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It’s been a long haul, a long read, a longer writing and we’re at last at the final chapter of this autopsy of an issue, Saga of the Swamp Thing #20 (1983), which has at last been reprinted for the first time ever in the new DC/Vertigo hardcover collected Swamp Thing.
I hope you’ve found this engaging, entertaining and most of all informative and useful. As time permits, I will offer more essays of this nature here at Myrant in the coming months.
One more time: the ground rules for these archival posts:
1. Post links to Myrant, please – don’t lift graphics for your own blog, journal or website.
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 future projects of this kind.
Thanks for respecting these, folks.
Note, too, that though I’ve done my utmost to make this analysis as comprehensive and accurate as possible, referencing all (and posting and/or footnoting many) available archived documents in my files, I welcome any and all comments that might correct, revise or confirm the memories I’m sharing here. Please note that Rick Veitch has posted his memories on the comments thread, and John Totleben wrote me after the first part was posted, saying, “As far as your recollections about that issue, it seems to jibe with what I remember after all these years!” John then offered his input, which, with his explicit permission, I have incorporated.
That said, please read the comments threads accompanying each chapter, and enjoy.
As I said, the end of this autopsy is, at best, an anticlimax.
Its genuine ‘climax’ is all that came after, beginning with “The Anatomy Lesson” in Saga of the Swamp Thing #21.
But still, there was an ending.
In the end, as it all got down to the wire, John Totleben gave Saga of the Swamp Thing #20 just a little bit more.
I no longer have clear photocopies of Dan Day’s pencils of the last six pages of the issue. They’re too faded and discolored to scan properly; take my word for it, though, that John extensively reworked the key climactic pages extensively, completely redrawing pages 22 and 23 completely.
Here’s Alan’s script for those final two pages. Note the page numbers for the script itself — yes, this was a 43-page script:
Though Dan’s pencils stuck to the script, they lacked punch, drama, juice.
With editor Len Wein’s license to “Make it look good!” ringing in his ears, which, as John noted last installment, he “took as his blessing to do whatever I needed to achieve that end,” John consulted Alan’s script closely and completely revamped the final two pages. Had Len not had the foresight to ensure all of us had copies of Alan’s script, this would not have been possible — and I stress again, this was not typical of the era, letting the inker see script pages, much less have a full copy of the entire script.
John had to make the death of the original incarnation of the Swamp Thing powerful, memorable.
Understand that for John, there was an emotional investment well beyond anything Dan could have brought to the page. For John, there was in fact an emotional investment beyond that any of us had, as yet, brought to any pages of Saga of the Swamp Thing, and that the series had arguably never seen before.
I opened this multi-chapter autopsy with a dedication to John, noting that he was the fellow who arrived at the Joe Kubert School in the fall of 1977 with a deep and abiding love for the ten issues of Swamp Thing Len Wein and Berni Wrightson had created in the early 1970s.
It indeed was deep, abiding and had in fact shaped John’s path as an artist. John’s distinctive style was firmly grounded in Berni’s body of work, and John being John, he had not only emulated Berni’s pen and brush line, John had researched and studied all Wrightson’s precursors and predecessors and incorporated it all into his own art, making it his own with the firm knowledge he was part of a grand tradition.
The death of the ‘old’ Swamp Thing had resonance and meaning for John, as it had for Len (this was, remember, one of Len’s four-color ‘children’).
The death of the ‘old’ Swamp Thing was also essential to the next step, which John and I were positively slavering over: the reinvention of Swamp Thing the very next issue.
We’d already exchanged long, passionate letters with Alan about it, sent one another sketches for radical redesigning of the character, and with that our dreams of what was possible in Saga of the Swamp Thing — hell, what was possible in comics — had grown.
But first, Swamp Thing had to die…
By its very nature, an autopsy like this has no climax.
It’s always an anticlimax for those of us working on the comics themselves.
Because, you see, by its very nature, work on a periodical series essentially never ends.
