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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, December 28, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "RITE OF SPRING" (SWAMP THING #34, 1985)

When holiday-seasons roll around, I sometimes give thought to the idea of organizing these essays on a holiday theme. However, it's not often that comics-makers have succeeded in coming up with symbolic discourses about seasonal events. One exception, perhaps more appropriate for Easter than for the current season, is the Moore-Bissette "Rite of Spring." Indeed, the magazine, released in March 1985, may be the only example of a 'springtime comic book." If there are others, this is still probably the best.



I used "Rite" earlier in the essay LEAD US NOW INTO TRANSGRESSION as an example of  a sexual activity free of any aspect of physical violence, summing up the action thusly:

SWAMP THING #34's story "Rites of Spring" (Moore/Bissette/Totelbein) features about the most non-violent sexual encounter one can imagine, since the sex act is abstracted into an interweaving of minds rather than bodies. The narrative concept is that because Swamp Thing doesn't have a penis, he uses one of the hallucinogenic fruits growing on his vegetable body to give his human love Abby an ecstatic ride into his enhanced consciousness. Thus the mind-sex scenes in ST #34 bear kinship with those Hollywood sex-scenes which depict the literal sex-act as a flurry of abstract movements, with lots of touching but no hint of one body actually entering another body. I imagine that a simplistic Freudian would read the significant value of this story as an instance of "castration anxiety." But since the sex-scene takes place in a story that hypothesizes that all living things possess energy-fields to which Swamp Thing and Abby are both attuned, it's more accurate to the narrative to see "Rites of Spring" as a celebration of Jungian energy/libido in all things. In addition, to the extent that Swampy does "put" his consciousness "into" Abby, he doesn't function as a castrated male in narrative or significant valuations.
The "mind-sex scenes" in "Rite" would be enough to make it a mythcomic, but it also belongs to a much more prevalent myth-image, that of "the woman and her demon/monster lover." Prior to this issue, the characters of Matt Cable and Abigail Arcane, who functioned as support-cast for many of the early Wein-Wrightson stories, had been married for some time. However, the marriage was on the rocks even before Abby's evil uncle Anton possessed Matt's body and used it to have indirect sex with his niece, before he was defeated by both the swamp monster and Cable herself.



Prior to Alan Moore's tenure on the feature, I don't believe other writers had even entertained the notion that Abby Arcane could entertain any feelings for Swamp Thing beyond a certain distanced respect. But Moore was in those days the guy who went the extra distance.


To be sure, though Matt Cable's body is still alive, there's not much chance of his recovery. and it's clear that, in keeping with the changing of winter to spring in the story proper, Abby's feelings have also undergone a seasonal shift, so that she's fallen in love with the monster. In turn, Moore reveals that Swamp Thing, even though he no longer thinks himself to be a human transformed into a plant-creature, has been in love with Abby for a long time. Since the two of them can't have sex, Swamp Thing suggests a communion of spirits, which can be obtained when Abby eats one of the tubers growing on the plant-man's body.



Abby then gets to see that the world of animal life and death is suffused with interweaving energy-fields, merging the cosmological world of life-processes with the metaphysical world of spirit.



This "good trip" lasts for eight pages, most of which must be read vertically rather than horizontally, which is one of the few truly artful uses a comics-artist has made of said arrangement. The trip then culminates in a figurative orgasm, an experience beyond words.


In contrast to the many interactions of woman and monster that are predicated on violation-- not least that of the vampiric intruder-- Moore and Bissette are clearly seeking to break down the barriers between the human world and the world of "the other," at least insofar as it makes for a better story. This storyline led to other developments, such as a hybrid spawn from Abby and Swamp Thing, but the narrative of issue #34 never feels like a set-up for future events, and can be read with only minimal acquaintance of preceding continuity. To my knowledge Bissette's designs here constitute one of his highest achievements, while Moore-- whose command of poetic elements in his prose hasn't always proved sure-- never hits a false note with his visual accompaniments. Even when Abby sees visions of rodents fucking and fighting in their holes, Moore's images of "small hearts spilling poppies of blood on  black earth scented with urine" causes even the images of violence to become subsumed by those of sex.

I'll add that the subsumption of violence applies to the story as a whole, for though the tale follows the violent encounter with Abby's uncle, here there is no villain to be defeated, no cataclysm to be averted. Of course even 1985 readers knew that this was an idyll at best, that by the next issue Swamp Thing would again be battling gruesome entities. Still, like the story I discussed in THE BASE LEVEL OF CONFLICT,  this one is more about overturning expectations than about fighting opponents. In an addendum to the original essay on said story, I fleshed out my original view:

I still assert that the predominant appeal of "The Last Night of the World" is its defiance of audience-expectations re: the equanimity with which the viewpoint-characters-- and implicitly, all other people in the world except the children-- meet the world's irrevocable end. But this conflict arises from the combination of a dire situation with reactions which do not seem to fit that situation...
"Rite of Spring" is, like the Bradbury story previously discussed, devoted to presenting an ordinary person, in this case, Abby, and presenting her with new insight into the familiar world she knows, thus transforming her perceptions. If there is a conflict, it's one appropriate to the theme of springtime, in which the old expectations of winter gives way to the rebirth of vernal possibilities.

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