I’ve decided to kick off 2012 by launching a new series-within-a-series. I’m not sure how often I’ll do this (Will it be monthly? Maybe!), but I want to devote a “When Words Collide” column every once in a while to something I’m going to call “Before They Were Famous.” But instead of taking a celebrity — or in the case of comics, a writer or artist, or even a character — and looking at what they did before everyone knew their name, I’m going to reread the issue of a comic book series that hit the stands right before a new creator or creative team came in to do a now-legendary run.
What was that last pre-Walt Simonson “Thor” issue really like? How about that “Stormwatch” issue before Warren Ellis showed up? Or “Doom Patrol” immediately preceding Grant Morrison? Or even something as recent as the last issue of “Detective Comics” before Scott Snyder began his run?
I’m genuinely curious to see what was going on in those comics and to read (or, in most cases, reread) those less-than-famous issues with an eye toward exploring these kinds of questions: what’s the difference between “good” comics and “bad” comics? What was so distinct about these comics that made the following run so legendary? Are some of these comics just so terrible that anything would have looked great by comparison? Or are these comics good in their own right, but there was just something special about the new creative team that soon arrived?
I may not directly address any of these questions, but they will be in my mind as I look back at these “Before They Were Famous” issues. If you have been any kind of regular “When Words Collide” reader, you know I can be discursive whenever I try to focus on a single topic, and that’s kind of the point here. These lesser-than issues are the launching pad, and I’ll use them to jump off and expound on whatever ideas seem to relate. Or maybe I’ll just talk about what’s inside the pages of that one issue. You never know!
This week’s subject: the issue before one of the most famous runs of all time. The “Swamp Thing” issue that came out right before Alan Moore came in to change the landscape of American comic books forever.
This comic? “The Saga of the Swamp Thing” #19, cover-dated December, 1983.
On first glance, this issue looks like it comes straight from the middle of Alan Moore’s run on the series, even though he had nothing to do with this comic book until a month later, when he started to tie up Marty Pasko’s loose ends with a story entitled, shockingly, “Loose Ends.”
But unlike most other famous runs, Alan Moore didn’t come into this series and begin with a brand new #1 issue or even make his entrance with a new artist using a distinctly different visual style. Steve Bissette and John Totleben had already in place on “Swamp Thing” since issue #16. Though Dan Day drew Moore’s first issue, Totleben’s strong inks maintained the consistency with what preceded and followed. From an artistic point of view, there isn’t much to differentiate the Alan Moore issues from the ones that came right before. Even colorist Tatjana Wood and letterer John Costanza remained throughout.
The cover of issue #19 does look a bit different from most of what appeared under Moore’s run. Tom Yeates, the artist of this series when it relaunched under its “Saga” title, provides the pen and ink, and the rubbery-looking muck monster resembles the Swamp Thing of old, while almost immediately under Moore’s run, the Swamp Thing himself became much shaggier, mossier, with vegetation growing out of him from all sides. Still, Abby is there, on that issue #19 cover. It’s Swamp Thing and Abby, and a grotesque Anton Arcane, drawn by a Kubert school graduate. Yup, a bit different from what we’d see on the covers of issues #20-64, but not drastically so.
What is different, of course, is the writing of Marty Pasko (writer of “The Saga of the Swamp Thing” from the beginning, barring a couple of Dan Mishkin fill-in issues and some Len Wein/Bernie Wrightson reprint material). Pasko is no less prosaic than Alan Moore, so the amount of words on the page don’t look drastically different from you might find in an issue from the Moore run. If anything, Pasko might be accused of stuffing his pages with too many words, and he was accused of such things, in the very letters columns that he, himself, responded to. In an earlier issue of the series, after getting reader flak for covering up the art with too many word balloons and caption, Pasko even justifies his verbosity by saying that readers of the series tend to like to read and they aren’t showing up because they expect “Swamp Thing” to be a movie or television show.
