There are several things both notable and fascinating about this issue of the Swamp Thing. First and foremost, this story is unbelievably fucked up. Modern comics deliver sick, twisted, graphic gore and horror but seldom dig into emotional turmoil this deep.
WARNING: SPOILER ALERT
Part 1: Abby’s Past Tragedies
Abby Cable is already a tormented soul. She and her husband Matt lost two of their closest friends (Alec and Linda Holland) in an explosion and were then forced to hide from the killers for some time. After this trauma Matt and Abby’s marriage begins to fall apart as they try to piece together the death of Alec and discover this being the Swamp Thing.
One night while Abby is out in the swamps with Swamp Thing, Matt is severely injured in a car wreck leaving him brain-dead and his body possessed by the soul of Abby’s uncle Arcane. Calmly engorged in the corpse of the Husband, Arcane begins the torment of his own niece by dazzling and bedding her. His torments increase and eventually leave her dead in hell. Only the bravery of Swamp Thing (with help from Deadman, Phantom Stranger, and Etrigan) pulls Abby back from eternal torment.
With Matt Cable a “vegetable” from his car accident, Abby begins a romance with the swamp monster. Alan Moore’s bit of parallelism here was not lost on me: Abby trades her metaphorical vegetable-husband for an actual vegetable.
Their lives would be happy but for John Constantine who continually lures Swamp Thing off on new adventures saving the world, universes, and eventually the spiritual realm itself.
At this point in the series, photos of Abby and Swamp Thing are published in the local newspaper and Abby is charged with crimes against nature, a charge normally reserved for beastiality. Fearing imprisonment, Abby flees to Gotham City where the Swamp Thing wages a war on the city to recover her from Gotham’s justice system.
At last reunited, Abby’s dreams are shattered forever when the agency that created the Swamp Thing finds a way to kill its monster and does so. Swamp Thing is dead. Abby’s last vegetable has been burned to the ground.
After so much tragedy in one character, Stephen Bissette takes a last oportunity to twist the knife.
Part 2: Issue #59: “Reunion”.
The story begins in hell, where a large demon is tormenting Arcane for his sins on earth. We notice that one of Arcane’s eyes has been squished and the socket is filled with maggots. He complains that he cannot feel his eye. This is the perspective from which our story is told. Though Arcane is the main character and provides the perspective of this narrative, the story is actually about Abby Cable as she pieces her life back together. Arcane is forced to watch three stories unfolding simultaneously.
- He sees Abby as she tries to live her life. She’s in a convalescent home working with the aged who’s families have abandoned them. She struggles to cope with this. An orderly is stealing from the residents once they die and it’s a bit of a scandal that Abby uncovers. This narrative expands on Abby’s character and furthers the main arc of our story by showing how she lives her life in the absence of the Swamp Thing.
- We see some unknown creature, and read its inner thoughts as it struggles to find someone. We see parallelism between this creature and Arcane as it also complains about its eye. This narrative is rife with intrigue but is opaque, confusing until the end of the issue.
- We see the past when Abigail’s father – a single parent – lives with his only daughter in some small European village still peppered with land mines left over from WWII. Here we learn that Abby’s father stepped on one of these landmines while she was a little girl, dying in front of her eyes. This is how Abby was orphaned and came to live in the United States at a young age. Throughout most of this story Abby’s father is reading Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” to his daughter.
These three stories are interwoven and evolve before Arcane’s eye (and the readers’). The final death scene of Abby’s father is followed with the unknown creature in narrative 2 finding Abby at the convalescent home. It sees her, is ashamed, and runs into the swamps. Abby, recognizing something in the creature, chases it and the two are reunited. Here we learn that Arcane rebuilt the corpse of his dead brother (Abby’s father) after Abby had left for America. All these years the reanimated corpse has struggled to find its lost daughter, and now some decades later he is literally falling apart, ashamed of his own wretchedness, and ashamed for his lost life, his life as an Arcane.
