|Figure 451: Swamp Thing is mortally|
injured by the toxic touch of Nukeface
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve
Bissette and John Totleben, from Swamp
Thing #35, 1985)
“The Nukeface Papers” provides an interesting split between its two installments. The first issue, when it was published, was basically a six-month old script, the story having originally been intended for publication in July of 1984. In many ways the first part shows this – it follows the basic structure Moore used for the first issues of his preceding three arcs, with the storyline’s threat intrudes upon and infects Swamp Thing’s world. In this case the threat is the eponymous Nukeface, a drunken derelict who has become deranged by and addicted to the nuclear waste buried in his hometown of Blossomville, Pennsylvania (a thinly veiled version of Centralia, Pennsylvania, a town destroyed by an underground fire in a coal mine that is expected to continue burning for the next quarter-millennium), and who has come to the bayou because his stash in Pennsylvania has been cemented over and new waste is being deposited in the swamp instead. Swamp Thing dreams of Blossomville as Nukeface approaches, seeing a place where “something bright and awful kissed the world, and left its smeared blue lipstick-print. The soil is curdled, and all that grows, grows wrong. In a skin of black cinder, puddles reflect fire, red and wet and glistening like sores.” Disturbed, he goes to investigate, only to be touched by Nukeface, leaving a blue and bubbling wound on Swmp Thing’s body as he collapses. By the time the issue saw print six months later, Moore had stretched his wings creatively, and so the second part, published in February of 1985, had an altogether different tone.
|Figure 452: Steve Bissette worked physical newspaper clippings into|
his pencils for “The Nukeface Papers.” (Written by Alan Moore, art by
Steve Bissette and John Totleben, from Swamp Thing #35, 1985)
Even the first issue, however, showed a passion for formal experimentation. Throughout the story Bissette adds scraps of newspaper that flutter in the breeze or float rotting in the waters of the swamp. These newspaper fragments are not mere illustrations, however – instead Bissette inserts photographs of actual newspaper clippings he saved up, creating a collage of real headlines about environmental pollution and Bissette and Totleben’s art for the story. “As Jones said during his Erie visit, a toxic waste dump site, located anywhere in the area, could be a major source of new jobs,” one says. “A French cargo ship that sank off the coast of Belgium Saturday night was carrying containers filled with a form of uranium used to make fuel for nuclear reactors,” another explains. Others are more fragmentary – one talks about “shoddy work and forged documents” in relation to the unfinished nuclear power plant in Marble Hill, Ohio, while another talks about an unspecified nuclear disaster that involved seven hundred radioactive pellets left in a truck “which became dangerously ‘hot,’ emitting 50 rads of radiation every hour.” Another has an out of context quote by a “Mr. Sotelo” who says “It’s OK, we’re still alive. Maybe the doctors exaggerated the danger.” Other headlines talk of familiar disasters like Three Mile Island and Bhopal.
|Figure 453: The burial of a child victim|
of the Bhopal disaster.
All of these, it is worth stressing, were real events. The Bhopal disaster, for instance – referenced in several headlines in the second part of “The Nukeface Papers” – happened just two months before that issue was published, on the night of December 2nd/3rd, when a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide’s Indian subsidiary released a cloud of methyl isocyanate gas along with other chemicals. This was not the first industrial accident at the plant, which had a history of incidents going back to 1979, but by the December of 1984 the plant was in such poor repair that the bulk of safety systems were completely offline. The accident was caused when water entered an overfilled tank of methyl isocyanate, which caused a rapid chemical reaction accelerated by the iron that had leached from rusting pipes. The tank rapidly heated, resulting in a rise in pressure, and emergency venting released nearly 75% of the gas within the tank. The official and immediate death toll killed nearly four thousand people, along with causing a 300% increase in the stillbirth rate and a 200% increase in neonatal mortality. Causes of death included choking, pulmonary oedema, and reflexogenic circulatory collapse, and autopsies further showed victims suffering from cerebral oedema, necrotising enteritis, and other similarly awful effects. Overall estimates of the death toll, taking into account those who died subsequently of conditions caused by the disaster, go as high as sixteen thousand. Union Carbide eventually paid $470 million in damages, or roughly 5% of their 1984 revenue.
