Yeah, so I lied. I shouldn’t bother saying that I’m going to drop out for a few days, because every time I do, I end up proving myself wrong. If only I came through on the promises of new and interesting content…
Tonight’s reminiscence is brought to you by dodgy store-bought fried chicken. I don’t even have the wherewithal to order it from KFC, but have to get it from a grocery store delicatessen. It’s invariably overbreaded, overcooked and the long rest on the steam table or under the infared lamps never does it any good. No matter which chain supermaket you buy it from, it always tastes the same, has the same leathery texture and produces the same bilious result an hour later.
I know, “what the hell does this have to do with comics?” Nothing directly. Not unless you’re a synaesthetic memory junkie like myself. See, for me, grocery store fried chicken tastes just like Swamp Thing, Alan Moore style. No, that’s not the weirdest thing I’ve ever said, but it’s pretty damn close.
There was a time, back in college, where I shared an apartment with two friends. This would be 1986-1987, Costa Mesa, California, a mere stone’s throw from University of California, Irvine. And like any good student, I made sure that I had enough money for rent, a six-pack of Guinness a fortnight or so, food, and comics. Gas wasn’t as much as an issue, as I’d had the foresight to total my car by the Thanksgiving break of that year. Me am so clever.
Of course, when one of those demands begins to outweigh the others, then you’ve gotta make room where you can. In my case, the food budget generally suffered, to the point where I was subsisting on day-old fried chicken by the end of the month. February of 1987 was particularly bad in that regard, because it was the month that I discovered Swamp Thing. I can’t even remember which issue got me started, probably the one with Batman on the cover (something like #53 or so, but I could be making that number up.)
I’d discovered Moore in 1986, along with a lot of other people, through Watchmen, as I’d little interest in the mainline DC universe (I was a Marvel kid, doncha know). By the following spring, re-reading the issues of the series that had come out to that point weren’t enough. I needed more Moore, and my local shop (which I visited on Fridays before I used the folks’ car to drive to San Diego and pick up my then girlfriend, now wife, and bring her up for the weekend because she had a roommate and life’s too short, y’know?) pointed out, helpfully, that he was writing the current run of Swamp Thing. I was only passingly familiar with the movie and comics (though I knew enough of the latter to understand how fully the former sucked, Adrienne Barbeau or not) but decided to put my what, a buck?, down and give it a shot.
I was far from disappointed. But, but, but, there was so much that was incomplete, so many unanswered questions in my mind. What about this mysterious journey that Swampy had just undertaken? Why was his girlfriend being put up on trial in Gotham City? And wow, isn’t this guy just a tad more powerful than your average superhero? But the writing, the writing really got to me. I know, English majors are susceptible to such wiles. In Watchmen, there was no omnipresent narrator, and the chances to play with language weren’t as plentiful it seemed. But in Swamp Thing, which was both more and less a traditional superhero comic than Watchmen, Moore’s use of (some would say indulgence in) language in Swamp Thing was what sealed the deal. Here were images and juxtapositions that I wouldn’t have even dared or imagined, and he was shedding them like autumn leaves (yes, we do have autumn out in California, contrary to what you see on Baywatch), carelessly and seemingly infinitely.
I had to have more. I had to know what was going on in this story. And there was only one way to do it. See, this was before the easy availability of trade collections. You couldn’t just go to a bookstore or comic store and grab three volumes off the shelf, put your money down and have the story. In the bad old days, you had to hunt that bastard down. So I did. Trading my Guinness for gas money, I got my friend Chris (a good friend to this day) to drive me all the hell over Southern California in search of Swamp Thing back issues. We went from Twenty-First Century comics in Orange, to Comics Unlimited in Westminster (still there, though about half the size it used to be) to nameless stores in Garden Grove and even as far as Hawaiian Gardens over the course of a couple of weeks, skipping classes when I’d probably have been better served attending.
And how did the food budget suffer. Particularly when you’re talking about paying as much as five or six bucks an issue (which I paid for the “The Anatomy Lesson”, though the bulk of them were two or three dollars apiece.) Of course, I didn’t read any of them until I’d assembled all of them, or at least as many as I reasonably could. I was itchy with anticipation.
Finally the moment came, where I had pieced together the bulk of the issues, and I sat myself down on a rainy afternoon with a six-pack of cokes and a larger than safety should have allowed container of day-old fried chicken from the local grocery store. I sat in the cool of the apartment (what, pay for heat? It’s only cold a few weeks out of the year…) and ate leathery chicken with one hand, while gingerly turning pages with my right (I’m not a collector, but I’m not insane, either.)
In an evening, I had it all. Everything from Alec Holland’s reconstitution in a vegetable golem body to the return on Arcane (as horrifying as anything you’re ever going to read), to the introduction of a compelling Englishman in the form of John Constantine, to the trip through the dark underbelly of America to the inevitable war between Heaven, Hell and the nameless Darkness that threatened to consume all. It was an amazing reading experience, and one that I’ll not soon forget. And these are books that I do come back to from time to time. I don’t always discover something new, but I do remember things that I’d forgotten or get drawn into the artwork and the passion of the book. For my money, Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and John Totleben have yet to top “Rites of Spring” in terms of sheer expansiveness in a comic. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep looking.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to take something for this indigestion…