The Other Columbus: What Swamp Thing can teach us about community

Are you part of an actual community or something attempting to approximate one?

Scott Woods
Bernie Wrightson's art made "Swamp Thing" instantly memorable.

I want to talk about something important by spoiling a 37-year-old comic book first.

Swamp Thing is my favorite character in all of comics. An anthropomorphic mass of sentient vegetation, the character began as a human scientist named Alec Holland. Holland was working on a bio-restorative formula with the intent of ending world hunger through the rapid reproduction of vegetables. A couple of henchmen show up to buy the formula, but are spurned by Holland, after which they plant a bomb in the laboratory, blowing up all traces of the work and setting the scientist aflame. Holland runs out of the lab engulfed in fire to a nearby swamp, where his body is consumed by both the formula and the silt, thus creating a new being: Swamp Thing.

Naturally, being the titular protagonist of a comic book, Swamp Thing swiftly proceeds to get involved in several adventures. But Holland’s underlying mission was to find a way to regain his humanity, to reverse the effects of the bio-restorative formula and shed his grotesque form once and for all.

Then things got interesting.

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Twelve years after the first appearance of Swamp Thing, an issue written by Alan Moore came out entitled “The Anatomy Lesson” (volume 2, issue #21). A money-grubbing corporation (is there any other kind?) hunts and kills the Swamp Thing in a hail of bullets, then hires a scientist to perform an autopsy. After much study, the autopsy concludes that the Swamp Thing was not Alec Holland at all, but a creature entirely composed of plant matter: no bones, no muscle, no brain… just plants that looked like bones and muscles and brain.

The swamp, soaking in the bio-restorative formula, attempted to recreate Holland’s body but only managed to create what it approximated a human being would look like. Swamp Thing was never Alec Holland. There was no human form to which it could return. As the comic put it, Swamp Thing was “a plant that thought it was Alec Holland, a plant that was trying its level best to be Alec Holland.” Swamp Thing was a plant that thought it was a man.

I think about that story sometimes when I observe how communities engage systems of power and forces that work against their well being. I note how change agents struggle to find purchase at the tables where political decisions are made, or how activists become consumed with self-immolating criticism; how they cannibalize their organizations in search of the perfect course of action, or settle too readily for the imperfect one so that they can say they were at least in the change game. 

All such acts are ultimately attempts to wrestle with one thing: power. Whether it’s accumulating it, corralling it, preserving it or expanding it, power is the crux of change. It may take any number of forms, but all of those things working in concert are how things get done. If power is money, it greases wheels and allows for freedom of movement. If power is audience, it can attract resources and command attention. And if power is community, it can be these things and more at the same time. 

Community is the greatest power that can be attained. Where real community exists, knowledge and resources can be exchanged. Skills and values can be shared. Funding can be raised within, circulated around and invested in the interests of the community with little to no outside influence. Genuine community — community that knows and lives its values, applies its history on an ongoing basis and respects its members as people rather than a means to an end — can protect itself. And it can do so not because it is armed or dogmatic, but because forces that wish to acquire what such a community offers must engage it on its own terms. A real community builds its infrastructure and institutions in such a way that any negotiation must present an offer that feeds that infrastructure and shores up those institutions, while maintaining its self-reliance. 

The problem so often in Columbus is that we call things communities that have expressed no evidence or interest in existing as such. The leadership of communities are frequently bestowed such titles from outside their constituents. The resources that are negotiated on behalf of communities at large are sequestered in the political and literal coffers of a chosen few. A handful of jobs (or worse, titles) are given where a handful of businesses are needed. Police are slathered in more money as a carrot for reform that never comes and it is labeled an asset to communities. Schools are perennially underfunded, causing generational deterioration of skills and critical thinking in communities. These things don’t happen to all communities; just certain ones. Usually the ones that haven’t prioritized defining, nurturing and sacrificing what it takes to become an actual community, and conversely, a power. All working, real communities have some level of power. It’s one of the ways you know when you don’t have community.

If you cut open the average entity calling itself a community you will likely find an organism that thinks it is a community. It will walk and talk about being a community. It will demand things on behalf of itself. It will breathe in the resources and bandwidth that a community requires to survive. And yet it will not actually be a community. It will not feed and educate its people or operate with transparency or make whatever passes for its leaders accountable for the changes that take place within it. It will be a beast searching for human form, not realizing that the search was always for its humanity.