The book this week is Swamp Thing: Reunion by Alan Moore and various, published by Vertigo/CD Comics. And…….how can I say this. Well…..umm…..ye see.
In truth. They are not very good.
WHAT!!!!! I hear you cry. Isn’t this THE Alan Moore? Author of such great and seminal works like V for Vendetta, Miracleman, The Ballad of Halo Jones, Watchmen etc.? The man who brought maturity to the comic world with The Saga of the Swamp Thing? And yes, Alan Moore did write those tales and worthy of your attention they are too. But Alan Moore didn’t write the final Swamp Thing stories. No, they were written by Alan Moore, Superstar.
It may be hard for some of our younger readers to believe with all the slings and arrows, brickbats and sneers that they have to endure from certain quarters over their choice of reading material. But during the eighties and early nineties, comics were massive. And I mean….
Comics were about to break out from the ghetto they had been placed into during the fifties. Style magazines of the time regularly had review pages on them. Serious critical pieces were being written about the psychological make-up of super-heroes. The intelligentsias were not ashamed to be seen with them, or in comic-book shops. Sales of over a million copies per issue of certain books had become common. Marvel was making plans to have 500 titles on the shelves per month. DC had big plans for their forth-coming Bat-Man movie. The crappiest B/W comic could become a hit as shops, publishers and readers desperately tried to find the next TMNT. Prices soared on the back-issue market. Major changes to long-established characters became news. Reputations and fortunes were being made. Retailers and publishers were in heaven.
Don’t believe me? I always like to tell one story of the time and see how it relates to something like JK Rowling today.
Dale Keown had been the artist on The Incredible Hulk when he decided to quit and write/draw his own creator-owned Hulk rip-off for Image Comics. The pre-order sales of Pitt #1 alone made him a dollar millionaire. Think about that. Pre-order sales for something that nobody had yet seen, from a first-time writer with a cost price of 60p that had to be shared with the distributor and publisher. JK only got £500 and the promise of royalties for HP and The Philosophers Stone.
Of course this ruined Keown as an artist as after the second issue made him even more money he couldn’t see the point of slaving away over a hot drawing board and Pitt came out very sporadically after that (wasn’t that good anyway).
Of course that little anecdote came from the period when the artist was king, but just before that it was the writer and such luminaries like Miller( Daredevil, Dark Knight Returns), Claremont (Uncanny X-Men), Wagner (Grendel), were the publishing companies little cash cows. In the forefront of the so called British invasion was Alan Moore, who had turned Saga of the Swamp Thing from a title that was on the verge of cancellation into one that explored new areas of horror, ecology, relationships AND moved it into a publishing money-spinner. Little of that money was seen by Moore and artists John Totleben and Stephen Bissette of course. They had all been taken on as work for hire and this led to disagreements later on (particularly with Totleben) with DC over royalties and the ownership of John Constantine.
But for now, they were big and never more so at the conventions.
God yes. The conventions
We’d never had them on the scale they had at that time in America. Tended to look down our noses a bit at all the fan boyishness of them and Moore (with others) found them very hard. All that adulation can do funny things to a person and Moore found one of the biggest so distressing that it sent him into virtual seclusion.
You think JK Rowling gets mobbed when she comes down from the ivory towers? That’s nothing compared to what happened to Moore. Watchmen mania is at its height, so imagine 3000 people screaming your name and wanting a piece of you. Ok, that happens at rock concerts but the musicians never get to meet the fans. They’re just whisked away as soon as the show ends. But at conventions, creators are expected to meet and greet (conventions had been pretty small up till now). Moore had to put up with events like being trapped on a staircase for two hours as fans pressed the flesh. They even followed him into the toilets and tried to get him give an autograph (difficult with your dick in your right hand). It also didn’t help that he always wore a white suit in those days, so he was easily spotted.
How all this ended would give the story of Enron a run for its money, but that’s a story for another day.
As said, all of this can do funny things to a writer and this brings us back to the final stories of The Swamp Thing.
One thing a writer, any writer, needs, is a good and strong editor. One who will tell you when you are starting to harm the story and waffling too much. But what do editors do when the writer gets too popular and is the one paying their wages? A good and strong editor would simply shrug their shoulders and say, doesn’t matter. You’re going to get edited the way you always have done. Unfortunately, this rarely happens and the ego of the writer is unleashed. We all know of one author who badly needs it at the moment. It has been one of the main criticisms of Order of the Phoenix. But who would be brave enough to tell JK this and risk her taking Potter to some other publisher who would give her “creative freedom”?
Alan Moore is a fine writer. His words can be sharp and full of meaning, his juxtaposition of words and pictures a delight. He can also be one of the worst writers for purple prose I have ever read.
This means he waffles. Whereas a few words will do, he’ll use twenty. Some would call it giving flavor and texture to a script; others would call it tedious and trite. It’s in these tales that he succumbed to Claremontitis. A disease that means the number of captions and thought balloons threaten to overwhelm the pictures. The ideas in the tales are good. A logical reason for Adam Strange being transported to the planet Rann (though spoiled by the first signs of super-heroes being sadistic bastards). A planet full of sentient flora and fauna (again spoiled by the fact that the plant-forms have all too human emotions). But the ending and return of the Swamp Thing to Earth feels rushed and like the “Reunion” story, a tying up of loose-ends.
There are plenty of good bits. The humor is still there (every time the cactus-like Swamp Thing shakes hands with anyone on Rann, he leaves spikes in their hands); the loss of love or family is poignant and true. Its all falls down though with the main writing. A case of have cake and eat it. It also isn’t helped that the art is some of the ugliest I’ve ever seen. Alfredo Alcala is ok, but Rick Veitch I’ve never liked. The story “Loving the Alien” is a gorgeous piece of college and modeling, ruined by the fact that the book is printed on better paper than it was meant for. It’s a real labor of love from Bissette, a proper cut and paste, hands-on job. No Photoshop in those days’ kiddies.
Swamp Thing carried on without Moore of course, and Veitchs’ ideas were good and interesting (if not as well told). It was all ever decreasing returns though and the controversy over the Swamp Thing and Jesus Christ, with Veitch leaving because of it meant that the end was near. Swamp Thing soon got the cancellation that had been postponed.
Moore, of course went on to bigger, but not necessarily better, things. The rows with DC and Marvel meant he burned a lot of bridges, and the problems with Mad Love and Big Numbers only exacerbated the feeling that he was yesterday’s man.
But of course he came back with From Hell and the ABC Universe plus LXG. In fact, he is the only comic-book writer to have more films made of his work outside of companies copyrighted characters. It’s just a shame that Swamp Thing ended on the note it did.
A cautionary recommendation this week then. To be bought, but only if you need to finish the Swamp Thing or Alan Moore collection.
Available from all good comic-book shops, published by Vertigo/DC Comics, priced £14.95.