AFTER THEY WERE FAMOUS: “SWAMP THING” #65
In 2012, I did a semi-monthly series of posts looking at comic book issues released right before a more-famous run. The issue before Frank Miller’s “Batman,” or Grant Morrison’s “Doom Patrol,” or Peter David’s “Hulk.” I did a bunch of them, and it was partly an act of reading a comic I knew wouldn’t be as good as some other comics in that same series and taking a look at what the not “as good” looked like — and trying to figure out where the comic went astray — but also it was about contrasting one approach to a series with another, more successful one. For me, it was a chance to think about specific comics by putting them side-by-side with other comics in a specific way. I like to see how things work and when they don’t work, I like to try to see why.
So I’m back again with something similar but completely different. Because now I want to take a look at the comic book issue that immediately followed a more famous run.
Genius, right? Or is it just really obvious?
Well, it’s certainly a way to explore some comics I’m curious about. Some comics that had the inglorious job of picking up where a spectacularly successful (critically, if not commercially in all cases) run ended and then trying to tap into that reader enthusiasm but do something that was a bit different. How do you follow greatness?
Let’s find out. This time, we’ll look at Rick Veitch’s “Swamp Thing” #65 from October 1987, a single issue that had an almost impossible task: follow Alan Moore’s legendary run without repeating it beat by beat and somehow still get people to come back for the continuing adventures of the non-Moore muck monster.
Veitch came to the task with a major advantage: he was one of the regular artists of the series as Moore was writing it, and my understanding is that he may have helped out with some of the issues even when he wasn’t credited, since he was part of the Steve Bissette/John Totleben/former Kubert School crew that had redefined the look of “The Saga of the Swamp Thing” even before Alan Moore came on as the writer back in issue #20.
“Swamp Thing” #65 looks like a smooth transition from the Moore days to the post-Moore days. It looks like a continuation. Look at the Totleben cover, which might have fit any number of previous issues. Look at the opening page, with its white-haired Abigail in repose and the husk of the Swamp Thing sitting as a shelter for local fauna. Look through the issue and see some of the very same iconography we had seen in the previous few years: the Parliament of Trees, Anton Arcane, Matt Cable, John Constantine, and Swampy’s hallucinogenic tubers.
Rick Veitch didn’t shatter reader expectations or radically redefine the series in his first issue as ongoing writer and artist. He just continued the story, his way, which looked, on the surface, a lot like the old way.
But it wasn’t.
Rick Veitch may have built his stories using the component parts of the Alan Moore narrative machine, and he used his first issue to provide enough backstory that it could actually be considered “a good jumping on point” — and I wonder if anyone in the world waited to jump on with this issue, and how it felt to miss even the end of Moore’s legendary run and then have the Veitch run be the first experience with the character — but Rick Veitch was (and is) interested in different things. While Alan Moore used the series to explore his own nostalgia for American superheroes and apply a more poetic approach to the DC gods like Batman and Superman and Green Lantern and take the protagonist through a variety of genres, as well as several descents into literal or metaphorical hell, he seemed most interested in giving us a love story with a cocoon of horror.
Veitch flips that priority, and the tone, and gives us a kind of Grotesque Romanticism.
It’s not quite horror, and if it is, it’s not the vicious, razor-to-the-eyeball kind. It’s the lumbering, creepy, moldy, hallucination-filled kind. It’s soggier and more like the smell inside an old Volkswagen Microbus. It’s no surprise that uber-hippy Chester Williams returns as a prominent character in Veitch’s run. Chester is both the reader’s portal into the world of weirdness and the personification of the Veitch aesthetic, particularly when he’s thrust into the more bizarre corners of Swamp Thing’s world. He’s not a Veitch creation, and he certainly doesn’t appear in all the issues, but Chester — based on Steve Bissette’s old roommate — is an appropriate icon for the trippy turns the series undergoes with Veitch.
In “Swamp Thing” #65, Chester doesn’t yet appear, but so many other icons of the past (as I mentioned above) pop up on various pages. Mostly, they are visions — ghosts of the past — as Abby walks through the swamp, under the influence of one of the hallucinogenic tubers from her lover’s empty husk. Veitch impressively pays tribute to previous storylines while establishing the direction for his overall approach. This is Act I of a new play, and it sets everything up, including this little germ of idea:
When Swamp Thing was traveling through space near the end of the Alan Moore run — a story arc supposedly inspired by Rick Veitch’s desire to add a sci-fi element to the series since he was now the primary artist after the departure of Bissette, and it was a story arc Moore embraced — he had left a hole in the Green. A new elemental had been gestating to replace the absent Swamp Thing. A little glowing embryonic form.
The Parliament of Trees tells Swamp Thing to kill the not-quite-born would-be-elemental. There has never been two of these guardians of the Green in existence at one time. It’s either Swamp Thing or his replacement. We can’t have both.
“I believe… there has been… enough killing,” says Swamp Thing. “I believe… that this one… deserves a chance… at life.”
Swamp Thing floats away, out of the Green, recognizing that his time has passed, and that he no longer wants the burdens of his elemental responsibilities. “My reign… has ended,” he tells John Constantine later, as issue #65 comes to a close. “Swamp Thing is dead.”
And then he’s gone. Veitch doesn’t have Swamp Thing disappear from his mossy shell, and have the husk drop to the ground. Instead, there’s a “sssshhhrak!” of the comic-booky sort that we didn’t see much of (or any that I recall, really) in Moore’s run, and Swamp Thing’s essence explosively leaves his body, throwing Constantine to the ground with concussive force. Veitch has Jack Kirby in his guts where Alan Moore had Ramsey Campbell, and it shows in scenes like this.
But Swamp Thing isn’t really dead. He has plenty of adventures ahead of him, under Rich Veitch’s bloodshot eye. Yet the course is clear. A new Swamp Thing is soon to be born, and though it’s not obvious in this issue, it’s not surprising in future issues when Abby becomes the mother for this new elemental. The glowing yellow embryonic form was the thing that would become known, one day, as Tefe Holland, the daughter of the Swamp Thing.
But Rick Veitch would never get to tell that whole story. He would walk away from the series, outraged at the last-minute censorship in “Swamp Thing” #88, where a time-traveling Swamp Thing would act as a cup-bearer at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Reportedly, the script was approved, and the art had been completed (or mostly completed) by Michael Zulli, but panic from the corporate level killed the issue before it could be finished and printed. It’s one of the most famous unfinished comic book runs of all time, aborted near its proposed end and Veitch was replaced by writer Doug Wheeler who concluded what Veitch began, minus the Jesus story, but without anything close to Veitch’s Grotesque Romanticism. Wheeler’s approach, probably under more corporate scrutiny than Veitch faced up until the trouble with issue #88, was more Swamp-Based Slice-of-Life, and it was deadly dull.
Veitch may not have been able to finish his multi-year story, but he managed to do the near-impossible by picking up where Alan Moore left off and telling a compelling story in his own voice. “Swamp Thing” #65 may not stand alongside Moore’s best issues, but it is a good comic, and it begins a run that’s worth reading even though it doesn’t get a chance to end.
One more thing: Veitch’s final issue, June 1989’s “Swamp Thing” #87, includes a letter by the sixteen-year-old version of me. There I am, right after “Floyd Barber” (he must have dropped the “D.” by then), and one of the things I wrote, 24 years ago, is this: “Mr. Veitch is telling a terrific story and he has brought ‘Swamp Thing’ back to the top. I hope he keeps it up!”
He didn’t. He wasn’t allowed to. And that’s the heartbreak of comics. The Grotesque truth of the Romantic dreams of youth.