Patrick: Okay, so why “five years later,” huh? What’s the point of all these glances into the theoretic furutre of DC Comics? I know it shouldn’t matter that these stories may prove to be part of a future-narrative that gets wiped out of the canon, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re reading a bunch of what-if stories. Intriguingly, these glimpses into future have their eyes set on the past; evoking elements of Pre-Flashpoint continuity and reconciling that with what’s been established since September of 2011. The future is a point on a line, plotted using the past and present as reference. It’s a herculean task, but one that writer Charles Soule and artist Jesus Saiz are more than up for, aligning themselves with the intrepid Alec Holland, perhaps unsure that they would make it through to the other side unharmed.
Oh, but first, a general Futures End beef: all of these comics need to get new number 1s for this? Between the zero issue, the annuals, and this, my Comixology copy of Swamp Thing 1 is now hilariously listed fourth when I bring up that series page. I know it’s no big deal now — I read the comic when it comes out, see the “Futures End” on the cover and fill in the chronology later — but I imagine this’ll be a pain in the butt for people looking back on Swamp Thing in the future. I don’t know what the solution is, but this September, like the Zero Month, is going to be a nightmare for archivists.
And I think this is one that fans of Swamp Thing’s recent messy history are going to enjoy. We join Alec as he embarks upon a quest to recruit the avatars of Fungus, Bacteria and Metal for some at-the-time unspecified purpose. In the last five years, all of the avatars entered into an agreement by which they were sent to their own fantasy realm and were restricted from interfering with the cycle of life on Earth. Everyone seems more or less cool with this arrangement for the time being — everyone that is, except Alec, who wants to make a few tweeks to the balance of power before… whatever’s going to happen is going to happen. Delightfully, whatever Swamp Thing is preparing for is immaterial. By the end of the issue, all we know for sure is that he wanted to unseat the Rot as one of the pillars of life on Earth. If you’ve been reading this series since Scott Snyder’s issue number one, you don’t need convincing that this is a noble cause, but just in cause you’re jumping in cold, Soule and Saiz thoroughly establish how much of a rat bastard the Avatar of Rot is.
This is a dense one-and-done story, so space is of-the-essence and it’s remarkable how much villainy is displayed so quickly. For my money, Soule’s use of the term “daughterbride” is enough to make cry for Arcane’s immediate dismemberment. Saiz’ horrifying design of this conjoined couple would almost be overkill, if it weren’t such a specifically crafted image. Their arms, frozen in a lovers hand-holding position and forever fused together with scar tissue, and Abby’s sewn-shut mouth, are really the only elements of the characters that appear grotesque at all, tastefully playing beauty against abomination. (And what is Abby Arcane, really, if not the embodiment of “beauty and abomination?”)
This issue is all about what Alec’s plans are after he overthrows the Rot. That’s why he’s enlisting the services of the other Avatars — not to help him enact his coup, but to cover Arcane’s duties in the aftermath. Now, I trust that some people might need a bit of an explanation as to what the fuck Alec’s actually doing in the end: who’s that other Swamp Thing living in Alec’s chest? And why has it worn a white ring? Oh, and by the way, what the hell is a white ring? These are all reasonable questions no one should really expect a New 52 Swamp Thing fan to have the answers to. It’s revealed during Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing that the original character wasn’t actually Alec, but a sentient force of the green that had mapped its consciousness from Holland’s rapidly failing body. That same not-Alec body died and later resurrected via a White Lantern ring in Geoff Johns’ Brightest Day storyline. Soule not only marries these two histories of the character, but seamlessly integrates modern mythology about the on-going war between the realms of the Red, the Green and the Rot (while also weaseling in a few of his own ideas in the form of the kingdoms of Bacteria and Metal).
That’s an impressive feat, but I can also see where that might be a touch off-putting to new readers. Greg, I don’t know what you’re history with Swamp Thing is like, but I do know that you’re usually pretty good at being thrown in the deep end without a life vest. Were these narrative gymnastics as exciting for you to read too? Or did could you even tell which was “real” history and which was history made up for this issue? And ultimately, does the cleverness of the story even matter when it gives Saiz an excuse to draw Swamp Thing offering a three-headed bear to land of sentient bacteria?
God, that is so disgusting and so beautiful at the same time. Maybe that’s the real magic behind this issue: the past, present and future of Swamp Thing will always be tied up in an aesthetic that’s mystifying and nauseating at the same time.
Greg: Patrick, as a newbie to the world of Swamp Thing, reading this issue felt like being tossed into a deep end that jolts between still and stormy waters. As you rightly point out, everything about this issue is liminal — both abominable and beautiful, past and future. Coming to this realization felt like unlocking a key to the intentionally obfuscated narrative (which, as you say, may come second in terms of enjoyment to Saiz and colorist Matthew Wilson‘s intensely crafted, horrifyingly grandiose creations that seem to exist both within and outside of nature). If this issue is all about conscious blurring of boundaries, then of course Alec would be against an agreement sending all avatars to their own, separated, structured realms, restricted from interfering with Earth and each other. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but it’s almost as if the aesthetic and narrative “desires” to cross-contaminate informed and bled into the character’s “desires” — which is, in of itself, a cross-contamination between author and work.
This kind of analysis is fun, in a certain academic way, but when it comes to the simpler, perhaps purer fun of “just reading” a comic and immediately understanding it, it definitely took me until Patrick’s handy-for-newbies summation of what was going on and why to “get it”. Part of the disorientation stems from a bit of blurring overkill. As you mention, Patrick, this issue is dense and ornate. For the most part, the style of prose reflects this, feeling both “big” and “important” (the amount of quotes I’m using reminds me of one of my favorite Onion articles) in a way that feels as if it’s a major entry in the fantasy canon. In particular, our narrator’s language is flowery, implying omnipotence, and borderline medieval, as he calls Alec our Green Knight, makes reference to the “tale” itself, and uses multi-syllabic words where smaller ones would do. But then, just as I’m getting used to this manner of address, I’m jarred by the blunt and often modern discourse Alec uses (“See you later, idiot. Thanks for the bear”). Perhaps Soule is playing this for comedy, positioning Alec as the “real” foil in a world of “fantastical” presentation and content. Ultimately, I found it one notch too disorienting.
You spoke about the brutal efficiency of presenting Arcane’s evil, and I’d like to briefly unspool that as it relates to the attitude towards women in this issue. In the previous scene in the Kingdom of Fungus, women exist solely as a bartering chip for Alec and a figment of imagination and desire for the Fungus Avatar. These women are not given any character development or agency; they are instead just objects used to further male motivations. Thus, when this icky notion is taken to its logical extreme with the horrifying implication of what Arcane is doing to Abby, her response — not just to Arcane’s character-to-character actions, but to the text’s text-to-reader actions — is both thrillingly progressive yet perversely regressive.
I’ve come to a conclusion, spurred in part by the previously linked Onion article. Swamp Thing 1: Futures End is the ultimate postmodern comic book issue. Feel free to tell me I’m both correct and incorrect in the comments section, which is both below and above (postmodernism is easy! (and hard)).
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 download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?