“A Halo of Flies” and “The Brimstone Ballet”:

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Issues #30 and #31

Saga of the Swamp Thing #30 “A Halo of Flies”

Cover date: November 1984. Writer: Alan Moore. Artists: Stephen Bissette and Alfredo Alcala. Colorist: Tatjana Wood. Letterer: John Costanza. Editor: Karen Berger.

The halo of flies that encircle Cable’s head provide the title to the issue, and it’s probably a reference to the Alice Cooper song ‘Halo of Flies’. The opening lyrics “I’ve got the answers to all of your questions” aptly describe what Arcane does in this issue: explain how he survived and came to inhabit Matt Cable’s body.

Following his ‘death’ in issue #19 (the final pre-Moore issue), Arcane struggles and succeeds in escaping from hell, referred to as the “dusk latitudes”, “cobwebbed lands”, “the dismal region of bodiless men”. Moore’s scripting of Arcane allows him to display his abilities with words, creating these memorably poetic, yet haunting, disturbing images.

Arcane’s first move is to attempt to reanimate his corpse, but it proves to be damaged beyond repair and effectively useless, and so he hunts for a suitable alternative. He explains how he manipulated recent events, specifically engineering the episode with Kamara and the Demon (issues #25-27), and caused Matt’s car crash. He tells how Matt gave up his body to him, and tells Abby about how Cable was using his abilities for “trivial and squalid dioramas”.

The main story alternates with other brief occurrances across the country. These moments, pregnant with horror, are juxtaposed glimpses into the dark side of the human psyche. They are a result of what Moore calls the “shockwave of nightmare” in the opening scene, which embodies the types of events referred to throughout the issue: a wino is about to be torched by a man; a wife edges toward her husband with an old frying pan raised in her hand; a cat creeps towards a baby in a cradle; a guide dog begins to turn on its owner; a cow gives birth to “something terrible… that cries like a woman and then dies”.

Other similar moments with normal people are also complemented with the effect upon DC characters. Woodrue screams and, in a move which truly emphasises the level of horror around what is happening, the Joker has stopped laughing: he sits slumped, slack-jawed, drooling and inert. The events are even noticed by the Monitor, a cosmic observer who, along with his assistant Lyla, will play a key role in the Crisis on Infinite Earths maxi-series.

Crisis was a 12 part miniseries that ran from April 1985 to March 1986. It celebrated the 50th anniversary of DC comics by wiping out its plethora of fictional alternative universes (the multiverse) and replacing it with one universe with a revised continuity. Swamp Thing would later play a role in this event (see Swamp Thing #46, Crisis #5), but Moore’s direction remained largely unaffected by the shift in continuities that occurred as a result of the series.

By juxtaposing prosaic horror with the reactions of members of superhuman community, Moore emphasises a level of horror that is both grounded in a sense of everyday reality and taps into the supernatural and cosmic realm of the DC Universe.

Pages 20 to 22 of the issue contain no speech, and is a silent depiction of Swamp Thing retrieving Abby. The tension is built by the gradual approach to, and journey through, the house where Arcane has held her captive. Bissette’s work here is excellent: the approach to the house, framed within regular panels, shifts to angular, offset panels within the house, creating the necessary sense of unease Swamp Thing must feel. Reversion to regular panels occurs when he locates Abby, while the discovery of her death (revealed on the last page by Swamp Thing himself) actually occurs off panel, within the period depicted when the door is ajar (repeated in two consecutive frames). The third frame, depicting Swamp Thing carrying Abby within a regular panel, could be said to depict the stunned shock he must be experiencing, which is given true expression on the final page, with its irregular, angular panels and Arcane floating in mid-air surrounded by numerous small creatures. The stunning climax, where Swamp Thing screams “How long has she been dead??” accompanied by Arcane’s frenzied laughter, is one of the most shocking scenes in the series so far. The death of a major character, especially one not foreshadowed in the story or the media (in those pre-internet days) no doubt had the desired effect of shock and disbelief upon the title’s readers.

Saga of the Swamp Thing #31 “The Brimstone Ballet”

Cover date: December 1984. Writer: Alan Moore. Artists: Rick Veitch & John Totleben. Editor: Karen Berger. Colorist: Tatjana Wood. Letterer: John Costanza.

Still reeling from the shock of Abby’s death at the end of the previous issue, the reader sees Swamp Thing carrying her corpse out of the house in which Arcane had taken her. It seems that Arcane has finally gained some ground in his ongoing war with Swamp Thing. This issue is a meditation on the dynamics of superhuman conflict, and it explores the nature of the rules and conventions which govern these battles.

Our first point of consideration are the references to a waltz and a quadrille. Both are styles of dance with prescriptive steps, operating on the demarcated roles that each partner in a pair must follow – both have to take the same steps in order to maintain the dance.  This could be said to be a suitable metaphor for dramatic conflict in superhero comics, where heroes and villains act in broadly predictable ways, within a set, predetermined existing context. In this series, this has meant the conflict between the pre-Moore Swamp Thing (who believed he was once Alec Holland) wanting his humanity back, versus Arcane who wants to attain immortality via the medium of Swamp Thing’s body.

Both characters operated on predictable lines due to the set nature of this type of conflict in the plot, and this is parodied through Arcane’s assertion that Abby’s death is a hoax, and that he has tricked Swamp Thing into believing he has killed her. It’s the type of twist that would be suited to a pre-Moore Swamp thing tale, but Moore undercuts this expectation by having Swamp Thing deny it: he knows that Abby is dead and that Arcane’s lies are designed to taunt, mock and frustrate him.  It’s a further knife-twist in Swamp Thing’s emotional gut, and a strong indicator of the depths of degradation to which Moore’s Arcane has sunk. Following this, Arcane reveals how the returned killers will be followed by more, and Swamp Thing runs away with Abby’s body.

We see how Arcane’s return has been foreshadowed in previous issues when Swamp Thing recalls Alec and Arcane talking together in his dream (#22), the Demon’s suggestion that “some further fiend” had orchestrated the Kamara episode (#27)and the dead bird animated by insects (#29). This serves to draw together the previous issues in a satisfying relationship, enabling the reader to experience a sense of completeness that’s an attractive feature of serial comics: events and actions of seemingly little importance turn out to be carefully placed markers and indicators in the development of the story, and the sense of resolution is further enhanced as a result of this.

Arcane’s boast of power, and his assertion that the swamps are now his, reminds Swamp Thing that he is in his “place of power”. Arcane is shocked by his anger and the fact that he has been hurt by Swamp Thing. Here, a new dramatic conflict occurs: it is Moore’s new Swamp Thing which battles a stunned Anton Arcane, who is soon defeated. All that remains is the shattered body Arcane inhabits, and the last vestige of Matt Cable’s personality. Cable redeems himself by reanimating Abby’s body with his remaining powers, sacrificing himself as a result. In a tragic twist he is unable to reconnect with Abby’s soul, and so her body remains an empty shell. Swamp Thing wins, Arcane is dead, and Abby lives: the dramatic twist and tragedy is that her soul seems lost forever.

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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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