Abigail Cable, emotionally devastated after losing Swamp Thing, is reunited with her long dead father to discover that he has been turned into a “Frankenstein” and is now disintigrating before her very eyes. After some time spent in a tearful embrace the monster flees his daughter. She chases him further into the swamp, but she can only find the scattered limbs of the man she once called father. This is the second time that Abigail has watched her father die.
Abby is found the next morning next to a torso. Limbs are scattered about her.
She says, “I can’t find his head.”
Back in hell, an impressed demon remarks to Arcane that he is still causing pain on earth after so many years, and that he may be turned into a demon once his sins are paid off.
Hot damn. This issue was fucked up and demostrated the stength of Bissette’s story-craft as he seamlessly wove together four narratives into one issue. Told from the perspective of a dead man being tormented in hell, we are shown new depths of Abby’s past and present while still managing to progress the main story that has been evolving over the past few issues (Swamp Thing’s death and eventual return to earth). The parallels are numerous. We see Abby’s childhood fascination with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” which provides insight into her adult romance with the Swamp Thing. We see her father actually become a Frankenstein monster in a sick play on the old notion that women marry men like their father. And Bissette ties Arcane to his brother by demonstrating that they are both ashamed of the family name (one for his sins, the other for his own wretchednes), both are monsters, and both have deteriorating eyes that cause them pain.
This issue is tremendous and is followed by another gem in issue #60, “Loving the Alien” which proved to be another gorgeous issue in the Saga of the Swamp Thing. Though the issues compiled in book 6 of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing are considered by many to be weak and inferior to his previous work, and are a bit overshadowed by the other story he wrote that year (Watchmen), I would argue that these issues rank easily among the best stand-alone issues of the whole series. Their depth, craft, and creativity are simply unparalleled.
(PS, sorry for two Swamp Thing posts in a row. It’s what I’ve been reading.)
Who even writes for this blog anymore? Certainly not us! Anyway, I just read a magnificent issue of Swamp Thing from the year 1996!
Clinton was in office and Dole wanted to oust him. Newt Gingrich had signed some weird “Contract with America” and the world of American politics was as nutty as ever. Apparently disgusted with himself, the comics industry, and left-wing socialist nut-jobs Mark Millar enlisted the incredible talents of Curt Swan to create this fascinating bit of satire.
If you’re familiar with Alan Moore or Rick Veitch’s work on Saga of the Swamp Thing then you know Chester Williams as an eco-friendly former hippie that loves tubers and teams up with the Swamp Thing to battle evil.
But that was before he saw the Contract!
Professor Chester Williams is at his apartment throwing a party with another professor and some of their students. The kids are dancing, drinking, getting high, and engaging in other immoral activities. After a living the hippie dream this party serves as a wake up call to Mr. Williams and he’s had enough! Chastising a young lady for strip-dancing at the party Chester proceeds to kill the music and call the cops on his students.
Disgusted with the loose living of these young liberals, Chester decides to join the NYPD and clean up America. After killing a few bank robbers (illegal immigrants no less!), saving a woman from being robbed [Ed. note: a "dyke," who he then kisses so hard she goes straight and marries him], and plenty of good old fashioned liberal bashing, Chester receives word that the Swamp Thing is giving the world’s leaders an ultimatum: stop polluting or else! As an old friend of this Elemental, Officer Williams decides to pay a visit to Houma, LA to try and talk some sense into the old Swamp Hippie.
After a stern lesson on economics, the importance of international trade, and a plea for Swamp Thing to “grow up”, Chester convinces Swamp Thing that the earth doesn’t need a paradise and things are best left as they are. Chester then returns to New York where he defeats incumbent Bill Clinton and becomes President of the United States of America!
Conservative ideals win again!
[Ed. note: Despite Mark Millar's bizarre introduction to the issue claiming it is the first "clean issue in a sick run of an evil book put together by diseased individuals," editor Stuart Moore later promises it was "an Elseworlds story" and "a bad trip or something." Thank God.]
Today’s post gives me the opportunity to introduce a new category for Bronze Age comics I’ve called: “Love for the Bronzer”.
You may not realize this, but Dr. Strange and the Man-Thing have have something in common: murderous Christians hate them.
