Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing Issue #44

Swamp Thing #44 “Bogeymen”

Cover date: January 1986. Writer: Alan Moore. Artists: Stephen Bissette, Ron Randall & John Totleben. Colorist: Tatjana Wood. Letters: John Costanza. Editor: Karen Berger.

The issue opens with a scene in a bar. A man drinking his beer is asked to “Think of a number”. The man is as perplexed as the reader at this strange question, delivered by an ‘off-panel’ character. His answer, fifty-eight, evokes an image and verbal description of a pair of eyes from the unseen questioner, who protests the fact that he is called “callous”, despite his ability to remember “every single pair of eyes”. The reader will soon learn the almost unspeakable significance of this ability.

The double page spread which follows is set in Abby’s home. She is reading Books of Blood, a series of stories written by British author Clive Barker, when she is disturbed by noises coming from the bathroom: this is revealed to be Swamp Thing, who has used the flora in the pipe system to generate a body.

The choice of Barker’s work is interesting, as the creative team on Swamp Thing are very much a part of an emerging scene in horror fiction of the period. This encompassed Barker’s work, in addition to writers like Ramsey Campbell (who wrote the forward to the first collected volume of this Swamp Thing run) and, a little later, Neil Gaiman’s early (Moore-influenced) work on The Sandman (of which Barker wrote a forward to the collected issue of ‘The Doll’s house’). All of this suggests a process of mutual admiration was occurring during this period.

The sound effects on this double page are particularly effective, adding a sense of dynamism to Swamp Thing’s off-panel regeneration. Meaningless phrases like “shulp!”, “chlopple” and “pwopwopwop” add an onomatopoeic energy to the page. In addition, a couple of comics references creep in as sound effects too: “snikt!” is association with the unsheathing of Wolverine’s[1] claws, while “wein” is an obvious reference to Len Wein, who co-created both Wolverine (with artists John Romita Sr. and Herb Trimpe) and, as we know, the Swamp Thing himself (with Bernie Wrightson), in addition to being the former editor of this series.

Swamp Thing says “hello” to Abby, which is humorously understated in light of the bizarre scene here. The reader is not used to seeing him in such a normal, homely, everyday environment, and neither is Abby. Her concern about mess (she lays down newspaper on her carpet) and him being seen by neighbours preoccupies her to such an extent that she does not seem to engage or really listen to what Swamp Thing wants to discuss with her, specifically the disruptions to the natural order of things and the disappearance of Constantine, who may have helped explain the reasons for such strangeness. It’s an interesting domestic scene of miscommunication within a relationship that really adds detail and depth to the portrayal of these characters. Abby felt unprepared for the visit, and so Swamp Thing leaves via the bathtub.

During this period of time, DC Comics were undertaking a company-wide revision of their universe and titles under the Crisis of Infinite Earths series (Crisis) and crossover issues. In this issue, the ‘American Gothic’ storyline is linked to Crisis in an effective way by showing the red sky that features in the series. There is no jarring effect that a forced crossover could have created. However, it’s interesting to compare the conversation John Constantine has with Steve Dayton (the character Mento from the Doom Patrol) with a conversation that occurs in Crisis #4, written by Marv Wolfman. Moore’s dialogue has the authentic ring of an English working class male, an identity he held in common with Moore himself, while Wolfman’s dialogue would better suit a middle class Englishman. Let’s compare two examples: firstly, from Moore –

“Come on, mate, snap out of it. There’s no point sulking.”

and the second from Wolfman –

“Oh believe me, Stephen — I’m hardly naïve. I can sense what’s happening here and there. Indeed, friend – I know what’s happening to one and all –”

Wolfman’s dialogue contains a sense of refinement that is at odds with Constantine’s working class roots, specifically the phrases that I’ve italicised – “hardly naïve”, “Indeed, friend” and “to one and all”. In comparison, Moore’s short phrasing, blunt words and informal tone in the first example better reflect Constantine’s character and background – “mate” and “snap out of it”.

Even a normally unflappable Batman[2] makes a brief cameo appearance with a short verbal exchange between Constantine and Dayton. One can tell the events of the Crisis are beyond the Dark Knight’s normal range of case types due to his initial sense of confusion over Mento’s identity: he is not as mentally sharp as he usually is.

On page 9 we return to the men we met on the opening page of the issue. Over the course of the next 11 pages we view the entire process of a killing undertaken by the Bogeyman from his point of view. The reader is forced to become implicated in this murder through this voyeuristic technique, recalling films such as Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). In addition, such a concentrated, lengthy delineation of the murder seems to foreshadow the Moore and Eddie Campbell’s 34 page depiction of Mary Kelly’s mutilation in chapter 10 of From Hell in terms of its lengthy depiction of a brutal act.

The Bogeyman believes that he has inherited his identify from a predecessor, the janitor of the school he attended as a child – the victim of his first murder. This latest murder (number 164) is juxtaposed with images of the eyes of his previous victim, suggested by innocuous references to numbers, which serve to suggest these mental images (see page 1 of this issue): the victim’s house number, 97, engenders an image of the eyes of his 97th victim, and references to 33 bucks, and Highways 71 and 165, have the same effect. These are intercut over these 11 pages with the entrapment and killing of his latest victim. It’s a stark, unsettling and brilliant sequence to read, and one that truly illustrates an effect use of montage in the comics medium.

The Bogeyman seeks to make his way from the murder site and consults maps, making plans to travel elsewhere, a feature that Neil Gaiman adopts in Sandman #14, ‘The Collectors’, in which serial killers travel to and from a convention. It makes explicit reference to the events in Swamp Thing #44, specifically the fact that the Bogeyman drowns (an Bogeyman imposter is caught in Gaiman’s story). As our issue closes, Swamp Thing merely lets the serial killer drown, and the only note of anxiety over this death is the prospect that many more people like him exist. Indeed, Swamp Thing seems to be experiencing more and more of the darkness and inhumanity of the human race as these issues progress.

The issue ends by returning to Abby Cable. She is reading Barker’s Books of Blood in bed when her phone rings. It’s Constantine, who instructs her to tell Swamp Thing that his last stop “before the finale” is San Miguel, California. On a final, ominous note , he says that “you can get back to your book now”: the fact that he knows Abby is reading only further emphasises the opaque nature of Constantine’s character at this point.

[1] Wolverine is a popular Marvel Comics’ character commonly associated with the X-Men team.

[2] Batman has encountered the Swamp Thing before: Swamp Thing No. 7 (November-December, 1973); The Brave and the Bold No. 122 (October, 1975); The Brave and the Bold #176 (July, 1981); Saga of the Swamp Thing No. 22 (March 1984).

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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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