THIS ISSUE, THE FIRST IN A LONG RUN of
stories by British writer Alan Moore, stands as a pivotal book
in comic-book in history for several reasons. First, it was
probably the industry's most successful re-introduction of a
struggling character. Second, it would redefine horror for a new
generation, and provide the inspiration for a new line of mature
titles. Third, it was the forerunner of what would become the
comic-book version of "the British invasion."
First things first.
The Saga of the Swamp Thing was the second series to
star the beast from the bayou. His
first lasted only 24 issues during the 1970s, but it
survived long enough to inspire a low-grade motion picture in
1982. DC Comics commissioned a second series to capitalize on
the movie's release, but that series ran for little more than a
year before it became obvious that it, too, wouldn't last long.
With nothing to lose, DC handed the writing reins over to a
young Briton named Alan Moore.
The title of this story, "Loose Ends," sums things
up quite nicely. A major storyline in the previous 19 issues
involved the fictional Sunderland Corporation, a corrupt company
that poses as the government, cordons off the Swamp Thing's
swamp, and sends in a team to kill him. In "The Anatomy
Lesson" (issue #21), the Swamp Thing's corpse is examined,
and it's revealed that "he" was never a man in the
first place -- it's a sentient plant who thought it was.
It turns out that Alec Holland, the scientist who died in the
swamp many years ago, really did die, but his memories were used
to form the template of a whole new being, an elemental spirit
of the earth whose body could appear anywhere that plant life
This revamping of the Swamp Thing's origin stands as a
sterling example of what revamps ought to do -- take characters
in whole new directions without disrespecting the work done on
them by its previous creators. Moore shook off the limiting
shackles of the Swamp Thing's concept to create a creature of
fantasy that could -- and did -- do much more than wander around
a swamp and bemoan his lost humanity.
The revitalized Swamp Thing book would go on to win
numerous industry and fan-favourite awards, and a glance at any
of Moore's stories will tell you why. Swamp Thing's new identity
took him (literally, in one story) to hell and back, as he came
to terms with the responsibilities that come with being the
guardian of the "green." A budding romance with Abby
Cable (the niece of Swamp Thing's greatest nemesis) and the
introduction of supernatural characters -- most of whom never
wore a cape and mask -- gave the stories a sharper edge than the
standard superhero fare, and pretty soon the title was pushing
every creative boundary to its limits. Karen Berger, Moore's
editor, said that Moore was the first mainstream comic writer
who wrote for adults -- writing not the sexually explicit
stories that the word "adult" suggests, but stories
with humanity and layers of meaning.
Then one day, those stories got a little too adult for the
censors. In Swamp Thing #29, artist Steve Bissette drew a
two-page spread depicting a character surrounded by zombies in
various states of decay. No dice, said the Comics Code
Authority, adding that the villain's actions in the story could
also be interpreted as a form of incest. However, there wasn't
time to make any changes, and DC let the story go to press
without the CCA's seal of approval. After a while, DC's
management decided that Swamp Thing's quality justified
exempting it from the Code, and so it affixed the label
"Suggested for Mature Readers" on the cover, dealing
another blow to the CCA's faltering authority over comic
Eventually, Swamp Thing's success would lead to the
formation of Vertigo, a family of adult-oriented titles within
DC that strove to present stories for mature readers. The
Sandman, John Constantine: Hellblazer, Shade the Changing Man,
Animal Man, Sandman Mystery Theatre, and the reinvented Doom
Patrol are just some of the titles that owe a debt to Moore
and his work on Swamp Thing.
The Vertigo line's success was also due in part to DC's
search for new talent; looking outside the system, its editors
found many new creators who brought fresh ideas to the medium.
Coincidentally, many of those writers and artists would, like
Moore, hail from Great Britain. The list of Brits who followed
Moore across the pond includes Neil Gaiman, Jamie Delano, John
Ridgway, Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, Simon Bisley, Brian
Bolland, Alan Davis, Dave Gibbons, Mike McMahon, Pat Mills and
Kevin O'Neil. These artists would follow Moore's lead and create
entirely new genres of comic books for Western readers, genres
that would exemplify the most exciting trend of the 1980s:
Comics weren't just for kids anymore.