Today, Drew and Spencer are discussing Swamp Thing 40, originally released March 4th, 2015.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Drew: I’ve always been frustrated by endings. Not necessarily because I want the story to continue, and not even because they’re done poorly (though they often are), but because the notion of “ending” draws attention to the limits of the narrative precisely when we want to savor every moment of the story itself. “Life goes on,” so the saying goes, but stories don’t — at least, not on the page. It’s a testament to this awkwardness that even William Shakespeare felt the need to lampshade it, defiantly pointing at the limits of the narrative itself in the hopes of elevating it beyond them. Charles Soule does something very similar in his Swamp Thing 40, turning this final issue into a postmodern commentary on endings in general.
That label as postmodern commentary is cemented when Alec confronts his own story as a story, but Soule is actually playing with his place in Swamp Thing history long before that moment. Indeed, the issue opens with Alec explaining to all the Swamp Things that came before him that, as far as he’s concerned, they all exist in service of him, right now. That’s of course the approach that any writer working with an established character has to take, but it’s a credit to Soule that that never comes off as disrespectful, even in light of Alec’s defiant tone.
Got it: any prior versions of Swamp Thing (or issues of Swamp Thing) not in direct service of this one can be forgotten. Intriguingly, while none of the prior versions of Swamp Thing we’ve ever read are forgotten, all of them are rather explicitly “ended” within this issue.
Up first is Alec Holland himself — er, at least his zombified corpse. Patrick and I regretted not digging into the symbolism of a reanimated Alec Holland consuming and then regurgitating Swamp Thing in issue 39, but here, that particular abomination acts only to hammer in the last few nails on Alec Holland’s coffin. I suppose I don’t know enough about Swamp Thing history do say for sure, but I’m reading that as closing the door on Scott Snyder’s “Alec Holland IS Swamp Thing” era. Again, that’s not a sign of disrespect; it’s really just meant to free Soule of specific ties to other iterations of the character — and ultimately, I suspect, to do the same for any future writers.
Much of Soule’s run has been about confronting older versions of the character, with no moment embodying that more than Alec’s meeting of “Old Blue” — the original Vertigo continuity Swamp Thing — back in Swamp Thing Annual 2. Old Blue is back in this issue, but just like Zombie Alec, this issue will rather definitively be his last. At the risk of repeating myself one time too many, it’s crystal clear that Soule doesn’t intend this as a dismissal of those old stories. Indeed, Soule’s big twist elevates the prior writers to the pantheon of gods. If there are any doubts on that front, you need look no further at Alan Moore’s conspicuous inclusion as an avatar of Art.
Which brings us to Soule’s The Tempest moment, where he draws our attention to the narrative itself, but curiously giving Alec dominion over it. It’s a have your cake and eat it too moment for Soule (who seems to have a knack for those in final issues), giving Alec an out that acknowledges the limits of the medium, but ultimately having him refuse it.
Of course, the moment that really had me cheering came a few pages earlier, when Alec’s guide to the Realm of Art acknowledges the importance of the audience in art. That whole sequence actually articulates a lot of interesting ideas about art (including how the element of time separates music and narratives from more static art forms), but none is more dear to me than the role of the audience. Soule uses that point to articulate just how difficult endings are — they mean lots of things to lots of people — which emphasizes just how important this ending is for Soule himself. Alec choses action over canonization, which I think makes for an obvious paralel to Soule’s career. He could have stayed on this title indefinitely, becoming permanently linked to it but instead, he’s moving on to fight another day (and for another publisher). He may ultimately return (and be elevated to the plane of Alan Moore), but for now, he’s staying in the tranches.
Which I think is a solid reading up until the very last page, where we find Alec reading 100 Years of Solitude, hovering indecisively over the page. It’s clearly meant as a kind of “The Lady or the Tiger?” ambiguous ending, but I’m struck by just how loaded 100 Years of Solitude is as a stand in for all of art. Unfortunately, I’m not super familiar with that novel, which seems like a good place to hand things off. Spencer, I’m not sure if you’re any more familiar with magical realism than I am, but I’m curious if you have any thoughts about that particular choice.
Spencer: The first story that pops into my head when somebody mentions “magical realism” is Scott Pilgrim, so I don’t know if I’m the most qualified to answer this question, Drew. This is actually the first I’ve heard of 100 Years of Solitude, so my familiarity with the book only goes about as far as the Wikipedia article (although it’s piqued my interest enough that I may try to pick the book up sometime); I won’t pretend I’m an expert, or even a novice, in this area at all, but there were a few points about the book that, at least in relation to Swamp Thing 40, caught my eye.
