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A. Moore’s The Saga of The Swamp Thing: Beyond the Nature vs Culture binarity


According to Global Footprint Network, in 2022 the Earth Overshoot Day fell on July 28. The current economic model based on the resources overexploitation has created a context of extreme climatic phenomena such as heatwaves or forest fires, and a 68% decline in average population size of vertebrate species since 1970 (Global Footprint Network, 2022). More than ever, the prominence of environmental protection raises the question of the rapport between human beings and their environment.


Even though it is a very current thematic present in many symbolic productions, Alan Moore already raised that issue in The Swamp Thing run, back in 1984 until 1987. The Swamp Thing was created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, and first appeared in The House of secrets #92 in 1971; however, it is with Moore’s run, renamed The Saga of The Swamp Thing, that the character’s popularity has soared. His renewed popularity is based on a re-imagining of the character itself, his new form being the reflect of Moore’s perception of the rapport between human beings and their environment, which is making progress towards a relationship based on a harmonic symbiosis rather than a struggle for the upper hand in a balance of power.



Figure 1: Alan Moore. The Saga of The Swamp Thing, vol 2, Issue #25. Cover image.

Dominance and destruction


Richard Harrison (2010) verbalized that the process beyond the genesis of a superhero is based upon a “core cluster” of principles that define the spatio-temporal framework in which the narration is set in motion. In The Saga of The Swamp Thing case, the core cluster seems to be that Nature is in conflict with Culture. In this perspective, Moore is perpetuating the classical opposition between Nature and Culture, establishing a binarity based upon a relationship of dominance: Man versus Nature. Indeed, the very first issue of the run, entitled “Loose ends”, depicts The Swamp Thing fighting against the General Sunderland and his goons. Two episodes of this issue are particularly representative of this opposition between Nature and Culture that Moore is showing. First, the General Sunderland himself, in the 4th board, describes the Sunderland like a death machine:

“Sunderland is like a death machine, Dwight. It’s sleek and co-ordinated and efficient. All you have to do is point it in the right direction...”

The analogy between his company and a gun is a strong way to establish it as a product of human technology, of Culture, whom point is to dominate by violence.


On the other hand, the main protagonist is presented as a peaceful wanderer, often lost in deep introspections and reflexions about its nature, like on the 8th page of the comics issue. While he sees the trucks of the Sunderland company arriving, the Swamp Thing is not trying to go and fight them, but prefers to consider the fact that the world is changing, and that he no longer belongs to it:

“Perhaps there was once a world...we could have belonged to...”

The creature is a personification of Nature. The Swamp Thing stepping back in the shadows in front of the Sunderland's trucks represents Nature stepping back in front of Culture.


Nevertheless, even if the Swamp Thing does not seem to have the will for a fight, this opposition between Nature and Culture almost seems inevitable because of the will of domination of Culture. On the 18th page, the concealed opposition reaches its climax, with an open battle between The Swamp Thing and the goons of the Sunderland. Their respective representations seem to materialize Moore’s perception of these two entities: while Culture is represented with an army of goons wielding flame throwers (a metaphor for the light) Nature is symbolized by this only “Thing”, striking from the shadows. The contrast appears to be total. But already, this confrontation between Nature and Culture turns out to be destructive for both sides, as many soldiers are getting killed and The Swamp Thing is even managing to destroy a helicopter, another symbol for modernism and Culture, the creature ends up being shot and presumed dead. As early as this, it is already possible to decypher Moore’s opinion on this confrontation provoked by a will of domination. It is a destructive process.



Figure 2 : J. Totleben, S. Bissette. Death of The Swamp Thing, The Saga of the Swamp Thing. "Loose Ends". 1984.

Yet, the next issue, titled “Anatomy Lesson”, introduces a new character. Moore, thanks to this character named Jason Woodrue, qualifies the conclusions of the previous issue. Indeed, after the previous battle and its ending, the reader could be tempted to picture a Nature/Culture dichotomy in which Nature would be the positive aspect and Culture the “villainous" one. Jason Woodrue is here to remind the reader that such a Manichean perception of this duality is probably mistaken. In fact, the very first page of the issue introducing the character offers the point of view of an internal narrator, and the thoughts of Jason Woodrue appear to be as violent as those of General Sunderland:

“I’m here in my apartment. I’m watching the rain...and I’m thinking about the old man. Blood in extraordinary quantities”

Later, on the 9th page, Jason Woodrue reveals his true identity, the “Floronic Man”, and the following pages reveal the murder he indirectly committed, manipulating the Swamp Thing. This episode is relevant because it shows the non-binarity of Moore’s perception of the Nature and Culture relationship. While first it could appear as a binary and classic representation of the battle between man and Nature, the appearance of the Floronic Man refutes this representation, as he also is a figure of Nature. Although, this time, Nature is shown as a destructive force, willing for dominance over humankind, even leading to its total annihilation, as shown in the “Another green world “issue. The title itself of the issue seems to indicate “another” face of Nature, and the words he pronounces while attacking a small town are quite explicit :

“I am the pain and the bitterness of the woods/ And it said purify. And it said destroy”

Culture, on the other hand, is shown as vulnerable and peaceful, as it is the case on the 20th page, with a woman begging for him to put an end to his violent actions:

“No more. Please"

This battle is a symmetrical representation of the first issue’s battle. This time, Nature is attacking Culture.


Figure 3 : S.Bissette. J.Totleben. Floronic Man.

