Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Swamp Thing Annual #2 - 1985

The Phantom Stranger in "Down Amongst The Dead Men" by Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, and John Totleben.

The Phantom Stranger guest-starred in two different DC annuals in the summer of 1985, and they could not have been more different. After the light-hearted fun of the Blue Devil Summer Fun Annual, here the stakes could not be more high--nothing less than rescuing the soul of Abby Arcane, banished to Hell during events in the recent issues of Swamp Thing (the Saga of part of the title having been formally dropped).
Swamp Thing, who by now has fallen in love with Abby (and she with him), sees that Abby's body is not yet begun to decay, leaving him a window in which to possibly retrieve her soul.

Not limited to this mortal coil, Swamp Thing sends his consciousness into another plane of existence, and finds himself in what looks like is the waiting place before one ascends to Heaven.

He meets a woman who has just been killed in a car accident, and along with her also recently-departed son, moves into the bright light just beyond. But Swamp Thing isn't interested in going there--he knows Abby is elsewhere.

Suddenly, he is met by none other than Deadman, who helps Swamp Thing navigate the new world he is in. He then introduces him to...a stranger:

On the way to their destination, Swamp Thing meets...himself, sort of, in the form of Alec Holland, who thanks his erstwhile alter ego for finally freeing him, allowing him to move on. Also there is Linda Holland, but Swamp Thing chooses not to meet her.

As they continue to walk, the air grows cold, and the light begins to dim. Eventually they are in totally darkness, until a light begins to appear
Here The Phantom Stranger has the temerity to question the judgment of The Spectre himself, when he initially says that Abby must stay in Hell.

The Spectre finds the Stranger amusing in his boldness ("Of all the presences, you were always my favorite") and allows them to continue their journey.

Eventually the Stranger and Swamp Thing reach the outer edges of Hell, and the Stranger has Swamp Thing meet up with yet another denizen of DC's supernatural stable, The Demon!

The Demon agrees to escort Swamp Thing into Hell...for a fee: the flower in the Stranger's lapel:
At this point the rest of the story concerns Swamp Thing and The Demon's trip through Hell to rescue Abby's soul.

Moore, Bissette, and Totleben conjure up all sorts of horrific images, to me none worse than when Swamp Thing runs into Arcane, the monster that condemned Abby to Hell in the first place.

Arcane, suffering indescribable torment, asks Swamp Thing how many years he's been in Hell. Swamp Thing answers: "Since yesterday."

Eventually Swamp Thing does rescue Abby, and after forty plus pages of hellish, nightmarish visions, the story ends on a wonderfully sweet note: Abby awakens, back in her body, and looks at Swamp Thing.

Not knowing what just happened, she simply remarks "You're crying."

This was the first of many appearances by The Phantom Stranger in Swamp Thing under Alan Moore's tenure on the book, and each one of them would reveal a side to the character never touched upon.

Like he was able to do for nearly every character he wrote while at DC, Moore was a master at writing a character we all knew for years (even decades) and yet still could show us something new.


Richard said...

There's so much I love in this issue...but you've also included here the one thing about it that always bugged me! Prepare for the most picayune and trivial fan complaint imaginable...

One really clever bit Neal Adams snuck into his work on Deadman was the way Rama Kushna was always drawn with female imagery while Boston Brand addressed said entity with exclusively male terms. He was always saying "Hey, buddy..." and "Look, pal..." or the like. Even as a young one I felt certain this had been done on purpose, as a way of showing that while Brand was capable of perceiving this higher being, he wasn't able to fully perceive its nature. There was still something about Rama Kushna he couldn't grasp correctlky but that we as readers were being permitted to see. He saw his deity as a man, so his vision was blinkered.

So I always felt Moore kinda blew that joke. Yes, one could argue that in the time since we last saw him, Boston has finally worked out the real score (just like Moore decided to make Etrigan a "rhyming demon" all of a sudden) but something was lost there. And it seemed like other writers didn't get what Adams was doing in the first place.

Ah well, still a spectacular and auspicious tale for the jolly green giant and company...

Anonymous said...

I have to admit that even though I've read all the Neal Adams Deadman stuff at one time or another, I'd never really taken note of what RAB pointed out above. Makes me want to go back and give it another looksee all over again.

Boy, do I have fond memories of this Swamp Thing Annual. I remember quoting the Stranger's observation of Anton Arcane's descent to Hell in my high school geometry class. I don't recall exactly in what context, though.

Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing completely changed my expectations of what good comic book writing is.

Anonymous said...

As I recall, Moore left a clue in this issue about his take on the Stranger's identity. Didn't Etrigan mock the Stranger at one point, referring obliquely to his (PS's) failure to make a choice during Lucifer's rebellion? I think the Stranger even interrupted him before he could finish his rhyme. We need an interview with Alan Moore on this blog!

Garnet said...

That's right, RC. Etrigan makes fun of a certain ambivalent someone, "One who, mentioning no names, will not choose 'twixt sulfur and the sky, but walks a path 'tween Moloch and the manger. To whom am I refering? Could it be someone we know, or could it be a ..."

Anonymous said...

As I recall, Moore later contributed a story to a "Phantom Stranger' special that contained a number of stories about the Stranger's possible origin. Moore's was the best and presented the Stranger as an angel who could not decide whether or not to rebel against Heaven. He was thrown out of heaven and, when he went to Hell, the newly fallen angels pulled off his wings in punishment for his inability to commit. I always preferred a Stranger whose origin was mysterious and I really don't like the current version where we know he is Judas and has only been around for 2000 years. Much less mysterious and tantalizing a figure, in my view.

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