Yes, we are discussing Saga of the Swamp Thing #20 (scheduled for December 1983 cover date, published with January 1984 cover date) — but to do so at this juncture, it is now necessary to provide some serious backstory.
Doing so will make sense of the narrative pages that open SOTST #20, while also making sense of the behind-the-scenes hubbub central to this issue’s creation and to our lives at the time.
You see, if Saga of the Swamp Thing #20 had not been on Len Wein’s desk on a certain day in 1983, Saga of the Swamp Thing would have been unceremoniously but quite definitely cancelled.
It’s not quite Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder, with the crushed Cretaceous butterfly under a boot tread altering the course of human history, but it would have been consequential.
Think about it:
* No Swamp Thing after the Marty Pasko run on the series.
* Alan Moore’s first bloom in American comics, nipped in the bud.
(What would that have meant? No Moore US comics? No subsequent embrace of UK talent like Jamie Delano, Grant Morrison, John Ridgeway, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, etc.?)
* No comics career as we know it for Bissette, Totleben, Veitch — oh, we would have had some kind of comics career, but not what we had and (in Rick’s case), have.
And perhaps: no 1980s DC-led British transformation of comics (yes, I know, Marvel ‘led’ that invasion with Barry Windsor-Smith, the first UK artist published in the US, back in the 1970s, and it was John Bolton with Marada, She Wolf in Bizarre Adventures and Brian Bolland with Camelot 3000 that led the charge in the 1980s), possibly.
* No John Constantine.
* No Vertigo.
*No SOTST #29 breaking and shaking the Comics Code grip on 1980s comics (Jemm, Son of Saturn also spurned the CCA, but to no consequence).
* No Taboo (it was Alan, John’s and my work on SOTST that brought us to Dave Sim’s attention, and led to all that followed).
* No Taboo would mean no From Hell, no Lost Girls, no Throat Sprockets, no Through the Habitrails, no Rain, no Wendy Snow-Lang “Want” and hence no Night’s Children, no US publication of Jodorowsky’s and Moebius’s “Eyes of the Cat,” and so on — a lot of solid work was initially created for, published in, and emerged from, Taboo.
So, Saga of the Swamp Thing #20 was and is a pretty damned important comic.
And as I say, it almost didn’t see light of day.
If Saga of the Swamp Thing #20 had not been ready on the appointed time and day, that would have been quite literally “all she wrote.”
As John Totleben put it (via a personal email this week, which I quote here with John’s permission), “This was …the do or die moment as Len was leaving for a two week vacation and had to have everything on his desk when he returned or the book would be cancelled.
The powers that be, or were, had laid down the decree, but we all know how that panned out in the end!” (I will repeat John’s quote in its full context later; bear with me, please.)
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2. Do NOT lift these posts and/or my text to place them on your blog, journal, flicker pages or whatever.
3. Please respect all copyright notices. This material is shared (with correct copyright ownership noted) in the interest of history for fans, scholars and researchers.
4. If there are any problems, we’ll abandon the project.
Thanks for respecting these, folks.
[Note: I will illustrate the following ramble about what was going on behind the scenes with SOTST #20 with samples of earlier issues behind-the-scenes process, so as to score some visual cues and make some important points with images.
I'll open with Marty Pasko's script for John Totleben's and my first issue as the new art team on Saga of the Swamp Thing, #16. The issue was cover dated August 1983, and it shipped on time.
These opening script pages will prove that Marty's plotting SOTST #19 as he did was not typical of his work, work ethic or career. The juxtaposition of script and art pages will demonstrate how well Marty and I worked together as a team, and how thorough his scripts were in articulating his visual concepts.
Furthermore, tracking a few key pages from SOTST #17-19 afterwards will provide essential plot points that will help make sense of the opening pages of Alan Moore's first issue, SOTST #20.
These are also proferred to reinforce the time frame in which events took place. The captions will also bring to your attention the key points essential to the history we're about to cover.]
[Marty Pasko's Hollywood-style script cover to SOTST #16; as John and I had seen during our amigo Tom Yeates' tenure as artist on the title, Marty's scripts typically were delivered in the format of TV scripts, with a cover providing draft and delivery dates -- note the on this script, January 14, 1983, and keep it in mind! -- and colored pages indicating changes made between drafts. Note, too, I truncated this cover in the scanning process to remove Marty's address and phone number; this isn't the size of the actual script, which was indeed 8 1/2" x 11". Script ©1983, 2009 DC Comics, Inc.; physical copy property of the SpiderBaby Archives.]
