By John Amenta
Do you remember that issue of Swamp Thing from back in the 80’s, where our green hero was displaced in time by aliens and met Jesus Christ? Do you remember how you felt after reading that issue, having just seen a classic DC character interact with JC himself?
Of course you don’t.
You don’t remember it, but not because it never happened, oh it sure did. You, intrepid reader,don’t remember it, because the powers that be at DC comics in the late 80’s, decided you shouldn’t ever read it.
By 1988,Rick Veitch was writing the Swamp Thing title, picking up from Alan Moore’s character defining run. Veitch had worked with Moore during his run, so there was a working bond that helped carry over a sense of continuity between the two writers tenures. Moore’s run had turned a book about a man turned monster into much more of a character study, questioning what humanity really is, and if you even have to be human to have it. It was a thinking person’s horror comic, and Veitch moved the series in the same direction, albeit in his own style. In issue 80 of the series, Veitch introduced an interesting aspect into the story. Swampy would be displaced in time, and he would spend several issues (Veitch planned to end the time travel story and his run at 91) popping up in different points in history.
Issue 88 is where the proverbial stuff hit the fan. Veitch had written a story where Swampy ends up meeting Jesus Christ during his last days. Titled ” Morning of the Magician”, the issue featured a scene where Swampy hands Jesus a cup of water while he suffers on the cross. The cover art depicts Swampy (wearing a crown of thorns) fashioned into the cross, covered in blood stains from Jesus’ wounds.
Handed into and approved by his editors, the story seemed a go. Penciller Michael Zulli completed much of the artwork for the issue. In a turn for the worse, then DC Editor in Chief and President Jenette Kahn read and declined publishing of the issue, feeling it could be inflammatory. DC was in a tight spot at the time. The comics industry was not at it’s 90’s nadir yet, but readership numbers weren’t where they wanted them to be. Several instances during that time of public backlash versus entertainment that contained a religious element were a hot topic. Martin Scorsese’s The Last Contemplation Of Christ had angered many Catholics and caused issues for the movie studios involved. Madonna was booted from a lucrative Pepsi contract for her Like A Prayer video, filled with what was considered by many as offensive Catholic imagery. The cherry on top was Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Versus novel, which caused such an uproar amongst some in the Muslim community that the author’s life was threatened.
DC didn’t have as big of a powder keg here, as comics couldn’t compare to the popularity of movies or pop music, but they feared any negative attention would hurt the company’s future. Tim Burton’s Batman movie was in production at Warner Brothers and plans for a Swamp Thing cartoon and live action show were in place ( not to mention a toy line through Kenner). The higher ups at DC had leveraged too much on the success of Batman, and feared causing any kind of boycott that would hurt them.
Veitch quit the book after DC’s decision, and vowed not to work for the company again, unless they changed their stance and released the issue. Jamie Delano and Neil Gaiman were planned to take over the series after Veitch was to finish his run, both declined the job in support of the writer. Eventually after a brief period of no issues being published, new writer Doug Wheeler took over, but did not continue Veitch’s time travel story, but set out on a new direction with his own issue 88.
Veitch eventually worked for DC again, relenting his position. In 2004, he even offered to make some changes to the issue, in the hopes to be able to finish the time travel story off. To date, no resolution has been reached. Swamp Thing lasted 133 issues total in that volume, and has been brought back several times, currently in the New 52 series of DC books. The Swamp Thing cartoon was a flop, while the live action show lasted a few years. Art and the script from the lost issue can be found on the Internet.
In conclusion, it is an interesting little story in the history of our beloved medium, comics. It in no uncertain way makes us look at how much things have changed in the last 25- 30 years. Would a character interacting with Jesus cause such a stir in a day and age where some comics regularly feature some of the most abhorrent violence, rape and other forms of cruelty? What should be considered more inflammatory, depicting the horrors that can and do occur in our world, or retelling a historical story with some fictional elements intertwined. That is a question far to big for me to answer.