On Swamp Thing

Culture is a series of wheels upon which to be broken.

Some of the wheels (like school and the workplace) are explicit in both their acts of domination and the quid pro quo that invites supplication in the first place: Accept these alterations, receive these benefits. Other wheels are more subtle and implicit in their demands… they do not so much request submission as present you with a set of potential pleasures and leave you to do the breaking in your own time. Most cultural product exists within this latter category: Nobody’s forcing you to sit through the plays of Samuel Beckett or the films of Tarkovsky but loads of people have done so and they seemed to get something out of it sooooooo…. maybe you might want to take another run at them?

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, like most canonical works, is initially quite inaccessible. Moore doesn’t really do the traditional hero thing and quite a few issues are thin on conventional narrative structure and so nothing you will have read or experienced is likely to have helped you acquire the skills required to parse the ideas that Moore is trying to communicate. Like abstract art, contemporary music, and the dank memes of Zoomer culture, you’re going to have to break yourself on this wheel before you gain access to the benefits that come from fitting it to your cart.

The story says that Moore was given Swamp Thing when he first started writing for American comics. Inspired by matinee pulps and born of an age before comic book codes, nobody expected very much of Swamp Thing until Moore took over the writing, blew up the plot, and turned it into a stone cold classic. Without Swamp Thing there would have been no Hellblazer, no Lucifer, and no Sandman. Without Swamp Thing, American comics and literary fantasy would most likely have passed as ships in the night and mainstream comics would probably have remained the kind of bleak cultural wasteland that Marvel and Disney are currently forcing down the throats of the cinema-going public.

Swamp Thing is a work of literary fantasy in that it is fuelled by the recognition that our world is made from stories and that exerting control over these stories is an act of ontological sabbotage so profound that it borders on the downright magical.

Moore’s run on Swamp Thing begins with the death of its nominal hero and a scientist being brought in to perform an autopsy and determine how it was that an ordinary human being might have been transformed into a kind of bog-monster. However, once the scientist begins cutting in to Swamp Thing’s corpse he discovers not a mutated human but a self-contained ecosystem in which a network of plants had been replicating the functions of human organs. In other words, the accident that created Swamp Thing had not turned a human into a monster but rather convinced a load of plants to look and behave like a human. The first volume of Moore’s run on Swamp Thing is mostly about Swamp Thing struggling to come to terms with his own inhumanity, which is where the comic intersects the interests of this blog:

Swamp Thing remembers his life as a human, he remembers the friends he made as a human, and he sits at the heart of a network of relationships built and nurtured on the assumption that Swamp Thing (despite his monstrous appearance) is not just a person but a recognisably human person with the same psychological rules and limits as any other human being.

The early issues of Moore’s run are frequently little than ideas and impressions issuing from Swamp Thing and bracketed by events drawn from the lives of Swamp Thing’s human friends and acquaintances. This makes the comic rather difficult to read as the narratives often snake back and forth through time and space before disappearing into a dense Freudian thicket but step back from the comic and look at it in a more abstracted manner and you can see Moore exploriong the collision between human and inhuman perspectives. We can understand the lives of the humans entering the Louisiana swamps because we are human but the second we try to make sense of what it is that Swamp Thing is experiencing, we are immediately lost amidst signs and portents.

The above pannels come very close to the opening of the second volume of the collected comics and it marks something of a turning point for the comic itself as Swamp Thing comes to terms with his memories of being human and realises that while he is not the person he was, he is still a person with thoughts and feelings and so can relate to other (human) people. This realisation is mirrored in the structure of the comic as Moore moves away from that tricky human/inhuman narrative divide and towards a more conventional structure in which Swamp Thing is a person doing person stuff for comprehensible reasons.

