Since getting into comics about two years ago, I have been wanting to read through some of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run from the 1980s. After reading Qiana J. Whitted’s essay, “Of Slaves and Other Swamp Things: Black Southern History as Comic Book Horror,” I knew it was time for me to finally grab a few issues and read them. So, I started with volume #3 which collects issues #35-#42. I chose this volume because issues #41-#42 take place in South Louisiana, and they focus on the past and the present colliding as a television crew films an “historical” antebellum series on a decaying plantation.
Over the next couple of posts, I want to look at these issues and the Gothic elements that appear within them. In his introductary note to volume 3, artist Stephen R. Bissette points out that issues #37-#42 constitute an “American Gothic” arc that explores various issues in the nation, and the concluding two issues directly address the vestiges of racism and slavery on America. Writing in 2010, Bissette comments on the issues I will discuss: “The plantation setting and gothic scenario Alan [Moore] created for our two-part story were fueled as much by the fresh memory of those cinematic extremes [Blaxploitatian films] as by the shameful American history behind them.” This is an aspect of “Southern Change” and “Strange Fruit” that I will tackle in the next post.
For now, I want to center on the ways that Moore and Bissette show the ways that past continues to invade the present. As Bissette continues, he mentions that he wishes the two issues would appear dated today; however, “[g]iven the blatantly racist rhetoric openly broadcast today as we move into the second year in office for the first African-American president elected, these two chapter of ‘American Gothic’ are unfortunately as timely as ever.” I would argue, as well, that even now in 2018 they are still extremely timely.
Part of the Gothic impulse, as Eric Savoy notes, is “the imperative to repetition, the return of the unsuccessfully repressed.” While rehearsing the television script, a series of eight panels appear where we see Richard Deal, a white, liberal actor who plays the slave-holding plantation owner on the television series transforms into Wesley Jackson, the real-life owner of the plantation where Deal is shooting the series. Initially we see Deal in contemporary dress holding a script, and the next panel shows Deal in antebellum dress holding a whip. Entrapped in the past, Deal begins to apparently whip Billy Carlton, the Black actor who plays a slave in the series. When he comes out of the trance, the director praises Deal for his performance because he does not know how the past inhabited Deal, and Deal apologizes to Carlton for whipping him, but Carlton tells him that he didn’t do it. Deal’s actions occur in his head as the “unsuccessfully repressed” rises to the surface in his head.
This scene, and others like it in the story arc where the actors and the real-life inhabitants of Robertaland become one, remind me of the Gothic impulses in Ernest Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman where the past and the present collide in Tee Bob Samsom. Hoping to have a relationship with the mixed-race Mary Agnes Lefarbre, the white Tee Bob begins by trying to woo her; however, after his friend Jimmy Caya tells him to just take her because that is what the “rules” say, Tee Bob finds himself striking Mary Agnes. When he strikes her, “The past and the present got all mixed up. . . . She was the past now. She was grandma now, and he was the Creole gentleman. She was Verda now, and he was Robert.” Tee Bob’s actions initiate an uncanny encounter where the repressed past becomes evident in the present.
Tee Bob sees other instances of the same formulation from his own past. He becomes his grandfather as he forces himself on an unnamed woman, and he becomes his father as Mary Agnes becomes Verda, the woman that Robert Samson takes because the “rules” say that he can. The past rises to the surface at this moment, and Tee Bob begins to realize the pull that that past has on him and those around him. As such, he decides to kill himself amidst the past in the Samson library, and he chooses to do it with the letter opener that his grandfather used in the Louisiana legislature to create the “rules” that said he could possess Mary Agnes.
While Deal’s uncanny encounter in Swamp Thing is different from Tee Bob’s, they both bring the past and the present together in a manner that draws and comments upon the ways that the past, no matter how much we say it doesn’t, continues to influence the present. Eventually, Deal, Carlton, and other other actors become individuals from the past, reenacting the lynching of William. As those who lived on the plantation rise from their graves and approach the house during the “Zombie walk,” one of the zombies approaching the house provides a monologue on the past and present colliding. He says,
You are back. . . in the place. . . of pain, Wesley Jackson. . . We are all . . . back in the place of pain. . . because the pain. . . cannot be buried. . . and forgotten. . . The pain. . . cannot remain in the past. . . or hidden beneath the soil. . . That which is buried. . . is not gone. That which is planted. . . will grow. . . There is a weed. . . that thrives upon neglect, and flourishes in darkness. . . Untended, it becomes a tree of night. . . and its boughs sag. . . beneath the unbearable weight. . . of what is has brought forth.
In response, Jackson (Deal) asks what the living dead want, to which the zombie replies, “We want our freedom.” If the freedom is not granted, then the pain and suffering of these events will repeat forever.
In order to eradicate the roots of the painful past, it must be burned and cleansed. If not, it will flourish until it sags “beneath the unbearable weight” it produces until it explodes itself leading to human destruction as it does with Tee Bob Samson. Swamp Thing tells Jackson, “You must break. . . this terrible cycle. The pattern. . . you laid down. . . so long ago. . . has grown into a maze that traps the living.” At this, Jackson shoots Swamp Thing, and he falls into fire, thus becoming engulfed in flames.
Rising, Swamp Thing starts towards Robertaland, proclaiming to himself, “If the bad tree. . . is to be destroyed. . . you must not bury its fruit. . . you must burn out the roots.” He sets the plantation on fire and burns it to the ground, this severing the physical link between the past and the present. The destruction of Robertaland makes me think, again, of all of the symbolic spaces that still maintain vestiges of the past fruit buried underneath: monuments, plantation homes, textbooks, etc. These are things I have written about before, and I do not want to rehash those discussions here.
While the physical space of the plantation falls, the psychological space remains. This is the aspect of Swamp Thing #41-#42 that I want to continue with tomorrow as I look at the cultural productions that the issues confront. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.