Brandon Thomas writes for Bleeding Cool
Welcome to Anatomy Lessons, an all-new feature series on this site that breaks down my favorite single-issue comics of all time…
It could be a completely self-contained story, or appear smack in the middle of a monster storyline, but in either case it's gotta be great from cover to cover. It has to be the kind of script that fills me with inspiration, and possibly even a little terror. Naturally, we'll get started with the feature's namesake, which just happens to be one of the most astounding single comics known to man. Ladies and gentlemen, let's talk a bit about Alan Moore's script for The Saga of the Swamp Thing #21, appropriately titled "The Anatomy Lesson."
Okay, so there's this thing whenever a new creator comes onboard an established book or character, this important moment that pronounces to the audience that while they respect what has come before them, everything is going to be a little different now. This book now belongs to them, and they're going to prove it. Prove it in a way that's going to force you to make a critical choice, the most important choice you can make with your money and time–am I in or am I out? Is this book, comic, TV show, movie, etc. going to turn into something truly special, or just end up like most everything else? And the sooner this moment happens, the sooner everyone can just get on with it. For some things it takes an entire story arc, or most of the first act, or maybe even the entire first season. But for some things it's almost immediate, like a bolt of lightning that you were never going to escape even if you'd tried. The Anatomy Lesson is definitely one of those things.
It starts innocently enough, with a hauntingly poetic introduction, and the promise of "blood in extraordinary quantities," before cycling into a concise re-telling of Swamp Thing's origin. It's typical comic book stuff, and I mean no disrespect when I say that, but there's the tragic accident, the dramatic transformation, leading to the birth of a new and strange persona. All very effective and time-honored concepts within the superhero genre, but it's not enough for what Alan Moore is planning for Alec Holland, and as the character is physically taken apart, and all the trappings that he never really needed are casually tossed away, comes the revelation that everything we thought we knew about the character was wrong. The Swamp Thing was never a man at all, but a walking talking plant that wholeheartedly believed that he was one.
Wow. Wow, that's cool.
Classic reinvention that's actually more of a reinterpretation, but it's definitely what the kids call a game-changer, and it's Alan Moore creating that moment I was just talking about, one that allows for only one reasonable answer—yes, I'm all the way in and was there ever any doubt? You consider that this happens on page 12 and it becomes even more remarkable. And while you're sitting there completely stunned at how Moore did it, and how quickly and effectively he did it, the man plant begins to grow back and one of the scripts many great pieces of narration appears—
"He should have let me finish. He should have listened. Then I'd have been able to explain the most important thing of all to him. I'd have been able to explain that you can't kill a vegetable by shooting it through the head."
But what will happen when the vegetable learns the awful truth, that everything he ever wanted truly is impossible? A great escape obviously, but before that, a great murder, and another set of great lines—
"And will there be blood? I don't know, I don't know if there will be blood. It isn't important. It won't spoil things if there is no blood. The blood doesn't matter. Just the dying. The dying's all that matters."
And after all that, what can possibly happen next? Where could this story and this character possibly go next? When the beginning is actually the end, what comes after that? You finish this story, and there's nothing you can do to resist the urge to find out. One of the greatest comic scripts I've ever read, both inspirational and truly terrifying in both its complexity and its simplicity, and I expect most of you folks of fine taste agree.
Extremely confident that Alan Moore will make quite a few more appearances in this feature, but where else could we start but here? How could Swamp Thing be this important to comics' storied history? I really don't know, but it is, and this is where the fun and the greatness and the awe truly began. Proof that at the end of the day, characters don't matter nearly as much as creators do. And that will always be something of a comforting thought.
Thanks, and be on the lookout for more Anatomy Lessons in the near future…
Brandon Thomas writes comics and writes about comics. He's written stories for Dynamite, Marvel, DC, and Arcade Comics, and co-created The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury, with artist Lee Ferguson, which is available right now from Archaia in OGN format.