Saga of the Swamp Thing #24: “Roots”
Cover date: May 1984. Writer: Alan Moore. Artists: Steve Bissette and John Totleben. Colorist: Tatjana Wood. Letterer: John Costanza. Cover: Tom Yeates. Editor: Len Wein.
This issue is the climax to Moore’s opening story arc, and he chose to include a super-hero team in the story, and the preeminent one in the DC Universe at that – the Justice League of America (JLA). Including a brightly coloured, spandex-clad group of heroes could have been a complete disaster and wrecked the tone of the book set by Moore and the team so far, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Moore’s writing of the JLA evoked a dark tone in-keeping with the narrative so far. Readers assumed that the inclusion of the group was forced upon the creative team by editorial hands, but it was a conscious choice on Moore’s part. He wanted to position the character, and the book, at the centre of the DC Universe, to destroy the marginalisation he felt the book had suffered from previously.
He avoids calling them super-heroes, and the juvenile associations that the term would have had with some readers of the book are allayed as a result. In his attempt to inject a more adult, mature sensibility into the book, he substitutes the term with “over-people.” It’s both a metaphorical description of their abilities and a reflection of their current physical status: they are high over Earth in their satellite headquarters. They protect humanity, sustained by blood and the Red, while nature and the Green remain beyond their ability to protect; only Swamp Thing can help in this situation.
We are introduced to some members of the JLA through Moore’s descriptive narration. The short descriptions are masterful in encapsulating the core essence of the characters: “a man with wings like a bird” (Hawkman); “man who can see across the planet and wring diamonds from anthracite”(Superman); “a man who moves so fast that his life is an endless gallery of statues” (Flash). While they are “men” (and women) in some sense, they have moved beyond humanity too, like Swamp Thing and Woodrue. This is another manifestation of the theme of humanity and transformation that has permeated this first story arc.
In his desire to avoid the overt trappings of super-hero comic conventions, the JLA refer to each other by their civilian names, which keeps the characterisation much more realistic. They are predominantly viewed in shadow or profile (and not full-frontal or face on), which sets up a much different dynamic to a standard action super-hero comic. Think about the bombastic style of super-hero comics that evoke the usual visual dynamism – from Jack Kirby’s seminal work to the current crop of mainstream super-hero titles – and then compare it to Bissette and Totleben’s work here. The difference is startling, and it’s much more in-keeping with the darker tone Moore wants to set.
This work with the JLA prefigures the darker approach to super-heroes that Moore began with Miracleman and brought to fruition in Watchmen. Even Superman appears more distanced, and more alien, especially through his dialogue: his offer to count molecules for Firestorm is casual, yet it is awesome in what it implies about the astonishing level of his power. Moore’s approach to Superman here would lay the foundation for his development of Miracleman and Dr. Manhattan – characters with amazing levels of power but who lose something of human understanding and empathy as a result.
Moore’s other radical approach to the JLA is that he chooses to write them as being completely powerless to do anything in this issue. It’s the total opposite of what they would normally do. They sit around in their headquarters and debate on different approaches, and each proves to be as ineffectual as the last. It’s an incredibly interesting and bold move to take with a super-hero team. Yet, it’s Moore’s characterisation and dialogue that creates the power behind this memorable JLA appearance.
The confrontation between Woodrue and Swamp Thing is the climax to the story begun in #21. Having seen how ineffectual the JLA are in these circumstances, Swamp Thing is the only force capable of stopping Woodrue and his plan to convert the atmosphere to pure oxygen and so killing all human and animal life. Swamp Thing berates Woodrue for not fighting “like a man,” and Woodrue’s stunning retort that neither of them are men is entirely in-keeping with the theme of humanness in these opening stories. The resolution will not, and cannot, be found in the exchange of punches and violence. Moore is saying that this will not be your standard super-hero fight or resolution.
The use of horror film imagery is again evident in this issue – the chainsaw “Evangeline” is used by Woodrue in conscious mockery of film stereotypes. Swamp Thing can now see that violence serves no purpose and will have no effect, and so he uses pure reason to shock Woodrue out of his mad scheme. Swamp Thing tells Woodrue that he is poisoning the Green, and if the humans and animals die, nothing will be left to convert oxygen back to the gases needed to sustain the plant world. Woodrue’s shock at his gross error leads to his disconnection from the Green and his pitiable surrender to Superman and Green Lantern. His pathetic attempt to disguise himself as human is deeply ironic in light of his hatred for the species.
The resolution of this story arc is achieved when Swamp Thing finally accepts what he is by acknowledging that Alec Holland is dead and that he is, and will only ever be, the Swamp Thing. He smiles at Abby and, later, when he is alone in the Swamp, he lifts his arms up to the sun, drinking in its rays, happy in his natural environment – his home, the swamp. Swamp Thing is now much more connected to the Earth and to his own inner sense of who and what he actually is: he has established roots, something that the title of this issue neatly underscores.