I suppose in Strange’s case it makes a bit of sense. Since the Julio Claudian dynasty, paganism and Christianity have butted heads. Add a little Constantinian conversion, a bit of Julianian conservatism, and you’ve got a recipe that has left polytheism and monotheism standing on opposite sides of the Deity Dance Floor glaring one at the other for the last 2000 years. So when Marvel debuted their protagonist of polytheistic persuasion in Strange Tales #110, it was only a matter of time before Christianity took a stab at him, and in 1974 that’s exactly what it did. Enter the Silver Dagger, a knife-dipped-in-holy-water wielding ex-Cardinal who left the Church after being denied the Papacy. What was Dagger’s next move? Why, he became a sorcerer and took to killing off all practitioners of the mystic arts, of course!
And so it was that in Doctor Strange#1 this occult antagonist set his sights on Stephen Strange and the Sorcerer Supreme’s bombshell apprentice Clea. After three issues of fabulous story and gorgeous art the murderous mage was finally banished to unreality forever. Hooray!
What is a bit more – well – strange, is that exact same year the Man-Thing faced a similar foe. Man-Thing #s 3 & 4 featured the less poetically named Foolkiller as he attempted to rid the earth of fools and sinners with his Yahweh-bequeathed Purification gun. Foolkiller was a lost soul who got picked up in that hippie Christian Jesus Movement and found peace at last. Unfortunately, that peace was shattered when he walked in on his pastor getting drunk with some floozy. After being told to take life less seriously the Foolkiller went berserk, strangled the preacher, preserved his corpse in a shrine, received a laser gun from God (for some reason God armed this guy), loaded his gun and his shrine in a van and took off across America killing all the “fools” along the way. On one of his death quests, Foolkiller’s plot is foiled by the unwitting Man-Thing and from that point on Foolkiller has a score to settle.
Unfortunately for both Foolkiller and the Man-Thing, this swamp monster can’t exactly be killed. Foolkiller goes about his business of trying to get the local radio station to stop playing “blasphemous” music and is ultimately killed during a fight with Man-Thing when the Dead Preacher Shrine falls over and a large shard of glass pierces Foolkiller’s heart.
I don’t know if there is any connection between these two stories. The Jesus Movement was all over the US, and Protestants and Catholics were really going at it in Ireland around this time, but that’s all I can think might have inspired these two stories such a short time from each other. In any case I still effing love the Bronze Age of Comics and I’ve learned just how dangerous a knife dipped in holy water or a God-sent laser blaster can be, so it’s a win/win for me. It’s been a long time since anybody did a “Reviews & Booze” write up, so I’m gonna go ahead and recommend some red wine for this one.
I was catching up on Crisis on Infinite Earths tonight when I noticed this lovely Easter Egg. As a big Trekkie, and a fan of The Wrath of Khan in particular, this panel made me very happy.
It’s worth noting that Marv Wolfman actually wrote the Marvel Super Special comic adaptation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979 and edited the first 20 issues of DC Comics’ Star Trek from 1984 to 1985 (and doing sporadic color work thereafter) while George Perez did the covers for the first three issues of the DC Comics run.
Speaking of Wolfman and Perez, don’t forget that The New Teen Titans Omnibus Volume 1 is out today! I’m broke, but green with envy over all you who purchase it (insert your own Beast Boy joke here).
Who’s Phyllis? None of the credits help. Maybe somebody’s mother or girlfriend? I do love a good mystery. If any readers know about this Easter Egg I’d love to know.
I haven’t written for High Five in some time now. To be fair I never contribute too heavily and a disruption is measured in months not weeks, but really I haven’t been writing because I haven’t kept up with new comics. Sure, I hit the shop every week and often pick up a book or two, but for the most part the modern world isn’t grabbing me right now.
They say that 1985 is the year comics grew up. Well, I was born in ‘82 which means comics grew up before I did. Mine was a generation that had a kick-ass X-Men cartoon on TV, Superman died when we were still in grammar school, and most of us didn’t realize until later that Wolverine’s hair isn’t actually so out of control.
