“Loose Ends”:

Alan Moore’s First Issue of Swamp Thing

Saga of the Swamp Thing #20: “Loose Ends”

Cover date: Jan 1984. Writer: Alan Moore. Penciler: Dan Day. Inker: John Totleben. Colorist: Tatjana Wood. Letterer: John Costanza. Cover: Tom Yeates. Editor: Len Wein.

Alan Moore joined DC Comics during a crucial time for Saga of the Swamp Thing. Steve Bissette and John Totleben had recently joined with issue #16, with Bissette penciling and Totleben inking, although Dan Day provided pencils for this issue to ease deadline problems. The book was suffering from delays generally, and Moore’s speed at writing was a crucial factor in gaining him the Swamp Thing gig. At top speed, he could turn around a script in three days, and he was used to the more rigorous demands of the weekly schedule that was standard working practice in UK comics. The threat of cancellation also hung in the air, so the pressure was on Moore from the start to try and turn around the title’s fortunes.

Moore took over from Martin (Marty) Pasko in the middle of a storyline, so he had to take the necessary step of resolving elements of Pasko’s narrative arc, which is to be expected in a story he entitled “Loose Ends.” He had taken on a similar task previously when he took over Captain Britain for Marvel UK, killing off both Captain Britain and his elfin sidekick Jackdaw early on in his run. He would repeat this act by killing off Swamp Thing.

At the core of this issue is the pursuit of Swamp Thing and his circle of friends: Abby and Matt Cable, who befriended Swamp Thing in the ’70s series (volume 1), are joined in the second volume by Liz Tremayne, a journalist and author of a book about Swamp Thing, and Dr. Dennis Barclay, an employee of DDI (an organization hired to cover up any evidence of Swamp Thing’s existence). DDI was hired by the Sunderland Corporation, which has plagued Swamp Thing since issue #5 of volume 2.

In this issue, General Avery Sunderland and Dwight Wicker of the DDI discuss a solution that has presented itself regarding the problems posed by the Swamp Thing and his companions. They have received intelligence confirming that the whole group is currently in one location. Sunderland’s troops organise a search, while duping the local population into believing that it’s an issue of national security involving UFOs and aliens. This seems to be accepted by the townsfolk; although in a universe where super-heroes exist, this is understandable. Sunderland’s private army destroys Abby and Matt’s home, but the couple witnesses this at a safe distance. The army also blows up the motel room in which Tremayne and Barclay are staying, but they also escape death and begin a life in hiding.[1]

Swamp Thing conforms to the role of victim in this issue, the hunted creature, under attack and subject to persecution, as established in previous stories. Moore’s bold move of apparently killing the main character in his first issue allows for a fresh approach to developing the character, and it would prove important in providing a strong foundation for “The Anatomy Lesson” in #21.

In terms of visual and textual techniques, this issue is very interesting. The full-page image that opens the issue depicts Swamp Thing burning in a fire, with the faces of the supporting cast flickering in the flames.[2] This page acts as a visual summary of the issue by highlighting key elements of the story, specifically the attempted destruction of Swamp Thing and the supporting cast.

Fire and light are important motifs in the issue. Fire, gunfire, and explosions are used in the attempt to destroy Swamp Thing and his companions. The Sunderland Corporation’s soldiers use powerful searchlights to try to locate the group. Barclay and Tremayne’s hotel is called The Moon, which provides an image of illumination and acts as a contrast between day and night. This helps to develop a sense of contrast to prepare readers for the theme of change: the change from the Wein-Wrightson Swamp Thing to the Moore-Bissette-Totleben version, which will occur over future issues of the book.

Other interesting visual motifs are used on the borders of some pages; they enhance the thematic content of this issue even as they stand apart from the actual narrative. The role of alcohol in Matt Cable’s life is underscored by the two drained bottles of Mighty Moose that dominate the top tier of pages 9 and 10. Images of military-style eagles also punctuate the narrative, becoming darker and more visually dominant as the issue progresses, reflecting the success the predator is having at dealing with its prey.

Yet, perhaps the greatest significance this issue has is that it introduces the work of Alan Moore to mainstream American comic book readers. From the opening two pages of this issue, which form a double-page spread, we glimpse what he is capable of. A panoramic scene is broken up into panels through which the characters walk, with each panel depicting a frozen moment of the journey.[3] We also see how Moore’s prose elegantly captures Swamp Thing’s personality. He adopts the technique employed by previous writers on the book, where captions are used to convey Swamp Thing’s inner monologue and thought processes. It’s a technique that Moore uses well, and it shows off his ability to get beneath the skin of a character and write from his or her perspective with total confidence and believability.[4] Moore enables Swamp Thing to realise the mutually defining nature of his relationship with Anton Arcane as it has developed through the history of both series:

You were my opposite. I had my humanity… taken away from me. I’ve been trying to claw it back. You started out human… and threw it all away. You did it deliberately. We defined each other, didn’t we? By understanding you… I came that much closer… to understanding myself. And now… you’re dead. Really dead. And what… am I going to do now?

Moore has identified the fundamental core of this relationship. Swamp Thing’s indecision over who he is and what he should do next also paves the way for Moore’s new direction for the character, which will start in the next issue. It will be built on a strong respect for the original version, which Moore felt had recently become outmoded, outplayed, and stale and belonged to an era of comics that he saw coming to an end. We can see this reflected in this caption, where Swamp Thing continues to think about Arcane and himself:

We’re things of the shadow, you and I… and there isn’t as much shadow… as there used to be. Things like us… can’t survive in the light, Arcane. Maybe the world has run out of room… for monsters…

Moore wants to change the character by reinventing its potential. The old Swamp Thing was a shadow creature, and he is destroyed by fire and light in this issue. A newer incarnation of the Swamp Thing will be born in blood and water in #21.

[1] Both characters reappear much later in the series (issue #54).

[2] This page was not included in Moore’s original script and was an addition by penciler Dan Day.

[3] Similar scenes experimenting with the formal layout of the page and character movement are found in From Hell (when Netley and Gull take their tour of London in chapter four) and in the “mobius strip” scene in Promethea #15.

[4] It’s also a technique that was avoided for V for Vendetta, at artist David Lloyd’s suggestion. Moore was intrigued by the idea of writing without using captions as a creative challenge, and he would repeat the process with Watchmen.

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Andrew writes about comics for Sequart, where he is currently serialising a book on the Moore-Bissette-Totleben-Veitch issues of Swamp Thing. He blogs about comics and other aspects of popular culture here. He holds a BA Hons in English, History and Media Studies, an MA in English Literary Culture (1880-1920), and postgraduate qualifications in teaching and librarianship. He currently works for Glyndwr University in Wrexham, Wales, UK, as an academic study skills tutor and sessional lecturer, where he is also undertaking PhD research into intertextuality in the work of Alan Moore.

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