It was not the first time an event beyond his control catapulted the Swamp Thing into an odyssey that took him far from his Houma home, but it was the first time a Swamp Thing tale was ripped out by the roots.
We’re referring to DC’s abrupt censoring of Swamp Thing #88, an incident that would have a lasting impact on its creators and set a precedent for adult mainstream comics to come.
No one would envy Rick Veitch the challenge of stepping in as full-time Swamp Thing scribe upon Alan Moore’s departure with issue #66 in 1987. From the reader’s perspective, the baton passed without effort. Unsurprising, as Veitch was a veteran storyteller with an oeuvre of irreverent and satirical contributions to publications like Heavy Metal and Epic Illustrated. He’d also been a key player on the Swamp Thing creative team since issue #37. As collaborators, Veitch and Moore eventually found a common storytelling frequency that hummed with humor, satire and reflection. When Veitch took charge of writing and penciling Swamp Thing, with assiduous inks by the legendary Alfredo Alcala, he tackled the title with a passion reminiscent of his predecessor, mapping out an epic, 28-issue tale told in his own, unmistakable voice.
As part of DC’s company-wide crossover event, Invasion!, Veitch crafted a story arc in which the attacking Dominators apply their plant-based technology to disintegrate the Swamp Thing and remove the threat of his god-like elemental powers from the playing field. Using their Matrix Disruptor, the Dominators succeed in banishing Swamp Thing from Earth. Unable to escape across the reaches of space, Swamp Thing finds himself bouncing back in time, participating in a series of stories that hinge on events he has yet to experience. Starting with a team-up with SGT Rock in World War II, Swamp Thing learns he has a connection to a mystical chunk of amber known as The Claw of Aelkhund. The Claw becomes Swamp Thing’s literal touchstone in a plotline that brings him into contact with classic DC characters like WWI’s Enemy Ace, Wild West heroes like Jonah Hex and Bat Lash, and Tomahawk during the American Revolution, eventually landing him in the Medieval period during the fall of Camelot. Here Swamp Thing encounters the demon Etrigan and the Holy Grail—connections that will eventually lead him to Jerusalem on the eve of the Crucifixion.
Veitch’s next chapter of Swamp Thing’s time travel odyssey never saw print, and issue #87 was the last Swamp Thing story he wrote for DC Comics.
In titling issue #88 “Morning of the Magician,” Veitch made a sly wink to French journalists Pauwels and Bergier’s 1960 occult treatise, The Morning of the Magicians (Le Matin des Magiciens) -- a work that in Veitch’s day spoke to New Agers and spiritually-minded counter culturalists, but would ultimately become a reference guide for conspiracy fanatics come the latter part of the 20th Century.
With “Morning of the Magician,” Veitch planned to craft an exploration of faith, hope and sacrifice that would ultimately elevate all who chose to read it. Seeking a more realistic visual tone, Veitch tapped the profoundly talented Michael Zulli (Puma Blues) to apply his elegantly detailed, baroque-inspired pencils to the tale.
Without forewarning, retailers saw orders for forthcoming Swamp Thing books canceled by the publisher, leaving the title on hiatus for upwards of three months. Word spread that Veitch’s early story pitch for #88 found approval with editor Karen Berger; however, DC President and Editor-in-Chief Jennette Kahn, Executive Editor Dick Giordano and the powers-that-be at Warner Entertainment balked at the script and demanded the story be pulled. Veitch abruptly left the book and severed his professional ties with DC Comics. An uproar in fandom and mainstream media alike followed. Word on the wire was Veitch had penned a blasphemous and heretical story revealing an encounter between Swamp Thing and Jesus.
To make matters worse, fans were left painfully oblivious to the precise details of the story behind the story until Veitch penned an open letter to fans and Don Thompson offered a concise story synopsis in the Comics Buyer’s Guide (CBG) #803 published April 7, 1989.
