THIS ISSUE, THE FIRST IN A LONG RUN of stories by British writer Alan Moore, stands as a pivotal book in comic-book in history for several reasons. First, it was probably the industry’s most successful reintroduction of a struggling character. Second, it would redefine horror for a new generation, and provide the inspiration for a new line of mature titles. Third, it was the forerunner of what would become the comic-book version of “the British invasion.”
First things first.
The Saga of the Swamp Thing was the second series to star the beast from the bayou. His first lasted only 24 issues during the 1970s, but it survived long enough to inspire a low-grade motion picture in 1982. DC Comics commissioned a second series to capitalize on the movie’s release, but that series ran for little more than a year before it became obvious that it, too, wouldn’t last long. With nothing to lose, DC handed the writing reins over to a young Briton named Alan Moore.
The title of this story, “Loose Ends,” sums things up quite nicely. A major storyline in the previous 19 issues involved the fictional Sunderland Corporation, a corrupt company that poses as the government, cordons off the Swamp Thing’s swamp, and sends in a team to kill him. In “The Anatomy Lesson” (issue #21), the Swamp Thing’s corpse is examined, and it’s revealed that “he” was never a man in the first place — it’s a sentient plant who thought it was. It turns out that Alec Holland, the scientist who died in the swamp many years ago, really did die, but his memories were used to form the template of a whole new being, an elemental spirit of the earth whose body could appear anywhere that plant life existed.
This revamping of the Swamp Thing’s origin stands as a sterling example of what revamps ought to do — take characters in whole new directions without disrespecting the work done on them by its previous creators. Moore shook off the limiting shackles of the Swamp Thing’s concept to create a creature of fantasy that could — and did — do much more than wander around a swamp and bemoan his lost humanity.
The revitalized Swamp Thing book would go on to win numerous industry and fan-favorite awards, and a glance at any of Moore’s stories will tell you why. Swamp Thing’s new identity took him (literally, in one story) to hell and back, as he came to terms with the responsibilities that come with being the guardian of the “green.” A budding romance with Abby Cable (the niece of Swamp Thing’s greatest nemesis) and the introduction of supernatural characters — most of whom never wore a cape and mask — gave the stories a sharper edge than the standard superhero fare, and pretty soon the title was pushing every creative boundary to its limits. Karen Berger, Moore’s editor, said that Moore was the first mainstream comic writer who wrote for adults — writing not the sexually explicit stories that the word “adult” suggests, but stories with humanity and layers of meaning.
Then one day, those stories got a little too adult for the censors. In Swamp Thing #29, artist Steve Bissette drew a two-page spread depicting a character surrounded by zombies in various states of decay. No dice, said the Comics Code Authority, adding that the villain’s actions in the story could also be interpreted as a form of incest. However, there wasn’t time to make any changes, and DC let the story go to press without the CCA’s seal of approval. After a while, DC’s management decided that Swamp Thing’s quality justified exempting it from the Code, and so it affixed the label “Suggested for Mature Readers” on the cover, dealing another blow to the CCA’s faltering authority over comic publishers.
Eventually, Swamp Thing’s success would lead to the formation of Vertigo, a family of adult-oriented titles within DC that strove to present stories for mature readers. The Sandman, John Constantine: Hellblazer, Shade the Changing Man, Animal Man, Sandman Mystery Theatre, and the reinvented Doom Patrol are just some of the titles that owe a debt to Moore and his work on Swamp Thing.
The Vertigo line’s success was also due in part to DC’s search for new talent; looking outside the system, its editors found many new creators who brought fresh ideas to the medium. Coincidentally, many of those writers and artists would, like Moore, hail from Great Britain. The list of Brits who followed Moore across the pond includes Neil Gaiman, Jamie Delano, John Ridgway, Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, Simon Bisley, Brian Bolland, Alan Davis, Dave Gibbons, Mike McMahon, Pat Mills, and Kevin O’Neil. These artists would follow Moore’s lead and create entirely new genres of comic books for Western readers, genres that would exemplify the most exciting trend of the 1980s: Comics weren’t just for kids anymore.
From The 100 Greatest Comics of the 20th Century By Mitchell Brown
Did you know…
The ill-fated 1982 movie starred Adrienne Barbeau as the monster’s romantic interest; Swamp Thing’s comic-book success would inspire a second movie and an ongoing cable TV series. Dick Durock played the monster in all three versions.
The “budding” relationship between the plant-based Swamp Thing and the human Abby Arcane evolved to become one of the strangest in comic history, eventually leading to the birth of their child, Tefe.
John Constantine, a seedy occultist with a sardonic sense of humor, was first introduced in Swamp Thing. Moore disclaimed any responsibility for creating the character, insisting he was the creation of artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben, who kept drawing him into the background as a private joke. Constantine would graduate into his own series, Hellblazer, in January 1988.