Some Incomprehensible Biological Process (The Last War in Albion Part 69: The Greening of Gotham)

(6 comments)

If you were expecting comics reviews today, they went up last night.

This is the nineteenth 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 AlbionAlan Moore's apocalypse in Swamp Thing was a strangely muted affair, not so much ending the world, or even substantially altering it, as engaging in a semi-graceful climbdown from the eschatological rush.

"I feel that I have become an essential part of some incomprehensible biological process. The house is an organism hungry for madness. It is the maze that dreams." - Grant Morrison, Arkham Asylum

It is not fair, however, to frame this as a failing on Moore’s part. For all that he was rapidly becoming the golden boy of DC Comics, Moore was never going to be allowed to fundamentally and irrevocably alter the nature of the DC Universe, and he was certainly not naive enough to think otherwise. He had, after all, by this point, already had his plans for a story called Who Killed the Peacemaker? This story would provide sweeping and transformative take on some obscure superheroes that DC acquired when it bought out the failing Charlton Comics in 1983, vetoed by DC on the grounds that it would render the characters unusable, resulting in the proposal being reworked as Watchmen with original characters that could be cordoned off from DC continuity, with the first issue coming out the month after Swamp Thing #50. The idea that he was going to get away with destroying heaven and letting the primordial darkness reign once more was unlikely to have seriously crossed his mind.

Figure 518: Swamp Thing #51 marked
a change of direction for the series,
with Swamp Thing seeking to rescue
Abby from prison.
Indeed, his next story arc, a three-issue tale that brings Swamp Thing into conflict with Batman, is largely about reiterating this precise point. It is easy and tempting to draw a dividing line between Swamp Thing #50 and the story that commences with Swamp Thing #51. DC does exactly that in the collected editions of Moore’s Swamp Thing, ending the fourth volume, A Murder of Crows, with issue #50, and commencing the fifth, Earth to Earth, with #51. And there is a marked shift in tone between the apocalyptic battle on the shores of hell itself that takes place in issue #50 and the much smaller scale story of Swamp Thing attempting to rescue an imprisoned Abby that follows it. But the two stories are considerably more enmeshed than they appeared. In many ways, it makes more sense to look at the entire run from “Growth Patterns” back in Swamp Thing #37 to “The Garden of Earthly Delights” in Swamp Thing #53 as a single seventeen-issue arc that runs from the return of Swamp Thing following the second time Moore killed him to the character’s third death under Moore.

Figure 519: Swamp Thing discovers
what could possibly anger him now.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Rick
Veitch and Alfredo Alcala, from Swamp
Thing
 #51, 1986)
In this reading, the turning point in the arc is the transition from the “American Gothic” storyline to the apocalyptic one, with the three-issue Batman story serving as a thematic reprise of the apocalypse. Certainly the Batman story overtly responds to the apocalypse plot, with Swamp Thing laying siege to Gotham City after discovering that Abby has been arrested there. Swamp Thing’s anger is framed as a rage in which he loses sight of the council from the Parliament of Trees that he just employed to save the entirety of creation. As he discovers what’s happened to Abby, the captions repeat the Parliament’s advice: “Power is not the thing. To be calm within oneself, that is the way of the wood. Power tempts anger, and anger is like wildfire. Avoid it,” the caption says, as the Swamp Thing howls with rage. “Out in the swamp,” the narration continues, “the monster raged and trampled, and roared his lover’s name, and promised war,” having just a few pages earlier mused to John Constantine that “the war is over. I am home at last. What could possibly anger me now?” And so Swamp Thing’s attack on Gotham is framed as an echo of the war just fought and, perhaps more importantly, as an enactment of the alternative to the sense of universal harmony envisioned by the ending of Swamp Thing #50.

