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“Her Guardiner”: Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing as the Green Man

By Colin Beineke

In 1984 British comics writer Alan Moore entered boldly into the ongoing dialogue within American popular culture regarding the current state of ecological thought and consciousness by adapting the folkloric motif of the Green Man into his revamping of the DC comics series Swamp Thing.1 As American culture and society grows more aware of the need for increased ecological responsibility, including improved resource management and conservation of our remaining natural world, it is possible to find within the various facets, mediums, and manifestations of popular culture an ever evolving and advancing discussion that reflects these concerns.2 In a quasi-riddle that clearly reveals one of the primary catalysts of these ecological concerns, Lee Rozelle asks “When does an awareness of home provoke terror and awe? When it’s burning” (1).

Many of the current ecological problems faced today are a result of the severing of the world into two spheres—nature and civilization—by what Robert Pogue Harrison identifies as the “cultural imagination of the West” (Harrison IX).3 This “cultural imagination” serves to precisely distinguish nature from civilization and then set the two spheres at odds. According to Harrison, “the governing institutions of the West—religion, law, family, city—originally established themselves in opposition to the forest, which in this respect, have been, from the beginning, the first and last victims of civic expansion” (IX). The drawing of this dividing line between civilization and nature has been present in Western art and literature since humanity first established its own cultures and institutions.

Harrison identifies this conflict in the world’s oldest know literary text, The Epic of Gilgamesh. Harrison argues that Gilgamesh is the first champion of civilization, known as the “builder of the walls of Uruk”—the walls that serve to establish the rift between the natural world and the civilized world. Gilgamesh—as a representative of civilization—sets himself in opposition to the forests and nature, with Harrison contending that “the first antagonist of Gilgamesh is the forest” (14).4 From this initial rift Harrison traces the way in which the conflict between nature and civilization manifests itself in the collective literary imagination of the West. Moore’s work on Swamp Thing continues in the footsteps of this artistic tradition by using the medium of the comic book to comment on this split and its subsequent consequences.

Figure 1: Carving of Humbaba, Guardian of the Cedar Forest, slain by Gilgamesh

Scholars have identified comic book writers and artists whose works demonstrate a concentrated and self-conscious desire not only to promote an awareness of ecological dilemmas but to dissect the causes, effects, and possible solutions for these problems.5 I intend to argue that through an adroit adaptation of the Green Man motif Moore re-creates the character of Swamp Thing as a modern day incarnation of the Green Man.6 Furthermore, the characteristics, attributes, and ideologies connected with the motif allow Moore, through Swamp Thing, to present an analysis of the way in which modern America views the relationship between “nature” and “civilization.”

Figure 2: Green Man Bamburg, Germany
Figure 3: Green Man Ludlow, England

The Green Man, as a motif, appears in various world mythologies and folklores in a scattering of forms and manifestations. The view of the Green Man as a motif initially arose from the study of the still mysterious foliate heads of Gothic cathedral architecture.7 The first published study of the vegetation infused faces appeared in 1939 in the journal Folklore. In her article, “The ‘Green Man’ in Church Architecture,” Lady Raglan coined the term “Green Man” to describe the carvings and made some of the first suggestions as to their possible mythic and folkloric sources. The name has since evolved to encompass all of the figures that fall under the umbrella of the Green Man motif.

Figure 4: Swamp Thing cover reminiscent of the Green Man foliate heads

Among the figures that have been identified by scholars as being part of the Green Man tradition are Osiris, Dionysus, Pan, St. George or Green George, Jack-in-the-Green, the Green Knight of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Robin Hood, the Wild Man and—in more recent, specifically American times—Johnny Appleseed and the Jolly Green Giant.8 This is but a brief survey of the figures often associated with the Green Man motif. Scholars have devoted book-length studies to this mysterious figure and theories abound which attempt to explain the relevance, meaning, and significance of the Green Man.

Figure 5: Swamp Thing musing in “the Green”

According to Gary R. Varner, “the Green Man is an ancient symbol but one that is molded by the human psyche to fit within the structure of each society and time it resides in,” and furthermore the Green Man “is what we make of him” (7). In other words, the Green Man is “adapted” by the cultural imagination of each subsequent “society and time” as needed. We will find that Varner’s observation applies directly to the manner in which Moore takes advantage of the motif. One of the most commonly accepted interpretations of the Green Man motif is that it is representative of the relationship between humanity and nature. Depending upon what form the Green Man takes in each “society and time it resides in,” it is possible to make assumptions about the way in which humanity viewed its relationship with nature. We will indeed see that Moore is using the Green Man motif as a way to expose ecological issues, scrutinize humanity’s stance towards nature, and—in a positive change in tempo—offer hope for future treatment of the environment.

Another leading Green Man scholar, William Anderson, bestows upon the Green Man the alias of “archetype of our oneness with the earth,” as taken from the title of his seminal work. Anderson’s view of this “oneness” illustrates one of the more popular roles hoisted upon the shoulders of the Green Man. The Green Man is often assigned the duty of uniting the spheres of nature and civilization—to serve as an intermediary and mediator between the two. While we indeed see elements of this in Moore’s Swamp Thing as the Green Man, there is no ignoring the fact that the Green Man is first and foremost a representative of nature—nature that has suffered much at the hands of civilization, and is thus often inclined to become an aggressive nature, a defender of natural spaces.

Swamp Thing, previous to Moore’s revamping of the character, cannot be seen as a contemporary manifestation of the Green Man. An understanding of the difference between the pre-Moore Swamp Thing and Moore’s Swamp Thing will assist us in comprehending the way in which Moore molded Swamp Thing into a modern Green Man. Before Moore’s arrival as writer, Swamp Thing was a rather conventional horror comic. One of the central elements of horror in the comic was the dreadful transformation of scientist Alec Holland into a monstrous humanoid composed of swamp matter. This transformation occurred after Holland’s lab was sabotaged and an explosion caused Holland’s body to combine with the surrounding swamp and the chemicals with which he was working. While this origin story serves as a good basis for a horror comic, it would not serve Moore’s larger purposes.

