The Political Theology of Swamp Thing

Over Christmas break, I read one of the great literary classics of our time: Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Better known for Watchmen, Moore is one of the true comic book auteurs, and I was fascinated that he got his start writing for what has to be one of the most ill-conceived characters in comic history. His origin goes like this: scientist Alec Holland and his wife Linda are working on an advanced bio-restorative formula in a remote lab in the Louisiana bayou. Someone plants a bomb in the lab in order to sabotage the project. Holland notices the dynamite strapped under the table just a second too late and is caught in the explosion. Aflame, he runs into the swamp, where the bio-restorative formula from his lab turns him into a plant-based swamp monster.

From this unpromising, borderline nonsensical starting point, Moore crafted stories of remarkable creativity and emotional depth — they are honestly some of the best comics I have ever read, maybe even better than Watchmen itself. In fact, reading back over my post, I realize I’ve allowed my enthusiasm perhaps too free a rein, resulting in more plot exposition that is strictly necessary. Readers less invested in the details of decades-old comics are therefore encouraged to scroll down to the heading “The Political Theology Part.”

After getting through his entire run, I decided to go back and read the earlier Swamp Thing comics, just to see the straw that Moore had woven into gold. This had the benefit of giving me a feeling that one can rarely experience in the comic book world — completion. All in, there are about 50 issues featuring Swamp Thing prior to Alan Moore’s run. Those come in basically three tranches. After a one-off story in a horror anthology series, there are 24 issues of the original Swamp Thing series from the 70s, which was ultimately cancelled. There are also a handful of guest appearances in other titles. Then there are 19 issues in the series Moore would take over, entitled Saga of the Swamp Thing, which revived the character in the 80s to capitalize on the fact that someone got the crazy idea of making a Swamp Thing movie. That might seem like a lot — and it did feel like a long haul at times — but if I wanted to read every appearance of even a third-tier character like Hawkman, even within a limited timeframe of a decade or so, I would quickly be overwhelmed by an uncontrollable profusion of material.

The relative lack of material on Swamp Thing seemed to reflect the fact that writers never really knew what to do with him. In the pre-Moore comics, Swamp Thing is basically a body-horror gag. Alec Holland is brilliant and compassionate, but he is stuck in a body that leaves him unable to do scientific work or connect with others. He can barely even talk, and his only “power” is super strength and near invincibility. So the writers mainly contrive to put him in situations where he rescues people despite the fact that they are repulsed by him. Or they juxtapose him with “real” monsters. Or they just write stories about human characters and have him tag along for the ride — the main strategy for the final pre-Moore comics, where Swampy is reduced to a supporting character in his own title. In any case, the reader is made aware of his self-loathing inner monologue, in which he constantly bemoans his hideous state, longs to return to normal humanity, etc., etc. It gets a little repetitive.

Moore’s first Swamp Thing story is entitled “Loose Ends.” The first time I read it, it made absolutely no sense. It was a classic comic book moment of being dropped into the middle of a long-running story. When I was a kid, I would have read it over and over until I could basically reason out what was going on, but as an adult it was clear that none of that was important. Moore was cutting off every pre-existing story — sometimes radically altering characters as he went. A “will they/won’t they” arc with a pair of characters is resolved as the woman, previously strong-willed but now terribly frightened by all the violence and horror around them, finally becomes timid and submissive to the man, who relishes the change. We had no previous hint that this guy was abusive or misogynistic, but Moore decided to go hard. (They later come back for a one-off story revealing that the man had been essentially keeping the woman captive in her home and gaslighting her for years — a story based on the experience of one of Moore’s own relatives!) Meanwhile, he begins the process of breaking up another couple, in order to free up the woman who will be Swamp Thing’s love interest and who will at times feel like the real main character of the series: the white-haired beauty Abby Arcane.

One of my biggest goals in reading the old comics was to get more background on Abby, and it’s amazing that the previous writers left so much on the table. First of all, her last name reflects the fact that she is the niece of Anton Arcane, Swamp Thing’s greatest enemy. A powerful magician — or something, it’s hard for me to figure out what exactly they think he is — Arcane taunted Swampy with the prospect of becoming human again, only to betray him. Previous writers make nothing of this connection. She might as well be just some random woman. She joins “Team Swamp Thing” and tags along for all their adventures, but doesn’t do much of anything except provide a possible love interest for a human character, Matt Cable, who initially thinks the Swamp Thing killed Alec and Linda Holland but then comes to understand that he is Alec and becomes his greatest ally. Moore dispenses with Cable, who is by then married to Abby, by having him basically be demon-possessed by Anton Arcane’s ghost, creating some nice incest-horror for Abby, and then, once the possession situation is resolved, puts him in a persistent vegetative state.

