Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing Issue #43

Swamp Thing #43 “Windfall”

Cover date: December 1985. Writer: Alan Moore. Artists: Stan Woch & Ron Randall. Colorist: Tatjana Wood. Letters: John Costanza. Editor: Karen Berger

This issue is aptly entitled ‘Windfall’, both for its autumnal resonance and its association with receiving something of importance or value. The item in question is a tuber, which fell from Swamp Thing’s back and the opening page of the issue depicts this event. Swamp Thing, back to the reader, walks progressively towards the background of the panel and does not notice this loss. This is a quiet yet startling page, as this is the only appearance of the character in the entire issue[1].  This allows the narrative to really focus on a specific issue here, that of the effect of psychedelic substances on human beings.

A new character, Chester Williams, discovers the tuber. He is a delightful figure, being a kind and gentle hippy in appearance and manner. His musical tastes centre him securely in the culture of the mid 1960s to early 1970s: he sings Strawberry Fields Forever (1967) by The Beatles, before switching to Stop! In the Name of Love by the Supremes, only to question himself when he inexplicably begins to sing into Tragedy (1979) by the Bee Gees, alerting the reader to the fact that this track is beyond Chester’s usual tastes. His home also contains items that show his interests in the hippy counterculture, including a Zap Comix issues lies on a table next to a bong, a ‘Fillmore East Allman Brothers’ poster and a ‘Godspell’ poster.

While Stan Woch and Ron Randall provide the interior art for this issue, Bissette and Totleben created the cover. It depicts a surprised Swamp Thing reacting to a tuber being harvested from his back by a human hand. This scene does not accord with the first page of the story, in which the tuber is found by Chester, but it isn’t meant to be a literal representation of a particular event in the comic. Instead, it is a metaphorical image that ably illustrates the notion that mankind will often take and use (or abuse) natural resources without full consideration of the effects on nature itself. Perhaps the startled Swamp Thing depicted here symbolises such instances of abuse.

Chester cuts the tuber into three pieces. He then takes a sliver and examines it under a microscope. Books on Botany and a poster depicting types of mushroom show Chester to be a student of naturally occurring psychedelics, which is exactly what the tuber turns out to be. Page four shows Chester studying the tuber and it is a great piece of graphic storytelling. The sense of time passing is registered in subtle terms by the gradual ascent of the moon over successive panels, as seen through the window in the background of the panel. In addition, the ashtray in the foreground of these panels suggest that Chester has been smoking a joint. Nowhere is this act depicted, and it’s almost as if this had occurred ‘between’ the panels. We see an empty ashtray, then a joint and rolling papers, then the remains of a smoked joint. This is achieved in such a subtle way and is almost subliminal, yet it really serves to emphasise Chester’s lifestyle in a subtle yet effective way.

Dave, a friend of Chester’s, calls to see him. Sandy, his wife, is terminally ill with cancer and he is desperate for anything that will help him to alleviate her pain. Chester has nothing except the tuber, so he offers one piece to his friend, acknowledging that he thinks it may be “some sorta unknown psychedelic” (page 6). Chester’s interest in drugs is also on display, as we can see a cannabis plant and a bong in his flat (again, on page 6): the bong itself dominates the page, but is framed in such a subtle way that it isn’t immediately apparent because the pipe is partially off panel. Such subtle signifiers help to prepare the reader for the powerful, drug-like experiences which are depicted a little later in this issue.

Milo, an acquaintance of Chester’s, arrives next. He is rude, aggressive and manipulative and bullies Chester into letting him take the second piece. Milo’s body language and actions underscore his belligerent nature: his is physically imposing with a heavy frame, and knocks over books and an ashtray by slouching on a table, showing no respect for Chester’s property or home. In turn, Chester’s body language suggests that he doesn’t want Milo in his home, particularly the look of barely suppressed anger and annoyance in panel 5 on page 8.

The effects of the tuber are startling for both Sandy and Milo, which are portrayed in alternating scenes. Sandy experiences a joyous psychedelic episode: panel borders melt away and she makes love with Dave for one final time before she dies. In a sense they repeat the same kind of experience as Abby and Swamp Thing in ‘Rite of Spring’ (#34). It also recalls Aldous Huxley experience of taking LSD on his deathbed (see page 6, panel 2). In direct contrast, Milo experiences a twisted, almost parodic version of Swamp Thing’s origin, structured with jagged, angular panel borders that emphasise the tortuous scenes depicted. He perceives himself to be a ‘swamp thing’, and hallucinates characters from throughout Swamp Thing’s history, both before and during the issues we are focusing on in the Moore-Bissette-Totleben-Veitch run respectively: the patchwork man, the clockwork horror, General Sunderland, the werewolf, Cranius (an unman); Kamara, the Vampire Queen. Milo is ultimately killed by a truck, and he hallucinates Anton Arcane as the driver. It is a fitting reversal of the expectations of a normal Swamp Thing story in that the ‘Milo Swamp Thing’ is killed by Arcane in this hallucinated, fragmentary counter-version of the Swamp thing ‘saga’. The twisted manifestations of Swamp Thing’s past highlight the bad things he experienced and maps them onto Milo’s consciousness. As such, it seems that Chester is correct in his assertion that the tuber is a “cosmic litmus paper […] it tells you whether you’re a bad person or a good person” (page 21). Interestingly, Chester decides against trying the tuber himself. He acknowledges that he tries to be a good person, but also admits to himself that he has done bad things that he isn’t proud of. In this sense Chester is very much an everyman figure and a representative of humanity in this story, in that we are all a mixture of good and bad, and that people would perhaps be reluctant if faced with the option of trying the tuber for fear of what it would reveal to us about ourselves.

[1] This marginalisation of a main character is rare. Interestingly, Neil Gaiman adopted this approach in Sandman occasionally.

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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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