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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!

Yup

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!

25 Comments

And the people said, “Amen.

Excellent first page, and excellent analysis. But don’t forget about John Totleben!

Roman: I don’t know how much influence Totleben, as inker, had on the page. I think I’ve gotten better at writing about penciling and coloring, but I’m still not great about writing about inking unless it’s really obvious.

Very nice write-up, Greg, and exciting to see this as the first page of the month.

My only gripe would be that you didn’t mention inker John Totleben, who I think is just as important to the look of the page as Bissette or Veitch, and maybe even more so. While the penciler of the book (usually Bissette, sometimes Veitch) was most likely responsible for the layouts and the visual storytelling (I say most likely because who knows how much Moore was pinpointing that stuff), I think Totleben was the person most responsible for the actual line work. Specifically on this page, the look of the rain and the dripping effect of Woodrue’s features is almost definitely Totleben. Similar to how when Bill Sienkiewicz inks someone, the art inevitably looks more like Sienkiewicz than whoever the penciler was, Totleben’s line work has that controlling effect as well. In a good way.

I’m happy you mentioned Tatjana Wood, as I think she was a bit of an unsung hero on this run. I truly hope this run never gets reprinted with new coloring, as it would be ruined. Wood’s coloring, especially on the famous “Rite of Spring” issue (#34) is just stunning.

A few questions I’ve always had:

1. Does anyone know how much Moore did or didn’t specify what page layouts should be on this Swamp Thing run? I know in some of his work, he would even give artists thumbnail sketches of what the page should look like… does anyone know if that was the case on Swamp Thing? Or is the visual storytelling entirely a credit to the artists?

2. I’m not exactly up on my Sunday School homework… is the phrase “there will be blood” from the bible? Is it from other notable literary works? Where had it appeared before here? Is it at all possible that the PT Anderson film took its title from this page? That may seem unlikely, but this isn’t just a random page from a random comic, it’s probably the most famous page from one of the most notable comics ever.

And yes, as much as it’s possible to measure these things, I would argue that this issue is the most important single comic of the post-Bronze Age. Vertigo, mature reader comics, British writers working for the Big 2, the overabundance of retcons, the perception of comics as literature… it could certainly be construed that all of those things began here in one way or another. And even though Moore had already written 3 minor masterpieces by this point (Miracleman, Captain Britain, V For Vendetta), this was really his coming out party; Like the comics equivalent of The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show–which, by the way, was almost 20 years to the day earlier.

A perfect issue.

Third Man: Not mentioning Totleben is my bad, I agree. The problem is that the credits for the trade are on the first page, but there’s an introduction and other credits, and then, facing this page in the trade, there are EXTRA credits, because it lists people like Veitch as co-penciller and Wood as the colorist (the first page simply lists Moore, Bissette, and Totleben). So I got a bit confused as to who was working on this page. Given Totleben’s work on Miracleman, I should have written more about his inking here. But, to be honest, Bissette’s pencil work WITHOUT Totleben inking him looks very similar to his work WITH Totleben inking him, so I really was unsure how much influence Totleben had. But yeah, based on what I knew of Totleben’s actual pencil work, I should have written about him more, especially, as you note, with the dripping effect.

I don’t know about how Moore broke down the page. Tim Callahan would, if he ever read the blog anymore!

I can’t find where the phrase “there will be blood” comes from. Maybe it just sounds cool!

“There will be blood” is from Exodus 7:19, though like every Biblical quote it tends to vary widely among translations.

Honestly though, “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” is one of the most cringeworthy captions Moore ever wrote. Never liked it. If anyone reading this is familiar with the work of Garth Marenghi, here Alan Moore easily approached his mastery of the oversold zinger.

"O" the Humanatee!

October 1, 2012 at 2:35 pm

At last! This is what I’ve had in mind when bugging you to feature Moore/Bissette/Totleben. What a lesson in doing a first page that is very far from a simple splash. Couldn’t agree more with Third Man’s assertion that “this issue is the most important single comic of the post-Bronze Age. Vertigo, mature reader comics, British writers working for the Big 2, the overabundance of retcons, the perception of comics as literature… it could certainly be construed that all of those things began here in one way or another.” (On the other hand, I disagree pretty strongly with your statement “Bissette’s pencil work WITHOUT Totleben inking him looks very similar to his work WITH Totleben inking him.” Totleben has a very distinctive inking style that looks almost like woodcut; neither Bissette nor most other inkers have anything like it.)

I’m always sad to see how Moore has essentially given up on the caption-heavy style he used in this era in favor of a more purely dialogue-based style. One of the very first things I noticed – and loved – about his work was how unlike most comics captions of the time, his truly complemented the pictures, providing information that wasn’t in them and often couldn’t be (like descriptions of smells); moreover, the captions actually had literary style (as in your description of his metaphors). He was so damn good at it, I don’t know why he stopped.

I’m not sure one can say, “Bissette add[ed] the Capitol building just for the fun of it.” Moore is notorious for producing incredibly detailed scripts, though it’s also my understanding that he gives artists a fair deal of freedom to deviate from them. I have the impression that his work on Swamp Thing was especially collaborative.

I never realized that about the “Anatomy of a Murder” connection, but it’s so obvious once you point it out!

