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Frantic as a cardiograph scratching out the lines, Day 296: The Saga of the Swamp Thing #29

Every day this year, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. This month I will be showing pages that are either scary or are part of “scary” issues (as scary as a comic can be, of course), because it’s October! Today’s page is from The Saga of the Swamp Thing #29, which was published by DC and is cover dated October 1984. This scan is from Swamp Thing: Love and Death, the trade paperback that was published in 1990. This was suggested by our pal Third Man, but I figured it fit nicely in with Scary Comic Month, so I kept it in reserve! Enjoy!

Well, that sucks

Alan Moore and his artists did some nasty work early on in Swamp Thing, but because Moore was redefining the character, he couldn’t really indulge in some of his more twisted stuff. That waited until issue #29 and the new story arc, when Abby and her husband, Matt Cable, moved into a new house. You should never live in houses on the bayou, man! That’s just asking for trouble!

Moore lets us know, on no uncertain terms, that things are not good in Abby’s world. She rips her clothes off, tries and fails to burn them, showers with everything she owns to get rid of the smell, and then she goes to the wire brush … and that didn’t work. This is not a question of Moore creating tension – the horror is right there at the beginning, but what he does is quickly establish that Abby isn’t quite in her right mind – that’s in Panel 2 – so we spend the rest of the page wondering where she’s going with this. Of course, if we take in the entire page before we start reading, we’ve probably already seen the wire brush, but still – Moore is not building tension by withholding what’s going on, he’s building tension by making us wonder how crazy Abby is. The answer: A lot. Moore has always been good at getting at the horror of everyday life, so he compares whatever Abby is smelling to something we think of as relatively innocuous – burning insects with a magnifying glass. I honestly don’t know if I’ve done that – I may have, but I don’t have a memory of it – and I certainly have no idea what a tiny ant smells like when it’s burning, but Moore picks a very good metaphor, because it seems such a small detail that our imaginations take over – what would a burning insect smell like? Plus, given the way this story plays out, putting us in mind of insects is crucial for Moore, and he does it in a modest way that becomes more horrifying as we continue to read. Moore makes sure to make the reader work – we have to consider how long Abby actually scrubs herself with the wire brush. Moore’s prose in this case isn’t quite as effective as Peter David’s “counting every second” prose in The Incredible Hulk (yeah, I went there), but because he emphasizes that Abby scrubbed for twenty minutes, we have to stop and think about how painful that would be. Unsurprisingly, this is a very effective page at getting us into the story and freaking us right the hell out.

Steve Bissette and John Totleben are your artists, and they do their usual stellar job. They don’t show the events happening, they show the aftermath, so we dread actually seeing Abby (which is appropriate, given how she looks). The matchbook in Panel 2 looks like a carcass, again putting us in mind of death, and of course Moore introduces the burning motif in this panel before expanding on it in Panel 4, so Bissette puts the matches right in the foreground, where they can dominate the panel. The smoke curls in from the left and Panel 1 and arcs around the matches, leading to Abby’s panties. I think it’s underwear (note the frilly fringe), which introduces another motif of the book: Sex. The sex in this arc is dangerous, but in a roundabout way, it leads to the “sex” issue, which isn’t dangerous at all. So Bissette and Totleben put the matches, a symbol of destruction, front and center next to the panties, and in Panel 2 of the entire story arc, the title of the arc, “Love and Death,” is implied. I wonder if Moore, Bissette, and Totleben knew what they were doing?

Panel 3 gives us the smashed bottles – it’s weird to see, actually, given that everything these days is plastic – and then Bissette and Totleben pull back to show the entire bathroom. Notice how they do this – Panel 1 is a wide shot, Panel 2 is a close-up, Panel 3 is a close-up, and Panel 4 is a wide shot. This means that they continue the pattern in Panel 5, which is a wide shot – we go from the living room to the bathroom to the kitchen, but then Panel 6, which we expect to be a close-up, remains a wide shot (to a degree). What they emphasize, however, is the wire brush, much like they emphasized the matches and the broken bottles in Panels 2 and 3. So while Abby remains in the middle distance, the brush, which we first see in Panel 5, becomes the focal point. We follow the word balloons down to Abby’s prostrate form and the back, away from the edge of the page, to the brush. Despite the counter-intuitive way of constructing the page (our eyes aren’t moving toward the right edge), it’s still a well designed image. In Panel 5, we see the brush when Moore mentions it, and then we see Abby. Bissette shows her bloody shoulder and her gaping eye, while her laid-out hair points toward the brush, with its berries of blood on its bristles. The fact that it’s not drenched in blood makes what’s there even more terrifying, because the sharpness of the bristles is emphasized by the circles caught on their ends. Tatjana Wood doesn’t make them all red, either – the black helps the red stand out even more, and makes what Abby did to herself even more disturbing. The fact that Abby’s house is fulled with blues and greens and drab oranges makes the red – even if it’s not as bright as it could be – more horrifying. It’s also crucial that there’s not a lot of blood and we don’t see much of Abby. Moore, Bissette, and Totleben understand that less is more in this case. And no, I don’t know what the creators had against John Ostrander and Tim Truman that they would name the brush company after them. I’m sure it was all in fun!

