The Numb and Silent Depths (The Last War in Albion Part 53: Pasko's Swamp Thing, Loose Ends)

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This is the third of a currently unknown number of parts of Chapter Eight of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in six volumes. The first volume is available in the US here, and the UK here. Finding volume 2-6 are, for now, left as an exercise for the reader, although I will update these links as the narrative gets to those issues.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: Originally created as a short story in a horror anthology, Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson's Swamp Thing had a brief and glorious run in the 1970s before petering out until 1982, when Wes Craven directed a movie based on the comics. 

"In the end, the darkness swallows everything. Space vanishes. Time is no longer even a memory. All is lost in the numb and silent depths of forever. Captain Britain is dead." - Alan Moore

Figure 388: Swamp Thing returns to
capitalize on the Wes Craven film.
(From Saga of the Swamp Thing #1, 1982)
It would not do, however, for DC to not have a Swamp Thing comic in publication to go along with the movie (despite onerous conditions related to the sale of the movie rights that meant that DC could not actually produce any merchandise related to Swamp Thing whatsoever), and so in 1982 a new title, Saga of the Swamp Thing, was started with scripts by Martin Pasko, an industry veteran with decades of experience, and art by relative newcomer Tom Yeates. Under Pasko the book was a horror anthology in the same general vein as the Wein/Wrightson issues, albeit with a seventeen-page cap on the stories due to backup stories featuring another cult DC horror character, the Phantom Stranger, and a rather convoluted metaplot involving a spooky child with supernatural powers, a villainous group called the Sunderland Corporation that was hunting Swamp Thing, a reporter named Elizabeth Tremayne and her partner, a doctor named Dennis, both of whom were also trying to find Swamp Thing, and a mysterious illness that was slowly killing Swamp Thing. 

Figure 389: Ramsey Campbell would
go on to write an introduction to the first
collection of Moore's Swamp Thing stories
where he proclaimed that "the new Swamp
Thing
 can stand beside the finest works of
contemporary horror fiction."
Many, though not all of these plot points were resolved in the thirteenth issue of the title, the last by Tom Yeates. After two issues by a guest creative team, Pasko picked up his remaining plot lines, mostly focusing on the Sunderland Corporation, in Saga of the Swamp Thing #16, now joined by a new artistic team of Stephen Bissette and John Totleben. Almost immediately, however, tensions began to arise. Bissette had a lifelong love of drawing monsters, and so it was in many ways a natural fit for him, but he and Totleben also came onto the project with ideas for what they wanted to draw, which they sent to Pasko. Pasko was, by both his own account and Bissette’s, less than impressed. The exact nature of these ideas is, however, less than clear. As Bissette tells it, “we were reading Ramsey Campbell and Stephen King, and we were loving that new wave of horror films that was hitting around then - The Howling and David Cronenberg. I was like, ‘man, this should be transformational! This should be about embracing change, instead of constantly longing for what was lost.’” Pasko, on the other hand, pointedly describes an incident in which he was “constantly fighting an uphill battle because the artist wants to draw dinosaurs” and getting into “terribly demoralizing” conversations with the artists over their apparent dinosaur obsession.

Figure 390: Steve Bissette and John Totleben's spider-demon
design for Anton Arcane. (From Saga of the Swamp Thing
#19, 1983)
In any case, with sales on the book dwindling and Pasko facing increasing commitments from his other career as a television writer, he stepped off the book after a story bringing back Anton Arcane, this time as a giant spider monster. By this point the book was DC’s lowest-selling title and was inches from cancellation, but Wein, perhaps out of some fondness for a title he had, after all, originally created a decade earlier decided to give the book one last chance, using it to try out a new writer, prompting his May, 1983 phone call to Northampton. It is important to understand just how low expectations were for this endeavor. The deadline for Moore’s first issue, in fact, was so absolute that the entire book would have been cancelled without a single issue of Moore’s being published had he and the art team (who were facing a variety of personal events such as impending fatherhood for Bissette and impending marriage for Totleben) missed the deadline. Adding to the tension was the fact that Pasko was falling increasingly behind on his scripts, to the point where he Bissette was stuck drawing Pasko’s final issue, Saga of the Swamp Thing #19, in three-page stretches from plots dictated over the phone, as opposed to from full scripts. All of this on a low-selling book meant that Moore, realistically, was probably going to get a handful of issues before the comic was cancelled and, if he was deemed to have fallen on his sword with sufficient grace, might get a slightly less tragically doomed job as a followup. 

