MASTERING NATURE: WAR GOTHIC AND THE MONSTROUS ANTHROPOCENE

Hans Staats has a Ph.D. in comparative literature and cultural studies from Stony Brook University (May 2016). The title of his dissertation is Don’t Look Now: The Child in Horror Film and Media. Excerpts from his dissertation have appeared in Offscreen, the Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, and Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. The following essay is included in the recently published anthology War Gothic in Literature and Culture (Eds., Steffen Hantke and Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet; Routledge, 2016).

Cover of DC Special Series #14 (DC, Summer 1978).
If we wish to understand how an animal, a plant, or a stone can inspire respect, fear, or horror, those three most sacred sentiments, I think we must watch them on the screen, living their mysterious, silent lives, alien to the human sensibility (Epstein 317).

1. Prologue

A Korean farmer single-handedly builds a house for himself and his family. Afterward, a bomb eradicates the home and its occupants. “The stout little house that had defied the cold, shed the rain, weathered the storm … disintegrated in a moment from a single artillery blast!” (Kurtzman 54). Buried beneath the rubble, the farmer is oblivious to a war that rages on. Elsewhere, a wounded G.I. rises up out of “a shell-torn, burn-scarred ground! It moves … shredded tree limbs rustle … the forest seems to sigh” (“[Let Me Tell You the Things I’ve Seen]” 2). The injured G.I. shambles “through the tangling thicket” like a zombie. In a clearing ahead the soldier finds a house. “It’s — It’s a house!” he says, “h-here … in the middle of nowhere!” (“[Let Me Tell You the Things I’ve Seen]” 2). Meanwhile, in the swamps of Louisiana, a scientist leaps into the bayou after being set on fire by secret agents. Shortly after, rumor has it that a monster resembling a humanoid plant haunts the swamplands surrounding the scientist’s ravaged laboratory. “Perhaps there was once a world … back in the fifteenth century,” Swamp Thing imagines, “The world was … full of shadows then … full of monsters … not any more” (Moore 8).

2. Introduction

One of the abiding master narratives of horror studies proclaims that after the 1960s and 70s the social and political value of horror cinema was all but spent. Inspired by Robin Wood (1979), film critics like Tony Williams (1996), Christopher Sharrett (1984), and David Greven (2011) argue that the late 1960s and early 70s represent a high water mark for the genre. The social and sexual revolutions that Wood identified as the most significant developments of the second half of the twentieth century, including gay liberation, civil rights, and second-wave feminism, constituted a frontal assault upon the dominant ideology of patriarchal capitalism. Since that time, a terminal decline has endured from the 1980s and 90s into the early twenty-first century. In keeping with Wood, the progressive battle for liberation was subsumed under the reactionary wing obsessed with the difference, rather than connection, between good and evil, self and other, straight and queer. According to Williams, the pursuit of social and political equality has been supplanted by a world defined by “the collapse of any viable oppositional movements engaged in active critical mobilization against the status quo” (3).

In what follows, I argue that the above-mentioned grand narrative of horror is incomplete. Rather than a constant sociopolitical struggle between the progressive and the reactionary over the virtue of bourgeois patriarchal norms, including monogamy, heterosexuality, and the nuclear family, I propose that a history of horror media exists alongside the prevailing discourse surrounding the modern American horror film. Following the second half of the 1970s, when the horror genre was put on the agenda of film studies (Gledhill 347), cinema has overshadowed the critical and theoretical importance of horror and visual culture, especially the deep impact of horror comics and graphic narratives on the U.S. cultural imaginary. Viewed as a network instead of a binary opposition, horror studies benefits not only from the scholarship of Robin Wood, it stands to profit from a wealth of intertextual and paratextual material that has languished in comparative obscurity.

This essay is affected by the intersection of two key concepts: the War Gothic and the monstrous anthropocene. More specifically, I am fascinated by the climate (Latour 2013a; Parikka 2014) or atmosphere (Spadoni 2014a; 2014b) of horror media through the lens of war and the Gothic imaginary in comics during the second half of the twentieth century. In general, I concentrate on the use of Gothic figures in Anglo-American comic books during the years 1950–1982. Responding to the intersection of monstrosity and patriotism, I explore the overlap of and complicity between Gothic discourse and the realm of military experience in the pages of Entertaining (or EC) Comics’ Two-Fisted Tales (1950–1955; Kurtzman 2012) and Frontline Combat (1951–1954; Severin 2014), in addition to Detective (or DC) Comics’ Weird War Tales (DC, 1971–1983). Lastly, I examine the connection between the notion of the EcoGothic body and the ruined battlefield as Gothic landscape in Swamp Thing (DC, 1972–1976) and The Saga of Swamp Thing (DC, 1982–1985).