Swamp Thing could not be a human transformed into a plant-being and play the role of the Green Man. Swamp Thing would then merely be a man in a vegetable shell. Swamp Thing would be human at its core and thus biased towards humanity and civilization. Indeed, Holland’s primary ambition in the original series was to uncover a way to return to his human state. In order to portray Swamp Thing as the Green Man, Moore had to rewrite Swamp Thing’s origin and reverse the dynamic. Moore’s rewriting is explained by character Jason Woodrue, an important figure we will encounter momentarily, as such: “We thought that the Swamp Thing was Alec Holland, somehow transformed into a plant. It wasn’t. It was a plant that thought it was Alec Holland! A plant that was trying its level best to be Alec Holland” (Moore Saga 24).9

Figure 6: “A plant that was trying its level best to be Alec Holland.”

By effectively transposing Swamp Thing’s origin, Moore is able to essentially anthropomorphize nature itself. Swamp Thing is able to shrug off its immediate connection to humanity (an event that has Swamp Thing literally bury Alec Holland’s bones) and take on the mantle of the Green Man. Moore scholar Annalisa Di Liddo thus describes the character of Swamp Thing in terms that correspond with the Green Man tradition:

Swamp Thing is thus endowed with a proper “pantheistic consciousness” that urges it to fight against the threats of growing industrialization and uncontrolled urban expansion. As Swamp Thing develops the awareness of its ability to enter a state of communication with the environment, it becomes a sort of green superhero, the incarnation of the primeval force of the elements, ready to rebel against man’s violent invasion of natural spaces. (51-52)

This “ability to enter a state of communication with the environment” is portrayed by Moore as Swamp Thing’s ability to physically and psychically enter into a realm known as “the Green.” Upon entering “the Green” Swamp Thing is able to commune with all plant life on the planet. He is able to simultaneously experience the growth, death, and rebirth of all the earth’s flora. He is thus able to recognize and pinpoint threats to the natural world, an ability we will see him utilize in his encounter with the Floronic Man.

Figure 7: Pre-Moore Swamp Thing
Figure 8: Moore/Bissette/Totleben Swamp Thing

Assisting Moore in his transformation of Swamp Thing into a contemporary Green Man were artists Stephen Bissette and John Totleben, supported by a wide-ranging artistic team. Previous to Moore, Bissette, and Totleben’s intervention, Swamp Thing appeared as a green humanoid—smooth and rounded with little to no suggestion of his vegetable nature aside from his hue—Swamp Thing may as well have been a slimmer Incredible Hulk. Totleben comments on this appearance and the way in which his and Bissette’s rendering of Swamp Thing served to portray his identity accurately as a plant elemental, as a Green Man:

The Swamp Thing as he was before we changed him around, he just looked kind of like a green man, with a flat face and a few roots, and that was about it. There was nothing that really gave you the feeling that here was this guy made out of moss and mud and these weeds and junk growing on him. That’s how he’s always been described in the text, but the art never really got it across … I kind of see the Swamp Thing as just this caked up body of mud and moss and weeds, and I just want to make it look that way. (Burbey 91)

In their new interpretation of his physical appearance, Totleben and Bissette essentially transformed Swamp Thing from a man who happened to be green, to a Green Man—a figure composed of living vines, growing moss, decomposing leaves, and pure earth.

In his analysis of the elements that compose the appearance of the Green Man foliate heads, Varner isolates the various additions that Bissette and Totleben made to Swamp Thing’s semblance and their symbolic significance, specifically the vines and leaves. Varner contends that vines were “the symbol of Dionysus,” a figure strongly connected to the Green Man tradition. Leaves, because of their yearly death and reemergence, “denote fertility, growth and renewal. Green leaves are symbolic of life renewed” (192). Many of the figures associated with the Green Man tradition are representative of rebirth, including Jack-in-the-Green, Dionysus, the May King, and at times even Jesus Christ. The pattern of the seasons is reflected in the changing appearance of the vegetation that composes Swamp Thing’s body. The onset of autumn sees Swamp Thing’s leaves changing to yellow and red.10 These various defining physical attributes identify Swamp Thing with the Green Man tradition and reveal his connection to nature. However, as we will later witness, such an appearance alone does not necessarily denote the presence of a Green Man figure.

Figure 9: “You must introduce me to your tailor”

Moore seems to be well aware of the Green Man tradition, as evidenced by the fact that throughout Moore’s run on the series the notion that the current Swamp Thing is only the most recent figure in an ongoing cycle of such beings is often repeated and reinforced. As revealed to Swamp Thing’s human wife, Abigail, by the character Abel,11 “Alec Holland was not the first thing to walk the swamps! There were others before him” (Moore Love and Death 178). Moore expresses this notion most explicitly in Swamp Thing’s encounter with the Parliament of Trees. Elusively hidden deep in the rainforests of Brazil is a mystical grove of Swamp Thing’s “ancestors,” previous incarnations of the Green Man, plant elementals who have retired to this peaceful recluse and given over fully to their vegetable nature.

One of Swamp Thing’s predecessors explains, “All our stories are subtly different yet the underlying pattern remains constant” (Moore A Murder of Crows 109). This “underlying pattern” perfectly describes the Green Man motif and its subsequent tradition. Indeed, as Swamp Thing absorbs the memories of Parliament of Trees, it is possible to identify a wide variety of mythic and folkloric figures who are associated with the Green Man tradition and have received much attention from Green Man scholars. As a number of Swamp Thing’s ancestors relate their personal histories, they reveal the names bestowed upon them by humanity, and in these names we see familiar Green Man incarnations.

