“The Parliament of Trees”:

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing #47

Swamp Thing #47 “The Parliament of Trees”

Cover date: April 1986. Writer: Alan Moore. Artists: Stan Woch and Ron Randall. Colorist: Tatjana Wood. Letters: John Costanza. Editor: Karen Berger.

This issue opens with the first appearance of Howard Fleck, a professional photographer of dubious morals who is attempting to sell photographs of Swamp Thing and Abby kissing to staff in the office of the Houma Daily Courier. These pictures were taken without their permission while he was taking shots for a nature magazine and they are artfully incorporated into the design of the comic pages by showing the negatives hanging on a line, pegged up as they would be in a photography developing room. It’s an uncomfortable, voyeuristic experience for the reader to witness and it evokes issues of press freedom that would continue to grow across the modern, media-soaked world in the years following the publication of this story.

The main body of this issue concerns Swamp Thing’s experience with the Parliament of Trees in South America. Swamp Thing transfers his consciousness to a Brazilian jungle, where he is met by Constantine, who remarks on his appearance and timely arrival. It’s clear that Swamp Thing’s ability to grow a new body in another geographical location on Earth has improved significantly during the time he has known Constantine: page 6 offers a resonant visual depiction of the process of consciousness transferral that captures the concept beautifully through a natural mapping effect. His awareness of utilising South American plant-life and natural resources also allows for the depiction of a suitably exotic bodily avatar for Swamp Thing to occupy during this experience (see page 7), one which shows Swamp Thing’s evolving awareness of his capabilities.

Constantine and some natives lead Swamp Thing through the forest, and Constantine begins to reveal what he knows of Swamp Thing’s nature: that he is a plant elemental, and one of many from throughout history (something we as readers have known since Swamp Thing #33). Once the plant elementals have “lived too long and grown too wise for the distractions of the world” (page 8) they join the Parliament of Trees, a place where Swamp Thing must now go alone, as no humans are allowed there.

Pages 9 and 10 form a two page spread depicting Swamp Thing’s entry into the area where the Parliament of Trees are rooted. Swamp Thing is a small figure in the background of the scene, which is dominated by huge trees upon which subtle facial features can be discerned. In terms of effect and scale this scene displays a similar sense of grandiosity to some of Jack Kirby’s double page spreads, although Woch, Randall and Wood’s work here achieves the creation of nature-inspired vista rather than Kirby’s often technological panoramas, but both scenes use a sense of scale to achieve similarly powerful effects.

Swamp Thing finally discovers more about his true nature. While most of the Parliament of Trees have transcended the need to speak, one still remembers how to speak – Alex Olsen, the scientist who was transformed into a ‘Swamp Thing’ in Wein and Wrightson’s very first short story version of the concept in House of Secrets #92 (July, 1971). Olsen explains that each member of the Parliament of Trees was formerly a ‘Swamp Thing’ or, to be more accurate, a plant elemental, and that all share a similar origin story – “a man…dies in flames… a monster… rises from the mire” (page 14). Swamp Thing then intertwines his mind with the Parliament and communicates with them directly, experiencing mental images of their varied histories and receiving advice pertaining to the questions he has, albeit it cryptic and, on its surface, of no immediate use and relevance – “Power tempts anger, and anger is like Wildfire. Avoid it” before asking Swamp Thing a question that he will have to think on – “Where is evil, in all the wood?” (page 18). Swamp Thing also feels quite despondent following the experience, as his initial feelings of “unbearable nostalgia… a haunting sense… of familiarity… and déjà vu” (page 11) – have soured into feelings of rejection – “They cast me out” (page 21).

A fascinating aspect of this story is how it alludes to other similar creatures from fiction and cultural history. Albert Hollerer, a german pilot shot down into a bog in 1942, strongly alludes to Baron Eric von Emmelman, who became the Heap, a character who first debuted in Hillman’s Air Fighter Comics #42 in December of 1942[1].

Interestingly, a few weeks before Len Wein phoned Alan Moore to offer him the writing gig on Swamp Thing, Moore had set himself a creative challenge. He wanted to assess his creative abilities, particularly in light of his success with his Marvelman revision, where he had taken an obscure British superhero (a second-rate Captain Marvel copy, essentially) and chipped away at the concept, refashioning it for the modern era. He wondered if he would be able to repeat his success with an American character, whether he could capture revisionist lightning twice. The character he chose for this thought experiment was the Heap, a close relation to, and predecessor of, the Swamp Thing. He wouldn’t recall this coincidence until later, but it’s strange to think that he may have had a premonition that he would be working on a swamp-based character. The parallels between them had obviously stuck in his mind and rose to the surface in this issue.

The English folk history of Jack in the Green is also incorporated into this history. Moore also adds references to the Chinese legend of the ‘ghost hiding in the rushes and the African Great Url in order to further develop a sense of history and lineage[2]. Finally, I suspect that there is an acknowledgement of the kinship between Swamp Thing and Marvel’s own “muck monster” on page 16, panel 5: the face of the creature in the far right bottom corner is surely that of Man-Thing.

There are strong links between the original Swamp Thing and Man-Thing, a Marvel comics character created by writers Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway and artist Gray Morrow. The character first appeared in Savage Tales #1 (May 1971), which was a black and white comics magazine aimed at a more adult audience. Len Wein was roommates with Gerry Conway at this time, and the similarities between the characters were noticed in the Marvel offices. The first Man-Thing story predates the first appearance of Swamp Thing (House of Mystery #92, dated June-July 1972) and the revamped version in Swamp Thing #1 (October-November 1972). Conway tried to persuade Wein to make changes, but Wein didn’t agree that there was a problem. No legal action was taken by Marvel, probably because both characters seemed to share common sources of inspiration and lineage: the monster in a prose short story called “It,” written by noted SF author Theodore Sturgeon in 1940, is the earliest influence, followed by the Heap as discussed here earlier.

The acknowledgement of previous Swamp Things, in turn alluding to other characters who share a similar origin, taps into the archetypal story of ‘man becoming monster’ which resonates not only across comic book fiction but wider myth and culture historically. All of this adds a sense of depth and resonance, both to Swamp Thing’s origins and to his continued evolution as a character. We become more aware of his place in a pantheon in this issue which also sets us up to want to know more about his future development as a character: tantalising references to “so much… that I had not imagined” (page 17) show that Swamp Thing is too learn even more about his abilities in the future, and this will prove to be an exciting journey of discovery for him and for readers.

This issue ends with the Houma Daily Courier deciding to publish the pictures that Howard Fleck brought to them, as depicted in the opening pages of this issue. This sets up a sequence of events that will start to play out in upcoming issues.

[1] Note that the use of the year 1942 brings both characters closer together. In addition, refer to the introduction, where I discuss Moore’s attempt at revitalising the Heap prior to him being hired to write Swamp Thing.

[2] However, I have been unable to trace any historical versions of these characters and currently assume that they are creations of Moore’s, at least until I am corrected by someone. If you know more please contact me.

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Andrew writes about comics for Sequart, where he is currently serialising a book on the Moore-Bissette-Totleben-Veitch issues of Swamp Thing. He blogs about comics and other aspects of popular culture here. He holds a BA Hons in English, History and Media Studies, an MA in English Literary Culture (1880-1920), and postgraduate qualifications in teaching and librarianship. He currently works for Glyndwr University in Wrexham, Wales, UK, as an academic study skills tutor and sessional lecturer, where he is also undertaking PhD research into intertextuality in the work of Alan Moore.

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