Or – “The Seed From Which Everything Vertigo Will Eventually Grow…”
Back in 1985, the choices in terms of comics reading were much more limited in scope than they are now (at least the choices within bicycle range of my house in North Central Kansas.) Sure, Epic Illustrated and Heavy Metal were still around, but those books held the distinction of being:
B. Marked 18 and up.
C. Distributed differently than the comics, making them harder to find in the drugstores and Pump ‘N Pantries I frequented.
When Alan Moore took over DC’s faltering super-hero/horror hybrid title, Swamp Thing, the very first issue was a complete deconstruction of the character, an example of how the “Everything You Know Is Wrong” syndrome can really galvanize a story. My love affair with the title, however, came a couple of years later, with issue #34, ‘Rites of Spring.’ It put Swamp Thing on my “must have” list, and when this issue came out, it was nothing less than a revelation, with a whole new status quo for the title character, and the debut of one who would prove to be among the most versatile and interesting characters in DC’s impressive arsenal… John Constantine.
Previously, on Saga Of The Swamp Thing: Alec Holland was transformed the night the bomb went off in his lab… The bio-restorative formula that he and his wife created could have revolutionized the agriculture industry and fed millions, but instead it cost Linda Holland her life, and so permeated Alec’s form that the very plants of the swamp coalesced with his flaming remains. He rose that night a different being, believing himself to be a new kind of creature entirely. When a man named Sunderland killed him with a bullet through the brain, and hired Jason Woodrue (The Floronic Man) to analyze the remains, the truth became clear. Alec Holland was unequivocally dead. What rose from the swamps was pure plant, having consumed Alec’s remains and become infected with his consciousness. Swamp Thing tried to come to terms with his new status, but his real acceptance came in a trial by fire… A hobo nicknamed ‘Nukeface’ came to his swamp, chasing down barrels of nuclear waste from an accident thousands of miles away, and his radiation destroyed the body that ‘Alec’ built the night of the explosion. In desperation, the Swamp Thing flung his consciousness into the ether, while events across the ocean start wheels in motion that will finally change Alec’s life and give him the full, terrifying truth on what he really IS…
The man in the trenchcoat is John Constantine, rhymes with ‘wine,’ and I’ll give you fair warning right now: the first man to mention Keanu Reeves is getting a size 14 boot to the head (“YA YAAA!”) While Swamp Thing ever so slowly rebuilds his body, John is customarily three steps ahead of the game, tracking down a conspiracy that has barely even begun to spin it’s wheels. He asks his associate Judith the drunken psychic how long they have, and she confirms that what she believes is an “extragalactic energy field” will arrive in less than a year. Leaving her to her booze and pills, Constantine heads to America, to confer with another of his associates, this one a young man named Benjamin, with a different idea of WHAT is coming, but the same time frame in mind…
Benjamin, too, is just psychic enough to know what’s coming without really knowing what’s going on… Meanwhile, in the swamp, Abby Cable (Swamp Thing’s lover) wanders the darkened sloughs, following a mysterious feeling that Alec is still around somewhere. Their connection is strong enough that she finds her way straight to the tiny sprout, finding her boyfriend easily, and deciding to care for him. She tries her best, but he is unhappy with her use of insecticide. Growing a mouth, the Swamp Thing sprout, tells her his displeasure, and she is happy to see that it’s really him. “How about ‘thanks for all the water?’ ” she laughs. Constantine isn’t having nearly as jolly a time of it, as he travels to Washington to confer with another ‘expert’ on the nature of the trouble before them.
Call him Satan, C’thu’Lu, or Buck Rogers, the consensus is clear: Something is brewing, and if someone cannot intervene in the next 12 months, all is lost. By day 9, Alec has grown back his eyes, and finally is able to interact with Abby with all five senses. She relates what has happened in the intervening weeks, reporting that ‘Nukeface’ supposedly died after poisoning his body. Alec isn’t sure how long is will take him to regrow, but Abby decides to take advantage of his immobility, making out with him while he is rooted and can’t escape. It’s a cute moment, if a tiny bit illegal. As for John, his whirlwind tour takes him to New York City, where he confers with the one woman who knows the full story (and I honestly don’t know her name.) “They’re all going crackers, y’know. Except Benjamin, He was crackers to star with. I suppose it’ll all be left up to me in the end. Bloody Americans. All mouth and trousers.”
