Batman battles Swamp Thing in Swamp Thing #53 “The Garden of Earthly Delights”
A lot has happened between issue #21 of Swamp Thing’s title and now: Swamp Thing fought Jason Woodrue AKA the Floronic Man for control of a mysterious force known as the Green. He met John Constantine, who gave him some inspiration regarding how to use his powers. He had been to hell to save Abby Arcane. The “American Gothic” event had transpired, a story so powerful it’s referenced even to this day. Swamp Thing discovered he wasn’t the first plant elemental and met the Parliament of Trees. He and Abby had fallen in love and consummated their relationship…
…and said consummation was witnessed, and photographs of the act fell into the hands of the authorities. Abigail was arrested for committing perverse acts with a non-human being. Abigail found herself in Gotham City awaiting trial, and Swamp Thing is not amused.
Batman arrives in Gotham and goes to speak to Commissioner Gordon to find out what’s going on. If I were Batman, I’d immediately assume Poison Ivy was involved, but then again, at this point Ivy is a C-lister whose only power is being immune to poison. I’m pretty resistant to the flu, but you don’t see me becoming a super-villain. Jim Gordon explains how Swamp Thing has come to town, and while some see it as a natural-born paradise, Jim views it as a “Green Hell”. For a man who thrives on order and control, it’s only natural he’d see things that way. Batman says if he can find Swamp Thing, maybe he can talk some sense into him. Meanwhile, Swamp Thing employs his ability to connect with all things green and growing and reaches out to survey his new kingdom.
In issue #21, we got a taste of Alan Moore’s prose, but this page really does showcase his talents as a wordsmith: “And those who took you from me have not begun to taste the fruits of my retribution…” As armed vigilantes roam department stores while being stalked by an escaped tiger, and the young celebrate the glorious wilderness they now find themselves in, two of Gotham’s finest have been foraging and have a trunk full of fruit. One officer stops to pick from a vine and eat what he thinks is a sweet potato. Only it’s not; it a hallucinogenic tuber that Swamp Thing created to form a bond with Abigail, and the cop suddenly finds himself on a head trip. He quickly learns that the only thing more frightening than the green jungle is the unexplored forest of the mind. Damn, just reading Alan Moore is inspiring.
Elsewhere, detective Harvey Bullock hears reports of other people eating the head-trip tubers, and he asks his prisoner Abigail if her “boyfriend” has any other tricks in store. Only Abby isn’t listening, because she’s communicating telepathically with Swamp Thing, who swears he’s coming for her. You might be wondering why Swamp Thing just doesn’t come and get Abby, but I think the idea here is he’s aware that she’s still of the “civilized” world, and that turning her into a fugitive would be an act of cruelty. And maybe he just wants to make a point, and make these proud men bend a knee to him for daring to put his beloved through hell.
Cut to a secret boardroom where mysterious men consult a familiar looking bald-headed mad scientist who scoffs at anyone called “invulnerable”. It seems certain parties have called in an expert to deal with the Swamp Thing Problem. This expert claims his weapon can kill Swamp Thing, and in under ten minutes has provided them with their magic bullet. He departs after ensuring they’ll mail him his check. Should that check be sent to Metropolis Penitentiary, Mr. Luthor? Sooner or later, you always wind up there.
Outside Gotham, two men meet. One is Chester Williams, aging hippie and friend of Abbey and Swamp Thing. The other is Wallace Monroe, who’s crossed paths with Swamp Thing in the past. As they enter the jungle that is now Gotham, they pass through the overgrown remains of a toll both. Wallace suggests maybe they need to pay the toll.
And right here, we see why comics as a visual medium are so awesome and how images are as important as words. Chester’s expression is priceless and he suggests Wallace should get with the program. I keep hearing Dennis Hopper’s voice when I read Chester’s dialogue.
Swamp Thing wanders Gotham, and Alan Moore fertilizes the fallow furrows of my mundane brain with his puissant prose: “The city has changed into a thing of subtle marvels… Across the street children pick pure white lilies from the awning of a sex cinema and play at weddings…” But something interrupts the Thing’s musings: an unnatural sound. Soon, the sound reveals its origins.
