Friday, August 1, 2014

True Humanity Comes (The Last War in Albion Part 55: The Floronic Man, Goya)

This is the fifth 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 is available here. 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. The first volume is available in the US here, and the UK here. Finding volume 2-6 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 Albion: Alan Moore changed everything about Swamp Thing (and many things about American comics in general) with his first issue of Saga of the Swamp Thing, in which he rewrote the character's origin such that he was no longer a human being turned into a plant monster, but a mass of plant matter that mistook itself as a human being, and with the arc that followed, in which Swamp Thing battled Jason Woodrue, the Floronic Man, while grappling with his humanity or lack thereof. 

"I thought of Martin Heidegger and his idea that true humanity comes with not bowing to the external world. I decided then that I should never bow to my own morality." - Alan Moore, Marvelman

Figure 406: The contrast between the red and
green worlds. (Written by Alan Moore, art by
Steve Bissette and John Totleben, from Saga of
the Swamp Thing 
#23, 1984)
But however much Swamp Thing may consider himself to be separate from Abby’s people, he is animate now, and accepts that his place is not to simply sink into the green, but to live in the swamps, experiencing the vibrant ecosystem, and the arc ends with a splash page of Swamp Thing standing, arms spread, greeting the rising sun. It is not, to be sure, a subtle ending. The didactic nature of Swamp Thing’s rhetorical defeat of the Floronic Man and his barbed question to Abby are in fact crashingly obvious, although in a way that productively flags the comic’s intentions going forward. Saga of the Swamp Thing, it is immediately clear, has become an ecologically minded comic. But what is subtler is the degree to which this stems out of Moore’s larger and more surprising decision, which is to spend quite a lot of effort sincerely exploring the question of what it would be like, from a psychological perspective, to be a walking plant. The entire ecology debate between Woodrue and Swamp Thing is framed as the practical applications of the more spiritual experiences both characters have within the Green. The second issue of the arc, entitled “Another Green World” (an homage to a Brian Eno song, as is relatively typical of Moore), demonstrates this well - it ends with Swamp Thing finally arriving to confront Woodrue, but this is ultimately framed as a response to and extension of Swamp Thing’s initial meditations on the fact that “there is a red and angry world. Red things happen there. The world eats your wife, eats your friends, eats all the things that makes you human. And you become a monster. And the world just keeps on eating. I couldn’t take that… being eaten. I couldn’t take the red world. So I walked out, and I left my body behind, and I’m somewhere else now. Somewhere quiet. Somewhere green and timeless. I drift the cellular landscape stretching beneath me… eerie. Silent. Beautiful.” And when Woodrue is finally defeated it is not merely that he realizes Swamp Thing is right, but a fall from grace in which Woodrue loses his psychic connection with the plants of the world. Any ecological truth, in other words, is merely an extension and consequence of this question of what the psychic life of vegetables might amount to.

Figure 407: Jason Woodrue ensnares the Atom during his
first appearance. (Written by Gardner Fox, art by Gil
Kane, from The Atom #1, 1962)
It is worth pausing to look at the other vegetable with a rich inner life in these three issues, namely the primary antagonist: Jason Woodrue, aka the Floronic Man. As with his run on Captain Britain, Moore took a visible delight in playing with the larger world in which his main character existed. But where in Captain Britain he drew almost entirely from the past history of that specific character, within Swamp Thing he played freely with the entire sweep of the DC line. Given this, it’s interesting that he began with the Floronic Man, a minor villain who had made a grand total of seventeen appearances in the twenty-two years since his creation, the bulk of them as a supporting player in a super-villain team. He first appeared simply as Jason Woodrue, serving as the villain for the 1962 first issue of The Atom, starring DC’s shrinking superhero, where he is described as coming “from a dimensional world close to our own which is inhabited by wood nymphs, dryads, nereids, air sprits and flower-spirits,” and where he attempts to use plants to take over the Earth. In his fourth appearance, fourteen years later, he transforms himself through an elixir so that he becomes a living plant and fights the Green Lantern for two issues before settling down into a several year stint in the Secret Society of Super-Villains, where he mostly played second fiddle to a malevolent talking gorilla. (Although to be fair, almost every DC Comics villain has at some point played second fiddle to a malevolent talking gorilla.) 

He was, in other words, a character that essentially nobody cared about. Admittedly Moore did not have access to a deep and impressive bench of characters who would fill the specific plot role he needed, that of a plant-based villain. Nevertheless, Jason Woodrue is pointedly not even DC Comics’ most famous plant villain - Moore could easily have used Pamela Isley, aka Poison Ivy, a plant scientist/femme fatale from Batman’s rogue’s gallery. Instead Moore consciously opted for an almost comically obscure villain, who he builds into a thoroughly massive threat. This choice to draw from the history of DC comics in an obscure and marginal way immediately positions Swamp Thing at a slightly orthogonal angle to the rest of DC Comics, clearly flagging it as a comic that is not going to interact with the larger line in a straightforward or entirely predictable manner. 

