When Mark Millar and Grant Morrison took over Swamp Thing in 1994, they must have been faced with several dilemmas. Alan Moore had broken all types of new ground in making the book a cutting edge mature readers title and that had been successfully been continued under the pen of Rick Veitch. Somewhere between issue #87 and #88 the book stumbled dreadfully. Veitch left, editorially prevented from completing his long-planned finale to a time travel arc and his stoey where Swamp Thing meets Jesus Christ. In a show of solidarity, the series's already-lined-up and promising new young writer, named Neil Gaiman, decided to walk as well. After several months of nothing, issue #88 finally appeared with writer Doug Wheeler at the helm to hastily wrap up the time travel arc in a less controversial, more workmanlike manner.
The book continued for another seven years with Wheeler, followed by horror novelist Nancy A. Collins. The stories became very safe, status-quo-maintaining adventures split between the Louisiana bayous and the plant spiritual dimension known as the Green. Between Veitch's last issue and issue #140, there's nothing truly memorable or compelling. Swamp Thing was a title now mired in mediocrity and desperately needing to be dragged out of its rut. Millar and Morrison had the antidote, but it was a brutal process that started with the decimation of the supporting cast.
The four-part "Bad Gumbo" story in Swamp Thing #140-144 begins with an incoherent Swamp Thing howls through the Louisiana bayou, murdering the local populace. For a long-time reader, this is the equivalent of watching Superman tear apart everyone at the Daily Planet (except for Lois and Jimmy or in this case his wife Abby and the hippie Chester). Meanwhile, botanist Dr Alec Holland awakes in the Peruvian forest from a drug-induced coma. The plant who dreamed that he was a man is now a man who dreamed he was a plant. This is Millar and Morrison sweeping the pieces off the board and making sure we can’t play the game the same familiar way anymore.
Abby no longer lives in the bayou, shacked up instead with a regular man. She gets an ominous phone call from the mysteriously absent Tefé, the half-human, half-elemental daughter she had with Swamp Thing. Tefé warns that Swamp Thing is coming to kill Abby and she should run for her life. Abby runs, but she’s already being tracked through the flora in her intestines.
Wearing his artist hat, Phil Hester works with inker Kim DeMulder to superbly return the darkness to this title. There is wildness to the art that meshes brilliantly with the plot as the familiar world of Swamp Thing falls apart. Real locations give way to nightmare-scapes. Simple things like a black bird or ivy on the side of a house become ominous and threatening. Peruvian forests give way to jungles of machinery eating the forests. Alec is guided to board the horrific Soul Train to journey from Peru to Louisiana. It’s fantastic to look at and it works so well to convey the dislocation as Alec begins his physical and spiritual journey to find what he lost, or may have never had.
Millar and Morrison introduce a number of new characters to nudge Alec to learn what he needs, including Don Roberto, El Seńor Blake and the mysterious Traveller. I’ve heard the writers wanted to use established characters like the Phantom Stranger and John Constantine, but they were unavailable; this is better, I think, because the reader can't as easily predict the motives of Alec's new mentors as we could with familiar faces. The writers (maybe one in particular) deliver many well-informed explanations about the effect of plant-based drugs on human physiology, but it’s all a smokescreen. Alec isn’t a victim of hallucinogenics, rather Swamp Thing is under attack by his elemental forefathers, the Parliament of Trees. He’s a disappointment, failing to reach his true potential and held back by his connection to humanity. Their solution is to sever the human part from the plant, and the rampaging remains are trying to destroy every human connection Alec has.
Alec must race to save Abby and recover his power. The climax is a very physical confrontation with guns and explosions, not the usual fodder for this title. Alec does attain a victory, but it is bittersweet; Abby can no longer live in the world of monsters. While she isn’t killed off like the bayou-dwellers, her relationship with Alec has been destroyed. I thought this a travesty at the time, but looking at where the story went to from there, the writers offered wide-open possibilities. Abby was Alec’s center, his last true connection to humanity; she grounded him, but isn't that another way to say she held him back?
You may have noticed I’ve always placed Millar’s name ahead of Morrison’s. That’s deliberate. This isn’t Grant Morrison’s book with a novice writer hanging on his coattails, but rather this is the start of Millar’s run and beyond these four issues he was on his own. Millar's twenty-eight issue solo run on Swamp Thing after this arc surpassed these beginnings. It was marvelously inventive, deliciously dark and ultimately became a thoughtful exploration of the plant elemental with the safeties off. It carries the book to a (sadly all too rare) fully satisfying conclusion.
To get there, the authors needed a dose of "Bad Gumbo" to clear their collective heads and make way for something new and stranger. And isn't that just what Alan Moore did, too?
[DC may be rebooting, but we've still got trades to read! Reviews of Birds of Prey and more coming next week -- see you then!]