Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Alan Moore: Swamp Thing, Alan Moore's Writing for Comics

I finished Alan Moore's Swamp Thing and Writing for Comics as the next couple items in my Moore stack. I don't really have a scheme or patter for choosing to read what I read and in the order I read it. Because the things I have to say about works are, unfortunately, short, I've combined the two books into one post. You can thank Apple's hopelessly useless Safari program for this double feature. Some misguided times I try to use the stupid thing, and it crashes without fail if I try to do more than one thing quickly. For example, browse the internet AND have the computer on, or go to a website and sneeze. I should always use firefox.

Swamp Thing I'd always avoided. I watched the cartoon a little bit as a kid and had a few of the toys, my favorite being the one that turned bad guacamole dark green when cold and good fresh guacamole green when hot, like in water or sunlight. I'd always preferred Marvel's Man-Thing, who was innately more ethereal and based in horror tales about demons and forest spirits and stuff. Man-Thing came first, and Swamp thing about a year later. I knew someone was stealing from someone. Ultimately, I guess it was DC who stole from Marvel.

As far as I know, Swamp Thing started out as a Science Gone Wrong vaguely environmental warning. A man, Alec Hammond, ends up getting reconstituted as plant matter through the combination of dirty swamp water, a secret chemical compound, and an explosion. I had no interest. When I read about a year of Alan Moore's take, where Swamp Thing becomes a sort of lesser spirit god, my interest was piqued. My guess is that that's something Moore builds on later, because it was mostly vacant in this book. This book did have a reinvention of his origin – instead of Alec Hammond simply becoming a thing made of old roots and leaves, he dies, and his soul (more or less, the book doesn't use these words) inhabits the roots, and with the aid of that special serum, a man shaped plant thing with the memories of a dead human comes into being. In this book he fights one lunatic who wants to destroy the world with plants, and a demon. The setup for forest god is easily forseeable.

Moore works in homages, as established in the last post. So I'm going to get that out of the way first: the second story involves a battle with a demon named Etrigan, a Jack Kirby creation, complete with a dedication to Jack at the end of the book. The art is also an homage to the old Creepy Comics style artwork: very scratchy, lots of lines. The art fits the book perfectly, and I stopped many times to admire the artists' (though I think the inks show better than pencils) skillful rendering of haunted plants. It really reminded me of Sam Kieth's run on Sandman.

As far as story is concerned, this one was much more straightforward than probably any other Moore book I've read. There wasn't a fleet of characters to remember, and they're introduced in small groups allowing you to easily file it away. Since Moore wasn't there since the start, there are a lot of en medias res characters that I had to build partial profiles for simply because I wasn't there from the start. The book really only has about five characters to keep track of, which is much easier than Tom Strong's ever growing cast, or Watchmen and League's ponderous casts.

I don't really have much else to say about this one. It didn't have as much Moore token weirdness, though I know he takes it in a progressively darker and inward direction. I don't even really know if this was worth typing because there weren't many Moore techniques I could mine or anything. I honestly found myself more routinely impressed by the art and less by the story. Maybe when I read following volumes I'll have more interesting things to report.

I was really looking forward to Alan Moore's Writing for Comics, but I was kind of disappointed. There's a series of perplex things happening with this book that I first want to address. The first is that it's almost five years old and it says volume one on the cover, and there is no sign of a volume 2 having ever existed in the history of ever. The only publication date listed in the book is 2006, but an afterword letter dated in 2003 references the work as being fifteen years old, which isn't inherently awful, but I feel in some way slighted – like the book was trying to deliberately keep the piece's age away from my attention. So apparently it was written in 1988 though nothing about the book's afterward and simple math belies that impression. Whatever.

The next thing is the art. I'm not sure why it's there. Maybe so the reader doesn't forget that Alan Moore draws for the funny books? But that makes no sense because if you're reading this book, there's no way you don't know who Moore is. And the art's pretty awful. It's not awful in the Dirty-Hippy-At-ComiCon-Who-Tells-Me-I-Don't-Even-Have-To-Know-How-To-Draw-To-Make-Comics kind of awful, though his art is among the worst I've seen seek publication, but awful in the Art-Is-Such-Standard-Comic-Art-That-It-Almost-Feels-Like-It's-Making-Fun-Of-Itself kind of awful. And they have nothing to do with what Moore's talking about. It might be better if they in some way did, though I'm not sure how that'd work, but they're ridiculous. On page talking about pacing you have a gladiator in a little box, then in another page talking about the believability of the world there's a cartoon man being drug along on a leash by a cartoon dog in horrible generic cliché comic art. It's not even good. And it's so forgettable. The only art I remember is the very end which has a picture of a man and woman kissing, and it's only because I vowed I would remember one image by the end of the book, or my name wasn't whistling dixie, and I forgot until I got to that last image. It sucked like the rest.

The book itself wasn't all that hot either. I constantly felt like Moore was gearing up to tell me something amazing, but never quite got there. That might be the same sort of thing as Swamp Thing (whose art was AWESOME) wherein it's merely the first volume. Supposedly. Unfortunately, whereas Swamp Thing got to go on with more volumes, it appears Writing for Comics did not. Most of what Moore said are things that I internalized long ago. Maybe if someone who hasn't had as many writing classes as I had, or who hasn't been reading comics as long as I have, or someone who pays less attention than I had read this book they would have thought it was amazing. But a lot of felt like rehash. Which I wasn't anticipating. Moore tells us on the first page he doesn't want the book to be a “How To Write Like Alan Moore” tutorial, which isn't want I wanted, but I suppose I expected something a bit more exploratory than this books alloted forty pages. I was honestly expecting a novel when I ordered this book from the library.

Some of the things I had already internalized that Moore mentioned were things like making sure you realize what you're doing; everything has a purpose and when you break from that purpose, make sure you know why you're doing it. There were even some things that I know, but he worded in ways that made it a little more succinct in my mind (which was cool). For example, he said there's a different between story and plot. Story seems to be a larger more nebulous concept. In the literary world, it would be called theme. It's the thing that connects this particular story, or plot, to humanity at large. And even if you're dealing with something silly, like elves, makes it relevant to the human condition. Plot is the particular sequence of events in that story. To use a familiar example, Finding Nemo is a story about the nature of father-son relationships, whereas its plot would be about a little boy fish getting lost in the ocean and his dad trying to find him.

Another thing Moore talked about was scale. His advice was to imagine the large details of a story and progressively work towards the most exact details until all of a sudden, you have a story. Start with the world: the time, where it's located, all the factors that went into the world. What's it's political climate? Is there a war? What events happened in the past to form the current world? Is it a totalitarian world? Is it primitive? Do they love TV? On and on. He says this is the most time consuming part of story creation, but makes the rest go smooth and comparatively faster.

Next, you'd develop your characters: everything about them and how they fit into this larger scope around them. From there, the plot is essentially the natural expression of the world and characters over time. In my book I wrote that P=(W*C)/T. Moore's advice is to think of plot like a four-dimensional construct, where the fourth dimension as time: each panel or situation is a single 3D slice operating within a 4D construct. His writing about plot was the most informative and enjoyable of the book.

In a 40 page book I only took a page of notes. Which is not a very good rate. My sincere hope is that he visits this concept later with more information. Then it might not suck so bad. I guess we'll see.

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