Figure 10: “After I rose . . . men called me . . . ‘Jack-in-the Green'”

The “ancestor” with whom Swamp Thing speaks refers to Swamp Thing a number of times as an “Erl King.” Derived from Scandinavian folklore and made famous by Goethe’s poem Der Erlkönig, the Erl king resides in the forest and preys upon travelers. While this figure has not been implicitly connected to the Green Man tradition, its connection to the forest makes it a prime candidate for Moore’s adaptation. The English variant of the Green Man tradition identifies himself as Jack-in-the-Green, one of the most popular figures Green Man scholars have associated with the motif. An important element in the traditional May Day celebration, Varner explains, “the Green Man was present in each festival as the May King or Jack-in-the-Green and figuratively laid his life down so that the life of nature would continue” (81). Other figures, such as the Chinese “Ghost Hiding in the Rushes” and the African “Great Url” sprang from Moore’s imagination and are Moore’s own further additions to the Green Man tradition.

Figure 11: Contemporary May Day Festival featuring Jack-in-the-Green
Figure 12: “The Erlking” by Albert Sterner, 1910

It is appropriate that the cover of the collection in which Swamp Thing’s encounter with the Parliament of Trees appears consists of an image of Swamp Thing in the form of a traditional Green Man foliate head. This Swamp Thing/Green Man carving is perhaps one of the most revealing pieces of evidence that Swamp Thing was intentionally modeled after the Green Man motif and is deserving of recognition as part of the modern day tradition.12

Figure 13: Swamp Thing as the Green Man

Perhaps one of the most effective methods of highlighting the defining characteristics and ideology of a fictional character is to create a foil for said character in the form of a similar yet opposing figure. In the case of Swamp Thing, Moore resurrected the obscure DC Comics villain Jason Woodrue, also known as the Floronic Man. Using his advanced knowledge of biology Jason Woodrue transformed himself into a plant/human hybrid and renamed himself the Floronic Man. While the Floronic Man does indeed share certain abilities with Swamp Thing—communication with and manipulation of plant life—he remains partially human. This is revealed in the very name Woodrue chooses for himself. The moniker “Floronic Man,” composed of “floronic,” a word suggestive of flora and plant life, and “man,” reveals Woodrue’s true nature as a hybrid being. As a hybrid, the Floronic Man is in essence comparable to the pre-Moore Swamp Thing, and thus the same logic applies to barricade him from the Green Man motif.

The Floronic Man serves as a faux-Green Man—an imposter and false claimant to the title. We can see this subtly illustrated in panels where Jason Woodrue peers out from the forest in such a way as to take on an image reminiscent of the Green Man foliate head tradition. According to Elizabeth K. Rosen, “Depicted with a leafy crown and loincloth and striking a statuesque pose, the images of the Floronic Man at the moment of his transformation call to mind classical representations of Spring or nature gods or demigods such as Oberon or Pan” (7).13 However, as we will see, appearing to be a Green Man does not necessitate actually being a Green Man. Believing himself to be a Green Man, and therefore responsible for the protection of nature against civilization, the Floronic Man, in a madness resulting from his forcing a connection to “the Green,” begins an assault on human and animal life. Swamp Thing, suspended and at peace in “the Green,” encounters the Floronic Man’s imposed and corrupt connection to “the Green,” represented graphically as a red and deformed tumor-like structure. As opposed to Swamp Thing’s “green” mind, the Floronic Man’s mind is described as “red,” “painting everything with the sticky darkness of old blood” (Moore Saga 65).

Figure 14: The Floronic Man as faux-Green Man
Figure 15: “It crawls like cancer”

Beginning his assault on the small town of Lacroix, Louisiana, the Floronic Man first targets and destroys what Harrison has described as “the governing institutions of the West,” those set against nature: “The police house was first, and then the school, and then the church” (69). The Floronic Man’s ideology is revealed in a demented speech in which he claims that his actions were commanded by “the Green”:

I am Wood-rue. I am the pain and the bitterness of the woods! I am come to announce the green millennium! I am one with the wilderness, its will works through me. For I asked of it, saying ‘What would you have me do?’ And it said ‘purify.’ And it said ‘destroy.’ ‘Destroy the creatures that would destroy us, that would destroy the ecosphere with their poisons and bulldozers! Cut them down, like blighted wood. Let us have another green world.’ (Moore Saga 79)

The Floronic Man’s actions and words serve to reinforce the separation of nature and civilization into separate spheres, spheres that are unable to exist cooperatively. His desire to wipe out humanity reflects some of the darker, misanthropic elements of deep ecology.14 By flooding the earth’s atmosphere with an excessive amount of oxygen he hopes to eliminate all human and animal life from the planet.

Swamp Thing, as legitimate Green Man, intercedes in the Floronic Man’s rampage. Establishing a physical dominance over the Floronic Man, and breaking the Floronic Man’s arm in the process—an act that demonstrates the Floronic Man’s semi-human nature—Swamp Thing undermines the Floronic Man’s plan with a simple question: “And what…will change the oxygen…back into…the gasses that…we…need…to survive…when the men…and animals…are dead?” (Moore Saga 95). Swamp Thing thus elucidates the inherently complex, yet understandably simple, symbiotic relationship that exists between plant and animal life, revealing to the Floronic Man that to harm one element of the ecosphere is to ultimately inflict harm upon oneself. Taking Swamp Thing’s message quickly to heart the Floronic Man ends his struggle and loses his connection to “the Green.” This episode highlights not only those actions that define Swamp Thing as a Green Man—his immediate connection to the natural world via “the Green” and his desire to maintain a balanced ecosystem, beneficial for plant life—but also those that would exclude him from the Green Man tradition—an overly aggressive attitude towards non-plant life and an abuse of his powers, two pitfalls into which the Floronic Man tumbles. Therefore, Moore’s use of the Floronic Man as foil to Swamp Thing serves as one of the most implicit tactics for revealing the Green Man in Swamp Thing.

