Saga of the Swamp Thing #22: “Swamped”
Cover date: March 1984. Writer: Alan Moore. Artists: Steve Bissette and John Totleben. Colorist: Tatjana Wood. Letterer: Todd Klein. Cover: Tom Yeates. Editor: Len Wein.
Issue #22 opens with Abby and Matt walking through the swamp searching for Swamp Thing. As Abby silently leads the way, Matt complains about the pointlessness of the search. The opening page is broken up into a series of five vertical panels that divide the background scene, which recalls the creative use of panel borders in pages two and three of #20. The swamp bleeds through the borders at the base of the page and helps unify the background. Abby’s figure also “breaks” the borders between the fourth and fifth panels, making her closer physically to the swamp. By breaking away from the confines of the panels, she is literally becoming closer to the swamp and metaphorically closer to the Swamp Thing, as well as becoming more distant from the troubled and pessimistic Matt. This divide between Abby and Matt, her assertions of independence, and her evolving relationship with Swamp Thing will grow and develop in the next few issues, and here we have begun to see evidence of the more prominent role Abby will assume under Moore’s hand.
Abby and Matt find Swamp Thing, whose body has rooted to the ground and is merging with the swamp. It’s barely recognisable. Abby is repulsed and distressed at the sight of an insect in his arm. We can compare Abby’s reaction here to her earlier (and later) acceptance of Swamp Thing. Her revulsion here shows the extent of Swamp Thing’s devolution. In later issues, her acceptance of the new Swamp Thing is shown when she eats a tuber, a concept that repels her when Woodrue suggests it here.
Woodrue’s sudden appearance from behind a tree, in his human disguise, startles them. He explains what has happened to the Swamp Thing (in issue #20). This neatly brings readers up to speed with recent events and enables Woodrue to cast himself in a sympathetic light as a friend and protector of the Swamp Thing. This apparent altruism hides a streak of self interest that will soon become apparent.
Woodrue suggests that Swamp Thing has “given up on being human” (p.5.), but there is a struggle going on inside his mind, while his comatose form continues to dissolve and dissipate. His consciousness is producing dreams that are dramatising aspects of the psychological issues brought about by reading Woodrue’s discoveries in issue #21. It’s a classic-style dream sequence, but its content allows it to stay away from cliché.
The dream sequence opens with a scene depicting Alec and Linda Holland’s wedding reception. Glasses are being raised in a toast to the couple, and the reader will recognise the arms of a number of characters from previous comics: the Patchwork Man from volume 1, issue #3; an alien from volume 1, issue #9; and Batman (who appeared with Swamp Thing in The Brave and the Bold issues #122 and #176). Other characters in this opening scene can be spotted in the next few panels: Anton Arcane and Matt Cable (panel 4); the Floronic Man dances with the Priestess from volume 1, issue #9, while Batman and Sunderland – and possibly Bissette and Totleben – hover in the background (panel 5); the Conclave’s robot, the Clockwork Horror of volume 1, issue #6 (panel 6); Mayor Klockmann from volume 1, issue #6 (panel 7); and General Sunderland, who exhumes Linda’s body in panel 7. Panel 8 depicts a werewolf from volume 1, issue #4, with the Patchwork Man and the Clockwork Horror again.
The effect created is one of a surreal summary of key moments in the Swamp Thing’s life up to that point, and it is an acknowledgement by the new creative team of the importance of what has gone before. Yet it’s also a summation and a goodbye to the previous version of the character and the old stories and a strong indicator that a new direction is being forged for the comic book.
The distance between Matt and Abby that is hinted at on page one of this issue is explored more fully on pages nine and ten. The breakdown of the Cables’ relationship is gaining ground. Abby is returning to the motel, where Matt is also staying, and while there is a detached narrative voice evident on these pages – “She’s going home now.” – the voice subtly adopts Abby’s perspective:
… A woman’s…
A word here, a blurred phrase there… something about honey? Something about… no.
No, she couldn’t have said that.”
Such elliptical comments are more effective because they hold back the content of what is actually said. We are denied the content (probably of a sexual, explicit nature) much like Abby, who is trying to deny the reality of what she has heard. This shift to Abby’s perspective links to the shift in visual perspective: we see Abby when the detached narrative occurs, and we switch to Abby’s visual perspective when Abby’s voice is adopted. It’s a subtle and highly effective device that helps Moore to create a richer narrative context.
Abby perceives Matt’s hallucinations for a moment only, and they disappear in an instant. Swamp Thing is currently deep within his own hallucination. In his dream, he carries Linda Holland until he has to let her go and carry his own skeleton. This represents him trying to cling onto his past and identity, or rather Alec Holland’s past and identity. The skeleton is literally and metaphorically all that he has left of Holland. Finally, all that remains is the skull, which Swamp Thing drowns in his own body. The Holland consciousness is now dead, and a new Swamp Thing will emerge.
Abby can’t accept what is happening to the comatose Swamp Thing – “You are not a damn vegetable!” – but that is exactly what he is. The Swamp Thing realises that he isn’t, and never was, Alec Holland, but Abby will still call him Alec, and Swamp Thing’s reaction to this in upcoming issues will help to establish his new feelings about the Holland consciousness that has supported him until now.
Woodrue ends this issue by trying to get closer to the green, through his experiments with a tuber and a flower taken from Swamp Thing’s body. Here, we begin to see how Woodrue and Swamp Thing complement each other in Moore’s narrative. While Woodrue is trying to lose his humanity and enter the green, Swamp Thing has tried to hold onto his humanity but has now lost it against his will. The events of this issue will prove beneficial for Swamp Thing in the long run; however, they will prove disastrous for Woodrue in the issues that follow.