Frantic as a cardiograph scratching out the lines, Day 275: The Saga of the Swamp Thing #21
Every day this year, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. This month (for a while) I will be showing pages chosen by you, the readers. Today’s page is from The Saga of the Swamp Thing #21, a page you may have read before, which was published by DC and is cover dated February 1984. This scan is from Saga of the Swamp Thing, the trade that was published in 1987 (yes, I own the original trade and have never upgraded). This page was suggested by noted commenter Third Man, the world’s biggest Joseph Cotten fan! Enjoy!
I don’t really know what to say about this page. It’s superb, and signaled that this Alan Moore dude was something special. Looking back on it from a distance of almost 30 years, we can still see that Moore, Steve Bissette, and Rick Veitch (they’re listed as co-pencillers) really know what they’re doing. Many writers have tried to match this kind of tone, and many have failed. So sad!
The second phrase is wonderful: “Plump, warm summer rain that covers the sidewalk with leopard spots.” It’s a superb metaphor, and the best thing about it, perhaps, is that it’s not overbearing. Moore does tend to go on, but he knows how to turn his metaphors quickly so that nothing gets belabored. Many other writers strain for metaphors and devolve into cliché, but Moore is able to come up with clever ones that make perfect sense and don’t drag out. He’s setting a nice scene here, with the rain and the “elderly ladies” putting out their plants, which not only ties into Jason Woodrue’s narration but the overall theme of the arc. It’s a subtle thing, but Moore is laying the groundwork for Woodrue as “king,” and Moore introduces it nicely here. Then Moore lets us know that this is at the end of the story, and that Woodrue is not a nice guy. Long-time readers would know that Jason Woodrue is a villain, but many readers – this one included – had no idea who he was. So when he starts musing about “the old man,” we might not know where he’s going with it, and then he starts thinking about the blood. This is where it gets scary, because he likes to imagine that there will be “blood in extraordinary quantities.” Moore builds the tension very nicely, and when he moves past the metaphors, he shows how good he is at creating a sense of horror. Woodrue is imagining all of this, so Moore doesn’t pin anything down – Woodrue is fairly sure that “the old man” will be pounding on the glass, but he’s not sure if it’s actually happening. Usually, we’d actually see the events happening in a flashback, but Moore twists this well, as the sense of uncertainty helps create this creeping sense of terror.
I’m going to write “Bissette” even though I’m not sure if he drew this or not (Veitch could have, I suppose), so everyone can just deal with it. Bissette lays this page out wonderfully, with the left side panels crowding the eye down to the bottom narrative box, and the right panel borders leading us back up to the second column of panels. Of course, Moore tells us where we are, but Bissette adds the Capitol building just for the fun of it in Panel 1. In Panel 3, we see that strange pod behind Woodrue, hinting that he’s some kind of unusual person, not just your garden-variety (see what I did there?) bad guy. The right side of the page is beautiful, as Bissette switches the point of view so we’re looking in at Woodrue, and his face is blurred by the rainy windows. Woodrue’s blurred face is well done, because Bissette suggests that it’s his face itself that drips, not the windows. As we already know it’s raining, we’re more suggestible to the idea of the water blurring his face, but because Woodrue is a rather odd villain, by the end of the issue, we can re-assess this page and realize that Bissette is foreshadowing his “condition.” Meanwhile, the window panes form panels that enclose “the old man,” and the reader recognizes that those panels are Woodrue’s thoughts “brought to life,” so to speak. It’s a very good technique that doesn’t use thought balloons or even a separate “flashback” section. Note also that the blood in the second “old man” panel doesn’t appear to be coming from his hands pounding the glass. Woodrue simply notes that he hopes there will be blood. At this point, we don’t know why there would be blood, and Bissette suggests it’s from an outside agent, not just from “the old man” trying to break the glass. Of course, we learn as we go along why there’s blood, but Bissette and Moore both suggest it’s not necessarily from what we think.
Tatjana Wood colored this book, and it’s wonderful as well. She uses blues heavily on the page, both because the situation calls for it and also because it helps the red stand out very well. The red wine balances the second column of panels, and of course the blood quickly collecting on the window is horrific, but Wood makes sure to give Woodrue red eyes to link him to the violence, because, as we’ve noted, he’s not a nice person. Wood’s colors throughout this trade are marvelous, and this page gives us an indication of how well she does her work.
Of course, the bottom of the page is part of the layout, and we see the title of the story done in a homage to Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. It’s one of those clever things that doesn’t add too much to the overall story, but which shows that the creators pay attention to little things. As “The Anatomy Lesson” is as much about a retcon of Swamp Thing’s origin as it is about a murder, Moore and Bissette’s homage to the movie is quite neat.
There’s a reason why this issue and this run are so well regarded. This first page is just one of them, as it shows creators working at the top of their game from the very beginning (yes, I know this isn’t Moore’s first issue on the title, but it’s the first one where he could impose his will on the book). If you haven’t read this issue yet, I suggest you get on it. It’s that good.
Next: Another suggestion from a reader, this one going waaaaaay back! Will a certain vibrator show up on this page? Only time will tell! In the meantime, surf through the archives for more fine comics publications!