Friday, May 29, 2009

Superhero Theory: Stifling Swamp Thing (or: Less Poe, More Grindhouse, Please)

(Just a quick one this week, because exciting things are going on in writing-land. I have just moved from Stage 2 to Stage 3, and I’d really like to keep the momentum going.)

So what would you do if you had to revamp Swamp Thing?

Ooh, that’s a daunting question, isn’t it? Swamp Thing has cachet, man. The Len Wein/Berni Wrightson issues are well-respected, and rightfully so, but the Alan Moore stuff is actually legendary. Add to that the fact that he’s had cult movies and a cult TV series, and you’ve got name recognition. Why, then, have Swamp Thing series floundered as of late?

I would submit it is the weight of expectation, which sounds obvious, but there’s more to it. It’s not just about “following Alan Moore,” it’s about working within the framework he built.

Because between Wein and Wrightson’s run and Moore’s run, you have a lot of comics that sold poorly at the time and are talked about rarely if ever today. And a critically panned Wes Craven movie. So Moore’s literary approach to horror, then, is novel. It challenges your assumptions. You see a copy of the comic on the stands in the mid-eighties, and it’s got a swamp monster and a title like a 50s B-movie splashed on the cover with that lurid, dripping logo. And then you open it up to find a beautifully illustrated, intelligent, well-written story. It is innovative and unexpected.

But now, twenty-plus years later, you hear “Swamp Thing” and the first thing you think is “Ah, sophisticated suspense!” And so writers have an almost impossible task to live up to. Moore started with a pulpy swamp monster and did daring things with it until it became art. But what new and shocking things will you do as a writer to the character who broke all the rules in the first place?

My solution: bring back the pulp. Ditch the Parliament of Trees and his status as a plant elemental with all the metaphysics that entails and return him to being that “shambling mockery of a man.” Replace the self-consciously sophisticated storytelling in favor of lurid art and fast-moving horror stories with a solid amount of gristle to ‘em. Heck, have Batman appear in an issue or two! The comic shouldn’t be idiotic, but it shouldn’t wear its intelligence like a badge.

Fans would be flabbergasted. Some of them would be outraged. But … you’d have their attention, wouldn’t you? And that’s a lot more than the recent Swamp Thing series can say for themselves. You’d be defying expectations and challenging assumptions.

And that is exactly what Alan Moore did back in February of ’84.


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