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SILBER LININGS: Remember that time Swamp Thing had sex?

As a tie-in to The Beat's "A Month of Great Romance," Greg explains why one of comics' strangest sex scenes is a masterpiece.

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The Beat’s Gregory Paul Silber has been accused of having a bit of an… obsessive personality. Each week in Silber Linings, he takes a humorous look at the weirdest, funniest, and most obscure bits of comics and pop culture that he can’t get out of his head.

I love Swamp Thing, especially Saga of the Swamp Thing written by Alan Moore, drawn primarily by Steve Bissette and John Totleben (with several guest artists throughout), colored by Tatjana Wood, and lettered by John Costanza. It’s one of my favorite Big 2 runs, right up there with Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Daredevil or Grant Morrison and Chas Truog’s Animal Man. Issue after issue is a stunning achievement, balancing horror, humor, and heart for a transcendent epic from 1984-1987.

That’s why today, we’re talking about that time Swamp Thing had sex.

Waitwaitwait hear me out: 1985’s Swamp Thing #34, “Rite of Spring,” is sincerely one of the most beautiful, poetic comic book issues of all time. That’s not a joke, and I don’t mean it in a creepy or gross way either.

It’s important to contextualize Swamp Thing’s (Alec Holland) relationship with his long-running love interest, Abigail Arcane. Abby had been a prominent figure in Swamp Thing comics since her first appearance in 1973 by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson (the duo who also created ol’ Swampy himself). By 1985, Moore had been seeding (pun intended) Alec and Abby’s romance for over a year throughout his run, not to mention the groundwork laid by previous writers like Wein, Gerry Conway, and David Michelinie.

“Rite of Spring” finds Abby at a pivotal moment of her life. Her husband, Matt Cable, had just died following a series of horrifying misadventures (Swamp Thing is primarily a horror title after all). Abby and Matt’s relationship had been turbulent, to put it mildly, as Matt succumbed to madness and developed frightening, abusive powers. “She felt an ache, but not of mourning,” the narration reads. “She knew who she wanted to be with.”

Who else but the sexiest swamp stud in Louisiana? Swamp Thing may not be my type—the kind of women I’m attracted to, at minimum, are made of human flesh rather than sentient plant matter—but within the context of a series about a sweet yet scary-looking plant elemental who uses his powers to fight evil monsters, save innocents, and advocate for environmentalism, it’s easy to see why an old friend of Swampy’s might start to catch feelings. Besides, what’s more romantic than a boyfriend who could grow fresh flowers out of his body just for you?

The creative team does an excellent job making the Beauty and the Beast-like love story plausible, but as Abby confesses to Alec that she’s had feelings for him, the text acknowledges the inherent absurdity of their romance. “I mean, it’s just so ridiculous, right? It’s impossible, it’s bizarre, it probably isn’t even legal…” Abby says tearfully. “Oh hell. There’s something wrong with me. I build things up in my mind… I read things into the way you look at me, kid myself that maybe you feel the same as I do, but… you’re a plant, for God’s sake! Just saying it out loud, I mean, it’s just so funny! How could you love me?”

“Deeply… silently… and… for too many… years,” Swamp Thing answers, Casanova that he is.

There’s no question that what follows is essentially a sex scene, but upon first glance, one wouldn’t recognize it as anything so literal. In fact, most questions about how the mechanics of sex between a human woman and plant man would work are left blessedly ambiguous. Even Abby may not have been fully aware of how they “did it,” as their foreplay starts with Swamp Thing offering her a gourd, imbued with mysterious psychedelic properties, that he grew from his chest. After eating it, she didn’t just have sex. She had the wildest trip of her life.

From there, Bissette and Totleben’s art becomes increasingly abstract, complimented by Moore’s lyrical prose poetry and Costanza’s inventive blending of the two lovers’ caption boxes. In a breathtaking sequence, the pages shift from standard horizontal orientation to vertical, forcing the reader to experience the story in an unusual manner that reflects Abby’s transforming consciousness. The next several pages are so beautifully strange that it’s impossible to describe precisely what happens in them.

It’s a surreal experience that needs to be had firsthand, in its entirety. As you’re reading, please don’t focus so much on trying to make sense of Moore’s words that you overlook what Bissette and Totleben say through their art. It deserves to be seen and studied like the expressionist masterpiece that it is.

I should add that I’m constantly disappointed by how rarely Tatjana Wood is mentioned in the conversation about great colorists, because in this issue and throughout the run (as well as in other Bronze Age gems like Steve Gerber and Gene Colan‘s Howard the Duck), she gifts the series with a unique visual identity that pushed the limits of what could be accomplished with the limited palette offered to colorists before the advent of digital coloring. Recent editions of Saga of the Swamp Thing have been recolored, so if you can, please avoid those in favor of older printings with Wood’s original colors. Her palette is just as impressive as ever, and these comics deserve to be read with all the magic they had in the 1980s.

If you’re still weirded out—and hey, I get it—keep in mind that “Rite of Spring” reads more like the piece of psychedelic pop art that it is than as a comic book about monster-fucking (even if that is literally what happens). The “sex” itself is less about that physical act than it is Abby’s expanding consciousness. Even Guillermo Del Toro‘s The Shape of Water presented its woman-on-monster sex more explicitly, and that’s a movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Abby is not just making love to Alec Holland/Swamp Thing; she’s communing with the natural world that he represents. Her journey, as she develops a closer relationship with the plants and animals around her, is certainly erotic (perhaps the most telling image of this sequence is of Abby straddling the globe), but it’s not strictly sexual. It’s spiritual.

Silber Linings is a humor column, and I realize how incongruously heady this may sound for a DC comic about a lady who has sex with a swamp man. Yet the creators knew exactly what they were doing. Moore’s reputation as a mad-genius magician who writes “dark” and “literary” comics rich in theme and political complexity often undercuts his keen grasp of how to write a fundamentally entertaining story, with a sense of humor to boot. As Abby comes down from her trip and gets dressed, she shares a tender moment with Alec that reads like Moore and company welcoming us back to a more familiar world.

“Does this… uh… does this mean we’re going out?” she asks. Swamp Thing answers with a passionate kiss.

Capital-R romance comics have a rich and important history, although I haven’t read many myself. I’m not drawn to romance, as a genre, the same way that I gravitate towards other genres that Swamp Thing tends to occupy like horror and superheroes. I don’t know if romance fans would place “Rite of Spring” in the canon of great romance comics. All I know is that it’s the most romantic comic I’ve ever read.

1 COMMENT

  1. I’ve gone back to re-read comics that blew me away in the 70s and 80s; very, very few still hold up.

    But Moore’s Swamp Thing is every bit as good as I remember it — just outstanding. And this is one of my absolutely favorite issues. Good choice!

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