Swamp Thing #41 “Southern Change”
Cover date: October 1985. Writer: Alan Moore. Artists: Stephen Bissette & Alfredo Alcala. Colorist: Tatjana Wood. Letters: John Costanza. Editor: Karen Berger.
Moore and Bissette offer a Voodoo-inspired tale beginning with ‘Southern Change’ in this issue, and concluding with ‘Strange Fruit’ in #42. The tale involves the filming of a new soap opera, a historical drama set during the era of slavery called Providence. However, things get disturbing when the location of Robertaland, and Jackson House, are used. The spirits of the dead slaves, and the plantation owner and his wife, begin to overwhelm the actors and the extras, who are made up of locals from the area. Inevitably, Swamp Thing and Abby become drawn into these events.
The opening two pages evoke the disturbing premise of the story well. We experience a journey from a grave, through a graveyard, into a house and finally down into a cellar: these turn out to be the key locations in this story. Bissette’s use of irregular panel borders creates an unbalanced, disorienting effect. This is anchored by the caption boxes and Moore’s narration, which reveals to the reader the concept that the dead lie conscious in their graves. As such, the reader has to consider a question: “What do the dead people think about?” In this story, it is the traumatic experiences they encountered during their lives.
The captions on the second page contain a dialogue that we later learn occurred in the past between plantation owner Wesley Jackson, his wife Charlotte and their slave William. It is a core scene which fuels the possession, replayed by the spirits through the townsfolk and actors they possess. It’s a technique that Moore employs elsewhere: sentences which open an issue are repeated to create a sense of cohesiveness in the work.
We are confronted with the core theme of racism in this issue on two different levels: the exploration of racism in the slavery era, juxtaposed with the modern day manifestations of racism. Despite the fact that slavery has long been abolished, more covert forms of racism exist in modern times, as seen in Angela’s initial attitude towards Billy (page 6). Also, the spirits who possess the actors and townspeople can even be seen as metaphors for the more subtle forms of racism in the modern world, which lie below the surface like the spirit who inhabit the bodies of the living here.
Moore and Bissette’s use of Voodoo is the means whereby the dead possess the living in this story. Voodoo spirits are believed to be the souls of ancestors, which ties into the presence of the slave generation in this issue. This is underscored this by apt references to Voodoo holidays to indicate the passage of time, illustrated by Bissette in a style appropriately influenced by Alexander King’s illustrations in W.B. Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929), which focused on Haiti in the 1920s. Their inclusion effectively creates a suitably unusual tone in visual terms, helping to mark out the sense of the voodoo experience that this issue seeks to engender.
A sense of the unnatural is also created through Moore’s use of language and images to create links between scenes. Here, words and phrases create synchronistic bridges: for example, the transition from page 14 to 15 operates on the concept of ‘evening’; similarly, the concept of ‘lines’ creates a transition between page 16 and 17. One interesting aspect of these transitions in their increased frequency as the issue proceeds: as we get to page 22 they have shifted to panel-to-panel transitions, emphasizing the sense of the unnatural in the issue. They also increase the sense that these events are following a preordained path, which in fact they are as they are channeling old acts of violence and desires for vengeance and justice.
This story focuses on past injustices of the slave era and the voodoo-fueled revenge that has been waiting to resurface for decades. The possessions occur slowly, almost subliminally, at first: there is confusion over names between the actors, who slip between real, character and spirit names and the slow adoption of old racist attitudes. We see a character glimpse interior décor from an earlier era (page 6) and witness an observation that the house seems to renovate itself much more quickly than would be thought possible by natural means (page 16). Similarly, the extras hired from the local townsfolk revert to their subjugated slave roles, as seen with Abby’s friend and co-worker Alice, who calls her “mistress” and assumes a slave role. By the end of the issue these possessions have become fully effective, as the extra dance around a fire, beating make-shift drums and sacrificing a chicken with a knife. In addition, the actors have now been completely taken over by the spirits of the Jacksons and William, the slave with whom Charlotte Jackson had an affair. They are reliving the moments where Wesley Jackson discovers the affair and drags Wesley to the cellar. The issue has a cliff-hanger ending as Billy/William is tied to a column and Richard/Wesley approaches him with a knife.
The broad themes of life, death and resurrection play out in this tale, and they are also subtly referenced in Swamp Thing’s mercy killing and absorption of a dead bird into himself (page 12). This highlights the natural cycle of death that is being challenged in this story, particularly in relation to the unnatural resurrection of the dead in the next issue (#42). Here, Swamp Thing is stating that death is a necessary part of nature’s cycle and this is a concept that he represents. As such, he will attempt to deal with the unnatural occurrences that are occurring in the town in the next issue.
 Examples include Saga of the Swamp Thing #21 and Batman: The Killing Joke.
 To clarify: Angela Lamb is the actress who plays the character Rebecca Davenport – she is possessed by the spirit of Charlotte Jackson; Billy Carlton (the actor) is possessed by a slave called Williams; Richard Deal (another actor) plays the character Mr Davenport – he is possessed by Wesley Jackson. The use of spirit names indicates the possession process.