If you walk into any bookstore, be it a chain or a local shop, there’s sure to be a shelf full of yellow, smiley-faced hard and soft cover books staring right at you, pleading for you to buy a copy. Of course, they have Moore’s name tattooed across each and every one of them. You’ll come across it in a quick scan of a magazine or a newspaper too and this blitzkrieg of name doesn’t just stop in the domain of the reader. No, his unidentified presence can be found on a brisk February jaunt to the bus stop, a haphazard flip through television channels or an impulsive click on a website where you’ll see a plethora of advertisements, every bit the responsibility of Mr. Moore. This is all due, of course, to the upcoming and eagerly anticipated film version of the most famous graphic novel of all time. Watchmen, is finally due in theatres on March 6th.
If you’re a voracious comic book reader like I am, or, truthfully, even an occasional one, you’ve come across the various works of Alan Moore before. If not, you’re probably most familiar with him at the cinema. In addition to Watchmen, he’s written the marvellous The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (which Hollywood butchered), the exceptional From Hell (which misfired on the silver screen) and, of course, the wonderful V for Vendetta (which the Wachowski brothers knocked out of the park).
But before the long and grizzly-bearded, ring-wearing, wiry wizard from Northampton, England wrote those stories, he was an author of gothic horror, brought across the Atlantic in 1983 to spin yarns for DC Comics in a sales-sagging title obscurely (and some might say unfortunately) called Saga of the Swamp Thing. Those stories would become classics to comic and horror enthusiasts worldwide and this month they find themselves collected in hardcover for the very first time in what will eventually be a six-volume set.
I never read Saga of the Swamp Thing while it was being published on a monthly basis during the 1980’s. I actually missed Alan Moore’s entire run on the series, which began with issue #20 and ended with #64. Of course, I knew that it had won multiple industry awards such as best series, best single issue and best writer but there’s a psychological wall in beginning to follow a story mid-series. Generally, I like to start at issue one. Plus, I was into comics like Justice League of America and Batman at the time. It was the character of John Constantine (whom Moore introduced in the pages of Swamp Thing – another creation of his that found its way to the big screen) that got me interested in the muck-encrusted monster. I followed Constantine’s narrative appearances as they crossed-over from his own monthly title to Swampy’s and I enjoyed them so much that I went back and started collecting the entirety of Moore’s run.
What I read floored me. It was so different than anything else that was being published during that time.
Swamp Thing, as originally told, was the story of Alec Holland, a botanist who died in a bizarre laboratory explosion. Due to the various chemicals he was working with and the fact that his dead body lay in a Louisiana swamp, he inherited the powers of the plant kingdom, becoming a grotesque, shambling, moss-covered simulacra of a man in constant search for his humanity.
Moore turned that story on its ear.
In the pages of this first volume, the author explains that Holland actually did die in that original blast but that the surrounding environment took up the last vestiges of the man’s consciousness, taking the Holland identity as its very own. How would the monster react, Moore asks, when it discovers that after so many years of believing itself to be a man, that it is, in fact, simply an aberration of nature?
Throughout this volume, Moore uses the Swamp Thing character as a means of rationalizing the monstrous temperament of humanity while highlighting the plight of the natural world as it sits in the hands of men. The character is a foil for an earth, void of goodness while strange, fiendish creatures act as a mirror for humankind. A demon from hell is employed as a metaphor for the evils of society as it terrorizes the children of an orphanage, taking the shape of their nightmares and feeding on their fears. It grows immensely powerful on stored memories, for example, when in the presence of a young girl, once raped by her father. Moore pits one creature against the other: the monstrous manifestation of men versus the physically monstrous creation of nature.
The author also focuses on the twentieth century’s preponderance for the study of science and the search for rationale, quantifiable explanation. Moore, a self-described magician, likens monsters to faith and that which is unexplainable. He begs the question: what role do monsters play, monsters that require security within the confines of shadows, in a world that is more and more illuminated by both science and reason.
These were the grand, sophisticated and suspenseful stories of Moore that had me searching high and low through dusty back bins of comic shops, frantically hunting for Swamp Thing issues. Of course, there’s also the fact that the Justice League of America made more than one appearance in the series. As did Batman.
In Saga of the Swamp Thing, I got my superhero, horror and philosophical literary fix – all in one go.
Give this first hardcover collection a try. You will too.