Swamp moralities

Well, it’s been a wonderful period of battery refreshing and book rewriting. The book’s in good shape now – 20,000 words shorter, more emotionally coherent and much, much more focussed. So that will be going out to various people over the next few weeks. Very exciting!

And of course I’ve been doing much re-reading. In particular, inspired by the magnificent Byron Orpheus, I’ve been grooving to Marvel’s bonkers-but-wonderful master of magic Doctor Strange. Supported by his master, teacher and friend, The Ancient One, Strange battles various different kinds of cosmic evil while occasionally worrying about paying pharmacy bills, remodelling his Greenwich Village Sanctum Sanctorum to fit in with local property law, etc.

It’s highly recommended; the artwork is both profoundly psychedelic and utterly precise, and the writing gives the stories a propulsive, addictive momentum that makes Doctor Strange’s adventures a pleasure to read. What’s really interesting, however, is the way that the comic treats evil – and the way that that sets up Alan Moore’s groundbreaking work on ‘Swamp Thing’ in the 80s.

In Doctor Strange, evil is very objectified. Just as Strange is aware that he both is and represents good, so his opponents very self consciously both are and represent evil. This is something they’re very proud of, monologuing from time to time to time about their glorious wickedness, etc.

For me, this is a very limiting moral stance. Evil is complex; it’s far more than just an external person-to-be-zapped. Having been deep in Jung also while away, I’d read it as much as a reflection of aspects of ourselves we’re uncomfortable with as an external destructive force. Over and above this, there’s the problem that most people read themselves as good. Baron Mordo’s and Dormammu’s (two key villains) ‘my glorious wickedness’ speeches don’t ring true to me, for this reason.

I haven’t read much of the rest of the Marvel corpus, so I’m not quite sure to what extent this kind of binary, artificial treatment of evil occurs elsewhere, but there are indications in Doctor Strange that even Ditko / Lee (the creative time behind the early strip) were uncomfortable with it. There’s a very interesting moment when Dormammu is pointed up as being a hero in his own culture; Strange realises that his conception of evil is particular, not universal. But that perception isn’t followed through in any real depth.

Or at least, it’s not followed through in early ‘Doctor Strange’. But it’s fundamental to Alan Moore’s legendary 80s run on DC’s ‘Swamp Thing’. So, once again, it’s time to stop and consider just why Alan Moore is god…

‘Swamp Thing’ is ostensibly about a shambling pile of mud, leaves and psychedelic mushrooms coming to terms with the fact that it’s not – as it had believed – a mutated human, but rather an almost entirely supernatural earth elemental.

It’s utterly magnificent, for a variety of different reasons. It combines horror with fantasy, satire with action, cosmic psychedelic adventures with down-home spookiness. It invents John Constantine, of Hellblazer fame. It has Superman scratching his head and admitting he’s powerless before ecology. And it’s a complex meditation on the nature and meaning of evil.

Guided by Constantine and the Parliament of Trees, the Swamp Thing goes through a series of adventures that both help it understand its true nature and powers and force it to confront the limitations of binary good / evil conceptions.

It fights a werewolf; but the werewolf has been triggered by one woman’s frustration at centuries of patriarchal oppression. It wipes out a nest of vampires; but the vampires are motivated by the need to raise and protect their young. It protects some lost aliens; but the aliens are being attacked by our own innately carnivorous ecology – and so on.

Every adventure is a step on the road to initiation, that is to a development of a sophisticated understanding of the limitations of moral judgement in the face of the depth and complexity of natural living. The quest is exemplified in a question that the Parliament of Trees puts to the Swamp Thing – ‘where is evil in all of the wood?’

The answer comes when the Swamp Thing reaches the narrative’s climax. He’s been trained to confront an existential threat, a dark *thing* that is rising from the depths of the cosmos to threaten all before it. Other heroes attack the thing and are swatted away with no effort at all. The Swamp Thing steps into it and engages with it.

I’m not going to describe the story’s climax – you should go and read it! Suffice to say that the Swamp Thing answers his question, stepping beyond good and evil and taking part in an almost alchemical marriage of opposites. The simplistic moralities that animate the Doctor Strange stories are simultaneously neutralised and transcended.

This cosmic narrative is echoed in the Swamp Thing’s own development, after the event. The warring sides of his personality – human and non-human – are reconciled, and he finds a new peace as a fully individuated post-human, settling down with his anima and (at least for a while) retiring. There’s a deep metaphor for character development going on there as well, built at least in part (I suspect) on Jung’s thinking on personality development and fulfilment. But more on that another time….

In the meantime, suffice to say that Alan Moore’s rethinking of Marvel morality in ‘Swamp Thing’ is a fascinating part of his broader 80s project – the further development of superhero comics as a complex set of metaphors for the way we live and feel and develop, now.

7 thoughts on “Swamp moralities

  1. I do like the observation ‘there’s the problem that most people read themselves as good’. I guess it’s this perspective that makes no room for inadvertently evil or say evil but completely ignorant of it.

    Nice post Al.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it! Hmm, not quite sure what you mean by that, I suspect you think I am getting too morally relativistic…

  3. I have in my bookshelf the Marvel paperback reprint of late 1960s DR. STRANGE (The Essential Dr. Strange, Vol.2).

    It has some nice psychedelic moments, but the one that stands out in my mind is when Dr Strange (“Eternity, Eternity”, issue #180) meets his friend Tom Wolfe (yes, the author/journalist) in the streets of New York!

    This scene raises many questions.
    1. What’s Tom Wolfe doing in a Marvel comic-book?
    2. Did the writer/editor ask permission?
    3. Eh???


  4. CF – Likewise! Shame it wasn’t for longer.

    AR – I’ve been reading Volume 1, was flicking through Vol 2 in the bookshop the other day – I loved the Shadow over Innsmouth rip off story. Hmm, Tom Wolfe in Marvel… must have been a particularly successful acid test!

  5. Although Swamp Thing is from DC Comics, not Marvel — — I greatly enjoyed this post. You’ve absolutely nailed what made Alan Moore’s run on this title so amazing.

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