Hasslein Blog: Back on the Bayou: Stephen R. Bissette Revisits Swamp Thing's Roots


Hasslein Blog

Friday, February 1, 2013

Back on the Bayou: Stephen R. Bissette Revisits Swamp Thing's Roots

by Rich Handley

Vermont-born writer and artist Stephen R. Bissette is an icon in the comics industry, particularly in the field of horror comics. Currently a teacher of comic art history, drawing and film at The Center for Cartoon Studies, he is perhaps best-known for his work on DC Comics' second Swamp Thing series, The Saga of the Swamp Thing, alongside writer Alan Moore and inker John Totleben. Steve recently chatted with me regarding that period of his career, offering fascinating insight into the creation of Swamp Thing's golden years.

A muck-encrusted mockery of a man

HASSLEIN BOOKS: Your tenure on Swamp Thing series #2, with Alan Moore and John Totleben, is widely regarded as Swamp Thing's best, and is often credited with having permanently changed the comics industry. Putting modesty aside for the moment, do you agree with that assessment—and why?

STEPHEN R. BISSETTE: All modesty aside, I can't possibly answer that. It's up to others to decide those things—not me. I was inside, making the marks on paper—I did my best, as did Alan and John, and Rick Veitch, Alfredo Alcala, Shawn McManus, Ron Randall, Stan Woch—everyone involved. It was such a tumultuous time in comics, too, with eruptions from all over the place, both creatively and in terms of the business itself. We were engaged in trench warfare, of a kind, even as we were working at home, feeding the machine from a distance.

Freelancing is such a weird process, particularly work-for-hire freelancing. Suffice to say it wasn't any one thing, it was a procession of changes which I experienced both first-hand, as a creator, and second-hand, as a reader, which in turn fueled what I did creatively when my hand was in the game—no, sorry, Rich, that's for others to assess. Thanks for asking, though.

Steve Bissette (photo: Nick Langley)

HASSLEIN: So many important events in the characters' lives occurred during your time on the title. Alec, Abby and Matt all evolved—sometimes in bizarre, unexpected directions—and the series took a sharp right turn, forever altered. As such, although Len Wein and Berni Wrightson were there first, many regard your team as the title's parents. Were you aware of this while drawing the book, did you find that responsibility daunting and how did it shape your work?

BISSETTE: I not only was hyper-aware of it, I kept myself steeped in all that came before as best I could. I'll give you a for-instance: Keeping tabs on what Len and Berni had done was easy. I had that first story in House of Secrets and the first ten issues of Swamp Thing. It was even easy keeping track of what came after #10, as I'd tracked down reading copies of every damned comic Swamp Thing had appeared in for DC, right through Tom Yeates and Marty Pasko's run, complete. What wasn't so simple was tracking the various characters Marty, then Alan, wove into the tapestry of Saga of the Swamp Thing: When Alan introduced Jason Woodrue, the Floronic Man, in the script for #21, I was suddenly scrambling to gather all the appearances of Woodrue and the Floronic Man I could lay my hands on. This was the pre-Internet era, remember: It wasn't all at the click of a key on the keyboard; this was also pre-DC universe manuals.

House of Secrets #92

Len sent me a handful of photocopies of splash pages from a few of Woodrue's appearances, but I was obsessive about trying to track it all down, as I never knew when some fragment of a prior story or image from an earlier artist's interpretation would suggest or cement the direction John and I ultimately would adopt or forge. I had a lot of help from the comics shop owners I knew—Alan Goldstein and Steve Perry at Moondance Comics, other shop owners in Massachusetts—and the local flea markets were incredible wellsprings for finding obscure back issues for cheap (I even snagged a beat-up Atom #1 with the first-ever Woodrue appearance, which made sense of the character for me).

I didn't have, or want, Alan Moore's encyclopedic knowledge of the whole DC universe: I was, however, hungry to see what had come before. ALL OF IT, if I could. It drove Len nuts. It was always easier and more pleasurable when we were working characters I knew: Jack Kirby's Jason Blood and the Demon and the Kamara (which John and I suggested we use), or characters we were introducing, like John's Nukeface character.