For years, rumors were circulated that third-generation fax copies of Veitch’s early script and Zulli’s raw pencils had been leaked to the fan community. It was not until the early days of the internet that those rumors were proven true and the precious documents found their way onto nascent fan blogs and newsfeeds. Finally having opportunity to pore over the script and rough artwork must have been a revelation for many and a validation for more.
The following is an interpretation of the events in Veitch’s script draft and Zulli’s rough pencils for Swamp Thing #88. A few minor storytelling details are omitted for brevity.
His astral form tumbling through the depths of space and time, Swamp Thing witnesses the collision of multiverses called Crisis on Infinite Earths followed by a seemingly grander event represented by a breathtaking mandala of whirling energy. It is a beacon to Swamp Thing and one he hopes will eventually lead him back home to his pregnant wife, Abby.
Jump cut to a scene that even the most secular reader would recognize as the Last Supper. In his own inimitable style, Michael Zulli renders the iconic moment reminiscent of Renaissance painters but cinematic in its realism. Never once is our central figure identified as Jesus, Christ or the Savior. He is only known to the reader as the Nazarene. The Nazarene breaks bread with his gathered apostles. The narration captions identify him based on the cultural impression of the moment: a worker of miracles, an alchemist, a magician.
The serenity of the first communion is shattered by a drastic scene shift where three evil Magi offer a bloody sacrifice of countless innocents in addition to their own flesh to summon Bilial, Prince of Hell and Lord of the Flies. The mutilated Magi initiate a pact with Bilial to remove the threat of the Nazarene. “In the name of LOVE he heals the sick and raises the dead!” they cry.
Bilial agrees to send his only begotten son, Etrigan, as his agent. He vows he will not kill the Nazarene, but corrupt, defile and desecrate the usurper, declaring, “And our instrument is Man’s own sordid nature.”
The scene shifts to the bedchamber of Mary Magdalene. Her client of the night before is Marcus, AKA the Golden Gladiator of DC’s Silver Age. Following their tryst, Mary Magdalene asks not for payment, but a favor: spare the life of the Nazarene. As someone who learned, “(T)he best way to help the oppressed is to walk among the oppressors,” Marcus agrees to deflect Pilate’s efforts to arrest the carpenter. Upon leaving Magdalene’s company, Marcus is attacked by Bilial, who inserts his obscene tongue down Marcus’ throat and implants the demon seed of Etrigan within.
As he drifts closer to the glorious mandala, Swamp Thing ruminates on the mysterious chunk of amber’s ultimate purpose for drawing him back through time. Moments later, he arrives on Earth and bears witness to a montage of cultures at the height of their religious identity. Swamp Thing comes to land in an orchard upon a Mediterranean plateau overlooking the city of Jerusalem.
Moving through the plant consciousness, Swamp Thing insinuates himself into a tiny olive and spies the Nazarene and his apostles enter the Garden of Gethsemane. Unheard, he observes their discussion and watches as the Nazarene seats himself beneath the trees to meditate.
Drawing upon Alec Holland’s human memories, Swamp Thing realizes he knows this moment, these individuals and the events to come. “Alec Holland revered this man,” he thinks. “Not only as an important figure…in the history of humanity…but as a deity.”
While his apostles take up watch about the periphery, the Nazarene removes the Holy Grail from his satchel and sets it beside him on the ground. Swamp Thing observes, “The doctrines of great religions…credit him with redeeming the souls of all who live. But as one who has walked…through the teeming afterlife…I question whether ANY single being…can work such a supreme act…of magic.” It is then Swamp Thing realizes the Nazarene is aware of his presence but shows no concern.
The panels containing the aforementioned images all float against the coalescing mandala Swamp Thing encountered earlier in the story, reminding the reader of the tremendous magnitude of the events now set in motion. Looking upon the Nazarene, Swamp Thing observes, “As he closes his eyes… and begins to meditate…it’s almost as if he is certain…that all…is in perfect order.”