Since comics matured before I could form memories, my taste in comics has always been “grown up”. Writers like Moore, Ellis, Azarello, and Willingham dominate my bookshelf and before 2010 would have been quickly rattled off in reply had you asked who my favorite comic writers were; which is why I’ve taken a break from all this intensity and have spent the last 6-9 months reading Gold, Silver, and Bronze Age comics almost exclusively.
I’ll be the first to admit that this stuff is incredibly campy and many of the stories don’t make a whole ton of sense, but when you get past the modern bias against silliness a whole world of innocent amazement opens to you. At SDCC 2010 Grant Morrison pointedly remarked, “We’ve already got the real world. Why do you want comics to be like that one?” which sums up how I feel about comics right now. I ask you: what’s so great about “realistic” dialogue? Why should I read about characters going through intense emotional pain? Why not read about amazing people fighting fantastical fights as pure good battles pure evil with no grey areas to bog us down? Some of you will tell me I’m just unevolved, but seriously: isn’t there room for both? Does one really preclude the other?
Maybe I’m becoming cynical as I age, sinking into some horrid pessimism (or escapism), but I feel like the real world around me is pretty f***ed up most of the time and I’ve gotten tired of reading comics that depict a world equally f***ed up. Nobody is dying when I read Planet Comics, Len Wein could write Phantom Stranger stories that were mysterious without being disturbing, I read Jack Kirby without turning my stomach, and Walt Kelly is pure delight. I’m telling you guys, this is the magic that made comics great.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not knocking the modern creators. I just read Outlaw Nation with much enjoyment and I swear I’m gonna finish 100 Bullets one of these days, but for now and the foreseeable future the world before 1985 is captivating my attention and I feel like I could never leave.
Hello, Readers! Jonny here.
In my many readings and explorings of the Information Super Highway (that’s the Internet to you “Web2.0” Kiddies) I discovered a Golden Age gem from January 1941 called “The Red Comet” that was published in Fiction House’s Planet Comics.
Planet Comics started in January of 1940 as a monthly magazine collecting, as did most comics of the time, several stories by many authors and artists. Though detectives and superheroes were all the rage in ‘41, Planet Comics catered to a slightly different niche with space odysseys. Known for stories with strong female characters and Good Girl Art, it seems Planet Comics was destined to become the sort of thing collectors drool over and popular culture forgets.
Anyone who follows my infrequent posts knows I have a soft spot for the Golden Age, but for all my love I cannot deny this stuff is crude. Imagine my surprise when I found “The Red Comet” by Arthur King (which may or may not be a pseudonym for Cy Thatcher, Rudy Pallais, and Alex Blum). All of the basic pitfalls of the Golden Age are here and yet there was something more. A lot more.
Within the pages of Planet Comics #10 I found a story that was probably intended to be heroic fantasy, yet ended up written and drawn as one of the most gorgeously Philip K. Dick-style dystopian stories I’ve read in a comic. I can only assume this wonderful transformation was due to the author’s own classist world-view and the three color limit placed on an artist with a remarkable eye for action. If you can, I strongly recommend finding your own copy of Planet Comics #10. If not, I will recap below.
Our story begins as the Red Comet himself bears witness to a landmark in science: the reanimation of a corpse. As a panel of probably-important-people and the Red Comet watch, the body of Tony Scaro is reanimated and “birthed” from the cold womb of a machine. The naked Tony awakes in a strange room. Confused, he asks for clothing.
Now, if I were the Red Comet or a scientist in Future Earth, this would be the part where I rush up to Tony Scaro and say something like, “Welcome to the future! It’s totally awesome here and you’re invited to join us in our perfect society! Enjoy this complementary Future Robe!” Instead this is where the comic starts to get effed up. Rather than addressing Tony directly and welcoming him to his new life in the future, the Red Comet towers above him in demigod-like form and announces Tony is a “low type” from the 20th century.