Figure 391: Steve Bissette and John
Totleben were eager to draw Swamp
Thing in a way that highlighted his
vegetative nature. (From Saga of the
Swamp Thing
 #23, 1984)
Moore, however, approached the situation with his characteristic gusto. After his conversation with Wein, Moore received a package containing the Pasko run, and he immediately set out writing a fifteen page assessment of everything that was wrong with it and how he intended to fix it. The first and biggest problem Moore identified was that the root idea of Swamp Thing, though good for a few stories, was profoundly limited. This analysis included Moore’s description of the character as “Hamlet covered in snot. He just walks around feeling sorry for himself. That’s understandable, I mean I would too, but everybody knows that his quest to regain his lost humanity, that’s never going to happen. Because as soon as he does that, the book finishes.” But beyond that, Moore noted that there were larger problems, such as the fact that “other than being a bit lumpy and kind of greenish, the only thing that you can say about him is that he’s very strong. Which in the DC Universe - which back then had lots of people who could play ball with planets - being strong was quite vanilla, really” and that “we had to come up with a better way for the Swamp Thing to travel around, rather than constantly moving around the country upon freight trains or in the boot of a car or in some truck.” He also touched base with Bissette and Totleben, and found, unlike Pasko, that he was very much on the same page as his artists. They were eager to draw more horror content, and his desire to take greater advantage of Swamp Thing’s status as a vegetable monster found an immediate resonance in John Totleben’s desire to explore the fact that Swamp Thing was “this guy made out of moss and mud and these weeds and junk growing on him.” 

Figure 392: Dan Day's original pencils for the
first page of Alan Moore's first issue of Saga
of the Swamp Thing...
 (Originally from Steve
Bissette's blog
)
But for all the ambition, he still had to avoid crashing and burning on his way out of the gate. This was no small task. His first script, for Saga of the Swamp Thing #20, was drawn over a roughly two week period in July during which Wein was on vacation, having left with the instruction that if the issue wasn’t on his desk when he got back, it was going to be cancelled. The script was presumably submitted at some point in June - like most of Moore’s scripts, it’s written as a direct and conversational address to the artist, and its concluding sentence, “Love to everybody over there, hope you have better luck with your next Presidential elections than we’ve just had with ours, and I’ll speak to you soon,” dates it to sometime in the immediate aftermath of the June 9th general election in which Margaret Thatcher’s government won a substantially enlarged majority. 

Figure 393: ... and the published page
reworked by John Totleben from Day's
layout, and with Tatjana Wood's coloring.
Another consequence of the jumbled production schedule by this point was that the production of issues #19, 20, and 21 overlapped. Bissette was pencilling #19, and since #21 was always envisioned by Moore as the proper start to his run, with issue #20 serving to wrap up the stray plot lines of Pasko’s run in much the same way that his first two Captain Britain strips had cleaned up the debris of the aborted Thorpe run. This meant that issue #20 had to be penciled by a guest artist, although John Totleben provided inks, thus maintaining a consistency of style. (It is worth noting that the Bissette/Totleben team was a more collaborative pencil/ink team than many, and that Totleben had an unusually large degree of freedom to rework pages.) Moore was thus left in the uncomfortable position of writing his first issue for an unknown artist, meaning, as he admitted in the script, that “I’m afraid I haven’t been able to tailor it to your specific style as I would have done normally.” Moore also included his usual caveat regarding his infamously dense scripts, since you’re the guy actually sitting at the drawing board, you’re the one with the final say on what’s going to work and what isn’t. All my descriptions are really meant to do is give you a place to start out from if you happen to be drawing this on the monday [sic] after your entire family has been wiped out by Hurricane Tracey and you don’t have one good idea in your head. So don’t worry too much about the specifics… just try and pick up on the mood and the dramatic pace of the story and I’ll be happy.”

