In this series of articles we will take a classic comic book arc and break it down issue by issue, getting to the root of just what made it great.
In this episode of Mythic Structure:
Swamp Thing – The Uncle Arcane Saga
Issues #27 through Swamp Thing Annual #2, 1984-85
Last week we were treated to a stellar DC Comics Villains Month issue in the form of Swamp Thing 23.1 Arcane. In a slew of sub-par one shots, this villain issue delivered the goods – an entertaining story told within the continuity of the series and what has come before it. It also didn’t hurt that the art work was stunning and truly grotesque – and when you are dealing with a despicable character like Anton Arcane the grosser the better. The mark of a great character is its longevity – and believe it or not Anton Arcane has been around for close to 40 years, but if we are completely honest it really wasn’t until Alan Moore got his silver ringed fingers on the evil uncle that he became the stuff of nightmares. Moore instilled in Arcane what it took for this character to stand the test of time. Lets take a trip back to when Anton Arcane first crawled his way from the dark pit and into our four colored world.
In this issue the Swamp Thing and the demon Etrigan battle the Monkey King, a creature that lives on the fear of the children of Elysium Lawns residential school, the place where Abby Arcane works. While this terrifying confrontation is taking place Abby’s husband Mathew Cable has been involved in a terrible drunk driving car crash. His car lies upside down and he is slowly bleeding to death. It is here that Anton Arcane, Abby’s uncle, makes his first appearance of sorts, after dying a few issues back (before Alan Moore took over the series). Arcane appears to Mathew in the form of a fly. When Mathew sees and hears the fly talking to him he begins to scream. The Arcane/fly whispers to him, “I can see that I’ve alarmed you.please feel free to scream if you want to. there is no one to hear and I shall be here when you are finished.” Jesus Christ that is some creepy shit. The fly then enters Mathew’s mouth and takes over his soul. Back at the school Etrigan and Swamp thing are successful in their battle with the Monkey King and Etrigan feasts on his fear. The demon also offers a potential warring to Abby that perhaps this whole affair was set afoot by unseen forces. As Abby ponders these dire omens Mathew drives up in the car, no longer wrecked, and picks Abby up. He opens her door and tells her he came to apologize and wanted to help. Abby gets in the car. End of the issue. This is the beginning of the horrors to come in Abby’s life. Nothing from here on out will ever be the same. She has taken a ride with the devil unawares.
This stand alone issue does not feature Arcane and it is much more of a calm before the storm type of issue, but far be it from Alan Moore to waste good newsprint on a one and done story. The actions by Swamp Thing in this issue have a long lasting effect on the series even after Moore leaves the book. In this heartbreaking story Swamp Thing encounters the ghost of Alec Holland, the man he use to think he was, before he found out the truth thanks to Sunderland in the classic Anatomy Lesson issue. Swamp Thing follows the ghost through out the Louisiana bog, seemingly being led on a wild goose chase, but soon Swamp Thing comes upon the old cabin where Alec Holland was working on his plant restoration research. The place where he was killed. The place where he ceased to be Alec Holland and became Swamp Thing. The ghost of Holland points to the place where he fell and died – Swamp Thing goes there and retrieves the bones from the murky water and buries them. At last the ghost of Alec Holland is free – the burial that Swamp Thing performed released the spirit. It is a touching issue and one that finally puts to rest the tragic story of Alec Holland.
This issue starts out with Abby taking a iron bristle brush and scrubbing her skin raw, bleeding all over her kitchen floor. What could have made her do such a thing? What was the smell that she was trying to get off of her? We flashback to a few days earlier and her and Swamp Thing are having a conversion about how even though he is not Alec Holland, if it makes it easier for her to call him Alec then he is okay with that. She is happy with this and buries herself in his soft chest and soaks up his essence – it smells wonderful – not like the smell she is trying desperately to scrub off of her. Another flashback and we see her and Mathew at their newly bought house in Louisiana. Mathew has a new job as well and things seem to be going great, almost too great. But there is something underneath all this that doesn’t feel right to Abby – something rotten that she cant put her finger on. Abby and Mathew make love and Abby lies there in the cold dark, knowing deep down something is wrong. In the bedroom mirror her reflection is seen, along with Mathew’s who resembles a dead man. Abby meets Mathew’s new co-workers, they all seem vaguely familiar, but again Abby cant quite figure out where she has seen them before, then one day in the library she shes a book on a serial killer Sally Parks. The same Sally Parks that is one of Mathew’s co-workers. It all starts to fall into place – the new house, the new job, the co-workers, the smell, the unnerving feeling she has being in the same bed with Mathew – she knows who Mathew is now. She rushes home to get her things and run to Alec for help, but it is too late, Mathew appears at the house, followed by his co-workers, they attack Abby. They hold her and she asks them what they want her do to, what they want her to say. Mathew tells her, “What do we want you to say? Well that’s easy, just say uncle.” This last line is delivered in a magnificently horrific two page spread of Mathew/Arcane holding Abby in a crucifixion pose. This scene and this issue was the cause for Saga of the Swamp Thing to not be approved by the Comics Code Authority. It took the gumption of editor Karen Berger to run the issue without the code and fight away the hordes of detractors to make this issue see the light of day. This issue #29 and #31 are two of the most supremely horrific things I have ever read in my life. Not just in comics, but in all literature. This is true horror, the kind of horror that keeps you up at night, the kind of horror that causes your eyes not to close. Alan Moore would reach his zenith with this issue, nothing he as written since has been this terrifying. This engrossing. This dark.
