Monster Mash:

Saga of the Swamp Thing and Monster Tropes, Part 1

Joining the Monster Squad
Monsters enter our lives at an early age. We are told stories about the things that dwell in the shadows and the corners of our minds. The creatures that we – as adults – know don’t exist in the light of day, but when we walk through the woods at night, they creep into our imagination, making us walk that little bit quicker.

We tell stories of witches, dragons, ogres, and goblins in nursery rhyme and fairy tale, of how they are defeated by the hero. More modern tales have blurred the lines, introducing friendlier or more complex versions of well-known monsters, but these are not them in their rawest form. In their base form, many of these creatures are savage and violent and exist as an agent against humanity.

Over time these stories have been toned down, to be used as a learning tool. The overcoming of the monster is the point, the learning; life is going to have obstacles and there will be times that we have to stand our ground and overcome difficulties, being brave like the heroes in the tales, working hard so that good will prevail. However, many of these stories go back a lot further and acted as warnings and frameworks for superstition and folklore. Even before they were told as horror or fairy tale, they were whispered as fact.

During the industrial revolution and the resulting migration of population to the cities, tales of monsters and folklore shifted from an oral to a written format. Being introduced to a wider audience, they began to evolve in different ways. This evolution leads us to Swamp Thing and helps us consider the character’s place within the pantheon of monsters. Looking at the tropes of stories, we can see how Alan Moore shifts Swamp Thing forward in terms of storytelling whilst also making him a figure of an older time. A transitioning from a tragic tale of “man changed by science” to one of mythical horror.

To assess the transition shown in issues #22-24 of Saga of the Swamp Thing, I first need to provide a short definition of the monster archetypes I want to discuss.

The Transformational Monster: These are the monsters that start as humans and through action or event transform into a monstrous state. Consider werewolves, vampires, and even the Invisible Man. Through these, the human tragedy of monsters is often explored. Modern examples are Larry Talbot (The Wolfman, 1941), Seth Brundle (The Fly, 1986), Bruce Banner (The Incredible Hulk #1, Vol 1, 1962), and for us Alec Holland (Swamp Thing #1, Vol 1, 1972). This is not to say that all monsters in this category are tragic. Vampires in particular are more often than not presented as thriving – once sired – and enjoying the killing and blood drinking. The key in this category is intent. Did the human intend to become a monster, and what do they intend to do when monstrous?

The Mythical: This group contains creatures of myth and folklore. These are the monsters that were born or created as such, often linked to elemental forces and given god status by some. Ranging from trolls, dragons, fairies, or boggarts to kelpies, Pan, djinn, and kumiho. These are the creatures that persist in myth and become a part of local and national lore and identity.

The original Swamp Thing was created as a tragic Transformational Monster. The short story in The House of Secrets #92 (1971) is a gothic tale of lost love and revenge from beyond the grave. It echoes the Hammer Horror productions and the Roger Corman Poe cycle of the period.

This idea of the Transformational Monster from the swamp was developed and became the ongoing Swamp Thing series in 1972. The concept was modernised to centre on Doctor Alec Holland. He was a man destroyed by betrayal and science gone wrong, returned from the brink of death, transformed and disfigured, now driven by a need to return to his human form.

The fact that this version of Swamp Thing is a Transformational Monster is important, shaping how the reader relates to the monstrous form. Even though darker horror stories were starting to make a comeback, the titular character had to be relatable and so giving him a human backstory was critical, with not only an understandable but relatable motivation.

Holland’s transformation was a result of science, tapping into superhero tropes as well as genre fears of alchemical science. However, the transformation happened because of the actions of unscrupulous people, allowing the reader to sympathise with him and his quest to regain his humanity. In contrast, we can consider characters such as Doctor Jekyll, Doctor Seth Brundle, or Doctor Kirk Langstrom. All pushed the bounds of science, bringing their respective transformations upon themselves. So, while they may clamour for our sympathy, it is harder to give knowing that arrogance or stubbornness brought their transformation about. However, the reader is still able to understand their motivation. There is a desire to see redemption and for them to regain human form.

In the initial run of Swamp Thing (1972-1976) and the first 20 issues of Saga of the Swamp Thing (1982-1984), the horror of the comic is balanced with hope. The hope is that Alec possibly finds the cure or some way of regaining his human form. However, when Alan Moore took up the series he noted “The whole thing that the book hinged upon was there was this tragic individual who is basically like Hamlet covered in snot. He just walks around feeling sorry for himself. That’s understandable. I mean I would too, but everybody knows that this quest to regain his lost humanity, that’s never going to happen. Because as soon as he does that, the book finishes” (from Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore, by Lance Parkin). So, Moore decided to take that quest away.

Moore wanted to change Swamp Thing from a Transformational Monster to a Mythical Monster. The notion being that this opens the book up to more modern and relevant horror stories. I believe he succeeded, exploring nuclear fear, social issues, and the threat of ecological ruin. However, to do this Moore understood that he needed to make some fundamental alterations. He knew Alec Holland wouldn’t give up the quest, it’s his telos. (“Telos” is a term created by the philosopher Aristotle to discuss the purpose or objective of person or being.) So how do you get past the core of your origin character, the alter ego? The answer for Moore was with a hammer blow.

