What I’ve been reading lately, part 22

Saga of the Swamp Thing — Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette and John Toteben

I re-read this as part of my Alan Moore phase — following on from his Watchmen and Complete Future Shocks, and Andrew Rilstone’s Who Sent The Sentinels?, last time. It’s a fascinating read, having more in common with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics than with Moore’s usual work, with its dependence on supernatural themes and general feeling of being more horror than fantasy.

Swamp Thing had been a moderately successful DC Comics character from 1972 and 1976. His origin story was that Alec Holland had been caught in an explosion of chemicals in his swamp laboratory, and rather than dying was transformed into Swamp Thing. After 1976, the character lay dormant until the young Alan Moore was invited to revive it in 1984. His run writing the comic is considered his third major work (after V for Vendetta and his run on Marvelman/Miracleman). He was still working on it when he and Dave Gibbons created Watchmen. Moore’s take on the character begins in a characteristically iconoclastic way, completely reinterpreting the origin. In Moore’s conception, Swamp Thing is the mind of the swamp itself, impregnated with the memories of Alec Holland. It was never human, and never can be.

This revision is told in the opening and best issue, Anatomy Lesson. From there, Swamp Thing (still addressed as “Alec” by his friend Abby Holland) is involved in a showdown with the Floronic Man, who aims to use his control of plans to rid the Earth of animals, and then with a dream creature who takes the form of whatever its victim fears most. These stories work well, too, but lack the mythic resonance of the opener. I’m sort of interested in buying the subsequent volume, but not at full price.

Miracleman book one: a Dream of Flying — The Original Writer, Garry Leach and Alan Davis

Bizarrely, I either never knew, or had forgotten, that Miracleman was also Alan Moore’s work, since it is credited only to “The Original Writer”. It’s by pure coincidence that I picked it up straight after Swamp Thing, and it’s pretty startling how similar the substance of the two titles is — even though the feel is very different.

The original Miracleman (then known as Marvelman until the name was changed to avoid a Marvel Comics lawsuit) was a cheesy Superman knock-off in the 1950s. Mike Moran is visited by an alien engineer and given the gift that if he speaks the word “kimota” (“atomik” backwards) he transforms into Miracleman, who can fly and is invulnerable and all those things you’d expect. The original run of Miracleman ended in 1963 and the character was unlamented for 19 years until — stop me if you’ve heard this one — Alan Moore was invited to revive it in 1982. (Yes, I am writing this review and the previous one in the wrong order. I can’t help it — it’s the order I read them in.)

You will be shocked — shocked, I say! — when I tell you that Moore’s take on the character begins in a characteristically iconoclastic way, completely reinterpreting the origin. In Moore’s conception, Miracleman is the result of a military experiment using recovered alien technology, and everything he believes about his origin is the result of post-hypnotic suggestion implanted by the military. He discovers this only after 19 years during which he had forgotten he was Miracleman at all: in that time, Mike Moran has married and aged, and initially appears as a somewhat run-down middle-aged man (with an inexplicably smoking hot wife) Only by accident does he recover his powers.

This story, together with the subsequent investigation of his own origins, accounts for all the substance of the volume; unfortunately, it’s only about half of the pages. The remainder is filled with a one-shot “possible future” Miracleman story, some unrelated stories about the Warpsmiths, and a huge amount of concept art, much of it simply uncoloured versions of pages from the main story.

So while this is fascinating for Moore fans trying to understand how the mind behind Watchmen developed, it’s hard to recommend the book on its own terms.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the Origin — Joss Whedon

A brief comic anthology collecting three issues that re-tell the story of the terrible 1992 movie but in a way that is truer to Joss Whedon’s original vision (and so which more closely resembles the TV series). Notably, the watcher in the comic does not at all resemble Donald Sutherland, whose portrayal in the movie Whedon hated.

I’ve read this a few times now, and still find it confusing. There’s a pretty big cast — six boys, four girls, the watcher, a couple of major vampires and some extras — and I still struggle to keep clear in my head who is who. It doesn’t help that the art does not make the clearest distinctions between all the characters, or that the script doesn’t mention them by name very often — or at all, in some cases.

