Ten years before Alan Moore informed friends and family that he would be pursuing the path of a practicing magician, he began working for the megalithic American comics company DC on the production of The Saga of the Swamp Thing. Those who study Moore’s works can choose two roads when it comes to considering the impact of his magical belief system: you can begin looking at his interest in magic only from his “workings” onward, or you can view Moore’s beliefs as a developing continuum, traces of which can be found in all of his works, appearing more progressively over time. The fact that he says in the documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore, “My career as a magician continues to evolve,” suggests a continuum approach, as does the vast wealth of re-imagined perceptions of childhood present in texts like The Birth Caul. Though Moore did not yet identify himself as a magician while working on Swamp Thing, he had already viewed magical themes as some of the most compelling in any form of art and saw deep-seated connections between many of the aspects of human experience that prefigured his later ideas.
The concepts behind Swamp Thing, already an established series when Moore was asked to write for it, are sympathetic to a magical perception of reality. Partly because it was a “horror” comic, the series was a canvas for Moore that allowed a great deal of freedom and experimentation. Moore immediately saw the character of the transformed scientist Alec Holland as a “tragic individual who is basically Hamlet covered in snot… Everybody knows that his quest to regain his lost humanity, that’s never going to happen. Because as soon as he does that the book finishes” (qtd. in Millidge 110). Because the “humanity” of Holland is an impossibility, a concept Moore turned on its head by reconfiguring the character as a plant being who merely thinks he’s a man, the consciousness of a plant being becomes a vast territory for exploration. The Saga of the Swamp Thing, in Moore’s hands, became a series that posed literally hundreds of questions about itself as it progresses, uncertain of even its own boundaries, thereby stretching the imagination of readership with the consistently unexpected.
The transfigured Alec Holland’s plant consciousness is visually associated with many of the tropes of psychedelic experiences, and as such, verges on the magical. The Swamp Thing’s experience of “the Green” as a unified connection with Earth’s ecological system shares many features of “trips” described, for instance, in Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, and when Abby Cable, too, experiences the Green through ingesting a “tuber” provided from Swamp Thing’s body, the reader gets a glimpse of what this experience would entail for a human being. It’s far more, in truth, than a drug trip, and of all of Moore’s works, this perhaps most closely resembles some of the experiences of Sophie Bangs, in Promethea, when she is journeying in the Immateria. This suggests the manner in which the central character of the series and his connection to the universe aligns with Moore’s magical system; however, there are other elements of The Saga of the Swamp Thing that are overtly occult and magical. In fact, it’s a series rife with magic of many kinds, from the creation and introduction of the “blue-collar” mage John Constantine to constant hexes, possessions, and metaphysical plots that make Swamp Thing not just a horror series but an occult horror series directly influencing the creation of Hellblazer and the Vertigo line from DC Comics.
Firstly, let’s explore the character and world of Swamp Thing in terms of magic. Later, in a second Swamp Thing installment, we will consider overtly occult elements and supporting characters. The material that Moore inherited was particularly fortuitous to the exploration of magical concepts. It was a “horror” world already, where he felt it would be “useful to try and link up the elements of fantasy horror from our imaginations — werewolves, vampires, zombies, and the like — with real life horrors” (qtd. in Millidge 115). For that reason, Swamp Thing may be best known not for it’s horror elements but for the strikingly authentic social messages it contains about racism, gun violence, and ecology, all of which are topics for many a scholarly thesis these days. But, a horror world allows a certain latitude; it challenges belief in clear demarcations between the possible and impossible in all the right ways to allow for magical thinking. This feature of flexibility, combined with the “relentlessly experimental” thrust of the series, opened up avenues of storytelling that even Moore may not have otherwise realized were possible in the comics medium (qtd. in Millidge 115). In combination with Stephen Bissette and John Totleben’s equally exploratory and challenging artwork, at once unfamiliar and compelling, Moore’s stories created a previously unknown world where, quite literally, anything could happen.