Since their inception, comic book superheroes have proven to be fundamentally anthropocentric in their undertakings: their fantastic adventures and harrowing deeds almost exclusively played out against the urban backdrop of a Metropolis or a Gotham City; their main concerns being, more or less, the welfare and perpetuation of humanity and civilization. Aware of these conventions, Moore instilled within Swamp Thing the Green Man characteristics that would allow him to act outside of this established system. Peter Coogan maintains, “depending on the interests of the writer, Swamp Thing falls more or less within the SF/horror genre or the superhero genre” (56). However, it is of the utmost importance to refrain from strictly classifying Swamp Thing as a superhero—his province is that of the natural world, not the urban battleground of the city. While Swamp Thing exists as part of the larger DC Comics universe, Moore rarely has him interact directly or for long periods of time with the mainstream superheroes of the universe.

Geoff Klock acknowledges that “Moore understands the absurdity of Swamp Thing’s sharing continuity with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman and conceives of Swamp Thing as a hero of the margins” (192). With this statement, Klock is not contending that Swamp Thing is insignificant when juxtaposed to costumed superheroes; instead he is suggesting that “as a hero of the margins,” Swamp Thing is motivated into action by forces and circumstances that occur outside the traditional perceptions of the superhero. While Superman flies to divert an asteroid threatening Metropolis and Batman diligently works to stock Arkham Asylum with inmates, who is left to act on behalf of the natural world? According to Klock, and correctly so, “The answer, of course, is Swamp Thing” (192).

Figure 16: “In the house above the world”

One noteworthy and revealing example of this juxtaposition occurs during the course of the Floronic Man’s misanthropic rampage. In this storyline, Moore introduces as “the over people” the Justice League of America, who observe the inflammatory actions of the Floronic Man from their orbiting space station. In discussing his depiction of the JLA in the storyline, Moore has stated:

Making the Justice League fit into a horror book was largely a problem of approach. What I decided to go for was a more oblique and shadowy representation of the JLA. They appear a little weirder and ominous and more frightening, unknowable entities of immense power that sit up there in space and watch over the affairs of men. (Burbey 84)

The space station itself is the epitome of the technological advancement of civilization, while its position in orbit securely separates it from organic and earthly domain of Swamp Thing. Moore purposefully refrains from naming the various superheroes seen populating the station and by describing them as the “over people,” Moore is establishing the JLA as the unseen “powers that be,” that are responsible for the protection of the planet and its inhabitants. However, these seemingly god-like entities are not focused on natural spaces and are not prepared for an environmentally related threat. As the figure of Green Arrow proclaims in alarm and surprise, “Man, I don’t believe this! We were watching out for New York, for Metropolis, for Atlantis…but who was looking out for Lacrouix, Louisiana?” Not surprisingly, Green Arrow’s question is met with silence “in the house above the world” (Moore Saga 84).

Green Arrow’s outburst demonstrates that the powers or forces that have the ability to effect change, for better or worse, are not concerned with or aware of ecological problems. The JLA represents what we have seen Harrison describe as “the governing institutions of the West” (IX). Instead of protecting the planet as the interconnected and diverse body that it is, the governing powers are focused on the urban centers of human civilization and population. The result of this singular focus is the creation of a blind spot in regards to nature. Moore is thereby exposing the cultural tendency towards urban expansion and the simultaneous fencing off of nature into parks and reserves: the Western mindset that places more value on urban areas while isolating, ignoring, or raping natural spaces. However, with Swamp Thing, Moore was not merely attempting to expose these tendencies, but as we will now explore, he was endeavoring to portend the repercussions of such propensity.

One of Moore’s most ingenious moments of adaptation occurs in a stand-alone issue entitled “Pog,” which serves as a fable or parable of sorts that conveys a warning of potential ecological crises and brings to the forefront Swamp Thing as Green Man’s role in these crises, as well as many of the naturalistic attributes that identify Swamp Thing with the Green Man tradition. “Pog,” as a shorted rendering of Pogo, is a nod to Walt Kelly’s influential comic strip “Pogo,” which featured anthropomorphic animals in a lush swamp setting. Moore has transformed Kelly’s characters into alien refugees from a planet, which they call “the Lady,” that has been overrun by “one solitribal breed of misanthropomorphs” and are in search of a new peaceful planet to inhabit. The tale that “alien” Pogo tells Swamp Thing about his home planet serves as a parable of warning. It demonstrates what can result from the isolating or overly predatory action of a single species. Alien Pogo demonstrates the relevance of his story when after observing the action of humans he proclaims, “Oh no. Not here as well. They can’t own this lady, too!” (Moore Love and Death 156). Alien Pogo thus implies that humans are susceptible to the same fate that afflicted his planet if they continue to make the harmful distinction between civilization and nature.15

Figure 17: Alien Pogo and Swamp Thing

Moore’s adaptation of Kelly’s unique use of language in “Pogo” offers insight into the character of the Swamp as Green Man. Kelly’s characters often form their own words, as we have witnessed, by combining two or more words to form a hybrid, which simultaneously conveys the weight and meaning of its core components. In this way, the characters in “Pogo” are able to expresses themselves in a complex and oddly eloquent manner. The title of this essay is itself derived from a statement made by the alien Pogo to Swamp Thing regarding Swamp Thing’s relationship to earth, “the Lady.” Alien Pogo concludes that Swamp Thing must be “her guardiner.” A clever welding together of the words “guard” and “gardener” reveals that the alien Pogo is quick to notice Swamp Thing’s capacity as both a protector and nurturer of natural spaces—both roles the dominion of the Green Man.

