Eventually the aliens encounter Swamp Thing (who, in this issue, speaks only in an incomprehensible string of symbols), and explain to him their origin, telling him how on their planet (which they call the Lady) “there was one solitribal breed of misanthropomorphs who refused to convivicate with elsefolk. They constructed their own uncivilization, and excluded anykind else from joining it. They were the loneliest animals of all. They took our lady away from us.” He goes on to explain the horrible things these animals did, running medical experiments and, worse, killing and eating the other creatures until Pog and his shipmates set forth in their ship Find-the-Lady to find a new Lady on which to live, which Pog believes that they have now done.
|Figure 444: In a surprisingly bleak twist, Pog’s crewmember|
Bartle is devoured by real gators. (Written by Alan Moore,
art by Shawn McManus, from Swamp Thing #32, 1984)
In response, Swamp Thing sadly takes Pog to Baton Rouge to show him the nature of the planet on which they have landed – a silent sequence of humans cooking and eating meat, which Pog stares at in dumbstruck horror before weeping and crying out that “they can’t own this Lady too! We were going to be happy here!” Swamp Thing and Pog rush back to the swamp, but are too late to save one of Pog’s crew, a cute alligator-looking alien named Bartle, from being killed by attacking gators in the swamp. After a funeral for Bartle, Pog and his crew return to their ship and fly off, trying still to look for a planet unspoiled by man, giving the story a bleak finish that is both surprising and effective.
|Figure 445: “Pog” ends on a bleak and|
funereal note that deftly melds the
Walt Kelly pastiche with Swamp Thing‘s
remit as a horror comic. (Written by Alan
Moore, art by Shawn McManus, from Swamp
Thing #32, 1984)
Actually, in many ways the whole story can fairly be described as surprising, coming as it does an issue after Abby’s death. It is, to be fair, clearly an inventory story of the sort that comics run periodically. What is surprising is not so much the existence of the story as the juxtaposition – the fact that Swamp Thing #31 ends with a splash of Swamp Thing cradling Abby’s dead body, and Swamp Thing #32 opens with cartoon animals on a spaceship. Even with “Down Among the Dead Men” between them to tie up the actual plot threads, this is quite a leap to take over a month. But, of course, that variety and flexibility was central to what worked in the Wein/Wrightson issues of Swamp Thing that established the character in the 1970s. In many ways the point of “Pog,” aside from telling an effective and self-contained story, is to claim that mantle of versatility.
Which, in the larger context of Swamp Thing at this point, is valuable. Moore’s first year of Swamp Thing was largely made up, after all, of three storylines, each three issues long, that were, while terribly innovative in the larger context of what DC was doing at the time, relatively similar to each other. A reader could be forgiven, coming off of “Down Among the Dead Men,” for assuming that knew what the book was capable of and what sorts of things it might do. “Pog,” in this regard, is a startling wakeup call notifying the reader that the book would do things that are not just surprising but are in fact completely out of left field. In practice “Pog” marks an extreme – Moore would never again do anything quite so completely out of keeping with anything before or after it again on Swamp Thing. But is was an extreme that mapped a profound and varied territory, which Moore, in practice, planned to explore in short order.
|Figure 446: John Totleben’s cover for Swamp Thing #33|
is an homage to Bernie Wrightson’s cover from House of
Secrets #92, the first appearance of the character.
Bissette and Totleben, however, were still running behind, and so Moore’s planned next issue had to be postponed on short notice, resulting in a plan to run a reprint in issue #33. Moore, on the fly, suggested instead that if Berger had an artist who could do twelve pages in two weeks, he could come up with something, and, with twenty-four hours notice, crafted a twelve page story that could serve as a frame for the original Wein/Wrightson “Swamp Thing” short story from House of Secrets #92. Moore’s frame story, titled “Abandoned Houses,” features a dreaming Abby visiting Cain and Abel at the titular Houses of Secrets and Mystery, integrating those two hosts into the larger DC Continuity. There, Abel tells her a story in order to teach her that, as he puts it, “Alec Holland was not the first thing to walk the swamps,” although since this revelation happens in a dream, Abby proceeds to forget it at the end of the story.
This story within a story tells the tale of Alex Olsen, an early 20th century scientist betrayed by his seeming friend, who lusted after Olsen’s wife and who engineered a lab accident that gravely wounded Alec, then buried his body out in the swamps. As his former friend concludes that Linda, his wife, has begun to suspect him and that he must thus murder her, it is revealed that Alex is not, in fact, dead, but is a swamp monster, who rescues Linda, but then retreats back into the swamps when he realizes he terrifies her and that his humanity is truly gone.