The creature that emerged from the Louisiana bayou under Moore’s conception was, in fact, much closer to the mythical “Green Man” of European mythology than even the prototype he had originally been given (Lindahl 186). Holland as a transformed scientist was one thing, a man who had become a near-deity or at least an elemental daemon of some kind, but Moore’s version of the Swamp Thing, a creature who is, in fact, a pure elemental that has received the imprint of a human mind, took the story further into the realm of magical significance. Medieval folklore has something to say about our Green Man figure, but so too does Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot. Firstly, we can distinguish between the general Green Man-type figure that appears in medieval gothic art, particularly the stonework of cathedrals and churches, and the more distinctive “Jack of the Green” who takes his place in May Day celebrations in the British Isles from, at least, the late medieval period onward (Lindahl 186). The former’s origins are murky, and while many theorists of mysticism would like to link the human head — with its plant tendrils extending and curling from the mouth — to a pagan fertility deity, the connection remains vague. Jack of the Green is a more solid bet as an embodiment of the rites of spring and the return of fecundity to the earth. Participants in pageants enacting the return of Jack of the Green would don garlands of ivy and leaves and appear more or less as a “walking tree,” all features which accord with the overall appearance of Swamp Thing (Lindahl 186).
The Thoth Tarot takes this living vegetation myth a little further by equating the Jack of the Green with the highly significant card 0, the Fool card. Crowley states “The Green Man is a personification of the mysterious influence that produces the phenomena of spring” and notes a connection with “starry dreaming” (56). The “Great Fool” with whom the Green Man is associated is, in fact, a messianic savior figure who undertakes personal sacrifice, not unlike a seasonal rite of transformation. This savior appears out of joint with society and comes about by processes like miraculous birth, “quite contrary to whatever is normal” (Crowley 58). While many have discussed super-heroes in terms of the messianic archetypal role, this similarity suggests that Swamp Thing could, indeed, be considered a form of super-hero too.
The designation “0” which Crowley attributes to the Fool in his Thoth Tarot represents “the Negative which is above the Tree of Life, the source of all things… It is the equation of the Universe, the initial and final balance of opposites.” Its opposite number in the Tarot is, in fact, the Universe card, which appears so prominently in Snakes and Ladders. The Fool card initiates the Universe’s development into being and is the “vacuum” in which the manifested universe itself disappears. Crowley associates the Fool with a “spiral” pattern, a shape easily evinced through vines, leaves, and natural growth and suggests a “deliberate identification of the male and the female” in the Fool, which results in combined masculine and feminine qualities (53). Another feature to note is the comparative “innocence” associated with the Fool, often allied to a form of madness.
Many of these elements are expressed in Saga of the Swamp Thing #22, “Swamped,” the issue in which Moore had tied up enough loose ends to launch into his reinterpretation of the potential significance of the character and series. Jason Woodrue informs Abby Cable that the creature formerly known as Alec Holland has “given up on being human” and has become a “vegetable” (1.40). Woodrue soliloquizes to the inert creature “You’re making the change, aren’t you? Giving up the illusion of selfhood and sinking back into the soft and welcoming green” (1.41). It is a condition that he “envies.” Sunk in confusing psychological labyrinths, the creature experiences the Green as a totality in which he exists as a separate entity and within which he is a part of a unified experience. While within that “green and silent eternity,” Swamp Thing is told “Alec isn’t here” (1.43, 46). Woodrue attempts to tap into the creature’s mind and experience the “green odyssey” of this psycho-physical experience of unity. In issue #23, “Another Green World,” readers finally encounter Swamp Thing’s experience of the Green at rest, one in which exists in contrast to the violence of the “Red World” belonging to mammals. The creature reflects, “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” (1.61).
The use of an ellipsis between each phrase indicates a slowness in thought processes, or perhaps something alien in its rhythms, for the creature has entirely released human connection. Within this new universal order, he is “happy” just as he is. Only “something wrong” in the Green wakes him from his connected, peaceful state and engages him enough to return to human interaction, a state in which he will operate for the remainder of the series. The state that Swamp Thing experiences in the Green, absorbed into its depths, has affinities with some of Moore’s later statements about a magical view of the universe. As he says in The Mindscape of Alan Moore: “The will of true selves and will of the universe are the same, since it’s one human soul.” His belief in the harmonic relationship between the microcosm of the individual and the macrocosm of the universe is expressed in Arthur Machen’s journey depicted in Snakes and Ladders and also in Swamp Thing’s at-rest state as an elemental being at one with the universe. It is an experience of unity closely associated with a psychedelic experience; the connection is more clearly depicted later, in Abby Cable’s encounter with the Green.
