Giants With Leaking Boats For Feet (The Last War in Albion Part 70: The Garden of Earthly Delights, The Third Death of Swamp Thing)

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This is the twentienth of twenty-two parts of Chapter Eight of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing. An omnibus of all twenty-two parts can be purchased at Smashwords. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in six volumes. This entry covers stories from the fifth volume. This volume is available in the US here and the UK here, as well as being obtainable at your local bookstore or comic shop. Finding the other volumes are, for now, left as an exercise for the reader, although I will update these links as the narrative gets to those issues.

Previously in The Last War in AlbionAs a coda to his extended arc about the apocalypse, Moore penned a tale in which Swamp Thing lays siege to Gotham City, causing vegetation to grow wild over the city. The final issue of this story, "The Garden of Earthly Delights," was named after a Hieronymous Bosch painting.

"[Anarchy has] become a kind of shorthand standing for the breakdown of society and order into screaming chaos; into a Hieronymus Bosch landscape populated by looters, berserkers, giants with leaking boats for feet and eggshells for a body." -Alan Moore, "Fear of a Black Flag"

Figure 527: Hieronymus Bosch's triptych The Garden
of Earthly Delights
, closed.
This ambivalence is reflected in the title of this last issue, The Garden of Earthly Delights, which is drawn from a triptych painted in the late 15th/early 16th century by Hieronymus Bosch. The painting consists of three distinct panels, following the general convention of the form in that era and moving from a depiction of the Garden of Eden in the leftmost panel and the Last Judgment in the right. The first panel depicts God presenting Eve to Adam, which flows smoothly into the largest panel, the center one, continuing the skyline across the gap so as to give a sense of this image emerging directly from the first one. This center panel depicts the titular garden as a scene of vast, libidinous excess. Nude figures embrace within a transparent globe that is itself the fruit of a plant, birds the size of people frolic in the stream, vast phallic and yonnic towers emerge out of the lake, there are men with heads of fruit, and men riding fantastic beasts, all spilling out across the panel in an overwhelming, breathtaking spectacle of man and nature in seeming harmony. Finally there is the rightmost panel, which breaks from the flow of the skyline, depicting a night scene in hell in which people are inventively and grotesquely tortured. The overall message, at least initially, appears to be an anti-materialist one that considers the earthly delights of the central garden but that ultimately concludes that these delights, which stem out of the original temptation of the flesh in the Garden of Eden, lead only to demonic ruin.

Figure 528: Eve's seductive pose in the left panel of The
Garden of Earthly Delights
.
And yet the entire physical object that is The Garden of Earthly Delights cuts visibly against this interpretation. The actual physical triptych is a physically massive thing, more than seven feet tall and nearly thirteen feet wide, painted on a trio of solid oak panels that are hinged so that the left and right panel can close over the center panel, revealing a fourth image on the outer doors. The triptych itself is the size of one hundred and ninety-five comic book covers, such that one could spread every page of every issue of Swamp Thing that Moore wrote from “Loose Ends” through the end of the Etrigan arc over it and still have room for half of “The Burial.” And, of course, the entire visual pleasure of the piece is based on its sense of sprawling excess - on the incredible sense of detail and intricacy that the piece presents. Whatever Bosch’s intended meaning, a topic with centuries of criticism asserting motivatins ranging from political allegories about the gardens at the Palace of Coudenberg, to detailed symbolic readings based on Bosch’s supposed membership in heretical and occult sects, to prosaic readings that treat it as a wholly straightforward and direct piece of medieval religious art, the material object that is The Garden of Earthly Delights stubbornly insists on a pleasure of seductive and overwhelming wonder.