|Figure 447: Swamp Thing’s original design featured a|
somewhat cartoony, hangdog facial expression. (Written
by Len Wein, art by Bernie Wrightson, from Swamp Thing
#33, 1984, reprinted from House of Secrets #92, 1971)
Although this premise is hardly the height of creative genius, Wein and Wrightson made a good show of it with the story, which features three nested narratives. The bulk of the story is narrated in the second person, beginning “you smile because he expects you to – but in the shadowed corridors of your heart there is no real joy – there never can be… Your name is Linda Olsen Ridge,” it continues, forcibly allying the reader with a character with whom (given the demographics of DC’s readership) they had numerous major differences, to say the least. This section of the story breaks off midway for a lengthy narration from Damian, Alex’s treacherous friend, who explains his nefarious plot in a sequence that begins and ends as a sequence of thought bubbles, but turns to narrative captions in the middle. Linda’s sequence, meanwhile is focused on how she longs for her dead husband, and on her growing paranoia. But Linda’s sequence is framed by a third narrative, written in the first person from the perspective of Alex, the swamp monster. This narrative carries an altogether more mournful and haunting tone…
I’m sorry, what was I saying?
“Abandoned Houses” was followed by another issue with a strong claim to be the best single issue of Moore’s Swamp Thing run, entitled “Rite of Spring.” Having liberated the book from the censorship of the Comics Code, Moore was, unsurprisingly, eager to explore this freedom. And more broadly, having heaped considerable trauma upon Abby, including her horrific rape in “Love and Death,” Moore was perhaps eager to take her story beyond the mere fact of her trauma and to a place of reparation and healing. This would be part and parcel of a larger plot Moore had in mind to develop Abby, a character that he noted that he’d always been fond of. “Not that she’d ever really stood out that much as a character,” Moore clarified, “but I liked the hair. It’s distinctive; the white hair with the black stripe. Yeah, that looks good. So there’s no reason why she couldn’t be made into a much more interesting character.” And so Moore had decided, early on, that he would develop Abby as a love interest for Swamp Thing. And having, with the Arcane trilogy, gotten rid of Matt Cable as a character by putting him into a seemingly irreversible coma, he was free to explore this idea. And so given this confluence of goals and possibilities, Moore settled on the obvious solution of devoting the bulk of an issue of Swamp Thing to an exploration of psychedelic vegetable sex.
Even without the Comics Code, of course, Moore could not plausibly have gotten away with a traditionally graphic sex scene under the DC banner. Beyond that, to do so would in many ways go against what he had been developing with the book. Swamp Thing, by this point, was defined heavily by his connection with the vegetation and by the sorts of spiritual quests into the Green that he took in the aftermath of “The Anatomy Lesson” and again in “Down Among the Dead Men.” To frame his intimacy with Abby primarily in the purely physical act of copulation would fail utterly to fit with this aesthetic. And so Moore’s decision to frame their intimacy as another sort of spiritual quest is savvy in the extreme, allowing him to do an extended sex scene that bypasses genitalia entirely.
|Figure 448: The page orientation rotates as Swamp Thing’s psychedelic|
tuber takes root in Abby. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve Bissette
and John Totleben, from Swamp Thing #34, 1984)
And so, after some charmingly awkward exchanges in which Abby reveals her feelings for Swamp Thing, Swamp Thing exudes a tuber from his chest and gives it to Abby to eat. Almost immediately, Abby’s worldview begins to dissolve into a vibrantly colorful kaleidoscope of imagery, so that the swamp appears to be “all of fire… millions of birthday candles.” As Swamp Thing explains, “you ate the fruit, Abby. You absorved a little of my consciousness… my perceptions.” As he explains this, the panels slowly curve sidways, rotating so that by the end of the page the book must be held sideways to read, and leading into a seven-page sequence depicting their shared experience in a series of landscape pages. Within this format, Bissette and Totleben are free to cut loose and revel in the stylistic experiments they wanted to, crafting decadently intricate double page spreads to house what is in effect an extended prose poem by Moore.
|Figure 449: The famed psychedelic vegetable sex|
scene in “Rite of Spring” is laid out as double page
spreads in which the pages are in landscape orientation,
giving Bissette, Totleben, Costanza, and Wood a sprawling
canvas to set Moore’s prose poem within. (From Swamp
Thing #34, 1984)
The content of this prose poem is in effect an eroticization of the pulse of nature within the swamp, describing Abby’s experiences in the externalized terms of biology and ecology. “Below the water the sudden cold frottage of fish skin, slick and silver against my instep… It twists, flickers, disappers. The bubbles rise… The threadlights, a blazing cat’s cradle, inside me, inside him,” Moore writes, as Bissette and Totleben place his words in a winding path of black John Costanza letters across a wash of Tatjana Wood blue just over where Swamp Thing and Abby’s hands touch to frame the nose of Swamp Thing’s face unfolded across the two-page spread. “In him, I ride the amber sap, oozing through miniature labyrinths. Clusters of insect eggs burn like nebulae, suspended in their unique and vine-wrought cosmos… Through him, I sprawl with the swamp, sopping, steaming dragonflies stitching neon threads through the damp air surrounding him… Beyond him I wrestle the planet, sunk in loam to my elbows as it arches beneath me, tumbling endlessly through endless ink,” the words descend across the pulsing rhizomatic rays extending out from a sun of Swamp Thing’s eyes, gazing out as Abby, naked and green, mounts the very world itself, her legs wrapped around it, pulling it into herself, floating in the endless void of blackness in her own hair, above a golden curl that wanders down across the page to turn to a chittering worm as “the bark encrusts my flanks. The moss climbs my spine to embrace my shoulders… we… are… one creature… and all.. that there is… is in us.” Until at last it all ends in a rainbowed spread of narrow panels arced along the curve of a spider’s legs, an orgasmic burst of unity extending out of Abby and Swamp Thing’s heads as their mouths close in around the jewel-encrusted heart of the fruit that fuels their union, while “underground, buried claws wound the soil… savage furrows fill with moisture… a fish twists… the bubbles rise… the world pulses… and shudders… with life… and death… with tide… and magma… with me. With him.” And then, at last, the panels bend again and the colors normalize, as Abby fixes the strap of her tank top, looks at Swamp Thing, and asks, “does this… uh… does this mean we’re going out?”
