cable née Arcane/Matt Cable, or his initial struggles with his new appearance. This book collects Moore’s first few issues writing the series but he started after nearly 20 issues had been out which means the book starts with issue #20 and goes through to #27, so you’re going to not quite get the characters/storyline from the get-go – and there’s no attempt to explain it later either.
You could argue that this is the first time the “real” Swamp Thing emerges as Moore’s take on the character is the first time Swamp Thing became more than a hacky monster tale and turned into a deeper, richer story. The second issue – The Anatomy Lesson – is the highlight of the book as Swamp Thing is captured and examined in a lab only to discover that Alec Holland isn’t Swamp Thing but that Swamp Thing is a mutated plant that thinks it’s Alec Holland (that might seem like a spoiler but it’s not as it happens really early on so it’s not like giving away the ending to the Sixth Sense - plus the book is 30 years old at this point!). It’s also a really well written story that starts off mysteriously, then goes back and circles back on itself in a neat one-issue story arc. I also really liked that Moore immediately defines that character his way with his vision of it on his second issue.  
However, Moore only manages to create this kind of engrossing narrative magic a couple of times in this book – oddly in the issues that have very little going on in them – while the more action-packed stories are less artistic, less thoughtful, less involving, and it’s why I didn’t think this book is so amazing. There’s an extended story featuring one of the least threatening villains ever, the Floronic Man, aka Jason Woodrue, who should be renamed the Moronic Man. Why moronic? He attempts to wipe out humanity by upping the oxygen rate, not quite getting that this would also affect the plant life he believes he represents and is fighting for! Plus if your ace in the hole is a chainsaw, you’re done. You’re not Ash, this ain’t Evil Dead, I get the connection between chainsaws and trees, but seriously - a chainsaw against Swamp Thing? Come on.
The JLA get a cameo in this story despite not really doing anything – Superman and Green Lantern show up at the end to take away the Floronic Man after Swamp Thing defeats him and old Woodrue (wood – rue, get it? Not very subtle, Alan!) looks even more idiotic. He’s attempting to talk his way out of it and just looks like such a feeble old man next to Superman and Green Lantern - it’s pitiful. Superman puts his cape around Woodrue and takes him to Arkham. This guy was the big villain of the book!
Jason Blood/Etrigan close out the book as a demon shapeshifter emerges in the home for mentally disabled kids that Abby works in. Again, not a terrific villain and I felt Moore was pressing the horror angle a bit too hard. What I dislike about Etrigan – and for those who don’t know, Jason Blood made a deal with a demon, Etrigan, centuries ago, and the two are now bonded in one body forever – is the constant rhyming which I know is a big part of his character but it lends itself to soooo many bad rhyming couplets. That said, Moore does an admirable job with his rhymes and none of them stood out as too embarrassing.
Then there’s the 80s art… it’s ok in parts but pretty terrible in others. Stephen Bissette and John Totleben just can’t do action. The first issue opens with the military hunting down Swamp Thing and those helicopter attacks looked awful! The motion doesn’t look real and the explosions looked ridiculously phony. Also, towards the end of the book when Etrigan leaves and Jason Blood re-emerges, Blood’s character model up until then has been red hair with a streak of white but in this scene his hair’s gone dark blue and facially he looks identical to the character model of Matt Cable, Abby’s alcoholic husband. So Bissette and Totleben literally swapped out Jason Blood for Matt Cable in a scene featuring Jason Blood! That’s pretty damning. On the subject of faces, neither artist is particularly good at drawing them and frequently they look rushed and/or badly rendered.
But other times where there isn’t much movement or humans that just feature Swamp Thing? Beautiful. Not only that but the page layouts are really imaginative with plot elements framing a page and things like plant roots dividing up the panels. Or panels arrayed cleverly across two pages in a style that JH Williams III has made popular with his work on Batwoman. Before this, the only Swamp Thing I’d read was Scott Snyder/Yanick Paquette’s New 52 Swamp Thing and the most striking thing about that book was Paquette’s wonderful art and page layouts which I thought were original. Reading this book, it’s clear Paquette took his cue from Bissette and Totleben with their pioneering use of art and style in presenting their version of the character. So I’m split with the art – sometimes it’s hard to look at, badly rendered, or flat out too dated to be convincing, and other times I love what I’m seeing.
Swamp Thing is an interesting character and kudos for Moore for elevating the tone of the stories to a higher level. This first book has some nice narrative moments and does a major revamp of the way readers would see the character, but generally the stories, like the art, that comprise it are uneven at best. The book features some odd villains that are difficult to take seriously, and there’s no real direction for the character - I’m not sure what Swamp Thing’s purpose is - both things I’d like to see done better in later books. Saga of the Swamp Thing Volume 1 is a bit slow at times, a bit lugubrious like a lot of Moore’s writing, but otherwise it’s an ok read - just don’t get carried away by the hype. 

Saga Of The Swamp Thing Book 1

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