The scientists – still refraining from actually talking to Tony who has been dead for possibly hundreds of years and has no idea what the hell is happening – decide he will be permitted to “wander where he pleases” but will remain under close observation. For God only knows how long, Tony wanders Future Earth alone, all but naked, and under constant surveillance by unseen forces. Not surprisingly, this wears on Tony and he begins to long for his previous life and friends.
Coinciding with a break in surveillance, Tony commandeers a space ship and heads to Jupiter because, well, why the hell not? Apparently a good space-pilot, Tony lands on Jupiter and is brought before its dictator: a man most ominously named Kil. We can only assume that Tony is the first Earth person in ages to land on Jupiter, because Kil decides to inform Tony of his plans to go to war with Saturn. He then requests that Tony kill statesmen on Earth because that will get Earth to ally with Jupiter against Saturn for some reason. Tony jumps at the idea, and at this point I can’t say I blame him.
Back on Earth (and I’m guessing a few weeks later), the population starts to freak out as many prominent statesmen are murdered. Finally, the Red Comet shows up to announce that he’s discovered more info on Tony Scaro’s past and it turns out Tony was a notorious murderer in his day.
So far in the story I was totally on Team Tony in his rampage against the elitist Future Earth society that would so callously bring a man back to life and then send him naked into the wild after deeming him of inferior social status. Upon learning Tony’s brutal past I started to find him less sympathetic. Then I remembered: THEY DIDN’T KNOW HIS MURDEROUS PAST WHEN THEY FIRST CAST HIM OUT.
Damn, the future is full of dicks.
Receiving a tip from one of Kil’s inside men (wait, if he had insiders in the Earth government already why did he inform the random, naked mystery man from space of his plot? Anyway…) Tony steals another ship and makes for Jupiter with the Red Comet in hot pursuit. This time Kil is less enthusiastic and starts shooting at Tony, fearing that he’ll lead Earth’s forces to Saturn.
Crash landing on one of Saturn’s moons, a fierce battle ensues between Tony and the Red Comet.
Here is where my sympathy for Tony and my hatred for the Red Comet was nearly at full pitch. After winning the battle, Red Comet heads for Jupiter to find out why they were so quick to shoot at Tony. Please remember that Red Comet knows absolutely nothing of Kil’s plan. That becomes especially important when – without talking to anyone on the planet first – he grows to a giant size and single-handedly destroys Jupiter’s fleet that is sent to meet the invading Earth super-being.
Seriously, this guy is a twat.
Back on earth, Red Comet and the scientists decide that Tony Scaro’s violent 20th century ways are incompatible with the awesome Future ways and decide to put him in stasis forever. For this feat of heroism and benevolence the population of Earth praises the Red Comet.
As I said, I’m pretty sure all this horror and dystopia was unintentional. I think we were supposed to be cheering for Red Comet as he fought the murderous Tony Scaro and destroyed the fleets of wicked Kil. But as I read Planet Comics #10 all I felt was horror at the elitist disregard for humanity displayed by the supposedly advanced people of Future Earth. This was probably greatly assisted by the fact that we know and see so little of Red Comet. He only enters the story when somebody’s ass needs kicking which makes him come off as some sort of Gestapo henchmen for Fascists yet to come. This coupled with truly astounding artwork made for a supremely (if inadvertently) enjoyable read. I know I’ve made light of this comic, but again I must emphasize that I was totally enraptured as I read it and I must insist that anyone who enjoys Golden Age stories find a copy of Planet Comics.
Until next time, happy readings!
“Fans come to me asking how this works or that works, and I say, ‘It’s a comic book. It’s not real.’ We already have a real world, why do you want fiction to be like that too?”
- Grant Morrison, 2010
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Golden Age comics. I know there aren’t many of my generation who appreciate this stuff, and I’m positive I don’t “get it” the way my grandparents did, but the mixture of innocence, desperation, and humanity I find in these old stories is quite compelling.
When my generation imagines old comics we think of Super Friends, but for all its glitter the times of the Golden Age were rather bleak. Thanks to Captain America and Wonder Woman we think the heroes of that first era were framed against the backdrop of WWII. This is not true. While it is true that Superman, Batman, and others came to stand for the American Way their personae were not forged in flames of war, but in the embers of Depression.
