(This article was originally published on Ginger Nuts of Horror in July 2019)
The Northampton curmudgeon Alan Moore’s retirement from comics is now official. With the last issue of Volume IV of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, he’s leaving the medium for good. People are keen to sing the praises of The Killing Joke, Watchmen and V for Vendetta – and for good reason – but his contribution to horror is often overlooked, and I think that worth rectifying.
Back in the eighties. Nuneaton had a covered market, a poorly lit maze of patchouli oil-scented corridors lined with assorted bric-a-brac and random detritus. You’d ricochet between piles of bootleg band t-shirts and piles of tin signs stolen from a cavalcade of pub toilets. There was one particular stall though – the name of which eludes to me, decades on – which held nothing but racks of magazines. Copies of Starlog and Fangoria were secreted amongst issue of Look-in (invariably containing a badly drawn comic strip about how Duran Duran met), Beano and Whizzer & Chips. The fourteen-year-old me would greedily skim through the former, picking up titbits about sci-fi films that wouldn’t be reaching our shores for twelve months - or horror films that I wouldn’t be allowed to watch for years.
A little background; I was already a keen comic reader. I’d read Starlord, and 2000ad after the two of them merged (“Exciting news for all readers!”) so was familiar with the medium.
However, my only exposure to American comics had been through UK reprints - where they’d invariably release the original material at the wrong size, in the wrong colours and in no particular order.
On this one occasion in this mysterious unnamed arcane magazine emporium, one particular comic nestled amongst the newsprint-scented magazines caught my attention. Covers of American comics tended to be dynamic, a freeze-frame of a superhero caught mid-super-heroic action. This, however, was different. It showed a couple standing shoulder-deep in the stagnant waters of a swamp, both their eyes closed as the two embraced. She was naked, long flowing white hair draped in the water. He was – something else. Monstrous, yet humanoid, a strong vine-encrusted hand holding her tightly, lovingly.
It was more Renaissance painting than comic panel, something very different from the typical four colour tableau I was used to.
A butterfly sat there, perched on the comic’s title.
With hindsight (with the benefit of graphic novel collections) this particular issue (#34; The Rite of Spring) is a really odd place to start the series with. There aren’t really any horror elements to speak of, unless you’ve got a phobia about a combination of vegetables and sex. The issue focuses on the relationship between Abby and the eponymous Swamp Thing, the two of them finally admitting their love for one another. In this issue, in lieu of being able to have sex, they experience a communion of sorts. Abigail eats a tuber from Swamp Thing’s back which – through its hallucinogenic qualities – allow them to connect in a means way more powerful and spiritual than mere physical contact can provide.
It wasn’t so much the pull of vegetable sex that attracted me to the comic (although I haven’t been able to look at broccoli in the same way since. Damn you, sexy cruciferous plants), but the surprising fact that Swamp Thing was the hero.
Swamp Thing - since its inception at the hands of Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson back in 1974 – told the tale of Alec Holland, a scientist transformed by lab sabotage into the titular Swamp Thing. Over the course of the issues, we would follow his attempted revenge on the people who’d doomed him and killed his wife. Eventually cancelled due to poor sales figures, the title was given to British writer Alan Moore to invent as he saw fit. Moore had already cut his teeth in the comics industry with his work on 2000ad and on various Doctor Who and Star Wars comics – he’d end up being the first of the vast wave of writers who went on to take the US dominated comics industry by storm in a British invasion of sorts; Neil Gaiman, Mark Millar, Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, et al.
Swamp Thing had always been a horror title, but Moore took this to the next level. He ripped the title out by the roots and reinvented it from the ground up.
We begin Moore’s run with some proper existential horror. Holland discovers – almost to the cost of his sanity and what little that remained of his humanity – that he’s not Alec Holland at all. Whereas he’d always believed himself to be a scientist transformed by a combination of swamp water and experimental chemicals into the Swamp Thing, he finds that not to be the case. Alec Holland is long dead. We learn that the chemical soup in the swamps created a unique new organism, one which ended up imbued with the memories of the dying Doctor Holland.
