“A Time of Running”:

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Issue #26

Saga of the Swamp Thing #26 “A Time of Running”

Cover date: July 1984 Writer: Alan Moore. Penciller: Steve Bissette. Inker: John Totleben. Letterer: John Costanza. Colorist: Tatjana Wood. Cover: Steve Bissette and John Totleben. Editor: Karen Berger.

The issue opens with Swamp Thing and Abby running. The use of narrow panels slashing across the page help emphasize a sense of speed. We only see the characters’ feet, and them holding hands, while the backdrop dominates the small, silhouette figures of both running. It’s an incredibly atmospheric and effective opening in visual terms. Rather than adding the conventional type of text, such as character dialogue, or internal monologue via caption boxes, Moore adds another reference to film: a quotation from Night of the Hunter (1955, directed by Charles Laughton), attributing it to the scriptwriter James Agee. It’s a fitting reference, as the film and this story share the themes of childhood and fear.

Pages two and three open out into a wonderful double page spread[1]. Swamp Thing runs with Abby, holding her by the hand, and additional panels are superimposed on the scene, which depict a move from a close up of Abby’s eye to her recollection of the meeting with Jason Blood. The use of flashback punctuates the first part of this issue, and intercutting it with Abby and Swamp Thing running creates a tense pace that pulls the reader along, propelling them through the drama of the story.

Jason and Abby are sitting in a cafe. It’s such a mundane, everyday location, and it really emphasizes the balance between horror, the supernatural, and real life that Moore, Bissette and Totleben are aiming for in this series. Blood tries to warn Abby about the danger in Elysium Lawns, and Abby’s reaction is telling:

How dare you? Isn’t there even a corner of my life that’s safe from all this weirdness? I don’t know who you are or how you know about me, but you just keep your hands off Elysium Lawns!

It’s a reaction that displays a stronger sense of character; an inner anger and power that we haven’t seen from the character before. Abby, as a female supporting character, has been dependent on the men in her life from her Uncle (Arcane), to being protected by Matt (in early issues) and by Swamp Thing. Moore shows us a more sensitive side to Abby in his earlier issues, and suggests that she is a character who cannot cope with the realities of what is happening to her, such as Matt’s abuse nature and her disgust over Swamp Thing’s devolved state (#22). Yet Moore is cleverly setting us up for a switch; a development in her character that will see a stronger, self-reliant, more rounded, adult and believable female character emerge[2], and it’s in the issue that he begins this transformation. Abby even puts Matt in his place by winning the argument with him later in this issue (pages 12 and 13). Her ability to tend to the emotional needs of others (like Swamp Thing, and the children at Elysium Lawns) indicates her growing strength of character and maturity. This is in direct contrast to Matt, whose focus on his own sexual needs show him to have become shallow and self-obsessed. This is a far cry from the man who sought to protect the Hollands and avenge Alec’s death in the original series by Wein and Wrightson.

The scenes with the children and Kamara are incredibly disturbing, and the creative team and DC Comics were extremely brave for allowing their controversial content. Moore really taps into human fear here, and he pulls no punches. Roberta’s fear of the infant sibling she smothered unintentionally is heartbreaking and is almost too horrific to contemplate for a reader: a ghostly baby arm is enough to establish the sense of horror visually. Michael’s fear of cancer, a concept he cannot understand, manifests itself in a type of monstrosity found in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Jessica’s fear of being abused is given form in a deranged, hideous manifestation of her abuser, who slurs “Mommy needn’t know.” Everyone who sees Kamara sees only what he or she fears – their perception of him is subjective[3].

Into this scene of chaos arrives Swamp Thing and Abby, and they are soon joined by Etrigan. Jack Kirby’s monster could have destroyed the mood of the issue – he is dressed in bright red and yellow – but, like the inclusion of the JLA in #24, it works remarkably well. Moore takes the opportunity to experiment by using a particular form of rhyme in writing Etrigan’s speech – iambic pentameter. This particular technique involves 10 syllable lines, grouped into five, two beat segments (with the accent on every second syllable), and we can deconstruct Etrigan’s opening lines to illustrate this:

The toys / a – bout / the nur /se – ry / are set

Iambic pentameter is commonly found in two places – in sonnets and Elizabethan plays, especially those of Shakespeare, where noble characters adopt the technique in their speech[4]. In doing this, Moore enables Etrigan to dominate almost every scene in which he appears in this story; giving Etrigan a sense of age, power and importance of a Shakespearean protagonist. No doubt this was a challenge that the writer enjoyed immensely. Moore even attempts to adopt the structure of Shakespearean sonnets in Etrigan’s dialogue, where the fourteen lines are divided thematically into three groups of four lines (quatrains), concluding with a couplet[5].

At the end of the issue, Matt rushes to help Abby, and this moment of clarity would allow the reader to sense the beginning of the character’s redemption, but even this is marred by the fact that he is driving when drunk and crashes his car into a tree. Matt will be offered no redemption in this issue, and Moore’s treatment of the character will lead to truly horrific moments in upcoming issues when we learn the true fate of Matt Cable following the car crash.

[1]     This is lost in some trade reprints, as the double page has not been accommodated into the book design. It’s a frustrating loss.

[2]     Moore had previous experience in writing strong female characters, such as Roxy in Skizz and Halo Jones, both in 2000 AD, and Evey in V for Vendetta (begun in the UK magazine Warrior, prior to him starting on Saga of the Swamp Thing.

[3]     This is a quality that Neil Gaiman would adopt for Morpheus, in that everyone who viewed him would have their own visual interpretation of him.

[4]     As seen in the following: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” (sonnet 18); “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (Macbeth, Act 1, scene 3).

[5]     This is the form Shakespeare used, as opposed to the Petrarchan sonnet – a group of eight lines (an octave), followed by a concluding six line section (a sestet).

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Andrew writes about comics for Sequart, where he is currently serialising a book on the Moore-Bissette-Totleben-Veitch issues of Swamp Thing. He blogs about comics and other aspects of popular culture here. He holds a BA Hons in English, History and Media Studies, an MA in English Literary Culture (1880-1920), and postgraduate qualifications in teaching and librarianship. He currently works for Glyndwr University in Wrexham, Wales, UK, as an academic study skills tutor and sessional lecturer, where he is also undertaking PhD research into intertextuality in the work of Alan Moore.

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