Second part of our exclusive interview and Steve Bissette talks about working with Alan Moore and John Totleben on the revolutionary Swamp Thing series.
Wellington Srbek: If I had to choose one single comics that had influenced me as a comic book author, no doubt it would be Swamp Thing #21 “The Anatomy Lesson” story. It takes its name from a famous Rembrandt painting and is in its own way a “lesson” on how to write comics. You and John Totleben already knew Alan Moore’s work from the pages of Warrior magazine, so working on that script might have been an absolutely exciting experience.
Steve Bissette: "The Anatomy Lesson" was my maiden voyage working from one of Alan's scripts, and it was a real awakening. Alan condensed into his script almost EVERYTHING I had ached to do in comics, but never had the clarity and skill as a writer to accomplish, despite having worked by that time over 6 years professionally in comics. John and I indeed had been reading Alan's work in Warrior (and, for me, in 2000 AD) for about three years by that point in time, and my good friend Rick Veitch was also part of that impromptu Colonial Alan Moore fan club -- hence, Rick was the first person I showed the script to, and he helped me pencil a page or three of "The Anatomy Lesson" to make the deadline. It was a communal effort, and by then John and I had already begun exchanging long letters and packages with Alan via snail-mail across the Atlantic (this was long, long before the internet and email).
One thing Alan accomplished so well in that first script -- though I'd also read his script to Swamp Thing #20, I didn't pencil that issue, nor was it representative of what Alan was capable of -- was incorporating storytelling techniques and an orientation to the narrative that I associated with Nicolas Roeg's films from the 1970s, which remain among my favorites of all time. In our first letters, Alan and I quickly established this as one of our common points of interest, an influence I'd also recognized in Bryan Talbot's Luther Arkwright stories and graphic novel. That conceit -- which I can best describe as sort of telling a story from the middle out, almost like a mosaic, which creates non-linear links in the reader's mind particularly attuned to how images and actions resonate apart from traditional modes of storytelling -- was central to what I had long WANTED to do in comics, but couldn't find a way. Alan did it effortlessly, and in just 23 pages. Magic.
WS: It’s well-known that Alan Moore welcomed script ideas from you and John Totleben, making Swamp Thing really a collaborative effort. The use of Etrigan and the creation of John Constantine are examples of inputs you have given him, right?
SB: Well, yes, though those are each quite different in how they evolved. In short, while Marty Pasko was still scripting Saga Of The Swamp Thing (Marty was the writer on the title from #1-19), John Totleben and I brainstormed a batch of story ideas and mailed them to Marty and our editor Len Wein. Among those was the Demon/Etrigan concept, which we articulated as a premise pretty much as Alan finally scripted it, including the school for autistic children, the Monkey King (from Jack Kirby's original run on The Demon) and so on. My (first) wife, to whom I was married at the time, worked at a school for autistic children in Wilmington, Vermont, called The Green Meadows School. Significantly, when Alan selected that story concept as one he'd like to develop, he wrote and spoke at some length with my first wife Nancy O'Connor -- she also co-edited and co-published Taboo 1 and 2, and now goes by the name Marlene O'Connor. Alan's conversations with her fleshed out the story considerably, and I drew many of my wife's fellow Green Meadows workers as Abby's co-workers. Our (late) friend Michael Anderson, who worked at Green Meadows at that time, also drew some of the 'kid's drawings' that I used on the splash page of the final chapter, and in the story. Michael had a genuinely primitive drawing style, and it worked beautifully in that context.
Constantine evolved differently. Unlike the Demon/Monkey King storyline, or Nukeface -- a character that was entirely John Totleben's creation, in a story concept John and I had worked out a bit, though again not to the extent Alan finally did -- Constantine grew out of an artist's self-referential prank. John and I were huge fans of the then-new band The Police, and I thought Sting had a really striking face. I penciled him into the background of onlookers at the end of the first chapter of the Demon/Monkey King narrative, and John inked him with care. We told Alan at the time, "Look, we're going to keep placing Sting in the background of any crowd scenes, you'd best work up a character from him, as he's not going away any time soon." Alan did just that, borrowing a bit from Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius while we -- including Rick Veitch, who turned out to guest-pencil the very issue John Constantine was formally introduced in -- adapted Sting's character Ace-Face from the movie Quadrophenia to suit what Alan had cooked up. It worked out nicely, though none of us thought for a nanosecond John Constantine would outlast Swamp Thing, much less have his own comic or help launch what became our editor Karen Berger's influential Vertigo line.