|Figure 454: Nukeface triumphant.|
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve
Bissette and John Totleben, from
Swamp Thing #36, 1985)
But the formal experimentation of the newspaper clippings crosses over to the writing itself in the second part, which is told in a style bearing an obvious debt to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, with seven separate characters each getting a section devoted to their perspective on events, culminating in a Nukeface section in which he comes to realize that he won’t be able to get more of his nuclear waste from Louisiana, but who decides that “there’s gotta be some more of it out there someplace,” and that he “don’t care if I gotta look in every state, every town… every street, dammit! It’s there, boy. I know it’s there… perserverence and determination, that’s all it takes… Heads up, America,” he declares, before a final splash page of Nukeface, arms spread, declaring, “here I come!” to a sky now full of Steve Bissette’s newspaper clippings.
|Figure 455: Swamp Thing’s jaw rots off. |
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve
Bissette and John Totleben, from
Swamp Thing #36, 1985)
But in many ways the bigger plot point comes in the two sections written from the perspectives of Swamp Thing and Abby. In them, Swamp Thing lies in agony after being contaminated by Nukeface’s touch. “Throughout the long paralyzed night my mind is caught in a gauze of delerium,” Swamp thing narrates. “With the first light of dawn, I notice that my arm has gone. The day passes slowly. During the afternoon, a hole appears in my stomach. Soon my lower half will be detached. As it starts to decay, my head fills with ice-blue nothingness.” He tries to call out to Abby with his mind, and as night falls again she reaches him, and they talk briefly. “I tell her what I plan to do,” he explains, “and then my lower jaw falls off, and after a while, I die.” Later, at the end of the issue, the same scene is told from Abby’s perspective, revealing that Swamp Thing’s plan is to try to build himself a new body, but with no certainty of success, and showing him fester away to nothingness, dying for the second time in sixteen issues.
|Figure 456: Grant Morrison’s “The Liberators”|
ran in the same issue as the penultimate
installment of Chapter Two of V for Vendetta
(Written by Grant Morrison, art by John
Ridgway, from Warrior #26, 1985)
By this time, Moore had solidly established himself as a hot writer in American comics. February, 1985, in fact, proved a very big month for him: he published sixty-one pages with DC comics, netting him £637 a week from that alone – more than twelve times the £40 he sought to make five years earlier. On top of that, he began writing backup features for Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg and saw the second part of The Ballad of Halo Jones commence publication in 2000 AD, along with the final installment of Warrior, by this time featuring no Moore work save for the still-continuing V for Vendetta (although it did feature Grant Morrison debuting on a Dez Skinn-designed feature called The Liberators). In terms of work published in ongoing, serialized comics (as opposed to things like Lost Girls where several hundred pages of material saw print all at once), this marks the most productive month of Moore’s entire career.
There is, however, a strong case to be made that it is the next month, March of 1985, that was the more important month in Moore’s career, that being the month that he introduced the character of John Constantine to Swamp Thing. This would prove to be an act with significant ramifications, both for DC and for Moore’s own life. For all the eventual importance of the character, however, his conceptual origins are almost comically idiosyncratic. At the root of it is the fact that Steve Bissette and John Totleben were big fans of the Police, and Bissette in particular “liked Sting, because he had a great face and I was a big fan of the movie Quadrophenia, where he plays Ace Face.”
|Figure 457: Steve Bissette|
and John Totleben drew
Sting into the background
of an early issue of Moore’s
Swamp Thing (From Saga
of the Swamp Thing #25, 1984)
Bissette and Totleben had in fact already included Sting in the background of a scene in Saga of the Swamp Thing #25, and, as Bissette tells it, “we wrote Alan, and said ‘We’re going to put Sting in the comic, and Alan, you better make it a character, because he’s not going to go away. We’re going to make him more and more visible, whether you like it or not.’” Moore was apparently suitably amused by this impetuous demand, and created a character for Bissette and Totleben, albeit not modeled off of Sting in Quadrophenia, but rather off of his appearance in Brimstone and Treacle.