I’d put this down as For Completists Only. Though I have to admit it’s left me with a strange desire to give the terrible 1992 film another go.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — J. K. Rowling

And so I come to the end of Rowling’s seven-book-series, having previously read Sorcerer’s StoneChamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban, Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, and Half-Blood Prince. I admit I approached this one with a certain trepidation: I had memories of Deathly Hallows as a bit of a trudge, extended past its natural length by long, repetitive passages of Harry, Ron and Hermione travelling aimlessly around with their magic tent. I also remembered it as rather a bleak book. On re-reading, I found that impression was completely wrong, and now I wonder whether I had been reading back into it my experience of the two-part film adaptation. (Those films could almost have been made in black-and-white, so desaturated are the colours.)

The book is packed with incident, and the last third especially charges along with breathless momentum. From the moment the trio leave Bill and Fleur’s cottage to carry out their heist on Gringott’s bank, the pace really doesn’t let up.

The closing sections — Snape’s back-story, Harry’s sacrifice, Neville’s big moment and the final battle — are all genuinely affecting, much more moving than the film versions. In fact, the films get the climax badly wrong, rewriting Rowling’s tightly constructed sequence into a bloated action movie that drains most of the meaning out of the events that remain.

Extending the final combat was a particularly boneheaded move on the part of director David Yates, as it makes the confrontation between Harry and Voldemort all about which of them is the more skillful and powerful wizard — which is the exact opposite of what the book is about. Rowling has Harry defeat Voldemort because of his mother’s sacrifice, because Voldemort’s arrogance has kept him ignorant of the power of love, and because he has misunderstood the Elder Wand. It’s perfectly clear that Voldemort remains far, far more powerful and skilled than Harry: we can tell, if it was even in doubt, because just before Harry’s reappearance Voldemort has been holding his own in a simultaneous duel with McGonagall, Slughorn, and Kingsley Shacklebolt. What defeats Voldemort is his own nature, and Harry’s very contrasting nature. But in the film, they simply duel until someone wins, and it happens to be Harry. It may be more “cinematic” (wretched word) but it’s meaningless.

Since I’ve seen the films quite recently, all of this had unfairly downgraded my perception of the book, so it was a joy to rediscover what a marvellous construction the real thing is. It provides an almost entirely satisfying conclusion to the seven-book series, and represents the culmination of the transition from the light, frothy first book through the progressively deeper and darker sequels.

All in all, I am very glad that I re-read all the Harry Potter books, and I think they stand up extremely well as a timeless series that children in a sixty years will still read, just as modern children still read the Narnia books. Rowling’s strengths as a writer are the ones that really matter: she creates characters that we care about, she puts them in situations that are both interesting and tense, and she resolves her plots in ways that (in the context of her fictional universe) make sense and satisfy. And more than that, there is a mythic overtone to the Potter series that lends it depth and resonance.

More than 20 years ago I was on an Internet mailing list about the craft of writing. One message on that list has stayed in my memory every since. Richard Sherbaniuk wrote: “The Harry Potter books are literature, period.  They’ll be read long after Salman Rushdie has turned to dust.” And he was dead right.

And that’s it for this installment of What I’ve Been Reading Lately: only four books this time, but I had more to say about them than usual.


6 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 22

  1. Re: Harry Potter – I too think the final film(s) do the book something of a disservice; I actually felt at the time that it was unfortunate that the Deathly Hallows were in the title as they were wholly unnecessary for the direction the film series had been taking, as the final showdown demonstrated. The Horcrux plot had been well seeded and explained; the Hallows were not. (And whilst they are not particularly well seeded or explained in the book either, there is a greater need for tying up loose ends there.) And the film needed the confrontation scene to be, well, filmic, whereas the book needed it to be the opposite. And they both work, but I do think that the book version works far, far better.

