Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Convergence: Swamp Thing 1, originally released April 22nd, 2015.
Drew: When Steve Carell left The Office, series writer BJ Novak tweeted a series of Michael Scott story ideas that would never be told. Some of those pitches seemed hilarious, but what actually stuck with me about them is that the opportunity to make them had simply stopped. They couldn’t ever become episodes of The Office because Michael Scott was no longer on the show. That kind of context-specific storytelling is constantly turning over in comics, where the monthly grind of continuity requires that no one situation can last too long. You’ve got a great Superior Spider-Man pitch? You’ve missed the boat. A Dick-as-Batman idea? Not gonna happen. A JSA arc? Too late. Convergence has offered one last hurrah for characters from very specific moments in their history, but that “one last hurrah” has often felt more like a eulogy than a celebration. With Convergence: Swamp Thing 1, Len Wein and Kelley Jones take that sense of mourning a step further, as Pre-Crisis Swamp Thing barely clings to life.
Eschewing the in medias res approach that has benefitted many of the other Convergence tie-ins, this issue takes us all the way back to Swamp Thing’s origin, tracking through some classic red sky Crisis events, eventually getting Swampy to Gotham just in time to be trapped inside. Disconnected from the Green, Swamp Thing begins to deteriorate, barely kept alive by Abby’s ingenuity. “Being kept alive” isn’t a particularly active passtime for the hero of the story, but it makes up a majority of the issue, creating an odd sense of guilt that this incarnation of Swamp Thing is alive at all.
That guilt maps directly to the very existence of this issue, where this character has been kept alive artificially, divorced from the context that gives him power. Wein emphasizes that context for all its worth, constantly reminding us that Swamp Thing is “the creature that thought itself Alec Holland.” That that particular detail gets so much attention is particularly notable for NOT being Wein’s invention — that wrinkle was famously introduced by Alan Moore, outstripping Wein’s origin in a run that is arguably more seminal for the character.
More than anything, reminding us of Moore’s run emphasizes what Swamp Thing isn’t, but in keeping him so passive throughout the issue, Wein manages to avoid asserting anything about what Swamp Thing is. Emphasizing how little Swamp Thing has to do here, his only real awareness of Gotham’s status come secondhand, as Abby remarks at the resilience of its citizens. Heck, even his goal of finding Batman — his reason for coming to Gotham in the first place — is all but forgotten. Indeed, the closest we get is by way of two proxies, as Abby and Batgirl kind of interact, with no mention of either of their comrades.
With no reason to exist and a whole lot of guilt around existing anyway, Convergence: Swamp Thing is a distillation of a certain perspective on Convergence, one that sees the return to specific moments in continuity less as a celebration, and more as a desecration of those memories. That’s an oddly cynical tack to take — especially from a writer who played such a large role in Before Watchmen — but it actually offers an elegant parallel to the undead villains of the Red Rain universe, which in turn makes Kelley Jones the ideal artist for this issue. Jones more than lives up to his own legacy, making each bit of body horror more horrific than the last. Indeed, the vampire horde that shows up at the end is downright tame after all of the increasingly skeletal Swamp Thing designs.
Patrick, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this reading. Like I said, it seems like an oddly cynical approach for Wein, but it’s the only way I can make sense of Alec’s passivity and this issue’s oddly didactic sense of continuity. What does that continuity mean to you, and how do you think this issue relates to it?
Patrick: It’s interesting that you would mention Novak’s unused story ideas for Michael Scott — it really speaks to the fertile ground that character represented for the writer. This issue feels like just the opposite: Wein’s story well is so dried up when it comes to Swamp Thing, he can do little more than reiterate what’s come before, and then dutifully move the character into place so he can “participate” in the doming of Gotham City. In a way, Swamp Thing’s inability to connect with the green mirrors Wein’s inability to connect with any fundamental nature of this character.
And if that were the point, I wish two things were true. First, I wish we got to the slowly-dying-in-Gotham business earlier. In fact, we could have started there. I like the idea that the slavish devotion to continuity is ultimately what drives Swamp Thing to Gotham, but it makes the first couple pages feel like a history lesson. And I’m not sure who that history lesson is for: the inclusion of Matt Cable and Jason Woodrue are obscure enough pieces of information as to cloud what could well have been a simple recap. Mostly, it just comes off as shaggy — it’s not hard to imagine that Wein needed to fill two more panels with something, so he just shoveled more of Swampy’s past in there.
Secondly, I wish that the theme of deterioration was both stronger and more relevant. Swamp Thing has had something of a renaissance of late, with both Scott Snyder and Charles Soule’s runs on the character in the New 52 reaching legendary status. If anything, the franchise is well-served now, and has always proved a fascinating playground for some of the best writers in the business. Drew already mentioned Wein and Moore, but everyone from Brian K. Vaughan to Grant Morrison to Mark Millar have made their mark on ol’ Swampy. That’s a murderers row of comic book writers. So maybe it doesn’t make the most sense that Swamp Thing would be withering away as Telos — the embodiment of comic publishing culture — collects his prizes.
I also just wish Wein himself would have leaned in to the body horror implied by this narrative. Jones does most of that storytelling himself, with that image of Swamp Thing rotting from the inside out serving as a centerpiece for the whole thing. There are stolen moments here and there, like when a rose sprouted from Swampy’s hand immediately withers and dies, that are evocative but go un-commented-on in the copy.
I particularly like how Jones slants the top of theses panels down to the right, making Swamp Thing a smaller presence on the page the further we read. It’s a nice beat — but it’s almost too abstract to read as horrific. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the visual poetry of it, which makes it even harder to imagine what Swamp Thing is going through. A wilting flower doesn’t make you fear for your own flesh: at best it inspires longing, or wistfulness, or resignation over inevitable change.
Then there’s the end of the issue. A horde of vampires fly in as Swamp Thing rediscovers his connection to the Green (which evidently still exists on the planet — Alan Scott would like a word with you), and it looks like Wein and Jones were just ticking down the pages until they could get to their ultimate solution: Swamp Thing punching something. That doesn’t make a particularly strong case of the necessity of Swamp Thing. But maybe that’s the point — Swampy is a young man’s game. He’s the vegetable-beast a writer uses to prove themselves, and not to sustain. Was it a mistake to send Wein back to the well? Or just a successful demonstration of the character’s real value?
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