Your time and tenure can and will and does end, but the series will never end.
By the time you’ve finished one issue, the next one is already under way, and has been in progress for some time already — that’s why there’s a script in your hand when you’ve finished page 23 of one issue and start the very next day on page 1 of the next.
When Rick Veitch referred in his comment to, at the time SOTST #21 was suddenly on the drawing board, “recognizing a certain tone in your voice over the phone that told me you were stuck in one of your blue funks again and unable to draw. …You and I had already been through thick and thin at that time, so I sort of knew when you were stuck and also knew how the book was hanging by a hair…,” you have to understand the weird mix of exhileration and exhaustion attendant to doing a monthly comic.
Shit, I was tired. We’d just run a fucking marathon.
No, we hadn’t, I had to remind myself daily: I was in a marathon that, if all went well, would never end.
Shit, we were all tired.
My wife and I had had a newborn baby, our nine-to-ten-week-old daughter, at home. She’d come into the world just a few weeks ago in our bedroom, just two doors away from my in-house studio.
Shit, John was tired. I mean, while all this was happening, John and Michelle got married (and we couldn’t go — we had a newborn, and there were SOTST pages due; I missed one of my best friend’s weddings!).
John and Michelle should be on their honeymoon; John shouldn’t have been slinging ink in the wee hours night after night.
I wanted a breather.
Just a day, maybe two — oh, wait, Maia’s awake.
It’s four in the morning and I’m pencilling SOTST #21 and Maia’s awake and Nancy is asleep and badly needs to sleep, so I put the pencil down and go and get my daughter and take her in my arms and sit with her a while until she falls asleep in my arms. God, look at her. My daughter.
I put her back to bed, in her crib in our bedroom. Nancy is still asleep.
Then, back to work.
I love stories that end.
There would be no breather.
There could be no breather.
This story couldn’t end, wouldn’t end for months, years to come, and when that end came, it only meant I was no longer working on Swamp Thing, somebody else was (Rick, thankfully), and when it came it was sad and lonesome and unhappy and didn’t feel like a proper ending; it just meant I was finally off the book.
Some thrive on the crazy endless stream of deadlines– Rick Veitch and Tim Truman, foremost among my immediate peers, seem to thrive upon this more than anyone! — but I never, ever got used to it. I never would. Drawing periodical comics mean there is never a climax.
There is never an end.
When it’s really ended and over, you’re out of a job — and on to finding or starting the next one.
In fact, there’s nothing special about this story.
There’s nothing extraordinary about this at all.
It happens all the time.
This kind of thing goes on all the time, every day, all around the world, every day of every week of every year.
One deadline just means another deadline.
It never ends.
There are no endings.
There can be no climax to this autopsy.
By the time John put the finishing touches on the final two pages of SOTST #20, Len Wein was due to return to the DC offices.
When he got there, the completed pages were on his desk.
The first pages of SOTST #21, with an able and eager and much-needed pencilling assist from Rick Veitch, were on their way, too.
Alan was almost done with the script to SOTST #22, taking the series and character in a wholly new direction.
We were already into the rebirth of Swamp Thing.
That rebirth was the culmination of a vision of the character John had held since Rick and I first met John at the Kubert School — now possible thanks to Len Wein’s decision to radically redirect a failing series by taking a chance on a new young art team who’d cut their teeth on three issues (and three pages) of a troubled series on the rocks; taking a chance on a relatively unknown and (in American comics) untested young writer in faraway Northampton, England.
It was possible because Len was at last trusting us with a character of his own collaborative creation. That was a mighty leap for Len to make. We did our utmost to reward that trust.
Thanks to Alan Moore and Dan Day making their impossible deadlines, and to John not only making the deadline but putting his all and then some into the finishes of Dan’s pencils amid the hubbub of his wedding to Michelle, the rebirth of Swamp Thing was now possible thanks to SOTST #20 being done, and being done when it needed to be done, “do or die.”
The rest, as they say, is history.