So the chaos of the term has slowed down my regular blogging but I have been writing some academic work on comics. I am going to spend the next few days posting a draft of a paper on Swamp Thing I just wrote. Instead of posting it all at once (the paper is 24 pages) I am going to chunk it up in a few sections. This first post is on the introduction to the topic and to swamp thing. The second will be on plant politics and ethics and the final section will be on the question of love. Please enjoy, read, and please comment. This is a first draft of a paper that I hope to turn into something more. I know its not yet there, but I am hoping that with work and comments from other folks, I can get something pretty great out there in some sort of academic journal.
Thinking like a Swamp Thing: Speculative Philosophy and the Political and Ethical World of Plants
“Fools, if nature were to shrug…or raise an eyebrow…then you would all be gone…” Swamp Thing in Swamp Thing #52 (1986)
Industrialism has caused a ravaging violence to the natural world—the burning of coal and fossil fuels ripped from the earth are leading to a massive alteration of the chemical balance of our atmosphere; the plastics, waste, and poisons manufactured burn the soil and toxify the waters; and the trees, plants, and fungi that make up the landscape are stripped from the land and converted into farms, cities, and roads. Our hubris and ignorance has led to a new geologic epoch—the Anthropocene. The natural world, the raped female of Francis Bacon’s power fantasies, though is not passive. While the human eye often fails to see the agency and politics of the natural world and the human ear fails to understand the words that nature whispers to us during storms and in the calm of a warm spring day, the world stands resistant all around us.
Our culture has defined the agency of the world away with our narrow understanding of terms like “politics” “agency” and “language.” That said the fields of philosophy and environmental political theory have begun expanding their understanding of social and political terms. This is most notably in the work on new materialism and actor network theory, but it is also evident in the earlier philosophic work on deep ecology and feminist transhumanism. This paper proposes a different approach then these and recommends using Alan Moore’s critically acclaimed run of the comic book Swamp Thing (1984-1987) as an example of speculative philosophy. By speculative philosophy, I merely mean that we (as theorists and philosophers) allow fictional narratives to serve as a form of “empirical” example of how ideas and concepts operate.
In this paper, I use Swamp Thing as an attempt to explore how the plant world understands concepts like politics, agency, ethics, and love. In attempting to understand the “other” we create the space needed for a respectful relationship with the natural world that is rooted in solidarity and not in paternalistic stewardship.
Swamp Thing: From Campy Monster to Green Superhero
The character Swamp Thing was originally created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson and appeared in House of Secrets #92 in 1971 (image 1). Wein and Wrightson followed traditional horror story tropes to create Swamp Thing, creating an interesting but not horribly unique swamp monster (Marvel comics put out Man-Thing, a similar looking swamp monster, in 1971). In his original origin, the biologist Alec Holland, who was working on a biorestorative fertilizer that would allow humanity to radically increase food production in the world and even allow for the deserts of the world to grow nearly unlimited produce, is killed by the Sunderland Corporation. The corporation hired contract killers who planted bombs in his house/lab and the resulting explosion kills his wife and doses Holland’s burning body with his experimental formula. Luckily for him, his body falls into the neighboring swamp and his body, the swamp, and the formula combine together to turn him into a half-human half-plant monster.
In Wein and Wrightson’s hands Swamp Thing developed into a well-regarded horror comic that followed the “monster of the week” formula found in b-movies and campy tv shows. In every issue Swamp Thing would come into contact with another monster and they would battle it out. Over time a slowly developing larger narrative developed that linked together corporate conspiracies, supernatural magic, and traditional monster horror narratives. Wein and Wrightson saw their Swamp Thing series ended in only 13 issues but the series was brought back in 1982 to capitalize on the forthcoming movie. Martin Pasko wrote the first 19 issues of the new series and continued developing the conspiracy aspects of the original series. When then unknown author Alan Moore was given the writing duties to the series (in issue #20) it was a confusing mess, with loose ends at every turn.
In Alan Moore’s hands Swamp Thing, as a character and a series, was radically transformed. No longer did it just hem to the “horror” or “monster” genre but it became a transformative series that defied categorization—combining aspects of horror, science fiction, superheroes, romance stories, and supernatural fiction—and pushed the boundaries of comics.
In order to transform the series, Moore first had to do the unthinkable, and in his first issue (in which he was forced to end a series arch started by Pasko) he killed Swamp Thing. In this issue Swamp Thing is chased by a corporate death squad, cornered and killed in a halo of bullets. The killing of the main character was needed in order to have the character reborn and the series purged of its past associations. In Moore’s second issue (#21), which some consider to be one of the best written comics of all time, Swamp Thing’s body is dissected by the Sunderland Corporation, who wants to explore the possibility of turning the biorestorative formula into a chemical weapon. In order to understand Swamp Thing’s biology they bring in Dr. Jason Woodrue, a brilliant scientist turned super-villain (the Floronic Man) who had previously turned himself into a plant-man and had the power to communicate with, and control, plants. While examining Swamp Thing’s body Dr. Woodrue comes to understand that Alec Holland was dead, but that he died well before Swamp Thing was killed by the Sunderland Corporation. He comes to realize that Holland died in the explosion that created Swamp Thing and that Swamp Thing was not part man and part plant but was in fact a sentient plant that was imbued with some of Alec Holland’s memories. Dr. Woodrue claimed that just like planarian worms, which he asserts can gain the memories of other worms they eat “The implication is that consciousness and intelligence can be passed on as foodstuffs! That maybe explains the custom among cannibal tribes of eating the wise man after his death in order to receive his wisdom (Swamp Thing #21 1984)“. Shortly after Dr. Woodrue has this realization, Swamp Thing awakens (bullets cannot kill a vegetable) and proceeds to hunt down and kill the CEO of the Sunderland Corporation and, in a mischievous plan orchestrated by Dr. Woodrue, he gets access to his “medical” report and learns that, as Woodrue says: “We thought that the Swamp Thing was Alec Holland, somehow transformed into a plant. It wasn’t. It was a plant that thought it was Alec Holland! A plant, trying its best to be Alec Holland (Swamp Thing #21 1984).” Eight issues later, with issue #28, Swamp Thing digs up the bone remains of Alec Holland and buries himself into a shallow grave he digs next to the swamp; at this moment the character is changed—he has buried what he once thought was his body and has come to fully grasp the fact that he is no human. This decentering the human from Swamp Thing’s story does not lead to a mournful sadness in which the character laments his lost humanity, but instead is shown as a liberatory moment where Swamp Thing can shake many of the human structured confines that distorted his connection with the natural world.
The loss of Swamp Thing’s human ontological foundation allows for Moore to radically transform the narrative and expand and develop a powerful and important mythology—one that has drastically altered the DC comics universe. Over the next 40 issues Moore turns Swamp Thing into an “avatar” of the green, a force that connects all plant life on Earth. The Parliament of Trees, which monitors the Green, informs Swamp Thing that he is the newest in a long line of Erl-kings, and that he is tasked with protecting the green and maintaining the planetary balance with the red, the force that connects all animal life (whose avatar is Animal Man), and the Black, which connects all rot and disease. The mythos created here ends up promoting a deep ecological ethos in which all life is interconnected into complex webs of relations and where balance and order is needed to maintain a healthy world, but also hints the limitations and failure of Deep Ecology to correctly develop a plant centered politics or ethics.
Thinking like a Swamp Thing: Developing a Plant Politics and Ethics