Swamp Thing #21 “The Anatomy Lesson”
So the Swamp Thing TV series just became a mini-series, and there seem to be conflicting stories as to what the hell happened. DC Comics’ response was a bit vague, and even the producer James Wan (if the name sounds familiar, it’s because he directed Aquaman) doesn’t seem to know. Or he knows, but isn’t in a position to say. And I can understand that. There could be legalities we’re unaware of, or Wan doesn’t want to tweet something somebody can use against him ten years from now. The point is, the fallout seems to be that the whole DC Universe streaming thing might now be in jeopardy, and while I’m not a subscriber, I feel sorry for fans of Titans and Doom Patrol. Still, I can’t help but wonder: with all these streaming services, is there going to be a breaking point? If I wanted to subscribe to all the ones I wanted I’d be paying as much as I do for cable.
Did. Did for cable. Because only fossilized dinosaurs still have cable. And that’s not me. Honest.
Ahem. But back to Swamp Thing. On the face of it, Swampy does seem an odd choice for a TV show, but compared to Doom Patrol, Swamp Thing is almost mainstream. And it’s a shame the show’s second season is very much in doubt, because from what I’ve heard, the first is pretty high-quality. All the same, perhaps Swamp Thing is a little too much of a niche subject? The movies and prior TV series were pure cheese (albeit deliciously so), and as a comic book character, his first run in the early ’70s was pretty short, and he wouldn’t have seen a return to the periodicals in ’82 without the release of a movie.
But even then, Swamp Thing’s title was slated for cancellation due to low sales, and higher-ups at DC decided to give the series over to (at least, to American audiences) a relative unknown. Alan Moore had worked for years in Great Britain working on periodicals like Warrior magazine, and it was there that groundbreaking stories like Moore’s Marvelman revival and V for Vendetta were first published. He had also, along with the brilliant artist Alan Davis, delivered some of the greatest Captain Britain stories ever. So DC editors had on their hands a very talented, experienced writer who had worked in different genres and wasn’t above a little hero deconstruction, often for the better. So Swamp Thing was about to be torn down to its roots and regrown. Moore’s first issue was #20, cover-dated January 1984, where he had begun to wrap up old storylines, remove old supporting characters, and redirect new ones to future plots. Oh, and he killed Swamp Thing.
One of the principle storylines running through this period was Alec Holland’s struggle against the Sunderland Corporation. With a name like that, you might as well have called it EvilCo. Sunderland was like Marvel’s Roxxon, the morally bankrupt multi-national conglomerate that was up to no good, and a stand-in for every evil company that ever bought politicians and bent rules for the sake of the almighty dollar. I’d say it was cartoonishly evil, but I live in an age where Disney absorbed 20th Century Fox and nobody in government batted an eye.
Sunderland was responsible for hunting Swamp Thing and taking him down, and for new readers, Alan Moore was kind enough to bring people up to speed with issue #21. Our story opens with a man monologuing as he stares off into the rainy night from an apartment, looking at the Capitol Building as he thinks about a man and a horrific murder he might succumb to. This is Jason Woodrue, Doctor Jason Woodrue, and he’ll be our guide. We flash back a couple months and (Doctor) Woodrue is being released from prison by who we later discover is Avery Sunderland, owner of the Sunderland Corporation. Sunderland is rather proud of his skyscraper, as it’s fully automated, but Woodrue is less than impressed by both the man and his building. Sunderland has secured Woodrue’s release for one reason…
…to perform an autopsy. Right away, Moore has given us a mystery. Is this the real Swamp Thing? Has he killed off the old one and is giving us a new one in this issue? Bear in mind, this was the early ’80s and characters coming back from the dead didn’t happen with the maddening frequency we see today, so to anyone reading this issue, all bets were off.
Sunderland proceeds to relate Swamp Thing’s origin story for the benefit of Woodrue and new readers, about how Alec Holland and his wife Linda had been working on a formula to stimulate crop growth. The experiment was sabotaged and a bomb blew up in Alec’s face. Linda died and Holland went running off into the swamp, covered in the formula and fire. When Holland came out of the muck he was quite… different. Sunderland had Linda’s body exhumed, and discovered that while she was contaminated with the formula, it hadn’t affected her at all. And now Woodrue’s job is to find out how Holland became a plant monster. But before he can begin, Jason has to show off his credentials, and he pulls out an aerosol sprayer.
Woodrue is a bona-fide super-villain called the Floronic Man, who covers himself with fake flesh to pass himself off as a normal human. If anyone’s qualified to parse this puzzle, it’s him.