The first has to do with a plot point we actually haven’t covered yet: the fate of the Machine Kingdom.
A few issues back Drew and I discussed what the Machine Kingdom’s role in the balance of the various kingdoms would eventually come to be, and not to toot our own horns too much, but I think we were right on the money. In real life new technology can often overwhelm and put people on edge when first introduced, but that never lasts forever; if it doesn’t fizzle out completely, eventually the technology will become just another gadget, essential to everyday life but usually overlooked, and that’s what’s happened with the Rithm. The craze — their childlike rejection of their role — is over, and now they can truly find their position within the balance of the kingdoms.
That balance can’t last forever, though, and that’s where 100 Years of Solitude comes into play. One of the book’s major themes is the “inevitable and inescapable repetition of history,” and that’s clearly an issue when it comes to the delicate balance between these kingdoms. Sure, they’re living in harmony now, but that’s coming off the heels of a major war, and it wasn’t very long ago that all these factions were caught up in Rotworld. Clearly, conflict is built into the very fabric of how these kingdoms interact; how long will it be before they inevitably clash again?
Perhaps that’s what Swamp Thing’s expression in that final panel means; it’s a realization that he’ll be stuck fighting this same endless conflict for as long as he’s avatar of the Green. Or perhaps not. 100 Years of Solitude also touches on the idea of eternity through the alchemist laboratory used as a sanctuary by numerous generations of the Buendía family. I can see how that could get Alec thinking about his eventual successor and how he may want to spend his retirement/afterlife, and Swamp Thing 40 actually provides Alec two options in that regard.
The first is the Green itself, the sanctuary where the former avatars, including Brother Jonah and Capucine, reside. Alec has more than earned the right to spend eternity here, but does he want to? More than once in this issue Alec refers to his duty as avatar of the Green as “work,” and Soule makes it clear that the version of Alec that was a passionate botanist is long gone — I mean, the Alec Holland who “likes plants” literally crushes his own head, as if to specifically prove this point.
The other option here is the kingdom inside the book, the kingdom of art, where Alec could spend eternity debating story and interpreting art (Retcon Punch as an afterlife myth?). While Alec would never have abandoned his battle against the Machine Queen to stay there, he still seemed intrigued by the offer. Could this be what Alec is considering in that final panel? Perhaps he’s even considering an early retirement?
I don’t know the answers, and honestly, I don’t even know if this is a question Soule intended to ask, but what seems clear is that Soule wanted to leave his ending open to audience interpretation, as it’s an idea he explicitly addresses within the kingdom of art.
When the art avatar here speaks of readers reproducing the story in their mind, he refers to himself as a member of the audience as well, implying that even consumers of art have the potential to be art avatars. That warms my cold little critic heart; in a way, Soule is acknowledging the power the audience has always had over a work of art, be it simply through their own interpretations or through fan fiction or even through the way a fervent fanbase can influence the direction a work takes (just look at how, say, Harley Quinn took off due to popular demand).
I absolutely adore the idea of an art kingdom and am fascinated by the concepts Soule explores through it, but I’m not really sure I understand what its point is within the context of this final issue, and I’m especially thrown at how the tide of the battle against Lady Weeds immediately changes for the better after Alec leaves the book — in fact, on my first reading I thought that perhaps Alec never actually left, and that his victory was simply a happy ending he and the avatar of art constructed together.
I don’t really think this is the case, but it does appear that the art avatar helps Alec win his battle, as the tide of the war immediately shifts as soon as Alec leaves the book and rejoins the fight. What I’m not sure of is why; there doesn’t appear to be a reason presented within the narrative other than the avatar just liking Alec, so does it perhaps have a more symbolic explanation? The only one I can think of is that could represent the way Soule may have had to wrap up his run on Swamp Thing a few issues early due to his sudden Marvel exclusivity; just as Alec may have earned an easy victory even if it doesn’t make complete sense (Why couldn’t Machine Queen regenerate like her minions or transfer her consciousness to a new body like Alec? Her defeat felt too easy), Soule’s earned a happy ending to his Swamp Thing story even if he has to “cheat” a bit to finish it up in time.
Ultimately this is a still a strong finish to Swamp Thing, and I like almost everything about this issue. Despite my whining, I even love the concept of the art kingdom; it just doesn’t feel like a natural fit in this issue, as if Soule was squeezing the scene in at the last minute because he couldn’t bare to not use the idea. It’s only a small complaint, but it still keeps this issue from reaching perfection, even if it only falls a hair’s width short.
Of course, that’s just my interpretation. As we’ve always said, and as this issue reasserts, your readings, theories, and interpretations are just as valid, and we’d love to hear them in the comments.
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?