The British Invasion, Part 3: Neil Gaiman & Swamp Thing

One of the most important effects that Alan Moore had on the history of comics was triggering the entrance of Neil Gaiman into the medium. Gaiman had given up reading comics when he was sixteen believing he had outgrown them. For the next seven years the only comics he read were reprints of Will Eisner’s The Spirit. “Then I read Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and I was hooked, addicted, delighted, and back in the fold…” Gaiman and Moore became friends, and in 1985 Gaiman asked him what a comics script looked like. Now, actually, different comics writers write comics in different ways, and Moore’s lengthy, densely detailed full scripts are unusual. But Gaiman learned what he needed from Moore, and wrote a story about John Constantine, a character Moore had co-created in Swamp Thing. Next Gaiman wrote a story about a 17th century version of the Swamp Thing, Both he and Moore liked this script.

Then, in the following year, 1986, Gaiman met DC editor Karen Berger at a United Kingdom Comic Art Convention in London and sent her the script. Berger liked it, too, Gaiman wrote his first DC Comics series, Black Orchid, and that led to the debut of Gaiman’s classic Sandman series, edited by Berger, whose first issue was cover-dated January 1989. It is astonishing to realize how little time passed between Gaiman’s first efforts to write comics and the start of the series that evolved into a masterwork that serves as the foundation of his extraordinary career.

But that 17th century Swamp Thing tale remained unpublished for thirteen years, when Berger assigned Stephen Bissette and John Totleben, Moore’s artistic collaborators on Swamp Thing, to illustrate it. This completed comics story, titled “Jack in the Green,” finally saw print in Neil Gaiman’s Midnight Days, published in 1999.

“Jack in the Green” has very little plot; it deals instead in creating a mood and in raising certain themes, though not developing them far. To look at this story now is to see how it anticipates some of Gaiman’s later work. Surprisingly, it is also to see how much “Jack in the Green” reflects some of the thematic concerns that keep reappearing in the major comics of 1986.

One of those themes is death as inevitable, implacable, and irreversible. Series like The ‘Nam and Strikeforce: Morituri and Squadron Supreme focus on the death of the individual; series ranging from Crisis on Infinite Earths to Watchmen to Maus conjure visions of death on a massive scale.

“Jack in the Green” does both. Set in the 1600s, it has two main characters, the aforementioned Jack, and his human friend, Simon, who dies from the plague in the course of this brief tale. The plague is ravaging Europe, and Jack walks through the nearby British town of Purchester, which is filled with corpses. Jack has memories of attending a fair in Purchester as a human. But now, he observes,“There are all of them dead. There will be no fairs. . .on Purchester. . .any more.” Burying Simon, Jack thinks, “The plague death is spreading. . .all over the country. . .And I can do nothing. . .” Death is everywhere, and it can neither be prevented nor undone.

Jack is a sentient plant creature, an Earth elemental, who is the predecessor of the modern Swamp Thing. Moore had established early in his run on the series that the Swamp Thing was created when the human Alec Holland died, and that the Swamp Thing was not Holland but possessed Holland’s memories. Presumably, then, Jack in the Green is a similar Earth elemental who possesses the memories of a dead human who had visited that fair in Purchester.

In “Jack in the Green” Gaiman points to a paradox in comics set in a fictional world such as the DC Universe, in which reality mixes with the fantastical. For Simon and his fellow plague victims in Purchester and the rest of England, death is as real as it is in the world of the readers. Yet there are beings in this fictional world who can transcend death. Jack believes, incorrectly, that he was a human being who died and was recreated as this sentient plant creature: “And I wonder why I may be different, why the earth brought me forth, out of fire and water to live once more in the air. . .in the green. . . ”  But Jack correctly understands that he does not die the way that humans do: at the end of the tale Jack’s old body is consumed by flames but he creates a new plant body for himself.

In the real world of the readers there are no supernatural Earth elementals such as Jack. But perhaps Gaiman is using Jack as a means of suggesting that there may be more to reality than what we can perceive. Gaiman gives Jack a soliloquy in which he speculates as to whether or not there is life after death.

“There are some who say that we return, life after life. . .Our bodies simply garments that we change. . .like a rich man would change his shirt once every week. . .Others say there are places to go when we die. . .places of pleasure. . .or pain. . .Some say that death is the final night, a sleep from which no man can wake, I do not know. . .”

Jack concludes, “I no longer sleep. . .I did not die.”

Simon had called Jack “a demon. . .Ye’re too damned ugly to be a god, Jack, and what else is there?” But having gone through death and resurrection, Jack does indeed seem godlike.

Jack is like Moore’s Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen; both are superhuman beings with godlike abilities who exist in worlds where God is either silent or does not exist.

Simon does not fully understand the world in which he exists. He decides that Jack must be a demon, not a god, because those are the only two categories for supernatural beings that he knows.

More importantly, Simon believes that there must be a reason why the plague is taking place, why he and the others are dying, and perhaps beyond that, why suffering must exist. “What I want to know is why? Are we being punished? Or tested like poor Job was?” Here Gaiman, early in his career, is perhaps being more explicit than he would later be, directly tying his story to the Bible’s Book of Job.

