By Danny Anderson
Today, DC comics will bring one of its classic horror characters to its new streaming television service, DC Universe. Swamp Thing will join Titans and Doom Patrol on the fledgling network, adding its unique brand of ecological terror to the network’s growing collection of superheroes. The release offers the theologically-minded fan an occasion to reflect on one of Swamp Thing’s most remarkable periods; Alan Moore’s postmodern reinvention of him during his run on Saga of the Swamp Thing in the early 1980’s.
Swamp Thing was created by Bernie Wrightson and Len Wein in 1971. Initially, his story followed a pattern familiar to comic fans: it was your basic “scientist testing the limits of technology is transformed into a monstrous super-powered being” tale. Swamp Thing was the result of botanist Alec Holland’s experimentation with a plant-based bio-regenerative formula. Jealous rivals engineered an explosion in the lab and Holland’s body was blown into the swamp, where his formula mixed with the native plant life and transformed him into the monster known as Swamp Thing.
Wrightson and Wein’s character proved to be an effective and popular creation for a while, but by the 1980’s sales plummeted and the title was given to the then-unknown Alan Moore to play with. Poor sales had lowered the stakes, and Moore experimented wildly. Ultimately, what he did with the character would not only save Swamp Thing from obscurity, but revolutionize the comics industry, eventually spearheading the launch of DC’s lauded and seminal “Vertigo” line of literary, adult-oriented comics. In the era that followed, some comics would be seen as high art and Swamp Thing is a pivotal figure in that accomplishment. Under Moore’s care, the character became a religious figure and inhabited a universe in which comparative religion and deep theological questions provided fertile soil for Swamp Thing’s astonishing artistic achievements. Moore’s run began with “The Anatomy Lesson” in Saga of the Swamp Thing #21. His entire run on the title is collected in the trade series Saga of the Swamp Thing volumes 1-6, and it has become a must-read for comics fans, as it jump-started Vertigo and introduced the character of John Constantine to the world.
One major theological question the book continually confronts is that of human beings’ place in creation. Alec Holland’s original story follows a pattern familiar to comic fans: he is a human turned into a monster who seeks redemption in the recovery of his humanity. In this respect, he shares much with the Hulk. Both Holland and Bruce Banner have been cursed with monstrosity and their plots are driven by a desire to restore their good standing among men. They are Dr. Jekylls who flee their own Mr. Hydes and in this way they are universal in their concern. There is a good reason artists return to these stories: everyone struggles with their own capacity for evil, after all. There is one profound assertion underlying this narrative, however; that human beings are innately good and hold a special place of privilege in a hierarchy of creation.
Alan Moore’s first act as Swamp Thing writer was to obliterate this supposed hierarchy. In this new origin story, we discover that Holland actually perished in the accident that created Swamp Thing. His body, flung into the swamp, mixed with certain chemicals and a spirit of Nature coalesced around it. Swamp Thing was actually an “elemental,” a supernatural protector of “The Green.” As this being gained consciousness in Alec Holland’s grave, it had absorbed his memories and simply assumed it was him. Swamp Thing had been mistakenly living as if he were a man and his efforts to maintain his humanity were in vain as he had never actually been human at all.
Those early issues deal heavily with the subsequent existential crisis this newly cognizant god experiences with his new self-knowledge. Eventually, Swamp Thing finds Holland’s remains and gives them a proper burial, putting Holland to rest and freeing himself from the burden of humanity’s limitations. Likewise, by abandoning human-ness as a highest aspiration Saga of the Swamp Thing was freed from a traditional man vs. nature binary narrative structure. Swamp Thing was no longer a man struggling to contain and subdue nature. Under Moore’s direction, he became an elemental force of nature struggling to maintain a healthy balance between humans and their environment. There is a strong ecological message in Moore’s run with the character and the religious idea of Creation Care runs strongly throughout.
In certain dispensationalist Christian traditions, Eden is a lost period, ancient, distant, and removed from the current epochal revealing of God’s plan, which ultimately leads to the destruction of humanity and the post-Fall creation. Saga of the Swamp Thing obliterates such temporal distinctions. Eden has not been closed off, but remains, taking the form of the swamp itself and, like its elemental caretaker, it is an eternal space perpetually existing alongside human civilization. Likewise, Swamp Thing is not a god of destruction working on behalf of either nature or civilization toward some distant teleology. He is, rather, a mediator maintaining a harmony between both. He defends the swamp from the encroaching violations of the Sunderland Corporation and he defends human civilization from the Floronic Man’s worldwide plant apocalypse. Here, the spirit of nature cares for humanity as part of its divine mission, thus Abby Cable, Swamp Thing’s great love, can frolic freely and safely in the borders of swamp under his compassionate protection. The battle between humans and nature no longer leads to Armageddon, but is resolved in a reconciliation between the two as coexistent in the here-and-now Creation.
Armageddon still looms as a threat, however, and Moore’s stint on the title finds Swamp Thing warding off several existential crises. One of the most consequential of these occurs when Anton Arcane, Swamp Thing’s nemesis and Abby Cable’s uncle, escapes Hell through the body of Abby’s husband Matthew Cable. The theological parallels are stark. With Arcane’s resurrection, we have a kind of reversal of Jesus’s death. Matthew 27:52-53 enigmatically recounts that at the moment of Jesus’s death on the cross, masses of holy people rose from their graves and descended upon Jerusalem. Arcane’s resurrection inverts this story in two ways. First, the dead rise with Arcane’s resurrection, not his death, and second, the dead who rise are uniformly evil people suddenly unleashed upon the Earth, threatening to bring about the end of the world. Arcane is therefore a negative image of Christ, if not an Anti-Christ.
Yet our hero is not exactly a Christ-figure. Swamp Thing is able to defeat Arcane because of his new recognition of himself as a demigod. Arcane thought he was still dealing with “fallen” Alec Holland, and a human could never compete with his magic. Unbeknownst to him, however, what he faces is instead an elemental spirit of the Earth and Arcane’s dark magic fails in response. Swamp Thing is able to send him back to Hell precisely because he has broken out of the old binaries of Christendom.
This episode directly leads to one of the most remarkable storylines in the series. Arcane, though defeated, has brought Swamp Thing’s beloved Abby to Hell with him. This leads the elemental god of The Green to test his newly discovered powers and he descends into the Inferno to retrieve her. The Dantean saga which follows is harrowing, literary, and theologically challenging and I leave it to the reader to discover its delights for themselves.
It’s unclear what direction DC Universe’s new Swamp Thing series will take the character. The trailers have heavily emphasized the character’s standing in the horror genre. Whether or not it picks up the boundary-dissolving backstory for Alec Holland and the Swamp Thing remains to be seen. But a dive into Moore’s epic run with the character will provide plenty of theological material to work with as you watch.
Dr. Daniel Anderson teaches English at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA. He received his Ph.D. in English from Case Western Reserve University. He teaches a range of Rhetoric, Literature, and Film classes at the Mount, including classes on the Jewish American Novel, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Franz Kafka, the Literature of Pittsburgh, and the Classic Horror Film. He also produces and hosts the Sectarian Review Podcast, which investigates art, pop culture, politics, and religion.