How did Saga of the Swamp Thing #20 get to this critical, near-terminal juncture?
Popular legend would have you believe it was all my fault.
Truth to tell, that entire end-of-winter and spring of 1983, all three members of editor Len Wein’s creative team on Swamp Thing were at their own critical junctures in life.
* Len’s good friend and series writer since the debut issue of Saga of the Swamp Thing Marty Pasko was being pulled in multiple directions: Marty was writing for TV animation, working daily at Ruby-Spears, and was moving.
* My first wife Marlene (then named Nancy) O’Connor and me were celebrating the birth of our first child Maia, named after the Goddess of Spring for her birth at the end of April.
* “Sometimes it’s hard to believe that was over 25 years ago,” John Totleben recalls, “actually, speaking of hard to believe, Michelle and I had just gotten married when I was working on both issues #19 and 20, and this June will mark our 26th anniversary!”
[Compare this with Alan's introductory page to the SOTST #20 script. Marty Pasko's script for SOTST #16 opened as all his did, with instructions to the letterer in case John Costanza wasn't available. Marty codified the Swamp Thing word balloons, captions and lettering stylizations here, which Alan subsequently modified somewhat. Script ©1983, 2009 DC Comics, Inc.; physical copy property of the SpiderBaby Archives.]
So, it was the perfect storm, actually:
Len was dealing with a writer who was also a close friend falling further and further behind in his freelance deadlines while moving and working daily at a high-pressure TV animation studio.
Said writer was feeding script to a penciller who’d never worked on a monthly comic and (best case scenario) took five weeks to pencil an issue and was at this point also juggling the nervewracking final weeks of pregnancy, the drama of a home-birth (and a prolonged, dangerous one at that, as it turned out, though Maia and Marlene ended up just fine), and adjusting to life as a parent with a newborn. (There was some vindication later in life when John and Michelle gave birth to their daughters. During one of our marathon catch-up phone calls, John said, “You know, I had no idea what you were dealing with when we were working on Swamp Thing. Now I know better! I honestly don’t think I could have juggled all of that while we were working on the book.”)
This semi-traumatized penciller was in turn feeding pages to an inker about to marry his fiance, with all the family drama wedding preparation and weddings necessarily involve.
And all the while, across the Atlantic, Alan Moore was writing in a cramped, paper-piles-spilling-over corner of the cramped Northampton flat he lived in with his first wife Phyllis and their two young daughters Leah and Amber, doing his level best to not blow it with his big break into better-paying American comics, working for the first time ever with 23 pages instead of 6-to-8 to tell a story.
No wonder Len was damned near a nervous breakdown himself.
“I’m outta here for two weeks!” I recall him saying on the phone. “It’s all over if we don’t get these ducks in a row while I’m gone.”
Those ducks were:
1. Finishing all work on SOTST #19 despite the fact there was no script. I was in fact pencilling piecemeal from Marty’s fleeting, often panicked phone calls, feeding me plot a page or few pages at a time, after which I rushed pages directly via Fed X to John Totleben for inks, then back they went to Len to incorporate Marty’s final captions and dialogue so Len could get them, piecemeal, to letterer John Constanza.
2. Brand-new series writer Alan Moore, writing for the first time ever for an American publisher, had to create from scratch not one but two full issue scripts in record time, and hopefully have a third (SOTST #22) underway by July.
3. Dan Day — who had never worked on this character or series, and as John recalls later admitted to John that “he was really not all that into drawing monsters and creepy horror stuff and felt a bit out of his element” – frantically pencilling the complete issue for a stressed and decidedly unhappy editor and John Totleben finishing all work on SOTST #20. All work. Done. Period.
4. My starting, with the planned assistance of Rick Veitch for the panels set in Sunderland’s monolithic building, pencils on SOTST #21, and finishing them in three weeks. Period.
All this amid Marty’s move and job at Ruby-Spears (he was a staff writer there, if memory serves, and still freelancing), John and Michelle’s wedding and adjusting to newlywed life, and the birth of Maia-Rose Bissette and Marlene and I recovering/adjusting to our new life as parents.
This was the reality for those of us working on the Saga of the Swamp Thing, May-early July of 1983.
[Page one proper of Marty Pasko's script for SOTST #16; note Marty's clarity and precision. The man was and is a pro, and this self-standing issue marked a departure from the earlier Saga of the Swamp Thing series in that Marty eschewed the convoluted plotting that had so complicated the series in its previous fifteen issues. This was a new direction he intended to forge working with John and I -- after he sorted out the convoluted plotting of the previous fifteen issues and brought it to some sort of resolution. Script ©1983, 2009 DC Comics, Inc.; physical copy property of the SpiderBaby Archives.]
