Following the establishment of the Comics Code Authority in 1948, any content pertaining to the supernatural or horror genre was banned from depiction in comic books. This ban would persist for many years as regulators of the CCA believed violent, darker aspects of comics were capable of corrupting the youth.
In January of 1971 though, the ban was lifted, permitting creators to reignite their creativity in ways that were restricted before. Thus, in July of the same year, Swamp Thing made his debut in House of Secrets #92.
Today, I want to focus on one of the most pivotal runs of the monstrous character. In 1982, notable writer Alan Moore began composing a Swamp Thing run entitled, Saga of the Swamp Thing. This particular series is often noted for its compelling storytelling and original reinterpretation of the monstrous character's mythos.
Thus, I want to dive into this run, explore its beginnings and how it encompasses an authentic exemplification of the Southern Gothic genre.
To provide a cohesive, analytical introduction to Alan Moore's run, I want to focus on the first two issues of it, comprising Swamp Thing #20 & 21.
Thus, upon the beginning of Swamp Thing #20, we find our titular character wandering the swamps of Lacroix, Louisiana. In this sequence, he searches for the body of his archenemy, Arcane.
Interestingly, when Swamp Thing finds Arcane's corpse, he expresses great sorrow. Swamp Thing states that he now realizes the importance Arcane played in his life, even when he failed to see it before.
Ultimately, Swamp Thing perceives the two to have been opposites who existed to define the other. Of course, Swamp Thing lost his humanity to the monstrosity he now encompasses while Arcane voluntarily gave up his humanity to become a more powerful monster.
Therefore, Arcane represents much of what Swamp Thing aspires not to become as Swamp Thing maintains the tether to humanity that Arcane simply tossed aside. So, according to Swamp Thing's perspective, the further removed he is from Arcane, the greater the hope he has that his humanity is not totally lost.
In fact, when Swamp Thing discovers Arcane's body, he narrates that since he lost his life as Alec Holland, he has been trying to "claw it [his humanity] back".
One cannot help but note the word choice Swamp Thing employs here as the act of clawing something tends to be associated with some non-human creature. Thus, one can assume that, in the context of Swamp Thing #20, our titular character is slowly disassociating from his human identity.
Swamp Thing may be Arcane's opposite since he still values human nature, but he can only do so much to stop the forces of nature that are taking control of him.
The Place We Left Behind
In regard to the aesthetics of Swamp Thing #20, penciler Dan Day and colorist Tatjana Wood do a fantastic job in depicting the intricacies of a Louisianan swamp. Their implementation of shadows highlight the isolation and darkness that looms throughout the territory. They also juxtapose the green tones of Swamp Thing's figure with more neutral hues throughout the swamp, therefore establishing Swamp Thing as the setting's nucleus.
Some of the characteristics that define the Southern Gothic genre include the motif of alienation, grotesque characters, and settings that are populated by dense nature.
Saga of the Swamp Thing comprises all of these characteristics in addition to heightened elements of horror. In regard to us readers, we have been groomed to fear the unknown since our respective youths. Thus, the appearance of dark woods full of winding roots and ominous sounds is one that evokes terror from within.
Consequently, the Southern Gothic aesthetic Day and Wood maintain heighten the tone of the comic. They ensure that the Louisianan setting comprises mysterious and perilous elements that allure us to explore.
Now, in regard to the continuing plot of Swamp Thing #20, the nefarious Sunderland Corporation and the Defense Department Intelligence have their eyes set on Swamp Thing and his close allies. As a result, it is not long until the two organizations locate Swamp Thing and manage to shoot him down, seemingly to his death.
Though, can a creature so intertwined with the earth truly die?
Upon the beginning of Swamp Thing #21, our titular character falls into the possession of General Sunderland. At this time, Swamp Thing is presumed dead and kept on ice for experimentation. To conduct these experiments, Sunderland hires Jason Woodrue, also known as the Floronic Man. Sunderland asks Woodrue to investigate the creation of Swamp Thing, particularly the bio-restorative formula Alec Holland was working on prior to the explosion that catalyzed Swamp Thing's creation.
Now, Woodrue finds great satisfaction in experimenting on Swamp Thing's "corpse". As aforementioned, characteristics of the Southern Gothic genre comprise elements of horror. Swamp Thing #21 presents some of those characteristics in the form of aberrance and body horror.
In one sequence, Woodrue conducts his autopsy while drinking a glass of wine, enjoying himself as he cuts open the monster’s body. With this, another sequence depicts Woodrue consuming parts of Swamp Thing's corpse, relishing the taste. Now, though these actions may seem abhorrent to us, to Woodrue Swamp Thing does not maintain anything remotely human.
Thus, he perceives his actions to be orthodox in the name of experimentation.
Back in Swamp Thing #20, out titular character narrated how he had lost his opposite in the form of Arcane. Through his enemy, Swamp Thing made sure to retain the subconscious of Alec Holland in order to preserve a semblance of his former human nature.
With Arcane gone, Swamp Thing found himself lost in a way, unsure as to how to navigate his existence without the balance he had grown accustomed to.
Swamp Thing #21 depicts nature recalibrating itself through the form of Woodrue. Nature has a tendency to rebalance itself when unexpected events defy the natural order of things.
Thus, Jason Woodrue aka the Floronic Man's introduction into Saga of the Swamp Thing brings Swamp Thing another opposite to challenge him and his humanity.
After conducting a multitude of experiments, Woodrue finally follows through on Sunderland's objective and determines the cause of Swamp Thing's creation.
Woodrue reports that the bio-restorative formula Alec Holland was working on came into contact with his own body. Thus, when Holland’s body descended into a nearby swamp following the explosion of his lab facility, the components of the bio-restorative formula attached to Holland’s body reacted with the swamp's microorganisms.
This reaction ultimately created the creature we would come to know as Swamp Thing. Thus, Woodrue concludes that this creature is not a transformed version of Alec Holland. Rather, this creature absorbed the subconscious of Holland and is thus a mere projection of the man who was once alive.
So, since his creation, Swamp Thing has believed himself to be a plant-form manifestation of his "former self" when in fact Swamp Thing was never Alec Holland to begin with.
Consequently, there is a terrifying concept to ponder here. The subconscious of Alec Holland is trapped in a body that was never and will never be is. Additionally, the tether that Swamp Thing maintained to his humanity has been proven to be inauthentic.
To put it simply, Swamp Thing is an incredibly tragic character. He perceives himself as a monster who must remain isolated from the rest of the world, a world he did not ask to leave.
Thus, he lurks through the swamps and the forests that are now home to him and claim ownership over his existence. Because of this, Swamp Thing maintains a complex nature with the earth as it facilitates his existence but with a great deal of possessiveness.
Ultimately, the introductory issues of Saga of the Swamp Thing provide readers with a holistic taste of what the series comprises. It showcases the complex identity crisis involving Swamp Thing himself in addition to the Southern Gothic elements that diversify the series' genre classifications.
As we continue to explore the Southern Gothic genre this month, we will only sink deeper into the swamp, growing more familiar with its ominous nature and the creatures that lurk within it.