“The Burial”:

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Issue #28

Saga of the Swamp Thing #28 “The Burial”

Cover date: September 1984. Writer: Alan Moore. Artist: Shawn McManus. Letterer: John Costanza. Colorist: Tatjana Wood. Cover: Steve Bissette and John Totleben. Editor: Karen Berger.

There is a change of pace in this issue as the drama, conflict, and tension of the ‘Demon’ issues is replaced by an eerie, contemplative one-issue story. It is no less horrific for this though. We really begin to delve into the current state of Swamp Thing’s psyche in this issue, and see the true effect of Woodrue’s revelations in #20.

The issue also marks the first occasion in this run where a guest artist is used, the wonderful Shawn McManus. Bissette has gone on record with his admission that it often took him five weeks to pencil a full issue, which had obvious implications for a book on a monthly schedule. In addition, the team were gearing up for the run of issues from #29 to annual 2.  This was complicated by Karen Berger’s editorial decision to delay part one of the Nukeface Papers (originally due to appear in #29) in order to capitalise on the horror, as she felt the pace would slow too much if the Nukeface Papers were to appear at this point. Allocating #28 to Shaun McManus allowed Bissette and Totleben time to complete story for #29, written by Moore in about a day and a half (Many thanks to Stephen Bissette for clarifying these reasons for me).  It’s a testament to the talent and professionalism of the team that they created the amazing ‘Love and Death’ at such short notice, but I’ll discuss that issue in more detail later.

The issue begins with an image of a hole in the ground. We have to adopt Swamp Thing’s own visual perspective. We watch his hands claw away at the earth, as we would our own. Yet we are soon put at a distance from him. The perspective we are now forced to adopt is located just behind him, and the artist gradually pulls us back away from him. Swamp Thing’s isolation from humanity is strongly underscored by the final panel on the page: we see him hunched over in the distance. The rain, and the repetitive ‘plut’, emphasise the sadness and monotonous feel of the scene. We cannot feel his pain, but merely look on in sympathy.

A close-up on Swamp Thing scooping away the earth opens the second page. He is sadly absorbed in his task, as we can see from his facial expression. As readers, we want to know why he is digging a grave, and a series of flashbacks establishes the reason for this. McManus indicates each flashback sequence with a visual marker in the form of wavy, double-lined panel borders. These anchor the division between the narrative past and the present, indicated by conventional, straight-edged, one-lined panel borders.

The first flashback leads to a switch in tone. Abby and Swamp Thing are relaxing near a lake. She tells him that her life has improved. Matt has stopped drinking and is searching for a new home for them. Elysium Lawns has settled back down to normality. Abby notices that Swamp thing has changed colour. He tells her that he is now in touch with seasons, and so his continued evolution and move towards self-acceptance is suggested in this colour change.

This happy scene cannot last. Swamp Thing is shocked to see an apparition of a man standing in the distance. Abby is oblivious to this, although she notices Swamp Thing’s shocked expression. She calls out “Alec” to check that he is ok. His reaction is strong – “Don’t… keep… calling me… Alec!” Despite being in tune with the seasons, it’s obvious that Swamp Thing is still struggling to dissociate himself from the Holland identity. It must act like a taunt, as the potential to become human again has been ripped from him, and being called Alec must act as a reminder of what he has lost. The fact that the apparition he sees is of Alec Holland increases his stress even more.

He tries to follow the vision, unsure if it is a ghost[1], an apparition, or simply a delusion. He tries to convince himself that it isn’t real, that it isn’t Holland. He also remains fixated on the fact that he isn’t Holland either. But his link to the Holland identity remains strong, and he has not been able to fully accept his true nature and origin. When he asserts that he “will… not… be haunted… by myself” we know that at some core psychological level he still feels that he is Alec Holland. The ghost of his memories cannot be shaken off so easily.

Swamp Thing follows Holland’s ghost. He is led to the scene of Holland’s murder, where he and Linda spent their last days together. He relives a tender moment with Linda and re-experiences the explosion that killed the Hollands. It’s a tortuous experience, but one that Swamp Thing has to endure. It seems as if he is becoming dissociated from what happened: he isn’t viewing it from Holland’s perspective, but is a spectator who tries to intervene. But these are only the echoes of a past tragedy, intangible phantoms replaying, and so Swamp Thing’s efforts to stop the explosion and save Holland are ineffectual and ultimately pointless.

Swamp Thing has never seemed so far away from the Holland identity. The scene emphasises that Holland and Swamp Thing are separate entities, and it underscores the fact that Moore’s Swamp Thing is now fundamentally different to the Wein and Wrightson original. This difference is given full expression when both versions of the character encounter each other: the Wein-Wrightson Swamp Thing directs the new version to the lake where Holland’s remains lie. The muscular, sleek, mute original Swamp Thing is directly juxtaposed with the shaggy, mossy, vocal Moore/Bissette/Totleben vision, and we see how far the character has changed.

Swamp Thing’s burial of Holland’s skeleton is another decisive moment in the character’s acceptance of his new form and new identity. Moore’s handling of this shift in identity is handled masterfully in these opening issues. A lesser writer would have merely allowed the shift to occur in #21 and then launched into new adventures with the new-style Swamp Thing. By allowing the character to struggle with an identity crisis, Moore creates a much more believable character. Such resonant and satisfying character development is a large part of what makes these early issues work so well.

[1] Annual #2 confirms that the apparition of Holland encountered in this issue is Holland’s ghost.

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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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