Figure 529: People cavort lasciviously in the middle panel
of The Garden of Earthly Delights.
This view of the piece is further reinforced by its exterior painting, a depiction of the Earth during its creation, specifically on the third day, after the creation of vegetation. The world exists as a vast and empty place, painted in a monochromatic grey-green that blends rock and plant together to where it is impossible to tell where one starts and the other leaves off. Encased within its crystalline globe, the world is silent. But in the upper left of the image sits God, overseeing the world’s creation. But within this image God is dwarfed by his creation, barely the size of a single tree or rock within it. It is the vacant earth and the beginnings of teeming life that grow within it that dominate the scene, even before man is placed within it in the first panel. This sense of a vast and teeming planet is present even in the first panel, where Adam and Eve are surrounded by wondrous beasts, birds wind their way through an ornately carved rock formation, and out of the waters of Eden rises an extravagant fountain with clear resemblance to the phallic towers of the second panel. And even in Eden, sex and death are present - throughout the panel the beasts feed upon each other’s flesh, and Eve’s posture as she is presented to Adam, thrusting chest and hips forward as she kneels before him, speaks volumes. 

Figure 530: One of the many bizarre sights in the rightmost
panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Given the sense of vastness given to the earth and the life within it, the second panel of humanity and nature cavorting in harmony seems almost wholly inevitable. Indeed, it seems like the natural moral conclusion to what appears in the previous two images. The lushness of the material world is presented as being so vast as to exceed the scope of its creator. If this is so, what possible purpose could humanity have beyond surrendering their bodies to the world. In this reading, the final panel is not a consequence of the center panel, but an alternative - a fact highlighted by the breaking of the skyline that stretches over the first two panels. It is telling, after all, that the people being tormented in hell appear to be engaged in material pursuits: they are gamblers and musicians, and the nightmarish visions within hell come not from the natural world, but from human creation: knives, chamberpots, and musical instruments. It is only in hell that there is any depiction of civilization - a smoldering city that stretches out into the background, in marked contrast to the twisting towers of the Garden, which seem, like the transparent globes of fruit and the animal carapaces in which people burrow, to be as much products of nature as of man. 

From this perspective, then, The Garden of Earthly Delights becomes a work not so much about rejecting materialism as it is about rejecting the trappings of human society in favor of the vast world of nature. It is, in other words, a piece that very closely parallels the plot of Moore’s own Gotham triptych, in which it is ultimately the assumed social order of Gotham that is rejected by Swamp Thing, in favor of a world in which humanity’s dominion over the world is rejected in favor of giving themselves over completely to the limitless pleasures the world offers. The “green hell” that Commissioner Gordon sees within this world is not just due to the its potential for savagery, but because, as in Bosch, it is the existence of the Garden of Earthly Delights that allows for all of the laws and systems of man to be rejected and thrown out into hell. (Were one feeling ambitious, one might even describe this as “a different light” being cast upon the relationship between good and evil.) As Moore summarized the point of the story in a later interview, “even though mankind can cover nature and smother the wilderness with a layer of concrete and cement, even though mankind can erect huge, powerful, and impressive-looking buildings, that underneath our feet, underneath the buried pipes and the buried cables, nature is still there. The wilderness is still there. And though man might boast of having conquered nature, that’s not the case, for if nature were to shrug or to merely raise its eyebrow, then we should all be gone.” The human systems of the world that populate and, perhaps more importantly, shape Bosch’s hell are, in the end, mere parasites sucking upon the unfathomable vastness of nature. 

Figure 531: Further emphasizing the
parallels between Swamp Thing's attack
on Gotham and Woodrue's attack on
Lacroix, Swamp Thing encounters Woodrue
on his way into Gotham. (Written by Alan
Moore, art by Rick Veitch and Alfredo Alcala,
from Swamp Thing #52, 1986)
But in all of this, there is still an edge of cruelty - a sense that there is something wrong with Swamp Thing’s ascendency. Perhaps it is merely the incoherent protests of civilized humans unwilling to face the truth that Swamp Thing reveals to be self evident, but it is also worth noting that Swamp Thing’s siege of Gotham mirrors the Floronic Man’s scheme in Moore’s first Swamp Thing arc. Where Woodrue took control of the plants of the world in order to destroy humanity, Swamp Thing does so to dictate the terms of a new equilibrium with humanity, thus tacitly answering his challenge to Woodrue at the end of Saga of the Swamp Thing #24. And like “Roots,” this is witnessed by a traditional superhero who is nevertheless powerless to stop it - in this case Batman, ironically the one major DC hero not present in the previous iteration. Nevertheless, there is a moral critique to be had here, and it is one that Moore threads throughout the story: the fact that he succumbed to the anger that is power’s temptation and in doing so betrayed the way of the wood. It is, in the end, the same crime committed by Woodrue - that of using power to accomplish your ends. 

