THE SWAMP THING by Ram V & Mike Perkins | Horror, Hope, and Identity
There is a darkness growing in the world, an evil rooted in the past that has risen up as a blight on the present. To stem this corruption, Levi Kamei must reconnect with his own forgotten past, and embrace a strange new destiny as the next guardian of the Green.
Since his first appearance in 1971’s House of Secrets, the Swamp Thing has held an enduring legacy as one of DC Comics’ most celebrated monsters. Co-created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson as a “muck-encrusted mockery of a man,” the Swamp Thing has taken on countless forms under seminal creators, most notably Alan Moore who made the creature into a more complex, introspective character, defined through his struggles for identity and a growing bond with all forms of nature. However, the character grew somewhat unfocused after Moore’s run, as subsequent creators built on the creature’s mythology and place in the larger DC Universe. Some more successfully than others.
Each writer would leave their own mark on the character, but it would be through DC’s Infinite Frontier and creators Ram V, Mike Perkins, John McCrea, Mike Spicer, and Aditya Bidikar that the Swamp Thing would finally return to form, tackling issues from beyond the realm of superheroes and delivering a horror-tinged critique of the modern world. This is the story of The Swamp Thing, and how Ram V finally brought the guardian of the Green into the modern age.
*SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE RUN TO FOLLOW*
By the time Ram and Perkins arrived on the title, the character of Swamp Thing had undergone a strange journey, slowly miring him in an ever-changing mythology. After a seminal run under Alan Moore, which pushed the character into existential and cosmic stories, the Swamp Thing cycled through a number of writers including Rick Veitch, Nancy Collins, Grant Morrison, and more, each adding on to the direction Moore introduced while keeping the character firmly on the fringes of the DC Universe. However, that all changed with 2010’s Brightest Day, which brought back the original Alec Holland and reframed Swamp Thing as more of a mainstream superhero. While this direction for the character stayed in place for 6 years, thanks to a well-received run by Scott Snyder, it was clear that the character had become unfocused, and needed to be brought back to his roots.
This return to form would ultimately come through writer Ram V, who would use a mix of psychological and cosmic horror to craft a beautiful tale of grief, hope, and change, channeled through an all-new avatar of the green.
“Back when DC editorial invited a proposal for the series, I knew that part of my creative endeavor was to develop the sort of story that truly embodied the idea that superheroes belong to the world,” states Ram. “I also felt, with Swamp Thing, that Alec Holland was a character of his time. There were so many stories told around the character that the greater arcs eventually led to interpersonal drama set around him and his relationships. I found that reductive. So, I thought of tethering the Swamp Thing to a new host. Someone new, who came from a different part of the world and a different cultural perspective. It felt like a character from the present would generate new and interesting stories.”
In place of Alec Holland, who left his role in 2020’s Endless Winter, The Swamp Thing follows Levi Kamei, an Indian immigrant shouldering countless crises: guilt for the death of his estranged father, unexpressed feelings for a close friend, distrust of his former employers, and the frightening realization that he is becoming…something else. Themes of identity and the self have always been an integral part of the Swamp Thing’s stories, with Alan Moore in particular separating the creature from Alec Holland to have him construct an identity of his own. By contrast, it is Kamei’s latent feelings and identity crisis that give rise to this new version of the creature, depicted as the influence of his homeland bursting forth after years of repression. This new take on the character is brought to horrifying life through the art of Mike Perkins, who depicts the creature as a looser, shambling mess, constantly gaining and losing form as he struggles to piece together his new identity.
This crisis is heightened even further through Levi’s encounters with the “pale wanderer,” a supernatural figure preying on lost souls in the Arizona desert. Steeped in imagery of gold, oil, and industry, the wanderer represents the same unchecked greed and imperialism that drove a wedge between Levi and his home, revealed to be a botched land deal with a corporation that led to the death of his father. Ram’s works have explored ideas of colonialism and the immigrant experience before, but through the character of Levi and his new role as the Swamp Thing, the writer manages to channel a more personal take on the creature: the struggle to hold onto identity in a world that isolates and dehumanizes its people.
“I wanted to bring in a protagonist who feels like he was a character of the here and now, trying to be many different things at once in a world that keeps wanting to label you one way or the other,” states V. “I’ve had that experience in my life. Sometimes I’m Indian, sometimes I’m Asian, sometimes I am an immigrant, sometimes American, and sometimes I’m British. These are all perceptions, but also fragmented pieces of an identity that is uniquely me.”
Fittingly, it’s through a heart-to-heart with his friend Jennifer Reese and an act of self-forgiveness that Levi is able to reconcile his two identities, channeling the Green and trapping the Wanderer in a symbol of his native India: a giant Banyan tree in the heart of the desert. Once tormented by his past, Levi Kamei is given the power to restore what he lost so long ago, finding peace in the eternal power of the Green.
