The second episode of Alan Moore's run on the Eighties iteration of DC's venerable horror property SWAMP THING, as illustrated by Steve Bissette and John Totleben with Tatjana Wood. The story was entitled "The Anatomy Lesson," and it was commercial comics' first real introduction to the postmodern sensibility. A chilly, downbeat remix of old characters; a new, harsh sharpness. A corporation has taken custody of the corpse of the eponymous character, a scientist who was drenched in his own plant-growth-accelerating compound, set on fire and dumped in the Louisiana swamps, only to return as a nightmare thing with his human tissue transformed into plantlife. He's dead now, for good, shot in the head, and is being taken apart so the corporation can recover the compound. But the corpse makes no sense. The surgeon charged with the procedure (an old DC "supervillain" with his own unique plantlike nature) finds that the body simply doesn't work. The "brain" is just a mass of pulp with no synapse gaps. The lungs are bags that suck and blow, with no cilia. It's a parody of a body.
The surgeon finds himself reading an old paper on planarian worms, where the worms that learned to run a maze were chopped up and fed to the other worms, who then knew how to run the maze. And, horribly, it becomes clear to him.
The head of the corporation doesn't like the report. Because it says that Alec Holland, the man who became the Swamp Thing, isn't in the morgue. Soaked in the speedgrowth formula, he fell into the swamp with the worms and plants and microbes, who began digesting him -- and became infected, in those crucial moments, by a powerful, traumatised intelligence that didn't realise it was dead.
And there, in the muck, it grew lungs that suck and blow, because that's what it knew lungs to do. And a wooden skeleton. A heavy brain. With the intelligence of Alec Holland distributed evenly throughout its body. Alec Holland is dead. Alec Holland was always dead. What they have in the morgue is a ghost in weeds, that doesn't know what it is.
The boss throws the surgeon out before he gets to the good part. And now, late at night, knowing the boss is still there surveying his empire alone, the surgeon waits.
Because he knows that you can't kill a vegetable by shooting it in the head.
And tonight it will wake up.
The boss finds the thing that thought it was Alec Holland in his office, reading the surgeon's report. Sweating profusely, nervously giggling in his terror, the boss says the first thing that comes into his head:
"Did you like it?"
This story was the first handgrenade thrown by what you might call the British sensibility in American comics. In using the surgeon's monologue as narration, it avoids all the purple prose that otherwise characterises much of the early British work in American comics (including some of Alan's own). MIRACLEMAN predates it, but this was the first time a wide audience in modern comics had been shown a character they knew well, and told that everything they knew was wrong. Now, it's a cliché. Then, it was explosive.
Structurally, it's untouchable. Perfectly paced, a complete short story, powered by hate and Moore's sudden grasp of the possibility in the 24-page form. As a British writer, he'd been restricted to the 6-8 page form before now. It was like seeing a clever piccolo player suddenly get access to an orchestra.
Bissette and Totleben as a team were rarely better than at this point, delivering atmosphere and acting, summoning their powers in service of a complicated script. They brought experimental methods of panel sequence and picture composition to bear, adding whole new pages to the vocabulary of mainstream comics. It was alive with visual invention; dropping out lines in inset panels of an imagined corporate head beating his fists against bloodsoaked glass, turning them into impressionist daubs of black and red, set against the shady realism of the surgeon considering the possible paths of his boss' imminent murder.
It's one of those stories that left nothing in its medium the same. There are more like this.
"The Anatomy Lesson" is found in DC's first collection of Alan Moore's SWAMP THING stories.