“Fish Story” and “The Curse”:

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing Issues #39 and #40

Swamp Thing #39 “Fish Story”

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

Moore begins this issue by drawing out the theme of children and parental relationships. The issue opens with alternating panels that depict two separate scenes – the submerged Rosewood juxtaposed with the children who went to the lake and their parents. It becomes clear that both scenes are designed to reflect the sense that both communities are trying to protect themselves. Swamp Thing acknowledges that Rosewood is now the place that the vampires feel “safe… to live and worship… as they choose. Safe… to raise their children…” (page 1, panel 3), and that he is perceived as the threat to this community. The humans are also trying to protect their children, as shown by the fact that they have gathered together to look for Nicky (the missing child from the previous issue). However, the first parental act depicted is an aggressive father who hits his son (page 1, panel 4). This is no slap designed to bring a hysterical child to his sense; rather, a punch is implied beforehand (page 1, panel 2). As such, a simplistic parent-child relationship is avoided, and an undercurrent of violence permeates the scene.

Moore lays out two distinct narratives through this issue. Firstly, Swamp Thing enters Rosewood, and we see how the creatures hatch, eat each other, until only one dominant creature is left. Secondly, the parents who look for Nicky discover him and are horrified by his transformation, which in turn pre-empts the arrival of the sole remaining from the alternative narrative. In this way both narratives are drawn together and we understand something dark about the nature of parenthood and children: that no matter how much we try to protect our children, sometimes bad things happen – really bad things.

The idea that our children are also to be feared is evident here. Nicky has been transformed into a vampire, while one creature has killed and consumed all of its other recently hatched siblings. It’s now set to do the same to the humans. There is a tension here between innocence and evil that is uncomfortable. This may be a reflection of the popular culture which Moore, Bissette and Totleben grew up with. From the late 1960s and 1970s a series of horror films depicted children as being the object of fear, including Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976). In addition, a number of Stephen King’s early works focus on the child as a central figure: Carrie (1974), The Shining (1977), Firestarter (1980). This trope can be traced back even further to works like John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), filmed as Village of the Damned (1960). Moore, Bissette and Totleben are revisting an uncomfortable and significant trope of recent horror fiction.

Even more disturbingly, these works foreshadow a rise in real life cases where children became the perpetrators of horrific crimes themselves, such as the murder of two year old James Bulger by two ten year old boys in Bootle, UK. This is not to suggest that popular fiction causes, in any way, such horrific acts to occur in reality; rather, it illustrates how the culture and society of the late twentieth century has had to deal children who are the objects of fear.

We continue to learn more about Swamp Thing’s abilities in this issue. He is more powerful than he (or we) have realised. We see this in two instances. Firstly, he extends his consciousness and shifts the earth on a larger scale than ever before, allowing him to re-route the water than had previously submerged Rosewood. As such, the vampires are exposed and perish. Swamp Thing appears to become a part of the wider landscape, as his image is seen in the mountain (page 18, panel 4). Secondly, his ability to travel via re-growth is much improved, as Constantine notes that the process took him a mere 51 seconds, a vast improvement on his earlier attempts.

This issue is the first act of the ‘American Gothic’ cycle, and Moore, Bissette and Totleben have taken the genre trope of vampirism and allied it to the contemporary concern of children and safety. This is an exciting experiment for a comic book series of the time. In the next issue Moore will move onto another staple of horror fiction, the werewolf, and provide his own unique take, which proved to be a controversial one.

Swamp Thing #40 “The Curse”

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

Moore, Bissette and Totleben were no strangers to controversy by this point in their run on Swamp Thing. Having reinterpreted the character with the ground-breaking ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ #21, broken the Comics Code Authority with #29, then becoming the first comic to publish without CCA approval (from #31 onwards), the title (and the team) had built a formidable reputation. Their next step was the productive of the highly controversial #40, which contained ‘The Curse’.

The controversy occurred as a direct result of the subject matter and themes it embodied: women, menstruation, the male objectification of women, and female subjugation. Add to this a metaphorical conceit equating women with werewolves and the potential for strong reactions, both positive and negative, are understandable. Yet the creative team are dealing with important issues in themselves, showing that comics can be a medium for this type of work. The resulting controversy should not be viewed as the main aim of this work but rather as a side effect of a well-told and thought-provoking tale.

The issue opens with a lady named Phoebe shopping in a supermarket. She buys a number of items, but sanitary napkins are identified specifically. She then leaves the building. Intercut with this quotidian scene is a depiction of Phoebe’s thoughts: she is thinking about the Pennamaquot Indian tribeswomen who are quarantined in huts raised above the earth during their menstruation period. Their anger is manifested through the use of abstract black panels shot through with sharp, amorphous red blotches. It’s a bold technique to employ, but an entirely fitting one for a visual medium like comics: the power of internalised, unseen anger is spread across the page in a palpable, visceral way.