That’s a radically different perspective than what you’d expect from any comic book writer today. “Give ’em more words to read,” is hardly a popular sentiment from today’s writers of graphic narrative. Unless you’re talking about Dave Sim, but popular sentiments and Dave Sim don’t tend to do a whole lot a’ mixin’.
So let’s break down Pasko’s writing on “Swamp Thing” #19, and see what the problems are, besides his probably erroneous assumption that readers of the series liked to read a lot of words. Plot-wise, the issue’s kind of a mess, and it’s not enough to say that it was Pasko attempting to wrap up everything before the incoming writer took over, because even if that was Pasko’s plan, there’s not a whole lot of wrapping up in this issue. What we get is (1) the conclusion of a fight between Swamp Thing and Matt Cable’s hallucinations-made-psychically-real, (2) the aftermath of that fight, and some Matt Cable exposition, (3) Anton Arcane declaring his plan for revenge as he (4) has his Un-Men cocoon Helmut Kripptmann in preparation for some mind transfer thing he has going on, while (5) Liz Tremayne and Dennis Barclay have some alone time in a broken-down pick-up truck, and (6) Swamp Thing fights Arcane passively, relying on some unexplained bio-feedback to defeat his enemy, and (7) maybe Arcane dies at the end, but Swamp Thing’s going to go look.
This is all happening in a regular-sized issue while the overarching plot — of the Sunderland Corporation and D.D.I. teaming up to capture and kill Swamp Thing and his friends — marches forward.
It’s not just that Pasko has too much going on in the issue, it’s that the jumps from one scene to another are graceless, happening in the bottom panel of a seven-panel page, for example, or without any real thematic parallels to make everything feel like it’s part of the same story. Moore brought elegant transitions and a sincere nod to thematic unity as soon as he started writing.
Pasko, he brought sentences like, “It shall mean that once and for all, I will possess the Swamp Thing’s strong, powerful body…and have my revenge against Alec Holland for dooming me to my current misshapen form — by trapping him within that form!”
Moore displayed a better grasp of authentic diction and syntax, and even his megalomaniacal monsters had the sense not to talk like characters from a 1930’s Universal horror film.
Ultimately, though, what makes “Swamp Thing” #19 just a terrible single issue is that nothing feels like it counts. It’s all whirring machinery of plot (with more exposition than you would ever want or need), and the characters strain so hard against the enormity of every single conflict on every single page that it just doesn’t matter. There’s no respite, until the final panels. It’s unbearable, constantly, which takes away the power of the conflict(s) that arise.
It doesn’t help that, in the build-up to “Swamp Thing” #19, Pasko told stories using a weird dream logic where all of a sudden the protagonist was running from his friends and encountering “Twilight Zone” villages that were full of monsters in disguise (but it was all a dream or was it???), and, yeah, it’s not like this final pre-Moore issue was atypical for Pasko. He was all about overly melodramatic scenes piled on top of one another without any real weight to any of them.
Reading “Swamp Thing” #19 and then Alan Moore’s entrance in #20, and the even better “Anatomy Lesson” in issue #21, it’s easy to see why anyone who was paying attention to the series would have noticed a significant bump in quality, even if the direction of the series didn’t immediately change in any drastic way (though that would come soon enough). Pasko was just writing a series that was drowning in traditional gothic horror elements, and Moore brought a fresh, modern sensibility to mid-1980s superhero-monster comics. You could say that it’s not like Pasko was a bad writer and Moore a good one. It’s just a matter of using a different approach to craft their fiction.
But I’ll say that Pasko was a bad writer and Moore was a good one, so you don’t have to. Because, reading “The Saga of the Swamp Thing” #19, it’s apparent on every page.
So that’s the first installment of “Before They Were Famous,” then. “Swamp Thing” #19 didn’t fare too well, did it? But maybe some of the others will? Maybe?
If you have any suggestions for issues that you’d like to see my tackle for “Before They Were Famous,” post them over at the message board, in response to this week’s column. It could even be a last-issue-before-a-relaunch. That would qualify, under the imaginary rules I just made up.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.