Figure 520: Howard Fleck, a sleazy photographer,
non-consensually takes pictures of Abby while
she's undressing, an event that will have vast
ramifications. (Written by Alan Moore, art by
Stan Woch and Ron Randall, from Swamp Thing
#47, 1986)
Beyond that, the Batman arc has its seeds in the apocalypse arc, specifically a subplot of issues #47 and #48. Swamp Thing #47 (“The Parliament of Trees”) is bookended by scenes in which a sleazy photographer sells photos he took of Abby and Swamp Thing kissing (which he obtained after beginning to secretly photograph Abby undressing) to a local newspaper. The next issue, in which the Brujería transform Judith into a bird, ends with a series of panels in which Judith, now a crow, flies outwards from the page, eventually filling the entire panel with black as Constantine narrates the fact that “the bird’s flown and the message is on its way, and the bad luck will take us all. Each and every one of us, all on a one-way losing streak.” The next two panels, however, proceed to zoom out, first to swirls of black on a white background, which are revealed in the final panel to be Abby’s hair. This then leads to the issue’s actual cliffhanger, which is not the Brujería’s release of the crow but rather Abby’s arrest as a sex offender due to the newspaper photos. “You been out in the swamps shackin’ up with something that ain’t even human,” the cops explain as they take her away. “And now we got the whole story in black and white. Although from where I’m standin’,” the cop goes on, “it’s mostly black,” a comment that coincides with the end of another sequence of panels zooming in on the newspaper headline closer and closer, until the black print on the white page overwhelms the panel, resulting in a solid black panel akin to that produced by Judith’s flight two pages earlier.

Figure 521: Selections of the abuse and
harassment Abby receives when her
relationship with Swamp Thing is made
public. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Rick
Veitch and Alfredo Alcala, from Swamp
Thing
 #51, 1986)
This parallelism frames Abby’s arrest both as the consequence of the Brujería’s successful ritual and as an expression of the same darkness. Or, more accurately, it frames the nature of Abby’s arrest - sexual puritanism - as an expression of the same darkness. The precise nature of the metaphor is perhaps slightly elusive, however. On the surface the crime for which Abby is arrested parallels miscegenation laws. The moment where Abby’s lawyer suggests that she claim that she was “forced into a repulsive relationship by this monster” certainly does invoke the age-old stereotypes whereby relationships between black men and white women in the American south were portrayed as necessarily being rape, often resulting in vigilante murders - a history explored, albeit clumsily, in the two-part zombie story in the “American Gothic” arc. But given the larger context of Moore’s career and the fact that interracial relationships, although still severely stigmatized, were not really pressing news issues in 1986, it seems equally likely, if not moreso, that the incident is meant to invoke the legal persecution of homosexuality, that being an issue Moore was a passionate activist about throughout the 1980s. This latter reading is supported by the specific nature of the charge - Abby is “being charged under those laws of this state usually reserved for people who have carnal relationships with farm animals” - and by a scene in Swamp Thing #51 that depicts selections from the harassment that Abby is subjected to while she waits for trial (harassment that causes her to flee to Gotham, where she’s arrested, provoking Swamp Thing’s siege). One notes that the writer has been praying for Abby, but says that “you have lay down with a beast, and you are an abomination in his sight,” phrasing that invokes Leviticus 18:22, which (in many translations) famously uses the word “abomination” to describe same sex relations. Another reads: “Deer slut, What is the matter you cannot get a reel man so you have intercourse with anything it is to bad your husband is in a comma he wood wup yur ass you are an ugly pig,” phrasing that invokes the harassment of lesbians, particularly in its threat of male “corrective” violence.

Figure 522: Batman makes a persuasive point about sexual
freedom. (Written by Alan Moore, art by John Totleben, from
Swamp Thing #53, 1986)
Regardless of what specific metaphor is chosen for this, however, the larger point - that Abby is imprisoned as part of a crackdown against sexual freedom - is clear. This is as fundamental an evil as exists within the ethics of Moore’s Swamp Thing, amounting as it does to a complete rejection of all the truths revealed in “Rite of Spring.” And Moore goes to lengths to establish that in this regard, at least, Swamp Thing is wholly justified, making sure that Batman ultimately sides with Swamp Thing, claiming angrily that the refusal to release Abby constitutes an insistence “on the letter of the law over love and justice,” and challenging Gotham’s mayor when he protests that “we can’t make exceptions to the law,” suggesting that he “start rounding up all the other non-human beings who may be having relationships outside their species,” suggesting that he should “arrest Hawkman and Metamorpho… and there’s also Starfire, from the Titans. Her race evolved from cats, I believe… the Martian Manhunter, obviously. Captain Atom… and then of course there’s what’s-his-name… the one who lives in Metropolis.” In making this appeal, Batman tacitly positions the entire DC Universe, down to Superman himself, as being on the side of sexual freedom, firmly positioning Swamp Thing’s fury as a righteous anger.