It is not the purpose of this essay to discredit Robin Wood’s interpretation of the horror genre. His authoritative “Introduction to the American Horror Film” (1979), galvanized by the confluence of Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis, undoubtedly is a cornerstone of horror studies. However, what is missing from Wood’s essay is a detailed consideration of the years leading up to and immediately following the heyday of modern American horror (1972–1978). For example, the difference between the progressive and the reactionary, according to Wood, is characterized by the transition from films like The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), and Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978) to bigger-budget movies made by the same directors. Films like Swamp Thing (Craven, 1982), Poltergeist (Hooper, 1982), and Creepshow (Romero, 1982), according to Wood, reinforce the dominant ideology by representing the monster as simply evil and unsympathetic, depicting Christianity as a positive presence, and confusing the repression of sexuality with sexuality itself (1979, 23–24; 2003, 168–169).

But what if the sociopolitical value of Swamp Thing is determined by something more than cinema and authorship? Does it change the definition of a film like Swamp Thing if we consider the comic books and graphic narratives that operate interactively with the moving image? By focusing on the image of Swamp Thing in relation to visual culture, an atmosphere of paranoia, disenchantment, and rejuvenation emerges that is apropos of the Cold War era, in addition to Gothic horror. [1] Contrary to Wood’s dismissal of Swamp Thing as “merely childish” (2003, 168), I argue that a history of horror media is vital to understanding the ecological and geopolitical consequences of war and, by extension, a viable and functioning oppositional movement against the status quo. Ultimately, the progressive agenda of modern American horror is distinguished by the figure of Swamp Thing as a high water mark of Gothic comics and the anti-war and deep ecology movements.

The anti-war movement, or more specifically opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, included demonstrations, both large and small, on various college campuses between 1964 and 1971. Fostered by student activists, America’s Civil Rights Movement, and the demographic impact of the Post-World War II Baby Boom, the anti-war movement quickly grew to include a wide and varied cross-section of Americans from all walks of life. The deep ecology movement, also known as modern environmentalism, is a literary and popular grassroots political movement that emerged in the 1960s with the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1960).

First edition, September 1962 (Houghton Mifflin)

Norwegian philosopher and mountaineer Arne Naess coined the phrase “deep ecology” in 1973, broadening the aims and values of the conservation and preservation efforts to include awareness of the detrimental environmental effects of modern industrial technology. Longer range, older originators of the deep ecology movement include writers and activists like Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold.

Before I turn to my analysis of war comics and Gothic horror, let me address a question that is foundational to the concept of the War Gothic. What is the monstrous anthropocene and how is it relevant to horror studies? Starting with Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer’s article published in IGBP Newsletter 41 (May 2000), the concept of the anthropocene refers to the power of humankind to shape and exploit its own environment. Due to rapid population growth, urbanization, and the depletion of fossil fuels, the percentage of land surface affected by human activity during the past three centuries is astounding. Generally understood to emerge around the beginning of the industrial revolution in Europe, the anthropocene, according to Crutzen and Stoermer, accentuates the impact of human activities on earth and atmosphere on a global scale. In Crutzen and Stoermer’s view, “it seems […] more than appropriate to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology by proposing to use the term ‘anthropocene’ for the current geological epoch” (17).

More recently, the anthropocene has moved outside of the fields of atmospheric chemistry and biology (Crutzen and Stoermer 2000) to include anthropology (Latour 2013a) and media theory (Parikka 2014). In his lecture, “The Anthropocene and the Destruction of the Image of the Globe,” Bruno Latour proposes that the anthropocene represents “all the glorious things that humans have done in ‘mastering’ nature, except that today the glory is gone. The master (human) and slave (nature) have been melded together and morphed into this strange new geological … force” (“The Anthropocene”). As stated by Latour, humans are a geological power as well as a biological agent. For instance, humanity has proven that it is capable of quickening the pace of global climate variations, and since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States (August 1945) the nightmare of planetary annihilation is a reality. Consequently, the geopolitical is overlaid on the frame of the earth, rendering it static and disempowered.

In his essay, “The Anthrobscene,” Jussi Parikka interrogates the monstrous potential “of the human species and its scientific-technological desires on the planet” (30). Echoing Latour’s disenchantment with the glory of mastering nature, Parikka suggests that the war between environmental and human life is a zero-sum game. The violation of the earth, Parikka states, is a systematic objectification of the planet’s resources mobilized toward technological production and governmental geopolitics (65–74). Similar to Latour, Parikka’s deep ecology approach advocates a critique of “the age of resource depletion … a Cold War-style energy race” that ends in mutually assured destruction (100). “The addition of the obscene is self explanatory,” Parikka writes, “when one starts to consider the unsustainable, politically dubious, and ethically suspicious practices that maintain technological culture and its corporate networks” (100).

More explicitly, the connection between ecology and monstrosity has become a growing concern in Gothic and horror studies. According to Robert Spadoni, the relationship between horror atmosphere and narrative is a push-pull dynamic that has played an active role in films like Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932), The City of the Dead (U.S. title: Horror Hotel; John Llewellyn Moxey, 1960), and I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943). [2] By way of illustration, Spadoni observes that one of the implications of horror atmosphere is a film’s beginning:

If we take the beginning of the film to be its title screen, what may immediately come to mind are all those screens in which the title is carved on a rough plank of wood, or rises out of a swamp, or is written on sand, or forms out of smoke. … Atmosphere brings us quickly to considerations of fogbound London streets, or the particular sounds of a carnival that a film gets exactly right, or, less tangibly, the feel of a certain historical period that a film captures perfectly. Atmosphere is in the air, spread out. It inhabits the details surrounding and … constituting the action. It is the texture of the world a film creates (2014b, 112).

