When Nature Attacks!
Having achieved his goal of joining with the Green, Woodrue quickly begins his attack on the human race. Woodrue starts small but his escalation is devastating.
The killing of a group of teens at the start of issue #23 is loaded with horror and urban legend tropes. A small group is in an isolated location, then one member leaves to investigate something odd spotted in the trees. He soon returns, finding the group he left has been killed. They were killed while attempting to make a desperate escape from the very thing that the first member of the group went to investigate. This would work as a cold open to an episode of the X-Files, or as a cautionary story to be told around a campfire; don’t go into the woods or the plant man will get you!
The killing of teens had become a staple of horror in the early ‘80s, with the booming slasher sub-genre. Thus, the opening of issue #23 acted as shorthand to indicate that the comic is leaning into more modern horror staples. Moreover, it quickly establishes Woodrue’s abilities and lethality. There is no remorse or hesitation, this is now a mission, and this first attack is a statement of intent.
Woodrue is like a radicalised convert. His purpose is everything to him and he sees it as the purest of missions. He is now a representative of the Green and perceives everything else as an enemy. Writing this in the 2020s, it is easy to make comparisons to extreme terrorist organisations, but this is more. Woodrue believes he is a representative of the earth itself. This is similar to a religious fervour based on the interpretation and corruption of ancient text. He states that all animals, regardless of species, are an enemy and there must be “…another green world.”
The attack on the town of Lacroix is structured like an act of terror. He first attacks the buildings that represent the structure of the western world, or America at least; the governmental authority of the Police station, the educational system and modern knowledge of the school, and finally the belief system of Christianity with the church. These three pillars of modern society being brought down so easily by nature demonstrates how fragile this structure is in the face of elemental forces.
The weakness of this societal structure is further exposed when the Justice League, in assessing the situation, realise that they are powerless to intervene. They are merely observers of the power of nature. When it is suggested that Raven attempt a negotiation with the Green, Wonder Woman explains “She’s already tried. The mass plant mind is too alien. She can reach it, but she can’t understand it.”
This is not an entity that is rooted in society or humanity. It is a form of sentience that is outside of human understanding. Not only is Woodrue removed from the human experience of the Transformational Monster, but the singular vision of his mission has also removed him from any frame of reference for humanity.
What then of Swamp Thing? We have been shown that Abby believes the Alec part of him is still in there, but can this bridge the gap between the human race and the demented agent of the Green? What the reader knows – but Abby does not – is that Swamp Thing has detached himself from his former self and associated humanity. This progression has, at this point at least, distanced him from Abby as well. Moore demonstrates this in two instances, in which she is saved by an intervention from Swamp Thing, but they’re both coincidences of timing rather than acts of heroism.
In issue #23 Abby is being attacked by creeping vines and screaming for Alex to help her. At this moment, Swamp Thing erupts from his coma state, forcing the vines to fall away. For many writers, the instinct would be for Abby’s cries to break through the barrier of consciousness, waking our hero. Not for Moore, such sentimentalism. As Abby is screaming, Swamp Thing is considering the harm that Woodrue is doing to the Green, how this corruption is preventing him from achieving peace. The more he considers it, the more his anger grows. He states how the process of his healing has been taken from him by the corruption. He places the blame on Woodrue, and the only way to confront it is in the waking world. It is only by chance that he wakes in time to save Abby.
When Abby asks “Alec?”, Swamp Thing responds “No, Not Alec.” He then walks away, emphasising the distance between Swamp Thing and the human perspective. Abby is left to be an observer in the story.
The second is at the climax of issue #24. Abby is cornered by Woodrue and about to be sliced with a chainsaw. It is worth noting that – while wielding the chainsaw – Woodrue mentions that the tool is recognised as a part of horror lore, referring to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and another dehumanised monster in the form of Leatherface, however not a supernatural Transformational or Mythical monster.