In Saga of the Swamp Thing issue #21 it’s revealed that Swamp Thing isn’t and never was Alec Holland. By removing the human origin, it distances Swamp Thing from humanity, which makes him less relatable and more a figure of mythical and elemental horror. The reader has to ask “If he never was human, can he be trusted? Will he still be the hero?” It’s a seismic shift for the character and comic.

Having dropped this information on the reader, Moore and artist Stephen Bissette spend the next three issues (Saga of the Swamp Thing #22-24) examining what this means to Swamp Thing’s world, creating a new status quo for the series and deconstructing several horror tropes around how we view humanity in monsters.

Oh, the Humanity!
Humanity is a tricky thing. To state that I am human is one thing. I know that I and you have key genetic markers that demonstrate our membership to the genus Homo. However, even these exist within slim margins of genetic difference. Consider, for example, there is only a 2% genetic difference between us and chimpanzees. Despite this, we can identify these markers and state yes, I am human. I have specific physiology that classifies me as such. Well done, you’re human. But is this Humanity?

In one respect, we accept it is. We are all part of a single race that is classed as humanity, the state of being human… but suddenly you are doused in chemicals, set on fire, and cast into the murky waters of the bayou, only to emerge as a plant-based entity, green, veined with vines, and made of mud. Your human physicality is taken away; what happens now? You’re still you, you have your memories, your emotions, your mind. Can you still be considered human?

Descartes stated ‘I think, therefore I am’. By that logic, even if the demon Etrigan attempted to deceive you into thinking that you did not exist, you would have to exist for the demon to attempt to make you think you did not. Therefore, the thinking proves that you exist. It’s a reality thought experiment, but it can be applied to Swamp Thing. The creature that crawled out of the swamp thought as Alec Holland, it had his memories and drives, therefore it can be concluded that the creature was still Alec Holland.

In addition to having the thoughts and memories of Alec Holland, Swamp Thing also continues to act on those thoughts, as if human. He could have given in and removed himself from the world, but he doesn’t. He maintains his quest to return to his former self and acts as a protector of those in need. He acts as an agent for humanity. It is these acts that endeared Abby Arcane to Swamp Thing. This was the sympathetic transformational monster we followed for 12 years, and so his change to an elemental creature was going to be painful.

Moore takes us through this transition using three perspectives: that of Swamp Thing, obviously, but also Jason Woodrue / the Floronic Man, and Abby Arcane.

Jason Woodrue is introduced to this series in issue #21, as the doctor conducting the investigation that leads to the revelation of Swamp Thing’s true origins. He is shown as human for the first half of the issue, but is eventually shown in his Flora form, revealing that he too shares a monstrous side. When first introduced, he came from an interdimensional world, Floria, populated by tree spirits. He later used an experimental formula to transform himself into his current plant / human hybrid form. Woodrue is from an elemental world but gained his appearance through intentional transformation.

His discovery of Swamp Thing’s true state and the Green opens a world of possibilities for him, something that will allow him to reach back to his elemental roots. In finding out the truth about Swamp Thing, he removes Swamp Thing’s quest and discovers his own.

Abby Arcane has been a part of the story since issue #3 of Swamp Thing (1973), acting as the human element of the story along with Matt Cable. However, while Matt has been an active part of the story, Abby has a deeper connection with Swamp Thing, whom she believes is Alec Holland, supporting his quest to return to human form. When that part of Swamp Thing is taken away, how can she still relate to him?

Moore has the three perspective characters cross paths at the start of #22, setting them on their journeys. Swamp Thing has disengaged from the world. Unable to process the revelations, he has retreated into whatever psyche he has.

In the waking world, Woodrue – once again hidden in his human guise – confronts Abby and Matt, explaining what Swamp Thing actually is. The description Woodrue uses is laced with bitterness; he describes him as “a mass of plant fiber that had somehow been infected with the consciousness of Alec Holland. Just the moss-encrusted echo of a man. Not a man at all.” Moore emphasises the words “infected” and “echo”, linking Holland’s consciousness with disease and hollow replication.

Woodrue quickly follows up with “Imagine all those years hoping that one day he’d retrieve his humanity… only to find he’d never had any in the first place.” His words are designed to hurt and belittle. His statement that the creature we have known as Swamp Thing was searching for his humanity but found he had none – when we know that he has thought and acted as Alec Holland – highlights that humanity in this instance is still being linked with the physical state of being human. However, this is slightly contradicted by Woodrue’s assertion that it is Holland’s consciousness in the plant fibers.

Woodrue is acknowledging a consciousness but denying the humanity. He sees humanity as a frailty of humans or meathood. He envies Swamp Thing for being able to transition to his true elemental form. He isn’t interested in where the consciousness came from, only where it is going and what it is becoming.

