Saga of the Swamp Thing Annual #2 “Down Amongst the Dead Men”
1985. Writer: Alan Moore. Artists: Steve Bissette & John Totleben. Editor: Karen Berger. Colorist: Tatjana Wood. Letterer: John Costanza.
Moore’s consideration of conflict in super-hero stories broadens out into a meditation on stories and tales in the opening of this annual. He begins by asserting their importance, in that they “shape the world” and “exist independently of people”. Stories as recognizable patterns, with mythic resonance, echo through the ages and across cultures, and they create expectations and familiar resolutions. People like Joseph Campbell and Vladimir Propp identified the functions of these common structures. Moore openly subverts these expectations, acknowledging that the story has gone wrong, “blossomed into deformities”, and that “the drama is askew”: Swamp Thing, the hero, arrives too late to save Abby, the princess, from a “fate that’s worse than death”, and that Arcane, the wicked uncle, dying has achieved nothing.
Abby’s fate being “worse than death” isn’t a cliche. While her body remains alive, her soul has been cast into Hell, and the annual is an account of Swamp Thing’s rescue attempt, while Moore further sets out his vision of a consolidated DC supernatural universe. The rescue attempt itself brings to mind the Orpheus myth, in which Orpheus journeys to the Underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice.
Moore has Swamp Thing realize that his consciousness is not tied to his body, and so he attempts so shift his consciousness “beyond life itself” (p.5), and in doing so, he encounters the first of four of DC’s supernatural characters – Deadman. Created by writer Arnold Drake and artist Carmine Infantino, Deadman debuted in Strange Adventures #205 (October 1967). He was formerly a trapeze artist called Boston Brand, and Deadman was his stage persona. Following his murder, he is granted the ability to possess people by Rama Kushna, a goddess, in order to avenge his death.
Deadman had previously encountered Swamp Thing in Challengers of the Unknown (#83-87, 1977-8). In these stories, Deadman’s presence remained undetected due to the fact that he exists as an unseen spirit; he actively engages with the material world through possessions. Moore is obviously aware of these stories, as Deadman notes that he’s “run into” Swamp Thing previously, without the latter’s knowledge as he would have been invisible; in doing so, Moore references a specific episode in the rich history of DC’s comics universe to add resonance to his version to his supernatural universe building.
For Moore, this new universe is one where the mundane and realistic collides with the mystical; where the recently dead, like Jerry and his mother, normalize the supernatural elements, enabling a reader to empathize with characters’ situations.
In this region of the “just dead” grazing poltergeists float in the ether. It’s a region that Deadman says he has just discovered; again, Moore is adding detail and universe building: he is beginning to populate DC’s supernatural realms with both his own ideas and elements of DC’s history.
Moore also draws upon more recent DC history, including recent issues of this volume of Swamp Thing which only recently pre-dated Moore’s arrival on the book. Swamp Thing encounters the Phantom Stranger, whom he says he’s met before: this occurred in Saga of the Swamp Thing #14 (June 1983). The Stranger was created by John Broome and Carmine Infantino, and first appeared in Phantom Stranger #1 (August-September 1952). Here, he accompanies Swamp Thing to an “aspect of Heaven”, where he meets Alec Holland in an “aspect of Heaven”. It is, in fact, Alec and Linda Holland’s version on Heaven, which is very nature-centric, reflecting their research interests in the biorestorative formula they were working on prior to their deaths. They discuss Swamp Thing’s burial of Alec’s remains (issue #28), and Alec acknowledges that this act helped his spirit to move on. Moore is adding even more detail to his new conception of the DC supernatural universe here, as we discover definitive evidence that in the DC universe death is not the end for human beings.
During this encounter, Swamp Thing refuses to see Linda. This suggests that he is still strongly attached to the echoes of Holland’s consciousness that defined him prior to the revelations of #21. Seeing Linda would be too upsetting, or perhaps a reminder of the loss of Linda would only add to the pain he is feeling at the loss of Abby.
Moore continues to draw in supernatural characters through this annual. The Phantom Stranger escorts Swamp Thing to meet with The Spectre, a character created by Jerry Siegel and Bernard Baily, who first appeared in More Fun Comics #51 (January 1940). He appears in the form of a gradually opening eye, which dwarfs the Phantom Stranger and Swamp Thing. This emphasizes a level of power that supersedes both characters’ powers. Etrigan also returns to the title as Swamp Thing enters Hell, and helps him to retrieve Abby. He also encounters Sunderland (last seen in #21), who asks him how long he has been there. Swamp Thing’s reply, “since yesterday” is devastating, and really emphasizes the intensity of Moore’s version of DC’s Hell. The juxtaposition of Moore’s hell, with the final scene depicting a revived Abby, alive and well, and a crying Swamp Thing, is the perfect release of tension and generates a perfect sense of closure to this extended story, and a worthy climax to this annual.