Magically observing the Nazarene’s serene state, the three Magi begin to panic. They further mutilate themselves and call upon Bilial to act. They shout: “The Nazarene is Acting!” “His Alignment has begun!” “Do SOMETHING, oh decadent master!”
In the garden, Swamp Thing travels through the soil to the seated Nazarene, plants and flowers growing in his wake. Emerging from the earth, he takes the shape of a tiny sprig with two large berry eyes on stalks. Swamp Thing hoists himself over the rim of the grail. He notes the goblet is empty now but will eventually hold the chunk of amber that holds so much power over him. The little Swamp Thing shoot bursts his berry eyes, sending a ripple of fruit juice into the Grail. “If this man is who…I THINK he is...then he faces a grisly future, indeed…I offer a drink…of purest fruit nectar…to sooth his contemplations.”
Now under full control of the demon within him, Marcus meets with Judas Iscariot. They encounter Mary Magdalene, who attempts to remind Marcus of his pact, but she is rebuffed by the back of his hand. “A promise to a whore is not for honor saving,” he says. “One keeps it only long enough to satisfy a craving.”
In the garden, the apostles doze while Swamp Thing remains vigilant. With only half his head visible, like a swimmer bobbing below the surface of the water, he observes the Nazarene. “I have battled…enough evil magicians…to know that sorcery requires SACRIFICE…to give it permanence,” says Swamp Thing. “Yet this adept…casts his spell for no personal gain…or temporal power…but from the very heart of compassion.”
At that moment, the possessed Marcus arrives at the orchard followed by his legionnaires. To the viewer, Marcus is almost completely transformed. His skin is now a jaundiced hue, eyes red, a whiskered, cat-like muzzle, fangs, and his breath rising in hot streamers of steam. He enters dragging Peter and another apostle by the scruff of their necks. As Marcus/Etrigan toss the apostles aside and advance upon the Nazarene, Swamp Thing bursts from the ground fully formed. Swamp Thing instantly recognizes Etrigan.
As the two supernatural beings engage, the conflict is intercut with a montage of the Nazarene serenely draining the Grail of its contents. An instant later, the mandala superimposes itself over Swamp Thing and he vanishes from the scene. As the tussle between the apostles and soldiers escalates, Peter draws his sword and strikes off Marcus/Etrigan’s barbed, demonic ear. The demon wails.
Back in the chamber of the Magi, the three wise men slice off their own ears in an act of desperate contrition. “Wretched soothsayers!” screams Bilial. “Do you realize what you have done?” “We merely asked for aid!” they cry, “To defeat the force for light! To help us do your will!”
Our eye jumps to an extreme close up shot on the Nazarene as he closes his hand around the demon’s severed ear. Once more, the mandala pattern appears in the air about his closed fist. The Nazarene’s fist opens to reveal a perfect human ear. The Nazarene rises and places the ear back in place on Marcus/Etrigan’s head. Clasping Marcus/Etrigan’s head in his hands, he exorcises the demon, and we are treated to Marcus vomiting up a fetus-like Etrigan upon the ground.
Back in the Magi’s chambers, Bilial is enraged. “The demon seed I implanted in the Golden Gladiator is being exorcised! And thus, bound to your Earth like common mortal ruck!” Bilial’s rage cannot be contained, “You’ve cost me my only son! One whose destiny was to reign as a Prince of Hell!” Though not seen nor stated, we can imagine the three Magi weren’t left to suffer mortal pains for long thereafter.
In the garden, Marcus has collapsed upon the ground. Judas enters and kisses the Nazarene as he declared he would. The soldiers read the warrant for the Nazarene’s arrest and lead him away in chains.
What follows are a series of familiar images drawn directly from the Bible. First, the Nazarene is judged and found guilty. While the Nazarene washes his hands, a mob of Philistines in the plaza scream for his blood. He is chained to a pillar and whipped. A caption reads, “And so it came to pass the magician was brought before the Roman Justice Pontius Pilate…But in his own defense remained as silent as a lamb before the slaughter.”
