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End of the Road?

  Swamp Thing: Reunion

 

Alan Moore, Rick Veitch

Stephen Bissette, Alfredo Alcala

John Totleben, Tom Yeates

DC/Vertigo, 2003

Rating: 4.5

 

    Promethea Book IV

 

Alan Moore

J.H. Williams III

Mick Gray

America's Best Comics, 2003

Rating: 4.7

Posted: September 20, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

When modern comics legend Alan Moore first penned the stories that make up Reunion, he was a gifted young visionary wrapping up a career-making run on DC's formerly moribund title Swamp Thing. Having taken an interesting stock horror figure and exploded it into mythical directions few could have imagined, Moore no doubt sensed that the time was right to bring his celebrated journey with the character to a close. In a synchronicitous parallel that certainly couldn't have gone unnoticed, the bulk of Reunion -- the final volume to collect his Swamp Thing span -- centers around the ending of another journey, with the titular Plant Elemental ricocheting through space, in forced exile from Earth, inexorably making his way back to the love of his life and the evil men who'd so cruelly severed his link with the planet.

That Moore conveniently plotted the Swamp Thing's trajectory so that he would intersect with some of the DC Universe's spacebound properties requires some suspension of disbelief, even for comic book readers, and even 16 years after the stories first appeared. But the coincidences, to Moore's credit, aren't merely gratuitous. When Swamp Thing encounters DC's rocket pack-wearing hero Adam Strange on the latter's adopted world of Rann, he uses his elemental powers to bring life to the dead world. This not only thwarts a plot by the winged warriors of Thanagar (home planet of Hawkman) to trade terraforming technology for the secrets of the Zeta Beam, the erratic source of Strange's back-and-forth travels between Rann and Earth; it also sets up the crisis of conscience Swamp Thing undergoes once he's back on Earth. (Why not use his powers to end famine and drought?) More, Moore draws a poignant parallel between Swamp Thing and Strange, two Earth natives wrenched from the worlds they love.

It isn't hyperbole to say that Reunion features some of Moore's best work on Swamp Thing. In the eerie "Loving the Alien," he wrestles a kind of electromagnetic poetry from the narrative of a drifting, machine-based creature who engages in a kind of non-consensual intercourse with Swamp Thing for the purposes of procreation (John Totleben's jarring clockwork visuals also deserve special mention, as does Reunion's all-star lineup of Moore collaborators). And in "All Flesh is Grass," Swamp Thing arrives on a planet inhabited by a "vegetable civilization;" his penchant for inhabiting the local flora has disastrous consequences before he encounters the Green Lantern for that sector of space, who helps to realign his bioelectric signature so that he may once again exist on Earth.

Throughout, Moore gamely hews to Swamp Thing's roots as a horror title, lingering just long enough over Swamp Thing's vengeance over his human foes, or the comeuppance of a Thangarian soldier who tries to kill him in an attempt to preserve the dangerous pact between her world and Rann. These scenes don't distract at all from Moore's larger narratives, even though it's clear that he's left the limiting confines of genre horror long, long behind.

Just how far, exactly, is illustrated (and beautifully so) by Promethea, part of Moore's America's Best Comics line, which bears some resemblances to his Swamp Thing work (as well as Neil Gaiman's Sandman), but is, in contrast, completely unfettered -- sometimes to its detriment -- by the narrative mores of action comics. Promethea's titular heroine is a mythical warrior woman connected to the Immateria, the realm of spirit and imagination, who pops up from time to time in different incarnations, including as the heroine of lurid, sexually charged pulp novels. The current incarnation shares a consciousness with Sophie Bangs, a troubled college student who ends up channeling Promethea while researching a school paper.

Like Reunion, the fourth collection of Promethea concerns a journey: When her friend Barbara, a previous incarnation, sets off into the Immateria in search of her dead lover, Promethea/Sophie tags along. This allows Moore to indulge in a long exploration of the ten spheres of the Kaballah, which double as the higher realms of the Immateria as Moore imagines it. This trek, paradoxically, is the source of Promethea's greatest moments -- Moore's exquisitely detailed topography of the Immateria, as breathtakingly rendered by penciler/painter J.H. Williams III, inker Mick Gray and colorist Jeromy Cox -- and its largest hurdle: an all-but grinding halt in the narrative flow. As Sophie and Barbara trundle through the spheres, encountering figures both fictive and real (including Aleister Crowley), all urgency, all sense of pacing and plot is seeped away.

The result, for a long stretch of Book IV, is little more than an extremely pretty diversion. If it's a long (and long-winded) diversion, however, it's also frequently jaw-dropping. The breadth and depth of Moore's imagination, as well as his intensive mapping of the Immateria, is startling, as is a series of painstakingly scripted Mobius-strip scenes, with seamless, circular dialogue and artwork to match -- graphic art parlor tricks, maybe, but impressive and gorgeous ones nonetheless.

If much of Book IV feels meandering, it does eventually reenter the world of action and plot. Sophie's and Barbara's journey eventually ends in court: Stacia and Grace, it turns out, revel in the power of Promethea -- as well as each other's company -- and are loathe to give up their shared persona once Sophie returns. There can't be two Prometheas operating on Earth at the same time, of course, so the two parties argue their cases before an addled Solomon. Once this is resolved, Moore amps things up in a big way, as a couple of overzealous FBI agents, convinced that Promethea is a villainous, terrorist threat, begin rounding up Sophie's friends (and a bitter Stacia); Book IV ends, promisingly, with Sophie on the run.

Given Moore's recent announcement of his impending "retirement" from comics and the end of the America's Best Comics line, Book IV invites another parallel to Reunion. As with the latter, it's impossible to read Book IV without thinking of a gifted (if no longer quite so young) visionary preparing to wrap up and move on. Whether he'll eventually end Promethea and its ABC siblings on as high a note as he did Swamp Thing is an open question, but the level of talent on ample display in Book IV promises many rewards in sticking around to find out.

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 3.0-3.9: Solid
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