[9 September 2011]
Spoiler Warning: Please note that to offer a full commentary on Swamp Thing it has been necessary to discuss crucial plot-points.
DC’s much-anticipated relaunch has at last arrived, and no massive universe-altering reboot could really be complete without Swamp Thing. The slow-spoken spirit of the swamp and defender of the Green, created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, later reimagined by Alan Moore and Steven Bissette, and continued now by Scott Snyder (American Vampire) and Yanick Paquette (Batman: Incorporated), has been for many fans and creators an integral part of the moral center of the DC Universe.
Over the decades since his creation Swamp Thing has transcended, but never forgotten, his roots in the horror genre, and taken a place of importance as the ecological guardian of the Earth, balancing the inherent conflicts of his plant and human sides for the good of the planet and humanity. While naturally the first book in any series is largely focused on set-up, it is clear from issue 1 of Swamp Thing that the creators are tackling the beloved figure with a care that will please old-school fans and hopefully appeal to new readers.
While many different creators have imprinted their own characteristics onto Swamp Thing over the years there are two oft-recurring tropes that have been relatively consistent and have given the character much of its narrative value. Both of these traits are clearly represented in the new book. The first is the series’ strong foundation in the horror genre. Swamp Thing’s early storylines were very much focused on the monster story template: a horrible accident transforms a scientist into a hideous monster, shunned and persecuted by society. Alan Moore added his own take on the creature by adding the concept of the Green and exploring Swamp Thing’s role as a guardian of the planet. Yet even with all these changes the horror style has been a consistent thread throughout the various volumes of the series. He has battled vampires, demons, magicians, in addition to the various creatures and monsters that share the swamp with him.
Snyder stays true to this tradition in the introduction of the story’s apparent antagonist. While working at an archeological dig some scientists are attacked by demonic flies and the reanimated Mastadon now a preternatural monster. Their bodies are taken over by the insects and all three are brutally murdered in a manner reminiscent of some of the demons Swamp Thing and his sometimes-ally John Constantine have encountered in previous stories.
While it is not certain, this may foreshadow the return of Swamp Thing’s nemesis Anton Arcane, who once appeared in the form of a demonic fly after becoming a servant of Hell. Whether it is Arcane returned from the grave or some other demonic foe for Swamp Thing to battle, these portions of issue 1 have very strong old-school Swamp Thing and Hellblazer feel to them; very satisfyingly Vertigo.
The other recurring theme in the Swamp Thing mythos that Snyder explores is the strong sense of futility and uncertainty surrounding the character. Swamp Thing is divided by two warring sides of his own personality that often seem completely irreconcilable; the plant and the human imprint. On the one hand Swamp Thing is the guardian of the Earth’s plant life, but on the other he is very much human.
This forces him in an un-winnable dilemma as he wants to stop humanity’s constant destruction of the environment, but is averse to brutal exercise of power this may require, resisting the calls of some of plants to destroy humans to save the planet. This internal struggle has created a strong sense of doomed ambivalence: Swamp Thing is in many ways one of the most powerful beings on Earth, yet because of his divided nature, he is often powerless to change things.
The new creative team tap into this pervasive atmosphere of hopelessness. Holland finds himself lost and unsure of what to do with himself, even as Superman attempts to warn him about strange ecological events taking place around the world. The sense of frustration and anxiety – feelings that are no doubt all too real as people contemplate our own degrading environment – is compounded in this story as the characters of Holland and Swamp Thing are actually divided from one another.
Inverting the setup from the Moore and Bissette run, in which Swamp Thing wakes from the dead to discover that he not really Alec Holland, he is just a plant with the memories of a man, the new series begins with Holland waking up from the dead with memories of being a monster.
The issue ends with Alec Holland and the Swamp Thing confronting each other just as Holland is attempting to recreate the experiment that started everything. The final panel is a full-page splash of the two characters facing each other. Clearly this division will be an important part of the future storyline. Will the two remain separated, or will fate (and the possible return of Arcane) force them back together? Where are Abigail and Tefe, Swamp Thing’s wife and daughter, and how will they fit into the New 52? While there are plenty of exciting new things happening in the world of comics, this is series I think will stand out as one of DC’s most promising new titles. Fingers are crossed!