It is not out of place to reflect on Moore’s first magical performance working, known simply as The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theater of Marvels, which set the tone for later workings. What, if anything, does he establish here, at the outset of his public magical expressions that may have bearing upon his earlier conceptual explorations? Perusing a transcript of the performance piece, we should note the passage that asks “Could we go further in? Past all idea of place and the reflections places make in us?… Move into our collective skull, this firmament of bone with the topographies of our awareness ranged beneath.” The esoteric question is one of internal geography within a vast, single state of being. The “skull” is “collective,” and the movement “past all idea of place” is a movement deeper within. The phrasing has a distinctive resonance with concepts of the Green presented in Swamp Thing, wherein moving further “in” is also, in a sense, a movement into a more widespread state of consciousness. The kind of entity that the Green seems to represent has its own form of thought and experience, an awareness of itself that Swamp Thing can encounter and blend with. In this state of being, he exists in multiple contexts, much like what the narrator of The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels says to the participating audience: there is “only one, one person here,” and “I am talking to ourself. We are listening to myself.” The Green suggests these possibilities in conscious experience while Moore’s first working navigates a veritable “map” of this process toward unified experience as the narrator crosses an imagined metaphysical landscape.
Issue #34 of The Saga of the Swamp Thing, “Rite of Spring,” may be one of the better known issues in the series, due to its psycho-sexual content, but it also lays claim to one of the most extended psychedelic experiences depicted in comics to date. In the long-drawn-out romance between the Swamp Thing and Abby Cable, who insists on continuing to view the creature as Alec Holland — and therefore human — the consummation of their relationship stretches the capacity of visual narrative to depict what could be termed “magical experience.” While texts like The Birth Caul and Snakes and Ladders may depict magical space, magical time, and even the essential role of magical language — and together suggest a kind of palimpsest of magical experience — “Rite of Spring” attempts to address the purely experiential aspects of magical experience. What, exactly, is the difference, however, between plant-induced psychedelic experiences and magical experiences? Within Moore’s work the line is a fine one, and could perhaps best be established by the premise that a magical experience is an experience of universal mind that makes an impact on the transit of the soul “upward” on the Kaballah’s Tree of Life. To call such an experience “numinous” or “supernatural” works also because Moore calls The Saga of the Swamp Thing a “supernatural gothic eco-horror” (qtd. in Millidge 115). The goals Moore had set for “Rite of Spring” were long in development and quite distinctive, not to mention ambitious. He wanted to depict a “sexual act” between Abby and the Swamp Thing, which was essentially a combined psychedelic experience of the Green for them both, and the result, due to the extraordinary labors of Bissette and Totleben to depict these realities, was a “lavish, insane, phantasmagorical berserk psychedelic quality” that Moore was entirely happy with (qtd. in Millidge 116). These pages highlight one particularly important aspect of magical experience, that of an altered “vision” or “view” of the universe. The use of the comics medium is particularly suited to express this, though it is a highly challenging subject to address. Moore and J.H. Williams III would later take this challenge to greater extremes in the series Promethea.
The offering of the orange “tuber” to Abby, of course, contains echoes of the apple / Eden myth; however, this acts as a reversal, a kind of “Paradise Regained” experience for Abby. The subsequent eleven pages — many of them double-page spreads with unique configurations — depict Abby’s altered perspective and experience. Psychedelic colors also take over, particularly orange, red, and pink in combination. Abby’s vision alters to a more widespread perception of the universe. The swamp looks like “millions of birthday candles,” and she can observe the “silky, luminous cobwebs” of life that “everything’s made of “ (2.196, 197). She concludes that “everything’s alive… And it’s all made from the same stuff! I never realized” (2.197). The basic language she employs is nevertheless powerful when combined with the visual suggestions of her experience. In this particular panel (see below), her head becomes the focal point of a psychedelic mandala from which beams radiate, suggesting the configuration of a flower or starburst. The narrative, at this point, slips into the first person and the reader follows Abby’s description of her experience. When she is “engulfed by a tide of emeralds,” this suggests that Swamp Thing extends the experience of the Green to her through his “consciousness” (2.199, 196). Abby has been given a remarkable opportunity to experience universal consciousness through a being who is already “plugged in,” as Woodrue describes the Green.