Starting its Saga with these episodes, Moore presents the reader with his own perception of the duality between Nature and Culture. While the first issues may lead the reader to think about it as the aggression of Nature by Culture, the introduction of the “Floronic Man” character is portraying a more nuanced relationship between Nature and Culture, and by extension between human beings and their environment. Neither Nature nor Culture concepts are exposed as destructive concept per se in Moore’s representation, but the will of dominance is, whether it’s coming from one or the other.

Symbiosis and Harmony


In fact, the destruction brought by the Floronic Man comes to an end on the 23th page of the “Another Green World” issue: it concludes not only the destruction of the small town the villain assaulted, but also the destructive aspect of the Nature/Culture dichotomy. The writer, through The Swamp’ Thing character and its initiatory quest, unveils his own vision of the relationship between Culture and Nature, between human beings and their environment. Indeed, Moore, with his Swamp Thing run, introduced the fact that The Swamp Thing is no longer a human being transformed into this creature, but essentially a plant growing in the swamp that assumed the consciousness of Alec Holland. The genesis of The Swamp Thing is no longer a mere transformation process, but a proper symbiosis between the “Green” and a human consciousness. The fact that it is a “thing” indicates that the creature is neither human, nor vegetal, but a symbiose of both element coming to a harmony, as shown ion the 3rd page of “Another Green World”:

"Somewhere quiet...Somewhere green and timeless... I drift the cellular landscape stretching beneath me...eerie...silent...beautiful...My awareness expanding out through the forgotten root systems... Am I at peace? Am I ...happy? Oh yes.”

Figure 4 : S.Bissette and J.Totleben. The Swamp Thing drifting in the "green".

This part particularly illustrates the re-imagining of the title character Moore operated, including a metaphysical and spiritual conceptualization of the human/environment relationship. By using scientific (“cellular”, “system”), poetic (“eerie”, “landscape”) and introspective (“My awareness” “Am I” repetition) lexical fields, the writer effectively operates a symbiosis of Culture and Nature in the figure of The Swamp Thing. The creature does not only symbolize Nature, but the symbiosis that Nature and Culture should tend towards in order to create harmony, in opposition to the destructive effects of a Manichean and confronting perception of their relationship. The identity crisis The Swamp Thing is facing after Woodrue’s revelation about his origin story is in fact an initiatory process for both the creature and the reader, leading to this realization. In fact, in the “Swamped” issue, boards 12 to 13, the main protagonist is facing his own demons devouring his human body and inviting him to do so. This episode is highly symbolic, as it illustrates the introspective process operated by The Swamp Thing, and the necessity for him to give up on his previous perceptions of himself. The fact that he’s desperately trying to carry and protect the remains of his humanity, of Alec Holland, symbolizes the difficulty to give up on these representations of himself:

“No! You can’t have it... It’s my humanity/ It’s all I’ve got left...”

It is only when The Swamp Thing finally accepts to reconsider his humanity and has a conversation with it, represented by a skull, that he stops running away and achieves a sense of fulfillment. The dialogue between him and his consciousness is relevant of Moore’s point:

“Because I’m your humanity. I’m important. I’m what keeps you going.”

If at first the skull tries to convince the creature to keep on running and fighting for the remains of its humanity, because it still “worth all the effort”, it's only when The Swamp Thing stops fleeing and grows still to immerge himself in the “green” that he finds fulfillment. He is “swamped”.


With this particular episode, Moore definitely illustrates his perception of the individual/environment relationship. As humanity still seems to be the centre point of the process, the writer brings to light the necessity to merge it with the “green”, with its environment, in order to create a harmonic rapport, a proper symbiosis between human beings and their environment. The trials that the main character will later be able to surpass after this awareness, such as visiting Hell or fighting demons, but also sharing this deep connection to his environment through love and raising others’ consciousness, shows how beneficial this harmonic relationship is.


Figure 4 : The Saga of the Swamp Thing, vol 2, Issue #34.

In the first issues of his Saga of The Swamp Thing, Moore not only advocates for a return to Nature and a complete disappearance of Culture to the advantage of Nature, but for a harmony between these two concepts, in order to get the best of both worlds. The Swamp Thing is an embodiment not of Nature, but of this quest for a harmony, for a human beings / environment relationship that would go beyond a Manichean binarity.



Bibliographical references :

Blumberg. D. June 2010. "It's not easy being green: Swamp Thing, ecology and the (sometimes slimy) nature of being" Popmatters. 2 June 2010. Retrieved from:

https://www.popmatters.com/swamp-thing-environmentalism-wein-wrightson


Global footprint network, Earth Overshoot Day, 2022, retrieved from:

https://www.overshootday.org/


Harrison. R. 2010. “Origin Issues: A Second Introduction to This Book.” Secret Identity Reader: Essays on Sex, Death and the Superhero. Ed. Lee Easton and Richard Harrison. Hamilton: Wolsak and Wynn. pp. 17-29.


McCloud. S. 1994. Understanding Comics. New York: Harper Perennial.


Moore. A. 1987. Saga of the Swamp Thing (Book 1). Illustrated by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben. New York: Vertigo, DC COMICS. Originally published in single-issue format as Saga of the Swamp Thing #20-27, 1984.


Silverman, David A. 2009. “Alan Moore Swamp Thing Interview 1985.” Online video clip in 5 parts. Youtube. Youtube, 31 October 2009. Originally published as A Chat with Alan Moore. Promotional Documentary Video. New York: DC Comics, 1984. Retrieved from:

https://youtu.be/FJlZUpgXQJI



Whitford. A., 2010. "Green Smile, Interrupted: The Frustrated Ecological Possibilities in Alan Moore's Swamp Thing", B.A. Hons, The University of British Columbia.

https://open.library.ubc.ca/media/stream/pdf/24/1.0165633/1



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