“A little boy with his head twisted around backwards…” Wasn’t that what Benjamin said? Day 12 dawns with Alec expanding his consciousness in one of the awesome almost-acid trips that Steve Bissette and John Totleben drew so very well. He realizes that his existence is more than he thought, that the process of regrowing his body is only ONE of the benefits that come from an entirely vegetative form. As Abby drives to meet him, she is stunned to hear an English accent from the back seat of her car. “Morning, Ms. Cable. How’s the boyfriend?” She takes him to see Alec, and Swampy is a little taken aback, but John plays the game best when he holds all the cards. “I said I’d tell the people your missus works for about her sleeping arrangement. I’m a nasty piece of work, chief. Ask anybody.” Alec’s rage rises that this… person would threaten Abby to get to him, but John lights a silk cut, and gets right to the point. “I know what you ARE, mate. And you don’t.”
Emma! Her name is Emma! Yay! Anyways, Alec calls John’s bluff (as Constantine knew he would) asking him to share the information that he has. “I’m too busy to sit explaining things to you. If you want answers, you’ll have to keep up with me.” Swamp Thing is officially hooked, and all that’s left is to reel in the line. Abby asks who he thinks he is, but John has the perfect comeback. “That’s not the point, love. It’s who your boyfriend thins HE is… and until he knows what he is, there’ll be something in his life that’s incomplete.”
The… thing… that Emma drew has disappeared from the page, and twenty years on, this story still gives me the screamin’ heebies. Emma sloooowly, ever so slooowly, moves towards the door, while at the same moment, in the swamp, John finally reels in his fish. “I tell you what. In a week’s time, I’ll be in a place called Rosewood, just outside Chicago. If you can make it, perhaps we’ll have a little chat, and see what comes to light.” Moore uses the dialogue between the two scenes to cut back and forth, a trick that he’s use to great effect in ‘Watchmen’ a year or so later. John walks away, and Swampy calls after him, but Abby tells him, “It’s too late.” Emma opens her closet and finds that her drawing has come to life, and I’m going to go turn on every light in the frickin’ house and a Steely Dan album for company.
I really cannot convey to you, in this day of Marvel Zombies, 30 Days of Night, Freddy, Jason, and Leatherface comics, how transforming this book was on my teen psyche. It was from DC COMICS, the people who gave me my JLA, Flash, and Legion of Super-Heroes fix every month, as well as Captain Carrot and All-Star Squadron. DC didn’t do intense psychological horror… Hell, in 1985, NOBODY in American comics did psychological horror like this. Emma’s body hits the pavement, and we see her empty eyes staring up at us, as Benjamin and Sister Marie come back to their senses. We cut back to the apartment, and see that the creature is back on her artboard, with the bloody shattered window in the background. Back in the swamps, Alec has finally extricated himself from the earth that rebirthed him, and Abby tries to put a brave face on the strangeness of the Englishman’s visit…
He does know it, and for a damn good reason… This issue led into a storyline called “American Gothic,” in which the group of South American mystics tries to cultivate a new age of fear, utilizing classic monsters like vampires, werewolves, and the like to use the power of American group consciousness to power their wicked spells. This arc is truly something to behold (and it’s available in trade form as Swamp Thing Vol 3) and this issue kicks it all off.
The incomplete list of things that probably wouldn’t exist without this issue and Alan Moore’s run on this title include Watchmen, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (possibly his entire career), James Robinson’s Starman, Y: The Last Man, Morrison’s Doom Patrol and Animal Man, Watchmen, a large portion of the current DCU take on magic, and the entire Vertigo line. Perhaps I’m exaggerating just a little, but I’ll bet you even money that if you name your favorite title, there’s been a trickle-down effect from these issues. As the introduction of John Constantine (and I can’t stress this enough, it’s pronounced “Con-stan-TYNE” dammit!) it’s one of my favorite issues of all time. You can really see why the character of John took off the way he did, outlasting even his mother title and staying on the stands 20 years later, even spawning a truly excrable movie adaptation. (And isn’t having your character ruined by Hollywood the REAL test of pop culture permanence?) The art is beyond beautiful, with Bissette and Totleben giving us a truly swampy Swamp Thing, a heart-breakingly beautiful Abby, and a Constantine whose resemblance to Sting is so striking that you wonder how Gordon Sumner actually felt about it. Add to that equation the fact that Alan Moore was feeling his oats at this point in history, rewriting the rules of comic books as he went, and gearing up to redefine everything we thought we dug about comic books in Watchmen, and you have a recipe for a classic comic book. I love, love, LOVE this comic book, and, indeed, the entire run of Swamp Thing that surrounds it, and can’t fathom giving Saga of the Swamp Thing #37 any less than 5 out of 5 stars. It’s only out of sheer laziness that I didn’t fire up Photoshop and make it SIX out of 5…