Scott: There are two types of “bad guys”: those with real, understandable motives, and those who are just purely evil. Think Two-Face versus the Joker in The Dark Knight. Some villainous characters have a humanizing characteristic, a defining tragic trait or plight that the average person can feel sympathy for. That’s not to say they always redeem themselves, necessarily, but they’re harder to root against than those who are simple embodiments of greed or hate. In Swamp Thing 31, Alec takes on both types of bad guys, and each is socially relevant in surprising ways. If it wasn’t clear already, Charles Soule is doing things very few writers have the creative energy, or the guts, to take on.
Picking up where last issue left off, Alec seems poised to reap the benefits of being in a human body, as it looks like he and Miki are about to get it on. Sadly, the moment is spoiled when Miki reveals she’s the Avatar of The Grey — the fungus kingdom — and she’s been shirking her responsibilities, living in various human bodies for centuries. Alec gets Guarav to put him into Miki’s dormant Avatar body, then travels through the Grey to the German lab where his body is being used by a biotech corporation to destroy its competitors’ crops. Alec reclaims his body and razes the facility, then has Guarav transfer him back into his plant body while putting Miki back into the Grey Avatar body, much to her chagrin.
Miki is set up as something of a monster, willing to take countless lives so she can continue to live on in human form, all because she grew tired of serving the Grey and found the Avatar body repulsive. If watching fungus grow from her every orifice wasn’t an instant boner-killer for Alec, pretty much every sentence she utters makes her less attractive. She apparently has no guilt about the all people who has sacrificed their lives so she can live on, she left the Grey to fend for itself, and she wants Alec to quit on the Green and run away with her, etc. Just as I’m starting to despise her, Soule throws in a detail that changes my perspective entirely.
Miki, the woman who had just been trying to seduce Alec, lived her previous life as a man. When Alec enters the Grey, he comments on how empty it feels, and how lonely it must have been for Miki to serve as its Avatar. He says he can almost understand how she left it behind. Despite how dishonorable it may seem, it isn’t hard to understand how someone would want to give up life as an Avatar, especially if they found their entire existence so solitary and uncomfortable, as Miki surely did. If Soule is saying, like I think he is, that Miki is a transgender person, then she’s likely been dealing with that same discomfort her entire life. Her moral fiber is questionable, no doubt, but it’s clear she’s now comfortable in her own skin, maybe for the first time in her life. Alec is trying to take that away from her, and I can understand how that would make her so upset. Kudos to Soule for adding an extra shade to a character who seemed like a simple villain, and doing so with a socially conscious metaphor.
The social consciousness doesn’t stop there. The mysterious organization that stole Alec’s body is a corporation dealing in genetically engineered seeds, an obvious reference to Monsanto and other agricultural corporations. Unlike with Miki, Soule makes no attempt to portray D.W. Ag as anything but villainous. Their objective is to monopolize the world’s food supply, using Alec’s body to wipe out any crops that aren’t theirs, while keeping casualties “within an acceptable range.” The researchers are guaranteed sizable bonuses, assuring us that that, at each rung of the corporate ladder, money is the only concern. It’s a humorous if not frighteningly realistic take on morally corrupt corporations, but one that ultimately falls a bit flat. The fact that Alec thwarts their plan so effortlessly after three issues of buildup is a let-down, and the idea that any researchers would willingly sacrifice themselves for the sake of such a company is patently absurd.
Artist Jesus Saiz and colorist Matthew Wilson always churn out amazing work on this title, but I often feel bad that they pretty much only get to work with various shades of green. This issue is a notable departure from the norm, utilizing settings like a red-soaked Indian dusk, a sterile German laboratory, and a Brazilian wheatfield. The best, though, is Alec’s journey through the Grey, a dingy, grimey voyage in his sporous, fungal body.
It’s a funny spin on Alec’s usual journey through the Green, with his typical landing spots like flowers and blades of grass replaced by the fungus growing on an old boot or a mens’ room floor. The idea of the Grey sounds gross, but Saiz, Wilson and Javi Pina take it to another level of repulsion with this page. Alec settles on a moldy sandwich, emerging as a fuzzy, blue-green “Moldman”, which definitely needs to get its own spinoff title.
Drew, I know you’re a big fan of both Soule and Saiz’s work on this title, did this issue live up to your expectations? Also, are you excited for the upcoming Aquqman crossover, or do you prefer when this title sticks to its own corner of the DCU?
Drew: As you mention, much of what I like about this series is Soule and Saiz, which means I’m less than thrilled that I’ll need to pick up an issue of Aquaman just to know what’s going on next month. That’s not to say I won’t enjoy Aquaman 31, just that this series may have set my expectations unreasonably high. As for whether this issue lived up to those expectations, I’m going to have to go with a definitive “yes,” even as I appreciate your criticisms as totally valid.
Honestly, Hans’ inexplicable willingness to die for a corporation so interested in its bottom line doesn’t bother me — maybe he’s terminally ill, or was offered insane amounts of money for his family, or both — but the swiftness with which Alec destroys the facility might. It’s not much of an emotional climax; none of the managers beg for mercy, Alec never moralizes, nobody understands the errors of their way. It’s a bit of a non-event, but that’s okay — the real focus here is on the resolution with Miki, which as you pointed out, has much higher emotional stakes.
Scott, I’m intrigued by your transgender reading of Miki’s situation. It certainly makes her a more sympathetic character, but it also complicates Alec’s treatment of her. From Alec’s perspective, Avatarship isn’t a choice, but a responsibility that must be taken seriously, even if it isn’t desirable. The fact that Alec isn’t wrong — that there may indeed be something unnatural, irresponsible, even evil in this particular brand of immortality — stymies a purely gendered reading of the situation, making Miki more than just a man or woman. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure how to reconcile Alec’s treatment of Miki with your compelling reading, so I’ll have to leave that open to the comments.
What I am sure of is how fantastic Saiz and Pina’s work here is. It’s easy to take layouts this simple and clear for granted, but Saiz is a gifted storyteller, and Pina slides into his style perfectly. True to that understated form, one of the best sequences of the issue might simply be the series of body-switching at the end of the issue.
All of the body-switching here is actually a difficult concept to represent visually, so Saiz streamlines it by giving us columns focusing on the physical bodies. Miki’s consciousness starts in the middle, but quickly tracks left to the Grey Avatar body. The unconsciousness tracks the inversion of that pattern, moving from the far right to the center, just before the host body decays. Alec’s consciousness tracks a diagonal line from the top right to the bottom left — giving him the first and last words while also allowing him to win this game of tic-tac-toe. It’s a clever assertion of power, subtly cuing us in to who has the upper hand even before we see Alec taking control.
What a good issue. This series continues a relatively slow burn, but it also manages to feature some incredibly diverse stories. At C2E2, Soule expressed pride at how global this series feels — which manifests itself as location-specific Swampy designs — and I have to agree: each issue feels totally different from the last. If nothing else, I’m excited to see the seaweed Swamp Thing the crossover is sure to feature.
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 Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?