Swamp Thing #50 “The End”
Writer: Alan Moore. Editor: Karen Berger. Artists: Stephen Bissette, Rick Veitch and John Totleben (and special thanks to Tom Mandrake). Colorist: Tatjana Wood. Letterer: John Costanza. Cover Date: July 1986.
This issue opens with Cain and Abel, which is perhaps fitting in the sense that these two characters’ existence is centred upon stories: the events of recent issues have led up to the battle of ultimate good versus ultimate evil in this issue. From a hilltop, they look down on Swamp Thing, Deadman and a procession of grotesquely inventive looking demons that they have assembled to participate in this battle.
We move our focus towards Deadman and Swamp Thing, who discuss the imminent battle, Etrigan’s mustering of troops and the Phantom Stranger’s disappearance. Swamp Thing ponders on recent events of the ‘American Gothic’ storyline and we learn that he remains troubled and disturbed by his inability to understand and rationalise the manifestations of evil that he has encountered: the destruction of a community of vampires could be viewed as genocide, in effect (#38-39); gender politics and their manifestation through lycanthropy (#40). racial tensions recycled through the ages in the form of ghosts (#45). Swamp Thing’s helplessness is further underscored by his desire to speak to Constantine, and it’s telling how much he has come to rely on the blue collar mystic for support and guidance.
Constantine and the group that he has gathered join hands at a table in Baron Winter’s home. It’s clear that Constantine is trying to underplay the threat to their safety, although not entirely successfully, as he has to gently assuage the fears that his words have engendered in Zatanna and Dayton, fears prompted by his unconscious use of the words ‘ordeal’ and the assertion that ‘the feedback could kill us’ (page 6).
Dayton locates Etrigan, who is speaking to other demons. He is also putting on his ‘armour’, whiuch takes the form of live creatures being impaled on spikes that he’s wearing and such a darkly bizarre act truly highlights his inhuman nature. Etrigan and his comrades leave to join the allies.
Dayton locates Swamp Thing and Deadman. They are joined by Dr. Fate and, soon after, by Phantom Stranger and a hoard of angels in the form of orbs. The fact that both angels and demons are joining forces illustrates the level of ultimate threat that is evident here.
Dayton perceives the massing together of the allies and their gruesome, demonic opposition. A black mass of incalculable size then begins to rise. Dayton narrates what we, the readers, can see. Etrigan charges the black mass and, once enveloped, is asked to explain to the mass what ‘it’ is. Etrigan explains that it is ‘evil[…] locked in endless fight’ with good. The mass remarks that it does need ‘fatalism’ or ‘inevitability’ and expels an unconscious Etrigan from itself.
The mass notices that it is being observed by Constantine and his group and, in retaliation, sends a shockwave to them that ultimately kills Sargon in a mystical combustion, following Zatara’s order that he accept his fate with dignity (page 17).
Dr. Fate is then absorbed into the mass, to be asked ‘what is evil?’ His response is a negative one and the mass expels him as their can be ‘no possibility of respect’ between them and that he has taught it ‘contempt’ (page 21). Zatanna almost becomes the next casualty, but Zatara sacrifices himself to save his daughter.
The Spectre arrives and, despite becoming a comparable size to this mass, is expelled once it learns of vengeance from him. The sense of tension and drama continues to escalate as each character is rejected and expelled by the black mass. These are not insignificant character but ones of immense power, and their defeat begins to indicate that the allies may lose this battle. It is at this point, when the powerful Spectre is beaten and defeat is certain, that Swamp Thing calmly walks into the mass.
Rather than offer a personal definition of evil like the others who have entered the mass, Swamp Thing admits that he is unable to explain the nature of evil, despite having witnessed it. However, he has concluded that both good and evil seems connected in some way, that life itself springs from the decay of the black soil, and this connection is what the Parliament of Trees has led him to think on. In the end, thought, he still admits that he does not know what they meant exactly. The mass senses ‘a great and final end appraoching’ and allows Swamp Thing to leave unharmed.
Swamp Thing’s honesty helps the black mass to achieve a level of insight and perspective and, in a stunning two page spread, we see a resolution of the conflict achieved in the combination of light and dark, and good and evil, in two hands clasping, resolving themselves into the Yin and Yang symbol, before we are swiftly returned to Constantine’s group. It all proved too much for Dayton’s mind to process and his has been left psychologically damaged as a result.
The Phantom Stranger tells Swamp Thing and Deadman that the nature of the relationship between good and evil has changed as a result of this battle. Yet the reader realises that the battle will always go on, that good will always be opposed to evil despite their mutual relationship, on the last page of the story: Abel is worried that the old stories will be meaningless without the ‘ancient conflict’ between these two forces, but Cain realises that evil stills exists and shows it by pushing Abel over a cliff. The nature of good and evil may now be more connected than ever in the DC universe, but they will always be set in opposition and in conflict with each other.
This issue was the last one to feature interior art by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben (both would continue to contribute covers). Both artists created a sublime visual identity for the series, one which would be developed further by their colleague Rick Veitch, who had pitched in to help both with art duties on the book previously; indeed, Veitch would also take over as writer following Moore’s departure with #64. As such, this issue celebrates the greatness of the Bissette-Totleben art team and points forward to the great Veitch issues to come, starting with the very next issue (#51).