“We can do it!” Rosie the Riveter said that for the first time in 1942. Superman debuted in 1938. We met Batman, Namor, and the Human Torch in 1939. Jay Garrick, Alan Scott, and the Spirit first appeared in 1940 alongside most of the Golden Age crew. Wonder Woman is the only major character to appear after Pearl Harbor, and she also joins Steve Rogers in color coordination. All of these heroes were born into an era scarred by record unemployment and rising crime as the country completed a full decade of economic depression.
People were starting to lose hope and this, my friends, is the world Superman needed to save.
Something I love about the early days of superheroes is the lack of super-villains. Oh, sure there were a few notable bad guys like the Joker and Wotan, but on the whole super-villains were exceptions to the norm of mob bosses, corrupt officials, and street thugs. This is what I meant when I said the Golden Age comics were desperate. America thought the problems of everyday life were bad enough to need heroes.
This reveals a real sense of hopelessness deep in the psyche of that generation. Rampant unemployment. Gang violence on the rise and crime organizing like never before. Times were desperate, and the Common Man felt he was quickly losing his place in the day-to-day life of America.
See, creators like Rob Kanigher and Len Wein saw comics as fantastical tales to thrill an audience with absurdity and bizarre scenarios. Jerry Siegel, Bill Finger, C. C. Beck, and Mart Dellon saw comics as a cathartic escape from the harsh reality of violence, corruption, and black-mail.
They saw comics as a weird mixture of hope and escape.
Never mind the crude drawings and clumsy dialogue. The heroes idolized by my grandfather didn’t need to fight aliens to have meaning. Superman was great because he could stop a lynching. We believed in the Green Lantern because he could expose a mob-boss who had framed an innocent man. These heroes didn’t protect us from the unknown; what they brought was hope in the face of something very real and immediate. Put another way, the Golden Age offered escape from reality simply by solving the problems of poor Americans. I cannot imagine anything sadder or more exhilarating. So, while 1938-1950 may not have produced the best art or the most clever prose, America has arguably never seen comics that had more meaning. And that is enough to make a Golden Age.
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Today I was reading through Steve Gerber’s Man-Thing # 16 and staring up at me on the first page was an advertisement so incredible I had to talk about it. Though the world of comics has always been a bizarre and ever-changing landscape a few concepts have remained intact. Among them is the idea of male wish fulfillment, more specifically: Big Muscles. I don’t think I need to back up this claim as anyone who’s even heard of superheroes knows they pack some serious guns.
With nary a thought to this I open my beloved Man-Thing book and there was an ad for Charles Atlas‘ workout program. Take a good gander at this:
Mac: Hey! Quit kicking that sand in our faces!
Grace: That man is the worst nuisance on the beach!
Bully: Listen here. I’d smash your face… only you’re so skinny you might dry up and blow away.
Mac: The big bully! I’ll get even some day.
Grace: Oh don’t let it bother you, little boy!
Mac: Darn!!! I’m sick and tired of being a scarecrow! Charles Atlas says he can give me a real body. All right! I’ll gamble a stamp and get his free book.
Mac: Boy! It didn’t take Atlas long to do this for me! What muscles! That bully won’t shove me around again!
Mac: There’s that big stiff again. Showing off in front of Grace and the crowd. Well it’s my turn this time!
Mac: WHAM! Now it’s your turn to dry up and blow away!
Grace: Oh, Mac! You are a real man after all!
There you have it, kiddies! Don’t like getting bullied? Gain weight, find the people you hold grudges against, and punch them in the face! I can’t think of a better message for our nation’s youth. Maybe this stuff made more sense 40 years ago.
Upon researching Charles Atlas I learned he was one of the first nationally recognized body builders in America, providing inspiration to countless muscle-men who would follow him. Quite likely if it hadn’t been for the success of ads like this California and Minnesota may have never had a robot hit-man from the future or an alien-hunting jungle commando as their respective 38th governors. What I do know is that the absurdity of Silver Age comics seems to have bled into the Real World in ways I never thought possible before now. This world is bizarre.