The Anatomy Lesson
Rereading Saga of the Swamp Thing #21 by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and John Totleben, available in hardcover or trade paperback in Saga of the Swamp Thing v1.
This is where it all begins.
It’s worth noting where it all begins, too. Not with a first issue. Not with a new character. Not with something that ignores everything that goes before or establishes bold new rules. No, it all begins in issue #21, with an old character that had never made much of an impression, following rules that had been established years ago… but nevertheless, it’s very, very different from what had gone before.
Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing started in medias res like most comics did back then. New series starred old characters, new writers started in the middle of ongoing series. Issue #20, the writer’s first, was titled Loose Ends and tied them up. That wasn’t unusual in the comics market of the 70s and 80s. It was common practice for a writer who had one series cancelled to finish it off in another book, having the new characters resolve the dangling dilemmas of the old. Allowing a new writer 24 pages to clear the decks was a courtesy.
The villain of the book was the white-haired leader of a shadowy, but undoubtedly evil, corporation. What did he want? Scientific breakthroughs, no matter what the cost to the human soul, to twist to his own ends. Another standard. The secondary villain, the facilitator, was a scientist whose body had been transformed in a lab accident – something to do with chemicals – and had become a supervillain. He was from another book, but that wasn’t unusual either. Characters were put on the shelf, once used, to wait in the darkness for any interested party to pick up.
The story began and concluded that issue. Sure, there was stuff to pick up later – lots of it, finality didn’t exist back then – but there wasn’t a cliffhanger. You could pick it up not knowing shit about Swamp Thing, learn as you went, and put it down without leaving him like Schrodinger’s Cat. Which is how things were.
So what was new? Well, the narrator for one. His thoughts captured in captions, not bubble-edged thought balloons. A narrator who knew the story, who talked first-person from a framing present about the recent past, rather than providing exposition as the story rolled along. A narrator who wasn’t the lead character but a villain, and a scientist who actually does things scientifically rather than inventing some fantastic device that works like magic then being caught for doing dumb stuff with it.
The sense of place was something rarely see in comics before. Ironically, because it was written by a man who had no real knowledge of the city it was set in, Washington DC. But in captions we establish that we’re in the capital, that it’s sweltering in the summer heat, that American life continues on the surface while horrible things happen in air-conditioned buildings. Compared to the usual row of boxy skyscrapers behind the hero this was new, and using a real city was pretty new. It planted a stake in the real world.
The substance of the story, a new take on the titular character’s origin, was new. Origins were just about set in stone in those days, a standard page with archaic dialogue (“Dear God, that thing is ticking!”) dropped in whenever required. Printed out, laminated, carried by the character to be presented at any team-ups after the obligatory misunderstanding. Taking another look at it, pulling out the rug, explaining that everything you thought you knew was wrong without contradicting that laminated page, was new.
Alan Moore had form in this regard, of course. He’d done it with the forgotten Marvelman, making his entire previous continuity a dream. He was gentler with Swamp Thing. Woodrue’s scalpel first cut into the absurdity of the character – he’s a muck monster, so does he have lungs? A heart? Kidneys? – while taking him apart. Lungs floating in glass jars in the lab of a mad scientist are standard in horror, but this mad scientist didn’t cackle. He asked the right questions, calmly and rationally, and eventually came up with the right answers.
I approached the story obliquely above. Let’s be explicit – the Swamp Thing, a shambling monstrosity from any old B-movie animated by the tormented soul of Alec Holland, had been shot in the head and captured by old enemy General Sunderland. Jason Woodrue, an old Justice League villain who never got any respect while calling himself The Floronic Man, was brought in to examine him. He discovered that the Swamp Thing wasn’t Alec Holland, that a man couldn’t be transformed into a plant but a plant could, with the right chemical magic, think it was a man. It was an elegant, clever reveal that left the character’s history intact but changed the comic completely. Swamp Thing no longer fought to regain his humanity. He had all the humanity he would ever have. So what would he do now?
We’re promised blood throughout the story, blood in extraordinary quantities. We get it; General Sunderland is killed by the monster at the end of the story. And this also was new. Heroes didn’t kill, whatever the provocation. Villains got blown up by their own insane schemes and no body was ever found, leaving them open to return. But Swamp Thing wasn’t a hero. This story established him as a monster, and monsters kill the men who torment them. The villain enabled the kill, the monster did it, and it was no big thing. A comeuppance from an earlier era of comics, an ending from EC Comics rather than DC Comics.
It wasn’t the story’s foremost horrific moment, however. That came earlier. It’s time to talk about the art, which wasn’t as revolutionary as the writing but still offered something rarely seen in comics of the era. Bissette and Totleben were both graduates of the Kubert school and brought a style, twisted yet slick, horrible and meticulously hatched, that wouldn’t have suited Superman. They could draw atmosphere expertly. The rising tension in Woodrue and Sunderland’s conversations was there on the page, contained within the steel and glass of the building. Woodrue himself had the looks of Anthony Perkins or a European movie villain, widow’s peak and cruel features. There was something darker beneath, though, and his eyes would show that.
The big moment came in the shower. No death, no nude women, no stabbing strings. Just one man, the narrator, the villain, the handsome one with the saturnine glint in his eyes stepping into the shower alone. And losing that handsome face, losing that flesh, washing away that veneer of humanity to reveal the monster beneath, a parody of a person made of wood and sap. A reveal that encapsulates what’s happened to the lead character while showing us exactly why we were afraid of this Woodrue all along. He’s not human and he knows it. His pretence of humanity never really convinced. There was always something missing, and that moment, when we find out that he killed the man who freed him from prison by proxy, by stripping another monster of his illusions, winding him up and letting him go, is horrific on a superficial and a much deeper level.
What would become of the Swamp Thing? Would the B-movie monster become something this sinister and sophisticated, capable not just of murder but evil? The new direction of the series was established in this issue. No longer a chase to regain humanity, but an attempt to define it. What will the Swamp Thing become now?
Saga of the Swamp Thing #21 by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and John Totleben, available in hardcover or trade paperback in Saga of the Swamp Thing v1.