Out of time: the end of Veitch’s run

Why was Rick Veitch’s Swamp Thing run brought to a premature end? The story is that DC’s president Jenette Kahn caught sight of the cover of #88, showing Swamp Thing as the cross Jesus was crucified on, and didn’t like it. The content of the issue was then questioned and when it turned out Jesus Christ was a character, portrayed as a white magician, then the whole issue was deemed unacceptable.

Rick Veitch took the kind of stand the comics industry is now wearily familiar with, asking exactly what would cause offence to an audience of mature readers, asking what creative changes were necessary, why the issue had moved through an entire editing process without any concerns being raised but was suddenly unacceptable, etc. And DC Comics took their now familiar stance: we don’t have to discuss anything with you. Shut up and change it. Creative concerns aren’t our concerns.

So Rick left, and Swamp Thing as a title went from being an engine of creative change for DC, for the DC universe, and for the entire industry to just another ongoing monthly that constantly rehashed its golden years. Veitch’s run was apparently scheduled to end in another three issues, when he’d concluded Alec’s backwards journey, brought back Arcane for one more title fight, and presented Alec and Abby with their first child. It still could end, and as the trade paperbacks have been published up to the time-travel saga it would make commercial sense to do so even twenty years later, but DC aren’t in the business of making sense.

What loose ends did Rick Veitch leave? Well, the big one was how the flesh elemental would work and how the title would work as a domestic drama with a child. Other superheroes have managed it, of course, but then other superheroes don’t live in the swamp. There was the loose end of Arcane, which seems impossible to resolve in a single issue given how much his threat was built up. There was all that stuff about Sunderland Corp which was abandoned. There was Roy Raymond, vowing to be a detective again. Alan Moore’s a neat writer and tied up pretty much everything. Rick Veitch is more instinctive and didn’t look likely to.

What economic damage did DC do to themselves by ending a successful run? In the short term not much; Doug Wheeler took over and managed a couple of decent issues finishing Veitch’s storyline – all the pieces were set up, it wasn’t hard – but quickly turned out to have no real direction for the title and no feel for the medium.

In the long term DC did themselves out of a valuable asset. Neil Gaiman and Jamie Delano had been due to take over the title after Veitch, alternating three-issue stories. Almost every word Gaiman wrote for the company has been reprinted, often in several different formats. How much would a run of Swamp Thing comics by him have earned them? Would we be seeing Absolute Swamp Thing books on the shelves next to the Sandman ones? A revenue stream was cut off for nothing; to avoid imagined controversy a publisher went back to a business model they knew was failing.

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