No wonder John and I decided my calling in Rick Veitch to work a couple of days on SOTST #21 pencils was a remarkably sound and astute idea!
In fact, Marty had been falling steadily behind in the three issues between Tom Yeates’s final issue, SOTST #15, and the potential clusterfuck that had become SOTST #19 and SOTST #20.
Despite starting out behind the eight-ball themselves — Tom Yeates has always maintained DC jumped the planned schedule from the first issue, constantly placing him behind from the start — every monthly issue of Saga of the Swamp Thing for 1982-1983 was cover dated consecutively, until September of 1983.
There is no September 1983 Saga of the Swamp Thing — SOTST #16 is cover dated August, and SOTST #17 is cover dated October.
Marty fell behind, and I took five-six weeks to pencil each issue of SOTST #16 and #17.
We were in a world of hurt by the time Alan Moore climbed on board.
[Playing well together: Marty Pasko's script page with special visual instructions, Bissette pencil page following said instructions, from SOTST #16 (scripted January 1983, pencilled January-February 1983, cover dated August 1983); script and artwork ©1983, 2009 DC Comics, Inc.; physical archival materials property of SpiderBaby Archives.]
Remember, this was my first time pencilling a monthly book.
Prior to my stint on Saga of the Swamp Thing, I had pencilled an earlier project with Marvel Comics — the never-published Marvel Science Series, initiated by writer Michael Hollingshead and completed with editor/writer Jim Shooter (and whoooboy, is that a tale to tell one day, better left alone now) — but those pencils were for me to ink (we indeed completed the first issue, twice, and I fully pencilled the second issue before Shooter pulled the plug on the project and wished me good luck with my new gig for the competition, DC, on a comic called Saga of the Swamp Thing).
I had often collaborated with others — jamming on earlier stories with Rick Veitch and John Totleben — but those free-form jazz-like exchanges of pages and stages weren’t locked into industry standards. Saga of the Swamp Thing was a steep learning curve of how to pencil for an editor; even though I knew the inks were going to be done by John, it was Len I had to satisfy, not John.
[Introducing Arcane's dragonfly ship, which figures in the first pages of Alan Moore's SOTST #20, and Helmut Kripptmann is kidnapped by Arcane: pencils by Bissette, SOTST #17 (cover dated October 1983), page 12, script by Marty Pasko, lettering by John Costanza. Note that I did all caption and balloon placement in the pencils, as that is so critical to the flow of reader's eye movement and the reading of the page -- one of the key reasons I so loathed the 'Marvel method,' which removes that vital compositional tool from the artist's hands. Alas, we had to use the 'Marvel method' on SOTST #19, and it suffers for that, though I tried to anticipate that and factor it into my pencils, though I was pencilling from dictated plot pages, not a script. Art ©1983, 2009 DC Comics, Inc.; physical archival materials property of SpiderBaby Archives.]
It was a very different process, and I applied myself to the task at hand with all the energy and timeliness I could muster. Still, it took me five weeks to pencil an issue. From SOTST #16 to my final issue with Alan and editor Karen Berger, it took me on average five weeks to pencil an issue.
This is a problem on a monthly title.
But I wasn’t Len’s only problem.
Had I been the problem alone, Len would have simply scheduled a fill-in art team or issue, or fired me. Simple as that; it happens all the time.
Len did, in fact, schedule a reprint issue — SOTST #18, which framed a reprint of Len’s and Berni Wrightson’s classic Swamp Thing #10, “The Man Who Would Not Die!”, with three new pages and one new panel of Marty, me and John’s work to maintain story continuity.
[Playing well together: Bissette pencil page and John Totleben ink page, from SOTST #18 (November 1983), the page leading directly into the reprint of Len Wein and Berni Wrightson's classic "The Man Who Would Not Die" from the original Swamp Thing series, issue #10, which introduced the monstrous incarnation of Arcane and the Un-Men. John and I decided to radically revamp the Un-Men and give Arcane his spider-like carriage carrying exoskeleton, a design done in collaboration with Marty Pasko. On this page, Arcane rants at Kripptmann, who he will transform in SOTST #19 into an insectlike Un-Man, which should set you up for the SOTST #19 plot-and-pencils below; script and artwork ©1983, 2009 DC Comics, Inc.; physical archival materials property of SpiderBaby Archives.]
