Saga of the Swamp Thing
by Alan Moore, Stephen
Bissette, John Totleben
(DC Comics, 1987)

This graphic novel collects #21-27 of Alan Moore's legendary, groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing. Although it is clearly a horror comic, a quick perusal of the first pages defies any expectation that this will be a traditional horror story.

Oh, all the props are there: ouija boards, demons and strange-looking, human-shaped things crawling around in dark, fetid areas usually associated with cultish horror plots. But this is Alan Moore's version of the Swamp Thing, which means that by-the-book horror is the one thing you won't find in the pages of this highly absorbing story.

Swamp Thing was a second-tier character headed for oblivion before Moore picked him up and dusted him off for a re-creation that both redefined and revived this almost-forgotten leftover from the horror line. EC Comics in its heyday would have been proud to have this incredibly literate, very modern and yet very Gothic story in its lineup.

The story opens at the exact point where the last series ended: Dr. Alec Holland, transformed into the moss-covered being known as Swamp Thing, was brought down in a hail of gunfire, his friends and coworkers scattered across the country by the same evil company, Sunderland Corp., that destroyed Holland for the bio-restorative formula they hoped to cultivate from his body. In the first chapter, "Anatomy Lesson," Moore announces his intentions with the character of Alec Holland by literally breaking him down via an autopsy and then rebuilding him through the prism of his own rather excellent, and neatly scientific, explanation of Holland's origins.

The collection encompasses two complete story arcs that set the tone for the series to come. As Holland struggles to understand who or what he truly is, his friends, private investigator Matt Cable and Matt's lovely wife Abigail, are among those trying to stay ahead of the Sunderland Corp.'s ongoing attempts to appropriate the transformed scientist for its evil corporate needs. Abigail believes in Alec and tries to keep him grounded in his humanity, while Matt's unbalanced, alcoholic mind makes deals with devils.

Supporting characters, themselves another exercise in revitalizing almost-forgotten members of the comic book universe, continually steal the show, with appearances by the Floronic Man and Jason Blood, along with his other half, Etrigan, whose rhyme schemes take on a poetic urgency under Moore's capable direction.

The main characters are incredibly well-drawn. Matt Cable's self-absorbed slide into madness is beautifully illuminated, with Abby's more self-sacrificing nature providing a sharp counterpoint. Holland's identity confusion struck a chord in the '80s, a decade of decadence, and is still felt sharply today; as origin stories go, it's nearly perfect in its questioning self-reflection. Anyone attempting to create a fresh comic-book hero from scratch would do well to read Moore's take on the hero's struggle for self-definition. Holland's attempts to grapple with his new nature are personified in a journey through his internal consciousness that would become a hallmark of Moore's later work. Fans of Promethea, for example, will find the beginnings of the Immateria in Holland's trip through his psyche, using his own skull as a Yorrick-like guide through his soul.

Not content merely to touch on the usual horror story, Moore includes huge themes in his story, themes that concern distance and connection on a global scale. In one instance, Dr. Jason Woodrue (the Floronic Man) has a rather disconcerting experience when he taps into Holland's unconscious mind and ends up touching the entire world through experiencing the life of every plant on the planet. The connections between the characters, sometimes by the thinnest of threads, are the true heart of the story and ultimately drive the plots of both story arcs. Seemingly separate stories and distant characters suddenly collide in the most brilliant ways.

There is plenty of terror, with murder and gore and demons, and just as much tenderness and beauty. Swamp Thing isn't just a horror comic. It's an incredibly moving story that, while lacking the brilliance and polish that Moore's later stories would show (namely, Watchmen and From Hell), still manages to traverse the gamut of human emotions and does so in a well-developed plot that's masterfully woven, second only to the fine character development.

All the themes that occupy Moore's later work are present here: powerfully imagined old gods, supernatural beings forgotten by time and the human tragedy of consumptive greed as exemplified by environment-destroying corporations. Buoyed by a terrific ear for dialogue, a well-constructed plot climax, tremendous empathy for its characters and artwork that was progressive for its time (the scene where Holland considers his life as his eyes fill with rainwater is absolutely stunning), Saga of the Swamp Thing is an excellent introduction to Moore's ideas and settings. This is a not-to-be-overlooked classic and a must-read for anyone who wants a good starting point for proving the literacy of comic books.

- Rambles
written by Mary Harvey
published 15 May 2004

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