The boldest change of all to the Swamp Thing milieu is an alteration in the origin story, which takes place in the second issue Moore writes. There we discover that Alec Holland was not “transformed” into a plant-based facsimile of a man — an origin that is described, in-universe, as nonsensical — but instead the bio-restorative formula interacted with the swamp’s plant life in such a way that it resonated with the dying Holland’s brain waves (or whatever) and tried to build a body to house a similar consciousness. His main plot arc throughout literally every previous story was that he was trying to become human again, and Moore decides he was never human — instead, he is an autonomous plant-based intelligence that bootstrapped from Alec Holland’s memories. For a while, Swampy is grumpy about this and even gets mad at Abby for calling him “Alec,” but eventually he comes to terms with his situation and wants to find a way to live as the Swamp Thing. (I interpret the fact that he is able to talk more or less normally after this point as reflecting his self-acceptance — previously he hated the sound of his own voice in his “wrong” body.)

And it turns out that being Swamp Thing includes a lot of sex. One of the most memorable issues — and, according to Neil Gaiman’s introduction to the compilation it appears in, the issue that did the most to draw in new readers — consists of Abby and Swampy’s sexual experimentation. Though they had “cavorted” before, Swampy suggests that the way for them to really become one would be for her to eat a part of him. He sheds a sweet potato, and when she eats it, it’s as though she’s tripping acid and experiencing life (and herself) from his perspective. The prose in the narration boxes is a little overheated — a persistent feature across Moore’s run — but the whole thing is weirdly moving. He somehow made me emotionally invested in how a swamp monster and a human woman could have sex.

What’s remarkable to me in this whole sequence of events is how Moore is threading the needle of doing creative storytelling while very emphatically doing comics. He is not slumming in the genre (as Gaiman sometimes seems to be in Sandman, for example). He wants to do great comics. The new origin for Swamp Thing doesn’t just discard the previous story — it also makes more sense, in-universe, than the idea that his human flesh somehow transmuted into plant flesh. (It also might better account for old issues where he apparently regained his humanity but was always threatening to turn back into a plant, as though the Swamp Thing form was his “default.”) And it opens up new possibilities as Moore explores the logical implications of Swamp Thing’s status and powers. One particularly memorable issue follows up on the trippy sweet potatoes by showing what happens when other people find and try them. One, a criminal, is driven to despair and suicide, while another, a woman in hospice care, experiences the oneness of the universe — in other words, Swamp Thing sweet potatoes turn out to be a kind of truth serum. More consequential is the decision that Swamp Thing’s consciousness can control not just this particular body made of plants, but any plantlife, anywhere on earth. This power grows incrementally. Initially he is barely able to regenerate himself after being exposed to toxic waste. Then he is able to travel to different parts of the country. Finally, he is able to command any and all plantlife — and weaponize it.

Swamp Thing shows his full powers in a Batman crossover. Here again, he is building on past stories, which had (for no clear reason) established a special relationship between Batman and Swamp Thing, through multiple team-up stories. The circumstances leading up to the story also very much demonstrate the way that Moore is embedded in the comic book genre while transcending it. Over the course of several issues, Moore writes Swamp Thing into the biggest crossover event of comic history up to that point, Crisis on Infinite Earths. The main goal of the series was to consolidate the DC continuity, which was at that point strewn with a confusing array of alternative dimensions and copies of the “same” characters, by destroying all but one of the “infinite earths” and creating just one. With the help of occult detective John Constantine, Swamp Thing has come to understand that he is more than just a fluke accident — he is a plant elemental, which has been called into existence for this crucial moment. You see, the spiritual plane will be effected by the universe consolidation, and Swamp Thing must lead a ragtag group of forgotten third-tier “magical” characters to prevent an evil cabal from seizing control of things, etc., etc.

The whole thing is super self-indulgent, and honestly one of the weaker stories in the whole run. But along the way, we have been checking back in with Abby, whose life is falling apart. A nature photographer happened to catch her and Swampy in flagrante sweet potato, and the publication of the photos leads to Abby losing her job in a home for autistic children (because a sex pervert can’t work with kids!) and even facing legal jeopardy. She ultimately skips bail and runs away to Gotham City, where her attempt to disappear is thwarted when she is caught up in a prostitution bust (she must be a prostitute with her freaky white hair — this was the 80s, remember). When Swamp Thing gets home from the spiritual realm, he is pissed and proceeds to hold Gotham City hostage by causing its plantlife to grow uncontrollably.

The funny thing about this story is that a lot of Gothamites are… kind of into it? From one perspective, Swamp Thing has rendered the city unlivable, but from another, he has turned it into a garden paradise. As the conflict rolls on, public opinion polling shows that a large plurality of citizens would just as soon leave things this way. Ultimately, Batman prevails on Commissioner Gordon to take the side of tolerance and drop charges against Abby — but just as Swamp Thing has returned things to normal and is about to be reunited with Abby, dastardly villains hit him with a device (designed by Lex Luthor!) that changes his electromagnetic frequency so that it no longer matches earth’s vegetation. Thus he can be limited to his regular body, which can then be destroyed.

