Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Swamp Thing 39, originally released February 4th, 2015.
“My lack of vision was unsurprising, in a way. If you’ve lived within a system long enough, it’s hard to imagine existing without it.”
Lady Weeds / The Machine Queen, Swamp Thing 39
Patrick: Comics, and superhero comics in particular, are a recursive, thematically redundant medium. Archie’s always going to date two ladies, Batman’s always going to miss his parents, Spider-Man is always going to crack wise. But if the X-Men are always going to be an analogue for any group with outsider status, why do we even bother to pick up the new issues? Is there something comfortable in reiterating on the same themes over and over again? Swamp Thing 39 features just about every single Swamp Thing-ism you can name — grotesque body horror, warring elementals, physically repulsive affection, John Constantine — but still seems to slyly suggest that there’s an alternative to all of it. Charles Soule has played the part of Swamp Thing writer so faithfully for so long, but if he’s any bit as anarchic as Lady Weeds — a character of his creation — we might be in store for an unpredictable ending to his final Swamp Thing story.
Which isn’t to say that any of this feels predictable. Part of the joy of something as disgusting as Swamp Thing is that the story has to go to places your imagination doesn’t want to go, so just by playing out exactly as you expect it to, the story stays a step ahead of you. It’s a twisted stroke of genius to make the reanimated corpse of Alec Holland devour Swamp Thing’s body until his own sickly belly bloats with swamp meat. That’s a fiendishly graphic image, and Jesus Saiz and colorist June Chung render it with gleeful abandon — like they’re daring you to watch.
That’s page four, by the way. There’s no escalating to this point: this is where the issue starts.
That’s all very impressive, but, it does start to feel, well, a little Swamp Thing-y. I pose a few questions in my introduction that amount to the over all question of: is it a problem when a franchise repeats itself? Different authors and artists find different ways to iterate on the same ideas and the same stories, and there’s nothing to suggest that old ideas are bad. If my Facebook feed is to be believed, the biggest thing in entertainment this week was a joke-less Saved by the Bell reunion on Jimmy Fallon. Old ideas appear to be alive and well. Where Soule separates himself from Fallon, is that Soule doesn’t appear to be totally comfortable regurgitating Swampy’s greatest hits, alternately pitching a little fit about having to uphold the series-norms and actively rebelling against them by asserting his own identity.
That was a loaded accusation, so let me back it up. John Constantine shows up halfway through the issue when Abby and Alec limp into a bar. He’s well aware that the Green has been poisoned and the war with the Machines is not going particularly well, but he’s reluctant to ally himself with these lumbering elemental giants. Soule has been writing high-profile series for both Marvel and DC in recent years, and while he did recently sign an exclusivity deal with Marvel, for a long time, he was a man split between two masters (who are lumbering elemental giants in their own rights). Constantine tells the bartender “they’re the sort of folks you want to stay on good terms with […] assuming, that is that they survive the day.” I’m not privy to the editorial workings behind the final act to Soule’s saga, but he appears to be expressing some dissatisfaction with authority here, casting himself as Constantine, and the various Avatars as the Big Two. Specifically, he has Constantine expressing frustration with his forced focus on this dumb Machine War.
Soule only has a few issues left before he has to give up the character, maybe he doesn’t want to spend it mired in the same kind of conflict Swamp Thing is always mired in.
The other challenger to authority is The Machine Queen herself. She finds herself in a position nearly identical to Alec’s in issue 27. Lady Weeds even refers to this incident when telling a story to the Rithm, right before she rebels against them entirely. As far as I can tell, the “Avatar taking the power of the element away from Parliament” trick is one of Soule’s own, and not one of those tried and true Swampy Tropes. The Machine Queen evokes it here at her most defiant, before ceremonially (and stylishly) offing her own
editorial staff elemental overseers.
I think there might be another analogy tucked away in here — that A Calculus speaks differently than the rest of his compatriots. He cracks jokes, using colloquialisms and is generally sympathetic and fun to read. He’s much more light and jovial than that Omega Calculus, who just seems to be laying down the law. Is A Calculus Marvel Comics to Omega’s DC? Machine Queen ultimately decides she needs neither authority, as both require trust, and are doomed to fail.
A lot of that is conjecture, and I haven’t read anything that suggests that Soule is or was unhappy with any of his work at either publisher. I do find it curious, however, that his characters are growing more anarchic as they’re being pushed into increasingly boilerplate genre territory. Drew, am I imaging these connections? Or am I starting to make sense? Too much sense? Also, were you excited to see all those old Avatars again at the end of the issue (another call back to issue 27) or does that seem like kind of a pointlessly magical solution?
Drew: Patrick, I think your reading is extremely compelling, and I’m with you right up until you assert that the Machine Queen’s actions reflect Soule’s own opinions about the big two. The evidence you site there is just as strong (I’m particularly enamored of the “Marvel drives like A Calculus, while DC drives like Omega Calculus” detail), but I don’t think Soule is propping up the Machine Queen’s actions as justified or admirable. Indeed, I think because she’s the one doing it, these actions become unequivocally evil.
More importantly, this issue finds Alec doing basically the opposite, effectively calling in the entire history of Swamp Thing — not just one man’s legacy with the title — to save the day. I don’t think you can get much more reverent about the history of the character than allowing the embodiment of that history come to Alec’s rescue. That action also reveals an important distinction in how Alec severed his ties with the parliament — he didn’t kill them, he secretly kept them close to his heart. That speaks to the class act we know Soule to be, and is very much in line with his own language regarding his exclusivity contract with Marvel, where he has nothing but praise for DC and their editors. He refers to his deal with Marvel as “work[ing] for them for a bit” — he may be crossing the bridge from DC at the moment, but he’s not about to burn it. Apparently, that was exactly what Alec did when he sequestered the Parliament — even if he didn’t need their help for a time, he didn’t just cast them aside.
So is the moral here just directed at creators who have burned their bridges with the big two? Folks who were so convinced they could strike out on their own, they thumbed their noses at the Big Two (which maybe gave them their start)? It certainly fits, but I think the rest of us can glean an important lesson from Alec’s choice to keep the Parliament around: don’t burn your bridges. Just because he didn’t want the Parliament’s help for a time didn’t mean he never would again. Knowing powerful people doesn’t mean much if they hate your guts (or cease to exist because of your actions). Alec gets this, the Machine Queen doesn’t.
That reading actually brings me back to your initial point, albeit from a very different direction. Familiarity/predictability is the dual-edged sword of every franchise, but I think there are just as many benefits as there are costs. Changing everything every month might be exciting, but maybe we like recognizing a character and the situations they tend to be in. Interestingly, I think that message is also held in the text — we get this odd beat where Alec doesn’t recognize the Lady Weeds, so she changes form to make her identity clearer.
The Machine Queen doesn’t just savage the history of the Rithm, she muddles her own history, making the narrative she’s hoping to cultivate less clear. She’s able to course correct, but I think this is enough of a pattern to say that the Machine Queen’s greatest weakness is her disregard for the past. Ironically, while she’s utterly untied to her history, I suspect she’ll be doomed to repeat it.
It’s precisely these kinds of subtext-laden stories that will make me miss Soule on this series. We’ll be following his work at Marvel, for sure, but its exciting to see that he’s not closing the door on DC (or even Swamp Thing) forever. Though I guess he might absorb his Editors’ powers before he goes. Watch your backs, Darren Shan and Matt Idelson.
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