On top of the question marks over what the creative team on Saga of the Swamp Thing #20 would actually be and the fact that if the production schedule didn’t come off perfectly Moore would be out of a job without a single issue being published, Moore was faced with a third and more abstract problem, which was that Swamp Thing gave Moore a much larger canvas to work with than the short stories that he was accustomed to writing for UK audiences. Prior to Swamp Thing, his only single piece of comics narrative of comparable length was his Star Wars story “The Pandora Effect,” which is, charitably, not one of the highlights of his early career, in no small part because of how the extended page count sapped Moore’s usual gift for structure and momentum. And for many of the earliest issues of his Swamp Thing run one can see him consciously working through the possibilities of the extended form offer. Indeed, when sending the script for his first issue to Len Wein he noted that “it’ll take me another couple of issues to feel out the potential of having twenty three whole pages to work with each month, as opposed to the seven or eight that I’m used to.” 

Given all of this, it would hardly have been a surprise had Moore had a rough start. And to be fair, there are very few people who would argue with a straight face that “Loose Ends,” his first Swamp Thing story, is a better issue than Saga of the Swamp Thing #21, the legendary “The Anatomy Lesson,” or indeed that “Loose Ends” is a highlight of Moore’s run at all. Much of this is that the comic is oddly obscure: it was quietly dropped from the collected editions of Moore’s Swamp Thing run until 2009. It is, after all, what its title suggests: an issue concerned with wrapping up the loose ends of the Pasko era so that Moore can begin in proper with the next issue, a meticulous piece of self-contained horror that is a fantastic starting point in its own right.

Figure 394: One of the many double page spreads in
Alan Moore's first issue, in this case with the second
page's structure interrupted by the massive explosion.
(Art by Dan Day and John Totleben, from Saga of
the Swamp Thing
 #20, 1983)
The most striking thing about “Loose Ends” is its composition. Of its twenty-two panels, fully eighteen are based around double page spreads, giving the issue a tight and intricate sense of structure. Not all of this was down to Moore - his original script called for a splash page on page two as part of a three-page opening sequence, which penciller Dan Day reworked to open with a non-story splash page of Swamp Thing, putting all of the three-page sequence in a single double page spread that would have been two discrete pages in Moore’s original plan. And in other places the execution of the spreads is jumbled - one is bisected in print by an advertisement, and in several others the paralleled panel structures are disrupted by a failure to have the panels quite line up from page to page. But elsewhere Moore uses the two-page format to clever effect, such as a sequence that begins as two paralleled pages, but just over halfway through the second page is disrupted as a massive explosion takes place in the story, disrupting the panel structure. 

Figure 395: Moore's first issue famously
ends with the death of the main character.
(Art by Dan Day and John Totleben, from
Saga of the Swamp Thing #20, 1983)
The effect is that the seemingly vast canvas afforded by a twenty-three page story instead becomes a series of concrete encounters and exchanges that have their own discrete structures. In effect, Moore broke the bulk of his first issue into a series of two-page strips, as though he were writing an eleven-part series in the style of his early strips for Doctor Who Weekly. The issue is not quite as simplistic as that - he doesn’t do anything gratuitous like pack in cliffhangers every two pages - but one can nevertheless see Moore finding a way to ease himself into the structure. For the most part, however, the issue is somewhat pedestrian - it attempts to establish a new status quo for the major characters. Some of these bits of end-tying would take years to pay off - the character of Dwight Wicker, for instance, collaborates with General Sunderland on a plan to capture Swamp Thing, but after Sunderland dies in issue #21, Wicker proceeds to vanish for more than thirty issues. Liz and Dennis vanish for even longer, their last appearance being an ominous sequence in which Dennis muses, “‘All we have in common is the horror in our lives, Dennis.’ That’s what she said. But maybe horror was all it took. Maybe they didn’t need anything else to make it work. Maybe things would be okay between them just so long as they never ran out of horrors. She leans against him, scared, vulnerable, the way a woman should be. And Dennis Barclay runs. And Dennis Barclay smiles.” But the main one comes in the final pages, when Sunderland’s soldiers track down Swamp Thing and shoot him dead. This rather abrupt and unexpected resolution was the plot point that would set up Moore’s second, and altogether more famous issue. [continued]

Comments

Mark Pontin 2 years, 7 months ago

Good work.

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Tallifer 2 years, 7 months ago

Swamp Thing is my favourite work of Alan Moore's, so I have been eagerly awaiting these posts.

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Heath 2 years, 7 months ago

I'm so intrigued by Moore's scripts that speak directly to his artists. Great inclusion, and a nice drawing back of the curtain on process. I would never take Moore for one who would give so much deference and control to his pencilers, but thinking about some of his various works, I suppose one can see an intentional emphasis on the style of the artists employed.

