“A Murder of Crows”:

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing #48

Swamp Thing #48 “A Murder of Crows”

Cover date: May 1986. Writer: Alan Moore. Artist: John Totleben. Editor: Karen Berger. Colorist: Tatjana Wood. Letterer: John Costanza.

We are off to an atmospheric start in this issue, the first to be pencilled and inked by John Totleben. The opening page of this issue is reminiscent of both German expressionism and film noir, with shadows slowly revealing a match-toting Constantine. It also recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds (1963), with its depiction of a mass of crows bearing down on the scene. The contrast between red and black is startlingly effective, with a blood red sky being slashed by wings and beaks. The sixteen panels that break up this page increase a sense of movement embodied by the mass of crows flying, while also acting as a suitably atmospheric prelude to a double page spread (pages 2 and 3) that depicts Constantine standing in a clearing in a cave. The match soon burns his fingers, and we are plunged into darkness, although this then segues into an account of previous events. This issue is punctuated with moments of light and dark, the former corresponding to nature, life and the forces of good which Constantine and Swamp Thing represent, and the latter to darkness, death and the evil that the invunche and the Brujería embody. As scenes fade in and out we are unconsciously reminded of the struggle between good and evil, light and dark, and existence and non-existence, which the previous issues have been dealing with.

Constantine met with Judith, Frank and Swamp Thing, the latter looking especially impressive in a body composed of exotic foliage, which dominates page 5. We then learn of Constantine’s plan: Swamp Thing will erupt in the central chamber of the cave while the others prevent anyone escaping. Horizontal panels help to create a sense of claustrophobia at the end of page 6, which fade to black, only to be broken by the shock of the normally implacable Constantine who panics when he sees the invunche closing in on him. This deformed creature knocks him down, engendering Constantine’s loss of consciousness, the scene reverts to darkness once more.

Meanwhile, Swamp Thing is blocked from entering the cave because of a magical construction in the green, and he cannot find a plant unaffected by the spell. As such, he remains barred from the cave, for the moment at least. Totleben’s use of colour and imagery evoke a psychedelically flavoured depiction of the green, albeit it one with a “black barrier” preventing Swamp Thing entering the vegetation around the cave.

Judith seduces Frank, but all is not as it seems, as the scene once again returns to the now characteristic black panels. The scene changes and we discover that Judith has betrayed them: Constantine has been chained in a pit and Frank has been decapitated. Things get even stranger when Judith transforms into a crow, which she believes will ensure her place in the new universe that the Brujería are intending to create. In a neat twist of fate, the flower in her hair falls to the ground, and this establishes the link to the green that Swamp Thing needs to enter the clearing. In a dramatic fashion he saves Constantine from drowning, despite the latter’s pleas that he stops Judith’s transformation. In choosing to save Constantine, Swamp Thing allows the Judith-crow to escape, which serves to further aid the Brujería’s plan.

At the end of this issue Abby is arrested by the police, following the publication of a picture and story about her and Swamp Thing (as discussed in #47). In a very human moment Abby denies the veracity of the photograph – “L – Listen, you can’t prove these pictures are genuine. You…” – and a very shocked and scared Abby is lead away as the reader’s focus is drawn in to the newspaper headline and, ultimately, another black panel that serves to end this issue.

Before we leave this issue, we need to reflect on the cover image. Created by both Bissette and Totleben, it’s a suitably eye catching and dramatic cover that effectively brings together key elements from the story, as discussed above: the red sky and black crows, the interplay of light and dark in its use of shadows, the Brujería, the invunche, and Swamp Thing rescuing John Constantine. Some artistic licence is taken: the sky is not actually visible in the cave within the story, but comic book covers often bring together elements that occurred separately within the issue at hand. This usually acts as an effective form of summation relating to the contents of the issue, as this specific cover does here.

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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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