The front end looks more like an armadillo than a bat, but I’m sure if Alfred had more time he could have done something about that. Maybe he could have slapped on a black coat of paint, and given it some cool white slits for eyes. Batman retracts the blades and tries to talk to Swamp Thing. He explains the authorities can’t release Abby until she’s gone through the judicial system, and Gotham won’t submit to terrorism. Swamp Thing won’t back down, and so Batman goes with plan B, which is to erupt from the Bat… weed whacker… thing, with what looks like a flamethrower. Only, it’s not full of napalm but defoliant. He sprays Swamp Thing, but Swampy immediately grows a new body. Bats sprays that one too, but another body blooms. Soon, Bats is surrounded.
And it ain’t pretty. Batman is left a bruised and bloody mess on the mossy macadam of Gotham’s streets. Now, for some this might seem sacrilegious, and they might think it unlikely that Bats could be beaten by a guy who up until a few short years ago was a certified D-lister. But hey, even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson started out his pro-wrestling career as Rocky Mavia, the Blue Chipper, and look where he wound up. Besides, this is pre-Crisis Batman, before Grant Morrison turned him into the Bat God, and the guy with a million back-up plans. Yeah, that got old quick.
Gordon reports to the mayor, and his men think they’re safe in their man-made structure that’s been stripped of all plant life. But Swamp Thing forms a giant head from the wooden floor and delivers his ultimatum, then leaves behind his giant lifeless head, as if in mockery. I’ll say this for the New, Improved Swamp Thing: his exit is as dramatic as his entrance.
Things get worse in Gotham… or better, depending on where you stand. If you’re a homeowner, you have to deal with your pool being overgrown with lush poppies. If you’re homeless, you have the shelter of the trees and an abundance of food. As a result, some citizens are starting to sway towards Swamp Thing’s cause. And the fact that word got out that he kicked Batman’s ass has nothing to do with it. Really. Speaking of Batman, he’s bandaged up and ready for round two. I’m sure all he has to do is call in Superman or the rest of the Justice League… Oh, that’s right, Batman quit the Justice League. Okay, then. But hey, doesn’t Bats have his own team at this point, the Outsiders?
Oh. Right. Batman quit that team, too, or was kicked to the curb because they were kind of-sort of sick of his crap. I’m beginning to sense a pattern.
We catch up with Chester and Wallace, who exchange stories. Chester explains he had quite an experience sampling Swamp Thing’s tubers and wants more. Don’t let it be it said I don’t go for the low-hanging fruit. It turns out Wallace had worked for a company that dumped nuclear waste and ran into one of Swamp Thing’s enemies, a throwback creature who was exposed to the waste and infected the man’s pregnant wife. He panicked and abandoned her, and their child was stillborn, and now the guilt is killing him. It’s here that we see there are different kinds of horror, both fantastic and depressingly real. Chester proves he’s a bigger man than I am and doesn’t judge. Instead, he offers Wallace a piece of hallucinogenic tuber in order to maybe get his head straight.
Dawn is approaching and Batman meets with Gordon and Bullock. He admits he has no idea what Swamp Thing’s limits are now, and suggests they release Arcane, asking what exactly she did wrong in the first place. Gordon begins to explain the complexities of the legal system… to Batman… a guy who flaunts said legal system all the time. Just then, a plague of bugs descends on Gotham. Batman has bug repellent, of course (right next to the shark repellent on his Utility Belt of Holding), and politely sprays Gordon and Bullock as he explains Swamp Thing created more perfume from the flowers to attract them. Gordon figures Swamp Thing is running out of tricks.
