Time Machine: Swamp Thing ‘84

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A fair number of my fellow geeks are into jet packs, as in, “when are they gonna invent jet packs already?” But me, I was never into jet packs—I’m waiting on a time machine. Even if time machines are possible though, I figure we won’t be getting them anytime soon—certainly not my lifetime—so we’ll have to settle for the next best thing. For me, there are two options. The first is music.

There’s this syndicated radio program, Scott Shannon’s “America’s Greatest Hits,” and every week they do this throwback countdown to what the top five singles were at this point in the calendar some year decades past. For example, this week (the second week of June) they gave us the top five songs for this same week in June in 1978. They were:

#5 Bonnie Tyler—“It’s A Heartache”

#4 Wings—“With A Little Luck”

#3 Gerry Rafferty—“Baker Street”

#2 Andy Gibb—“Shadow Dancing”

#1 John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John—“You’re The One That I Want”

Hearing these songs I am transported back to June 1978. The school year is wrapping up. The Red Sox are putting the Yanks way back in the rearview mirror in the AL East standings. I’m about to see Star Wars in the theater for the fourth time. My aunt and uncle are having a garage sale. I’m still riding around on my sister’s old hand-me-down bicycle. Kiss is my favorite band. Brookdale’s fruit punch soda is my favorite drink and mint chocolate chip is my favorite flavor of ice cream.

The second most effective form of time machine for me is old comics, newspapers, and magazines. Comic-news magazines like The Comics Journal and Amazing Heroes are the best time machines of all. And the best of these are those old Amazing Heroes preview specials.

A big part of what makes periodicals like these stir my memory so deeply is that the people writing them were writing things as they were living them in real time. So when I read them and hear their voices in my imagination I feel as if I’m right back there with them. One of the best examples is the ’84 preview issue of Amazing Heroes (#39, January 15, 1984). The preview for Saga of the Swamp Thing in this issue fills me with glee, as it brings me back to a time when Alan Moore was just starting out. Here’s Kim Thompson’s preview in full—a look “ahead” at what one could expect to find in the pages of Saga of the Swamp Thing in the “upcoming” year of 1984:

At five a.m. one morning in mid-November, Kim Thompson hauled his tired posterior to the telephone and direct-dialed Great Britain. After all the clicks and buzzes had subsided, he found himself speaking—at the extravagant rate of 75¢ a minute—to Alan Moore, multiple Eagle award winner for his work on Warrior, and Saga of the Swamp Thing’s most recent scripter.

“I had initially planned to just run a brief squib on Swamp Thing, based on a conversation with the title’s new editor Karen Berger,” Thompson reports. “But when I sat down and read a recent issue of the title—Moore’s second, ‘The Anatomy Lesson,’ in SOTST #21—I was blown away. It wasn’t just the best Swamp Thing story since the title was revived—it was the best DC Comic I’d read in years! So I decided, ‘Hang the expense, this is one book that deserves a major treatment.’”

Kim was pleased enough with the interview to feel it could stand more or less verbatim as a question-and-answer piece. “Although Alan’s British accent nearly threw me a couple of times on the transatlantic call,” Kim reports, “I found him charming, articulate, and thoughtful, a person I had no difficulty matching up with the marvelously well-conceived and executed comic book story I had just read. He appeared gratified by my enthusiastic response to his work and in return complimented us on Fantagraphics’ various projects. Before it degenerated into a mutual admiration society, I dove in with my first savagely journalistic question…”

THOMPSON: You’ve thrown a real curve ball—pardon the American jargon—in the “Anatomy Lesson” issue, in which the Swamp Thing is entirely redefined as a plant who up until now has believed it’s Alec Holland. How can you follow up on that?

MOORE: When I took over the book it suddenly struck me that Swamp Thing had been reduced over the years into just a certain color, a certain posture, and a very strong man. There was very little about him that was unique or individual. It seemed that familiarity had tended to dull the concept, so that it just became something lurching around at the back of a panel, getting involved in stories.

What I wanted to do was try to come at it from a more hard science fiction angle, investigate the possibilities of his being a plant. “The Anatomy Lesson” was the springboard for that, and I was able through Jason Woodrue’s monologue to explain exactly the nature of this, how it worked. In the future, what we can do is to try and examine him. He’s a fascinating creature, if you think about it. You’ve got the first vegetable-animal hybrid, and there’s a lot of implications in that. I mean, how do the seasons affect him? That’s something that we shall be exploring gradually in the background, In the next issue, #22, which is called “Swamped,” we’re going to explore what goes on inside Swamp Thing’s head a little hit.

1 don’t want to give too much away, that’s the trouble. We’re going to try to really bring it home to the reader that he is a plant; he’s not just a man with mud all over him. In one of the original Swamp Things, Len had him stand in one place for an hour or two and take root. I think that’s been ignored by most artists and writers since, but we’re taking him a lot, lot further. We have him stay in the same place for probably a month, he doesn’t even move—in fact, in the entire next issue he doesn’t even stand up in the course of the book.

There’s a lot of things about a plant that supply you with story ideas, things we can slowly and gradually explore. We want to explore his psychology, his emotions, his physiology. Not one an issue, but just gradually in the background we’ll be continuing to get into that. We want to explore the elemental and primal aspects—the deep stuff, if you want [laughs]— because the swamp is a very primal landscape. It strikes me that you could do something with that, bring some stuff out.

THOMPSON: Do you plan to continue using established characters from the series?