Figure 523: Swamp Thing bursts into the
courtroom out of a rose that Abby had been
holding. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Rick
Veitch and Alfredo Alcala, from Swamp Thing
#52, 1986)
But what is in many ways more interesting than the nature of what drives Swamp Thing to forget the Parliament of Trees’ words and to go to war is the nature of the warfare he wages. After erupting into the Gotham City Courthouse out of a rose that Abby was handed by a supporter on the way in, he gives them an hour to release her, proclaiming, “I have tolerated your species for long enough. Your cruelty and your greed and your insufferable arrogance… you blight the soil and poison the rivers. You raze the vegetation till you cannot even feed your own kind, and then you boast of man’s triumph over nature. Fools, if nature were to shrug or raise an eyebrow ten you should all be gone. I want my wife. You have one hour.” And when, after an hour, Abby is not returned to him, he unleashes the full extent of his power upon the city, instantly allowing all of the suppressed foliage to erupt. “The sidewalks begin to bleed emerald. Moss dribbles up the sheer sides of glass towers and the ghettos are burning with orchids. Stalled cars, ugly with buckled wings and broken antennae, become monuments of fabulous and surreal beauty in seconds. Spewing from choked drains and gratings, Eden comes to the city.”

Figure 524: Gotham City as a savage eden under Swamp
Thing's control. (Written by Alan Moore, art by John Totleben,
from Swamp Thing #53, 1986)
The phrasing on this last sentence - that this new jungle of Gotham is “Eden” - reveals an important ideological point. Although the story remains emphatic that Swamp Thing’s siege of Gotham is an instance of him wrongly succumbing to the temptation of power, it is altogether more subtle on the nature of Gotham City under Swamp Thing’s brief reign. The imagery of the third issue of the story is bold and, in its own way, as apocalyptic as anything from the preceding storyline. “In Coventry the residents’ protection group creep through an overgrown department store bristling with guns and tension. In the cosmetics department an escaped tiger treads carefully through the spilled lipsticks,” one description of the city goes, while another describes “the topsoil of the park where lean cats stalk fruit-fattened birds and drunkards fall in love amongst the nectarines.” But on balance this overgrown Gotham is portrayed as a sort of paradise - within a day there are pilgrims coming to the city, and 15% of the population has apparently decided that they prefer this new Gotham. Swamp Thing’s psychedelic tubers are shown to be sprouting throughout the city, giving the many residents an opportunity for psychedelic enlightenment. “The city,” Swamp Thing muses, “is changed into a thing of subtle marvels. Across the street, children pick pure white lillies from the awning of a sex cinema, and play at weddings, parading silently between the silent trees. Wine dribbles from a phone booth crammed with grapes, and the mouths of subways breathe a rare, delicate perfume.” Swamp Thing quickly acquires supporters, who are also given voice. A teacher talks about how her class studied the way rain forests produce oxygen, and “how they’ll all be gone within forty years. One kid asked ‘what will we breathe then?’ I couldn’t answer him. That’s why I’m behind the Swamp Man,” while others say that “he nices up the area and he’s got the administration sweating blood.” Those opposing Swamp Thing, meanwhile, are portrayed as dunces and fools - the mayor, notably, makes reference to Ronald Reagan’s famously daft claim that “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do,” a moment that makes it abundantly clear where Moore’s sympathies lie in the matter.

