What can I add to roughly twenty-five years worth of unfettered praise and critical analysis of Alan Moore’s brilliant run on DC Comics’ Swamp Thing? This question has been haunting me for the past few weeks, as I’ve explored DC’s new hardcover reprint of the material previously collected in the Swamp Thing: Love and Death trade paperback. For many, Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns were the comics that changed the way folks looked at comics as a storytelling medium. Love and Death was that book for me.
I had an interest in the Swamp Thing television show when I was in high school, based on my enjoyment of the 1982 Wes Craven film which used to be a cable mainstay in the early-80’s when I was a kid. My high school friend, Craig, wasn’t really that much into comics, but it was the early-90’s — everyone was buying them. Somehow Craig ended up with a Swamp Thing: Love and Death trade paperback and, probably finding it way too weird, gave it to me. He knew I watched the TV show, and he knew I was open to DC books (A lot of kids, and I’m sure this continues today, were strictly Marvel only. Then, Marvel and Image only.)
My mind was blown. Within these pages were nightmare visions of hell, leering demons, supernatural heroes, funky aliens, and psychedelic vegetable sex. The language was more poetic than anything I’d read in a comic book before; the images more grotesque than my imagination allowed. This comic book scared me.
First of all, and there’s no avoiding it, Steve Bisette’s art is truly unpleasant. There’s a little bit of cartoonish, re-assuring Mike Ploog in the collection, and some Bernie Wrightson too, but most of the book is Bisette’s unnerving line work. Bisette is primal. It took me a little while to appreciate his toothy humans and busy, fractured panels, but the marriage of Bisette’s organic psychedelia and just plain 100% pure horror with Moore’s truly disturbing concepts is one of the greatest pairings of writer and artist in the history of comics. Bisette’s work is sometimes beautiful, but almost always uncomfortable to look at. It’s easy to see how the genius of the man was never intended for mainstream comic work.
The main story in Love and Death is the tale of Swamp Thing’s descent into hell to save the soul of his beloved Abby Arcane, dragged there by her dead uncle (and Swamp Thing arch-nemesis) Anton Arcane. Within that story, Moore gets to play with the spookier heroes of the DCU — Deadman, The Phantom Stranger, and The Demon — as they assist Swamp Thing on his journey to find Abby and restore her soul to her dead body on Earth. Growing up, I was never a fan of the supernatural heroes from either company, but Moore’s approach was unlike anything I’d seen before. Swamp Thing’s journey was spiritual in a way that rang true — fueled by love, through things no man should witness.
The scene where Swamp Thing discovers Anton Arcane’s punishment in hell still gets to me, the old villain’s body stuffed with constantly-hatching insect eggs. Arcane assumes he’s only been in Hell for a couple of hours and screams in agony when he discovers that he’s actually been suffering the torment for several days. One scene like this would be enough to make any comic memorable. Swamp Thing: Love and Death has enough of them to fuel a lifetime of night terrors.
This collection is a must-have. I don’t just mean Swamp Thing Vol. 2 is a must-have; I mean every volume in this collection is a must-have. DC may only be up to Volume 2, but their plan is to collect all of the Moore Swamp Thing work in the hardcover format. If your only exposure to Alan Moore is Watchmen, pick this up. If you truly love horror as an artistic craft — the art of creating something with the intent to engage you emotionally enough to disturb — pick this up. If you can read, pick this up.