The extended prose-poem of Abby’s experience of the natural world on a cosmic level is both sexually charged and intentionally alien, indicating the true strangeness of this new state of mind to her. Through becoming “sap,” “bark,” and “moss,” she comes to the conclusion “We… are… one… creature,” just as the narrator in The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels discovers (2.200). Together, she and the Swamp Thing “are the world” at this time, in both its generative qualities and its violence, a state that, nevertheless, knows no “contradiction”(2.201). It is only through the Fool, through the Jack of the Green, that Abby could have encountered the primal state of unity, a “0” from which all proceeds and returns. It also cements their relationship because she has seen, in part, the magical state of consciousness in which he, as an elemental, exists. Her perception of the universe has ascended to a new level, and due to her own magical experiences, she has entered into a privileged state.
Much of what The Saga of the Swamp Thing seems to offer is not far removed from the introductory tag-line of the first working of The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels: “We have curiosities to suit your every inclination, demonstrations and displays, unique sensations, and a previously unimagined sexual extremity included in the modest cover fee.” From Moore’s first issue of the series until his retirement from it, this is more than true. Plenty of the “curiosities” take the form of magical and occult beings, strange adventures, and extreme depictions of death, decay, necrophilia, and even incest, but the overarching strangeness of the series lies in its presentation of the Green as a universal state of mind and of it’s central microcosmic mind as a magical being.
In The Mindscape of Alan Moore, Moore explains “Since I, to a certain degree, believe art and magic to be interchangeable, it has seemed only natural that art should be the means by which I express magical ideas.” He doesn’t clarify a point in his career in which that equivalency began or which artistic products that statement does or does not apply to. That leaves substantial room for ambiguity when we interpret his work in terms of magical concepts. It is, however, a concept of fairly epic scale, capable of expressing, as he puts it, the “transformative forces that can change a human being” through art. Patterns emerge, when we look at Moore’s pre-magician works, that suggest degrees of continuity with his later, more overtly magical works, and it would be disingenuous for scholars and fans to ignore them simply because Moore was not yet a public practitioner. Moore’s workings staged with others, such as The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels, were designed to convey some of the same experiences we see depicted in Swamp Thing in a live, interactive setting, and the comparison is particularly enlightening when considering Moore’s goals in comics creation. According to Moore, these workings were “performance pieces” and “beautiful little psychedelic artifacts in their own right” with a goal to “overwhelm the sensibilities of the audience,” whereas Swamp Thing is a horror comic that exists as a “psychedelic artifact” (Vylenz). Like the working, it also attempted to depict, in highly ambitious terms, the experience of the “sensibilities” being “overwhelmed” through the strengths and possibilities of its medium.
Crowley, Aleister. The Book of Thoth (Egyptian Tarot). San Francisco, CA: Weiser Books, 2008.
Lindahl, Carl, John McNamara, John Lindow, eds. Medieval Folklore. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Millidge, Gary Spencer. Alan Moore: Storyteller. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 2011.
Moore, Alan. The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels. Ed. Glycon. Accessed 6/6/2012. Available from: http://glycon.livejournal.com/6905.html.
Moore, Alan (w.), Steve Bissette (p.), John Totleben (i.), Tatjana Wood (c.), Todd Klein (l.). Saga of the Swamp Thing Volume 1. New York: DC Comics, 1987.
Moore, Alan (w.), Steve Bissette (p.), John Totleben (i.), Tatjana Wood (c.), John Contanza (l.), et al. Saga of the Swamp Thing Volume 2. New York: DC Comics, 1990.
Vylenz, DeZ. The Mindscape of Alan Moore. Shadowsnake Films, 2003.
Coming up next time: “Phantasmagoria and the Occult in Swamp Thing.”