Untangling The Green
While act one of The Swamp Thing starts in the mold of an archetypal superhero origin, V and Perkins quickly shape the book into something grander and more abstract. Embracing the role of the Swamp Thing may have given Levi a measure of peace as an individual, but it’s also made him aware of a larger, more universal threat. Through the book’s second act, which covers issues 3-10, the newly-empowered Levi and Jennifer are sent on a psychic journey into the shared memory of the Green, trying to gain an understanding of Levi’s new powers. Guided by figures from the Swamp Thing’s history including Poison Ivy, Jason Woodrue, and an echo of the original Alec Holland, Levi finally discovers a corruption that’s spread through the Green, masterminded by his brother Jacob who’s grown bitter and vengeful toward humanity.
Armed with a new understanding of his abilities and a drive to make a difference in the world, the new Swamp Thing embarks on a journey to stem the corruption by ridding the world of deep-seated psychic traumas, removing symbols of evil like a bomb lying dormant under London, and briefly facing off against The Suicide Squad before freeing them from their sentences in an act of empathy. This journey to heal the world ends up bringing Levi back to his home in Kaziranga where he finally reunites with his brother Jacob, whose resentment for his brother and humankind’s abuse of the Green have twisted him into a dark reflection of the Swamp Thing, a creature driven to punish humanity for its crimes against nature.
If you think this sounds familiar, you’d be right. V’s run makes countless homages and callbacks to the Swamp Thing’s history with Levi and Jacob even forming a dynamic similar to the creature’s rivalry with the Floronic Man in Alan Moore’s The Anatomy Lesson. But while Moore had his Swamp Thing overcome the odds by changing the concept of the self, V posits saving the planet and saving our fellow men are one in the same. In the end, it’s two acts of human empathy that allow the Swamp Thing to rise stronger than ever, with doubt and fear giving way to an unshakeable hope.
Nearly brought to ruin by failing to save his brother, Levi is restored through the power of the same human ideas he found destructive and harmful. In the end, it’s Jennifer’s confession of love and the kindness of a stranger, the avatar Tefe Holland, that reshape the Swamp Thing into a creature of hope and empathy, a bridge between humanity and the Green. But even as the world recovers, man’s ideas continue to take form, giving rise to something dark and terrifying.
The War of Ideas
If the first two acts of The Swamp Thing tell the story of the individual reconciling with nature, then the book’s final 6 issues, given to the team after the title’s widespread success, are V’s attempts to give these issues a cosmic scale, as the growing war between the Green and the ideas of man erupts across the entire DC Universe. Coincidentally, the team had touched on these themes prior to their ongoing run in the pages of Future State, with another Swamp Thing holding together a world ravaged by climate disasters and reshaping the remnants of humanity in their own image. While previous creators often confined Swamp Thing’s adventures to the more intimate genres of gothic and psychological horror, Ram used Future State’s scope and scale to channel the ever-present threat of eco-horror, the fear of a hostile environment striking back against the human race. Through V’s story, the planet’s survival becomes a never-ending war between humanity and the Green. For one to live, the other must die.
“I think people tend to think that gore and guts on the page are what’s scary, or people tend to think like doing jump scares,” muses the writer. “Instead, I like to push things into more conceptual realms. The thing that really works for me is, more than scare someone, I want to off-center people. I want them to feel disturbed at some point after they’ve finished reading an issue.”
Future State was never meant to last, and the many possible futures quickly gave way to the new status quo of DC’s Infinite Frontier, but Ram and his fellow creators would only continue to build on their ideas through The Swamp Thing. As Levi continues to bring more of his humanity to the creature, driven to find peace through his desire to dream, mankind is consumed by the ideas they create, with the CEO of the Prescott Corporation taken over by the reanimated Pale Wanderer, giving rise to a new elemental force.
Through the Parliament’s rise, V’s larger thesis finally comes into focus. As factories in Detroit grow and feed on urban decay, and the Pale Wanderer reveals himself as the avatar of greed, the growing war is elevated into a battle for the soul of humankind, torn between its roots in nature and the runaway mechanization that’s grown beyond its control. As both sides ready for war, V scales and spreads this looming terror to every corner of the DC Universe, with Jacob returning as a wartime avatar for the Green, man’s most dangerous ideas giving form to the avatar Trinity, giant alien plants touching down on Earth, and the heroes of the DC Universe dwarfed by this war between nature and machines. However, it’s by elevating this conflict to a cosmic scale that V is able to present a solution beyond the standard superhero punch-em-up. Just like his story in Future State, Ram posits choice as the path to peace between man, nature, and machines, having Levi imbue Trinity and the Parliament with the eternal knowledge of the Green, and giving them the freedom to choose how they use their power.
“I think there is a tendency in comics…when a concept has been around for a while, to make it tangible, and then create more objects around it to expand its mythos,” states the writer. “Instead, I like to push things into more conceptual realms. The Green in The Swamp Thing is not an object…It is an idea. The idea of intergenerational memories of plants and all things green forming their own reality.”
While Levi is able to re-bury the Wanderer, V makes it clear that the battle between these ancient forces may never be over. Just like how the Swamp Thing and the Wanderer take on different forms, man’s struggles between creation and destruction will continue. Yet, it’s those very struggles, those choices, that give life its meaning, letting us define who we are as people, and in turn, what kind of impact we will leave on the world. Fittingly, The Swamp Thing doesn’t end with a grand victory over evil, but a joyous acceptance of balance; that as long as we continue to choose our path in life, there will always be hope for a better world.
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