By adapting Kelly’s classic characters to fit into his Swamp Thing narrative, Moore is not only able to highlight the Green Man characteristics of Swamp Thing, but he is also able to bring the weight of Kelly’s pro-environmental comic strip to his own storytelling. Di Liddo says of the “Pog” storyline, in relation to Kelly’s work, that

Moore pays tribute to an older comic strip that belongs to a very different genre but that shares the setting of the swamp and above all its critical and debunking position, which highlights…the issue of man’s relationship to the ecosystems of the earth, for Kelly’s environmental stance was quite evident. (53)

Kelly held the belief that in many ways humanity is its own worst enemy when it comes to nature and the environment. One of Kelly’s most popular quotations is a line created by the artist for an Earth Day poster from 1970, which proclaims, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”16 This powerful statement perhaps best reveals the message of alien Pogo’s parable and the message that Moore wished to convey in his salutation to Kelly. Moore himself has stated, “It’s sort of my environmental stance with Swamp Thing. I used that story to extend it—to make sure people know that I was talking about the animal kingdom as well as the vegetable kingdom. That there were big problems in the way we treated most parts of the natural world,” a sentiment which Kelly would doubtlessly have endorsed (Khoury 92).

Figure 18: Kelly’s 1970 Earth Day Poster
Figure 19: “We have met the enemy …”

In the two-part story arc “The Nukeface Papers,” Swamp Thing encounters a walking personification of radioactivity, toxicity, and pollution. The character Nukeface, once a human being, was transformed into a radioactive madman by ingesting nuclear waste. In the way that Swamp Thing serves as an archetypal representative of nature, Nukeface appears as an archetypal figure of toxicity, pollution, and nuclear threat. The “papers” referred to in the title of the story arc are in fact newspapers, which play a double role in the narrative.

Figure 20: “America … here I come!”
Figure 21: The Three Mile Island Incident

Appearing frequently in a collage-like style, newspapers relating incidents of nuclear waste accidents, such as the 1979 Three Mile Island incident, are spread across panels and splash pages. Not only do the newspapers convey warnings of pollution, the newspapers themselves, in an ironic turn, are manifested as litter throughout the storyline. According to Rosen,

To emphasize the reality of the threat and make clear that this is not merely the world of the author’s nightmarish imagination, panels in this particular two-part issue are littered with newspaper pages on which actual stories about toxic fumes, nuclear accidents, sunken uranium shipments, deadly acid spills, and the ongoing political tussle over waste disposal are all clearly readable. These news articles bear witness to the ongoing environmental damage, and act as a bridge between the fictional world of Swamp Thing and our own world from which the newspaper stories are taken. The overlay of real environmental news over fiction is an example of extremely complex closure, and here is used to reiterate the reality of the danger. (6-7)

Rosen’s analysis highlights one of Moore’s typical moves when attempting to instill horror in his readers—the connecting of generic horror conventions with real life horrors—bringing elements of the fantastic to bear on reality. Thus, while Nukeface is terrifying in his own right as a decomposing and toxic body, he also serves to illuminate the much larger environmental concerns that occur as a result of adapting nuclear fusion as an energy source.

Nukeface is seemingly unaware of what he has become and the harm that he can inflict. He is ignorant of the threat he poses to animal and plant life—fruit falls dissolving with radioactivity from nearby trees in his presence, and he inadvertently kills a homeless man with his toxicity. Unaware of the true danger he poses, Nukeface carelessly comments on the waste he has been ingesting: “‘Waste.’ That’s what they call it. Waste from nuculer fishing. Supposed t’be bad for ya” (Moore The Curse 19). Nukeface’s mispronunciation of “nuclear” and his substitution of the word “fishing” for “fusion” demonstrate his ignorance in regards to nuclear issues. The association between ignorance and the harmful nature of nuclear waste and pollution, exhibited by Nukeface’s accidental killing of Swamp Thing, are Moore’s way of commenting on the danger posed by a careless and ignorant handling of nuclear waste.

While the Nukeface storyline culminates in the “death” of Swamp Thing, as has already been established, rebirth and resurrection are defining elements of the Green Man tradition. Though his physical body may be destroyed, Swamp Thing is able to allow his consciousness to enter “the Green” and thus be reborn through any of the earth’s vegetation.17 Connected to the notion of resurrection is the concept of the Green Man as a sacrificial figure, sacrificing himself not only for the sustenance of humanity but also as a response to humanity’s wasteful and destructive ways.

Totleben and Bissette illustrate this notion subtly in the Floronic Man story-arc, which ends with a full-page illustration of Swamp Thing assuming a Christ-on-the-cross pose. Rosen analyzes the page as follows:

With arms outstretched, head thrown back, and one leg bent at the knee, Swamp Thing is clearly meant to imitate the classic pose of Christ on the cross. The crucifixion image is set against a blood red orb, a clever visual link between the ecological concerns of the text and its apocalyptic framework since the moon or sun only look brilliantly red like this when air pollution causes a particular refraction of light. Simultaneously, there is an apocalyptic overtone to the color in this image, a subtext suggesting the potential apocalyptic consequences of our environmental destruction. (8)

Rosen’s observations, which identify Swamp Thing as a sacrificial Christ-figure, not only reaffirm the attribute of rebirth often associated with the Green Man but suggest a further capacity for Swamp Thing to become a symbol for the relationship between humanity and the environment. It is nature, the Swamp Thing/Green Man, that bears the burden of modern society’s industrialization and ecologically devastating actions.

