Originally Published January 24, 2012
When fellow blogger Drew Baumgartner and I decided to drive head first into DC Comics’ New 52, we didn’t count on there being so many series that we’d like – never mind this many series that we loved. To make up for lost time, here is a special Tuesday BONUS Edition of Patrick and Drew and the New 52. I’m hosting the discussion of Swamp Thing while Drew is hosting the discussion of Batwoman.
Patrick: So frequently when we do these write-ups, I want to give my perception of the character before reading comics about them. It’s sort of a way of communicating my base understanding to make sure the reader and I are on the same page, and it usually allows me to draw some parallel between what I expected of superheroes as a kid and what I expect of them now. I have yet to determine if this approach is welcoming or narcissistic. Certainly, it’s no more narcissistic than wasting a paragraph writing about my writing process
Listen, context is important. One of the great story beats in Swamp Thing’s history was his own discovery that he wasn’t scientist Alec Holland. In fact, Alec Holland died before Swamp Thing even came to be. So why does issue one open on Dr. Holland? The answer lies in in the Geoff Johns and Peter Tomasi-penned year-long cross-over event: Brightest Day. Brightest Day takes a lot of shit for being obtuse, and it deserves that criticism. Regardless, we have to deal with some of that baggage to get a grip on what we’re reading here. Don’t get me wrong, you can absolutely just read Swamp Thing and understand the proceedings; there’s a lot of well-handled exposition in the first four issues. But here’s what happened.
During Blackest Night, dead heroes and villains returned when the Neckron, the avatar of death, came to Earth and attempted to eliminate all life. In the aftermath of this attack, 12 characters returned to life through the power of the White entity, which – in opposition to Neckron – represents life. The most notably resurrected was Boston Brand, AKA Deadman. Deadman’s whole schtick is that he’s dead and can only interact with people by taking possession of them. Life is an odd experience for a character that has been dead his whole crime fighting career. Further, this makes him an odd choice to be the guardian of the White Light. So his mission became to find someone to replace him. The climax of this drama resurrects both Swamp Thing and Alec Holland, the former under the control of the Black, the latter under the control of the White – they both take the form of Swamp thing and do battle. The good guy wins (because the event doesn’t have “Crisis” in it’s title), and Alec is left as the protectorate of life in the universe. We get a little story in the epilogue about Swamp Thing exacting revenge on some greedy executives that are doing some environmentally unscrupulous business things. Back to Swamp Thing’s old habits, it would seem.
And there’s really nothing in the this series that suggests we should understand Alec Holland’s origin any differently. We pick up with him and he’s decided to give up his strange life as an environmentally conscious vegetable monster in favor of a quite life as a construction worker. When large numbers of birds, fish, bats and cattle suddenly drop dead for no reason, Superman pays a visit to Alec to ask him for help. He is unmoved by Superman’s concern and tells him that, you know, sometimes animals just die: it’s not that big a deal. Interestingly, Superman also offers to comfort Alec because he knows “how hard it can be, coming back…” which further suggests that the world we’re functioning in is virtually identical to the one we left, in which Superman was killed by Doomsday and resurrected. We also get a glimpse of strange goings-on in the deserts of Arizona – a reanimated mammoth skeleton and some zombie-creating flies wreak havoc on an archaeological dig.
The issue ends with a Swamp Thing showing up to talk to Alec. “Wait a minute,” I hear you say “I thought Alec was Swamp Thing and the other Swamp Thing was dead.” Yes, yes but you see, this is yet another Swamp Thing. Issue #2 is a pretty dense info-dump that establishes a new mythology for Swamp Thing. The gist of it is that there are there is a force of death in the universe, alternately referred to as “The Black” and “The Rot,” and The Green has used Swamp Things since the beginning of time as their knights to defend against The Rot. But the situation has gotten particularly bad and agents of The Rot are moving into a striking position, so Alec needs to get over his hangups and be the hero. Not totally sold on this narrative, Alec returns to the hotel in which he’s been living and is attacked by those broken-necked fly-zombies. He narrowly escapes thanks to the assistance of a mysterious woman on a motor cycle.
Ending issues with surprise character-reveals is very in-vogue the relaunch. The motorcycle chick turns out to be Abigal Arcane (sporting a short new haircut). Abby was the Swamp Thing love interest back in the day, but remember, that was a monster with Alec’s memories and not Alec himself. The disconnect between what she means to Swamp Thing and what she means to Alec Holland makes up the bulk of the drama for these characters in issue #3. But this issue spends a lot of time with young William Arcane, Abby’s half-brother and bubble-boy (he has a deadly chlorophyll allergy, which I find to be insanely clever). William can control dead organic matter, and he eventually uses this skill to torture his fellow patients at the hospital and enact a gruesome escape. Which is a shame, because Abby and Alec are on their way to retrieve William. Abby knows there’s going to be trouble because the entire Arcane family has a connection to The Rot, and she has been hearing it call to her more often lately. William is young and particularly vulnerable to being controlled by the rot, so it’s a big deal when they discover the hospital laid to waste.