“O”: I will bow to your expertise regarding Bissette’s pencils. When I first got these trades and the other stuff the two collaborated on, I certainly didn’t pay too much attention to the styles, and since I’ve been more interested in the process of comics creation, I haven’t gone back and studied them too much. I’m going by memory, which of course probably betrays me. So I will accept your disagreement with my statement – I’m sure you’re right!

Yeah, I’m sure Moore probably told Bissette to include the Capitol, but because it’s unnecessary (I think, unless Moore was trying to wedge in some symbolism), I said it was for fun. So if Moore put it in the script, I’ll amend the statement to read “Moore added it for fun”!

Tom Fitzpatrick

October 1, 2012 at 3:16 pm

You really should invest in the recent hard covers (or some of the soft covers recently reprinted).
I’m sure all the info as to which artists does which would be more accurately detailed, eh? ;-)

Too true, Tom!

Thanks for this feature! Moore/Bisette’s Swamp Thing was pure gold. Too bad that Bisette never drew much outside this book.

The Capitol building is indeed Moore indulging in some symbolism, but it’s symbolism that fits the preceding writer’s storyline (and the basis of this one) rather well. The firm that hires Woodrue in this story had, in Marty Pasko’s run, been using a black ops government agency called the DDI as its muscle. Even in this issue, it’s strongly implied that the DDI had Woodrue sprung from supervillain jail to help them out on their Swamp Thing project.

The implication, then, is that Woodrue’s apartment looks out onto the Capitol dome because it’s a Sutherland/DDI-provided apartment. The image becomes ironic not only because Woodrue, a member of groups that call themselves things like “the Secret Society of Super-Villains,” is that close to the U.S. Capitol because he is useful, but also because Woodrue will soon come to represent a radically opposed, arguably much higher power than the one he is here gazing on with spite and envy.

Omar: Good point about the DDI. It wasn’t much of a factor in Moore’s writing, so I forgot about it, thinking more about the Sunderland (I always screw up and call it Sutherland, like you did) Corp. and its connection to Woodrue. But that’s probably (definitely?) what Moore was doing here.

For an example of how important Totleben’s inks were to the end product, take a look at Bissette’s blog post where he compares the pencils of Dan Day to Totleben’s inked pages in SotST # 20 http://srbissette.com/?p=3602

jccalhoun: Thanks, sir. That’s very cool. I’ll have to go read that whole thing, because it looks neat (I just looked at the artwork right now, because I have things to do!).

Tom Fitzpatrick

October 1, 2012 at 7:17 pm

If MARVEL doesn’t want your money, Mr. Burgas, DC sure as hell does! ;-)

You learn something new every day. I never noticed the Anatomy of a Murder reference before, though it’s fairly obvious once someone points it out to you.

I think O liking Totleben’s inks to a woodcut is pitch perfect. When I was a (considerably) younger man I never gave much thought to who inked a particular book. Issue 23 of Saga was the first time I was really struck by the atmosphere a true talent could add with their finishes.
Forget the bronze age. This is one of the best single issues ever.

On a side note, Greg, I’ve noticed a lot of people complaing about newer prinitngs of these tpbs leaving out the final caption from issue 24. I belive the trade I own is a third printing, and even then the last line of the story was omitted. Does your copy have this mistake?

I was noting the amount of text on the page, when claremont uses that amount of text he gets called about it…but this is also paced better, it’s not a splash page but one that is meant to be read slowly.

Also it is appreciated that despite unusual page layout it is still very easy to read, there’s no mistaking about the order of boxes while panels can be appreciated as a group.

Omar Karindu, have you seen the Moore script?

By the way, I never liked the way they removed the credits from the “Anatomy of a Murder” cadaver at the bottom of the page when they made the graphic novel. In the early Moore Swamp Things, Moore, Bissette, and Totlebaum would cleverly work the credits into the art on the splash pages, so the credits were part of the art. Since this was one of the first collections to be made into a graphic novel, I guess the suits at DC felt it best to get rid of all the credits on the splash pages and make it like a book with the credits at the beginning.. It was a stupid decision, and they don’t do that with graphic novel collections anymore. I wonder if they fixed this with the new graphic novels. I know that they accidently left out captions in the deluxe version.

Here is a scan of the original comic. You can see the “Anatomy of a Murder” cadaver was used as a clever way to show the credits: http://sequart.org/magazine/11990/%E2%80%9Cthe-anatomy-lesson%E2%80%9D-alan-moores-swamp-thing-issue-21/

By the way, I enjoyed your article, and I never realized the cadaver was a homage to Anatomy of Murder.

Terrible-d: No, the final image of issue #24 doesn’t have the caption. I never knew about it until years later, when it became an issue on the Internet. Very odd that they edited it out.

Joe: See, there’s Totleben’s name! Of course, they added Veitch’s name as co-penciler in the trade, so who knows what’s going on with this issue!

Just posted this link to Steve Bissette’s FB page. His response:

“Page 1 was my baby; I’ll be scanning/sharing a bunch about the ST art on MYRANT all through October, among other serialized essays. Time to spell out what Rick did, what I did, and what we all did, with visual evidence of who did what along the way!”

Thanks, Dave. I’ll be sure to check it out.

Awesome, Dave!

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