MOORE: Some of them. None of them will be ignored. We killed off Sunderland, as you’re aware. The PDI will be dropped for a while; they’re still in the background, but we won’t be picking that up until we’ve got some of the other stuff out of the way. Matt Cable and Abigail Cable will be very much to the forefront over the next year. We’ve got some pretty major plotlines involving them.

Swamp Thing has tended to be a backwater book in that Batman meets him once every six years and otherwise he’s a bit of a poor relative. So without getting into any really elaborate crossovers and stuff like that we’ve tried to center Swamp Thing a little more in the DC universe. The Demon will be appearing in a few issues. We’ve also got the Justice League of America turning up in a sort of brief, oblique cameo in a couple of episodes. Stuff like that.

Marty’s characters, Liz and Dennis, are going to be out of action for a few issues, nothing’s going to be heard from them, but then we’ve got a story planned that will investigate those as well. So I’m certainly not ignoring anything that’s been done before. It’s all being carried on, just woven into a new design.

THOMPSON: With all this remodeling of a popular character, are you worried about fan reaction?

MOORE: Um… Yeah. [laughs] I’m incredibly apprehensive.

I think that the main problem with the book was that Swamp Thing tended to remind me sometimes of the Silver Surfer covered in snot. He’d walk around feeling terribly sorry for himself; the whole point of the book was that he wanted to become human again. Obviously, anyone with half a brain realizes that DC is not going to make much money publishing The Saga of Alec Holland. So it’s a cheat from the start. You can’t ever realize the objectives of the hook without destroying the series. But by changing the emphasis… in the next few issues you’ll see this more clearly, but he’s more or less accepted what he is, and he’s kind of come to terms with the idea of being Swamp Thing instead of fixing his heart on becoming Alec Holland, because he realizes that that’s impossible. I hope that that’ll give the book a little more dynamism. I think it’s a problem all the writers on Swamp Thing have had to a degree… Marty had a subplot where Swamp Thing was dying, which was an attempt to provide some sort of motivation for the character. And of course, in the original series there was the quest for humanity and stuff like that. But I think that it’s tended to play Swamp Thing as a one-note character. What I’d like to do is try and get some excitement back into the comic, so people are a little bit disturbed and alarmed and surprised by the concept of a bunch of mud, moss, and lichen walking around.

THOMPSON: I told Karen I felt that for a while, Swamp Thing had been Charlie Brown covered in mud.

MOORE: That’s it. Exactly. And I don’t really like heroes that you have to feel sorry for, because [laughs] it’s cheap and it’s manipulating the reader’s emotions a little obviously. And for my part I’d prefer to surprise the reader and jolt him a little bit. I have no doubt that we will offend some long-time Swamp Thing aficionados, but I suppose that’s unavoidable. I’m just hoping they’ll be able to see what Steve [Bissette], John [Totleben], and I are trying to do with the character—because a lot of the ideas have been coming from Steve and John, we’ve been bouncing them around among us. We have independently arrived at the same sort of feelings as to where we’d like to take the book, which is a perfect situation now because we get a chance to put it into practice.

THOMPSON: Are you enjoying’ working with Steve and John?

MOORE: I’m enjoying it immensely. That was my main problem, because I recognize that most of my work in this country [England] relies an awful lot on the relationship between the artist and the writer. As you’re obviously at this moment very much aware, the prohibitive cost of telephone calls means that you’d be reduced to letter-writing. But we’ve struck up a ridiculously voluminous correspondence, and I think we’re also pretty much on the same wavelength. We get on well, we enjoy the same sort of music, the same sort of books, and the same sort of films, and we have pretty similar ideas as to where we’d like to take Swamp Thing, and it’s great. Some of the pencils I’ve seen from the forthcoming issues I think are some of the best work by Steve I’ve ever seen.

There’s a lot of madness in Steve’s pencils, there’s a lot of real slithery, sweaty insanity that tends to crawl off the page at you. I’m trying very much to write stories that will be able to bring that to the forefront, psychologically unhinged sort of tales, inner landscape stories, things like that, which he’s perfect for.

I’m finding the whole experience with DC a real education and a pleasant experience, because from this side of the Atlantic you don’t really know what goes on here. You hear a lot of horror stories about the totalitarianism that exists at Marvel and DC and I was really worried because there’s a lot of stuff I’ve been getting away with over here in Warrior and 2000 A.D.. I thought, it’s going to be different with the Comics Code. But I found that DC has been prepared to follow and encourage the most outrageous ideas. It’s tremendous. My relationship with Len was great; I haven’t had an awful lot to do with Karen yet, I only spoke once to her over the phone, but I don’t expect there’ll be any trouble. I’m enjoying it. (The 1984 Preview Issue, Amazing Heroes #39, January 15, 1984, pp. 100-101.)

 

…Okay, let’s just allow all of that to soak in for a moment.

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.

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Wow.

For those of sufficient age and passionate about their comics, doesn’t it bring back that energy you felt when you first encountered Moore’s Swamp Thing? For the younger readers out there, can you even imagine a comics world before Alan Moore? A time when he was an unknown quantity? I just want to reach back across the decades, grab the freshly-minted teenaged me, give ‘em a good shake and inform him, “you have no idea the joy and wonder that awaits you in the pages of Swamp Thing.”

Swamp Thing?” I would likely reply with great cynicism.

“Yep,” I’d tell him. “Swamp Thing.”

And on a sadder, stranger note… when was the last time you heard Alan Moore speak like this? Not with anger or bitterness, but with hope and joy (specifically about the comics industry)? He was such a different person. But then, I suppose we all were very different when we were young and starting out, compared to where we are now.

If only we could go back there. For real.

Dammit, where is my time machine already??

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