They kiss, embracing in a tender splash, page, and the next issue begins with a splash of Swamp Thing sitting besides his sleeping lover, staring out at the pink and purple dusk while “to the east, paperboys have wearied halfway through their rounds, dumping their remaining papers somewhere discreet and telling the newsagent he must have miscounted. The dead headlines dance upon a lukewarm wind, monochrome tumbleweed bowling through the failing light.” These papers blow across the background of the page, and Swamp Thing watches them “flap like huge moths, crippled by their own weight, hopping clumsily amongst the black trees. Their pages are full of obsolete tragedies and discarded faces; all the carefully logged hysteria of a world he no longer belongs to.” Now his life is entwined only with Abby, who “mumbles three dream-submerged syllables, but does not wake, and he is content beneath a darkening and volcanic sky. The swamp engulfs them. It is their own damp cosmos, and the troubles of the world beyond seem no more than the whispered conversations of distant madmen…” And from this prologue page, Moore launches into the story he’d planned for Saga of the Swamp Thing #29, back when he was still ostensibly writing for the Comics Code, “The Nukeface Papers.”
|Figure 450: The underground fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania|
leads to frequent sinkholes, out of which pours noxious
smoke from the fire. (Image from Sometimes Interesting)
“The Nukeface Papers” provides an interesting split between its two installments. The first issue, when it was published, was basically a six-month old script, the story having originally been intended for publication in July of 1984. In many ways the first part shows this – it follows the basic structure Moore used for the first issues of his preceding three arcs, with the storyline’s threat intrudes upon and infects Swamp Thing’s world. In this case the threat is the eponymous Nukeface, a drunken derelict who has become deranged by and addicted to the nuclear waste buried in his hometown of Blossomville, Pennsylvania (a thinly veiled version of Centralia, Pennsylvania, a town destroyed by an underground fire in a coal mine that is expected to continue burning for the next quarter-millennium), and who has come to the bayou because his stash in Pennsylvania has been cemented over and new waste is being deposited in the swamp instead. Swamp Thing dreams of Blossomville as Nukeface approaches, seeing a place where “something bright and awful kissed the world, and left its smeared blue lipstick-print. [continued]
September 5, 2014 @ 4:46 am
One of the most beautiful and trippy issues of the comic medium. You do it justice, but this remains a must-read issue for any comic aficionado.
I hadn't made the connection between Blossomville and Centralia, but that is an interesting real world tie-in. Looking forward to the next installment.
September 5, 2014 @ 6:37 am
#43 is pretty interesting, too.
September 5, 2014 @ 7:04 am
my reaction, reading "Rite of Spring" at age 13, was "huh, this must be what taking LSD is like. All right!" Marvelous that this bizarre, trippy comic was sold on the same rack as Richie Rich in my local drug store in rural Virginia.
September 5, 2014 @ 7:12 am
I suspect the interspecies romance, and subsequent scandal, in Moore's Swamp Thing may have been inspired by a similar storyline in Howard the Duck a few years earlier.
September 5, 2014 @ 10:12 am
I'm very glad to see someone else appreciate #43. It gets a pretty sizable block of coverage in a few posts' time, because I thought it marvelous, but it's not one of the more attention-getting issues in the run.
September 5, 2014 @ 12:57 pm
While we're still finishing up with Pog, I'll throw in a link to a digital magazine a friend of mine did to celebrate Kelly's centennial last year. He got me to write an essay for it, on the off chance anybody cares to read some of my thoughts on Kelly's comics.
February 18, 2015 @ 11:50 pm
I actually thought that #43 was pretty great too, certainly one of my favourites.
February 19, 2015 @ 12:01 am
On reading Rite of Spring for the first time was revelatory, well it was a pivotal moment for me. I didn't read it and say 'wow this could be a trip', though I understood that the artistic sources/influences were embedded, but for me it was an immersive experience that I spent hours over, realising that I was being shown (and experiencing to a degree) what it would be like to be connected to the whole of nature and experience it as a form of consciousness. That changed my life and has informed everything I have done since.
Thank you for a beautiful essay Phil. Love where this is going next.