Comics and comic fans are getting older. Sure, there is a group of younger readers coming in but I am finding more and more that fans might know of important stories and events but might not have ever read these stories or know WHY they are important.
I endeavor to change that. As a recurring series in this column, I’m going to take a look back at some important comics and try to give them some context for younger readers / readers who may have not been given a chance to read these classic stories.
So it seems fitting that we start with a story called “The Anatomy Lesson”
The Saga of Swamp Thing #21 is often labeled as Alan Moore’s first issue of the series and while this is incorrect, it might as well have been. Swamp Thing had been falling down the sales charts and was headed towards cancellation. Up until this point, Moore’s had been working in the UK where he did some well regarded work at 2000 AD and revived the Marvelman/Miracleman series in fantastic fashion. Len Wein had been impressed by this work and hired him to write Swamp Thing in the hopes he (along with Stephen Bissette, Rick Veitch and John Totlebean) would be able to revive the flagging comic and maybe bring it up a few notches in the sales department.
Moore came on board with issue #20 and went to work tying up loose ends of previous writer Martin Pasko as well as just outright getting rid of things that didn’t suit his upcoming story. He then had Swamp Thing killed in a hail of gunfire.
Believe it or not, killing off the main character of the series was not the biggest shake-up Alan had planned.
The Anatomy Lesson begins with Jason Woodrue (the low level Justice League villain Floronic Man) being hired by General Sunderland, a man who wants the Swamp Thing’s secrets. Sunderland is keeping Swamp Thing’s corpse in cryogenic storage and has hired Woodrue to perform an autopsy to gain the knowledge of Swamp Thing.
And this is where Moore changed not only Swamp Thing but the history of comics.
Up until this issue, Swamp Thing had been a man (Alec Holland) who had been caught in a sabotaged experiment that turned him into a plant man. It’s really not that different from the origin of many comic characters. The Flash, for example, has a very similar origin. But what Moore does next changes everything we thought we knew about the character.
Woodrue discovers that Swamp Thing doesn’t have human organs. He has plant growth that looks like human organs. As he delves deeper, he realizes that Swamp Thing was never a man turned into a plant at all, but a plant who thinks he’s a man. Eventually Woodrue sets a trap of sorts for General Sunderland and allows for the resurrected Swamp Thing to discover his true history.
Why This Is Important
The Anatomy Lesson is important for a number of reasons. It was the book that brought Alan Moore to the attention of readers outside of England and lead to him doing other projects at DC that have had a heavy influence on the comics medium.
The more important legacy this story may have is that it was one of the first mainstream comics to bring horror back to the industry. Aside from underground comics, horror had become an ignored genre in mainstream comics during the 80’s. The Anatomy Lesson is, at it’s core, a well written EC horror comic. “An old man gets what’s coming to him by a monster that found out it’s not a man” wouldn’t be too unfamiliar a story to Haunt of Horror or Tales from the Crypt fans. But between Moore’s dialogue and how the art team executed the script, it became something much more then that. It also took the tired concept of “Everything you knew was wrong!” and actually did something interesting with it.
In the grander scheme of things, this was the comic that heralded a new beginning for comics and DC. This issue really kicked off Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing. That run opened the doors for a number of writers at DC. Occasionally referred to as “the British Invasion”, Moore’s run on Swamp Thing allowed for guys like Neil Gaiman (who lists this run as one of his inspirations to get into comics), Jaime Delano and Grant Morrison to have a go at DC. Without The Anatomy Lesson, there’s a good chance we never would have got The Sandman or Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, both of which started as experiments on regular DC characters.
Keeping all of this in mind, The Anatomy Lesson became one of the first building blocks of what would become Vertigo. If you look at the initial wave of comics that became part of the Vertigo imprint when it launched, they all owe a debt to Moore’s run on Swamp Thing and The Anatomy Lesson. Animal Man, Doom Patrol and Shade the Changing Man were all adult reworkings of DC characters (Sandman had started off that way initially but mutated into something else before being published). Vertigo itself would help bring in more horror comics and mature fair to not only DC but other comic companies as well.
The great thing about The Anatomy Lesson is that it still holds up. It’s often pointed out as one of the best single issues in comics and for good reason. It’s very good. From story structure to content and language, it still pops almost as well as it did when first published. The brilliant part is you could hand The Anatomy Lesson to pretty much anyone and they would get it. Maybe Floronic Man might trip them up a little but beyond that, it’s a great entry point into the series and can also stand as one really good monster tale. The art is only dated by the paper it’s printed on (for whatever reason, DC tends to stick to pulpy paper for this run of Swamp Thing).
If you want to delve further into The Anatomy Lesson, it can be found in the first volume of the numerous printings of Moore’s Swamp Thing run. If nothing else, check out that one story but I’m pretty sure you will end up staying for the whole run.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!