Figure 408: The contrasting styles between Jason Woodrue on the
television and the strangely shadowed faces of the Justice League.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve Bissette and John Totleben, from
Saga of the Swamp Thing #24, 1984)
Moore pays this off in the conclusion to the Floronic Man arc, Saga of the Swamp Thing #24, also titled “Roots.” In this issue Moore introduces some exceedingly high profile guest stars, the Justice League of America. At this moment in DC’s history, the Justice League consisted of Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Green Arrow, Hawkman, Aquaman, Zatanna, and Firestorm - some of the company’s biggest properties, in other words. Certainly all of them are on a basic level more familiar and recognizable characters than Swamp Thing himself. But Moore, having spent four issues making Swamp Thing stand at an odd remove from the rest of the line, employs them in an unexpected manner. The issue opens with images of the Watchtower - the orbital base of the Justice League - and narration saying, “There is a house above the world, where the over-people gather. There is a man with wings like a bird… There is a man who can see across the planet and wring diamonds from its anthracite. There is a man who moves so fast that his life is an endless gallery of statues… In the house above the world, the over-people gather.” The narration slots firmly into Moore’s well-established iambic style that he uses to give sections a mythic heft. (“there IS a HOUSE aBOVE the WORLD…” “there IS a MAN who MOVES so FAST…”) But it’s significant that this narration is being applied to the familiar DC characters, thus putting them at a strange and alien remove. The use of the phrase “over-people” is a reworking of the more familiar “superhero,” or, more literally, “Superman,” returning to the Nietzschean roots of the name in the idea of the ├╝bermensch, which most literally translates to “overman.” This is a theme Moore had already explored in Marvelman by positioning the character as the product of Project Zarathustra, and is a recurring theme in Moore’s superhero work. As he put it in a 1984 interview, “that’s the origin of the superman concept, and it’s a fascist ideal” - a theme he would reiterate in his famed 2014 “last interview” when he proclaimed that “he origin of capes and masks as ubiquitous superhero accessories can be deduced from a close viewing of D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation,” a film concerned largely with valorizing the Ku Klux Klan. 

Figure 409: Jason Woodrue makes an
unconvincing case for his humanity.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve
Bissette and John Totleben, from Saga
of the Swamp Thing
 #24, 1984)
Moore emphasized this remove in his instructions to Bisette and Totleben on how to draw the heroes, saying to “draw them with their faces shadowed - make them a bit more mysterious.” Bisette and Totleben further emphasize the sense that the superheroes simply don’t quite belong in this world by portraying Woodrue’s face on the monitors as he explains his mad scheme in a relatively photorealistic style, thus creating a visual disparity between him and the Justice League. All of this is used to build up the idea that the Justice League is completely powerless in the face of Woodrue’s plan - as Green Arrow says at the end of the sequence, “what you’re saying is ‘we get to lose this one. This time we finally strike out.’ Man, I don’t believe this! We were watching out for New York, for Metropolis, for Atlantis… but who was watching out for Lacroix Louisiana?” The effect is to slyly increase the stakes of the issue’s main plot - the climactic showdown between Swamp Thing and Woodrue - by stressing that it’s a threat where not even the Justice League can help. But it also serves to make the Justice League have the same relationship to Swamp Thing that Swamp Thing has to the Justice League - that of weird and slightly strange forces that hover at the edge of the world. And when, at the end of the issue, Woodrue comes crashing out of the Swamp Thing’s world and back into the world of the Justice League (where he belongs), he’s shown to have been driven mad by the experience, spraying human skin onto a distorted and human face covered in bark and insisting that he broke his arm “doing something normal, driving a car, fishing, one of those things us men do” as the liquid skin drips down off the thorns that have grown out of his chin. 

Figure 410: An early house ad for Moore, Bissette, and Totleben's Swamp Thing,
featuring somewhat idiosyncratic copy.
With five issues under their belt, the Moore/Bissette/ Totleben team was clearly making waves at DC. Impressed with the book, DC began running house ads for it starting in March of 1984 to promote it. These ads coincided with the start of Moore’s second arc, which drew heavily from the ideas proposed by Bissette and Totleben, to the point where the trade paperback credits them as co-plotters. The major idea that Moore worked from was one of Bissette’s, who drew on the experience of his then-wife in working at a school for autistic children to propose setting a story at a similar institution. Secondarily, Bissette and Totleben had an idea for a fear monster inspired in part by Francisco Goya’s famous print “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” a title Moore appropriated for the first issue of his second arc.

