Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Mucking About #10 - The Man Who Would Not Die!
The tenth issue of Swamp Thing is momentous because it is Berni Wrightson's last on the series. Wrightson had developed a reputation on small horror stories around the industry, but it was Swamp Thing which still defines his career. Not unlike Wrightson's The Studio mate Barry Windsor-Smith who stepped away from Conan the Barbarian, Wrightson too seemed to want to distance himself from his signature work at the peak of his influence. They say you should always leave making the audience want more and Berni sure did that with Swamp Thing. The final issue in fact gives him a plotting credit in addition to his regular art credit.
The story begins in the swamp where Swamp Thing runs across an escaped prisoner threatening an old black woman named Auntie Bellum and saves her. The escaped convict soon enough dies of bullet wounds and Auntie takes the moment to tell Swamp Thing a story. Her corncob pipe clenched in her aged teeth, she relates the saga of slavemaster Samson Parminter who tormented his slaves and took special notice of a beautiful slave named Elsbeth. Elsbeth though was the love of a powerful slave named Black Jubal who despite having only one arm battled Parminter though it cost him his life. Parminter returned to his evil ways but was then found torn limb from limb in his home soon after. Auntie's story ends when Swamp Thing is distracted by odd figures running in the swamp, odd but familiar. He follows them into a graveyard where he finds his old enemy Arcane surrounded by his Un-Men, but this time Arcane wears the misshapen form his loyal followers built for him when they took him barely living from the cliff he seemingly died on in the second issue. Then Arcane and his Un-Men began to search for Swamp Thing, following him back to his swamp even if that meant swimming across the Atlantic Ocean. Arcane still wants to take possession of Swamp Thing's body. Arcane and Swamp Thing fight, but Arcane wins. But at that moment the graveyard itself seems to buzz with strange activity and ghostly figures of slaves led by Black Jubal rise and defeat Arcane and his Un-Men. Swamp Thing recovers and finds new headstones, one each for the Un-Men and one in particular for Arcane. He shuffles out of the graveyard no noticing another grave with the name "Elsbeth Bellum". He convinces himself it was all a dream as he stumbles away but also fails to notice a corncob pipe snap beneath his mossy feet.
Once again we are presented with a parable of sorts. The saga of old Southern slavery is counterpointed with Arcane's malignant desire to convert Swamp Thing's body to his use. Where Parminter beat his slaves into compliance, Arcane has fashioned and built his own small army of slaves in his Un-Men.
This is really a classic ghost story with Swamp Thing tumbling from situation to situation. There's enough evidence to convince us, the readers this is real, as real as anything Swamp Thing has confronted, but he seems oddly reluctant to give into this belief in spirits.
There is another curious clash here of the occult and the scientific as Swamp Thing confronts the scientist-sorcerer who first battled him so long ago in the early days of the series.
Part of me feels there's maybe just a smidgeon too many elements in this story, and they fight for prominence. But the upshot is neatly handled and it does seem sad that Swamp Thing's changed circumstance doesn't seem always to give him a keener understanding of what is happening to him. It does make him more identifiable for the reader I will say.
This is Wrightson's final stroke on the character. This is as far as I've ever read in this vintage series. For me it will be all new going forward. I've been waiting a long long time to read about those worms pictured in the final panel. Next time should do it.