Figure 525: Swamp Thing gives Batman a thrashing. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by John Totleben, from Swamp Thing #53,
1986)
Inevitably, of course, the status quo is maintained. Moore wasn’t going to be allowed to level one of the DC Universe’s major cities and replace it with a post-scarcity utopia any more than he was going to be allowed to destroy heaven. Ultimately Batman succeeds in persuading the mayor to free Abby, and Swamp Thing relents. The world returns to normal. Nevertheless, the nature of Swamp Thing’s siege is unnerving. It is notable that Swamp Thing ultimately completely defeats Batman. Batman makes an attempt to forcibly stop Swamp Thing early in issue #53, but Swamp Thing trivially repels him, suddenly creating an army of bodies and physically beating Batman after Batman attacks him with defoliant. Batman goes to the mayor and demands he release Abby because there are, as he puts it, “no other options. That thing out there is very nearly a god. It can crush us.” The degree of power that this outcome gives to Swamp Thing is remarkable. The entire concept of Batman is that he figures out ways to defeat all manner of threats. That he cannot come up with any way of defeating Swamp Thing thus gives the nature of Swamp Thing’s overgrown Batman an unnerving power. Swamp Thing appears to possess the power to fundamentally change the nature of the world, and demonstrates him doing it. Given the way in which this story is a tacit extension of the previous apocalypse, it is tempting to read this as an illustration of the new relationship between good and evil. And in a sense it is - Commissioner Gordon describes the overgrown Gotham as a “savage Eden,” and it is clear it is a world with no shortage of serpents; he also describes it as a “green hell.” 

Figure 526: Hieronymus Bosch's triptych "The Garden of Earthly Delights."
An interactive high-resolution photograph of the painting is available here.
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. [continued]

Comments

Ice 3 years ago

First, I want to say that I really enjoy the idea of "Moore was never going to be allowed to fundamentally and irrevocably alter the nature of the DC Universe" being juxtaposed with Watchmen.

Regardless of being "allowed" to alter the nature of the DC Universe (or comics as a whole, really), he just went and did it anyway!

Second, I really enjoy the Batman V. Swamp-Thing story. And, is it just me, or is this really similar to the climax of Moore's Promethea from several years later?

Our protagonist (Swamp-Thing, Promethea) comes back from a big meta journey (DC apocalypse/crisis, Promethea's several issue magic trip arc), and very soon finds him/herself at odds with the universe's establishment, resulting in a conflict with their own (Swampy's environmental, Promethea's magical) powers against their universe's biggest, smartest, toughest "normal" human, (Batman, Tom Strong).

Both stories also feature a permanent, seemingly almost invisible change in their world, also.

It's possible I'm looking into them a little too much (as I first read them within a couple months of each other), but I couldn't help but see parallels there.

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BerserkRL 3 years ago

I don't think it's "infercourse." What makes the t look like an f is just the bottom part of the g in "get."

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unnoun 3 years ago

So didn't Poison Ivy already exist as a character at this point?

...I'm sorta thinking about writing Poison Ivy/Swamp Thing shipping fic now.

Not much else to add. This is neat.

...I like how one of the panels you used has repeated usage of the phrase "No More".

I like the stuff about sexual freedom. And Batman. And utopia.

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David Anderson 3 years ago

Gaiman, in Black Orchid, has it as part of the backstory that Pamela Isley and Alec Holland were graduate students together. (Woodrue was involved as well somehow, which is something of a retcon.)

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Tom 3 years ago

Really enjoying Last War at the moment, the flowing style of it seems to defy comment a bit but I thought I'd say.

Actually, what I've come to think of as "Moore transitions" - like the "it's mostly black" one - are one of his tricks that really stand out as 'of their time' (unsurprisingly, after taking it as far as it could go in Watchmen, he mostly dropped it). Comics writing now privileges dialogue, and sharpness of dialogue, above most else, so forcing stuff like "from where I'm standing it's mostly black" (turn to black page) (DO YOU SEE) into a character's mouth feels very awkward.

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Daru 2 years, 9 months ago

I'd always experienced this story as really being what was built up to, here the real effects of the previous climax occur. Great story and love as others do the references to sexual freedom.

What a beautiful vision, Gotham turned into the Garden of Eden. I'd live there.

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