Figure 22: “Rise up… and meet the sun”

In contrast to the parasitic relationship between civilization and nature we have seen illustrated thus far, the union between Swamp Thing and his human wife Abigail presents an image of humanity and nature interacting harmoniously. While the distinctions between “nature” and “humanity” may still exist, they do not serve to limit, harm, or cause conflict in the pair’s relationship. The ultimate emblematic demonstration of a perfectly symbiotic relationship between humanity and nature is seen in the consummation of Swamp Thing and Abigail’s love for one another. This sublime merger is manifested in a metaphysical joining of the minds accomplished through Abigail’s ingestion of a fruit produced by Swamp Thing’s body.18

Figure 23: Psychedelic Communion

Artists Bissette and Totleben outdo themselves with their blissful psychedelic rendering of this “sex scene” between Swamp Thing and Abigail. The artwork conveys the fusion of the two not as a strictly physical act but as more of a spiritual bonding, one that is highly reminiscent of a psychedelic trip.19 Jack Bushnell describes the scene as “the most spectacular orgasm I’ve ever encountered in literature” (Bushnell 39). Through these psychedelic experiences, “the lovers become one with the waters, fish, insects, reptiles, and amphibians” (39-40). In other words, through her bonding with Swamp Thing, Abigail, as a human, is able to encounter “the Green,” to truly interact with and experience nature, to understand on a profound level the interconnectedness that unites all life, human and plant. Swamp Thing, consequently, acts as a conduit through which Abigail can experience her “oneness with earth,” the prime significance assigned to the Green Man by Anderson.

The peace and love between Swamp Thing and Abigail is short lived, however. When a journalist snaps some incriminating pictures of the pair together, the authorities step in and Abigail is arrested for, as colorfully described by one of the arresting officers, “shackin’ up with somethin’ that ain’t even human” (Moore A Murder of Crows 141). Upon discovering that Abigail has been arrested, Swamp Thing flies into a fit of rage, becoming the Wild Man of the Green Man tradition. Lorraine Stock argues that “although the Wild Man’s long hair, shaggy beard, and bestial body fur were most often brown, he was also depicted with green fur, reflecting the greenery of his habitat and perhaps connecting him to the Green Man” and furthermore that the Wild Man stood “as the cultural antithesis of ‘civilization'” (240). Varner agrees that the Wild Man stood in opposition to civilization, stating that, “the Wild Man became the symbol of popular discontent with the burgeoning cities and court society; he was in a sense, a response of nature towards this unnatural existence and the destruction of the Wild Wood” (143).

Figure 24: “Virtuous lady tames Woodwose” (Wild Man) 1470/80

Harrison identifies Orlando of Ludovico Ariosto’s epic Orlando Furioso as belonging to the Wild Man tradition, and indeed the madness and subsequent rampage into which Orlando is thrown when discovering the loss of his love is highly reminiscent of the scene in which Swamp Thing discovers that Abigail has been arrested. Harrison describes the rage of Orlando as follows:

Orlando’s vengeful fury gives him a superhuman strength that he now unleashes against the forest itself. With his bare hands he uproots the trees and casts them into the river, polluting its clear waters with tree trunks and debris. His fury, like his strength, knows no bounds. Not only does he uproot huge oaks, elms, and pine trees, but with hardly an effort he also splits their trunks apart. (96)

This description could easily apply to Swamp Thing’s fury as he single-handedly tears trees from their roots and launches them effortlessly. As the Wild Man of the Green Man tradition, Swamp Thing is swift to direct his rage away from his natural surroundings and moves to demonstrate his true “discontent with the burgeoning cities.”

Figure 25: “His fury, like his strength, knows no bounds”
Figure 26: Gustave Doré’s depiction of Orland as Wild Man

Swamp Thing’s calculated yet impassioned response is one of Moore’s most implicit expressions of the relationship between civilization and nature. In an attempt to recover Abigail, who is being held prisoner because of her relationship with him, referred to as a “sexual crime against the laws of nature” by the authorities, Swamp Thing uses his abilities as a Green Man to engulf the city of Gotham with plant life in an episode known as “the greening of Gotham” (Moore Earth to Earth 49).20 What Harrison describes as “Roquentin’s Nightmare” comes to fruition in Swamp Thing’s leafy subjugation of Gotham City:

Vegetation has crawled for miles toward the cities. It is waiting. Once the city is dead, the vegetation will cover it, will climb over the stones, grip them, search them, make them burst with its long black pincers; it will blind the holes and let its green paws hang over everything. (Sartre 156)

Harrison concludes that the “confessions” of Roquentin, the protagonist of Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea, are “the confessions of a humanist, a Cartesian, a cosmopolitan. Rarely has a long tradition of thought—the forest phobia of rationalism—been given such a telescopic formulation” (148). The fear and apprehension of creeping and swelling vegetation, as expressed by Roquentin, is shared by a number of Gotham citizens.

Figure 27: “The vegetation will cover it”

Speaking to Batman, Commissioner Gordon considers the impact that the forestation of Gotham has had on its citizens. Gordon ponders, “Even if you get [Swamp Thing] to remove the undergrowth, I mean, what if this has gone too far? You see, he’s given Gotham a taste of some sort of savage Eden. What if the city likes it? Some people are acting as if it’s a natural born paradise…but all I can see is a green hell” (Moore Earth to Earth 52). Expressed in Gordon’s statement are the two opposing views of Swamp Thing’s “greening” of the city. While the event causes concern for the officials of the city, the general population indeed views the transformation as creating a “natural born paradise.” As Swamp Thing observes:

I search the corners…of Gotham’s heart for purchase…running invisible fingers…over the harps of its inhabitants’ minds…some shiver…and turn the TV up louder…but in some…there is a resonance…a great, yearning response. (Moore Earth to Earth 57)

This “yearning response” is realized as Gotham citizens strip off their clothes and return to a semi-primitive state of living within the newly grown jungle. Meanwhile, a large gathering of supportive citizens flock to Swamp Thing, and as reported by a Gotham City news broadcast,

According to a random sampling of public opinion gathered earlier, 30% of Gotham’s citizens feel sympathetic towards the swamp creature and his cause. 15% also stated that they preferred an overgrown Gotham. Already ‘pilgrims’ from outside the city have been reported heading into Gotham. (Moore Earth to Earth 66)21

While the percentage of Swamp Thing’s supporters are in the minority, as are those who prefer the newly lush Gotham City to the former cold stone, the combined actions of these groups testify to the fact that among humanity there exist those who desire a less black-and-white world when it comes to terms such as urban and rural, town and county. Swamp Thing’s “greening of Gotham” served as a catalyst to these individuals, allowing them to experience the natural world that their skyscrapers and streets had paved over and destroyed.