While they are not equivalent terms, Spadoni’s textu(r)al analysis of horror, in connection with Latour and Parikka, indicates a relation between “ecology and monstrosity” and “horror atmosphere and narrative.” In addition to historical period, Spadoni points out that “the word ‘atmosphere,’ with its roots in meteorology, also suggests a kind of internal weather system, one a film whips up and sustains within its own textual borders. … An atmosphere can forge a link to the outside world or cut a film off from it” (2014a, 152). Atmosphere, in other words, is both a place and an ecological condition. (I will have more to say about the relationship between the film title screen and comic book cover and splash page later in this essay.)

By no means is the intersection of ecology and horror limited to film studies. In fact, the monstrous anthropocene is a distinctly Gothic concept rooted in Victorian science and literature. Including the work of Antonio Stoppani (1824–1891) and Charles Darwin (1809–1882), the monstrous potential of humanity as a geological force emerged during the long nineteenth century. [3] Writing in the journal Gothic Studies, David Del Principe associates “a mounting ecophobia … in contemporary society” with “nineteenth century, industrialised society’s uneasy reaction to Malthusian ‘doomsday’ prophesies about population, the food supply, and agriculture and the vehement reaffirmation of human primacy over nature and animals” (1). In both historical periods, the precarious relationship between the human and the nonhuman is a wellspring of anxiety.

For Principe, an atmosphere of paranoia and disenchantment underscores the possibility that “nineteenth- and twenty-first century Gothic aesthetics are closely knit; both are the product of periods of seismic, industrial, mechanical, or technological growth that radically destabilized conceptions of non/human identity” (2). Similar to the deep ecology approach of Latour and Parikka, Principe lobbies for a mode of inquiry that he terms the EcoGothic. “An EcoGothic approach,” Principe writes:

poses a challenge to a familiar Gothic subject — nature — taking a nonanthropocentric position to reconsider the role that the environment, species, and nonhumans play in the construction of monstrosity and fear. … In short, the EcoGothic examines the construction of the Gothic body — unhuman, nonhuman, transhuman, posthuman, or hybrid — through a more inclusive lens, asking how it can be more meaningfully understood as a site of articulation for environmental and species identity. (1)

Principe’s emphasis on the posthuman body as Gothic subject deepens Spadoni’s analysis of the intersection of horror atmosphere and narrative. Based on the work of Principe and Spadoni, in addition to Latour and Parikka, the concept of the monstrous anthropocene is an inquiry into the master narrative of humanity as a geological force. The use of Gothic figures in war comics, the convergence of Gothic horror and military experience, and the connection between the EcoGothic body and the ruined battlefield as Gothic landscape all share one thing in common: the horror of ecology and horror as ecology are one and the same. Comic books like Two-Fisted Tales, Weird War Tales, and The Saga of Swamp Thing illuminate the ecological and geopolitical consequences of military experience. They also show that the aesthetics of war and Gothic horror are closely knit.

In what follows, I propose that Swamp Thing is deeply rooted in the notion of the EcoGothic. The embodiment of the monstrous anthropocene, Swamp Thing is a force that is antipodal to the human being as the central or most important element of existence. For this reason, my inquiry into Swamp Thing’s cultural impact is not only a graphic narrative of the destructive potential of military-industrial technology. More importantly, I am concerned with the climate or atmosphere that surrounds the War Gothic — the framework or landscape within which the pursuit of social and political equality exists. Like Swamp Thing, I am anxious about the well-being of the earth, but I am also confident that its powers of rejuvenation exceed the paranoid and disenchanted sovereignty of mankind.

3. War Comics and Gothic Horror

One way of thinking about war comics in the 1950s is to distinguish between the work of Harvey Kurtzman and the comic books that supported American servicemen at the expense of the enemy’s humanity. R.C. Harvey, in his introduction to Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories, notes that Kurtzman’s decision to tell the truth about war is directly linked to comics like Star Spangled War Stories (DC, 1952–1957) and Battlefield Action (Charlton, 1957–1966), which “proclaimed unequivocally the justice of the U.N. cause, and glorified battlefield action by making killing, bloodshed, and death seem patriotic” (viii). Unlike the upbeat and jingoistic portrayal of war in other comic books, which featured heroic cigar-chomping sergeants, wisecracking privates from Brooklyn, and cartoon Nazis and “Japs,” Kurtzman provided an unflinching look at the horror and madness of combat.

