When I recently re-read John Russo’s The Majorettes for the first time in decades, I realized that memory lane can be lined with broken glass, used syringes, and dog crap. In short, things aren’t always as good as you remember them. Fortunately, I’ve come across a creepy read from my past that has aged extremely well. I picked this hardbound collection up for 50% off the cover price as my local Border’s was breathing its last. It feels a bit like stealing the boots off a dead soldier but, well, he’s not using them.
Saga of the Swamp Thing, Volume 2 reprints 8 issues of the comic of the same name from 1984 and 1985. These groundbreaking horror comics are what first got Alan Moore noticed here in the states (Watchmen was still a few years off), but Moore’s writing along with Stephen Bissette’s pencils and John Tobleben’s inks combine to create a work whose whole greatly exceeds the sum of its parts. Bissette and Totleben don’t contribute to every story, but when all three of these creators come together it is pure freakin’ magic, my friends. Making the deal even sweeter for me is that I didn’t start reading the series until several issues after the stories presented here, so I’m getting Moore/Bissette/Totleben stories I’ve never seen before.
In Volume I, Moore took an “everything you know about this character is wrong” approach while still leaving the previous continuity intact, an approach not unlike what he had done with Marvelman/Miracleman. Swamp Thing previously believed himself to be Dr. Alec Holland, a scientist whose experiments turned him into a sentient plant creature. Now, he has learned that he is in fact a plant creature that has inherited Holland’s memories. A subtle distinction you might say, but Swamp Thing’s driving force has always been to one day become human again, a goal rendered moot by the fact that he was never human to begin with.
Now, in Volume 2, Swampie continues to deal with his new status as a sentient plant by retrieving and laying to rest the mortal remains of Alec Holland. This first story is drawn by Shawn McManus, whose relatively cartoonish approach contrasts sharply with the Bissette/Totleben stories. It’s still a good read that includes a crucial part of the mythos, but it lacks the nightmarish tone of the volume’s best pieces.
The next four chapters, which are the heart and soul of the volume, detail the return of arch nemesis Anton Arcane, the battle that follows, and Swamp Thing’s descent into hell to retrieve the soul of Abby Cable, the woman he has loved from afar for many years.This has it all, including zombies (well before today’s plethora of zombie titles); a handful of DC’s classic supernatural characters including Deadman, The Phantom Stranger, and The Demon Etrigan; and a teaser crossover for that year’s company-spanning epic Crisis on Infinite Earths.
This story arc is followed by another Shawn McManus story called “Pog.” This tale, which details Swampie’s encounter with some extraterrestrials who are patterned after the characters in the comic strip Pogo, has received a lot of critical acclaim over the years, but I’m afraid it was lost on me, and I didn’t get the point Moore was trying to make at the climax.
The next story, which takes place almost entirely in Abby’s dream, does a brilliant job of tying together seemingly irreconcilable continuity strings, and laying some of the groundwork of Neil Gaiman’s brilliant Sandman series which was still several years off. In Abby’s dream she meets Caine and Abel, the narrators from DC’s mystery/horror anthology series House of Mystery and House of Secrets. Abel tells Abby the story of the previous Swamp Thing, which is actually related with the Len Wein/Berni Wrightson story that inspired the original Swamp Thing series and appeared in DC’s House of Secrets #92 in 1971.
The volume rounds out with “Rite of Spring,” the story in which Abby and Swamp Thing confess their love for one another. This is the one part of the book that has not aged well. Abby and Swampie join in a form of spiritual communion by having Abby eat one of the tubors that grow from Swamp Thing’s body. The resulting psychedelic experience is beautifully drawn, but runs several pages too long, leaving the reader aching to return to a more traditional narrative.
Even with the few glitches I’ve mentioned, these are some of the greatest horror comics ever written, and I will definitely be picking up the rest of the series.