Posted on May 31, 2019

Monstrous Relationalities in Alan Moore and Stephen Bissette’s Swamp Thing

Guest Post

In anticipation of the upcoming web television series Swamp Thing (set to premiere on May 31, 2019 on the DC Universe streaming service), we have been asked to offer a “teaser” of our chapter about the comic series published in the 2016 anthology collection, Plant Horror: Approaches to the Monstrous Vegetal in Fiction and Film, co-edited by Dawn Keetly and Angela Tenga. While the television series may draw from any of the various versions of the Swamp Thing character put forth since its initial creation by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson in a 1971 issue of House of Secrets, our essay looks specifically to Alan Moore and Stephen Bissette’s version, which saw a complete overhaul of the Swamp Thing canon and included a small but significant twist in the titular character’s origin story.

You can buy Plant Horror here:

While Wein and Wrightson conceived of the monster as Alec trapped within the swamp, Moore and Bissette’s revival of the series in 1982 imagined the swamp as merging with the traces of Alec’s human subjectivity and memory. In our chapter, “Monstrous Relationalities: The Erotic Potentials of Thingness in Alan Moore and Stephen Bissette’s Swamp Thing,” we argue that this particular conceptualization of Swamp Thing is significant in that it re-positioned the creature as a thing; an obdurate entity that does not easily adhere to rigid classifications of ‘human’ or ‘plant,’ of ‘animate’ or ‘inanimate,’ of ‘original’ or ‘copy’ (even if characters within the comic text may argue otherwise). While we suggest that this unintelligible thingness of Swamp Thing (its aberrant vegetal materiality, its assemblage of plant and man, its monstrous amorphousness) has many implications for the character, we decided to devote our chapter to exploring the effects of this newfound ontology specifically within the Swamp Thing’s relationship with Abby Arcane. With this new understanding of the Swamp Thing as a thing in mind, we set out to imagine the multiplicity and complexity of eroticisms that are made possible when the notion of the erotic as tethered to a human subject is abandoned.

Moore and Bissette’s Swamp Thing:

Whereas many conservative horror narratives present the thing-like creature as something to be defeated or destroyed precisely because it threatens to amalgamate gendered and sexual boundaries, we suggest that Moore and Bissette’s comic champions the liberatory potential of the agential unhuman and its radical reinvention of both human corporeality and erotic practices. As two queer and trans scholars, one of whom also identifies as disabled, we consider this version of the Swamp Thing and Abby’s relationship as something profoundly queer; although Moore and Bisette’s comic continues to anthropomorphize the Swamp Thing and gender “him” as masculine, this new thingness renders the reading of its relationship with Abby as conventionally monogamous and cis-heterosexual defunct. Indeed, Swamp Thing’s thingness is a materiality that cannot meet the stringent morphological demands that constitute traditional able-bodied, reproductive, monogamous, cis- and hetero-normative frameworks of sexuality. Other allied scholarship within critical-race-, disability, and trans*-studies, also works to undermine contemporary investments in expanding the inclusivity of the ‘human’, arguing for a reconsideration of the category’s utility outright. Eunjung Kim, for example, has recently explored the notion of ‘un-becoming human’ as a useful framework for an anti-ableist approach to the body, one which disavows Aristotelian definitions of the ‘human’ as always an active being (an equivalence that also holds true under modern capitalism) to embrace the possibilities offered in “embodying objecthood, surrendering agency, and practicing powerlessness” (Kim, 2015, p.296). Similarly, Susan Stryker has aligned her speaking position as a transsexual with Frankenstein’s monster in order to altogether “forgo the human, a set of criteria by which I could only fail as an embodied subject” (Stryker, 2015, p.227). Though our chapter does not claim Moore and Bissette’s intentions are aligned with any political agenda, expanding the given possibilities of what constitutes physical or erotic pleasure resonates with queer, feminist, trans*, and crip sensibilities for the ways in which such an expansion necessarily challenges regulatory discursive regimes of ‘sexuality’ and ‘the body.’

The trailer for DC Universe’s Swamp Thing:

Indeed, what the creature asks of Abby is precisely what queer, trans, and disabled folks have to ask our partners all the time — to reconceptualize how she understands bodily pleasure. In the frames that are made to allude to a kind of “sex scene” within the text, Swamp Thing detaches an orange tuber from its body and hands it to Abby as a prompting gesture. Upon eating the engorged stem, Abby is sent into a fantastical state of ecstasy – a universal melding of consciousnesses similar to popular conceptions of a psychedelic ‘trip’ – in which she claims that she and the Thing have become “one creature” (Moore & Bissette, 1990, p.200).

Figure 2. “We…Are…One Creature…”
Alan Moore and Stephen Bissette, Swamp Thing: Love and Death, 1984-1985. New York: DC Comics.

