“The Nukeface Papers”:

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing Issues #35 and #36

Swamp Thing #35 “The Nukeface Papers Part One”

Cover date: April 1985. Writer: Alan Moore. Artists: Stephen Bissette and John Totleben. Editor: Karen Berger. Colorist: Tatjana Wood. Letterer: John Costanza.

The issue opens with a one page spread which acts as a subtle bridge from the previous issue to this one: Abby sleeps while Swamp Thing sits at her side, a post-coital moment following the intense psychedelic communion in the last issue. Moore’s talent for evocative description is evident here too: “He watches the sheet of newsprint flap like huge moths, crippled by their own weight, hopping clumsily amongst the black trees.” It’s a beautiful, effective image, one which combines the industrial world of newspapers with the natural world embodied by the moths. It is a tension which foreshadows the theme that dominates these two issues: the pollution of the environment.

The newspapers that punctuate panels throughout both issues contain real extracts from stories collected by Bissette from his local newspapers during the time he was working on these issues. They help to extend the concerns of the series in that wider concerns of the world are beginning to impinge themselves on the protagonists, who have largely been metaphorically and literally rooted in the swamp. In addition, this growing concern with the world beyond the swamp subliminally sets up the horror road trip of the ‘American Gothic’ storyline (starting with #37).

There are references to this wider world, namely “a world he no longer belongs too” and “the world beyond”, which reflects the industrial, urban society and, in a sense, the conventional society which he and Abby will have problems with in later issues. They are safe in their “own damp cosmos” at the start of this issue, but this state is under threat from new villain, Nukeface, a twisted take on the super villain who isn’t really super and isn’t a villain. An original creation of John Totleben’s, he is a victim of circumstance who has been affected by his experience in a profound way. His psychosis is born of the radiation which is eating away at him. He should be dead, but like radioactive half-life he seems indestructible. He encounters another character, Bob, who dies as a direct result of being with Nukeface, which suggests that Nukeface does not function on the level of a normal character affected by radiation. He becomes an embodiment of an ideal: the ever-present threat of pollution and environmental damage, one which has now invaded the insular world of the swamp, and come to the attention of the Swamp Thing.

Nukeface has travelled from Blossomville, a town where Nuclear waste was dumped, to Louisiana, in search of the waste which both sustains him and erodes him. The potency of the damage to the environment alerts Swamp Thing, who resolves to deal with the situation. He proves ineffective, as Nukeface’s merest touch damages Swamp Thing, a strong metaphor for the environmental pollution that is the theme of this issue.

Meanwhile, Wallace Monroe is troubled by the damaged caused by the company that he works for, and the reputation of Nukeface, and he is sent from Blossomville to Louisiana to oversee the waste disposal. Wallace is a man caught between the requirements of his work and moral obligations. His situation is not an easy one, and it will get worse in the next issue. It would be easy to read into this issue a concern over the morality of working for corporations whose ethical considerations lie low on their agenda. While it contains an overt criticism of corporate polluters it may be also act as a veiled metaphor of working for a corporate comics company. Then again, this may be reading too much into the issue with the benefit of hindsight as Moore was happy to work for DC in the early days. However, he was also a vocal supporter of creator rights and spoke up for Jack Kirby during his fight to obtain his original artwork, so he was aware of questionable business practices in the industry. In any case, this issue shows an early concern with corporate misdealing and politics and is an interesting glimpse into Moore’s political psyche at this time.

Swamp Thing #36 “The Nukeface Papers – Part 2”

Author: Alan Moore. Artists: Stephen Bissette and John Totleben. Editor: Karen Berger. Colorist: Tatjana Wood. Letter: John Costanza.

Nukeface’s touch in the last issue has had a catastrophic effect on Swamp Thing.  His body is swiftly decaying and is stuck inside his own “rotting prison”.  He recalls that his consciousness is not actually located in his brain and he formulates a plan: he will let his body die and attempt to regrow a new one.  He says goodbye to Abby, as the threat that he may not be successful in this regrowth attempt looms over the scene.  Even so, it’s hinted that Swamp Thing is even more powerful than we realise are evident in this issue.  Along with the possibility that he can attempt a mass regrowth of his own body is the fact that a psychic link can be forged with Abby: he reaches out to her at Elysium Lawns and she briefly sees him in a vision and is compelled to rush to him.  The implications of these suggestions of greater power will play out over the remaining issues in Moore’s run, when we learn what Swamp Thing is truly capable of.

A narratively complex method is used in this issue, as the reader has to piece together an account of the events from the partial narrative perspectives of each of the characters[1].  This ensures that the reader has to apply a conscious effort to assembling the story and this serves to engage them with the story on deeper level by forcing a reader’s involvement.  We begin with Officer Bernhardt searching for and finding Bob, and shows Wallace reporting Treasure missing.  The next scene depicts Wallace finding treasure, and then recalling the events that preceded this.  The scenes which follow repeat this pattern: a one page vignette followed by a four page scene, creating a rhythmical structure.  From this, the reader builds up an understanding of the whole sequence of events gradually through fragmented accounts.  Mrs Morel laments her decision to throw Bob out, while Treasure’s account of her encounter with Nukeface underscores the tragic realisation that sdhe and her unborn child are now contaminated; even Wallace flees from her in a heart-breaking scene.  Billy Hatcher’s one page account caps the events recounted here, while Abby’s four page scene shows how she finds Swamp Thing and watches him expire as a result of his contact with Nukeface.

There is a strong theme of degeneration throughout this story, specifically seen in the  human degeneration embodied in Nukeface and the natural degeneration in Swamp Thing.  This also extends to a sense of moral degeneration on the part of the companies, whose disposal of the waste has ultimately set these events in motion.  Here, companies that dump waste are insensitive to the damage inflicted on the environment by their actions.  This theme of ecological disaster is prescient, in that there were very little works dealing with such topics at the time this issue was originally published, especially in comics.

Moore skill here is in bringing the horror of pollution down to an affecting human level.  He creates a touching microcosm of the issues that humanises and specifies the dangers that humanity brings upon itself and the planet.  When the issue ends with Nukeface leaving town, shouting “Heads up America… Here I come!”, which neatly encapsulates the spreading threat of pollution.  It is a growing problem with no easy solutions, and Moore recognises this.  The incorporation of such important environmental issues in a comic book had rarely been done, at least in mainstream comics.  This two part story shows a socially conscious Moore using comics to explore important, thought-provoking issues: for example, Wallace is ultimately a representative of business in this issue, but his expected role is subverted and he and Treasure become tragic victims, showing that moral distinctions are difficult to make.

Finally, the journey that Nukeface continues at the end of this issue foreshadows the journey that Swamp Thing himself will take, starting next issue.  His tour director will be the inimitable John Constantine, who will direct him on a journey through America, during which he will encounter new twists on horror tropes and allusions to contemporary social concerns in the acclaimed ‘American Gothic’ cycle of stories.

[1] A similar technique is used by Quentin Tarantino in some of his films.

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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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