WS: Your work with John Totleben on Swamp Thing has a sense of design and a graphic quality that lack in most of American mainstream comics. His inking always brings substance and atmosphere to your drawings, but at the same time the finished page is so organic and expressive that it seems to be the work of a single artist. How do you explain that kind of artistic synergy?
SB: I can't, really. It really was like the work of a third person, our chemistry was that unique, and I say that sans ego, with all due modesty.
John and I really bonded when we first met as students at the Kubert School -- he arrived the year after I started, John was a member of the second class through the Kubert School gates. We clicked on many levels, including our Catholic backgrounds and shared love for horror movies, comics and fiction. John, it must be said, was the real Swamp Thing and Berni Wrightson devotee, beyond any of us -- we all loved Berni's work, and what Berni and Len had done with Swamp Thing, but John was drawing his own unique take on the character before and during Kubert School. It was John who had that concept of the character as a true vegetable man, overgrown with moss and lichen, infested with insects -- once our Kubert School classmate Tom Yeates landed the job as artist on Saga Of The Swamp Thing, John was assisting Tom starting with the second issue. It was John's concept of the character we ended up doing, which by sheer synchronicity aligned perfectly with Alan's concept of Swamp Thing. In fact, Alan's FIRST letters to John and I expressed that concept, and we both responded, "YES!"
Before Alan's involvement, John had done up a lovely ink drawing of Swamp Thing in the mode John imagined. Tom Yeates showed it to Len Wein at some point, and Len felt it was "too extreme" at the time; that would have been during Tom's first year or so working with Marty Pasko on Saga Of The Swamp Thing. By the time Alan was on board, and proposed a very similar take to the character, with the vital catalyst of "The Anatomy Lesson" and the idea of Swamp Thing regrowing a new body, Len was all for it. It was, again, a marvelous bit of synchronicity, and we couldn't have been happier. When John and I first auditioned to take over the art chores on Swamp Thing, we turned in two sets of sample pages: John inking my pencils on an imaginary sequence involving a giant mutant frog, and my inking John's pencils of a sequence involving Nukeface. Len like what he saw, and recognized at that point that I was the stronger artist in terms of storytelling and page design -- John hadn't really done any sustained narratives at that point in his career, while I'd already done work for Joe Kubert on Sgt. Rock, a series of horror comic stories for scholastic magazines and undergrounds, as well as stories in Heavy Metal, Epic, Bizarre Adventures and so on. John's inks really brought my pencils to life in ways I couldn't and didn't, so there's no doubt Len made the right choice of how we should work together.
After a year or so on Swamp Thing, John had his storytelling chops down, too: he did a solo art job for a Bruce Jones Twisted Tales script, and then of course he and Alan collaborated on John's masterpiece in comics, Miracleman: Olympus. I'd like to think John picked up some of those chops working with me, but it was really working with Alan, from Alan's scripts -- he's such a consummate storyteller, it's almost impossible not to have your mind altered and expanded as an artist when you've worked with Alan.
The work John and I did together on Swamp Thing, especially during our first two years, really was a pretty amazing run for us. We knew we were cooking, that we were on to something. We also knew it was finite, that at some point it would end, so we pushed ourselves to experiment and challenge ourselves and do the absolute best we could. At the time, it felt magical.
Years later, when Neil Gaiman asked John and I to draw his script "Jack-in-the-Green" for Midnight Days, John and I happily jumped back into the fray, though that experience was compromised by the usual fucking business antics of DC. Still, it was fun, and we fell right back into the mode. Neil complimented us, saying he was worried that we wouldn't be able to recapture the chemistry, but we had. It felt like putting back on a comfortable old coat or pair of slippers -- it felt good for nine pages (John did one page solo). But we both knew it was revisiting the past, and took it in stride as that; the bit of melancholy attached tothe process (including DC's nonsense behind the scenes) was appropriate to Neil's script, too.
I decided I'd never have a better swan song out of mainstream comics, hence my 'Farewell' and signature at the very end. No one gave a rat's ass, it wasn't acknowledged by anyone at the time, but at least I said goodbye to everyone on my way out the door, and it was a fitting vehicle in which to do so -- with my old friend John working his magic on my pencils one last time.
I'll also mention that John and I later found out who we were competing against to land the Swamp Thing art job back in 1983. Dave Gibbons was one of the artists in the running, and Art Suydam. I have a sketch by Suydam of his version of Swamp Thing, which is still interesting: he has frog eyes, very amphibian-looking. We had no idea we were up against those artists!