Figure 411: Goya's "The Sleep of Reason
Produces Monsters." (1799)
This print is the forty-third of eighty in a series Goya titled Los Caprichos. Created in 1797, the series consists of satirical attacks on what Goya viewed as the “innumerable foibles and follies” of late 18th century Spain. Many of these were practical critiques - Goya depicted child abuse, female vanity, and the excesses of the clergy, all with exaggerated grotesqueries that bled in and out of the monstrous depictions of witchcraft that litter the prints. “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” is the most famous print in the series, depicting Goya himself having fallen asleep at his desk, haunted by unsettling beasts who drift forward from the shadows behind him. The message is straightforward enough, and put forward in the title - an alliance with Enlightenment reason against the ignorant darkness that opposed it. Taken as part of the larger social critique of Lo Caprichos, it presents the grotesque excesses that he depicts throughout the series as coming from a willful ignorance - as the product of rejecting reason. Crucially, it is not that reason drives away monsters, but rather that reason’s absence creates them, a point reiterated by the longer epigraph to the piece, generally translated as “fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”

Figure 412: The grotesquerie with which
Goya depicts  the clergy in this print, entitled
"Hobgoblins," typifies  Los Caprichos. (1799)
In this regard, Goya adopts an almost completely opposite position from his contemporary, William Blake, for whom reason is embodied in the form of Urizen, “a shadow of horror” who is “self-closd, all-repelling” born out of the void at the edges of Eternity. As Urizen contemplates his selfhood he acquires form, until he emerges from the darkness, speaking of his desire to create “a solid without fluctuation.” And so Urizen creates a world, saying that “here alone I in books formd of metals / Have written the secrets of wisdom / The secrets of dark contemplation / By fightings and conflicts dire, / With terrible monsters Sin-bred.” It is, in other words, precisely the awakening of reason as represented by Urizen (who, like many of Blake’s mythological figures, gets his name from a pun, in this case the phrase “your reason”) that produces monsters.

Figure 413: Urizen writing his "books
formd of metals," a description that
applies equally well to Blake's copper
engravings. (The Book of Urizen Copy
G, Object 1, written 1794, printed 1818)
And yet in the end Blake’s position is not as far from Goya’s as it might appear. It is not straightforwardly the case that Urizen is evil so much as it is that Urizen unbound is destructive. At the climax of his unfinished epic Vala, or the Four Zoas, order and peace is restored to Eternity when Urizen abandons his mad quest to fix and define the nature of all things and is instead reunited with his Emanation, Ahania, who represents pleasure, which Blake views as the true “food of Intellect.” Once “Ahania cast off her death clothes / She folded them up in care in silence & her brightening limbs / Bathd in the clear spring of the rock then from her darksom cave / Issud in majesty divine Urizen rose up from his couch / On wings of tenfold joy clapping his hands his feet his radiant wings / In the immense as when the Sun dances upon the mountains [continued]

6 comments:

  1. Actually, the speaker of your epigraph (whom I'm leaving unnamed so as not to spoil anyone who hasn't read A Dream of Flying in either the 80s or the recent reissue) was remembering a resolution that he would never bow to his own mortality, not morality. He'd always followed his own morality, which had never bowed to that of the external world.

    And I know I'm getting ahead of what I assume you'll cover, but in Moore's treatment of "the over-people" as mythic figures, we see the roots, as it were, of Morrison's theological/archetypical approach to them (expressed indirectly in his depiction of the JLA themselves and directly with the Legion of Legions and the Theocracy).

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  2. The nitpickiest of nitpicks, but in 1984, the Justice League's orbital base is just "the Justice League Satellite". "The Watchtower" first gets used by Morrison to refer to their new lunar headquarters in 1997, and the name is subsequently used for later satellite HQs, following the example of the cartoon.

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  3. Alan Moore changed everything about Swamp Thing (and many things about American comics in general) with his first issue of Saga of the Swamp Thing, in which he rewrote the character's origin such that he was no longer a human being turned into a plant monster, but a mass of plant matter that mistook itself as a human being

    Ahem. His second issue, not his first.

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    1. It's possible he wrote this section BEFORE realizing "Loose Ends" was the actual start of Moore's run; lots of people seem to make the same mistake with just going straight to "The Anatomy Lesson"... why not our Dr. Phil, also?

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  4. "Although to be fair, almost every DC Comics villain has at some point played second fiddle to a malevolent talking gorilla."

    The fact that the current regime at DC views this as a BAD thing summarizes my problems with much of their current output as well as anything.

    As we will see when we reach the Alan Moore/ Gil Kane collaborations later in the war, Moore is quite clearly a huge fan of Kane. I suspect that has something to do with the choice of Woodrue over, say, Poison Ivy. Although I'm not sure the Pre-crisis Poison Ivy actually had plant powers, rather than just a plant theme. A further clue is in Figure 409: It shows clear hints of Kane's distinctive up-nostril perspective, and I wonder if Moore included that in his script. (For those of you not familiar with it, Kane makes it work despite how it sounds.)

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  5. It's a petty thing, but I'd have kind of liked that scene where Woodrue meets up with Justice League members to have included Hawkman instead of Green Lantern -- just so he'd have been delivering the "Human like you" line to the two characters who aren't human.

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