Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing: American Gothic revisited (#SFWApro)

Much as I love the original Swamp Thing series (which I must blog about sometime), and much as I like the later Martin Pasko-written version, there’s no question Alan Moore’s run redefined the series for ever after. First he established that rather than a transformed human scientist, Swamp Thing was actually a plant that had absorbed his memories. Then after several strong stories pitting him against his old foe Arcane, Etrigan the Demon and the Floronic Man, Moore launched a yearlong arc, American Gothic, culminating in #50 (cover by Stephen Bissette, all rights remain with current holder).

In the opening, some obnoxious British bloke called Constantine (though considerably prettier and less seedy than he’s written since) shows up and hints at some coming apocalypse; if Swamp Thing will investigate, Constantine will reveal something of his origins. Swamp Thing finds a town of vampires, a frustrated woman turned werewolf, a couple of haunted houses and more — none epic in themselves, but all making people more receptive to the supernatural, an atmosphere the sinister Brujeria will exploit (some version of the plotline was underway in what little we saw of the CW’s Constantine) Their goal: to call back the primal darkness (what existed before “Let there be light”) and send it to annihilate Heaven itself, the ultimate act of evil. Along with other supernaturals including Phantom Stranger, Spectre, the Demon and Dr. Fate, Swamp Thing becomes the thin green line against the Dark.

It’s mostly good stuff, though not always. The overwhelming reaction to the werewolf story was that Moore seemed to be arguing it’s better to be dead than a woman living under patriarchy (she slits her throat), and I agree that’s how it reads (though I accept Moore’s statements he didn’t mean it that way). There’s also a story involving race in the deep south that felt like Moore wanted to make a startling point but failed.

In return for the muck-monster’s involvement, Constantine steers Swampy to the Parliament of Trees, a forest holding the countless plant elementals before Swamp Thing who served as champions of the Earth and the plant kingdom. Swamp Thing hopes for advice on how to stop the darkness, but only gets a lecture: the plant world doesn’t fight. It doesn’t struggle against evil. It simply … is. It simply … accepts. Doesn’t look like it’ll be much help, right?

Ah-ha, fooled you! As the darkness approaches it swallows the various supernaturals and asks them questions to define itself (it is, after all, a stranger to the reality we know). It’s when Swamp Thing explains that evil is simply part of the whole picture, like the black loam from which pretty flowers spring, that the darkness can see a place for itself; it acknowledges God as an equal, then departs (Swamp Thing creator Len Wein said, correctly, that Moore resolved a lot of Swamp Thing stories that way — have Swamp Thing say something or take some small action that miraculously chops the legs out from under his invincible foe). In the aftermath, the Phantom Stranger makes a poetic declaration that now we will see a lonely flower growing in hell, a poisonous serpent in the gardens of heaven, each enhancing their surroundings by contrast.

My reaction at the time was WTF? Yes, I get that a lot of mysticism (something Moore is very into) teaches that good and evil must coexist, that yin and yang contain elements of each other, etc. But Moore appears to be presenting this as a good thing, saying we shouldn’t get rid of that poisonous serpent or even try to fight it (the supernaturals who advocate opposing evil all lose, in contrast to ST). Sorry, that’s just bullshit. And my reaction hasn’t changed.

Plus, as Scott Snyder pointed out in a later story, the plant world isn’t actually peaceful and harmonious: it’s a cut-throat environment in which plants grapple for light, soil nutrients, room to sew seeds, etc. Speeded up film of plants shows they’re vicious.

Moore’s run is still impressive, with a cosmic sweep and some beautiful writing. #50 is epic in a good way. But that climax did kind of suck.


1 Comment

Filed under Comics, Reading

One response to “Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing: American Gothic revisited (#SFWApro)

  1. Pingback: My first monster: the original Swamp Thing | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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