By comparison, honoring and building on all that Len and Berni had done, in that seminal first story and their ten issues together, was simple and always a joy. What was daunting, years later, was having Berni tell me that "our" version of HIS character was now the "real" Swamp Thing, that it had eclipsed his own; he showed me and John Totleben penciled pages from a Swamp Thing graphic novel he started with Len, and had abandoned, because he thought by that point ours had somehow superseded or eclipsed the original. That was hard, and sad, and tough to take—I mean, incredibly complimentary, in one way, but in another way, I felt like we'd robbed someone's cradle, so to speak. Those pages by Berni were gorgeous, but it was weird seeing echoes of John's and my version of Berni's character in his pencils, especially after all the times I'd copped licks from Berni's original issues, pages and panels. I didn't know what to say; I still don't.

HASSLEIN: How well has Swamp Thing lived up to the legacy of your run since the baton's passing to other creators? In your opinion, is the book still amazing after all these years, or has the title outlived its welcome?

BISSETTE: I just wrote up a complete overview of the Swamp Thing series, stem to stern, for a book entitled Icons of the American Comic Book (scheduled for release February 2013, ABC-CLIO). I'll leave it at that. It was a tough slog, writing that overview; again, it's not really my place to assess all that, much less our (Alan's, John's, Rick's, etc.) role in the character's legacy, but I was asked, and I gave it my best shot. I'm sure I'll come off as having been unfair to some of the creative teams, and partial to others. I'll leave it at that, for now, Rich.

The Saga of the Swamp Thing #21

HASSLEIN: I've read that Swamp Thing's modest sales did not match the series' critical acclaim, which the quick cancellations of the third and fourth Swamp Thing series would seem to bear out. Is that an accurate statement, in your opinion—and if so, why do you think that was? What has prevented such a brilliant title from selling as well as more mainstream, less innovative superhero books?

BISSETTE: Since comics aren't reliant on mail subscription any longer, and since I never earned any royalties off the comics sales proper (we earn off the reprint volumes), I can't speak with any authority to the real sales numbers, and I don't think anyone outside of maybe Len Wein, Karen Berger and the business end of what was DC Comics in the 1980s could. Circulation stats were never published in the comic itself, that I know of, after early in the run, and once we lost the Code with SOTST #29 and ditched newsstand sales for the Direct Market only, we could only speculate based on our respective placement in the Diamond and Capital sales charts.

Len Wein told us when we started, with issue #16, the sales were near-cancellation, around 16,000 copies sold per month; he made it clear we might not be on the book long, and to give it our best shot. Sans any advertising, save in-house ads and whatever DC mustered in their own monthly flyers to retailers, Len later told me and John that we'd managed to get the circulation up around 60,000 by 1985, and Karen once said the same, so there you go—but that's all hearsay from me, Rich. I never saw hard numbers, and I certainly never saw any royalty statements. We weren't selling enough to meet the threshold for earning royalties, whatever that threshold was 1983-1987.

Let's face it: We were an odd duck. What many say set us apart also kept us apart in the marketplace. The loss of the Code was a badge of honor to Alan, John, Rick and me, but it knocked Swamp Thing off the newsstand at the very point we were picking up sales on the newsstand. I don't know, in the long wrong, if that arguably derailed the title for good, really. Newsstands were still the primary venue for buying comic books in rural America, where I was living; comic shops weren't everywhere, the way they were later in the 1980s, and once the market imploded in the mid-1990s, those newsstand venues were long gone for all but Archie titles and a few key Marvel and DC titles. Again, all I can do is speculate, really.

Clearly, given the short runs on the later Swamp Thing series, the numbers were never there. I did and do earn from Hellblazer, and I can tell you, given Hellblazer's ongoing run until this year, if Swamp Thing numbers were lower than Hellblazer's, I can tell you I must have been outselling Swamp Thing with my self-published comic S.R. Bissette's Tyrant back in 1994-'96, and I had cumulative sales per issue (with up to three print runs per issue) of over 30,000 copies. That was peanuts back then, especially given the Vertigo overhead on a four-color comic.

