Posted by: Brian Hibbs on March 1, 2008
I have a plan.
With the idea of having as much fresh content on the Savage Critic site as possible, I’m going to ATTEMPT to do a post-a-day for the month of March. These may not appear strictly every 24 hours, but I’m going to try.
I’ve decided the theme is going to be “31 classic graphic novels”, trying to show the range and breadth of comics material that’s available to a 21st century comics shop.
Please join me after the jump!
I opened Comix Experience in April of 1989.
There really weren’t a lot of graphic novels available back then — I think there were under twenty items that were in print and perpetually available at that point.
I still have a copy of my first order form that I placed right before opening the store, and on that order form DC offered for the very first time Alan Moore’s SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING.
So, let’s make that our first book.
It’s tempting to say that SWAMP THING revolutionized comics — certainly, it was the blueprint for Vertigo, and it showed you could do literate comics aimed at adults THAT WOULD SELL — but what sort of amazes me is that twenty-four years later, the work really still holds up. There is plenty of “good stuff” from even ten years ago that I’ll read and think “oh god, I liked this?!?” Not so with SWAMP THING — this is still the shit.
Moore took a pretty incredibly two-dimensional character (“He’s a monster that thinks he’s a man!”) and not only made it well-rounded and exciting, but built a new and innovative mythology that would last for another 150 issues (as well as 20 and 29 issues, respectively of follow up series), and would go on to influence many books and characters in the DC Universe “proper” (I’d say John Ostrander ran with the concepts the most, both in FIRESTORM and SUICIDE SQUAD), as well as creating a spin-off star in John Constantine whose HELLBLAZER just hit issue #241 this very week.
SWAMP THING showed that commercial comics could be “writerly”, where omniscient-narrator captions could build mood and tone, and that they didn’t just have to reiterate what was going on with the art (Like, say, the EC comics of the 1950s), but that they could counterpoint and embellish upon what you were seeing. SWAMP THING was also one of the first comics to strongly think in terms of pages, rather than panels, where words and phrases at the bottom of one page would lead you effortlessly into a completely different scene on the next page. That’s a very common trick in today’s narratives, but in 1984 it was a rare and wondrous thing.
I’m talking a lot about the writing here, but the art is equally wonderful — Stephen Bissette, John Totleben (and, later Rick Veitch, Stan Woch, Alfredo Alcala, Tom Yeates, Shawn McManus, and others) brought mood and style, creeping horror, and transcendent joy to the page. Whether the subject was insane vegetable gods, demons that fed off and manifested as fear, or simple domestic bliss in the swamps, Moore’s collaborators consistently brought their A-Game to the work. Vertigo went on to be known, by and large, as a “writer’s imprint”, but in these early days the art is at least as important to the bottom line, and it holds up wonderfully against Moore’s expressive prose.
Also worthy of note is the lettering by John Costanza and Todd Klein where it is often clear who is talking JUST from the shapes of the speech bubbles. I know this sort of sounds silly in 2008, but it was really transformative in 1984, where very little of that was being done.
I should also single out colorist Tatjana Wood who did WONDERS with the limited color palette they had to work with back then. In particular, issue #56’s “My Blue Heaven” (reprinted in SWAMP THING v5: Earth to Earth) which does astonishing things with extraordinarily limited tones.
SWAMP THING, I don’t think, gets the respect today that it deserves in terms of the numbers of things it changed and impacted about modern mainstream comics; certainly for Comix Experience it sells just a tiny fraction of better known Moore works like WATCHMEN, V FOR VENDETTA, or LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN. Everyone has a hard-on for MIRACLEMAN, but that has an awkward start, and a really rough middle section, while SWAMP THING is nearly home-run after home-run — even the weakest points of the narrative (the monster-of-the-month nature of “American Gothic”, a chunk or two of the Swamp-Thing-In-Space section) show a verve and daring and love of turning things on their head with bold experiments that is missing from most comics today.
Next year is the 25th anniversary of Moore’s SWAMP THING, and I really hope that DC does something special to capitalize upon it, and refocus people’s eyes on just how good these comics really are. At the least, I’m hoping that an Absolute Edition is possible for these pre-digital comics.
There are six volumes of Moore’s SWAMP THING available, comprising his entire epic, as well as three volumes (so far) of Rick Veitch’s solo run on the book. Each and every one of them is worth your hard earned money.