“Love and Death”:

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Issue #29

Saga of the Swamp Thing #29 “Love and Death”

Cover date: October 1984. Writer: Alan Moore. Artists: Stephen Bissette & John Totleben. Letterer: John Costanza. Colorist: Tatjana Wood. Editor: Karen Berger. 

Abby’s previous appearance (#28) showed her to be happy and more settled than she had been in a very long time. It comes as a shock to see her at the start of this issue: bleeding, hurt, lying curled up on a kitchen floor, and very much the victim of some as-yet-unknown trauma. Moore acts a third-person narrator throughout the issue. He begins by describing how Abby has ripped off and burned her clothes, and how she has washed and scrubbed herself with a wire brush to get rid of the smell that haunts her. These descriptions are extremely unsettling and stark, and this is reinforced by the disarray in the rooms depicted and the angular panel borders.

On the double page spread (pages 2 and 3) Bissette and Totleben depict Abby lying in a foetal position, traumatised, and the effect of this image is startling. It conveys the results of an as-yet unknown traumatic incident. She is awash with blood and Anton Arcane’s image can be perceived on her skin, emphasising the role he will take in this issue. Wood’s colouring brings out the red tone well and adds to the horror. Abby’s fixed eyes stare blankly out at us, and we fear for her and almost dread to learn what has brought her to this prostrate state.

We learn through flashbacks what brought about this state of affairs. Although Abby’s narration labels them as dreams, which is an interesting interpretation with a two-fold meaning. Firstly, they are dreams in that the events seem unreal like dreams, even though they actually occurred in reality. Abby seems to try to dissociate herself from what happened by calling them dreams, but their painful reality is all too apparent to her and to us as readers. Secondly, they are dreams because they lead to a situation and a realisation that can only be described as a nightmare.

Dreams are also very much associated with the idea of wish fulfilment. Abby’s current desire is for a return to stability and normality. First, she clears the air with Swamp Thing, who even now allows her to call him Alec, which helps to resolve her confusion over what to call him, and further indicates Swamp Thing’s ability to empathise with her confusion. Secondly, Matt buying a house and finding a new job both fit the criteria for wish fulfilment: indeed, Abby’s “dreams have come true”. Matt and Abby’s relationship also regains a level of intimacy that has been missing for some time – they sleep together once again.

Abby’s intimacy with Swamp Thing reaches a new level in this issue too. She is able, inexplicably, to observe Swamp Thing’s dream to his dream: a dead bird’s carcass is twitching. We discover on the last page that this is due to bugs inside it, which acts as a metaphor for the horrific revelations regarding Matt Cable, and the return of Anton Arcane, Abby’s uncle and Swamp Thing’s arch nemesis.

This return is built up through a narrative of mounting tension. Abby visits the library and accidentally dislodges a book about Sally Parks, a murderess, and her realisation that Matt’s workmates are reanimated killers (prefigured on page 9 when she has a fleeting vision of their true appearance) acts as an horrific prelude to the realisation that Matt Cable’s body has been occupied by the spirit of Anton Arcane for some time (since the car crash in #27). It is no wonder that Abby refers to these events as a dream, although it is an ultimately ineffective way to dissociate herself from what has happened, especially the sexual encounter that has occurred since Arcane took over Matt’s body.

This is one of the most important issues in the entire run, because it was refused a Comics Code stamp of authority. A brief glance through the issue will identify what first brought the issue to their attention. The depiction of undead characters tugging at Abby in a double-page spread no doubt set alarm bells ringing in the code offices. This prompted an actual reading through of the comic (not something that the code workers normally did), and the incest theme must have set off the equivalent of Defcom 1 at the CCA.

Bissette and Totleben excel themselves with the two page spread on pages 21 and 22: indeed, this image and the spread on pages2 and 3 (see above) are two of the most powerful images in the whole series, and perhaps in the whole of comics. The backdrop depicts the ghostly image of Arcane, composed of blood-like streaks, underscoring the idea that he now dominates Matt Cable’s body. Abby is being held by Cable/Arcane and one of the undead creatures while the other zombie-like characters look on, flesh and rags hanging from their skeletal frames. It’s visceral horror at its best and an illustration of the mastery of the art team of Bissette, Totleben and Wood and a significant push forward for treating the comics medium as an adult one.

DC took the unprecedented step of ignoring the code warning and distributed the book without the CCA seal. The only notable exception was the government sponsored, Marvel produced issues of Amazing Spider-Man, which focused on the evils of drug-taking (#96-98, May-July, 1971). Future issues resumed with the CCA stamp of approval. Furthermore, the company also stopped sending issues of the book for CCA approval. Issue 30 appeared with the CCA stamp because it had already been submitted for approval, and passed, before the rejection of issue 29.

In doing this, DC showed solidarity with the creative team and displayed its faith withthe new, more mature and adult developments that the series had undertaken under Moore’s hand hand. The tagline ‘Sophisticated Suspense’ would run on the cover in place of the code stamp. This would clearly differentiate the title from the more juvenile fare DC produced, and no doubt this created an aura of illicit desirability among younger comic book fans, which echoed the EC comics of the 1950s. It’s surprising that the series did not prompt more of an outcry due to its content, but I think that it was very much under the critical radar of the mainstream press and public, especially in those pre-Watchmen and pre-Dark Knight days of comics when such adult content was rare and hidden from mass public consumption.

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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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