Issue #4 follows William to a diner in western Texas. He’s sporting scuba gear, because the air could kill him. When the patrons and employees of the diner ask him what his deal is (he is a kid alone in a diner, wearing a hospital gown and a scuba mask after all), William gets pissed off and murders everyone in the restaurant. Meanwhile, Alec and Abby camp out in a green field, per Abby’s insistence that it is safer to be among the green. But safer for whom? While asleep, Alec is visited by the Parliament of Trees, which instructs him to kill Abby and steer clear of the Arcane family all together. The problem is that Alec is much more Human than Thing, and at this point, the only thing he has is his relationship with Abby. But the Parliament is quite persistent – they explain a little more about the never ending war between the Green and the Black. Obviously, Alec doesn’t kill her and they continue on their journey in the morning.
Issue #5 starts to cast a wider net, making this war between life and death out to be something more of a global concern. With all the shadiness implied by the presence of an old white guy in the Brazilian rainforest, Professor Robert leads an army of broken-neck fly-zombies to what appears to be the home of the Parliament of Trees. Meanwhile, Alec and William duel it out with their respective powers. Alec is able to subdue the boy, but they all seem to sense the Parliament is in danger.
Recapping five issues of any series is going to be an endeavor. Swamp Thing is a particularly wordy series that works its ass off to establish about a hundred new components of the Swamp Thing mythos. But the concept of The Rot is sufficiently complicated and compelling that it’s worth it. I can’t tell if my exposure to Animal Man made me more willing to just dig into the Rot stuff, or if it’s interesting enough in its own right. I tell you one thing: I’m happy this concept is not wasted on a single series. But I am similarly glad that this isn’t something that’s behind imposed on the whole DC Universe. There are a lot of similarities between the abstract concepts behind the this series and Blackest Night – we’re dealing with embodiments of life and death (also, both feature human conduits-for-death named William). This feels like a job nicely suited for these half horror, half super hero characters – no need to drag all the capes into the fray.
This series has an awful lot in common with the terrifying Animal Man series. The price of admission is much much lower, and the pay-off is only slightly diminished. The art in Swamp Thing, while bold and ambitious is nowhere near as adventurous as Animal Man, even when depicting similar characters. There are a bunch of pages from Animal Man that feel like the stuff of nightmares while Swamp Thing’s big spreads are a lot prettier and more inviting. That’s the difference between The Red and The Green, I suppose. No matter how much gore ST is about to smear its pages with, there’s bound to be a bunch of flowers and greenery on the next page.
The layouts here are phenomenal. I imagine we’re exchanging similar thoughts about Batwoman on your blog right now – both of these series use their complicated framing to create pages with an added element of thematic unity. As the material has more to do with death and The Rot, the boarders become sloppier splashes of black paint; as The Green asserts its influence, the boarders resemble tree branches or roots. The third issue does this absolutely flawlessly, employing artist Victor Ibanez for William’s pages in the hospital and then reverting to Paquette when we head back into the forest with Alec and Abby. It’s an incredible visual sort-hand. There are also a bunch of impressive two-page splashes that help the exposition down. Take this spread from issue #4:
I haven’t said anything substantial about this series. I love it. I am certainly suffering from the “whatever comic I was just reading is my favorite” syndrome, but I really dig the way this compliments the experience of reading Animal Man – which I also love. Drew, I’ll turn it over to you for further analysis.
Drew: Not to dwell too much on our perceptions of the characters before coming to the titles, but I agree that it’s really important to get everyone on the same page for these reviews. If someone much more knowledgeable on Swamp Thing is reading this post, knowing the limits of your own knowledge will be key to understanding where you’re coming from, and if they’re less knowledgeable, your rundown of the recent character history will be a helpful crash-course. For example: my only knowledge of Swamp Thing before picking up issue 1 was that there is some kind of Swamp Thing. I’m not kidding.
I suppose I have some kind of vague notions that Swamp Thing has acted as some kind of environmental crusader, but I knew nothing of any origins or mythologies. That isn’t to say I can’t tell when they’ve changed something in the Matrix. Reboot revisionism has this kind of universal feel, such that I know something is either new or pointedly not new when Alec Holland tells Superman he never was Swamp Thing, or when the former Swamp Thing lays out a mythology that is new to Alec. You could make a claim that that kind of transparency is a distraction, but it helps me appreciate just how this new mythology nestles into what has already been established for the character.