Swamp Thing never was Alec Holland. He’s a vegetable who thinks he was Alec Holland.
Pretty mind-blowing stuff, especially in a title which – to be fair, prior to Moore – had often reverted to a “Swamp Thing beats up the monster of the month”.
Moore’s American Gothic storyline (running between issues #37 and #50) saw Swamp Thing travelling across the United States, encountering various horror tropes along the way, all given a unique Moore twist.
Vampires were presented as unbreathing water-dwelling monsters; feral predatorial leeches and bloated egg-laden abominations, and zombies were returned to their voodoo roots, vengeful dead plantation slaves returned from the grave.
The Werewolf myth was presented as feminist allegory, a woman freed by transformation from male tyranny. It’d be another fifteen years before Ginger Snaps would revisit the same territory linking menstruation to lycanthropy, but to think that these concepts were being presented in a medium still effectively believed to be the domain of children.
American Gothic also saw the first appearance of John Constantine, the Sting-inspired Magus, who’d spin-off into his own incredible horror title.
“American Gothic” was all building to a big event, a (sort of) crossover with the world/universe/reality shattering Crisis that happens in the DC Universe each summer. Whilst Superman and Batman and their leotarded and spandexed ilk were saving the physical realm, Swamp Thing, John Constantine and DC’s array of magical characters were challenged with defending the metaphysical one.
The Brujeria, a secret society of warlocks, were seeking to bring back primordial Darkness back into the universe – the sentient absence of everything that comprised all of existence before the introduction of God’s divine light. What lingers in my memory from this storyline is the Invunche, the Brujeria’s assassin, and how one is created.
You steal a six-month old child, disjoint the – I can’t go on. You should find out for yourselves and be forced to have that memory too.
Re-reading Moore’s run, some of it feels less successful now than it did back then. Whereas the fifteen-year-old me was thrilled to see a guest appearance by Batman, it feels weaker now. Swamp Thing worked best when operating in its own reality, lessened by the occasional enforced use of the DC Universe. I’d feel the same later in life seeing John Constantine frequently interacting with regular DC Characters.
What remains as strong, however, is the writing. Without ever lapsing into pretention, Moore hit the comics world with prose of a quality that it had barely seen before. Villains were as well-developed and written as the heroes, and it felt like you were reading something new, something important.
And this stuff was genuinely scary. Some of the imagery in The Saga still clings to the periphery of my consciousness, decades on. The first appearance of the Invunche, Swamp Thing’s raw and bloody resurrection in The Anatomy Lesson, Phoebe’s transformation into avenging she-wolf in The Curse – all powerful horror imagery to me, rivalling Danny Glick tapping on the window in Salem’s Lot or the first appearance of the Pod People in the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Moore is leaving the industry for good, and it’ll be poorer without him. I can fully understand why he’s leaving -exasperated with an industry that rarely gives the proper respect to creator’s rights – but it’s something to be commended that he’s created such an incredible body of work.
So, farewell, Alan Moore. Our sole interaction might have been you telling a teenage me to “Fuck off” at a comic convention (Disclaimer: You did look very tired and grumpy when I approached you), but, here’s the important thing;
I tell people I got into writing horror through Stephen King, but …pssst…. I think it was because of you, so thanks, I guess.
But no thanks for the Invunche haunting my dreams.
The Saga of the Swamp Thing Issues #20-64: Obviously. Later writers picked up the Swampy mantle with varied success, but I’d also recommend the Nancy A. Collins run (Issues #110-138) and – to a slightly lesser extent – the Grant Morrison and Mark Millar run (Issues #140 onwards).
Hellblazer Issues #41-46: Garth Ennis’s run on Hellblazer is, equally, as good a horror comic as you’ll find. The Dangerous Habits storyline chronicles John Constantine’s battle with cancer and is amazing.
Swamp Thing Pilot Episode 2019: Cancelled after just one episode but showed great promise. There’s a bit of body horror in it that’s as visceral and brutal as anything from John Carpenter’s The Thing, and it looked like it might be a great adaption. Sadly, this is why we’re not allowed to have nice things.