Over the next few weeks, Jason proceeds to cut open Holland’s botanistic body and remove organs; what he discovers are lungs that aren’t lungs, and a spongy mass that bears a slight resemblance to a brain… only, it ain’t one. Likewise, all his organs are in places where organs should be, but none of them actually seem to do anything. All the while, Sunderland holds the threat of prison over Woodrue’s head if he doesn’t get results. But Sunderland sometimes insists Jason accompany him around the huge, empty building, talking about how way-cool it was to be able to manipulate everything from his office. Sunderland loves control… and an audience. And every night, Woodrue showers off his fake skin…
…and while I’m loving Moore’s dialogue and the pacing of the story, all of this is aided by the magnificent art of Stephen Bissette and inker John Totleben. Both produce some stunning visuals, and as I was looking at the issues leading up to this, you can see how experienced they are at delivering the sort of weird and grotesque imagery necessary for a horror comic.
Woodrue gets inspiration from accidentally reading a different chapter in a book, containing information regarding planarian worms. He has a sit down with Sunderland the next day and explains his theory. It seems some scientists taught a planarian worm how to run a maze, then cut it up and fed it to other planarian worms, and right now I’m wondering what kind of sick minds come up with this stuff. These sound like the sort of mad scientists who would sew people ass-to-mouth to make a human centipede. So it turns out the worms who ate their buddy could run a maze they had never seen before. Woodrue quickly loses Sunderland, so he dumbs down the presentation. He explains that Holland, on fire, covered in his restorative formula, jumped into the swamp and sank to the bottom. The plants, being plants, ate his body and they became infected with intelligence, one that thought it was Alec Holland. It tried to recreate Holland’s body from local material, forming a parody of a human being from plant stuff. So Swamp Thing is not Alec Holland, but a creature who all this time thought he was.
Sunderland cuts off Woodrue and basically tells him fine, whatever, I know what I need to know, you’re fired. This is mistake number one. Mistake number two is leaving Woodrue alone in his office with his computer.
Oh, I’m so sorry. Those were mistakes two and three. Mistake number one was not letting Woodrue finish his dissertation, because if not-Holland is a plant, then not-Holland wasn’t killed by a bullet to the head. And if somebody turns off the freezer and lets not-Holland thaw out, then not-Holland is going to bloom.
Sunderland is alone in his massive skyscraper again, and naturally he goes down to take a look at the corpsicle. Only, he finds that it’s gone. He races back to his office to call for help… and I do have to wonder whether or not there are other phones in this building? Maybe he just doesn’t have the number for his super secret SWAT team memorized, and has to consult his rolodex. Regardless, he gets back to his office…
…and discovers somebody’s been doing some reading. Sunderland tries talking to Swamp Thing, asking if he’s read the file. Not-Holland confirms he has, and Sunderland, totally unused to speaking to people he doesn’t own, asks him if he liked it. Swamp Thing’s answer is to chase the old man through his empty skyscraper, bursting through sealed doors, and stalking him until Sunderland reaches the exit. He places his palm to the ID scanner to escape, only the ID scanner doesn’t recognize him: Woodrue has sabotaged the security system. But it’s okay, because it looks like Swamp Thing just wants to give the man a hug.
Swamp Thing leaves Sunderland’s corpse behind and exits the building. Meanwhile, Woodrue, in his apartment, assumes Swamp Thing will head back to the bayou. And now, he has lots to do, and plans to make; plans involving the creature we used to think of as Alec Holland.
Swamp Thing #21 is truly a game changer and part of what was for DC a creative renaissance. You had top-notch art as well as stellar writing. Having the being we used to know as Alec Holland appear in a supporting role in his own comic and focusing the attention on Woodrue was a bold choice; so was crafting a horror story that employs this much exposition. But the art is stellar and Moore’s dialogue is a joy to read, as is the big reveal. Moore delivered a forty-issue run that turned what was a pretty basic Frankenstein-like monster into something far more fascinating; he delivered quality as well as creating a touching love story. And he introduced us to John Constantine, one of the most iconic characters in comics today.
It’s possible that part of the reason for Swamp Thing’s success was that fans were ready for something different. We weren’t used to the deconstruction of our heroes or the concept of what a superhero was. But Moore had already done so with Marvelman, and would later continue to do so with Watchmen. Deconstruction was new and exciting. But in the wrong hands and done too often, it could prove to be disastrous. But at the time, we comic fans were living in a brief age of wonders as Alan Moore, comic book Jesus…
…graced America’s shores and provided us with miracles.