Yeah, you keep right on hoping, Jim. Swamp Thing sends out a message to everyone, warning them that there are no limits, and pointing out there’s even flora in a human’s digestive tract. He abandons the body and it collapses, and Batman tells Jim he needs to see the mayor, stat. In the mayor’s office, Batman says that Swamp Thing hasn’t even gotten tough yet and things can get a lot worse, all because some suits want to adhere to the letter of the law while Gotham dies. Batman is mad as hell and says that if the mayor wants to arrest a woman for having sexual congress with a non-human, then they better look into arresting anybody who did the same with Metamorpho, Hawkman, Starfire, Martian Manhunter… oh, yeah, and Superman. As Batman makes his tremendously persuasive argument, Swamp Thing views the city and knows he’s won, but a niggling doubt creeps into the back of his mind—something to do with power.
Batman tracks down Swamp Thing and the two have a brief face to face as he explains that Abby will be released.
Some Batman purists might think that this is totally out of character, because Batman doesn’t kill. Me, I find absolutes unrealistic. Batman doesn’t kill because it’s morally wrong and it would put him at odds with the law. And I get that there’s the “slipperly slope” argument, in that once Batman puts himself above the law, where does it end? It’s a persuasive argument (until you look at the Joker’s body count. Somebody explain why some crooked cop doesn’t arrange an “accident” for the Joker?), but if circumstances mean the greater good can be served and—this is important now—there are no other viable alternatives, then yes, I could see Batman feeling that killing is the only option.
We cut to… somewhere else, where mysterious men listen to the news reports about Abigail Arcan’s release and her and Swamp Thing’s imminent departure from the city. These men are armed with weapons both mundane and exotic, and it’s obvious that they want Swamp Thing gone, but on their own terms. We cut to a news reporter outside the Gotham City courthouse where Chester and Wallace loiter in the background, along with the other Swampy groupies. Swamp Thing makes a hell of an entrance as the court house doors open and Abby exits. She cries out to Alec runs to him in tears. It’s going to be a happy reunion, right?
Or not. The Bad Guys use Lex Luthor’s weapon and Swamp Thing is unable to leave his body, and then they launch napalm at him. As we learned previously, Swamp Thing is not the person in the lab that blew up, and he’s not Alec Holland despite what Abby calls him. But Swamp Thing has Holland’s memories, and he can recall quite clearly what it was like to burn to death. As the napalm eats at him he recalls that ghostly memory, and he also recalls what the Parliament of Trees warned him of, which is that power leads to anger. In this case, not just Holland’s anger, but the rage of men forced to confront how small they are and contract an evil man to provide them with a weapon powerful enough to kill a god. Swamp Thing is trapped in his shell, and it burns to a crisp.
When I decided to look at the Swamp Thing series, I gave issue #1 of the ’82 era a look. It’s pretty generic story and nothing special. Swamp Thing runs around, gets his hand blown off. He’s not exactly what you’d call “impressive”. This is due in part to the sort of comic it was at that time, but if you look at things in regards to the narrative, it was also because Swamp Thing thought of himself as Alec Holland the man. His mindset limited him. But issue #21 was the beginning of not-Holland’s rise to godhood, as over the course of thirty-two issues he rose to godhood. In the hands of a less experienced writer, Swamp Thing’s “power creep” might have seemed a bit ridiculous, but Moore handled it with grace, showing the various travails our hero had to overcome to learn how to achieve his full potential. This issue was in a lot of ways the ending of a chapter, as we saw the price of hubris and Swamp Thing would face more trials as he attempted to return back to Earth and Abigail.
But once again, Moore’s prose is complemented by John Totleben’s art. He’s able to handle a variety of moods, from horrific to fantastic, from terrible to beautiful. He’s even able to handle humor as we saw in that one panel with Chester, as well as earlier in the comic.
I would argue that Moore and Totleben’s collaboration ranks up there with Claremont and Byrne, or Monech and Gulacy, or Michelinie and Layton. You can give Moore all the credit in the world for resurrecting Swamp Thing, but I honestly feel Totleben’s contributions can’t be understated.
These days, Swamp Thing can be found in the pages of Justice League Dark, and honestly I’m a little torn. On the one hand, it’s nice to see him getting used. On the other, his just being part of a team feels like quite a comedown from his days as a god. All the same, Justice League Dark is a good read and one of the few comics I’m reading today.