One of my hobbies is the reading of comics. Not just any comic, mind you. I try to find comics that are excellent, entertaining, and, occasionally, gems that can be considered literature in their own right. The stereotype is that all comics are for children; superheroes flying about, villains easily identifiable, and victories as epic as they are heroic. But this is nowhere near the entire picture and, when I read comics, I find that the form of entertainment can be just as enthralling and thought-provoking as any book, movie, or video game.
Recently, I've been reading one of the oldest of the gems: Swamp Thing. Written by Alan Moore, one of the most gifted comic book writers, Swamp Thing is far more complex and layered than the name suggests. It is a comic that brings forth a bizarre and dark world that symbolizes the heart of nature and life, a comic that balances horror with self-discovery. It is unique and rewarding for those willing and able to embrace its oddities. Most of this post will be a recounting of two of the best stories I've read so far, illustrating the depth that lies within the comic.
What is it to be Human?
"We left you the best part. We left you the humanity. Try not to lose it."
One of the central themes of Swamp Thing surrounds that of the main character. For, unlike most characters or 'heroes' in comics, the Swamp Thing is not a man altered by radioactive waste, chemicals, or cosmic events. One man, Alec Holland, is killed by an explosion in a swamp and, due to unforeseen mystical properties of the swamp, arose as the Swamp Thing. But the important thing to note is that the Swamp Thing is not Alec Holland. Not exactly. Alec died, his body laid to rest at the bottom of a lagoon. The Swamp Thing is, somehow, an organic hulk with an imprint of Alec's consciousness.
Thus it is that a major focus in Swamp Thing is on self-discovery. The creature is wracked with conflict, remembering things that it should not, reacting as a man to events even though it is as far from a man as can be. An early story arc focuses on its reaction to birth; the Swamp Thing simply becomes a part of the swamp, melding its organic form with the natural growths and roots that surround it. What follows can only be described as, "trippy", with a mental voyage through what appears to be the core of natural power on earth. Through this odyssey, it encounters denizens of a plane of reality beyond that which we know. And it happens upon a woman seated next to a lone skeleton. It becomes clear that, as it leaves, it must choose either the woman or the skeleton to take with it.
For Alec Holland's thoughts were bent upon this woman as he died; his love. The woman symbolizes a continuation of the dream, a defiance of reality and embracing of a fiction. If the Swamp Thing chooses the woman, then it chooses self-delusion, although one that would be happy, false as it is. For the Swamp Thing is not Alec Holland. Alec died in the explosion that created it. Thus choosing the woman would be a choice to fade away into the swamp, to lose control of the real, and to retreat into a dreamlike state. By contrast, the skeleton represents the humanity, all that is left of it; the last vestige of self-identity. A chance to face life, no matter the pains, and to meet the trials and joys of living head on. After one last forlorn look to the woman it regards as its love, it makes the fateful choice. It chooses humanity. It won't allow itself to give up.
What follows is a mental battle with indescribable creatures seeking to take the humanity away from it as if, by seizing the skeleton the creatures can be born anew themselves. The Swamp Thing fights them off but, after the battle, all that is left of the skeleton is one skull, bleached white and small in the hands of the organic monstrosity. Yet despite all it has lost, it begins to hear the sounds of a woman's voice in need, entering into its mind as if through a thick fog. Piercing the dreamscape like a lance of light into the dark. Remembering what is left of its humanity and the tattered memory of Alec Holland's woman of old, the Swamp Thing grasps onto the hint of life beyond the delusion. It awakens and stands forth, proud and alive.
The Meld of Horror and Fantasy
"It makes me feel better. I mean, if even monsters get scared sometimes, then... Well, then it isn't so bad is it?"
One thing about Swamp Thing that irked me at first was its status of being a horror/fantasy comic. To my eyes, why was the horror necessary? The most compelling moments were those that, I think, were fantastical in nature. The Swamp Thing's continual efforts to retain some measure of humanity even though it is anything but... Its growing friendship with an open-minded woman from the city... These things appealed to me, along with the superb writing, but not because of any horror. I've long wondered why it is that horror is an appealing genre of storytelling to people, and that thought cropped up again while reading Swamp Thing.
Then I encountered one story that made it all click for me, at least with regard to how horror works in Swamp Thing. The story is all about a young boy in a mental institution, a boy psychologically ravaged by an experience from years before. When he was younger, his parents used an ouija board for fun. This accidentally summoned a demon that killed them both. After this horrible event, the demon attached itself to the boy, visiting him in the night. Sadly, what drove the boy over the edge was the fact that nobody would believe him when he told them about the demon. His was a story true and sane, yet regarded as impossible among the normal people of the world. In time, this led to his placement in an insane asylum for troubled youth.
The Swamp Thing's woman friend gets a job at this institution and, in time, believes that the boy is telling the truth. However, the demon emerges at nearly the same time, preying on the fears of the troubled children all about it. This puts her in danger and causes the Swamp Thing to run to the asylum to protect her, his only connection with humanity.
The Swamp Thing fights to take it down, but it is clear that it cannot do it alone. Finally, as the boy watches, he realizes that he doesn't need to be afraid anymore, that he has to grow and face up to his fears. So he stands forth and confronts the demon. This confrontation, and lack of fear, causes the demon to shrink into nothingness and the boy to emerge completely sane. Unsure what else to do, the Swamp Thing walks the boy home; after being the demon's pet, not even this shambling hulk can scare the kid. As it and the boy walk together, the boy asks if it was afraid, and the Swamp Thing says yes it was. What follows is the boy's admission; when one hears that even monsters can be afraid, everything seems just a bit less scary (the quote of this section).
"I'm not afraid of you."
From that story I was able to gauge, somewhat, the value of horror within Swamp Thing. For when the hour is darkest, when things are at their most serious; successes, victories, and self-discoveries become that much more important, that much more vibrant. And this is what helps make Swamp Thing so impressive and moving. In a dark world with a creature that is barely even human, good things still happen and can still be striven for. People can get better. Anguish and uncertainty can be resolved. Optimism is hidden behind the dark shadow of pessimism. And seeing these things becomes the greatest reward of all.