RETRO REVIEW: Saga Of The Swamp Thing #34 (March 1985)

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Or – “…And A New Beginning.”

And Welcome to the New Year!  (Sorry, I’m not going to kiss you.  I’m a happily married man, after all.  But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some kissing to be had, Faithful Spoilerite.)

Often, when I consider what comics I want to Retro Review, I find myself gravitating towards the years wherein I really discovered comics as an art form, circa my early teens in the mid-Reagan-era.  When I started thinking about what book would make the perfect start for a new year full of promise and high hopes, one thing was certain:  Alan Moore would almost certainly be involved.

SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING #34
Writer: Alan Moore
Penciler: Stephen R. Bissette
Inker: John Totleben
Colorist: Tatjana Wood
Letterer: John Costanza
Editor: Karen Berger
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: 75 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $8.00

Previously, in Saga Of The Swamp Thing:  An explosion, later revealed to be sabotage, destroyed the research work of young Alec Holland, killing his wife and sending him stumbling and on fire into the swamps of Louisiana.  For several years, it was believed that Holland had survived as a human/vegetable hybrid, but it took Jason Woodrue (aka the Floronic Man) to discover that Alec Holland had not survived after all, but that his mind had imprinted upon the flora of the swamp and created a new entity.  This elemental being clashed with his old friend Matt Cable, faced down the evil of Arcane, and even battled against and alongside demons to save the life of Abigail Cable, nee Arcane.  These adventures left the Swamp Thing for the first time sure of his place in the universe, Arcane (Anton, not Abby) sent to the hoary underworld and Matthew Cable in a vegetative coma, mourned only by his shell-shocked wife…

For those who were reading comics in 1985, you’ll know what I mean when I say that this kind of writing was a bolt from the blue.  This page contains as much language, as many words as entire issues of some comics, building it’s reality from the very first panel.  Moore revels in the language, writing long, sensual paragraphs that compliment the art without the redundant explanation of what we see in the panel that so many imitators would use in their attempts to imitate Moore.  But that’s not to say that the art doesn’t hold up it’s end of the bargain…

In preparing this review, I realized something fascinating.  Printing techniques of the mid-80′s weren’t nearly as sophisticated as they are today, but the swamp scenes in this issue aren’t on a white background.  When Abby visits her husband, the whites of the story are white, but by the time we reach her interactions with Swamp Thing, the backgrounds are a subtle blue-green color.  Is it intentional?  I think so, although it might be my copy of the issue disintegrating after multiple readings.  It sure FEELS like it’s done on purpose, I can tell you that, and the awkward way that Abby tries to work up to her admission of love is wonderfully rendered in both the art and the dialogue.  Swamp Thing can’t believe that Abby is talking about him, and her fear and misgivings (and guilt) overwhelm her, and she snaps, “Oh for god’s sake, who else?”  Overwhelmed by tears and feeling that she’s ruined her last remaining friendship, she asks the question that changes everything…

Awww…  That’s just beautiful character work right there.  Often, it’s difficult to transfer the wonder of a given comic book into a Retro Review, but I have to tell you, it was a HUGE pain to try and review this issue, technically speaking.  Bissette and Totleben don’t use standard nine-grid panels, often eschewing traditional panels entirely, instead rendering the issue in double-page spreads and moments that cross over panels, gutters and pages, overlapping Swampy’s reality with Abby’s and switching back and forth.  It’s a truly beautiful issue, made even moreso by the joyous looks on the couple’s faces as they finally kiss.  “[You taste] like lime, but not as sharp,” murmurs Abby…

And then the issue takes a turn into territory that I did NOT expect.  Having read Swamp Thing off and on from the early Marty Pasko issues, I was pretty well poleaxed by what Alan Moore was accomplishing with our leafy-green hero, but I did not expect things to get as metaphysical as they quickly did.  And when this issue brought up the spectre of sex, I wasn’t sure where it would go.  (Hell, I didn’t even know HOW that would go.)  “There should be some form of communion,” rumbles DJ Swampy T before plucking a tuber from his chest (a slightly disturbing moment for me) and washing it for his new girlfriend.  “Uh… what do you want me… uh…  What, you mean, I’m supposed to… uh…  eat it?”  Abby is confused, concerned, and as weirded out as we, the readers are but quickly agrees to consume her boyfriend’s offering.

I admit it, even re-reading this today, I’m uncomfortable.  Not uncomfortable in a disgusting, monstery way, nor even uncomfortable with what seems to be an overt drug reference, but uncomfortable in being a spectator in what is clearly a very intimate situation that I don’t belong in.  I equate it with accidentally walking in on a couple at an inopportune moment, that sense that you have just gotten in the middle of something that, no matter how wonderful, is NOT about you.

I am so disappointed at how my scans (and, for that matter, my words) fail to capture how truly lovely this whole issue is.  Abby’s altered perceptions tap into Swamp Thing’s mind, and what was just uncomfortable becomes downright blush-worthy as they do something that comprises one of the most obvious sexual metaphors I have ever seen in comics (and I’ve read a LOT of comics.)  Hell, Alan Moore would later write an issue of Promethea that was literally two characters having sex for 23 pages and that almost wasn’t this sexual…

That is some seriously beautiful artwork, and Abby’s facial expression in that last panel is heart-breakingly gorgeous.  Her consciousness crashes back down to earth, and Abby finds herself again in the swamp, awkwardly accepting her new beau’s hand as he lifts her out of the water…

The issue ends with a full-page, wordless shot of the happy couple kissing as his roots wraps around her legs and the flowers on his back burst into bloom.  It’s quite lovely, and almost makes me forget the horrors to come (although the bottom blurb advertising next issue’s story, “The Nukeface Papers” reminds me, and even the upcoming debut of John Constantine won’t change the chills of dread creeping up my spine.)  This issue is damn near as perfect a comic book issue as I can remember reading, delivering an emotional punch from the first panel to the last.  I empathize with Abby’s fear as she tries to tell someone she loves about her feelings, and I get dragged along into their “first date” even today.  An average Retro Review involves 2 to 3 readings of the comic in question; El Santo required more like 7, but I was reading in a second language.  I’ve been through this book nine or ten times already, and I may go through it one more time now that I’m done writing, just to soak up a little bit more awesome in the New Year.  Saga Of The Swamp Thing #34 is the book that cemented Swampy and Abby as my favorite comics couple, and I can think of no better way to kick off another annus mirabilus than by giving it 5 out of 5 stars overall.

Rating: ★★★★★

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day:  Given that comics tend to be all middle with no ending, is it weird that we’re so fixated on first issues, first appearances and good jumping-on points?