I imagine that the “Chapter Two” banner is not across the original version, and it doesn’t do anything for the presentation of the page. This was back when DC was still unsure how to collect issues, so they were experimenting with some things. Oh well. As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve never upgraded from these trades, but I’m sure I will eventually. No Absolute edition, DC? For shame!

Next: Let’s check out some more Swamp Thing, shall we? I’ve often said this writer’s best work was on Swamp Thing, even though he’s gone on to bigger and better things. So you can check out a tiny part of it tomorrow! Or you could just spend your time swimming through the archives!

6 Comments

Yeah, that’s unsettling. Comic book sex and its ramifications!

Good article yet again!

You are correct in your assumption, Greg. The two differences between the original, and the trade, are the chapter banner, and the lack of a page number.
I don’t know if I mentioned in my comment for your write up of issue #21, but by sheer luck, some of the first comics I owned were Moore issues of Swamp Thing. I had developed an interest in the character from watching a few episodes of the 90′s live-action show. The next trip I made to the comic shop(a lot of my early purchases were made at either the super market or a convinence store) I made certain to check if they had any Swamp thing comics. In one visit, I picked up the first printing of the Dark Genesis trade, along with issues 23-26, 29, and 34. Despite my lack of knowledge, of both character(s) and backstory, not reading the third part of the “fear monkey” story, and my complete lack of understanding what was happening in issue 34, I fell in love. This issue(29) was the one that stood out most of all, in my mind. I was mesmerized. And I don’t mean in a metaphorical sense. I was terrified by the behavior displayed on this page. I mean, the idea that someone would use a wire brush on themself is very hard to process at the age of nine. And then the reveal that, * Almost 30 year old spoiler alert* Matt was possesed by Arcane. Let’s just say between fright and wonder, it was tough trying to sleep that night.
One last thing, I am proud to say that this year, I finally reached my goal, and now own the complete second series, warts and all. Including two copies of both issues 20 and 21.
Sorry about the rambling, but behind Simonsons’ Thor(a handful of issues were also some of the first I owned) , these are my all time favorite stories.

Mike: Thanks!

Terrible-d: You know that I like to ramble, so I have no problem when others do it! I always like reading about how other people create their collection!

Brilliant issue.

Great analysis Greg.

Two points to clarify questions you might have…

Tim Truman was a classmate and friend of Bissette and Totleben at the Joe Kubert School, so my guess is that Bissette & Totleben were eagerly reading the early Grimjack stories around this time, and that’s why Truman & Ostrander get the shout out.

And also (and anyone please correct me if I’m wrong), I don’t believe this story arc was given the name of Love and Death until the first trade paperback version came out, so the creators likely weren’t referencing that over-arching title. However, this issue is called Love and Death (the title is on the double page spread that follows this page), so that may have been an intentional reference.

I really like the angle of the horror that Moore chose for this issue. When thinking about the events that led up to this scene–Abby’s husband is actually dead, and possessed by a demon (she doesn’t know it’s Arcane yet), and all of the people he works with are dead murderers and serial killers seemingly in ghost form–it would seem that lesser writers have plenty of “scary” story angles to go with. But Moore chose none of them. It doesn’t seem to bother Abby that her husband is dead, or possessed, or that she’s in danger. Only that she had sex with him. It brings the horror to a personal and terrifying level, and seems reminiscent of the body-horror stuff David Cronenberg was doing around the same time (Videodrome was released the previous year).

I think Moore’s entire run, beyond the amazing long-form stories like American gothic and this arc, has 6-8 truly amazing single issues that stand out as some of the best individual comics of the 1980s, and this issue is surely one of them. (I would say the Anatomy Lesson, Rite of Spring, Down Amongst the Dead Men, The Curse, A Murder of Crows, Garden of Earthly Delights, and My Blue Heaven all rank up there with this issue.)

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