Reading Old Comics: Swamp Thing and Hellblazer

As I mentioned somewhere here before I’m a fan of comics and a fan of digital comics from Comixology. One of the most enticing things for me about digital comics is the ability to go back and read older material that I may have missed for any number of reasons. In the case of Swamp Thing and Hellblazer the main reason I missed out on them was because I was 3 and 8 years old when these series started and, frankly, if I somehow had heard of them and my parents let me read them, well, they wouldn’t have been doing a very good job as parents. These titles come from Vertigo and nowadays are rated 17+ for good reason.

Still, for a long time I’ve known of both characters. Swamp Thing has always sort of been there in my awareness and John Constatine first came to my attention when I was playing around with the second edition of Mayfair’s DC Heroes roleplaying game. (Still my favorite system of all time). Since then I’ve become more and more knowledgeable about the titles in a hearsay sort of way. I’ve wanted to read them both for a long time, but getting your hands on old comics can be expensive and/or hard. For some titles, such as Neil Gaimans’ Sandman or Alan Moore’s Watchmen I’ll go for the collected graphic novels. There’s a limit on how many graphic novels I can afford to purchase though and if it’s not something that you can “complete” then I’m not as interested in getting into it.

So this is where digital comics can really shine. Now, with the Comixology store I can go back and easily start reading these (and many other) classic series at whatever pace I feel like (and can afford). And that’s just what I’ve decided to do. So for now I’m starting in on The Saga of the Swamp Thing (which ran from 82-96) and Hellblazer (Which started in 87). I’m going to read them in pairs even though there is a significant time gap between each series because I wan to read both and don’t want to have to read five years of Swamp Thing before I can start on Hellblazer. I also know that Swamp Thing doesn’t really start proper until Alan Moore takes over the reigns in issue #20, but the completist (is that a word?) in me can’t stand to jump in the middle like that.

So I’m diving in and will be sharing my thoughts as I go. I’m not going to recap entire plots but I’m also not worried about dumping spoilers seeing as how these comics are 25 and 30 years old. So, if spoilers matter – consider yourself warned. This week I read issue #1 of each.

Swamp Thing surprised me. I knew Hellblazer was a dark comic and that the misanthrope occultist John Constatine had his origins in Swamp Thing, but I still wasn’t expecting such a dark comic. That’s ok though, I like dark. This series was not Swamp Thing’s first time at bat (first appearance in ’71, first series ran from ’72-’76)  so instead of a full on origin story this issue #1 settled for a retelling of Swamp Thing’s origin story before moving on to “present day”. Over the course of this issue we learn that Swamp Thing is super strong, can regenerate, feels no physical pain, and still has the intelligent mind of the scientist he was, but can’t easily talk.

The writing from Martin Pasko puts a dark spin on things. Swamp Thing “stinks of brackishness and slime”. The swamp is full of “filth and rot.” Definitely plays up the idea of Swamp Thing thing being cursed with his form and monstrous to others, including wildlife, which surprised me. At time the story shows its age. For example, the idea that agents of a foreign power would hand someone an actual, physical “blank check” as a bribe seems quite silly.

Still, I think Swamp Thing still stands out, even today, as a comic written by adults for adults (without being that kind of adult). I’m looking forward to diving further into the story.

With Hellblazer I knew more what to expect, and it didn’t surprise me, but it didn’t disappoint either. John Constatine is a gruff, sarcastic, tired occultist who isn’t particularly nice, but has a sense of responsibility and loyalty. This first issue was a special 40 pages long and a great introduction to the character and his world.

I really enjoyed the writing and Jamie Delano does a great job of making his words pull triple duty: a light rain “greases the tired streets”, the back of a taxi smells “vaguely of last night’s vomit”, “the streets are hardened arterie’s”. It gives description, sets mood and plays into theme. After all, in this first story John is confronted with the problem of a demon of hunger that drives people to consume the food and things around them even as they starve to death and waste away in minutes.

Like Swamp Thing this is an adult’s comic. Hellblazer has a stronger horror aspect, and establishes its horror cred over the first three pages, but they both deal with serious adult issues. The full-page panel of Hellblazer where a junkie ex-friend of John’s sits in a bathtub and experiences a true manifestation of withdrawal symptoms (bugs crawling on his skin) will not soon be forgotten.

One thing both of the comics have in common that might turn off some new readers is the very density of the words. I mean that in a literal sense. Almost every page is crammed with words in a style that was much more common in comics of their era. There are probably some #1 issues being released this month across the comics spectrum that will have fewer words in their entirety than either of these issues have on any two pages. Personally I like having the words there. Comics today are told far more by their images than their words and sometimes that’s nice, but sometimes its nice when the art complements the words, and not the other way around.

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2 thoughts on “Reading Old Comics: Swamp Thing and Hellblazer

  1. Great blog on comics! If you’re interested, check out the early DC Swamp Thing years. Bernie Wrightson helped create the guy and was the original artist. Nestor Redondo and Alfred Alcala both picked up the gauntlet to great effect. That’s the Swamp Thing I know and love!

    • Thanks for stopping by Tim. I hope I’ll be posting soon about my further reading of these old series. I’ll definitely take your suggestion and check out some of the earlier Swamp Thing too. It really is a great character and, as far as I know, one of the most unique characters in comics.

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