Despite the sympathy voiced by a collection of Gotham citizens however, in the midst of his grassy takeover of Gotham City, Swamp Thing is momentarily hindered by the guardian of the city, Batman, who acts as the apotheosis of civilization. Interrupting Swamp Thing’s poetic musings over the change that he has affected upon the city, Batman violently cuts through the newly sprouted forest, wielding buzz-saws and defoliant, key weapons employed by civilization in its efforts towards deforestation. Batman thereby reinforces the pattern of civilization’s desire to maintain dominance over nature. Despite a violent confrontation in which Swamp Thing defeats Batman, leaving him battered and bruised, Swamp Thing does not kill Batman or overreact to his provocation. This restraint in his contest with the representative of civilization confirms Swamp Thing’s desire, as a Green Man, to maintain balance, and not treat humanity in the manner it has treated nature.

Figure 28: Batman Clear Cutters, Inc.

However, in his anger, and fully mobilized in his capacity as defender of nature, Swamp Thing unleashes a stream of accusations directed at humanity that echo those of the Floronic Man. Swamp Thing declares,

I have tolerated…your species…for long enough. Your cruelty…and your greed…and your insufferable arrogance. You blight the soil…and poison the rivers. You raze the vegetation…till you cannot…even feed…your own kind. And then you boast…of man’s triumph…over nature. Fools, if nature were to shrug…or raise an eyebrow…then you should all be gone. (Moore Earth to Earth 42)

Here, Swamp Thing’s argument is scientifically valid and is in fact mirrored in the arguments of deep ecologists. Deep ecologist Christopher Manes, for example, argues that,

If fungus, one of the “lowliest” of forms on the humanistic scale of values, were to go extinct tomorrow, the effect on the rest of the biosphere would be catastrophic, since the health of forests depends on Mycorrhyzal fungus, and the disappearance of forests would upset the hydrology, atmosphere, and temperature of the entire globe. (24)

However, as true as Swamp Thing’s statements may be, they seem to contradict the arguments he employed to check the Floronic Man. Therefore, which argument put forth by Swamp Thing expresses his true ideology? It could be argued that it is possible to hold both views simultaneously. In essence, Swamp Thing argues for balance and symbiosis. He desires a relationship between humanity and nature that is beneficial for both parties. His threatening comments are a reaction to the aggression displayed by humanity towards nature and are meant to demonstrate the manner in which humanity and nature rely upon one another for continued existence.

The “greening of Gotham,” the complete encompassing of the city in plant life, was such an exploit as Swamp Thing had never undertaken before and revealed the true extent of his power as a plant elemental. Along with an increasing awareness of his abilities came an increase in his parallelism to other Green Man figures. During his invasion of the city, Swamp Thing speaks in a manner consistent with his vegetable nature. According to Di Liddo it is “a language that reflects [Swamp Thing’s] peculiar qualities, for its balloons are always filled with dots; Moore thus underlines that his protagonist leads a vegetable existence, tuned on the slow rhythms of nature and not on the neurotic pace of human beings” (52). This slowness of speech, reflective of the slow yet steady growth of plant life, is seen mirrored in the Ents—the tree-shepherds—of J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, the Ent character Treebeard can be readily linked to the Green Man tradition and thus to Swamp Thing. Prominent Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger has associated Treebeard with the overarching Green Man tradition. In fact, Flieger’s description of Treebeard’s speech pattern parallels Di Liddo’s analysis of Swamp Thing’s use of language:

Tolkien’s linguistic invention, wholly imagined yet archetypally consistent, puts those slow years into words and gives them a voice. Just as much a part of Treebeard as his giant size and his vegetative nature is his language, those measured, polysyllabic Entish locutions that make a paragraph out a word like “hill,” and take half a day to say “good morning.” (95).

Flieger argues of Treebeard’s manner of speech that “it is a voice both archetypal and individual, and implicit in it is criticism of the ‘hastiness’ of humanity, that cuts down what took years to grow and leaves a wasteland in its place” (95). Therefore, the very use of language by Treebeard and Swamp Thing demonstrate their “vegetative nature” while simultaneously containing a critique of the nature of humanity and civilization as hasty and destructive.

Figure 29: Treebeard by Rodney Matthews

It is unequivocal that Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing may take its rightful place firmly rooted in the tradition of the Green Man. Assuming the validity of Varner’s hypothesis that the Green Man acts as a sort of litmus test for the relationship between nature and civilization at a specific moment in time and space, allowing one to trace the evolution of this relationship throughout history, Moore has provided a contemporary Green Man that accurately embodies the current ecological situation. The ramifications and consequences of this relationship will take place outside the panels of the comics page and perhaps in the future when scholars and historians look back to Moore’s Swamp Thing—just as we have looked back to other Green Man figures; they will recognize in Swamp Thing an attempt to comment upon, and perhaps even serve as a call for, reconciliation between the spheres of nature and civilization. The Green Man, though changing through time, has remained to this day a powerful and evocative figure within our cultural imagination. From his first appearance in Gilgamesh to his modern day manifestation as Swamp Thing, the Green Man has provided stories that, if they have not impacted and influenced our views of nature, then they have at least served as a mirror against which we can see our own treatment of the natural world reflected. Perhaps writer Jamie DeLano said it best in his introduction to the volume Love and Death where he logically concludes that “Sometimes stories can make a difference—even old ones” (Moore Love and Death Introduction).


