“Strange Fruit”:

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing Issue #42

Swamp Thing #42 “Strange Fruit”

Cover Date: November 1985. Writer: Alan Moore. Artists: Stephen Bissette, John Totleben and Ron Randall. Colorist: Tatjana Wood. Letters: John Costanza. Editor: Karen Berger.

This issue serves to conclude the two-part story begun last issue. The opening page utilizes a series of horizontal panels depicting a skeleton in a coffin. Bissette’s illustrations of the coffin’s warped wood encroached by roots and soil creates an unbearable sense of claustrophobia, which is eerily heightened by the skeleton moving position on the final panel of the page. This reminds an attentive reader of the depiction of Swamp Thing in #21, lying comatose in the Sunderland building prior to his reawakening.

A similar resurrection to Swamp Thing’s occurs on pages 2 and 3, albeit on a larger scale. The shift to vertical panels reflects the risen skeletons and corpses in the scene, which is a two-page spread split into seven panels. A fascinating aspect of this scene is that it is a parody of a human life cycle, working from panel 1 through to 7. The hand in panel 1 shifts to a surfacing head and body in panels two and three, which represents a kind of birthing process, ironically among the headstones[1] in the graveyard. Panel 4 depicts a couple kissing and, to their right, a figure holding the skeleton of a baby (repeated in panel 6) – this represents sexual intimacy and procreation respectively. In panel 6, the baby has gone, while the skeleton retains the position of holding the missing baby aloft, thus emphasising the loss. Panel 7 is the departure or ‘death’ march, a movement into a kind of twisted Zombie afterlife.

Moore uses parentheses in a very interesting way in these opening pages. Their use indicates the captions wherein he is trying to create the sense that the reader is experiencing what these Zombies are thinking: ‘… longing to rub the cobwebs from your sockets’ (page 1). The use of second-person perspective is an effective literary device for drawing a reader into a sense of direct involvement with the story, asserting the idea that they are a character themselves by being address with ‘you’ or ‘your’ within the narration. It’s a sophisticated, if rarely used, device in literature. However, readers were often addressed directly in early Marvel comics, but Moore is going for a more literary effect than Stan Lee. His combination of second and third person narration in alternating captions here creates an interesting juxtaposition, both orienting the reader to what is going on in objective terms and allowing them to experience the more subjective and unusual sensations of being a resurrected zombie themselves.

Swamp Thing and Abby dominate a one page splash on page 4, holding the centre of the page. Swamp Thing stares out with a look of horrified resolve, accompanied by a shocked Abby who gently rests her hand on Swamp Thing’s arm. This image creates the sense that both are a team: Abby isn’t hiding behind Swamp Thing, but accompanying him, as shown when she soon moves away from him and goes to investigate the cellar independently (page 7). The dancing townsfolk in the background and the fruit and slaughtered chicken in the foreground complete this tense scene.

Abby senses that something unnatural is occurring, and Swamp Thing agrees, detected the influence of supernatural forces guiding the living. Alice is there, perspiring, trying to lay out more salt to replace that which has blown away and we discover the reason for this – it acts as a protective barrier against the Zombies. Nevertheless, they continue to approach the house, which is becoming the focal point for the paranormal events occurring in the town.

The shifting, changing nature of the house is made manifest through a swirling backdrop of amorphous colours, as depicted in the opening four panels of page 7, which split a single panoramic scene. The interplay of dialogue between characters is regulated effectively though this splitting[2], helping to maintain its logical progression, while also retaining a sense of confusion through the swirling colour scheme. It’s a really uncomfortable scene to view, but the story is all the more effective for its inclusion. Angela/Charlotte is being held back, kept apart from Billy/William who is tied to a column with a rope and chain, and one cannot help but detect the symbolism here: slaves of this period were enslaved in chains and hung with rope. This horrific scene is further intensified for the reader with Richard/Wesley’s use of the word “apes” to describe the townsfolk who have gathered outside the house.

Abby appears at the entrance to the cellar and Richard/Wesley approaches her, swiftly followed by Angela/Charlotte. Abby notices the changing state of the house. Angela/Charlotte then tells Abby that Billy/William has been skinned with a knife, which Richard/Wesley then uses to stab Abby, and Bissette’s jagged, angular panel borders on page 9 emphasize a sense of violent sharpness.

Richard/Wesley’s declaration that the noise outside is “fit to wake the dead” acts as another verbal visual scene transition, like those used in the previous issue. In addition, this is ironic, as the noisemakers are actually the dead that have awakened. Here, the narrative returns to Alice, who has failed to lay enough salt down. She encounters her dead father and joins him, and the other recently risen corpses, to march upon the house, as they “couldn’t sleep in that place… couldn’t decay in peace… none of us could… too much left unsettled…/ Tonight… we are going… to demand… our freedom…” – and this is the reason that they have risen, to demand the freedom that they were denied in life. It’s also interesting to note that the ellipses here are the same as those used to indicate pauses in Swamp Thing’s speech, which is partly suggestive of Swamp Thing’s lost humanity, existing only as the echo of Alec Holland’s consciousness. Both the zombies and Swamp Thing are similar in that they represent a humanity that has been lost.

We return to Abby on page 12 and discover that she was stabbed with a fake knife with a retractable false blade, no doubt a prop from the set. She then realizes that this “isn’t real”, and the blood stain that was on her shirt (panel 2) disappears (panel 5) as a result of this realization. She realizes that all of these events are hallucinations, and that Billy could not have been skinned with a fake knife. Like last issue, Moore uses language to formulate effective transitions: the fake knife revealed at end of page 12 forms a bridge with Richard/Wesley’s declaration of “Cheap Tricks!” at the top of page 13.

Richard/Wesley also comes to realize that something is wrong, in that he suddenly gains an awareness that these events have happened before, and that they are essentially repeating a pattern. He recalls that he had previously shot at the slaves and that he (Wesley) was beaten to death. Alice’s father explains that these events will keep repeating themselves until they gain their freedom, and Swamp Thing says that this “terrible cycle” needs to be broken. We can see a metaphor for racism in all its contexts and manifestations here: until attitudes change then tragedies will continue to occur as a result.

Swamp Thing pays a price for his intercession: he is shot by Richard/Wesley and becomes engulfed in flames, in turn leading him to recall the similar fate handed out to Alec Holland. Again, we see that Swamp Thing can survive through slipping into the green and re-growing himself a new body.

Meanwhile, everyone is traumatized by the events. Billy is still under the illusion that he has been skinned, the director is in shock, while Richard deal has perished in the flames. Constantine is nowhere to be seen, having been absent from Swamp Thing and Abby’s life for some weeks. One minor consolation is that the zombies probably died in the fire too. However, this is an erroneous assertion. A suspiciously abandoned bus and the zombie cinema ticket salesman working in a cinema[3] both suggest that these Zombies have now found the freedom they sought: ironically for one zombie it’s working in a ticket booth only marginally larger than the coffin he escaped from.

[1] The names depicted on these headstones are friends of Bissette and Totleben.

[2] Moore and Bissette use the technique on the opening page of issue #22, when Abby and Matt are searching for Swamp Thing.

[3] The cinema is decorated with film posters from Bissette’s own collection lovingly incorporated into the scene.

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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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