Figure 532: Swamp Thing dies. Again.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by John
Totleben, from Swamp Thing #53, 1986)
And so having transgressed, Swamp Thing is thusly punished; all of this plays out over the backdrop of Dwight Wicker, last seen all the way back in Moore’s first issue, and originating all the way back in the Pasko run, showing up in Gotham pursuing Swamp Thing for the murder of General Sunderland all the way back in “The Anatomy Lesson.” Wicker hires Lex Luthor to find a way to kill Swamp Thing, which he accomplishes by creating a device that will disrupt Swamp Thing’s ability to tune into the world’s vegetation, removing his ability to exit his body in the event of an attack. Utilizing a combination of this device and an abundance of napalm, Wicker assassinates Swamp Thing as he reunites with Abby outside the courthouse, having finally withdrawn from inhabiting the city itself and into a single, destroyable body. 

By this point, of course, this has gotten to be something of a habit for Moore, a fact that highlights an important structural aspect of his run on Swamp Thing, which is that story elements recur. The Floronic Man’s attack on Lacroix is reiterated as Swamp Thing’s siege of Gotham, the parallel trips of “Windfall” repeat as “The Parliament of Trees” and “A Murder of Crows,” the apocalypse brought on by the Brujería. And, of course, this is now the third time that Moore has killed Swamp Thing. By this point the death of the lead character is recognizable not so much as a significant problem to the narrative as it is a transitional point. Swamp Thing’s first death in “Loose Ends” and “The Anatomy Lesson” served as the transition away from Pasko’s attempt to mimic the Wein/Wrightson stories of old and towards Moore’s psychedelia-tinged ecological horror. His second over the course of “The Nukeface Papers” and “Growth Patterns” marks the transition towards a much more expansive sense of what Swamp Thing’s powers are that move him away from just being a bipedal vegetable and towards his role as a functional deity. And so any savvy reader would, upon seeing Swamp Thing’s third death, assume that this marked yet another transitional point in Moore’s story.

Figure 533: Liz Tremayne, broken down
from Dennis's extensive psychological abuse.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Rick Veitch
and Alfredo Alcala, from Swamp Thing #54, 1986)
All the same, it would take two issues from the point where Swamp Thing dies to his next appearance, including the entirety of Swamp Thing #54, “The Flowers of Romance.” This issue reintroduces Liz Tremayne, a supporting character for much of Pasko’s run unseen since “Loose Ends” three years earlier. Liz has seemingly had a rough time of it, being psychologically abused by Dennis (a plot point set up all the way back in “Loose Ends”), who has convinced her that Sunderland is still hunting them and that everything poses a massive and terrible danger - so much so that at the start of the issue she spends forty minutes “sick with indecision” trying to decide if it is safe to plug in a television set while wearing rubber gloves and oven mitts to protect herself from electrocution, and only doing so because she is desperate for human contact after Dennis goes out for three days. Moore lingers on these scenes, allowing them to play out with a considerable and visceral horror that is unsettling in ways little else in Moore’s run, and certainly little else in horror comics is. In many ways the scenes, even though they do not actually contain any direct sexual violence, fall into the larger pattern of Moore’s depiction of rape, but there’s an edge and anger to them that goes beyond even that, finally paying off the myriad of depictions of abusive relationships Moore had been depicting in Swamp Thing since the beginning, including Abby and Matt’s. Moore had been building to this story for years, having talked as early as 1984 about it in response to a question about drawing on real-world, contemporary aspects of society to craft horror stories. “I’d tell you a contemporary horror story,” Moore replies, “but I’m going to use it as the Liz and Dennis storyline, and I don’t want to give too much away. However, it’s something that really happened to a cousin of mine. It’s about the destruction of one human being’s whole personality by another. That’s an example of human evil that, to me, is more frightening than any number of demons from hell.” 

