Saturday, August 17, 2013

Swamp Thing #21 "The Anatomy Lesson", A game changer

This is my 69th post on my blog, The Great Comic book Heroes. 69 is a special number for me because it was the year I was born, 1969. It seems appropriate that I would post my all time favorite comic, The Saga of the Swamp Thing #21 on this special 69th installment of The Great Comic Book Heroes.

I don’t know if it’s possible to communicate the significance of Swamp Thing #21, "The Anatomy Lesson" adequately to someone who wasn't there. Simply speaking it was a game changer. It changed everything else that came after it. I know what a big statement this sounds like and I can appreciate that some would be incredulous and will disagree but in this post I will try to communicate the significance of it and give some reasons for this boastful statement.

I'm sure many creators at the time didn't recognize it's greatness or tried to ignore it but the whole thing about Swamp Thing #21 is that either you admitted it’s greatness and you tried to incorporate it into your work or  your work gradually became more and more obsolete.
X-Men # 1 (vol 2) by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee is still the best-selling comic book of all-time with sales of over 8. 1 million copies.
For example Chris Claremont was the biggest selling author at the time. Everything he created was golden; financially. He had the numbers but creatively, his work became more and more obsolete with each passing year. His work continually edged closer to formulaic and even hack work. When you think about each creator’s legacy, Claremont was the father of the Image style from which sprang, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, which was hugely popular at the time but these days many people are ashamed to admit that they liked this over-the-top hackneyed work. On the other hand Moore was the father of Vertigo from which Niel Gaiman and his Sandman and the Endless sprang.

Frank Quietly's version of the Endless
as well as Grant Morrison and his Animal Man sprang and though some great writers take cheap shots at Moore and don't like to admit it he is still heavily influencing many of the best writers today. So – yeah – Moore is a giant in the history of comics.

I say issue #21 of Swamp Thing as being the game changer rather than, say, Moore’s much more heavily touted Watchmen mini series because it was the seed for all of Moore’s work that came out that decade, all the way to his last work for DC, The Killing Joke. One of the strongest aspects of Moore’s 80’s work is it’s structure. He loved structure and would play with different forms in almost every work that he did. In Watchmen #1 we see the happy-face with the red splotch in the first shot of the story and in the very last shot of the book.
In opening shots of the Killing Joke we see the rain and see it again in the closing shots.

This symmetry can also be seen in Swamp Thing #21, Moore’s very first comic written for the American market (well actually the second but issue #20 was a wrap-up of what previously went on in the series. You can see issue #21 as the first issue that is really pure Moore).

On the very first page the Lines, "It's raining in Washington tonight", will be repeated as the very last lines of the book. We also see Woodrue's face in the panes of glass in each page. This is Moore's symmetry at work.
On the final page we see a very similar scene to the first page with Woodrue's face in the panes of glass and repeating the same words as on that first page. With this symmetry Moore keeps the reader on his toes bringing greater meaning to simple images and words.
The very first lines written in the comic are, “It’s raining in Washington tonight” These same lines will be repeated as the last lines of the book.

On the first page Moore has Woodrue, the Floronic Man in his apartment wondering if, “there will be blood?” And again on the second to the last page he will ask this again. This scene and these words frame the whole of the story that happens in between. It’s these framing sequences and symmetry that will become his trademark for all of his most popular works of the 80's. Moore himself commented on how he became a kind of parody of himself at this time, continually going back to the same bag of tricks and is one of the reasons that he went off in such a radically different direction with his subsequent works like From Hell.

Moore starts off the comic with Woodrue imagining what is happening in a building across town.
“I’m thinking of an old man.
He’ll be pounding on the glass right about now.
Or maybe not now.
Maybe in a while.
But he’ll be pounding, and…
And will there be blood? I like to imagine so. Yes I rather think there will be blood.
Lots of blood.
Blood in extraordinary quantities.”
Moore immediately hooks us in with this incredibly visceral and maniacal scene and his awesome use of the English language. There is a tension so great it is palpable. It whisks you along to the next page and the page after.

Moore grabs you by the cojones and just when you think you understand what’s going on Moore goes and completely turns things on their head.  With this one story he actually re-writes the Swamp Thing’s origin, and in a believable way that doesn’t disrupt or discount anything that had come before.

The reveal is such an obvious one that you almost feels like this was planed from the very start though you know this is not possible. This rewriting of origins that Moore did here was so popular that it actually became a thing at DC in the late 80’s and the early 90’s and produced some of the most significant comics of that time or maybe even any time. Gaiman updated the Sandman in an extremely successful run that had unprecedented publicity and financial success; Grant Morrison updated Animalman in a highly touted series; James Robinson updated Starman in a very popular series; J. M DeMattis updated Dr. fate and countless others took lesser characters from DC’s history and updated them. All this because Moore’s first Swamp Thing issue was THAT good.

And of coarse we shouldn’t forget the great achievements in the artwork. Though not nearly as influential as Moore’s contribution, the artwork by Steven Bissette and John Totleben for Swamp Thing #21 is stunning work. In an environment of mass produced, “cookie cutter” art work, Bissette and Totleben have produced a highly original, highly detailed and innovative work. Bissette, not liking the standard 2 x 6 grid of the average comic page, breaks them up into all kinds of strange and interesting shapes. 

Swamp Thing Annual #2, page 20. Pencils by Steven Bissette

Totleben's Dore-like inks for page 20 of  Swamp Thing annual #2.
And Totleben manages some of the most impressive inking I’ve ever seen in comics. Out of Bissette’s wild rough pencils, he creates this kind of Dore/etching style of art that is highly detailed and realistic. The effect is not something that has ever appeared a mainstream comic before.

On page 15 we can see the stunning realism that Totleben brings to Bissette's quirky panel layouts.
On page 19 Bissette creates a lot of tension with his layout and dynamic figure work

On page 20 Bissette has the panels fall around the page like the broken glass of the door tinkling to the ground, mimicking Sunderland's state of stark terror as a crazed Swamp Thing chases him down.
On page 22 the panels begin to settle as the shattered glass settles on the floor and Sunderland's life wanes from his body. Here you can also see the lines, "and will there be blood?" in the fourth panel repeated from the very first page.
Swamp Thing #21 is an amazing work in many respects. It is structurally significant, bringing new way of viewing writing for comics in it's sophistication that hadn’t previously been there and one that Moore used to great success in the coming years; It was an emotionally charged and tense issue that heralded a new “dark age” in comics; And it rewrote the origin of an established DC character, updating it and “maturing” it for a more discerning and intelligent readership. It basically heralded the coming of a new age in comics though stating it like this diminishes the immensity of this work.

I imagine it's like the joke that you don't get, "If you have to explain it, it's not funny." 


  1. Awesome post. Although I think the Zarathustra bit in Miracleman/Marvelman #1 was the moment things changed - but admittedly that didn't appear in the US for years, and British culture has always had limited influence here. :-)

  2. Ridolph, That's totally a valid point of view. Moore's brilliant writing really began with Warrior Magazine #1 and his Marvelman and V For Vendetta strips. This is where he cranked up his writing and really started to change the way comics were written. I guess I really wanted to feature this issue because I think it's brilliant and worthy of all the attention it gets. It's also his first American work. Thanks for your input.