Swamp Thing and The Question

Last week it was revealed that the 27 pages of missing Denys Cowan comic art, believed by some to have been stolen, was finally returned to the artist. A short time later, Stephen Bissette -- the artist best known for his seminal work with Alan Moore and John Totleben on Saga of the Swamp Thing -- obliquely connected the Cowan news to an anecdote of his and Totleben's own, concerning Swamp Thing pages that had gone missing from the offices of DC Comics 30 years ago. Bissette posted about the story on Facebook, and when pressed for more information, stated that he and Cowan once had a conversation about the missing Swamp Thing work, and that Cowan implied he was aware of who had stolen the art. According to Bissette, when he and Totleben asked him to reveal who was behind the purported theft, Cowan refused.

Cowan was made aware of the accusations, and calls them baseless, stating in no uncertain terms that no such conversation between the creators about missing Swamp Thing art ever took place. Further, Cowan accused Bissette of slander, and suggested that, should Bissette's claims continue, he may take legal action.

Bissette made his initial claims via Facebook while linking to the news of Cowan's art being returned: "Now, maybe the stolen (stolen right from the DC offices) Saga of the Swamp Thing #34 'Rites of Spring' cover art and the last page of that same issue will turn up and be returned to its rightful owners, John Totleben and me?" Expounding on the situation in the comments below the status update, Bissette recalled the conversation he claims he and Cowan had regarding the missing pages:

Stolen from the DC offices about two months after the issue came out, along with pinups/covers to #32 and #33. We got back the interior art to SOTST #34, except for the last page, and the cover was never, ever returned. This came to mind with the news of Denys Cowan's art recovery because Denys once indicated he knew who had our art—when we pressed, we were told, "Um, not cool." End of conversation. Well, that sucked, eh?


The statement was brought to the attention of Cowan and, judging by his words, he was far from pleased. He responded on his own Facebook page, stating that not only had this conversation never happened, but he was fully unaware of this situation until Bissette's claims came to light this past weekend. The artist's full statement is below, unedited:

"I'm very fortunate to get my art back from UPS so grateful for the support from my friends and fans..however i shouldn't be surprised that negative stuff pops up from time to time
Stephen Bissette posted this yesterday... I don't get into FB wars i like to post interesting different things, photos, art, comics, etc so answering this kind of post is a drag

Bissette has decided to attach some 30 year old situation that I knew nothing about to my UPS missing art story. It's time that he and the 40 something or so misguided people who "liked" this bulls**t get the truth

Bissette is implying that I knew where his art was/is or that I stole it, which is a very serious allegation

I barely know Bisette, I haven't had more than a two word conversation with him ever.
I've never spoken to him about any missing Swamp Thing art at any time

The conversation Bissette talks about in his comments never happened

Maybe he has me confused with some other black artist freelancing for DC Comics at the time

i never worked in the art return dept at DC 30 years ago, maybe Bissette should check with them

i don't understand why Bissette waited 30 years to bring this up and put it on me, but I do understand that there is a lot of jealousy and hate in the world...
I don't like my name being smeared and slandered by Bissette and his sheepole and I'm willing to have a face to face conversation about these lies anytime... I'm not hard to find

I'm not in the stolen art business and to implicate me in anyway is slander
and unless he cleans this bulls**t up the next letter is from my lawyers.."


There's a lot to process here, and to be honest, I can't imagine why either man would lie about this situation. Most any professional would likely tell you that this kind of accusation -- an artist claiming you essentially abetted the theft of their work -- is very serious. In the interest of full disclosure, I worked with Cowan during my time in DC/Vertigo editorial, and I find it exceedingly difficult to believe that he'd willfully withhold information about missing art from a fellow artist. But it's also difficult to believe that Bissette's story is entirely fictional, as on the surface there's just no reason for him to suddenly bring this up 30 years later. So if I had to guess, I'd say it's a matter of mistaken identity. I imagine Bissette and Totleben did have this conversation with someone -- again, it's such a specific recollection on Bissette's part that I could easily believe it took place -- but that someone wasn't Cowan.

There's one sentence in Cowan's statement that stands out to me above all others: "Maybe he has me confused with some other black artist freelancing for DC Comics at the time." On a deeply personal level, this is something I relate to. In my near six years working at DC, far too many creators confused me with the one or two other black men they knew of who worked there -- some continuing to do so after being corrected multiple times -- to the extent that I would go as far as to call it a common occurrence. For the record, I am in no way accusing Bissette of racism -- I shouldn't have to say that, but I know that I do. That said, the uncomfortable truth here is that there is almost always an underlying racial dynamic to a white man accusing a black man of theft, or abetting in theft. Reading that might upset you, but that doesn't make it any less true. And when you're discussing events that took place at a company that has had relatively few black men in its employ, that dynamic is all the more pronounced.

Whatever happened, we do know one thing: two pages of art, including perhaps the most memorable image from one of the more acclaimed series in comic history, have been missing for 30 years. This is decidedly unjust, and likely quite painful for the creators involved. I feel comfortable saying that nearly everyone in comics would like to see Bissette and Totleben's work returned to them, in the same way Cowan's just was. I imagine that's something we can all agree on.

UPDATE: Bissette has deleted his original post, and offered an apology, though he doesn't mention Cowan by name.

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