When the 1982 Swamp Thing movie was getting underway, costume designer William Munns debated whether to give the plant hero a penis. The dong analogue didn’t wind up happening, which is good. Swamp Thing has never needed a penis to be sexy.
Does a man-shaped manifestation of nature even have genitalia?
For Munns, and producer Wes Craven, the initial answer was a resounding “yes” and he made the bold decision to give the suit a penis-like “root” between its legs that he described as having a “masculine proportion, sort of like an uncircumcised Cypress knee.” Much to Munn and Craven’s shared chagrin, the Swamp Thing suit would later loose its latex manhood, but the idea of the nature-based hero as a sexually active, carnally sensate being would resurface that a few years later when Alan Moore began writing Swamp Thing for DC.
When married chemists Alec and Linda Holland stumble upon a serum that enables them the grow any form of plant life in any terrain, the two are accosted by shady villains seeking to buy the formula from the couple. After the Hollands repeatedly refuse the criminals’ offer, they’re the targets of a coordinated bombing that leaves Linda dead and Alec engulfed in flames that he extinguishes by throwing himself into the nearby swamp. Though Alec ultimately “dies,” his exposure to the serum leads to his consciousness being transferred into the plant life of the swamp itself, giving it the ability to form a facsimile of a human body made up of plants that retains all of Alec’s memories and thought patterns.
Much of Moore’s Swamp Thing run revolved around Alec’s ongoing existential crises that were rooted in the fact that he was no longer himself in the traditional sense, but rather a decentralized consciousness that could coalesce itself into a physical body made of plants. While Alec was still very much himself in an intellectual capacity, his being was now inexorably tied to the Green, the primal amalgam of all the earth’s vegetation, but at the same time, elements of his humanity would resurface and remind him of all that he’d lost because of his transformation.
This internal struggle would come to define Moore’s take on Swamp Thing and shape the way that future writers would handle him. But there is something about Moore’s characterization of Swamp Thing in issue #34 that’s yet to be matched in terms of its raw, spiritual depiction of sexuality.
In Moore’s Rite of Spring, Swamp Thing is confronted by Abby Cable, the wife of Matt Cable, an investigative agent who’d sworn himself to uncovering the truth surrounding the Hollands’ apparent deaths. Together, the Cables spent years hunting Swamp Thing, assuming that he was responsible for killing the Hollands and not realizing that he actually was Alec.
After their relationship gradually deteriorates due to Matt’s abusiveness and subsequent descent into a coma, Abby finds solace, comfort, and love in Swamp Thing, a prospect that takes them both by surprise. After realizing her feelings for Swamp Thing, Abby comes to him in the swamp (naturally) to lay her cards on the table. While Swamp Thing is initially hesitant to admit it, he confesses that he also feels a romantic attraction to her. But he also voices his concern about the fact his being, you know, a literal thing of the swamp meaning that the two of them could never be physically intimate with one another in the way that they both deeply desire.
While Swamp Thing assumes that Abby couldn’t possibly be anything but repulsed by him, she proves him wrong with a passionate kiss.
But the taste of lime, Swamp Thing insists, could never be enough to satisfy a person’s emotional and sexual needs. Though Swamp Thing is able to physically touch Abby, Moore emphasizes that the emotional connection that the Swamp Thing and Abby have is hamstrung by the fact that his “body” is not his true self, but rather an avatar of his dissociated consciousness. Swamp Thing expresses his worries about being able to be sexual with Abby, which she assures him isn’t something that would stop her from loving him.
Still, though, Swamp Thing strongly believes that there should be an intimate “communion” between the two of them to consummate their love, which Abby understands. It’s in this moment that Moore, along with illustrators Steve Bissette, Tatjana Wood, and John Totleben, rise up the height of their creative powers.
After considering it for a moment, Swamp Thing manifests a fruit from his body, plucks it from himself, and offers it for Abby to eat. Confused, Abby accepts it, takes a bite, and slowly begins something strange happening to her perception of the world around her.
As Abby begins to hallucinate, Swamp Thing explains the fruit is not just a fruit but a gateway into the Green itself, giving Abby access to the grander consciousness of all living things. In eating the fruit, Abby gains access to Swamp Thing’s interior being which is, in a way, access to life itself. Together, the two experience the vastness of it all in a way that is both erotic and so much more.
Every blade of grass, buzzing insect, and blooming flower Abby begins to understand, is connected in deep and powerful ways that most humans could never fully grasp. But that connectedness extends beyond the flora and fauna of the swamp. Because she has now (temporarily) tapped into the Green, she’s also linked with Swamp Thing in the most elementary, primal way. Together, Swamp Thing and Abby explore and experience the summation of life in a way that’s unashamedly sexual in its visual manifestation on the page.
As Abby’s perspective shifts, so too does the orientation of Rite of Spring’s panels. Together, Bisette’s lines and Wood’s colors move into a distinctively psychedelic space that convey just how mind-blowing an experience Abby is having as she journeys thought the Green. The expansion of Abby’s mind is something that Moore is able to write brilliantly, but it’s in Bisette and Wood’s illustrations that you can viscerally feel the magnificence of it all.
There is something profound and surprisingly progressive about Rite of Spring’s conceptualization of sex that you seldom see in most parts of pop culture, let alone a comic book about a swamp monster. The way that Swamp Thing and Abby are intimate together is simultaneously tender and wildly ferocious. Their rhythm of their intercourse is set by the all-encompassing, pulsing throb of life and their shared climax comes as they both let go of their discrete selves become part of the earth itself.
Though there is no shortage of phallic and vaginal imager—and near endless visual allusions to all manners of bodily fluids—Rite of Spring never comes close to being vulgar or feeling as if it’s rooted in heteronormativity. Alec Holland/ Swamp Thing and Abby read as a man and woman, but their intimacy and desire read in a way that transcends heterosexuality.
Oftentimes, when we talk about how sex and sexuality are portrayed in comic books, we end up (necessarily) talking about the problematic ideas that creators incorporate into their work that are reflective of their own personal tastes. While those tastes aren’t categorically bad to have, they don’t always translate well onto the page.
In leaning into the psychological aspects of sexual desire in favor of the purely physical, Rite of Spring manages to be a story about sex that is equal parts graphic, erotic, beautiful, and PG-13. Its message about intimacy coming in a variety of forms and experiences is an important one that we don’t hear often enough. Swamp Thing’s ideation on desire, fulfillment, and connectedness resonates now as much as it did back in the 80s, showing that sharing oneself completely can be a superpower anyone can tap into.