After the intensity of last issue Alan Moore gives us a bit of breather in this exposition heavy issue. Anton Arcane revels to Abby his machinations and how he came back from the dead. His story of his return is incredibly disturbing not only for Abby to hear but his return has also seemed to have set off a supernatural storm of sorts. Arcane breaking through the realm of the dead into the living has upset the balance and strange occurrences are taking place all over the world. They are even being noticed from outer space. Now one of Alan Moore’s great strengths lies in his ability to take shit and turn it into gold. He has done this many times with many titles – here in the pages of Swamp Thing he was told that he needed to incorporate The Monitor, the mysterious figure that was at the center of DC Comics massive 12 part epic Crisis on Infinite Earths. This crossover event took place in every single DC comic at the time – it was all encompassing, and even though Alan Moore’s story had nothing to do with super heroes and alternate earths, he was still ordered from on high to put in a page so that DC could run a banner across the cover of this issue that it was a Special Crisis tie-in issue. Complete fucking bullshit if you ask me, but Moore made the most of this editorial edict and instead of fighting the power he used it to his advantage and made his story of an evil uncle returning from the dead for revenge even more spectacular by having the all powerful Monitor notice what was happening in Louisiana. These psychic ripples caused by Anton reverberated through out the DCU. This was beyond the swamp – this was global and it played perfectly into Moore’s next grand arc, The America Gothic saga. By the end of this issue Swamp Thing finds Abby dead in her bed and a possessed Mathew Cable turning everything around them to hell.
Along wtih issue #29, this comic book goes beyond what a horror comic has ever done before – truly terrify the reader. Most horror goes for the gross out to shock readers into thinking they are frightened, but are they really? After all is said and done and they leave the theater or put down the book, are they still scared? Do they still think about what they just saw or read? Not very often. Here, in The Brimstone Ballet the story being told to us by Moore and the artists has been instilled with a power that surpasses traditional horror conventions and taps into a place so entirely dark that it is rarely visited – it is just too black. Alan Moore understands that taking into this black place we lose all our defenses and he attacks with everything hes got to scare the hell out of us. This issue does just that. It scares and it stays with you long after you have placed the comic back into its protective sleeve. Swamp Thing carries Abby away from the destroyed house while Arcane follows close behind, floating on the snow drifts, taunting Swamp Thing and gloating over his victory. He turns the very air around them into a blizzard of sorrow. The further Swamp Thing travels the more bleak things become and all we want is get out of this place and away from Arcane – he has corrupted the very pages you hold between your fingers and its all you can do from dropping the comic and heading into the bathroom to wash your hands. There has never been a comic book more frighteningly grave then this. And when Abby is lost, and her spirit taken to hell we feel swamp things pain. he attacks Arcane and defeats him but it is too late. Abby is still dead,
the dark recesses of hell? He can, but he can’t do it alone, and these mystical chaperons guide him deeper and deeper into a place no one would want to visit. Credit must go to artists Bissette and Totleben, they invoke such horror here when Swamp Thing makes it to hell that you find yourself drifting into the pages, staring at the corners, studying the borders where the damned dwell. There are no flames or lakes of fire, just a obsidian world unlike any rendered in a modern comic book. With the help of Etrigan, Swamp Thing is able to rescue Abby and make it back home. Abby awakes unaware of all that has transpired in the last few issues. She sees Swamp Thing standing beside her and asks him “Why are you crying?” Moving stuff. Powerful storytelling that I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere in all my years of reading comics. Alan Moore solidified his place in the halls of legends with this arc – and just think, Watchmen was yet to come.
This is writing on a level not reached by most in comics. Moore has a gift and his words flow like magic into our minds. I’ll leave you with a passage from the Swamp Thing Annual that sums it all up nicely and illustrates my point. Swamp Thing asks Etrigan why God would allow such a place as hell to exist? Here is his answer….
“Think you God built this place, wishing man ill and not lusts uncontrolled or swords unsheathed? Not God, my friend. The truth’s more hideous still: these halls were carved by men while yet they breathed. God is no parent or policemen grim, dispensing treats or punishments to all. Each soul climbs or descends by its own whim. He morns, but he cannot prevent their fall. We suffer as we choose. Nothing’s amiss. All torments are deserved. None more then this.”