WS: Lets talk about Swamp Thing #34 with its beautiful painted cover and the unique “Rites of Spring” story. Following the example of Stravinsky’s music piece, the issue is an experiment with the medium and also a transgression of themes. After all, hallucinogenic tubers and sex with vegetables have never been a common place in colorful comics. Please, sir, give us any comment on that issue, because I think I just want to say thank you for that one and also for the fabulous #35-36 “The Nuke-Face Papers” stories!
SB: "The Rites of Spring" was another of the stories Alan realized that emerged from ideas John or I suggested. As we were winding up the Demon/Monkey King story, I wrote Alan a postcard saying, "if Abby were a real person, she'd be stark-raving insane by now, given all the horrors she's encountered. Why don't we propose to Karen a single issue in which nothing awful happens -- just a day in the swamp with Abby and Swamp Thing, enjoying each other's company? Their relationship deserves some peace and a venue to express their love." Something like that, just hand-written on a postcard. Alan absolutely loved the idea, and pitched it to Karen, and that became "The Rites of Spring," our love comic.
The hallucinogenic tubers that figured so prominently in that issue were Rick Veitch's idea; he and John had been talking about Swamp Thing years before any of us were working on the book, at a party at Kubert School classmate Tim Truman's house, on Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey. They were talking over a few beers in Tim and Beth Truman's kitchen, about what John could/should do if he ever had a chance to draw the character, and when John talked about these potato-like tubers growing off Swamp Thing's back, Rick suggested they have psychedelic properties, like mushrooms or peyote. We laughed our asses off at that, and never forgot it -- John suggested it to Alan in one of the many letters that changed hands, and Alan ended up using that conceit to structure the whole of "Rites of Spring."
One of my favorite underground comix was Greg Irons's solo comic Light, which was composed mostly of a series of transformative full-page brush-and-ink drawings. Alan was familiar with that comic, and John's affinity for Rick Moscoso's underground comix, so I think that informed his final vision for "Rites of Spring," which provided a splendid vehicle for the approach John and I adopted. We incorporated a lot of collage into some of the pages, which I'd have to cite Jack Kirby's influence on, too. I'd done a lot of collage experimentation in my art before Kubert School, including some published work at Johnson State College -- illustrations for programs for theatrical and dance works, primarily. For me, though, "Rites of Spring" was very much a Greg Irons-influenced 'trip.' Irons works had a huge influence on my own, and that was nowhere more apparent than in "Rites of Spring." We later dedicated the second part of the 'water vampires' story to Greg, upon learning of his accidental death in Asia.
As for Nukeface, thank John Totleben, Wellington. That was entirely John's character concept; I added the story idea of using that Pennsylvania coal town with the raging underground fires as a setting, which Silent Hill (the video game and the movie) later used, though what Alan cooked up was way better than what John and I had proposed. But Nukeface, down to his drinking habits, was all John's baby. What was disappointing about that experience was a review in The Comics Journal that raved about the story, but dismissed John's and my art as being "typical of a superhero comic" of the time. I wrote to the Journal pointing out that John had in fact created the character and concept, and the reviewer at least owed John some acknowledgement; their snippy response was sadly typical of the Journal. Live and learn.
We were never credited for story concepts, though Alan always acknowledged our role in that when interviewed. DC didn't want to share or give the credit, fearing we'd ask for more money or that it might dilute their momentum building Alan's rising star or something -- we didn't care, really. It didn't matter to us, we were working so well as a team together, we didn't care about anything save being let alone to do the book as best we could in the tight monthly schedule we labored within. Whenever DC balked at reimbursing John or I for the portion of our phone bills involving the calls to England to conference with Alan, we'd remind them about the issues we'd plotted for free sans credit, and they'd grudgingly reimburse us for the cost of the phone calls. We were working at the time for DC's lowest page rates, and we knew it, so the occasional story concepts, co-plotting sans credit or character concepts were basically traded off for reimbursement on our UK phone calls. Not a bad deal for DC, eh?
Among the many proposals I submitted to DC/Vertigo over the years that came to nothing was a proposed sequel to Nukeface, "The Nukeface Manifesto." I posted that on my website years ago, at http://www.comicon.com/, and I see that Rich Handley has incorporated it into his Swamp Thing website. John gave me his blessing to do so, but DC/Vertigo didn't respond -- c'est la vie.
Next: Steve Bissette talks a little more about Swamp Thing and explains to us what was the Taboo anthology of horror comix.