The former Swamp Thing reminds Alec that because he never was Swamp Thing, we have no idea just how powerful he may be. This adds a bit of much-needed interest to the “chosen one” story that’s starting to unfold. By issue 5, it’s clear that Alec is super powerful, tearing all of William’s undead minions to shreds with roots. Roots! He also has awesomely growing green eyes. This is the only title we’re reading where the hero has yet to “suit up” and that build-up is totally paying off. I can’t wait to see the Alec Holland Swamp Thing, which very well may only show up when it looks like Alec will be down for the count. Scott Snyder has all but underlined the fact that Swamp Things swampify “when their human life is ending – but not yet over,” which maybe gives away exactly what’s going to happen to Alec as he battles the Rot, but I’m so looking forward to it, I don’t mind that it’s coming.
There’s an interesting thought: this arc seems to be acting more or less as a new origin story. Swamp Thing isn’t around right now, but he’s clear on the horizon. We’ve talked here before about why origins (especially re-tellings of origins) are often boring and overstuffed. Between the complicated new mythology of Swamp Thing and the Rot (not to mention William’s abilities), this title seems like it should warrant that “overstuffed” label, but Snyder somehow pulls it off with aplomb. Part of this is because he backdoors in enough old mythology to keep us oriented, even though Alec isn’t really Swamp Thing yet. The fact that Alec knows that he was and is destined to be Swamp thing is, for me anyway, far more interesting than watching Peter Parker figure out he can climb walls for the Nth time.
It also helps that Animal Man has already immersed me pretty thoroughly in the whole Red/Green/Rot world, such that the few mentions of it here feel like more than enough. I agree that this title is feeling a bit like Animal Man’s younger brother, but I wonder if that isn’t largely because we read that first. Sure, three grotesque manifestations of evil are a more compelling villains than a kid with a pageboy and a swarm of flies, but my devotion to Batman and Robin is more or less predicated on my interest in amoral children with far too much power (and to be fair, William’s powers are awesomely horrifying). In the end, I think we just care more about people than we do plants. In fact, we only really establish anything as evil here because of the danger it’s posing to human life, specifically. We’re not upset because William burned a forest, but because he killed a diner full of people. The fact that this new mythology kind of pigeonholes Swamp Thing as the Lorax is going to make it harder for us to care as much about his stakes than pretty much any other superhero.
Making the villain something that threatens all life is a good move, but Snyder is also working overtime to get us to care about plants. The first few issues are littered with details about plants, both how they can help us and hurt us. I think these work in context, but I think they also reveal an insecurity about Swamp Thing’s new role as protector of plant life, specifically.
That’s the third time now I’ve mentioned how hard Snyder is working here, but I should point out that nothing here really feels strained. In fact, some of these sequences have been breathtakingly effortless. The opening sequence, where birds/bats/fish are dying by the droves is set to Alec’s voiceover about stemming flowers at his dad’s florist shop, is particularly well handled. You mention how the borders become rougher and start to seep into the panels, and it’s worth pointing out that that happens on page one of the first issue. The panel borders start as regular black lines, but start to spill over into the panels as you work your way down the page, just as Clark, Lois, and Perry are noticing the pigeons falling from the sky. It’s a subtle effect, but once it’s established, it cues us into what’s going on even when we can’t see it.
I don’t know if I should credit Snyder for those layout specifics — the layouts for Batman are also uncommonly brilliant — but either way, the artists on this title (and there are so many) are pulling them off. I think my favorite detail of the layouts are the occasions where the panels are tilted at an angle, such that you have to read up the page as you read from right to left. It’s kind of an unnatural thing to read that way, but it never feels unnatural, and it adds this strange sense of rising to the images. It mirrors a sense of growth when tied to the green, but a sense of impending doom when associated with the rot.
I’m with you on loving how much this works as a companion for Animal Man. I’m not sure I’d like this title quite as much without that association, but that’s no slight to this title (a second prize to Animal Man is nothing to sneeze at). I’m really digging this, and I’m in no hurry to see the two titles collide, though with Alec and Abigail having traveled so far west, they may run into the Baker clan sooner rather than later. Point is, I’m enjoying the ride, which I think is the most important thing separating the titles I love from the titles that aren’t worth my time.
Here’s a list of what we’re reading. The list is Batman heavy, and we’re not going to write about everything. That being said, feedback and suggestions on what to read and discuss are welcome. Overlapping books in bold:
Animal Man, Batgirl, Batman, Batwoman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League, Nightwing, Swamp Thing, Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin