Swamp Thing, 2019 TV series
Swamp Thing 2019 series| poster excerpt

It’s Not Easy Being Green: Swamp Thing, Ecology and the (Sometimes Slimy) Nature of Being

Swamp Thing challenges readers to question how our understanding of our existence is, in part, defined by how we see our relationship to the natural, non-human world.

Swamp Thing, like most franchise comic series, has a somewhat long, tenuous history. Created in 1972 by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson, Swamp Thing began as the story of Alec Holland, a young botanist working in the Louisiana bayou with his wife Linda on a “bio-restorative” formula, which is essentially a super-powered fertilizer that would “make forests out of deserts.” Like most superhero comic books, Holland’s scientific efforts are undermined by a supervillain who plants a bomb in Holland’s Louisiana laboratory. When the bomb detonates in the lab, it covers the young scientist with his bio-restorative formula, sending his burning body into the nearby swamp.

Those responsible for the bomb soon return and murder Linda. Cut to the next splash page: Swamp Thing emerges, a half-man, half-plant monster that spends his first comic run of about 24 issues fighting various supervillains, interacting with Batman and Superman when sales are low, and always searching for the evildoers that murdered his wife and turned him into a monster. This first run lasted from 1972 through 1976, and although it was eventually canceled due to poor sales, it provided the essential character origin story that was carried through various re-imaginings and revivals.

For all of young Alec Holland’s good intentions, his position as a young botanist working to improve upon the laws of the natural world reflect familiar archetypes and grand narratives. On one hand, Holland’s governmental laboratory work with the bio-restorative formula has the potential to help people in arid regions grow food. Although Holland’s “idealistic nature” is admirable, the idea of technology and modern science as a means of improving upon nature is a storied theme and a potentially harmful way of conceptualizing human/environment or human/non-human relationships.

From the beginning, the Swamp Thing origin story has always been about understanding a conflicted relationship between humans and the environment. This subject is fully developed beginning with the Alan Moore/Steve Bissette revival for DC Comics in 1984. Moore and Bissette pick the story up with Swamp Thing now the scientific property of General Sunderland, a money- and power-hungry villain hoping to capitalize upon the scientific knowledge learned from tests conducted with Swamp Thing’s cryogenically frozen body. The scientist in charge of studying Swamp Thing is Jason Woodrue, the Floronic man, aka Plant Master, a villain in his own right, once aligned with the Secret Society of Super Villains. Apart from the Sunderland Corporation, Woodrue has his reasons for the study, seeking increased power as a man-plant hybrid.

Woodrue determines, in Moore’s re-imagining, that Swamp Thing is not half-man, half-plant, but rather all-plant, revealing no human traces of the former Alec Holland at all. Woodrue concludes that, like Planarian worms that can consume the consciousness of other planarian worms (a reference to a biochemical memory experiment with worms in the 1960s never reproduced with the same results), Swamp Thing is simply vegetable matter in human form. This new Swamp Thing is just a plant that somehow consumed the consciousness of Alec Holland when he entered the swamp after the bomb blast.

So concludes Moore’s re-introduction of Swamp Thing in issue #21, “Anatomy Lesson”. Theoretically, this re-imagining of the title character represents a shift from a physical understanding of human relation to the natural world to a relationship that also tries to account for the spiritual and metaphysical aspects of humanity. Interestingly, Swamp Thing challenges readers to question how our understanding of our existence is, in part, defined by how we see our relationship to the natural, non-human world.

Moore and Bissette’s Swamp Thing remains a pinnacle achievement in the medium partly due to the timelessness of the plot. In the more familiar comic book conflict, Swamp Thing must confront the villainous Woodrue, who desires to use knowledge of Swamp Thing’s nature to harness the power of the plant world to take over the earth by destroying all non-plant life. The parallel conflict is less-familiar to mainstream comic books and more common to eco-critical texts that confront humanity’s anthropocentrism when making decisions about the natural world. In this other narrative conflict, Swamp Thing must resolve the internal conflict of coming to terms with a new sense of self that does not identify with human/nature and human/nonhuman oppositions.

One of the most striking passages, and one that textually and visually represents the conflict between Swamp Thing and Holland’s identity, is a dream-like sequence that begins with Swamp Thing visualizing the memories of a borrowed consciousness. The scene opens with images of Alec and Linda’s wedding framed by the eyes and nose of Swamp Thing. The greens and blacks of Swamp Thing quickly give way to brightly colored, evenly framed squares of Alec and Linda in formal wear, an attempt to give structure and coherence to the hazy, dream-like remembrance of a wedding celebration. The speech balloons almost immediately break from smooth circular lines to shaky, free-form, amoeba-like containers, and the text within them characterizes the rupture of humanity at the hands of a challenging plant identity.

Alec’s life textually and visually dissolves as a pastiche of blurry monsters and superheroes crash the reception scene, and Linda literally sinks out of the organized panel frames. The narrative changes course as the wedding reception morphs into Alec’s quest to dig beneath evenly framed square boxes to find Linda. Yet digging up Linda is also symbolic of Swamp Thing’s desire to dig up and resurrect Alec Holland’s human identity for a more acceptable sense of self.

As Alec attempts to dig beneath the panel to find his deceased wife, he also digs along the line of the human/nature binary, where he tries to find a suitable identity for his current state. In the process, his lab coat transforms into a mud suit in the likeness of Swamp Thing, an image that depicts a character teetering on the fine line between human and non-human. The Swamp Thing suit that Alec adorns in this fantasy is frightening. The monstrous form subsumes the significance of himself as human, and as those around the grotesque Holland tear the suit off, it is revealed that Holland is not under there anymore, implying that he was never there, to begin with.

When the dream sequence returns later in the issue, Swamp Thing encounters a reception not of wedding guests but of plant and animal matter, all dining upon the figure of young Alec Holland. Bissette’s artwork inverts the pleasantries of formal dining, as the guests resemble Lovecraftian worms at a feast that frighteningly resembles cannibalism. However, the subtle argument that lingers in the back of the reader’s mind is that this feast symbolizes the cyclical, natural process of matter being absorbed and consumed by other matter.

Moore has many plays on words and puns, such as when the worms ask if Holland is Jewish because they are plain Aryan worms (Planarian Worms), and one of the condiments next to Holland’s corpse is a gravy boat of Hollandaise Sauce. They are easy puns and show sophisticated humor absent from many mainstream comics, but they are also representative of how language and identity can be twisted and able to mean something else.

The sequence ends with Swamp Thing approaching the dining table upon which Holland’s human body lay, only to find that the worms have eaten all of him, and nothing remains but a skeleton. Although this depicts the unsightly yet natural ways the earth consumes the flesh after death, the planarian worms turn to Swamp Thing, saying, “We left you the best part. We left you the humanity. Try not to lose it.” Swamp Thing walks away, carrying the weight of human consciousness with the skeletal remains of Alec Holland, fighting off an imaginary barrage of monsters that he thinks are trying to steal his humanity.