|Figure 458: Sting as Ace Face |
The difference between these is not inconsiderable. Quadrophenia is a 1979 film adaptation of a rock opera by The Who that, somewhat curiously, removed most of the actual musical bits. It featured Sting as Ace Face, a charismatic Mod thug who, in an iconic scene, completely fails to give a damn about a magistrate criticizing the Mods for being violent thugs and casually pays off his hefty fine out of his wallet, to the amusement of all the other slightly less cool Mods. Brimstone and Treacle, on the other hand, is a 1982 adaptation of an unaired Dennis Potter television play. The script dates back to 1976, having stopped off as a stageplay in 1977, and features a middle aged couple caring for their near-adult daughter after she was severely disabled in an accident. Their lives are turned upside down by Martin Taylor, a con man who worms his way into their house by taking advantage of their fractured marriage and then rapes their daughter before being chased off into the night, after which the daughter has miraculously recovered, only to reveal that she remembers her father cheating on her mother. Sting played Martin Taylor in the film version.
|Figure 459: Sting as Martin Taylor in Brimstone and|
Unlike Ace Face, who went through the world with an archly cool bluster, Martin Taylor is a scheming trickster figure. Sting’s view of the character was that he was the literal Satan, a possibility the film flirts with, although its ending also suggests that he may be an ex-priest of some sort (thus making the film a cousin of “A Kind of Justice,” and, impressively, a far grimmer one). The script is, like much of Dennis Potter’s work, a piece of dark absurdism in the classical, theatrical sense. Potter is fond of including dream sequences and exaggeratedly staged sequences, often with musical accompaniments. In Brimstone and Treacle, most of these sequences focus around Martin Taylor, including a disturbing sequence in which he prays with the wife, who glows beatifically even as Taylor’s prayer is accompanied by stagey flashes of lightning and her daughter screams in increasing terror. This gives Taylor a strange power within the film – he breaks the fourth wall in small, subtle ways, seeming to be aware of the sort of story he’s in even as the people around him remain oblivious.
|Figure 460: The true nature of the|
Newcastle events was finally
revealed by Jamie Delano in Hellblazer
As introduced, John Constantine is a similar trickster figure with a slyly self-aware relationship with the genre in which he appears, arriving in the comic boasting about how he understands who Swamp Thing is better even than he does. Initially, very little is clear about him beyond that he is British, knows a reasonable amount about the supernatural, and is talking to people about some imminent apocalypse. Unlike Martin Taylor, he’s not straightforwardly malevolent – indeed, by the end of his storyline in Swamp Thing he’s been emphatically revealed to be, on balance, a good guy, albeit a ruthless one who will do whatever it takes to stop the dark forces he confronts – throughout his story, there are various comments about some horrific event in Newcastle that left deep scars on Constantine and several other people, and by the end of this arc Constantine’s actions to save the world cost several people their lives and involve cruel betrayals of several more, though not, notably, Swamp Thing himself.
|Figure 461: John Constantine featured |
in a television series premiering in
2014 on NBC.
Whatever pop culture artifacts he emerged out of, however, the creation of John Constantine would prove to be an act with tremendous ramifications. For all that Moore’s brief period working for DC would have tremendous impact on the American comics industry and the world, there are actually precious few enduring characters that Moore created for DC. He sold them V for Vendetta and created Watchmen for them, but these works exist outside the shared universe that makes up the bulk of DC’s publications, and were, at least from Moore’s perspective, creator-owned projects. When working on what Moore understood to be company-owned properties at DC, and indeed in general, Moore preferred to play with the depth of existing concepts, treating company-owned properties as an occasion for textual play. As he put it in the introduction to the first collected edition of his Swamp Thing comics, “the continuity-expert’s nightmare of a thousand different super-powered characters coexisting in the same continuum can, with the application of a sensitive and sympathetic eye, become a rich and fertile mythic background with fascinating archetypal characters hanging around, waiting to be picked like grapes on the vine.” And when in DC’s vineyards, Moore was generally happy to restrict himself to blending what had already been planted. With the exception of John Constantine.
|Figure 462: Kieron Gillen upon finding out that he would|
never get to be a real British Comics Writer.
But what a vine to plant. John Constantine comics have been published essentially continually since Moore’s departure from Swamp Thing, when Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer started up alongside the Rick Veitch era of Swamp Thing. Essentially every significant figure in the War has written the character at one point or another. Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and Warren Ellis all wrote issues of Hellblazer, as have most of the more marginal powers: Garth Ennis and Peter Milligan both have sizable runs, for instance. The only major figure not to have actually written Constantine is Kieron Gillen, who reacted to DC’s 2012 cancellation of Hellblazer by noting that “part of me also thinks ‘you’re not a real British Comics Writer unless you’ve written Hellblazer.’ So that’s me doomed,” [continued]