Impressed by the crime comics of Charles Biro (Crime Does Not Pay; Lev Gleason, 1942–1955), specifically the detailed representation of violence and high profile true crime, Kurtzman’s war stories were based on fact and presented in a hard-edged documentary style. The glamorized portrayal of war in comics, to Kurtzman’s way of thinking, was a lie that needed to be replaced by a more studious interpretation of history and news reports (Harvey viii). Only then would the shock effect of the realities of combat come into view. Stories like “Rubble!” (Two-Fisted Tales #24, Nov.-Dec. 1951), “Big ‘If’!” (Frontline Combat #5, Apr. 1952), and “Corpse on the Imjin!” (Two-Fisted Tales #25, Jan.-Feb. 1952) examine not only the side effects of war from the point of view of Korean noncombatants; they dramatize the capriciousness of death. Neither anti-war nor super patriotic, Kurtzman struck a balance between “the lamentable necessity of the fight” and “the over-all futility of warfare” (Harvey viii).

Two-Fisted Tales #24 (EC, Nov.-Dec. 1951)

The story “Rubble!,” for example, carefully details the steps a Korean farmer takes to build a house for himself and his family. The farmer, named Chun, picks a site, lays a foundation, erects a framework, makes bricks, and single-handedly completes his task. The next year, a bomb destroys the newly completed house, killing Chun, his wife, and child. At the end of “Rubble!,” Kurtzman locates Chun’s family and home within a geography that is ultimately devoid of humanity. The thatched roof, stone floor, and Chun and his family are “shredded wreckage” to be “pushed … aside to make room for the Long-Tom” field gun; the wall that once enclosed the farmhouse now a strategic gun position (Kurtzman 55). Not a full-fledged anti-war story, “Rubble!” nevertheless deglamorized combat to a degree that was unprecedented at the time. Based on the center row of panels, the justice of the U.N. cause, particularly the war on communism, is bereft of humanity, not to mention glorified battlefield action and patriotic sacrifice.

But it is the final panel of “Rubble!” that is most impactful. In it, Kurtzman imagines that the Korean War has moved on, leaving only “the torn, naked earth and a broken wall” behind (55). The exhortation to look with our “dead eyes” at the underground spring “that has been unearthed by the blast” is a scathing indictment of the consequences of warfare (Kurtzman 55). In “Rubble!,” the house as literal object, home as symbolic order, and homeland as national fantasy are subsumed under the ecological and geopolitical consequences of war (Naficy 5–6). Beyond the loss of human life, Kurtzman imagines the afterlife of Chun as a lost soul that calls out for what Fred Botting identifies as “the disturbing return of pasts upon presents” (1). Indeed, the atmosphere of the final panel of “Rubble!” is gloomy and mysterious; it is a landscape that is “desolate, alienating and full of menace” (Botting 2).

Figuratively speaking, the ghost of Chun is caught within a politically charged geography that is typically home to the Gothic figures that “shadow the progress of modernity with counternarratives displaying the underside of enlightenment and humanist values” (Botting 1–2). More specifically, Kurtzman’s interest in the geological impact of war, instead of the glorification of battlefield action, illuminates the connection between ecology and the monstrosity of combat. The splash page of “Rubble!,” narrated by Kurtzman, declares, “A war landscape is never pretty, but what was it like here when the raw earth was covered with grass? What was it like when the scorched trees were green? If the rubble could talk, it would tell a story …” (50). Kurtzman imagines the ruined battlefield not only as a desolate landscape, but also as a verdant place capable of thought and rejuvenation. Hence, the necessity and over-all futility of warfare is expressed in terms of the constructive and monstrous potential of humankind to shape and exploit its own environment. It is the ecological condition or atmosphere of “Rubble!” that I find most interesting, the death of the earth as well as the expectation that the world will fight back against mankind’s thirst for killing, bloodshed, and death.

To the casual eye, perhaps, the connection between “Rubble!” and Gothic horror is less than transparent. Kurtzman, better known for his humor and satire (Mad, EC, 1952-Present; Annie Fanny, Playboy Press, 1966–1988), has only recently been praised for his work for the EC Comics war line. [4] But if we consider the aesthetic and commercial interaction between EC and DC Comics during the years 1950–1978 a different picture emerges. In point of fact, it was thanks to the popularity and political influence of EC that the concept of the War Gothic was allowed to thrive in graphic narratives for the duration of the Cold War-era.

In addition to its best-selling horror titles (Crime SuspenStories, 1950–1955; The Vault of Horror, 1950–1955; Tales from the Crypt, 1950–1955), which featured more sensational stories, [5] EC was openly dedicated to the pursuit of racial equality and political tolerance. [6] Unfortunately, “the rousing success of horror and suspense comics would be short-lived” (Cunningham 184). The profane content of horror comics, combined with fears of juvenile delinquency, instigated a reactionary social and political movement that culminated in the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings (Apr.-Jun. 1954) and the implementation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA). As David Hajdu points out, many of the artists who worked for EC suddenly found themselves unemployed, never to return to work in the comics industry (3–7).

