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Swamp Thing

(DC; US: Jan 2012)

The very next time we saw her, she wore exactly the same haircut. But this only made the physical changes in her appearance all the more noticeable. The very next time we saw her, it was clear that Emma Watson had grown older. It was to be expected of course. It was nearly four years on since she had begun principal photography on the original Harry Potter. And yet, with Emma and the rest of the primary cast visibly grown older, the spell was broken. Harry and Ron and Hermione hadn’t grown older this noticeably in the books. Why would the stars in the movie?


But behind that was the strange, unflinching resilience, perhaps the first such resilience we encountered on the big screen since 9/11. Emma Watson grown older under the the same haircut was just that secret password we needed. An aging child star was perhaps the surest sign that, no matter how monstrous the handful of months earlier had been, there could be a ‘normal’ to get back to. It would be a new kind of normal sure, but things could be ordinary again.


“9/11 happened to us,” This American Life producer Ira Glass reminds us, “But the intervening decade is what we built for ourselves.” And at least one thing we built is the steady familiarity of Emma Watson (and costars Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint) appearing almost every year of the last decade on multiplex screens. Each year grown older, each year with the same haircut.


Something to come home to.


So, would it take an event even more momentous than 9/11 to recast Emma Watson in the popular imagination? Not so much. All it really took was leaving Brown to enter the fashion industry as a designer. In less than a year following the release of the final Harry Potter, Emma embraced a new pixie haircut as she embraced her new role.


Contrary to every expectation, it was the unthinkably horrific that kept the popular image of Emma Watson unchanged, and the new normal that radically changed her. Is this the mythology Scott Snyder is tapping when longtime Swamp Thing cast member Abigail Arcane returns to the pages of the comicbook, this time with a pixie cut of her own? Abby is tougher, harsher, less likely to cuddle and coddle, more aware of the role the Swamp Thing must play.


In a surprise move for the New 52 (but not for a writer as focused on company history as Snyder is), Snyder harkens back to the Swamp Thing days of old. Abby is the same Abby of the Moore-run, he romance with the Swamp Creature seems to be in tact in this New 52 version of Swamp Thing-lore. And yet, her love was for a different Swamp Thing, the earlier incarnation of the Creature. And now in Terminator 2, Linda Hamilton-esque style, Abby is back, meaner and tougher than before. Beauty-turned-thoughie. And she’s also playing out the John Constantine role from the Moore-run, alerting the Alec Holland Swamp Thing to his impending destiny of needing to confront the Black Rot, the psychic antithesis to The Green that empowers Holland.


The conflation of the Abby Arcane and John Constantine character tropes is nothing short of astounding. A manipulative ex-girlfriend (my pet monster’s manipulative ex-lover, to be precise) stepping out from the fog of the past is possibly the most elegant frame for the champion-story Snyder is clearly telling with Swamp Thing. It reads like a courtly drama of old, but one peppered with 21st century sensibilities. Our Sir Knight is the noble Alec Holland, raised as a child, and all through his life as a biologist, to love and respect and fear nature. He sets off to rescue his Damsel, Abigail Arcane, but she reveals herself more as his tormentor. The Champion of the Black Rot that our Sir Knight must oppose is after all, his Lady Fair’s brother.


With an Abby Arcane that weaves together elements from both the romantic Guinevere and the villainous Morgan Le Fay, Holland’s King Arthur is flummoxed. So perhaps there’s something much more at play. A new kind of narrative for good and evil in a post-9/11 world. A world where radical change is the signature of normalcy and the unchanging is a reminder of what keeps us safe and warm.


Maybe, Snyder’s Swamp Thing, already purely magnificent, has more in common with Beck’s Odelay than with Harry Potter. Maybe this is a retelling of “Devil’s Haircut” and not Emma Watson’s. Years back, more than a decade ago, Bob Dylan was in awe of “Devil’s Haircut”. “One of the reasons the Devil looks so sharp is he always has a sharp haircut,” Dylan mused on his weekly show on XFM. No reason not to be in awe of “Devil’s Haircut”. The track is a complete drama culled out of the art of sampling. And it achieves this without bowing to the received wisdom of gangsta rap, the dominant sampling-driven genre of the day. But the real art of “Devil’s Haircut” can be glimpsed at in Beck’s own reflections on the track in Rolling Stone. “I try not to compromise on anything. I think we associate becoming an adult with compromise. Maybe that’s what the Devil is. In ‘Devil’s Haircut’, that was the scenario. I imagined Stagger Lee… I thought what if this guy showed up now in 1996… I thought of using him as a Rumpelstiltskin figure, this Lazarus figure to comment on where we’ve ended up as people. What would he make of materialism and greed and ideals of beauty and perfection?”


Snyder writes the true, deep, strange jazz of the bayou in Swamp Thing. This is the high drama of broken people on the run from monsters larger than themselves. Just folk one step ahead of the darkness. Snyder pens a Swamp Thing of infinitely moving pieces that is every bit the “Devil’s Haircut” of this day, of this world, and of our new place in it.


The story is so engaging that you’ll quickly have to deal with the book’s one, grounded reality; purchasing a copy of Swamp Thing every month just isn’t enough. Sooner or later you’re going to need to buy copies in the dozens. And you’re going to need to leave them in the places people can find them. Haunting as it is, this book will never let you go. And the simple fact is, more folks deserve to be haunted.

Rating:

AB-, ENTJ, PhD: shathley Q is deeply moved by the emotional connection we build with our perpetual fictions, and hopes to answer for that somehow, somehow. He holds a Doctorate in Literary and Cultural Theory. His writings have appeared in Joss Whedon: the Complete Companion and Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men, as well as regularly on PopMatters. Like a kid in a china shop, he microblogs as @uuizardry on Twitter. Or hit him up directly on shathleyq@popmatters.com.


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9 Sep 2011
By reasserting the classic dilemmas of the original Swamp Thing, retooling these for a 21st century audience, and writing a superb, concise introduction to both the character and its setting, Scott Snyder may have crafted the first genuine hit of DC's New 52.
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