This claim is reinforced by Bissette’s visuals, which depict Swamp Thing’s embrace of Abby as an envelopment of her skin into the folds of its mossy flesh; the collapse of bodily integrity and the integration of the ‘self’ into the ‘other’ is here presented as an encounter with the sublime. Within this nine-paged kaleidoscopic sequence, Abby and the Swamp Thing fuse not only with one another but with the collective consciousness of all that exists. Abby’s text reads: “Where we touch, the fibers merge and intertangle. I am no longer certain where I end… where he begins… I feel my own hand as he feels it, a warm bird caged within my strong green fingers, pulse hammering in its breast… we blur together, unresisting… the bubbles rise” (Moore & Bissette, 1990, 198-199).

Figure 2. “I never realized… that the world… was like this…”
Alan Moore and Stephen Bissette, Swamp Thing: Love and Death, 1984-1985. New York: DC Comics.

The disorienting effects of this erotic encounter in Swamp Thing are visually-illustrated in Bissette’s shift from portrait to landscape page orientations; here, the comic reader must literally rotate either their body or the physical text in order to continue reading – or rather, in order to themselves continue to inhabit the encounter. Connecting this to the work of Sarah Ahmed, we can consider Bissette’s disorientation of the reader as a queering of the spatiality of comics, as well as of Abby’s assumed straight sexuality. In her book, Queer Phenomenology, Ahmed takes up the ‘orientation’ of sexual orientation to argue that straightness demands a naturalization of a particular spatiality, where orientations toward proper, heterosexual love objects, toward marriage and reproductive futurity, are normalized to keep bodies “in line.” Reminding us that queer is etymologically a spatial term, from the Indo-European root for ‘twist’, Ahmed conceptualizes queerness as a kind of spatial disorientation, citing Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s claim that queer moments occur when “the world no longer appears ‘the right way up’” (Ahmed, 2006, p.65). In reconfiguring our spatial relationship to the comic book for the duration of Swamp Thing and Abby’s erotic communion, we are forced to break with the normative vertical mode of reading and temporarily inhabit the horizontality of queerness.

To entwine oneself with Swamp Thing is therefore to reject the social order, to dismiss or do away with the desperate need for the human and to admit oneness to the throws a world beyond imagination. It means subsuming oneself into the muck and moss that form the swamp and in turn form the ‘bones’ and ‘flesh’ of a creature that itself cannot fit or abide by any ordered structuring matter. Above all else, to embrace ‘the thing’ is to collapse the ‘necessary’ boundaries and limits that form the legibility of the external world. To kiss its lips is to enter into the chaos and to begin a new material existence as a “thing among things” (Merleau-Ponty, 1964, p.63 cited in Brown, 2001, p.4).

Now, whether the new show will take up these possibilities (highly unlikely) is yet to be seen. But it is worth meditating on the blueprint Moore and Bissette created, which foregrounds the potentials of the comic character for unruliness and monstrosity — in all the right ways.

Works Cited

Ahmed, S. (2006) Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kim, E. (2015) Unbecoming Human: An Ethics of Objects. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 21. (2-3) p.295-320.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964) Eye and Mind. Trans. C. Dallery. In: Edie, J.M. (ed & trans).

The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History, and Politics. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. As cited by Brown, B. (2001) Thing Theory. Critical Inquiry. 28. (1, Autunm) p.1-22.

Moore, A. & Bissette, S. (1990) Swamp Thing: Love and Death. 1984-1985. New York: DC Comics.

 Stryker, S. (2015) Transing The Queer (In)human. In: Dossier Theorizing Queer Inhumanisms. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 21. (2-3) p.227-230.

Robin Alex McDonald is an Art History instructor at Nipissing University and a PhD Candidate in the Cultural Studies Department at Queen’s University. As a hybrid scholar/writer/curator, their artistic and academic interests span modern and contemporary art, visual culture studies, queer theory, trans theory, affect and emotion, and madness and disability studies. Robin’s writing has recently been published in TheatreForum, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, n.paradoxa, nomorepotlucks, Spiffy Moves, Guts Canadian Feminist Magazine (with Elly Clarke, Amanda Turner-Pohan, and Michelle Ty), theGraduate Journal for Social Science(with Dan Vena)and the edited anthology Plant Horror: Approaches to the Monstrous Vegetal (with Dan Vena). Their article “Comics, Corn, and the Queer Phenomenology of Depression” is forthcoming in the journal of Literature and Medicine.

Dan Vena is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at Carleton University and holds a doctorate in Cultural Studies from Queen’s University, where he teaches in Film & Media. He locates his academic interests within the spheres of visual and popular cultures, merging together trans, queer, and feminist approaches to an array of topics including: monsters and horror cinema; Classical Hollywood Cinema; comic book superheroes; and histories of medicine. His published work can be found in various journals including, Transformative Works and CultureStudies in the Fantastic,Graduate Journal for Social Studies (with Robin Alex McDonald), and several anthologies on the topics of gender and sexuality in horror cinema and comic book studies.

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