As the comic progresses, Swamp Thing encounters the mage John Constantine who, it turns out, understands Swamp Thing’s nature far better than he does. Swamp Thing’s relationship with Constantine works beautifully as it generally involves Constantine turning up out of the blue, teasing Swamp Thing with some hidden truth about his nature, and encouraging him to do some Comicsy-hero stuff in exchange for information. Aside from providing the comic with a proper narrative spine, this relationship also shines a light on the function of culture: Without human intervention, Swamp Thing would do nothing but sit in a swamp and literally vegetate but because he has feelings, he has hopes, and because he has hopes, he has ambitions that force him to interact with other people and so assume a relationship not only with the world but also with himself. He needs to make decisions and assume a role, he needs to have values and opinions, to nurture relationships and keep moving forward. Swamp Thing’s relationship with Constantine is beautifully ambiguous as Swamp Thing both resents the way that Constantine forces him to do things, and feels gratitude for the things that Constantine reveals to him. Quid Pro Quo: Relationships are the building blocks of culture and culture is the wheel upon which we break ourselves.

Moore’s Swamp Thing resembles comics like Hellblazer, Sandman, and Lucifer in that it portrays the world as a network of free-floating signs and mythologies. In these kinds of comics, all legends are true they just become more-or-less relevant depending upon how close your lived experience gets to their putative gravity wells. What frustrates me with a lot of the comics inspired by Swamp Thing is that tend to present this postmodern vision as inherrently empowering: If everything is true then nobody can tell you that you’re wrong and knowing what stories are gives you a degree of agency in your experiencing of the world. This liberal individualist understanding of postmodernism is most evident in the ‘Arch Fabulist’ self-stylings of people like Neil Gaiman but Moore presents a far more nuanced view: It’s all very well saying that if nothing is forbidden then everything is permitted but meaningful action requires a means of choosing between different possibilities and without some kind of over-arching framework, your freedom amounts to little more than paralysis. Viewed through this lens, Constantine is not so much a tyrant seeking to enslave Swamp Thing as a stone dropped in a river for the sole purpose of creating currents.

Moore’s vision of Swamp Thing as a person haunted by himself strikes me as extraordinarily powerful: Neuroscience reminds us that we are not so much a Cartesian ego sat at the controls of a meatmech as one of the people stuck at the bottom of Plato’s cave, forever trying to make sense of stuff that happens beyond the threshold of our conscious mind. As anyone who has ever been drunk, high, or experienced mental illness will tell you, our brain and body make decisions for us all the time… our sense of self emerges from our brain’s fevered attempts to make sense of our actions and reverse engineer a coherent sense of self.

We (the thinking-thing) is haunted not just by the brain, but also by the consequences of decisions taken by previous iterations of the thinking thing. “We” did not make the decisions “we” made but “we” have to live with the consequences. “We” did not get into that argument, “We” did not decide to start a relationship with that person, “We” did not decide to spend time sniffing glue when we should have been revising for our A-levels and yet “We” have to pretend that we are the exact same people who took these decisions. “We” have to pick up the pieces and create a narrative as the alternative would be recognising that there’s nobody and nothing sat in our head and working the controls.

One of the reasons why social media is so hazardous to mental health is that it not only encourages us to communicated in an entirely atavistic and unfiltered manner, it then has a habit of confronting us with these unguarded remarks and asking us to explain ourselves. A common initial response to being dragged is to scratch one’s head and admit you have no idea what you were thinking when you said those stupid, thoughtless, or nonsensical things. Many people double-down when challenged because the alternative is to admit to a lack of coherent control about the contents of your mind. Right from the start, our culture encourages us to take responsibility for what we have done and to think of our actions as expressions of some deep but partly occluded self but it is in those moments of absolute alienation from our own pasts that we see the power of Moore’s vision: What were we thinking when we said those things? What were we thinking when we thought those trousers were a good idea? Why did we choose to date that person or accept that job? Who the fuck were those people and why are we asked to account for their actions? Moore’s vision of Swamp Thing as a person alienated from and haunted by the person he was only a few days previously is utterly universal. “We” died the second we were born and yet “we” are never allowed to rest in peace. There’s a reason ghosts used to be represented as animate blank canvases weighted down by chains…

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