    I would guess that I’ve listened to Stephen Fry’s reading of the last third of Deathly Hallows five or six times at least (compared to maybe a couple of listens through the entire series) because it’s just so much fun (OK, fun is perhaps the wrong word for one of the few points in the series where Rowling actually properly kills people you care about) and the twists she finds for her own tropes are genuinely clever (the Dumbledore exposition chapter is fabulous.)

    And whilst I am still unsure of their ultimate longevity, it’s hard to deny that the Potter series is a modern classic.

  2. It’s true that the role of the deathly hallows is, oddly, the main thing about the final book that doesn’t quite work. The question really is why does Dumbledore even bring them up? Harry already has the cloak. The stone is of use only at the end, and could have been left to Harry in the same way, in the snitch, without the notion of the hallows ever coming up. Only the wand is an important plot point, and that doesn’t really require a whole new set of plot coupons to set up.

  3. Since you seem to be on a superhero kick, let me recommend something out of left field (maybe; it was for me anyway): the Worm web serial – https://parahumans.wordpress.com/

    Aside: the About text the link above was all I read at the time before digging in. There’s more information at the wikipedia page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worm_(web_serial). I like going in blind as much as possible to good books or movies, if you’re like me I would skip even that

    So, I’ll try to explain my recommendation while revealing as little as possible. Things to like:
    – He writes characters really well. Despite the huge size of the cast that accumulates as the story progresses, everyone feels like they a have personality and a history. Not even minor secondary characters with brief appearances feel like cardboard cutouts.
    – A seemingly infinite imagination for superpowers. You get the usual fare of comicbook powers plus a lot more besides. Some of the most interesting powers are entirely mental/internal/otherwise invisible. Between this and the previous point, it makes for some truly memorable villains. The author also has a (entirely welcome!) propensity for arranging situations where all these powers can come out and play.
    – It’s an epic, and it properly earns that title. Part of it has to do with length I think, and it’s something I’ve noticed with games as well. Both games and fantasy fiction are big on “evil is about to destroy the universe and our heroes must defeat it” plots, but just setting up that premise doesn’t make a story *feel* epic. Epics are long journeys and they must take the time to build up their protagonists and their stakes. Worm managed this better than any other work that I can remember.
    – World building. Related to the previous point, the story evolves as a sort of very slow pan-out, gradually letting into view more of the world, the major players, and the nature of the powers. The slow growth of scope was a delight, especially as the “cosmology” (for lack of a better term) of this universe starts to come together.

    Some criticism, for balance:
    – It takes too long to progress away from the initial focus on the protagonist’s life at school. It’s a good starting point, it’s just that it keeps coming back to it a few more times than necessary.
    – Her capability for naive self-delusion seems excessive. This is at the beginning of the story and she’s just a teenage girl at this point, but still.
    – I have issues with the ending. Can’t go into without major spoilage…

  4. A pedant writes…

    ‘Swamp Thing’ had actually been revived in 1982 when the Wes Craven movie came out. Moore took over when Martin Pasko left. (However, this is not in any way useful information as you don’t need to read those earlier issues.)

    It is probably truer to say Neil Gaiman is more like ‘Swamp Thing’-era Moore than the other way around.

  5. Pedro, many thanks for the Worm recommendation. It certainly seems like the kind of thing I would enjoy, and I would read it in a heartbeat if I could get it onto my Kindle. The problem is, it seems to exist only a series of web-pages — and I know from bitter experience that I simply can’t read in that format. (I keep going off to check my email and suchlike.) Do you know where I can get an eBook?

    Gavin, thanks for the point of information. And needless to say, you are very right in seeing the Moore-Swamp Thing influence on Sandman rather than vice versa!

  6. The author hasn’t published an ebook (there’s a statement he wants to do that in the future, but I was already there ~3 years ago when I read it, so I’m not holding my breath).

    In the meantime these commands will get you an ebook:

    npm install worm-scraper
    node node_modules/.bin/worm-scraper download convert scaffold zip

    The above assumes some unix system, with npm and node commands already installed (they’re part of the node.js javascript runtime, in case you aren’t familiar)

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