Simon assumes that there must be a moral order to the universe, that would include a reason why all these deaths must take place. Significantly, he does not even consider the possibility that there is no moral order, and no reason for suffering, death, and evil.

Simon then tells Jack, “Ey, you don’t know, no more’n me.” And indeed, though Simon possesses powers that human lack, and can transcend ordinary forms of death, he does not understand the workings of the world better than Simon. “. . .And all I know. . .is that I. . .who am closer to the cycle of life and death than most. . .even I know nothing for certain!”

Jack has seized upon a clue about the nature of his powers, and indeed about the nature of the universe. “Earth. . .air. . .fire. . .and water. A travelling man told me of them. ‘The whole of Creation,’ he said, ‘is made up of these elements.’” Jack has figured out something that is implicit in Moore’s Swamp Thing stories: that a being such as himself is linked to all four of the traditional “elements.” Again, Jack said, “And I wonder why I may be different, why the earth brought me forth, out of fire and water to live once more in the air. . .in the green. . . ” Apparently Jack can instinctively sense things about his powers, including the fact that he can use them to create fires that will cleanse the land of the plague. “. .Soon there will be great fires in the land. . .soon. . .the reek of death will be gone! I know this because the Earth knows this. . .But I do not understand why these things have to be!”

Some of the major works in comics in 1986, including Maus and Watchmen, depict a world in which God seems not to exist. (If there is a God in Watchmen, it is Doctor Manhattan.) But in others, such as Moonshadow and Cerebus: Church and State, the authors appear to be wondering and hypothesizing about what God might be like.

Similarly, in “Jack in the Green,” the title character recognizes that existence is full of mysteries that lie beyond his knowledge and comprehension.

Gaiman’s first major work in the comics medium was the graphic novel Violent Cases, which was first published in 1987, and which will receive its own chapter in this book. It is the story of the narrator remembering his life as a young boy, trying to understand what he saw in the mysterious and potentially dangerous world of adults. Much of what he saw and heard was beyond the boy’s ability at that young age to comprehend. The narrator, as an adult—and the readers—attempt to interpret his memories of the past, which are handicapped by his younger self’s limited understanding of what he could perceive. This theme recurs in Gaiman’s later graphic novel, Mr. Punch, which again views an enigmatic past through memories as perceived through a child’s eyes. Apparently the theme resurfaces yet again in Gaiman’s 2013 novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

This early story, “Jack in the Green,” suggests that adults too are unable to perceive, know and understand life and death and the nature of reality and existence. Just as small children have difficulty comprehending what they see of the world of adults, even as adults our minds are too limited to understand the great mysteries of the universe.

But what is ultimately uplifting about Gaiman’s short story is its implication that these great mysteries exist and that perhaps they are a source of hope. Jack considers the possibility that death is mere nothingness, but he considers reincarnation and the afterlife as equally valid possibilities. Despite the horrors of the plague, neither Jack nor Simon ever think of the universe as absurd or meaningless. Purcester has become a place of horror, yet Jack spends part of the story reminiscing about his travels over much of the planet, a world full of wonders.

The story’s end strikes a positive note. Jack uses his powers to cleanse Purchester of the plague through fire, and is reborn/resurrected in a new body. “There is an air I can create, that makes fires. I do not know how to describe it. I do not understand it. . .but then. . .there is so much I do not understand” He thinks of his old body and Simon’s death: “And, while I leave that body to burn with the village of Purchester, I think of Simon. . .” But then Jack turns his mind to other things. “But I cannot stop thinking of the travelling man. . .the travelling man and his tales. . .of air. . .and fire. . .water. . .and earth.”

Jack seems to be inspired by this enigmatic travelling man, who has penetrated the mysteries of the world enough to learn about the four elements that lie behind Jack’s powers and all of creation. And Jack is a “travelling man” himself, who has already been to Africa, the Arctic, the Americas, and much of the rest of the planet. Now Jack is leaving Purchester to continue his own travels, perhaps to cleanse more towns of death, and certainly to further investigate the mysteries of the universe.

Notice too that the “travelling man” conveyed his knowledge of the four elements through his “tales.” One of the subjects of Gaiman’s stories, including Sandman, has long been stories themselves. “Jack in the Green” suggests that it is through stories that one explores the mysteries of life and death, and it is stories that inspire others to explore still further. Perhaps at the end of this tale Jack is becoming a “travelling man” who will tell his own stories. Certainly Gaiman went on from this tale to become one of the master storytellers of not only comics but also contemporary fiction as a whole.

Copyright 2013 Peter Sanderson

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Peter Sanderson is a comics historian and critic who has written and co-written numerous books, as well as contributing essays to several Sequart anthologies. Sanderson has three degrees in English literature from Columbia University, and has taught "Comics as Literature" at New York University. He was Marvel Comics' first archivist and an assistant editor there. Sanderson has curated or co-curated three exhibitions on comics at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York, worked on two documentaries about comics, and written reviews and journalistic pieces on comics for Publishers Weekly and other magazines. For further examples of his work, see his online column "Comics in Context."

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Also by Peter Sanderson:

Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide


Gotham City 14 Miles: 14 Essays on Why the 1960s Batman TV Series Matters


Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen


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