According to William Gaines, publisher and co-editor of EC Comics and Mad magazine, the CCA clauses that forbade the words “crime,” “horror,” and “terror” in comic book titles were a premeditated attack on his company. In addition to the ban on comic titles, the CCA prohibited the inclusion of Gothic horror archetypes such as the vampire, werewolf, and zombie. As stated by the Code for Editorial Matter, General Standards Part B5, “scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism and werewolfism [sic] are prohibited” (Nyberg 2247). Mad magazine, unlike its predecessors, was able to endure the initial onslaught of the Comics Code thanks to Gaines’ decision to convert the publication to a black and white magazine format, to which the Code did not apply.

Correspondingly, the inauguration of Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat in 1950 pointed the way toward a politically engaged, if also short-lived, acknowledgment of the Korean War (1950–1953) thanks to the efforts of Kurtzman. Lacking a taste for horror that his colleagues (publisher Gaines and editor/writer Al Feldstein) enjoyed, Kurtzman’s war stories portrayed the experience of combat from a point of view that was ill at ease with the superpatriotism of World War II. By extension, the transition between New Trend EC war comics (Two-Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat) and DC war tales (Weird War Tales) functioned within a sociopolitical and commercial environment that was affected by the deep cultural impact of Gothic horror.

Two-Fisted Tales #20 (EC, Mar.-Apr. 1951)

In similar fashion, Kurtzman’s EC war comics investigated the boundary between the natural and the supernatural. Like the ghost of Chun in “Rubble!,” the cover of Two-Fisted Tales #20 lends credence to Harvey’s observation that “many of Kurtzman’s narrators or protagonists turn out to be dead. Or dying” (ix). The POV of the “undead” American G.I. Joe contemplates a microcosm of the Korean War that obliterates the facile distinction between good and evil. The juxtaposition of Joe’s killer and comrade with a group of Korean refugees emphasizes the imbrication of Gothic atmosphere and narrative, specifically the feel of the Cold War as a historical period defined by paranoia and disenchantment. Although the representation of Gothic horror is more explicit in other publications, the dialogic relationship between New Trend EC comics and post-war weird tales denotes a history of horror media, in particular the impact of war and Gothic comics on the U.S. cultural imaginary. [7]

Alas, the sociopolitical value of EC as an oppositional movement against the status quo was not to be. The foreclosure of Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat demonstrates that the Comics Code was fundamentally opposed to socially and politically relevant storytelling. Yet in the following decades the U.S. was deeply affected by a new wave of social and political unrest. In her book, Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code, Amy Kiste Nyberg remarks that during the high Cold War period (1953–1979):

Comic book characters lived in a perfect world where good and evil were supposed to be clearly defined and where figures of authority were never corrupt. This vision was not consistent with the social unrest that reverberated through the 1960s, when the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and other issues led some to question the very structure of society. The 1954 code allowed no acknowledgement that the world had changed (1882–1889). [8]
Weird War Tales #1 (DC, Sep.-Oct. 1971)

Remarkably, it was not until the advent of DC Comics’ Weird War Tales in 1971 that the combination of vérité war story and Gothic horror emerged as a dominant motif. The cover of WWT #1 “fleshes out” Kurtzman’s tendency to showcase the dead or dying as primary characters. [9] Instead of G.I. Joe, Gefreiter Hans Müller is a Nazi soldier who attacks a group of hapless Americans. Similar to the cover of Two-Fisted Tales #20, the use of text and illustration provides the reader with information pertaining to narrative as well as atmosphere. For example, the horror of the soldier at the bottom right hand corner of WWT #1 is palpable.

It is noteworthy, and slightly anticlimactic, that the prologue to WWT #1 picks up where Kurtzman leaves off at the conclusion of “Rubble!” In the opening panel, a soldier finds himself lost in a wintry Gothic landscape. “The damp-cold invades the trees,” and the fog-enshrouded thicket looms over the soldier as if prepared to swallow him up (“[Let Me Tell You the Things I’ve Seen]” 1). Unable to see the artillery hidden behind the tree line, the serviceman is ambushed and, like Chun, devoured by the “shell-torn, burn-scarred ground” (“[Let Me Tell You the Things I’ve Seen]” 2). From this point forward, the Gothic is made explicit. Rising from his grave, the G.I. looks more like a zombie than a man. Dragging his mangled body “through the tangling thicket … the icy fog choking his gasping lungs,” a mysterious house is pictured in the distance (“[Let Me Tell You the Things I’ve Seen]” 2). Prostrate at the front door, the dying soldier is greeted by an old man who, it is later revealed, is Death incarnate. [10]

Weird War Tales #1 (DC, Sep.-Oct. 1971)

As he enters the House of Death, the soldier is tormented by a vision that illuminates the ecological and geopolitical consequences of war. Suspended in mid-air before a monstrously deformed arbor dentata, the soldier’s interior, as well as exterior, struggle is characterized by a drifting between two worlds. Trapped between the lands of the living and the dead, as well as the natural and the supernatural, the American soldier (WWT #1) and Korean farmer (Two-Fisted Tales #24) are taken prisoner not by an opposing army, but by a landscape that is battered, bruised, and enraged. Contrastingly, the representation of the earth in “Rubble!” is exchanged with a far more violent expression of resentment in the prologue to Weird War Tales #1. Yet both comics picture the earth “not as a biogeophysical system, but as a full-fledged actor” (Latour, “Gaia Intrudes”). In “Rubble!,” the planet is metaphorically capable of thought and rejuvenation. In the preface to WWT #1, aptly titled “[Let Me Tell You the Things I’ve Seen],” the earth assumes human characteristics in order to express its anger and discontent.