Later in the issue, Abby returns to the body of Swamp Thing, and despite what she has learned she cries “You are not a damn vegetable for God’s sake! You’re Human, Alec…Alec, you’re the most loving, the most gentle, the most human man… that I’ve ever met.” Moore is using Abby as the counter to Woodrue. Where he has discussed Humanity in the form of physicality, Abby is emphasising the actions of a being. She perceives humanity as the love and friendship that Swamp Thing has shown and shared with her.

Beyond this point, it is reasonable to expect that Abby will continue to impact the story events. She has become the human perspective, Swamp Thing’s connection to Alec Holland. Moore uses her as a damsel in distress, being thrown from one threat to the next, building an expectation in the reader that her endangerment will be the key factor in returning Swamp Thing to his former self and quest. (Shortly, we will discuss whether this is the case.)

Woodrue on the other hand is elevated to become the story’s main antagonist, succeeding in his quest, becoming one with the Green. By taking a part of Swamp Thing, he can access the Green. The moment of contact is one of exquisite insanity. He is able to sense and experience plant life all over the planet, but the sense information is too much. He is driven to the brink, saved only when something inside gives in, “…And somewhere in the writhing jungle of his mind the small and scared mammal that was Jason Woodrue twitches once… and then lies still.” The final image of issue #22 is a joyous Woodrue fully embracing his new being as the Floronic Man.

In the midst of this, Swamp Thing goes on a dream journey of rebirth and reconciliation. The journey is broken into a series of sequences throughout issue #22.

The first sequence finds the unchanged Alec Holland celebrating his wedding with characters he has met previously. When his wife Linda acknowledges her death and is swallowed by the floor, Matt Cable dresses him in a Swamp Thing ‘mud suit’. Moore acknowledging the previous status quo, the state of a transformational monster. The man trapped inside the body of a monster. The suit is quickly torn apart, by former adversaries, when Abby Arcane notices that he isn’t breathing. This reveals an empty shell of mud and moss, with Abby noting, “Alec isn’t in there.”

In this two-page spread, Moore acknowledges and moves past the events of the past 12 years of comics. The acknowledgment of his not breathing and Alec not being in the mud suit draw a line under the former status quo. A line is being drawn to confirm that the former state will not be returned to, at least not by Moore.

In the second sequence, Swamp Thing, carrying the corpse of his wife, is presented with the body of Alec Holland. The body is quickly stripped of flesh by some friendly Planarian worms, leaving behind a skeleton – or as they state, the Humanity. Moore is once again linking the idea of humanity to a physical human form. When presented with the choice of which to carry forward – the body of his wife or the skeletal remains – he chooses his humanity, stating “I’m… so sorry, Linda… but I just can’t carry… both of you.”

Moore is recapping the instigation of Swamp Thing’s initial quest, how carrying the grief for his dead wife was superseded by his own needs. He can’t bring her back, but he can cling to what remains of himself. This clearly demonstrates how important the quest to regain his human form – and what he perceives as his humanity – has been to him.

This is demonstrated further in the third sequence as he fights off an army of former enemies. His skeletal humanity becomes increasingly damaged and reduced, eventually leaving nothing but the skull and partial spine. Moore is highlighting that the quest to regain his humanity itself has worn away his actual humanity; not his physical form but his connection to the human experience. Has this quest taken him further away from what he wants to achieve?

The final sequence is a conversation between Swamp Thing and his skeletal humanity. His humanity is egging him on to keep running. Finally stating “I know I’m a little beaten up and battered but I’m still worth all the effort, aren’t I? After all, without me there’d be no point in running would there?” to which Swamp Thing acknowledges there wouldn’t and gives up, releasing himself of the last remnants of Alec Holland and the dream of returning to a human form.

This is the lowest point for Swamp Thing in this arc. Moore is breaking down everything Swamp Thing was in order to rebuild him. He has taken away his physical connection to the world, and now in this final acknowledgment he has taken away his will to keep moving forward. However, by breaking him down in this way, he is expanding his potential, both as a character and within the DC universe.

This is the line being drawn under the transformational monster that was created in 1972. Swamp Thing is allowed to evolve from what was ostensibly a human form to something free of a desire to be human. Freed of the shackles of his pursuit to regain his humanity, he can finally find peace.

At the end of issue #22, both Woodure and Swamp Thing appear to have transitioned from the Transformational to the Mythical elemental. Woodrue’s inner mammal dying, and Swamp Thing recognising the quest for his humanity for the lost cause it is. Both have been distanced from the Human experience and can move forward with new purpose.


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Scott Weatherly started his Sequart journey by editing and overseeing his first essay collection, Judging Dredd. He can also be found chatting about pop culture and history on his podcasts 20th Century Geek and Stories out of Time and Space. Among all this, he enjoys living in a rural village in Derbyshire with his wife, daughter and dog.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Scott Weatherly:

Stories out of Time and Space, Vol. 1


Waxing and Waning: Essays on Moon Knight

editor, introduction, contributor

Judging Dredd: Examining the World of Judge Dredd

editor, contributor

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