Henry David Thoreau
Drew: I think it’s safe to say that technophobia has always been a thing. From fire to electricity, somebody was always more concerned over what we were losing than what we were gaining. Stories of people fearing electrical vapors or locomotives seem quaint to us now, but it wasn’t so long ago that buying things through this new internet thing seemed like an absurdly risky endeavor. In fact, I think consumers were so scared of online shopping that we were kind of oblivious to the impacts it could have in offline shopping. If anyone should have been scared of online shopping, it was brick-and-mortar establishments like Blockbuster and Borders (and, you know, countless small businesses) that couldn’t compete with the convenience and selection. The comics industry is still recovering from its most recent bout of technophobia, having only recently fully embraced same-day digital releases and content designed specifically for screens. Those growing pains are very much at the heart of Swamp Thing 37, which checks in on how the various avatars are reacting to the space technology is carving out for itself.
Lady Weeds is now the Machine Queen, and she has a simple message to the other avatars: join or die. Her first stop is the avatar of the Grey, who’s pretty amenable to the whole “let’s get Swamp Thing” part of the Machine Queen’s plan. Next up is recruiting Anton Arcane to lead her army. Reduced to eating garbage, he doesn’t really seem like the leader she’s looking for, but he has something she might find useful: the remains of Alec Holland’s human body. It’s a foreboding ending, but this whole issue is a masterclass in building a sense of dread. From the Machine Queen’s violent birth to the way she’s able to instill fear in big bad Anton Arcane, writer Charles Soule establishes her as an intimidating threat. More than her physical prowess, though, is her mental cunning. Building a coalition of Alec’s worst enemies is a great plan, and one she apparently perfected while she was paralyzed.
That’s how you build up a threat. We already know how ruthless this character is, but having her reveal that she has a plan — even before we ever learn what it is — makes her that much scarier.
Also building her up is Alec’s own preparations for his fight with the machines. At the start of the issue, he doesn’t know that they’ve selected an avatar, but he’s still practicing for battle, controlling multiple bodies in multiple target practices around the world. That’s a particularly clever detail, but I’m most intrigued by the fact that he’s practicing at all. It seems like every other villain in comics only ever gets the upper hand through the element of surprise, so it’s downright refreshing to see someone actually preparing for a fight. Being able to slice apples may not ultimately come in all that handy when your enemies are made of metal, but it was still a fun detail that cements just how seriously Alec is taking the machines.
The most important piece of buildup, though, comes from Constantine, who sought out Alec specifically to warn him about the new avatar. Constantine is not a guy who scares easily, so for him to admit that he’s going into hiding until this whole thing blows over speaks to just how big this fight will be. Actually, that scene is so good, I’m just going to include it all here.
Artist Jesus Saiz is as awesome as ever, but I’m particularly loving the pacing here. That Constantine takes that whole beat to take his last drag on the cigarette before stubbing it out just feels right. It would be so easy for some of the dialogue that follows to encroach on that panel, and while I don’t know if that decision was made by Soule, Saiz, letterer Travis Lanham, or one of the editors, they all deserve credit for keeping it this way.
Anyway, my point is, this issue is damn effective at building up the bad guy without any punches being thrown. But what does that gad guy represent? I know any technology could be argued here, but I think this issue suggests that it might just be digital comics. In particular, the four calculi seem to represent the Red, Green, Blue, and Alpha signals we associate with computer monitors (and thus, digital comics coloring). It could be an inside joke from colorist Matt Hollingsworth, but I think the fact that the fourth calculus is named “Omega” seems almost too on-the-nose to be a coincidence. Again, this could just as easily be an abstraction of how we think about technology — basically everything we think of as “technology” has some kind of RGBA screen — but think the meta-text of Swamp Thing (a great stand-in for old-school comic storytelling) fighting the avatar of technology is too delicious to pass up.
Of course, because this issue is almost all build-up, we can’t really come to any conclusions about what this series might be saying about digital comics or technology in general. I suspect that this arc will end with some kind of equilibrium, but heck, maybe Alec will pound the machines into the ground. Spencer! Do you have any thoughts on that particular reading? Were you as enthralled with just building up the Machine Queen as I was, or were you left feeling like nothing actually happened here?
Spencer: Actually Drew, I think quite a bit happens in this issue! We really only get one scene with Swamp Thing himself, but we get to see the birth of an Avatar, and almost immediately she takes over The Gray and enlists Anton Arcane — not only is that a lot for one issue, but the speed and efficiency with which the Machine Queen operates continues to build her up as an unparalleled threat. Needless to say, I found a lot to love in this issue.
Anyway, I think your reading about the Machine Kingdom is quite sound. After all, they arose as a kingdom long after the other kingdoms were already established, immediately changing the playing field just as new technology always does. Drew, you theorized that this arc will probably end by reaching some sort of equilibrium, and I’m inclined to agree. I’m still somewhat new to Swamp Thing, so forgive me if I’m not spot-on with the mythology here, but I get the impression that the various kingdoms all exist in some sort of balance. The Green, The Red, even The Rot are all good in small doses, vital to keeping the world running, but when any one kingdom oversteps their bounds it throws off the entire balance, plunging the world into chaos.
The Machines may be the new kingdom on the block, but they’re still a part of this balance, and I think this can all be applied to how we use technology in our lives as well. Modern technology has quickly become a vital part of everyday living, and no matter what the old men yelling at clouds may say, that’s not a bad thing. When our use of technology gets out of balance, though — when it becomes an all-consuming obsession — it can throw our whole life out of whack. Technology should coexist with nature and other interests, not push them out of the picture entirely, but that’s exactly what the Calculus is trying to do, and that’s a perfect way to absolutely shatter the Earth’s balance.
The Thoreau quote Drew opens the article on makes an interesting point as well: machines are tools, meant to be used by humans and with little to no use otherwise. The Calculus have already transcended this purpose somewhat by having an artificial intelligence of their own, but even then, their plans and methods are limited; while they proved to be a challenge to Holland in the past, their potential was probably more threatening than any actions they had yet taken. Adding a person, an avatar, a user to the equation, though, changes all that.
It takes Lady Weeds’ passion and drive to put these machines to their best use, and having such technology at the fingertips of someone as smart, driven, and ruthless as Lady Weeds makes her even more frightening than she already was. The underlying idea here, though, seems to be that technology is only as useful — or as dangerous — as the people controlling it. There are some exceptions, of course (any piece of technology designed solely to hurt people, like a gun or a bomb, is dangerous no matter who uses it), but in general most pieces of technology can be either helpful or harmful depending on who’s using them.
So as far as I can tell this issue features a rather pro-technology theme, which I guess is a little funny since the Calculus are the bad guys here, but it actually makes a lot of sense; what Soule seems to be saying is that technology in itself is nothing to fear, but that the danger actually comes from technology being misused or overused, which I’d say is actually quite a pertinent message in this day and age. The fact that Soule can so effortlessly slip these ideas into a story that’s already packed with plot, character development, and just plain tension is a feat in itself; add to it Saiz’s impressive art, especially his knack for horrific imagery, and you’ve got an issue well worth seeking out.
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?