Before the fatal blow is struck, Swamp Thing breaks Woodrue’s arm and takes the weapon. We have already seen in this issue Swamp Thing attempt to save a woman being strangled by vines. However, this and the saving of Abby are done dispassionately. There is no war cry of “NO!” or “ABBY!”, there is no indication at all that Abby specifically being in danger is a motivation to intercede.
When Woodrue confronts Swamp Thing about his protection of the humans, Swamp Thing explains that it was more about stopping Woodrue’s attack than it was hurting the Green. Moreover, Swamp Thing does not move to comfort or further protect Abby. He does however confront Woodrue and the fallacy of his straw man argument.
First, he points out that acts of rage and active destruction are acts of man, not the Green. This act of terror was something Woodrue wanted to commit for himself, not as something guided by the Green. This brings us back to the warping of religious ideals for the sake of violence and radical beliefs. We can see in this instance that while Woodrue’s supposition about the impact of humans on the world isn’t entirely incorrect, the vengeance with which he retaliates is no different from that of the acts of war by man.
Further to this, Swamp Thing explains that the creatures he was going to kill are needed by the Green and that all things exist in a state of balance. Therefore, if he had been successful in his mission, he would have in fact destroyed the thing he was killing for.
It can be suggested that having given up his humanity, Swamp Thing has gained the ability to perceive existence on an all-encompassing macro level. He can see the web by which we are all connected, understanding those connected and their perspectives. Meanwhile, Woodrue, even deep down, has retained an aspect of his humanity. At his core, he is still, in fact, that Transformational Monster. He pushed for something pure, but his intent was still one of malice and corrupted the elemental force.
Swamp Thing has interceded in this conflict and defeated Woodrue, but it was not as an agent for Humanity, but rather for all living things on the planet. He has truly become an avatar for the planet and the Green. He has found a form of peace, but it does not resolve the question for the reader of whether this is still the hero they have known. Swamp Thing’s discourse with Woodrue, as well as his dispassionate actions towards Abby, hint at the fact that if there were a shift in the balance, he would take up a position against humanity, if needed.
Having been defeated, Woodrue retreats into the swamp and attempts to reapply his false flesh and human clothing. This attempt fails, and he is taken away by Superman and Green Lantern while stating “Call me Jason. I’m one of you. I’m human. Human like you.” (Put aside the fact he is addressing Superman, who we know is not human, but is always presented as the best of humanity. A discussion for another essay perhaps.)
This reveals the depth of Woodrue’s defeat, in the fact he wants to revert to a former state and regain the mammal that died. The re-application of his face demonstrates how the art has been used to represent the shifting monster states of Swamp Thing and Woodrue.
A Face Only Mother Nature Could Love
The cover of Saga of the Swamp Thing #22 is typical of Swamp Thing, pre-Moore. Drawn by Tom Yeates, Swamp Thing is drawn as designed by Bernie Wrightson. He stands over a vulnerable woman in a wedding dress (his wife, we will learn), protecting her from a horde of monsters from previous stories. The position as protector of humanity against other monsters is a reminder of tales past.
This figure of Swamp Thing is worth noting. Bernie Wrightson was a fantastic artist and drew some of the best monsters in comics. However, his design for Swamp Thing was restrained. As mentioned, Swamp Thing was designed to look like a transformed human, embodying the Transformational Monster. It’s clear he is different from you or me, but there is enough resemblance to see he is human. He is smooth skinned, with a recognisable, if enhanced, human musculature and veined in places with vines. He fitted in with a standard superhero model, just in a monster comic.
When Moore took over, he discussed the story he wanted to tell with the artists (pencils Stephen Bissette, inks John Totleben) that would be working on the book. They all agreed the design had to change. Bissette in particular wanted to get in close and highlight the fact that Swamp Thing was made up of plant matter, living flora. Moore was so bought in that he would alter visual sequences allowing the artists to show the changes from what had come before (from Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore, by Lance Parkin).