Despite this, we were still horribly off-schedule and behind.
Again, had I been the problem, there would have been a full script for SOTST #19, waiting to be pencilled.
By May, we were in dire straits indeed. Check the dates yourself — note the date again on the cover of Marty’s script for SOTST #16, above (January 14, 1983), and you’ll see immediately below when the final pages of plot arrived (July 1983), the date scribed in Marty’s own handwriting (I have blocked out Marty’s address and phone number in these scans).
Do the math yourself:
Given the January delivery date of SOTST #16′s script, I should have had the script for SOTST #19 in my hand by April — before my daughter Maia was born.
Instead, I was pencilling from dictated plot, not script — dictated to me over the phone in protracted three-page increments — throughout May-July, and the written plot arrived via Express Mail in July (this was long before the internet, and we couldn’t receive FAXes in Wilmington VT at this time):
The fact is, SOTST #19 was almost completely pencilled before these typewritten plot pages arrived in Wilmington, VT via Express Mail.
As I said, Marty had been feeding them to me, dictated page by page (sometimes in three page sequences), over the phone. I had been frantically writing notes to draw from as he read me the pages, and pencilled them from my notes.
This complete plot outline Marty had typed and finally Express Mailed to me the first week in July, 1983 was necessary for Marty’s process with Len and DC invoicing. I didn’t need it by July.
John was already about done with the inks on SOTST #19 and already inking #20, in fact, and Marty was no doubt seeing to the final writing of dialogue balloons and captions as this arrived at my door, so John Constanza could letter the original art after John had inked the pages.
Again, mind you, this was not standard operating procedure for any of us, further proof of just how dire the scheduling on the title was at this point.
[Kripptmann emerges from his cocoon as a bug-Un-Man, and sacrifices himself to electrocute Arcane; pencil page 18 from SOTST #19 (December 1983). Artwork ©1983, 2009 DC Comics, Inc.; physical archival materials property of SpiderBaby Archives.]
Note, too, both the first page of Alan’s SOTST #20 script — which Alan cover dated as being the December 1983 issue — and the fact that SOTST #19 was in fact the cover-dated December 1983 issue.
With Marty’s plot arriving the first few days in July, there would have been no way we’d have had SOTST #19 done in time — had Marty and I not been on the phone the prior four-five weeks, and I not been feeding pencilled pages to John all along.
However, it’s handy today to have Marty’s plot pages in hand.
I can now bring you all right up to the end of SOTST #19 by sharing with you never-before-seen Pasko plot pages and never-before-seen Bissette pencils of those pages. Though I didn’t see the Fed X plot pages until after the fact, these were in fact the typed material Marty had read to me over the phone in prior weeks and days, so they match up pretty well.
Here’s the end of SOTST #19, folks, via Marty’s plot outline and my pencils. I have skipped running page 20′s art for space reasons (Jesus, this is a long post today!), but the plot is complete to the final page. I’ve also inserted a page of John’s inks, to keep process front-and-center as best I can.
Note, too, these pencilled pages are way more note-to-the-inker heavy than usual; since John didn’t have the benefit of any script pages to reference, I made tons of notes on the pencils themselves, then we went over everything on the phone as we always did.
As you can see, I poured everything I had into these pages — I really wanted to make this issue work, and make Arcane’s demise as horrific and memorable as possible. Crazy as it all was, the insanity of everything — Len’s freaking out, Marty’s late-night crazyass phone calls, late nights up with little Maia, Marlene’s utter exhaustion post-birth and dealing with everything, the fear and dread of losing my job (with a newborn to feed), and the anticipation of having the chance to work with Alan Moore (we’d already exchanged lengthy letters, and couldn’t wait to begin the collaboration) — went right into these pencils.
Thanks for bearing with my through this tortured chronology today, but you need to see the following pages to make sense of Alan Moore’s script and Dan Day and John Totleben’s SOTST #20 pages you’ll be seeing tomorrow. Enjoy:
Now, ain’t that some fucking crazy shit?
[All from SOTST #19 (December 1983); script/plot pages and artwork ©1983, 2009 DC Comics, Inc.; physical archival materials property of SpiderBaby Archives.]
Next time: Process on Saga of the Swamp Thing #20, including Alan Moore script, Dan Day pencils and John Totleben inks!
For more on Marty Pasko and the Saga of the Swamp Thing issues Marty scripted:
And that’s all I’ve got today, folks.