As she walks home, a billboard showing an advert for a feminine hygiene product emphasising flower, freshness and confidence gives way to an adult bookshop that depicts objectifying images of women in its window display, setting up the thematic core of this issue in the process.

Turning the page, the reader experiences a scene change:

Swamp Thing and Abby kiss (the opposite of the adult images in the store window) as they kneel atop a rock, surrounded by water, while the huge moon acts as an orange back drop to this intimate scene. It’s a proud moment for comics as a sophisticated medium – the depiction of inter-species relationships being an important step for the series and for the medium as a whole. Moore, Bissette and Totleben are establishing the Swamp Thing-Abby relationship as a key factor in the title. The full ramifications of this will fuel further developments in the story where this relationship comes under pressure from outside prejudices and the separation of both characters. One is also reminded of previous bold steps that were taken in works containing inter-racial relationships (for example, the Kirk-Uhura kiss) and this scene is a comparable watershed moment.

Both scenes are also tied together with moon imagery: ‘Moon River’ can be heard on the Musak system in the supermarket, while Phoebe thinks about how the Pennamaquot Indian women were forbidden to see the moon, itself associated with female menstruation and monthly cycles. Anger turns to hunger for the moon, which hangs in the sky and dominates the background to the opening scene with Swamp Thing and Abby. The moon will also have a further thematic resonance later in the issue, as we shall see below.

Both Abby and Swamp Thing are reflecting on recent events, which enables Moore to briefly recap recent events while offering their opinion on them. The speed at which Swamp Thing can re-grow himself is viewed as a positive development, and both are happy that it means Swamp Thing can return to Abby within a relatively short period of time. The observation that Swamp Thing will only ever be “a step away” (p.4) will become ironic in later issues when the pair are separated.

Swamp Thing also tells Abby he doesn’t trust John Constantine. He recalls how Constantine talks about “some conspiracy that manifests itself… in supernatural outbursts… across the continent.” He feels that Constantine is playing a “deeper game” and decides that he will no longer follow him after their next meeting in Kennescook, Maine. Upon telling Constantine this at the end of the issue he discovers that the next location is Louisiana anyway, which undercuts the effectiveness of Swamp Thing’s rejection.

In the next scene, we return to Phoebe, who (along with her husband Roy) are entertaining guests at their home. We learn that Roy’s attitude towards Phoebe is incredibly sexist. The names of the couple are interesting in that they reflect the key themes of this story. Phoebe was a Greek Titan associated with the moon, and this links well with the moon imagery in this issue. Furthermore, Phoebe’s transformation into a werewolf (an example of lycanthropy) is also strongly linked to the moon, as in the mythology of this creature such a transformation takes place when there is a full moon. Roy means ‘King’ in its old French version. This is an exalted, powerful position of male dominance, a patriarchal figurehead that dominates a society. This underscores Roy’s role in oppressing Phoebe.

Phoebe’s transformation into a werewolf, provoked by Roy’s sexist attitudes, is an effective one. The image of her shedding her human skin is a truly horrific one, and a powerful sequence to read. Despite Phoebe’s anger, she is unable to kill Roy and flees, witnessed by the Swamp Thing who gives chase. She crashes through a bridal shop, a sex shop and a supermarket, all of which symbolize targets of female subjugation, before dying in Swamp Thing’s arms, having impaled herself on a knife display and reverted to human form. Swamp Thing emphasizes with her plight, even though he know he can do nothing to end it. Her death itself proved to be controversial. In the letters column that covered this issue (published in #46) one of a number of points made by writer Mindy Newell made a number of points about the story, which Alan Moore responded to in a detailed reply: for example, while Newell saw it as indicative of a perceived lack of strength in women in general, Moore countered with stressing that this was one particular act by one specific woman. The fact that such important issues were being discussed in the forum of a comic book letters page was a tangible reflection of how progressive Swamp Thing had become.

The panel layouts of this issue are truly impressive. Angular panels create an off-centre effect that is disconcerting for a reader to experience: the structure of a page like page 11 contributes to the tension we feel because it takes a moment for us to orient ourselves as readers to what we are experiencing visually, as the elongated panels fan out and then splinter to reveal the werewolf. On page 16, the scene where Phoebe (as the werewolf) crashes through a window is counterpointed with panels shaped like shards of broken glass, which is complemented by streaks of shed blood on page 17. Such experimentation ensures that the book is not only an engaging read in story terms but a fulfilling one in relation to artistic experiments ably conducted by Bissette and Totleben.

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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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