There’s a new big green on the DC landscape, introduced in Ram V and Mike Perkin’s The Swamp Thing run. Levi Kamei, our protagonist, is dealing with crises on multiple fronts – the death of his estranged father, latent feelings with a love interest, disillusionment with their former employer, and learning to deal with what they are “becoming”. Throughout the story, Levi will discover what it means to take on the mantle of Swamp Thing. Meanwhile, there is a mysterious antagonist stirring things up in the Sonoran Desert, classic Swamp Thing villains setting their machinations in progress, and some fascinating world-building that would upend the swampy landscape of this fantastical character. In this article, I look at the ideas and themes in this story and critique it from the perspective of authentic and respectful representation of diverse characters.
People as ideas
Ram propounds that characters are representatives of ideas. On one end, we have the creation myth of our antagonist. This is introduced as an urban legend of a man who had experienced enough war, took up laborious work, and eventually settled in smaller towns. Life for the person gets harder and harder with further economic and emotional depression until the person stops engaging with society. Instead, he embraced the desert, signaling that the harshness they experienced forced them to prefer detachment from humans and humanity. As legend has it, he subsisted on crude oil from deserted mines, and this is where the art starts to show the transformation into a monster. In the words of the antagonist himself, “I am a desert who dreamed of being a man”. Another character describes it as a man that shunned society to find “quietus”. The desert represents harshness and disaffection, as deserts have been the stage for ruthless greed, be it during the gold rush or the hunt for crude oil. In fact, the sightings of the pale wanderer are all listed out; the Jacks near Yuma, Mines in Gila, casinos in Mazatzal, and the pits of Black Mesa. Each time, this monster gets bigger and more ruthless. Thus, our antagonist represents greed, industrialization, and imperialism. They are both the perpetrators and victims of the dehumanization of these ideas.
In our irresolute protagonist, Levi Kamei, we see an Indian man full of internal conflict. We meet him when he is on a flight, dreading it, but not because he has aerophobia. He was a young teen when he sat on a flight to move abroad with a scholarship, alone and afraid, all flights since resurfacing the same feelings for him. I can relate to this since I too was an Indian in my early twenties, traveling by flight for the first time, traveling abroad for the first time. I remember feeling cold and nervous and the claustrophobic feeling of being in a new place all by myself. As soon as the seatbelt sign turned off, I went to the restroom to take a minute to ground myself and breathe. So, the scene where Levi talks about that feeling and rushes off into the restroom resonated strongly with me. As the story progresses, we learn that Levi had a complicated relationship with his father; he wanted to show his father his achievements in foreign lands and hoped that he would be proud of him (like we all do). His father wanted him to understand his roots. The push and pull of this led to a strained relationship there. The story also hints at Levi trying to go back and make amends as he visits his native place while working on a project for their employer. The project goes horribly wrong, and I’d bet all my storytelling trope coins that this employer and the project were both sinister. Levi represents the idea of the immigrant.
Worthy ideas are eternal, but can transform. How does the idea of our antagonist manifest itself? The legend says that he is sighted “Always when there’s new folk coming through the desert. His desert”, referring to him as the “Pale Wanderer”. Their experiences have led him to dig his heels in and hunt anyone he believes to be encroaching on his territory.
Levi is thrust suddenly with the experience of becoming the Swamp Thing. Thus both the antagonist as the Pale Wanderer, and the protagonist as the Swamp Thing, undergo a literal and ideological transformation, on the pages of your comic book. The Pale Wanderer recognizes the Swamp Thing as an idea similar to itself, and helps Levi familiarize himself with what he is. In his own words, an idea can only be killed if consumed by another idea (perspective of the Pale Wanderer, coming across a stranger in his desert). He also tells him that if he, as an idea, is worthy, he will come back and be eternal.
With this setup of these two ideas, it naturally leads to opposition. The “Pale Wanderer” comes to represent the idea of those that oppose the idea of the immigrant. Levi makes a choice – he stops following the Pale Wanderer, who was showing him the ropes and instead tries to thwart his attempts at harming another human. This act of defiance manifests itself in the form of the Swamp Thing creating a giant banyan tree in the middle of the desert. Within the context of the story, it is shocking to see a giant, incongruous tree in the middle of the desert. It is the first act from Levi as the Swamp Thing, asserting his position and accepting his identity (as The Swamp Thing). The banyan tree is the national tree of India and commonly appears in many folk tales and traditions. This is the immigrant, defying dehumanization and bringing his culture to the new land. In the scenes following this, Levi is no longer a meek, conflicted person. The subtext I got from this was that Levi is haunted by his past and seeks his father’s forgiveness and acceptance, and feels he wronged his people. This is exacerbated by the newness of coming to terms with him being The Swamp Thing. But post the Banyan Tree incident, Levi rediscovers his emotional core, his roots. I know exactly how Levi feels, how it can feel guilty being an immigrant at times, and how it can be very isolating and confusing. Just like Levi, I, and all immigrants I have known, need reaffirming in the form of food, music, entertainment, or festivals from their native lands. Seeing it conveyed in comic form feels comforting.
Representation done right
There is a lot to be excited about this Swamp Thing run, but for me, this is the only time I have seen an Indian character represented well. For starters, Swamp Thing is a mantle, a champion chosen by The Green, so in theory, anybody can be Swamp Thing. Levi Kamei is not your typical Indian stereotype in pop culture. He does not have a common name nor an identity that an Indian can spot as absurd (Looking at you Rajesh Ramayan(?) Koothrapalli). His identity as an Indian is not a central character of its own. No inconsequential and unnecessary stereotypes are brought up (he doesn’t make “naan bread” and chai for breakfast, for example). I am also grateful that we suddenly did not make this Swamp Thing’s origin be related to eastern mysticism and conjure up some nonsense about yoga or “chakra” or something. (I am side-eyeing Pavitr Prabhakar, Spider-Man India, because I am done rolling my eyes at it). Viewing the east purely from a mystical perspective is antiquated, if not alienating. Having Levi be a man of science keeps things fresh and realistic. Another laudable aspect is that any allusions to their identity, such as The Banyan Tree, are handled gently. The creators keep Levi’s identity grounded, stay away from stereotypes, and instead focus on the lived-in experience of the character.