This story (the title of which is presumably an allusion to Rembrandt van Rijn
's famous 1632 painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp
, viewable online at http://www.uic.edu/depts/ahaa/classes/ah111/L19-ex/remb-anatomy.jpg
), was Alan Moore
's second issue (#21) writing for the DC comic book
series Saga of the Swamp Thing
, marking a profound change in the character of the Swamp Thing
, the series and to some extent the comics industry as a whole.
The 23-page issue was released in February of 1984, with credits going to Alan Moore as plotter and scripter, Stephen R. Bissette and Rick Veitch as pencillers, John Totleben as the inker, John Costanza as the oft-neglected letterer, Tatjana Wood acting as colorist both for the contents and the cover - which was pencilled and inked by Tom Yeates and is visible at www.dccomics.com/directcurrents/comics/sept27/covers/sst21.jpg - and with Stuart Moore editing. The story won reams of "best writing" industry awards that year, as did Alan Moore for this and subsequent stories and the series for all sorts of amazing work put into it by its other contributors. Swamp Thing continued this domination of awards for three or four years until Moore's run on the series expired and he went on to greater things like Watchmen. The story is reprinted in Essential Vertigo: Swamp Thing #6; Swamp Thing Volume #2; the Saga of the Swamp Thing trade paperback; and The Best of DC 61 (where I first read it, at the tender age of 6).
The story begins with General Sunderland
springing notorious evil scientist (and not coincidentally, plant-man himself) Dr. Jason Woodrue
(aka The Floronic Man
) from prison to run a full analysis/autopsy/dissection on the Sunderland Corporation's latest acquisition - the corpse of legendary bog
monster the Swamp Thing, shot in the head by employees of Sunderland and kept on ice
in a fully-automated laboratory
in the basement. The relationship between Woodrue and Sunderland is a strained one between the self-made man and the twitchy academic whose services are essential to one another - Sunderland requiring Woodrue's scientific and unique approach to unlock the mysteries of the Swamp Thing's body, Woodrue in turn indebted for his freedom, albeit temporary, and other, more personal reasons:
"I remember clearly the moment before I began to cut:
I was very... excited.
Since the bio-chemical fluke that had transformed me, I had longed for a chance to examine another human-vegetable hybrid. I could learn so much.
So much about myself."
After weeks of no headway - removing and observing non-functional crude vegetable imitations and analogues of human organs - he errantly flips to the wrong page in a reference book and hits upon what he believes to be the true secret behind the Swamp Thing's existence. Swamp Thing was always believed previously to be a plantly incarnation of scientist Alec Holland
, murdered in a sabotage attempt that tossed both his body and an experimental bio-restorative fertilizer formula
he was working on into the marsh
out back behind his lab, where the unique circumstances resulted in his assumption of a green and leafy form and superhuman powers. By accidentally reading up on a passage dealing with the ability of planarian worms to run a maze more successfully after being fed the remains of a successful worm
Woodrue hits upon the notion that as the plants in the swamp decomposed the remains of Alec Holland, due to the presence of the formula they managed, like the worms, to retain a strong level of Holland's intelligence, personality and memories, but were not in fact Holland and that a reversal of Holland's fate would never be possible.
"'You see, we were wrong, General.
We thought that the Swamp Thing was Alec Holland, somehow transformed into a plant. It wasn't.
It was a plant that thought it was Alec Holland!
A plant that was trying its level best to be Alec Holland...
And that pathetic, misshapen parody downstairs in the cryochest was the closest that it could get.
But there's something else. Something very important.
You see, if that's a plant that we have down there...'
'Dr. Woodrue... I think I've heard enough.'"
This breakthrough, this logical leap accomplished, Sutherland believes he has no further use for the criminal scientist "freak" he has been grudgingly tolerating. He thinks that under this model his employees can reverse-engineer the Swamp Thing without further assistance from Dr. Woodrue, and the businessman arrogantly makes arrangements for Woodrue's termination and return to prison right before him. Though the first two beliefs may well be correct, the third action turns out to be a mistake, as Sutherland confidently strolls out from the presence of the now-fired Woodrue, leaving the impotent egghead before the master console controlling every aspect of this ultra-modern facility, from the locks on the doors to the temperature in the basement freezer.
"You see, throughout his miserable existance, the only thing that could have kept him sane was the hope that he might one day regain his humanity...
... the knowledge that under all that slime he was still Alec Holland.
But if he's read my notes he'll know that just isn't true.
He isn't Alec Holland.
He never will be Alec Holland.
He never was Alec Holland.
He's just a ghost.
A ghost dressed in weeds.
I wonder how he'll take it?"
Moore's non-human (or post-human
, one might prefer) identity for the Swamp Thing, as established in this story, permitted darker storylines which, failing to meet with Comics Code Authority
regulations, ultimately led to the creation of DC's "for mature readers
"It's raining in Washington tonight."
Update: DC Comics have made a PDF version of this comic available for free download at http://www.dccomics.com/media/excerpts/1661_1.pdf