[1] Taking over writing duties from Martin Pasko, Moore’s run on Swamp Thing ran from 1984 until 1987 and covers issues 21 through 64.

[2] This increase in awareness is evidenced by the heated debates over global warming, the popularity of the “Go Green Movement,” the attention given to alternative and renewable sources of energy such as wind power and biofuel, the movement towards hybrid and electric cars, the expansion of recycling—seen especially in the popularity of products displaying “Made from Recycled Materials” labels, and many other such markers. For full studies of the development of environmentalism and the environmental movement in the United States see J.E. de Steiguer’s The Origins of Modern Environmental Thought (2006) and Philip Shabecoff’s A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement (2003).

[3] I am indebted to Robert Pogue Harrison’s original and insightful work of cultural and literary criticism “Forests: The Shadow of Civilization” for both provoking my imagination in this project and providing solid scholarship from which to build my own arguments.

[4] Harrison demonstrates how the word “forest” itself plays a role in this divide, stating “The most likely origin is the Latin foris, meaning ‘outside.’ The obscure Latin verb forestare means ‘to keep out, to place off limits, to exclude'” (69). Furthermore, the figure who is representative of the forest in Gilgamesh—Humbaba, Guardian of the Cedar Forest—could be seen as the first literary incarnation of the Green Man.

[5] Of special note in this area is Kevin de Laplante’s excellent essay, “Making the Abstract Concrete: How a Comic Can Bring to Life the Central Problems of Environmental Philosophy,” found in the anthology Comics as Philosophy.

[6] While this essay will principally discuss the concept of adaptation in regards to the Green Man, it will prove necessary to also discuss the way in which Moore adapted a number of various comic book characters, among these both classic and seemingly forgotten figures of comic book history.

[7] One of the primary causes of the mysterious nature of the Green Man is his appearance—as a “pagan” symbol—in Christian architecture. I would contend that the Green Man’s appearance in such surroundings can be traced to the development of Gothic cathedrals themselves, as Harrison argues: “The correspondence between columns and trees leads one to suspect that the archaic Greek temple [groves of sacred trees] is not unlike the Gothic cathedral in its religious symbolism” (178).

[8] Superman’s archenemy, Lex Luthor, during his brief appearance in Moore’s run, makes a veiled reference to Swamp Thing that reveals one of the most recent and popular incarnations of the Green Man. Luthor describes Swamp Thing as a “refugee from a canned sweet-corn label” (Moore Earth to Earth 56). This is an obvious reference to the popular advertising mascot for Green Giant vegetables, the Jolly Green Giant.

[9] Moore states on his transformation of the character of Swamp Thing that “I was trying to have the character slowly evolve into a kind of vegetable god” (Khoury 89). In fact, many of the figures associated with the Green Man tradition are “vegetable gods” of sorts: “some of these are Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Pan and Dionysus…[and] the goddess Asherah” (95).

[10] Bissette and Totleben take their adaption further by giving Swamp Thing chameleon-like abilities. For example, when in Brazil Swamp Thing is enmeshed with the local flora and foliage.

[11] Abel is another classic DC character into which Moore breathed new life. Originally appearing as the host of the DC anthology House of Secrets, Moore’s revitalization of the character played an important role in Abel and his brother Cain’s appearance in Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking series The Sandman.

[12] The original catalyst for this essay was indeed the cover of the fourth volume of Swamp Thing. However, during the course of my research and composition of a study concerning this possible connection, I encountered an essay by Amanda Carson Banks and Elizabeth E. Wein, entitled “Folklore and the Comic Book: The Traditional Meets the Popular,” that proposed a connection between the Green Man motif and Moore’s Swamp Thing. I must therefore credit them with drawing first blood on this study.

[13] Varner explicitly connects Pan to the Green Man tradition; “The Green Man is another variation of the Great God Pan” (104).

[14] According to Greg Garrard, “One major, recurrent objection to deep ecology is that ecocentrism is misanthropic, and indeed certain advocates such as Dave Foreman and Christopher Manes have made inhumane and ill-informed statements about population control” (Garrard 22).

[15] Rosen accurately comments that “the specter of environmental apocalypse is constantly in the background of Moore’s tenure on the series” (6).

[16] It is of interest to note that in the early 1990s Swamp Thing, in his live-action film and television incarnation, appeared in a Greenpeace anti-littering PSA.

[17] It is of note that Swamp Thing himself uses this form of rebirth as his primary form of travel—allowing his body to be destroyed in one place and reborn or remade in another.

[18] Swamp Thing, as producer of this fruit, takes on characteristics of a sacred, cosmic, or world tree. Such trees, like the Green Man motif, appear across world mythologies and folklores, and have often been noted as possible forerunners of the Green Man tradition itself. The fruits themselves produce varied effects on those who ingest them, effects, positive and negative, that relate directly to the moral character of the individual. The seemingly moral affection of the fruit indeed links it to such trees as the Biblical Tree of Good and Evil.

[19] Rosen contributes to the analysis of this scene, particularly concerning the link between Swamp Thing and Christ, by noting that “while Moore is definitely having fun with the sexual connotation here, there is no question that the reader is supposed to make the connection between this act and Christ’s command ‘to eat of my body'” (8).

[20] The manner in which “civilization” reacts to the “unnatural” relationship between Swamp Thing and Abigail is demonstrative of the tendency of the “cultural imagination of the West” to separate nature from civilization, and view a fusion or understanding between the two as unsettling and even offensive.

[21] During this episode there appears a scene of a young girl giving Swamp Thing a flower, which is highly reminiscent of the famous scene in 1931 film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein—Moore’s nod to one of the founders of the horror genre.


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