This week artist Bernie Wrightson, best known as the co-creator (with writer Len Wein) of DC's Swamp Thing, passed away. This prompted me to re-read the first ten issues of the comic, to see if any of those issues had a strong enough symbolic discourse to merit the label of "mythcomic."
I wasn't optimistic in my search. Though Wrightson's masterful draftmanship was evident in every issue, and though the Swamp Thing is one of DC's better-known horror-heroes thanks to his media-exposure, most of the Wein-Wrightson stories are enjoyable "near myths," but not quite complex enough.
Except, happily, the last such collaboration.
In contrast to many of the writer-artist collaborations at DC in the 1970s, I imagine Wrightson exerted considerable influence over what went into the issues. In one old interview. for example, he mentioned that the magazine gave him the chance to draw all or most of his favorite movie-monsters. That said, "The Man Who Would Not Die" is the only story in which Wrightson is credited with the plot. So it may be that, as he was perhaps winding down his association with the series, Wrightson may have tried to do something a little more ambitious than "monster of the month."
Some backstory: in issue #1, we see how scientist Alec Holland becomes transformed into a monstrous swamp-creature, and how he yearns for the chance to reverse the transformation. In issue #2 he gets the chance at a Faustian bargain when he meets another scientist, Anton Arcane. Arcane offers the muck-monster a chance at liberation: using a special device, Arcane can separate the "Swamp Thing body" from that of the man it transformed, by transferring the former to himself, which transformation Arcane welcomes, in order to escape his status as a decrepit old man, doomed to die soon. Swamp Thing accepts and becomes Alec Holland once more. However, he learns that Arcane hopes to use the near-invulnerable plant-body to wreak havoc on innocent people. Thus Alec does the right thing, reversing the transformation and re-assuming his monstrous nature. Arcane dies and Swamp Thing goes on to other adventures. However, Arcane is "the man who would not die"-- or at any rate, one of them.
In the previous issue, Swamp Thing managed to make his way back to the Louisiana swampland where (in this iteration) he was "born." While wandering in the fens, he comes across an escaped convict about to kill an old black woman:
The convict, who goes by the punny name "Hunk" Dorry, squares off against the monster as Swamp Thing comes toward him-- but all is not hunky-dory for Hunk, for he topples over dead, having taken several bullets during his escape. The old woman, not the least bit frightened by the swamp creature, introduces herself with a no less punning name.
Though "Auntie De Luvian" would make a great name for a horror-story hostess, I assume that whoever coined this name was making a veiled reference to the woman's age-- although one has to wonder about said age, since she soon starts relating a story from Louisiana's slavery years, apparently prior to the Civil War, as if she witnessed it all.
Auntie tells Swamp Thing that a great cotton plantation once abided on or near the swamplands, and that even for a slave life there might have been pleasant-- except that the slave-owner, Samson Parminter, was exceptionally sadistic. Parminter seems to have a liking for the European custom of "drawing and quartering:" when a young slave-woman named Elsbeth resists Parminter's overtures, he commands for her to be torn apart. A burly male slave named "Black Jubal." protests, because Elsbeth is his promised bride. A dry caption tells the reader that since Parimnter had already removed one of Jubal's arms long ago, so instead of having him quartered, Jubal meets a fate explicitly compared to that of a Christian martyr.
However, despite being one-armed, Jubal manages to reach his enemy from beyond the grave, for at some later point-- presumably after Elsbeth too has been murdered-- Parminter is "torn limb-from-limb" and his remains scattered throughout the manor. Auntie De Luvian then concludes the story, saying that the slaves "run away" that the plantation fell into ruin, and that she, Auntie, stayed in the swamp because she had nowhere else to go. At that point, she then warns Swamp Thing about the presence of "unholy things."
The "things" happen to be Arcane and his synthetic monsters, his "un-men." It seems that though Arcane's original body did perish, the un-men managed to resurrect him in a synthetic body-- albeit one not very well constructed. Arcane and his servants have tracked the monster-hero to these lands, and the villain still has his same agenda in mind: to take over the Swamp Thing body while expunging the persona of Alec Holland. So they fight--
Then the fight-- which Swamp Thing is losing-- is interrupted by some unquiet spirits. It seems that during the battle Arcane makes several verbal references to making modern humans his "slaves"-- and this is enough to offend the ghosts of the slaves who died in the swamp.
Swamp Thing does not witness what the ghosts do to Arcane and his minions, for Black Jubal himself bids the swamp-monster to fall asleep. When he awakens, he finds that in the graveyard dedicated to the deceased slaves, some new gravestones have been erected for the evildoers. In addition, when the hero goes looking for Auntie, he finds only another gravestone, proving that the woman to whom he spoke was also a ghost-- specifically, that of "Elsbeth de Luvian."
While this can be seen as a fairly traditional horror-story in which the dead come back to avenge past crimes, I find that there's a little more attention to detail than in the average ghost-story. Samson Parimnter of course has no resemblance to the Biblical Samson, though the first name is similar to that of literature's archetypal evil slaver, Simon Legree. Similarly, the Biblical character of Jubal from Genesis bears no resemblance to the hulking, one-armed slave-- but the name sounds not dissimilar from the Hebrew festival of Jubilee in which, Wikipedia relates, "slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and the mercies of God would be particularly manifest."
In conclusion I can't resist observing that an ideological critic would probably be offended by the story's association between a "real-world" evil like American slavery and a "made-up" evil like a mad scientist. However, it's clear to me that even if Arcane is a fantasy-figure, he's a more than accurate analogue to the evil of world conquerors generally-- and thus, the ghosts have ample reason to despise anyone who proclaims a desire to bring back slavery of any kind.
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