The Romans drape a scarlet robe upon the Nazarene’s bleeding shoulders and place a crown of thorns upon his head. They force him to bear his own cross through the streets while crowds scream and jeer. Swamp Thing comments, “And as he dragged his wooden cross on which he was to die through the jeering congregations…he voiced no complaint.” It is only as he is being nailed to the cross that the Nazarene finally speaks: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
What follows is a wordless collage depicting familiar moments from the Crucifixion. As the sky darkens, the Nazarene is nailed to the cross and hoisted above the hills of Calvary. Two thieves appear on each side of the Nazarene as Roman soldiers play dice for his belongings. Mother Mary appears, looking on in shock and despair. Later, the figure of Joseph of Arimathea creeps towards the feet of the dying Nazarene and fills Holy Grail with the prophet’s blood. Around Joseph’s neck dangles a piece of amber the size of a fist.
The panel zooms out to a hillock in the far background where Marcus the Golden Gladiator and Mary Magdalene silently observe.
“This is my fault, Magdalene,” says Marcus.
“Don’t say that, Marcus. You were possessed by a demon…you couldn’t help him,” she responds.
“Then I was weak,” he says. “And because I was weak, I’ve given Caesar’s justice another ugly spectacle.”
“He used to say, ‘Forgiveness begins with the self’,” she responds.
At the foot of the cross, we see Joseph of Arimathea fill the cup with the blood of the Nazarene. The look on Joseph’s face is one of total adoration. He places the hunk of amber in the cup.
Back at the cosmic confluence witnessed in the opening of the story, Swamp Thing’s aura body drifts through the flow of alternate realities. “It ends in the intemporal state…just as it began,” Swamp Thing observes. “Only this time it was not…the mysterious bit of amber that sent me here.” The flow of reality bubbles pours over and through him. “It was HIM. When he drank…my offering…he consumed me. I became part of his magnificent design. It is a cosmic spell…cast by the sublime spirit…of love.”
Swamp Thing looks on in awe toward the perfect mandala structure that has been a motif throughout the whole story. At the center we see the image of the Nazarene. “Up to you how you work it,” Veitch says in his note to Zulli. “As long as we are left with the feeling that this master magician’s ultimate shell has been sealed by his own suffering and death.”
“And sealed in the blood,” says Swamp Thing, “of the most perfect sacrifice of all.”
And that is how the story concludes.
According to CBG, upon learning the script for Swamp Thing #88 had been rejected, Veitch sent a seven-point memo to Kahn, Giordano and Berger hoping to reverse the decision. His efforts were dismissed. In a later press release, Kahn responded, “DC Comics will continue to publish a wide variety of material, both in our regular comics and those we label, ‘Suggested for Mature Readers.’ However, after reading the script for Swamp Thing #88 we felt that this was a story we could not publish. The subject was handled with integrity and respect, but we believe that the story concept itself would be offensive to many of our readers.”
Veitch stated Kahn did not decide to cancel the story because Christ was identified as a white magician who willingly partakes of a communion with Swamp Thing, but because she felt some readers would, “[B]e offended to find a venerated religious figure appearing in a comics book with a monster.” One wonders if Kahn actually read the script.
In an open letter published in CBG #803, Veitch stated, “I certainly do not believe anything I wrote in the script for Swamp Thing #88 to be worthy of [censoring] of any kind.” He further notes he did not deviate from the New Testament in any way and was only taking cues from culturally embedded storytelling tropes that have been SF staples for decades. “If anything, I believe my story to be an affirmation of the rather elegant symbolism of Christ’s personal sacrifice and crucifixion. It was written not as a challenge to those who possess deep faith in Christian doctrine, but as an exercise in possibilities, aimed at those who do not.”
Recall that although the “Suggested for Mature Readers” label was drawing a new and enthusiastic readership for DC Comics, Vertigo Comics would not be established until 1993. The imprint’s safe harbor for satirical and blasphemous storytelling like Preacher, Hellblazer and Lucifer was still several years away. As such, some consider the censorship of Swamp Thing #88 a paving stone on the path to Vertigo’s realization.
