Setting Trumps Story: Swamp Thing #19

[8 April 2013]

By Jay Mattson

Swamp Thing #19 marks a turning point for the series—it’s the first issue to take a step outside the Rotworld saga and give readers a fresh look at a character whose development had become increasingly stagnant under the weight of the title’s narrative complexity. Scott Snyder had some big ideas for old Swampy, but mostly, they involved using elements of the Swamp Thing franchise to add more to the New 52 DC universe. Swampy himself, well, it’s difficult to grow as a character when you’re stuck battling an ethereal force of death. By the end, Snyder’s run had become predominantly about the story, not about the character.

Enter Charles Soule, a relative newcomer whose taking a more grounded approach to DC’s Jolly Green Giant. Now that the war against the Rot is over and done, Dr. Alec Holland becomes introspective, contemplating his role now that ‘warrior king’ doesn’t apply anymore—he has to figure out how to do his day job. Soule’s perspective on things hearkens back to a similar quandary in Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man. Alter—a patriotic Israeli soldier turned vicious warmonger—cannot contemplate a life outside the violence, the fighting, or the conflict that keeps the fictive Israel’s focus away from it’s internal issues. Though she claims to want power, the truth is that she desires conflict because the idea of normalcy and peace is frightening after a life of battle. While not the exact same in Swamp Thing #19, Soule does examine the ethical dilemmas that arise from being the protector of the world’s flora, and how those situations make Alec Holland question himself as a person and a hero.

The mysterious Seeder has been using some unknown science to bring small patches of rich vegetation to impossible locations like deserts and arid plains. These seemingly miraculous pockets of land give the indigenous people the chance to survive and prosper like never before. People who could never afford clean drinking water would never go thirsty again; villages starving from extended droughts suddenly had crops to tend to; hope had arrived in a place with none.

Part of Alec’s job description is keeping the Green in balance around the planet. Random oases of lush greenery in the middle of a scorched desert throws that balance off, so he does the only thing he can and integrates the patch of vegetation back into the Green’s life web. It’s a hard decision for Alec to make because he’s still human (in mind, at least), and recognizes the necessary evil of taking away such a tremendous gift from the impoverished people it was supposed to sustain. In the end, the Swamp Thing must maintain balance, no matter what. The other level of balance Alec must keep is between his duty as the avatar of the Green, and his compassionate humanity that pushes him to help and protect people. How can he effectively protect the planet’s flora while also looking out for the safety and wellbeing of human beings?

The answer is being proactive. For the most part, Alec is required to keep the balance for the Green, but that doesn’t mean he can’t take a trip to Metropolis—via an impressively drawn jaunt through the life-web of Green—to try and find out the identity of the Seeder and his motives. There’s a quick, disturbing sequence, though, where Swampy kills a large pack of rats gnawing away at a tree’s root system. It shows how Alec can lose himself in this new role, and it’s a bit scary. His journey into the city brings him face to face with the Scarecrow, a Batman villain who needs botanical extracts (that can only be found in the Metropolis Botanical Garden) to make his famed fear gas. Swampy sees what’s happening, and acts. What better way to be a hero to men than by stopping one of their supervillains?

Charles Soule is giving Swamp Thing a new new dynamic. While Scott Snyder focused on a few key elements of the character’s mythos, he did so to a fault and it caused Swampy to suffer because of it. Here, Soule isn’t going for high-concept storytelling or long-form narrative. Instead, he’s treating Swamp Thing just like any other hero through Alec’s journey of self-discovery and understanding. Plot-driven stories have their value, but Soule understands that after 18 issues of plot, it’s time to sit down with the avatar of the Green and really figure out how he operates. There’s no more impending Rot invasion to focus upon, there’s only Swamp Thing and his place in the world.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/170218-setting-trumps-story-swamp-thing-19/