Monday, April 22, 2013

Comic Review: Saga of the Swamp Thing 3 & 4

Book Three

    After the pretty darned amazing second volume of this series, volume three wasn’t quite as impressive.  Still good, with some very good bits, but not up to snuff.  The opening story about Nuke Face is actually kind of annoying and the final story about ghosts of slaves and a soap opera is heavy-handed and not so great.  But comic fans doubtless owe something to this set of issues, as the very popular character John Constantine is introduced in its pages.

    As far as overall story goes, John Constantine, a kind of supernatural investigator, with an ex-punk feel (looking a bit like a young Sting or Billy Idol, but cleaned up), gets wind of something big and bad building in the ethereal realms.  He travels the world, finding clues, until he meets up with our viridian champion.  Swamp Thing himself, having been bodily destroyed by the drink of Nuke Face (the extremely 80s mutant-type environmental allegory), has just re-formed himself out of the Green.  This gets into a new idea, or ability of Swamp Thing.  He learns that his essence isn’t connected to a single body, so much as the entirety of plant life.  And, in keeping with the style of the comic and the attempt to make its hero more rounded and his concerns less typical, he and his lady friend Abby worry about his ability to maintain his humanity (already revealed to be something of an illusion) as he becomes more aware of his very inhuman nature.  Constantine manipulates Alec, the Swamp Thing, into investigating several strange occurrences, including something from his past.  I haven’t read the pre-Alan Moore run of this series, so I don’t know what the details of the original event were.  But there was something about vampires and a dam being broken, drowning a city.  I like that Alec’s past comes back to haunt him.  I generally like when heroes have to face and come to terms with the unintended consequences of their actions.

    Whatever that big something John Constantine is worried about doesn’t seem to have happened by the end of the volume.  There’s a lot of build up, though.  And actually, I think that’s one of the problems with the last story, Southern Change/Strange Fruit.  It feels like the series stalls and all the energy built up with all the threat of this ‘something big’ completely dies.

Book Four

    Reading this book crystallized what had bothered me about Book Three, it was too scattered, lacking a much needed thread.  This volume fixes that, getting on the track of the build up to ‘something big’ and sticking with it.  It opens on a brief story of a drug dealer investigating one of Swamp Thing’s tuber-like growths, but then, John Constantine is back, and it doesn’t jump the rails again, riding into a massive, crazy climactic finale even more off the wall than what happened in Book Two.  Even the slight bump of the Special Crisis Cross-Over issue manages to acknowledge the giant DC shaking event (which I think I understand, but think is largely responsible for me not really digging DC comics in the same way I don’t dig Marvel) doesn’t pull the Swamp Thing away from the growing plot.

    While I sensed the seeds of Alan Moore’s growing style in previous volumes, catching bits of what would become his signature (especially his failings with Book Three), it’s with this volume that I feel like I’m reading the Alan Moore I know from Watchmen and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  This is especially true when I think about how long it took me to read.  Even though it’s about the same size as the others, it felt like it was much denser, and took me a long time to read.  There was a lot more packed into the book than before.  Moore tends to be wordy, sometimes for the better (League), sometimes for the worse (first half of Watchmen).  And this book is very, very wordy for a comic.  Looking over the pages, it almost looks like 60s Stan Lee stuff, with lots of dialog and lots of captions.  But, unlike Stan Lee, these don’t serve to describe in excruciating detail what we are seeing in the panel (“I am throwing my hat at you!” “Spiderman throws his hat at the Green Goblin! Excelsior!!!” written in a panel where we see Spiderman throwing his hat at the Green Goblin…Oh, Stan).  Moore’s dialog and captioning add depth to the images, serving to tell a more complex story than just what the images show.  I find I’m generally more into less wordy comics, probably because most of the time wordy ones aren’t well written.  But when Moore is on (and for me, that’s a lot less often than for many comic fans), he does it very well.  The art is fine.  Stylistically it’s not something that blows me away, but within that context, there are a lot of very beautiful images.  And the panel work is exciting and varied, without being muddled or confused.

    If Moore’s run ended with this, it would be a fine exit.  The final act of what I guess is called his “American Gothic” story arc is very good.  Better than its beginning.  And I like these weirder DC characters that get dredged up.  Deadman, Dr. Fate, Mento (what a tool), The Phantom Stranger, The Specter, Zatana and Zatara, Etrigan, and those two weird brothers (Cain and Able, I guess) who used to ‘host’ horror anthology comics.  Crazy.  I guess I just prefer this aspect of DC to the more typical caped crusaders.  This weird stuff is much more my speed.  I’d rather read about Swamp Thing tracking an evil cult to South America than Batman thwarting the dastardly deeds of the Penguin.  I’d rather see The Stranger stand with an army of demons and angels against a Lovecraftian monstrosity before it sweeps away Hell on its way to attack Heaven than see Superman punch Metalo into space.  And I’d rather watch paint dry than see Green Arrow do anything.

Saga of the Swamp Thing: Book Three
Author: Alan Moore
Artists: Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, etc.
Publisher: DC Comics
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2766-1

Saga of the Swamp Thing: Book Four
Author: Alan Moore
Artists: Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, etc.
Publisher: DC Comics
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3018-0


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