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Matthew Blanchette 2 years, 7 months ago

I'm probably not as familiar with Moore's run on "Swamp Thing" as I should be, but this whole section here:

"Another consequence of the jumbled production schedule by this point was that the production of issues #19, 20, and 21 overlapped. Bissette was pencilling #19, and since #21 was always envisioned by Moore as the proper start to his run, with issue #20 serving to wrap up the stray plot lines of Pasko’s run in much the same way that his first two Captain Britain strips had cleaned up the debris of the aborted Thorpe run. This meant that issue #19 had to be penciled by a guest artist, although John Totleben provided inks, thus maintaining a consistency of style. (It is worth noting that the Bissette/Totleben team was a more collaborative pencil/ink team than many, and that Totleben had an unusually large degree of freedom to rework pages.) Moore was thus left in the uncomfortable position of writing his first issue for an unknown artist, meaning, as he admitted in the script, that “I’m afraid I haven’t been able to tailor it to your specific style as I would have done normally.” "

...shouldn't that read "This meant that issue #20 had to be penciled by a guest artist", since Bissette, the regular artist, was working on #19, and with Moore's first issue being #20? :-S

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 7 months ago

Yes. Fixed.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 7 months ago

I think part of what's so strong about Moore's catering to artists is that he is capable of doing so subtly. There's an interview I've read in recent memory for the Swamp Thing chapter where he points out how awful it would be if Bissette and Totleben drew Watchmen and Gibbons drew Swamp Thing, and it's a sound point - each of those works are immaculately crafted to the strengths of their artists, not in a flashy and over the top way, but in a way that goes to the core of what the books are.

Although the most flagrant example is surely watching Moore realize that he has one of the best artists of his career on his silly Wonder Woman spoof, and that he might want to up his own game a bit and give J.H. Williams the book he deserves.

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Anton B 2 years, 7 months ago

And then, until they dropped the letters page, have to suffer the complaints from fans of silly Wonder Woman spoofs that they didn't want to shell out nearly three bucks an issue for beautifully drawn lessons in tantric sex magic and tarot workshops.

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encyclops 2 years, 7 months ago

I've always been curious about this exact transition but never knew much about it before. Terrific discussion -- thanks!

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Ben 2 years, 7 months ago

I have to confess that I never knew about the existence of "Loose Ends." I always thought that "The Anatomy Lesson" was Moore's first Swamp Thing story. There's a good reason for it to be considered the landmark, as Phil will no doubt get to in the next Albion entry, but I'm glad the earlier issue has surfaced.

Interestingly enough even though Moore and Tom Yeates never worked together on Swamp Thing, they would be associated later on. Yeates was one of the artists on Brought to Light, the graphic novel/exposé cowritten by Moore and Joyce Brabner.

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Kit 2 years, 7 months ago

Worth noting that Rick Veitch ghost-pencilled much of #21 due to this pressure, too (not to mention various others in Bissette's tenure; the two had been frequent collaborators for years, and co-painted pages at times). Many faces and postures are clearly Veitch's, and the first DC trade paperback even credits him for specific issues.

(They refused to do so on the second one, out of alleged spite over the #88 and health-care issues.)

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timber-munki 2 years, 7 months ago

Yep, just like in Milligan & Allred's re-launch of X-Force one of the many joys of it was the letter pages of the ealry issues with apoplectic fans of the previous version of the title denouncing the very abrupt change in pretty much everything about the comi except it's title.

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Ben 2 years, 7 months ago

Yeah, that's a perversely fun thing about Milligan's career. Pretty much any time he steps into an existing property he catches heat from the existing fans. Sometimes the companies involved judge his take to be a success and sometimes not, but one way or another he's remembered.

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Robot Devil 2 years, 7 months ago

Thanks for spoiling the end of Don't Look Now, Phil and Alan Moore. That ending was a shock when I first saw the movie

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Daru 2 years ago

I'll be honest like some people above that I knew nothing at all about these transitional stories, as I first got into Swamp Thing with trade paperbacks further down the road, but I'll explain later how I got into it.

*Truly amazing* is what I think when I see the artworks of Totleben and Bissette - fig.391 is wonderful. The paperbacks I read were in black and white (up to the end of American Gothic I think?) so I have actually never seen a lot of these pages in colour, which is a real revelation in reading these posts.

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