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Saga of the Swamp Thing: Book Two

Posted: Wednesday, February 17, 2010
By: Dave Wallace

Alan Moore
Various
Titan Books/DC-Vertigo
Collecting issues #28-34 of Saga of the Swamp Thing and Swamp Thing Annual #2.

Having greatly enjoyed the first hardcover edition of Alan Moore’s run on Saga of the Swamp Thing (as the series was titled for its first 38 issues), I was looking forward to seeing what the second volume had to offer. After all, Moore is my favourite writer of comics--bar none--and the thought that there’s an extended run of stories by him that I still have yet to read is a very pleasing one.

Yes, Moore’s Swamp Thing run has been previously made available in softcover TPB collections (sans the previously uncollected issue #20, included in the previous volume), but some of those volumes are now out-of-print and difficult to track down, so I’ve been waiting on these new hardcover editions from Titan/DC to experience the stories for the first time.

I’m pleased to report that this second volume of stories is an improvement on the first collection in every way--and, considering that the first volume contained such classic comics as “The Anatomy Lesson”, that’s saying something.

There’s a real sense that Moore’s approach to the title character is coming into its own here, with the first issue of this collection (“The Burial”) explicitly laying the old incarnation of the character to rest--allowing both Swamp Thing and Moore to move forwards without any of the baggage of previous creators’ work on the book.

Under Moore’s pen, Swamp Thing is a sympathetic and humane character--yet one who is still a very removed and unknowable monster that plays a significant role in a wide variety of stories. Mostly, these stories are horror-oriented, and this volume sees Moore increase the sense of unease and dread that he so effectively began to create in the first volume.

In particular, the “Arcane trilogy” that runs through issues #29-31 takes the book’s cast to some very dark and disturbing places--covering such subjects as death, necrophilia and incest--and is given a suitably hellish finale in the “Down among the Dead Men” epilogue (reprinted here from the second Swamp Thing Annual).

This latter story features one of the best examples of the "gauntlet tale" in which the hero must brave a series of difficult challenges in order to achieve his goal--in this case, the rescue of a loved one from hell. The foreboding atmosphere that Moore builds up over the course of the issue is only enhanced by guest appearances from some of DC’s darker spiritual characters--including a wonderful return for the Demon Etrigan, whose rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter are just as entertaining here as they were in the first collection.

In fact, the book’s secondary characters are very well-served by Moore, who shows an admirable respect for DC Comics history with his inclusion of Cain and Abel in his “Abandoned Houses” issue that pays tribute to the defunct House of Secrets and House of Mystery horror titles whilst at the same time recapping Swamp Thing’s own origin. The story also foreshadows future events in Moore's long-running Swamp Thing saga. It’s an impressive balancing act, but Moore proves that he’s able to easily incorporate these seemingly disparate elements with his writing never feeling less than extremely elegant and graceful.

Another good example of Moore’s talent at incorporating disparate elements is the guest appearance from the Monitor who, at that time, was a mysterious new character that was being prepared for his major role in the Crisis on Infinite Earths event. Moore turns what could have felt like a forced, editorially-mandated character appearance into one of the most unsettling scenes in the book, with the Monitor’s desire to look away for the first time in his life underscoring the horrific qualities of the writer’s main story perfectly.

There are some equally enjoyable yet far less dark and disturbing stories here, too. “Pog” is an undeniably charming and bittersweet single-issue tribute to Walt Kelly's Pogo that sees Swamp Thing visited by analogues of Kelly's characters as creatures from another planet. They have a sad lesson to teach readers about the importance of peaceful cohabitation.

"Pog" is also a chance for Moore to show off his linguistic talents, inventing a new language of muddled (yet still comprehensible) vocabulary that evokes Kelly's linguistic acrobatics. Shawn McManus proves to be the perfect choice of artist for this story, too, lending his characters a cartoonish innocence that is reminiscent of Kelly's work without abandoning the naturalistic textures of Swamp Thing’s environment.

Finally, the closing chapter, “Rite of Spring,” is a tour de force of comics storytelling, fusing Moore’s poetic sexual metaphors with some wonderful psychedelic natural imagery from penciler Stephen Bissette and inker John Totleben. It’s a chance for the artists to really cut loose, and to show that they’re capable of far more than just the gothic horror of the earlier issues. It’s a genuinely invigorating and subtly erotic tale that provides a perfect end to the collection--serving as a thematic counterpoint to the autumn- and winter-themed stories that we saw earlier in the book.

Having reviewed the stories themselves, I’d like to take a moment here to praise the production values of this book, which are slightly superior to the first hardcover volume. Firstly, the cover’s glossy finish is preferable to the waxy effect that was applied to the dust jacket of Book One--a strange choice of finish that led to that book sticking to whatever volumes it was sandwiched between on the bookcase, and leaving black marks on them.

Secondly, the paper stock is of a notably higher quality here, without being so glossy as to poorly present the mid-eighties techniques used to colour these issues.

Thirdly, there are no errors in reproducing the stories (as with the missing caption from a crucial scene in Book One)--suggesting that a more careful editorial approach has been adopted when compiling this volume.

Finally, we’re treated to two different introductions (one by Jamie Delano and one by Neil Gaiman), both of which offer some interesting insights into Moore’s Swamp Thing saga.

Ultimately, though, if you’re buying this volume it’s for Moore’s wonderful stories--and I can’t help but be impressed by the fact that these comics, written a quarter of a century ago, still retain the power to shock, unnerve, entertain, and enrapture the reader in a manner that most modern books would struggle to match.

As I stated at the start of this review, I’m very pleased to know that there are plenty more unread Swamp Thing stories from Moore’s pen for me to enjoy, and I look forward to the appearance of a third hardcover collection.

Saga of the Swamp Thing: Book Two is published by Titan books in the UK and DC-Vertigo in the USA.



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