Figure 534: Swamp Thing's face
in implication. (Written by Alan
Moore, art by Rick Veitch and
Alfredo Alcala, from Swamp Thing
#54, 1986)
Liz’s tentative steps towards independence in Dennis’s absence lead her to discover that Dennis had lied to her about Abby and Swamp Thing’s death, and causes her to seek out Abby, who has returned to Houma following Swamp Thing’s death. She is pursued, however, by Dennis, who ultimately chases Liz and Abby out into the swamp with a machine gun. Liz ultimately works her way around a flower-covered bog, which Dennis foolishly runs into, sinking underwater and water logging his gun. As he advances upon them, boasting about how he “waded through puddles wider than this in ‘Nam” and telling Abby that she “spoiled a beautiful romance, bitch, and I’m gonna club your brains right out.” But as he gloats a crocodile advances out of the swamp towards him, and ultimately he’s ripped apart by the animals, saving Liz and Abby. What is really significant, however, is the panel in which the crocodile makes its appearance, slowly emerging amidst the flowers, which spread across his snout so as to frame his red eyes and nose into a mirror of Swamp Thing’s iconic visage, thus tacitly admitting that Swamp Thing remains alive.

This is confirmed in the next issue, which focuses primarily on Abby’s attendance of a memorial service for Swamp Thing, and in which she comes to terms with her loss. At the end of the service a man comes up to her introducing himself as Boston Brand and explaining that he’s “checked out all the places he might have ended up,” and saying that as far as he can tell, Swamp Thing isn’t in any afterlife. The issue ends four pages of page-tall narrow panels zooming out from Abby leaving a rose upon Swamp Thing’s memorial, out to the city streets, and then the planet, and finally across the cosmos. As the captions narrate Abby’s final acceptance of her lover’s death, in which she misunderstands the words Deadman said to her. “Maybe a wino’s delusion is the best thing I have to cling to right now,” she thinks. “Perhaps when we die, there’s another world somewhere. Perhaps there’s a heaven so big it has room for someone like you. I hope so. I hope you’re there now. Goodbye, my love. Goodbye.” [continued]

Comments

Ice 2 years, 9 months ago

I forget now, did you cover Lex Luthor's cameo much before or is this his first mention? As far as I've read, that's a pretty important scene as it's the an early example (or the earliest example) and 'trope namer' for the "Cut Lex Luthor A Check" trope. All of these various mad scientists and evil doers could have so much more success if they just pointed their evil genius in a different direction.

In this case, Luthor gets a check for millions of dollars for ten minutes of consulting work on how to kill the seemingly unkillable Swamp Thing.

This seems like a really good example of how influential Moore can be, while seemingly writing casual re imaginings of some of these old characters.

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Aylwin 2 years, 9 months ago

Trope namer it may be, but it's a rubbish example. Consultancy work on how to kill a superhero is hardly a serious break from the supervillain business model.

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Ice 2 years, 9 months ago

I think I'd disagree with you. Based on my (admittedly limited) knowledge of Silver Age Lex Luthor, this is a good example of the success he could have had but didn't, because he spent all of his time trying to kill Superman instead of successfully being a totally evil dude.

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Ice 2 years, 9 months ago

*Trying and failing to kill Superman, I mean to say.

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C. 2 years, 9 months ago

the start of one of my favorite stretches of Moore's "Swamp Thing." The Liz/Dennis story is true "domestic" horror, with far more resonance than the zombies and werewolves of the strained American Gothic stories. "Flowers of Romance" is taken either/both from a UK punk band whose members included Sid Vicious & Viv Albertine, and a PiL album from '81

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Sean Daugherty 2 years, 9 months ago

It's not actually clear if this *is* the Silver Age Lex Luthor, though. Swamp Thing #52 came out the same month as "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?", and based on Luthor's portrayal herein, a number of people have suggested that it's actually the post-John Byrne, mogul version of Luthor. Even if not, it's certainly more in keeping with that depiction than the classic Silver Age mad scientist portrayal.

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Daibhid C 2 years, 9 months ago

Confusion over which version of DC continuity we're in, and the number 52? The portents are clear...

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Daru 2 years, 6 months ago

"The Garden of Earthly Delights becomes a work not so much about rejecting materialism as it is about rejecting the trappings of human society in favor of the vast world of nature."

Yes.

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