Also consider that notable storytellers like Neil Gaiman and Jaime Delano were slated to assume writing chores on Swamp Thing after Veitch. Both writers abruptly withdrew their offers upon Veitch’s resignation.
Nearly a decade after the censoring of Swamp Thing #88, Veitch still felt betrayed, stating in an interview with Rutherford, “They (the publishers) were asking me for material to try and push comics into new areas. I felt I had been doing what they were asking, and at the point where it fell apart, my faith and trust in them fell apart as well.”
Following Swamp Thing #88, Veitch vowed to never work for DC again, a sentiment shared with Alan Moore, who had plenty of grievance with the publisher. Veitch’s convictions would soon be challenged when DC purchased Jim Lee’s company Wildstorm in 1999 and all of his America’s Best Comics collaborations with Moore suddenly fell under DC’s umbrella.
In a May 2020 Cartoonist Kayfabe interview with Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg, Veitch said, “This was like a huge letdown for both Alan and I. Alan especially as he had said, ‘Never again,’ and I was in the same boat. Alan felt a debt to all of the creators that he’d brought into this project. He said, ‘Okay, I’ll do this.’ And he laid down some laws that they didn’t really respect.” Ultimately Veitch would acquiesce. “I began to lighten up in my rage against them and we began to discuss the possibilities of doing Swamp Thing #88 and getting it out there because everybody at DC wanted to do it, I wanted to do it, but something always would stop it and it was usually somebody at the higher echelons would call and say, ‘No.’ There had probably been at least 5-6 serious attempts to get Swamp Thing #88 done.”
Veitch claimed the latest attempt to publish the story was as recent as 2019. “(DC) were going to do a Rick Veitch Omnibus, like the new Swamp Thing Omnibus with Alan’s stuff,” he recalled, “And part of that would include Swamp Thing #88 in order to finish the time travel story. I actually wrote a plot and discussed it all. Then they got into trouble with a comic book they were putting out where this superhero meets Jesus. It ended up at Image I think, but DC was going to publish it, or Vertigo was going to publish it and this Christian organization got 400,000 signatures against it. So, that killed any possibility of having Jesus in a comic book at DC, I think. So, pretty much a dead issue now. But, part of me is still there, guys. I’ve got that story in my head. I want to finish that one.”
Veitch is undoubtedly referring to Mark Russell and Richard Pace’s series, Second Coming. The book eventually found a home with Ahoy! Comics and began publication in March of 2019.
So here we are, decades later and gallons of ink spilled over a single story that according to those most familiar was misrepresented, misinterpreted and maligned out of fear of reprisal and prejudice.
Don Thompson, the late publisher of Comics Buyer’s Guide, was considered by comic book community to be one of the most credible critics in the comic book industry. Upon reviewing Swamp Thing #88’s story and rough art—undoubtedly self-same documents used in compiling this article—Thompson had this to say, “I think this is a magnificent and entirely Christian story. It is no more blasphemous than Ben Hur or The Robe or Barabbas…It is appalling that, more than a century after Ben Hur was written, a work of fiction done with comparable reverence was to be suppressed out of fear of reprisal by zealots. This is not progress. It’s too bad you’ll never get to read this comic book. It’s an excellent story – and might well have succeeded in getting across to some horror-fixated youths that there is a deeper meaning to blood than seeing it splattered across a page or movie screen.”
A grateful thanks to Jim Jewell for his priceless editorial assistance.
Comics Buyer’s Guide #803, Krause Publications, April 7, 1987.
Conrod & Stanciu, “Facing Religious Taboos: An Interview with Rick Veitch” Rutherford, February 2, 1997.
“Cartoonist Kayfabe Interview: Rick Veitch”. Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg May, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uj7HNBvDJ_c
An earlier version of this article originally appeared in The Holland Files International #5 (Winter, 2021) https://rootsoftheswampthing.com/