Today, Scott and Mikyzptlk are discussing Swamp Thing 23.1: Arcane, originally released September 18th, 2013. This issue is part of the Villain’s Month event. Click here for our Villains Month coverage.
Scott: Some villainous behavior is justifiable — if you get all sides of the story, you can at least understand why someone would commit such seemingly evil acts. This is a big part of Villains Month, understanding why villains act the way they act. In fact, many of these issues have taken advantage of a little trick: when you tell a story from a character’s perspective, that character immediately becomes more sympathetic to the reader, even if that character is not such a great person. But there are some villains whose actions cannot be justified, who have an inherent evil to their ways that a normal person just can’t understand. Anton Arcane is one of these villains.
Anton Arcane has been banished to a special sort of hell for a former Avatar of the Rot — one where nothing ever rots. His niece, and current Avatar of the Rot, Abby Arcane arrives and allows Anton a brief taste of the Rot. In exchange, Abby asks Anton to tell her about her mother, Ilse, of whom Abby has few memories. When Abby was young, she and her mother went to live in Anton’s mountain castle. As Avatar of the Rot, Anton sought to find a way to create decay in the living, and he began experimenting on Ilse. Ilse sent Abby away from the castle before Anton could begin experimenting on her as well, but Anton soon found Abby and brought her back, only to find that Ilse had escaped. But this is not the truth Abby seeks, for, as Anton tells her, Ilse was not Abby’s real mother, but a hired whore. Abby’s real mother died after Abby, as an infant, infected her with rot. Abby, realizing she is more like her uncle than she wants to believe, abandons Anton again, but he sees a way out of his hell.
Yep, that’s Anton Arcane tearing out his own eyeball and throwing it through a portal to the real world. Yeesh! It lands in a fruit bowl, and is nearly ingested by a young boy before his mother notices the big rotten spot on his apple. “What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?” she quips as she tosses the apple in a trash can. “Half a worm.” Heh, sounds like someone’s never found an evil eyeball in her apple before (Though, to be fair, “evil eyeball” just doesn’t sound right as a punchline. Give it a try.)
Hey, since we’re talking about eyeballs, this seems like a good time to discuss point-of-view. I find it very interesting that, even while Anton is the one telling the story, this issue is presented from Abby’s perspective. Abby has plenty of reasons to distrust Anton already and so we, the readers, along with Abby, can’t be sure how reliable Anton is as a storyteller. Is he telling the truth about Ilse’s disappearance? About Abby’s real mother? Many of the Villains Month issues have managed to cast their villains in a sympathetic light by presenting the story from their point-of-view and allowing them to justify their actions to some extent. Charles Soule intentionally tells a more objective story, keeping us one step removed from Anton’s psyche, so the ambiguity of his motives permeates each page.
Maybe Anton Arcane is just too demented for us to understand what’s happening in his mind, for Soule to even attempt to tell the story from his perspective. From the brief glimpse we get into Anton’s early life we see that he is not the type of villain who had a troubled life and made a few poor choices. There is something much darker at play. As a twelve year old boy, Anton happens upon a dead rabbit rotting away in a dark forest. At first, he is fascinated by it, he finds it beautiful. Then, in startling moment of self-discovery, he impulsively devours it.
This is not a normal human mind being slowly driven to madness. This is a deep-rooted psychopathy revealing itself abruptly. And it only gets worse from there. If the front cover is any indication, you knew this issue would be gory and gross. Artist Jesus Saiz goes gruesome early and often, filling these pages with a kind of disgusting horror reserved for the Rot’s most well-known Avatar. Saiz is especially unkind to rabbits, showing not one but two occasions of rabbits being torn in two. The other instance is an interesting parallel to the one mentioned above, as Anton himself tears the animal apart, not to eat it but to see if it will rot (OK, maybe he was going to eat it after that, but we can’t know for sure).
But the most horrifying part of the issue is Anton’s telling of what he did to Ilse — and the fact that he sees nothing wrong with it. It takes an extraordinary kind of evil for a man to make a living woman decay, piece by piece, and think he’s doing it for her own good. Want to visualize just how demented Anton is? This is his idea of an experiment going right:
Mikyzptlk: Honestly, I’ve always thought of Arcane as such a straightforward villain that I didn’t think it mattered what his backstory was. Leave it to Charles Soule to show me how wrong I’ve been. To answer your question, Scott, I’m frightened just watching this dude from afar, but Soule definitely has me wanting get into his head. Although, thinking about getting into the mind of Arcane makes me want to jump right back out again. This issue was unsettling and disgusting, but since it’s about a former and current avatar of the Rot, it certainly should have been those things.
What I really appreciated about this issue though, and what I found most surprising, was that it was about a family. A really twisted, rot-magically imbued family, but a family nonetheless. It was truly disturbing to see a human version of Arcane interacting with the childlike Abby and her caretakers. At least in his true form, you can tell that Arcane is dangerous. As a human though, it was impossible to see the things he was capable of doing. Abby’s not-quite-mother found out about that the hard way. This leads me to the most frightening thing that this issue helped me to realize about Arcane. In his own mind, he’s doing the right thing.
This line made me think of the Rotworld storyline by Scott Snyder, and how all of the horrible rot-ified things we saw throughout that story were “gifts” according to Arcane. The build up in this story had me feeling sorry for Abby, because it seemed that Arcane would stop at nothing to spread the Rot, especially into his own family. Soule makes us feel sorry for Abby, as he makes us think that Arcane was at fault for the rot-fueled horrors that befell Abby. It is at this point where Arcane tells Abby the story of her true mother where we see this.
First off, did anyone else get goosebumps from this reveal? Yikes. Anyway, at the end of the day, it wasn’t Arcane behind the gruesome murder of Abby’s mother, it was Abby herself. Soule illustrates perfectly why Arcane chooses to be the villainous bastard that he is. At the same time though, he surprises us with a reveal that shows us that Abby, even if she doesn’t want to be, may not have a choice in being a villain at all.
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