Friday, February 24, 2006

Sophisticated Suspense -

A Jaundiced Look at Ten Thirteen Years of Vertigo

Part Two

This is the second part of an article written by me in the year 2002. Intially intended for publication in The Comics Journal, it has sat in my hard drive for four years. It is serialized here for your enjoyment as a historical curiosity.

Unless otherwise indicated, the actual text has not been altered.

It has been said before but it bears repeating: without Alan Moore, there would have been no Vertigo. His centrality to the Vertigo story is, on the face of it, surprising -- considering that the man never wrote a single word for the imprint.

It would be hard to imagine a more unlikely candidate for the job of sparking a massive revolution in mainstream comics than DC’s Swamp Thing circa 1983. It bears consideration that any one out of hundreds of obscure and mostly forgotten DC characters could have been lucky enough to exploit the same unique combination of creative and commercial coincidences that resulted in Swamp Thing’s success. The character’s first run in the early 70’s had been a mild cult favorite due to the initial creative team of Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, but he was granted another series a decade later only as a result of the release of a largely forgettable Swamp Thing movie. If Moore hadn’t come along its probable that the character would have faded right back into the figurative and literal swamps of his origin.

In hindsight the Swamp Thing was a perfect fit for Moore’s first major American assignment. He had won notoriety for his work on Marvelman (later published in the US as Miracleman) and V For Vendetta, both very British and both extremely dark. The character of the Swamp Thing, almost alone among mainstream superheroes then and now, had his roots planted firmly in the horror genre. His second series, after an uneventful and unremembered initial 20 issues, was a low-profile title with miniscule expectations. It was the perfect vehicle for an untried and unproven British maverick like Moore.

As with many things, its difficult to gauge just how effective Moore’s stories were at the time because his run has, in the ensuing two decades, become legendary in mainstream circles. However, the success of Moore’s Swamp Thing work -- especially the early stories -- can be appreciated primarily through Moore’s deft grasp of the horror genre. Horror hinges on the creation of suspense, and suspense is a primarily product of deft pacing and palpable mood. The sad fact is that the rudiments of craft necessary to suspend disbelief and instill dread in the reader are extremely rare in any genre, and the comics field is no exception. That Moore’s Swamp Thing was actually scary remains nothing short of a revelation.

Read Swamp Thing #21 – Moore’s debut, entitled “The Anatomy Lesson” -- and regardless of how many times you have experienced the story it still seems spooky, unhinged and jarringly removed from conventional mainstream narrative conventions. The framework of the story is deceptively simple. The sinister General Sunderland’s murder at the hands of an enraged Swamp Thing is foreshadowed from the very first page of the book. By the time the reader reaches the murder itself -- which is presented as a fait accompli -- the real horror has become the realization on the Swamp Thing’s part as to his true nature. There is gore and violence, but in choosing to focus (in this instance) on the more insidious, intangible dread of existential dehumanization instead of banal physicality, Moore struck a path that would come to define the “sophisticated suspense” of the pre-Vertigo wave. The Swamp Thing’s existential predicament would become the dominant theme of Moore’s run on the character, and this approach to psychological horror would later become the hallmark of Neil Gaiman’s early Sandman stories.

Note from 2006:I actually think states the case fairly well. I think it's worth mentioning that few books following Moore's run on Swamp Thing have done a very good job of conjuring up that level of psychological dread. The first year-and-a-half of Gaiman's Sandman came pretty close, and certainly Moore's own From Hell, but otherwise, most horror in comics barely succeed above the level of shlock. That was as true in 2002 as it is now.

It's amazing how I can still remember the bulk of "The Anatomy Lesson" without even having to refer to my copy of the
Saga of the Swamp Thing trade. The very first page of the story, featuring Jason Woodrue looking out the window into the rainy night, still conjures a feeling of ghastly foreboding, even after all these years. I think that Bissette and Totleben were put on this earth to draw creepy shit, and as such there's no mistaking Moore's Swamp Thing for pretty much any other comic ever made.

Oddly enough, I'll always associate this story with the Beatles'
White Album, a tape of which was playing on repeat the first time I read the story. "Mother Nature's Son" may be grimly appropriate, and likewise I can't hear that song without thinking of ol' Swampy...

Part One

No comments :