Moore lets the reader believe Swampy is really dead for two issues, which follow Abby’s mourning process and the funeral in Gotham (where they have erected a statue to him). Then it reveals that he is in outer space, where he is able to interface with plantlife on other planets. This begins the strangest and, to me, often weakest story arc — Swamp Thing’s adventures in space! As with the Batman tie-in, this theme is suggested by past stories, above all a lengthy cross-over arc with the now-forgotten superhero team the Challengers of the Unknown. Moore’s space plot is very self-indulgent and comic book-y, crossing over with major and minor “space” characters from the DC universe, but at the same time, it allows Swamp Thing to experience real character growth. Prior to saving the spiritual realm, Swamp Thing had visited the “Parliament of Trees,” a grove where all the previous plant elementals have taken the form of trees to retire. When he asks them what he should do about the Crisis on Infinite Earths thing, they respond that he needs to set aside power and especially anger — advice that proves very useful for staving off the apocalypse, as it turns out. But the first thing he does when he gets home is rage out and assert his dominance.

Swamp Thing’s exile in the depths of space thus has a penitential aspect, but also helps him to come to terms with his relationship to humanity. Through everything, he remains absolutely dedicated to getting home to Abby, who reinforces the Odyssey parallel by keeping the home fires burning. Along the way, he causes the deserts to bloom on one planet and wreaks havoc by assembling a body out of sentient plants on another. Eventually he learns how to control his electromagnetic frequency so that he can re-interface with Earth plants and get back to Abby. Completing the Odyssey arc, he rages out one last time by systematically murdering everyone involved in the plot to kill him in increasingly gruesome ways. (Most clever is the death of the ringleader, who has figured out what’s going on and has ordered all plants to be removed from his headquarters — except for the lettuce on his sandwich…. Yikes.)

But once he has settled back into the swamp and swapped sweet potatoes, Swamp Thing has a thought that justifies the title of this post: why not just heal Earth’s biosphere like he did to that alien planet? In part due to the constraints of the comic book genre, which must somehow keep its storyworld “the same” as the real world despite the crazy things that constantly happen, we know that he can’t. He ultimately decides not to, reasoning that humanity would take his intervention as license to pollute all the more. It is not up to him to impose a proper relationship to nature on humanity. He must eschew anger and power, like the Parliament of Trees said.

The Political Theology Part

In short, Swamp Thing is a god who refuses to “play God.” This puts him in stark contrast to a character that Moore was writing at the same time as the tail end of Swamp Thing: Dr. Manhattan. Like Swamp Thing, Dr. Manhattan results from a terrible laboratory accident, after which the victim reassmbles himself in a radically different form. Unlike Swamp Thing, Dr. Manhattan really is human, but — as Jacob Levy pointed out to me on Twitter — he feels much less connected to humanity. Like Swamp Thing, his main connection to humanity is a young woman, but his romantic interest is much less sincere and convincing. Perhaps more consequentially, he is willing to “play God,” intervening in the Vietnam War on behalf of the US and creating world-altering technologies, something that is done more easily in Watchmen‘s self-contained world than in the ongoing DC universe. But he’s also willing to simply walk away from humanity in its moment of greatest crisis.

Dr. Manhattan is in one respect a wish-fulfillment for the comic book reader — the nerd becomes all-powerful and gets the girl — but it also reflects the arrested emotional development that makes that wish-fulfillment appealing. Many readers have questioned how a god could be interested in dating a teenage girl, but the real question is how a god could stand essentially being a teenage boy (in emotional intelligence terms). He carries around the resentments of the teenage nerd long past the point where they are relevant, and once he gets bored with being popular and getting all A’s from every authority figure he can find, he can see no more value in his connection with humanity. From this perspective we can see that the early Swamp Thing was a kind of backhanded wish-fulfilliment for that same nerdy reader — you may not be able to see through my unattractive exterior, but inside I’m brilliant and kind! And Moore is not grudging. He does give that reader the unalloyed wish-fulfillment of getting the girl — but only after Swamp Thing has given up on the demand to see beneath the surface and discern what he really is. Where Dr. Manhattan finally gets what the teenage nerd thinks he “deserves,” Swamp Thing gives up on deserving altogether. He just is what he is, and he’s fortunate that Abby is open-minded enough to eat his sweet potatoes.

These two characters belong together not simply because they were written by the same person at around the same time. I think both are attempts to think through a genuinely political-theological problem: what would it mean if gods really did walk among us? Dr. Manhattan is the god we think we want, the one who will solve all our problems for us, and Moore shows that that scenario devolves into a nightmare. Swamp Thing is initially much less appealing, but he is the kind of god that I can accept — the kind who handles the things that only he can handle, while leaving us the space to solve our own problems. In other words, the god who realizes he was never human is the god who leaves us space to be human.

One thought on “The Political Theology of Swamp Thing

  1. Loving this. Especially after my continuous disappointment with comic’s cultural analysis that can’t grasp the strength of their core ideas, central ideas, than are the ones that stay with the reader more profoundly.

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