Swamp Thing

Swamp Thing

Perhaps the answer to this question depends on who is in charge of the character. While many artists have been involved in Swamp Thing story arcs over the decades, I am most familiar with the Alan Moore arc, with art by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben.

In ‘The Anatomy Lesson,’ there is an autopsy performed on the body of Swamp Thing, who is presumed to be dead and whose body has been frozen for study. The autopsy reveals structures inside the chest cavity that resemble anatomically correct human organs. However, although they look like organs, they don’t function like them. The ‘lungs’ inside Swamp Thing don’t actually take oxygen into the body and expel carbon dioxide as they do in mammals, reptiles, and birds.

Anatomy Lesson

Anatomy Lesson

Even without an invasive surgical procedure, though, it is clear that Swamp Thing has a body that is very similar to a male human. He walks upright on two legs; he has two arms, and he has eyes and other facial features that make him seem animal-like. One logical question, then, is how much does Swamp Thing resemble a male? Does Swamp Thing have a penis? If we limit ourselves to a discussion of anatomy, then the answer might be ‘yes.’

Anatomy alone doesn’t answer the question, though. Several issues after the autopsy, we see that Swamp Thing has recovered from cryostasis, and he has established a relationship with Abby. Swamp Thing explains that even though he loves her, he cannot physically make love to her. They manage to have a relationship via other means, and the narrator calls them lovers.

Swamp Thing and Abby

Swamp Thing and Abby

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Swamp Thing doesn’t have a penis, just that it may not function as penises normally do.

Before Alan Moore wrote Swamp Thing stories, though, there was a 1982 Wes Craven movie. This live-action movie involved a man wearing a Swamp Thing suit, which was created by William Munns. On his website, Munns explains how he got the job on Swamp Thing, how he created the suit (it was modeled on Creature from the Black Lagoon), and how decisions were made about its anatomical features:

“I sculpted a body design that included a ‘root’ that was between the legs and had a masculine proportion, sort of like an uncircumsized Cypress knee. […With ] immense regret on the director’s part, he okayed the castration of the sculpture, and we concluded if there would even be a movie called ‘Son of Swamp Thing,’ he’d have to be adopted.”
http://www.billmunnscreaturegallery.com/bmcgsite_065.htm (website accessed on 24 July 2013)

Click here to see the two images of the suit before the ‘castration.’

Several of our posts at Pencil Panel Page have addressed the issues of gender, anatomy, stereotype, and sexism. Most of these, if not all of them, have explored the representation of human anatomy, especially of the costumed superheroes. These posts mention breast size and biceps size, but what of the penis? Are male characters somehow de-humanized if their tights don’t reveal a bulge?

And what of Swamp Thing? Is he human? Is he fauna or flora? And what does that say about representations of the male form, human or otherwise?


About Frank Bramlett

Until June 2014, I am a visiting lecturer in the English Department at Stockholm University, where I offer seminars in Sociolinguistics; Language and Gender; and Language and Comics; among others. For Fall 2014, I will return to the English Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

One response »

  1. roytcook says:

    Wow – so many topics that I worry about in this one post.

    First off, it addresses the central issue of fictional truth – what, exactly, counts as true in a fiction and how we construct this set of fictional truths from the incomplete information that is usually explicitly given by the narrative. From this perspective, it just seems indeterminate – it doesn’t seem reasonable to assume, as we would with other characters, that the Swamp Thing is automatically anatomically similar to normal humans.

    But there are other issues lurking here. Amongst them is the canonical/non-canonical distinctions. Typically, with a comics character like the Swamp Thing, the authorized comics are taken to have precedence over presentations of the ‘same’ character in other media. Thus, even if the movie had portrayed the Swamp Thing as having a penis, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the character in the comics does (although, if there were a complete lack of evidence to the contrary otherwise – which doesn’t seem to be the case here – then presumably the film would count as at least some form of highly defeasible evidence).

    With regard to the masculinity issue – I think there are really complex issues lurking nearby. Of course, there is lots of silliness nearby as well. Stan Lee has weighed in on the issue, in a Vanity Fair interview:

    VF: “Is the Thing’s dork made out of orange rock like the rest of his body?”

    Stan Lee: I never gave it a thought. I guess common sense would say it was made of orange rock too, but I always thought it was more interesting to think about Reed Richards. As you know, he had the ability to stretch, and sexually, that would seem to be a great asset in many areas.

    And dear lord, let’s hope that someday I can forget Codpiece:


    But the thing that I find most interesting, perhaps, is that there seems to be a different standard in comics as opposed to in big screen adaptations of those comics – the comics tend to downplay the male superhero crotch (Codpiece notwithstanding) – often drawing it completely flat and in some sense asexual, while the movies sometimes involve costumes that absolutely emphasize it (see, e.g. Henry Cavill in his Superman suit, or the costumes in the later installments of the Tim Burton Batman films). And of course there was the uproar over Dr. Manhattan’s penis on screen.

    I am not sure what all of this means, but it is a lot to think about. Great post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s