Today, Patrick and Scott are discussing Swamp Thing 23, originally released August 7th, 2013.
Patrick: Alcohol is weird. It’s dulls our senses, it shortens our lives, it gets us into trouble – and yet we engage with it time and time (and time) again. Why? Because it’s fun. Because when we dial back our inhibitions a little bit, we find the casual courage to do something we’ve always wanted to do. All of that freedom is great, until you cross that line. YOU KNOW THE ONE I MEAN. The moment in the evening where you don’t make decisions with your complete mental faculty. I’ve always had people tell me that drinking brings out who someone really is, but that’s faulty. If anything, booze dulls the prowess of the super-ego, allowing the baser urges of ego and id to take priority. But the id isn’t a person’s “true self” – the psyche isn’t a list of three psychic apparatuses, but the relationship between the three. What you are can more accurately be defined by how you deny the more destructive urges deep in your Freudian well. That’s the kind of thematic material Charles Soule mines in his story about a magician, a plant-man and a booze-tree.
With 98% of the town under the enchanting stupor of the Whiskey Tree, John Constantine rules the village as the permissive King John. (Delightful.) He’s been gathering up stragglers and forcing them to imbibe the magic intoxicant, which at this point is mostly pregnant ladies and children. Swamp Thing is powerless to stop any of this because he’s been cut off from the Green by one of King John’s spells and thrown in jail. No matter, Alec stretches the utility of the body he has left to stage of prison-break and confront John head-on. The villagers jump to their king’s defense and chase the monster with… you guested it! Torches! The second he’s lit on fire, Alec abandons his form for one last-ditch attempt – spreading seeds into the air. One such seed — a poppy — lands and sprouts next to Constantine. The flower, with Swamp Thing’s face hilariously grumping right up until it blooms, hits John with some opium-esque gas, knocking him out and breaking the spell. Reconnected to the Green, Alec sorta loses control.
Discontent with taking the form of a single plant, Alec appears to take on the form of the whole wooded hillside. At this point, Swamp Thing is so powerful that he easily poppies all the townsfolk and withers their Whiskey Tree. But he does struggle not to murder everyone. There’s a slightly greener set of voice over boxes in these final pages — you can see a few of them in the panel I posted above — as if to suggest that there’s another voice inside Alec’s head, barking out orders that conflict with what we know about Alec. Or at least what we think we know about him.
He’s basically drunk with power in this moment. John Constantine’s experience with the magic tree-whiskey is pretty similar – both of them alter their behavior in ways that you could argue are closer to their base desires. We know John Constantine is an ambitious motherfucker who will do anything to get just a little bit more power. Of course, I mean he will do “anything” – Constantine’s plenty unscrupulous, but he never goes straight into villainy. But when the whiskey damages his own ability to keep his own power-mad impulses in check, he certainly crosses that line. He’s still charming as ever, but hey, magic booze can’t change everything about a person.
So what was happening to John there? Was he freed up to be the purest version of himself or was he enchanted to do something against his nature? We can ask the same question of Alec. The difference in color between his normal VO and his more murdery VO suggests that the desire to violate his morals was an alien force – probably some kind of intelligence in the Green or whatever. When he’s reflecting on it later, Alec says:
Something else was speaking to me at the end there… those weren’t my thoughts, not all of them. …where they?
Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t. Ultimately, we see Alec’s ability to check that voice as strength of character, but what do we make of the idea that this is just the first step of him losing his humanity. Shortly after Soule took over, we talked at length about what it means that there’s no longer a Alec Holland human body inside Swamp Thing. It shouldn’t really matter that much, the argument goes, because his consciousness is still there inside this planty body. But a person is so much more than just their consciousness: hell, this story arc gives us a great tangible example of forces outside our bodies changing who we are. Even just on a biological level, how does it change Alec’s mind that he doesn’t receive the same chemicals? That he has no blood? How does photosynthesis make him feel? It’s an intriguing set of questions.
Scott, I found that question so intriguing that I guess I talked about nothing else. Hey, did you let out an audible whimper when you read the line “Nggh! Feels like I’m prying my kneecap off with a spoon” like I did? That’s an impressive piece of writing, right there. Also, I love Kano and David Lapham’s mangy Swamp Thing.
Scott: Even in his bare-bones form, Alec doesn’t look like the kind of guy I’d want to encounter in a dark alley. Still, things manage to get a lot worse for Alec before they get any better. It’s always hard for me to see characters I like more or less accept their imminent deaths (I’m looking at you, Toy Story 3), and when Alec got to that point I was getting a little nervous for him.
Fortunately Alec has one more trick up his sleeveless, twig-like arm. I’m not entirely sure what it means for Swamp Thing to lose his connection to the Green. He still relies pretty heavily on his powers throughout the issue, despite being cut-off from the Green by Constantine’s spell. I was hoping to see him work his way out of trouble without the use of his powers, simply by out-smarting Constantine and the townsfolk. In the end, sprouting up as a poppy plant right at Constantine’s feet feels like too easy of a solution.
Now that Alec’s connection to the Green is firmly re-established, however, there are more difficult questions to ponder. Patrick, I think Alec deserves credit for being able to ignore the second, murder-hungry voice inside his head. He shows much more restraint than Constantine or any of the drunken villagers, who go so far as to pour whiskey down a pregnant woman’s throat (“Two for the price of one,” Constantine calls it). While Alec no longer has a human body, he does not lack humanity, although it will be interesting to see if his sympathies shift more towards the Green as he becomes further removed from his days as a human. The recent Animal Man annual saw Buddy Baker making a deal that seemed to place more value on the lives of humans than other animals. How does Alec value human lives compared to the health of the Green? That question isn’t exactly answered in this issue, since Alec didn’t need to kill anyone to restore the the Green, but now I’m really curious what he would do in such a situation.
Any interpretation of this issue will hinge largely upon whether the second voice in Alec’s head was coming from within Alec or from some outside force. With Seeder’s ability to manipulate the Green using dark magic, I wouldn’t put it past him to find a way to get inside Alec’s head, but I still don’t know why he would be trying to kill a bunch of people in Scotland. With next month’s Swamp Thing focusing on Anton Arcane, it will likely be a long wait until we learn anymore about Seeder and his motives. I’m definitely not excited for the wait. If given the choice, I’d rather pry my kneecap off with a spoon than wait two months for answers. Just kidding! I’ll wait…shudder…I’ll wait.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?