The representation of the battlefield in TFT #24 and WWT #1 is symptomatic of what Parikka identifies as the notion of the anthropocene, or “the idea that humans initiated a specific geological period” whereby “a picture of the various strata of the earth” are attributed to “a planet unearthed by human technologies and then covered with the ruins of those inventions” (38). Blasted open by the technological space of the battlefield, the earth in Two-Fisted and Weird War Tales operates as “a sort of recording device,” reflecting how the experience of combat, specifically military mobilization and imagining the enemy, is “relevant to how scientific thought implicitly perceived the earth as media” (Parikka 46–54). The concept of the War Gothic, specifically the transition between EC and DC war tales, provides “an alternative materialism for the geophysical age,” a choice “to investigate the geology of media,” and, by extension, comprehend “that the earth is anyway, already, expressive in an ontological sense” (Parikka 97, 106-115).

4. A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss: Some Thoughts Pertaining to Swamp Thing

Swamp Thing #9 (DC, Mar.-Apr. 1974)

With the publication of Swamp Thing #1 (DC, Oct.-Nov. 1972), the deep surface of the earth emerges with a form and voice that is expressive of “the layers, the core and the strata,” throbbing, pulsating, and animated (Parikka 192). [11] The human (master) and nature (slave) are merged together and changed into “a strange new geological … force” (Latour, “The Anthropocene”); a mode of existence that represents “the role that the environment, species, and nonhumans play in the construction of monstrosity and fear” (Principe 1); a Thing Without a Name that is earth-bound and cognizant of the ecological and geopolitical struggles at home and abroad. Swamp Thing is a defender of the earth, “a dazzling extension of the attachments between humans and non-humans” (Latour, “The Anthropocene”). The shell shock that is imagined in “Rubble!” and Weird War Tales #1 is personified by Swamp Thing in the shape of a creature that exists between the human and the monstrous.

Curiously, Swamp Thing emerged on the silver screen at the same time that Robin Wood proclaimed that the modern American horror film was in decline. Wood’s interpretation of Wes Craven’s film, however, ignores the intermedial complexity of the comic book legend. Adapted from DC’s first incarnation of Swamp Thing (Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, 1972–1976), Craven’s film recounts the life and times of botanist Alec Holland (Ray Wise), who is murdered while working on a secret restorative formula in the Louisiana swamps that can make forests out of deserts. Trapped in a fire and splashed with burning chemicals, Holland escapes from his lab and jumps into the waters of the swamp. Later, a creature resembling a humanoid plant appears. This creature, called Swamp Thing, is originally conceived as Alec Holland mutated into a vegetable-like being, a muck-encrusted mockery of a man. [12]

From the start, Swamp Thing is depicted as the hideous progeny of Romantic science and the military-industrial complex. [13] In the comic book, Alec and his wife Linda Holland work for the U.S. government under the auspices of Lt. Matthew Cable. Unfortunately, Cable is unable to protect the Hollands from the Conclave, a sinister NGO that wants the secret formula by any means necessary. A Gothic tale of love and death, references to Frankenstein abound. Entering his Louisiana laboratory in Swamp Thing #1, Holland comments that he and his wife have “enough equipment here for a dozen Dr. Frankensteins! Seems almost a shame we’re not building a monster!” (“Dark Genesis!” 4). [14] Shortly thereafter, Linda Holland is murdered and Alec is transformed into the very thing that he playfully alludes to. Swearing an oath to avenge the death of his wife, Holland is now a guardian of “humanity — and something far less than human!” (“Dark Genesis!” 2). In the end, Swamp Thing, like Chun in “Rubble!” and the American soldier in Weird War Tales #1, is haunted by the past and cursed to wander a Gothic landscape in perpetuity.

The Saga of Swamp Thing #2 (DC, Jun. 1982)

Hoping to capitalize on the release of Craven’s Swamp Thing in 1982, DC rebooted the comic series, now titled The Saga of Swamp Thing. [15] Then, in 1984 (TSST #20), Alan Moore broke Swamp Thing down entirely and began to rebuild him from the ground up, transforming a nearly mute wandering lost soul into a plant elemental with the power to regenerate and travel the cosmos. In other words, Moore reconstructed Swamp Thing into exactly what Principe describes as the EcoGothic body, “a nonanthropocentric position” that “examines the construction of the Gothic body … through a more inclusive lens” (1). The embodiment of the monstrous anthropocene, Swamp Thing fundamentally challenges the master narrative of humanity as a geological force.

Strictly speaking, Moore’s recreation of Swamp Thing is not Alec Holland. In Moore’s adaptation, Swamp Thing is actually a form of plant life that has absorbed Holland’s consciousness after exposure to his work. That is to say, Swamp Thing is not a mockery of humanity, but, as Principe argues, “a site of articulation for environmental and species identity” (1). Viewed through the work of Latour, Swamp Thing is “a geological force … a full-fledged actor, an agent of history — or rather ‘geostory’” that embodies “a new form of political power, an intruder, a gate-crasher, demanding our attention” (“Gaia Intrudes”).

By the same token, Swamp Thing epitomizes the War Gothic. At a time when comics were being marketed to adults rather than children, Julia Round comments that DC brought “in writers who were drawing on a literary background, and in particular one dominated by an interest in Romantic and Gothic writers” (8–9). In Round’s view, “the first and second wave of the ‘Brit invasion’ of American comics that took place in the 1980s and 1990s” centred on publications like The Saga of Swamp Thing, in which “Alan Moore translated his interest in English Gothic into American Gothic, to great effect, and Neil Gaiman plundered Gothic imagery, horror tropes and mythology in the early issues of Sandman [DC, 1989–1996]” (8–9).

The Saga of Swamp Thing #20 (DC, Jan. 1984)

Although it downplays the realities of war, The Saga of Swamp Thing augments the Gothic connotations of “Rubble!,” while at the same time advancing a social and political awareness that “geopolitics is not about human politics overlaid on the static frame of the Earth, but politics about contradictory portions, visions, aspects of the Earth and its contending humans” (Latour, “Gaia Intrudes”). Moore, in addition to Wrightson, “dramatized the loss, the profligate waste of human life that characterized wars everywhere in time [through] the fate of a single individual” (Harvey 2). Appropriately, the saga of Swamp Thing is a portrait of militaristic persecution. Instead of a torch-bearing mob as in Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931), Swamp Thing on the cover of TSST #20 (Jan. 1984) flees from an army equipped with flamethrowers, a weapon that was commonly used in World War II (M2–2), Korea (M2A1–2) and Vietnam (M2A1–7). [16]

5. Conclusion

Swamp Thing One sheet (USA; Richard Hescox, 1982)

The intermedial status of Swamp Thing points to a long and intertwined history of Gothic horror and comics reaching back to the late 1840s (Round 7). [17] Taking the same line of argument further, I propose that the implementation (1954) and revision (1971) of the Comics Code Authority (CCA) was primarily concerned with the affective (paranoia, disenchantment, rejuvenation, desolation, alienation, menace) and teratological (vampire, werewolf, zombie) bailiwick of Gothic horror. [18] By the time that publications like Two-Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat, Weird War Tales, Swamp Thing, and The Saga of Swamp Thing reached newsstands, the overlap of and complicity between Gothic discourse and the realm of military experience was firmly established.

Accordingly, the intertextual and paratextual network of Swamp Thing is defined by the intersection of war and Gothic horror. The hideous progeny of Romantic science is re-envisioned as a superhero of the anti-war and deep ecology movements; the first human to plant, or rather, plant to non-human, entity in comics. Shedding the skin of humanity entirely, Moore’s vision of Swamp Thing challenges the alleged moral clarities of World War II with a creature that speaks for the environment. [19] More specifically, The Saga of Swamp Thing introduces the monstrous anthropocene to the Anglo-American cultural imaginary by way of the War and EcoGothic. If Chun is consumed by the technological space of the battlefield, then Swamp Thing is a Gothic declaration of war on humanity’s mastery of nature.

Regarding the years leading up to and immediately following the heyday of modern American horror (1972–1978), I propose that the use of Swamp Thing as a Gothic figure represents a mode of political engagement linked to the war narratives of Harvey Kurtzman and Detective Comics’ Weird War Tales. The works of Kurtzman, Wrightson, and Moore are deeply concerned with the ecological and geopolitical consequences of war, in addition to the changing sociopolitical landscape of the United States and Britain during the years 1950–1985. Today, the importance of thinking about and protecting “the earth after the appearance and effect of modern science and technology” is greater than ever (Parikka 46). Indeed, as Jean Epstein points out, the mysterious life of an animal, plant, or stone must be watched on the screen in order to understand the connection between respect, fear, and horror. By the same token, if we are to understand the intersection of visual culture and the monstrous anthropocene it is critical that the mysterious and posthuman life of Swamp Thing is acknowledged.

Notes

[1] Specifically the periods 1947–1953 (the Truman Doctrine to the conclusion of the Korean War) and 1962–1979 (the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis to the end of détente).

[2] In a recent e-mail correspondence, Spadoni informed me that the “push-pull dynamic” is only one possible way that atmosphere and narrative can be interrelated. In “Carl Dreyer’s Corpse: Horror Film Atmosphere and Narrative,” Spadoni elaborates that horror atmosphere is a kind of emanation of narrative. “Re: Query: Horror Film Atmosphere & the Anthropocene.” Message to the author. 14 Mar. 2015. E-mail.

[3] According to Parikka, “Stoppani stands as one of the early formulators of the idea that humans initiated a specific geological period.” The layers of the earth, Stoppani theorized, “were attributes of a planet unearthed by human technologies and then covered with the ruins of those inventions.” Stoppani’s sepulchral tone is echoed in Darwin’s theory of natural selection, in which the “survival of the fittest” is contextualized as a struggle for life and death (Parikka 38–47).

[4] Anthologies include Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories (Kurtzman, 2012) and Bomb Run and Other Stories (Severin, 2014), both published by Fantagraphics Books.

[5] In “Foul Play!” (Haunt of Fear #19, May-Jun. 1953), psychotic baseball players dismember a player from an opposing baseball team in revenge for his using poisoned cleats in a game and then use his body parts to play ball. Script: Albert B. Feldstein, Pencils & Inks: Jack Davis, Colors: Marie Severin.

[6] In “The Guilty!” (Shock SuspenStories #3, Jun.-Jul. 1952), a bigoted sheriff arrests a black man for the death of a white woman based on the testimony of a man who turns out to be the killer. The sheriff executes the suspect in the woods and claims he made a break for it. In “The Patriots!” (Shock SuspenStories #2, Apr.-May 1952), a mob at a military parade to honor wounded Korean War soldiers, whipped up by anti-communist sentiment, beats to death a blind war vet when he doesn’t doff his hat to the flag during the parade.

[7] Even Captain America tried to cash in on the popularity of horror comics. Retitled Captain America’s Weird Tales (Marvel; #74–75, Oct. 1949-Feb. 1950), the iconography of fear associated with EC took center stage, relegating the once beloved WW II super patriot to a supporting role. Building upon Spadoni’s line of thinking with regard to the implications of horror atmosphere, the cover of CAWT #74 brings the reader quickly to considerations of the less tangible affects (desolation, alienation, menace) associated with Gothic horror.

Captain America’s Weird Tales #74 (Marvel, Oct. 1949)

The creepily dripping title font, on top of the monstrous depiction of the Red Skull, tower over the legend and image of Captain America, whose back is turned to the viewer. The promotion of fear and paranoia is consistent with the early Cold War period and the second Red Scare (1947–1957). Furthermore, the use of landscape in CAWT #74, not unlike “Rubble!,” accentuates the loss of material place, imagined community, and national fortitude. The texture of the world crumbles beneath Captain America’s feet, blurring the distinction humanity and monstrosity.

[8] This does not include the period of unrest immediately following World War II, including massive strikes, housing shortages, and the founding of the Hell’s Angels.

[9] Cover of Weird War Tales #1 (DC, Sep.-Oct. 1971). Courtesy of Grand Comics Database. http://bit.ly/1LV2ZzO. Web.

[10] The host of Weird War Tales, Death is usually depicted as a skeleton dressed in a different military uniform each issue.

[11] Cover of Swamp Thing #9 (DC, Mar.-Apr. 1974). Courtesy of Grand Comics Database. http://bit.ly/1SMrdlf. Web.

[12] There is much that can be added to the origin story of Swamp Thing, including, but not limited to, the horror film The Golem (Der Golem; Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen, 1915), Theodore Sturgeon’s influential horror short story It! (1940), and the comic book characters the Heap (Hillman; Airboy Comics 3:9 [Oct. 1946]-10:4 [May 1953]), the Thing (Marvel, Fantastic Four), the Incredible Hulk (Marvel), and Groot (Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy).

[13] Regarding the link between Romantic science and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, see Holmes, Richard, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. New York: Pantheon, 2009.

[14] See also Bernie Wrightson’s edition of Frankenstein, in which Wrightson provides illustrations to Shelley’s novel. First published in 1983 under the Marvel imprint, Wrightson’s Frankenstein was reissued under an actual novel-book imprint in 1994, with a new edition released by Dark Horse Comics for the 25th anniversary.

[15] Cover of The Saga of Swamp Thing #2 (DC, Jun. 1982). Courtesy of Grand Comics Database. http://bit.ly/1HXLZuW. Web.

[16] Cover of The Saga of Swamp Thing #20 (DC, Jan. 1984). Courtesy of Grand Comics Database. http://bit.ly/1PWGAZr. Web.

[17] With regard to the origins of the Gothic comic book and Gothic graphic novel see Jones, David Annwn, “‘Graphic Resurgence’: The return of the early Gothic comic strip in trans-medial discourse.” Studies in Comics 5:1 (April 2014): 31–56.

[18] The Code for Editorial Matter, General Standards Part B5 was expanded in 1971 to include scenes dealing with vampires, ghouls, and werewolves if “handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula and other high calibre literary works written by Edgar Allen Poe, Saki (H.H. Munro), Conan Doyle and other respected authors whose works are read in schools throughout the world” (Nyberg 2296).

[19] In 1978 a post-Vietnam revisionism was getting started as a way to rehabilitate the traumatic experience of war. The moral high ground of WWII has since been the principle mode of that rehabilitation in popular culture. Examples include Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) and Band of Brothers (HBO, 2001).

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