“The Anatomy Lesson”:

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Issue #21

Saga of the Swamp Thing #21: “The Anatomy Lesson”

Cover date: February 1984. Writer: Alan Moore. Artists: Steve Bissette and John Totleben (co-penciled by Rick Veitch). Colorist: Tatjana Wood. Letterer: John Costanza. Cover: Tom Yeates. Editor: Len Wein.

Issue #21 opens with Dr. Jason Woodrue, more popularly known as the Floronic Man, an old DC villain brought back from obscurity by Alan Moore. Part of the pleasure Moore gains from writing this series is by tapping into the wealth of the DC Universe, cherry-picking both obscure and more popular characters alike to populate the stories in his run on the book. In this issue, Woodrue is reflecting upon recent events, and it’s narrated from his perspective. It’s a relatively sophisticated technique that helps add a layer of depth to Moore’s writing by allowing us to more fully inhabit Woodrue’s thought processes. A framing narrative is set up on the opening and closing pages, and it is emphasised by the repetition in the opening and closing line, “It’s raining in Washington tonight,” and the use of repeated imagery – Woodrue standing at the window, contemplating the events of the narrative. Woodrue’s shift from his human disguise on the opening page to his plant form on the final page occurs off panel, but we are able to witness a much more profound transformation in the Swamp Thing.[1] The opening page also sets the story firmly in the urban landscape of Washington, the embodiment of a man-made antithesis of the natural world where Swamp Thing would be much more at home.

The title logo on page one is directly inspired by the one used for Otto Preminger’s 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder, and the use of faces in the window is also reflected in a poster designed by Saul Bass used to advertise the film. This continues a theme established in issue #20 when there were brief mentions of Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Bissette and Moore are both fans of Roeg, and prior to Moore’s disenchantment with film and Hollywood, it’s conceivable that he would want to draw on references to film as a way to add detail to his work, much in the way an artist will draw on a cultural trope or pop-culture reference to imbue their own work with cultural resonance.

Bissette is also informed by film culture, as he is a working film critic as well as a comics artist and teacher. They were trying to establish comics as a mature, edgy, and artistic medium like film, which had become a valued aesthetic medium during the 20th century.[2] More directly, the use of the imagery of the film emphasises a thematic link between this issue and the film – a discussion and dissection of a murder, be it Swamp Thing’s autopsy or the events of Sunderland’s death at the end of the issue or the detailed examination of the murder in the court case that forms the focus of Preminger’s film.

The opening page is claustrophobic: Woodrue is imprisoned behind a cage of panel borders and glass. Sunderland’s blood streams down its panes and establishes the focus on life and death in this issue. Woodrue’s earliest comments in this issue also set up the importance of water in this issue:

“Plump, warm summer rain that covers the sidewalks with leopard spots.”

“Downstairs, elderly ladies carry their houseplants out to set them on the fire escape, as if they were infirm relatives or boy kings.”

Like blood, water is linked to life, and the water motif here becomes a vital indication of Swamp Thing’s rejuvenation later in the issue, specifically in a number of bottom tier panels where thawing ice leads to the new shoots and sprouts, indicating Swamp Thing’s regrowth. (See the last panels on pages 9, 14, and 15.) Woodrue’s “eureka moment,” when he first realises what the Swamp Thing actually is, also takes place in the shower (page 9). This use of water imagery is a direct contrast to the fire imagery that dominated #20, and while fire brings destruction, water brings growth and life.

Woodrue has been hired by General Sunderland to conduct an autopsy on Swamp Thing’s corpse. We learn in this issue that the Sunderland Corporation had exhumed Linda Holland’s body to assess the effects of the bio-restorative formula on it. But the formula did nothing – it simply lay inert. Realising this, Sunderland arranges Woodrue’s release from prison into his custody and charges him with the task of finding out the true origin and nature of Swamp Thing, a job that Woodrue treats with relish. Moore’s original title for this issue, “On the Disposal of Remains,” would have emphasised the death of Swamp Thing, but “The Anatomy Lesson” is a much better title, as it better reflects Woodrue’s investigative process and his discovery of Swamp Thing’s true nature.

Woodrue’s release from prison by Sunderland is one of a number of references to the idea of imprisonment and being trapped. On the opening page, the windows through which Woodrue gazes suggest the bars of a cage. Shadows trap Woodrue in an echo of film noir (page 6, panel 1), and Swamp Thing spends much of the issue in a deep coma, trapped in both an inert body and a glass, coffin-like structure.

We know that Woodrue’s framing narrative indicates that the plot is being recalled from his memory, and he sows oblique references to the fate of Sunderland and Swamp Thing throughout the issue. This adds to a sense of anticipation and drama, as readers want to know the specific details about what happens to them both and the specifics of how it occurs. Narrative structure is being played with here, because astute readers may have already guessed, from the issue’s cover and opening page alone, that Swamp Thing will be revived and that Sunderland will face danger: Swamp Thing looms over a frightened Sunderland; a blood-soaked Sunderland is trapped behind glass.

The fundamental importance of this issue lies in Woodrue’s discovery that Swamp Thing was never actually Alec Holland but a plant mass that had absorbed elements of Holland’s consciousness. Moore’s masterful revisionist reworking of the origin of the character allowed him to solve what he saw as the key problem with the concept of the book: Swamp Thing’s desire to regain his humanity drove the book and its storylines, but it couldn’t ever be actualised as the book would suffer from the loss of its core dramatic thrust. Moore’s revision takes away this limitation and also provides the possibility of a whole new vista of unrestricted storytelling opportunities.

[1] Woodrue will be used as a contrast to Swamp Thing throughout the early issues of Moore’s run, specifically the relationship of each to notions of being human and being plant creatures.

[2] Moore’s interest in film is evident in his work on an unproduced screenplay for Malcolm McLaren called Fashion Beast, but he is now very dismissive of the genre, at least in its Hollywood incarnation.

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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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1 Comment

  1. This was a great breakdown of Moore’s first take on the Swamp Thing. I love this story and have read it over and over. The planarian worm theory of consciousness transfer through foodstuff was priceless. Your interpretation of the panels and frames from this was very enlightening.

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