This change initially takes place in issue #21, but only briefly in the last few panels of the issue. It’s not dwelled on and does not confirm the change. In issue #22, it is still kept from the reader. We see Swamp Thing as part of the vegetation, but again this is not dwelt upon. Moreover, in the dream sequences, he is depicted in his Wrightson design. It is not until issue #23 when he rips from the undergrowth and is revealed in all his glory.
This new design, created to be scarier, completes the transition to becoming a Mythical Monster. The psychology has been dealt with, and the reader is following an entity that is a full avatar of the Green. He is now more closely related to earth elementals such as Jack in the Green or the Green Man, and the false notion of ancient pagan forest gods.
The Green Man in particular carries a strong resemblance to Bissette’s Swamp Thing. Versions of this entity appeared in decorative carvings, wood cuttings, and paintings for centuries, but they were not grouped as a single entity until 1939, in an article for Folklore by Lady Julia Raglan (from “Land of the Green Man: A Journey Through the Supernatural Landscape of the British Isles” by Carolyne Larrington, I.B. TAURIS, 2015, pg.226). This article struck a nerve in the zeitgeist and in effect invented the notion of a vegetation deity, a god of Spring and regrowth.
Following the article’s publication, scholars reconsidered other figures, such as the Green Knight of Arthurian legend, linking them with this new ancient god. The influence can be noticed elsewhere as well, such as in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, in the ancient tree herding Ents.
While neither of these are figures of horror, it could be suggested that either Moore or Bissette may have read The Green Man (1969) by Kingsley Amis. This book features a forest dwelling entity that can be called forth to do a person’s lethal bidding. Its description resonates with what is presented in issue #23, “It was made up of lumps of timber, some with thickly ribbed bark, some with a thin glistening skin, of bundles of twigs and ropes and compressed masses of green and dead and rotting leaves” (from The Green Man by Kingsley Amis), or the description of its face, “with irregular eye sockets in which a fungoid luminescence glimmered, and a wide grinning mouth that showed more than a dozen teeth made of jagged stumps of rotting wood” (from The Green Man by Kingsley Amis).
By the end of issue #24 the physiology of Swamp Thing, like his psyche, has shed all illusions of the human form. However, where Amis used this notion to create a figure of fear, Moore presents the idea that being human isn’t the definitive position to be a protector or benevolent entity. This Monster can care.
In contrast, we see Woodrue’s Floronic form from issue #21. Following the connection with the green, this visage does not change a great deal. Even he acknowledges at the end of issue #24 that the changes are due to his plant form’s natural growth. He has never made the full physical transition to becoming a mythical elemental monster. This is further evidenced in the fact that he retains a human face, he has a nose and eyes, and – despite the plant growth – a regular human form. Also, when Swamp Thing breaks his arm, he bleeds and admits that it hurts. He is still a single entity, but the Swamp Thing is a consciousness inhabiting a mass of living things taking a bipedal form.
However, the transition from Jason to Woodrue is depicted with wonderful violence. As the connection is made with the Green, he tears the false flesh from his face to reveal the Floronic Man beneath. There is both terror and joy in this moment. He is overcome with the sensory information of the Green but is finally able to fully embrace his natural form.
In his defeat at the end, as mentioned, he attempts to reapply the false flesh, in part to disguise himself and evade capture but also to try and regain entry into humanity. Rejected by the Green, he wants to have that outward appearance of a human. Something familiar, a part of the greater normal.
Having gone through his full transition, the final page of issue #24 shows a Swamp Thing at peace with what he is and his new role in the world. In the issues since the revelation, he has shed his humanity and the baggage that it brought, allowing him to evolve in almost every way. We, as the reader, are present for this moment of joy and start to understand this new protector, ready to follow on the rest of his journey.
The reader is going to be challenged to accept this new status quo and entity as the hero, and asked to see the world from his perspective rather than their own. Centuries of folklore, fairy tale, and horror have informed us that something so removed from the human experience can only be the Monster that lurks in dark swamps and wants to do us harm. However, with these issues, Moore successfully starts to move the reader past the need to follow the tragic Transformational Monster, and revel in the glory of the Mythical Monster and the stories that can be told.