Tyrant #1

HASSLEIN: All too often, new creators come onto a project like gangbusters, showing amazing promise but ultimately failing to maintain their initial brilliance. That wasn't the case for your lineup, which was well-received from start to finish. What was it about this unique combination of talents that enabled the three of you to craft compelling, emotional stories, issue after issue?

BISSETTE: The time was just right, and we were hungry. We were all hungry: I'd been bashing at comics professionally since 1976, and had been taught that doing a series was the breakthrough point (it was)—and my first wife was pregnant with our first (of two) child(ren).

John had been banging his head against just getting doors open in comics; I was with him for at least two interviews (one at DC Comics) where he was told, essentially, "you're too good for comics," but comics was what he wanted to be doing. And Alan was invited in by Len Wein to the American comics industry via the invite to script Swamp Thing, and given the walls he'd hit in the U.K.—with the madness at Warrior, with 2000 AD and Fleetway, and so on—he was hungry for new horizons, and this was that. He and his first wife, Phyllis, also had two young girls, so the impetus to earn was there, too, I reckon.

Rick Veitch was on board from the beginning, too—like John and me, he'd been pitching in with Tom Yeates now and again on the earlier Saga of the Swamp Thing issues, and he'd been pitching in ideas whenever the raw potential we all saw in Swamp Thing came up, before we were on the book. I needed Rick's help desperately more than a few times, too; I suck at deadlines, and a monthly grind was often just overwhelming.

Those are the nuts-and-bolts of it, really; the rest was something deeper, and the chemistry was volatile, primal, and intoxicating. It was a great run, despite all the craziness. It might have lasted longer, too, but who knows. Nothing lasts forever, and after a couple of years, it became tough to continue pouring our be-all and end-all into the bayou, but it was the real thing, creatively, for a long, long while.

HASSLEIN: One final question: Fundamentally, Swamp Thing, as initially conceived, was quite similar to other comic book bog-creatures (Theodore Sturgeon's It!, Airboy's The Heap, Man-Thing, Solomon Grundy, Phantom Stranger's The Swampster and so forth). So how did this particular character rise above the muck, so to speak, to become such an iconic and much-loved character? What makes Alec Holland's story so appealing that it would spawn more than 300 comics, two (soon three) films, two TV series and a long-running spinoff (Hellblazer)—something no other swamp creature has ever come close to achieving?

Fellow bog denizens Heap, Man-Thing 
and Swampster (click image for larger view)

BISSETTE: Who knows, Rich? I was well aware of the precursors, and even as we were starting our run, I wrote an article for Jim Van Hise's comics fanzine about the predecessors of Swamp Thing you've mentioned. I grew up reading Sturgeon; I knew "It!" by heart; I'd read the Skywald revival of The Heap and Man-Thing at Marvel, and so on, but if push comes to shove, I'd have to cite the fact that the original self-standing story Len and Berni created for House of Secrets was, unlike all the others, a romance, and it had real heart, and that resonated. The Heap was sentient, but a pretty ungainly character design from the outset in Airboy; Sturgeon's ambulatory "It" and Man-Thing barely registered as sentient beings, really, and by design didn't have any of the depth or potential Swamp Thing had from that first story.

Len and Berni really poured something of themselves, and of their love for the genre in all its emotional diversity, into that little gem of a story—and then expanded upon it magnificently, for its time, in the ten issues they did together. So, solid bedrock, I'd argue, and ripe soil. The rest is in the tilling and planting and tender-loving care, and whether the respective creative teams have green thumbs! Swamp Thing has survived some really, really dire incarnations and lows, but he keeps sprouting new bodies, and enough of 'em have heart and soul to spare.

Thanks to Steve Bissette for providing such wonderful answers. Visit his Web site today and read his blogyou'll be glad you did.

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