[10 June 2014]
Whenever I read something from DC’s New 52 (which isn’t so new at this point) I must fight against the temptation to compare plots and characters with what has gone before. There is something about the break with the past, the “reboot” I suppose I should say, that seems to demand these comparisons. I think this means that, at least for me, the reboot has yet to fully take on a life of its own. It’s as if the only way that I can understand these new characters is to see how they compare to what came before.
This is a tricky business because these are not meant to be the same characters; they have not lived those lives, battled those villains, learned those lessons. The tendency to look back is especially strong when I read Swamp Thing. After all, under the hand of Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette and John Totleben in the mid-‘80s, this character was part of one of the greatest runs in the history of comic books, a storyline of brilliant characterizations, vibrant art, and real horror. (I happen to think, though I know many will disagree, that Moore’s work on Saga of the Swamp Thing is his best work to date.) With all that in mind, however, I have to say that the latest issue of Swamp Thing does manage to hold its own.
This is the second of a two part series that started in Aquaman #31 and plays out like we expect the first meeting of two characters to go, that is, according to the Marvel pattern that was established in the ‘60s and ‘70s which demands that the heroes, who obviously both want the same thing in the end, must first have a misunderstanding that leads to conflict and battle. There are certain things that have to happen in a story like this, and in this one they do. It is a better story than it sounds, however, more nuanced and original than a battle between Aquaman and Swamp Thing has any right to be.
Charles Soule does an excellent job with the Swamp Thing/Aquaman conflict, managing to make them both seem menacing as they battle, not only against their common enemy, but also over the watery “turf”, a coral reef off the shore of the Philippines. Soule’s Aquaman is magisterial and frightening, and, surprisingly, this comes off in a way that doesn’t make him seem like a second-rate Prince Namor. Swamp Thing himself, as he does in Soule’s best writing, walks a fine line between his role as the Avatar of the Green and a normal man, a dichotomous status that was also emphasized in Moore’s work on the character. Swamp Thing’s inner monologues are reminiscent of those penned by Moore, though less melodramatic and, honestly, a bit more fun. The character is not as deeply felt as was the Swamp Thing devised by Moore’s pen, but is plenty three-dimensional in his own way.
The heroes’ common foe is a brilliantly rendered algal entity that has managed to break free of the green and thus of Swamp Thing’s command. This has happened as a result of Swamp Thing’s decision to destroy the Parliament of Trees. This means that the threat is more than just a one-issue evil; it is, rather, a consequence of Swamp Thing’s actions that promise to have implications for the character down the road. It is a good story with solid characterizations. Perhaps it doesn’t quite live up to the standards set by Moore, but what story could?
The real joy in this issue, however, is found in the artwork of Jesus Saiz. His renderings, particularly of the underwater scenes, are stunning. Swamp Thing, Aquaman and the ominous Kreuzblütler are as beautiful as the underwater coral reef that is the backdrop for the battle. Swamp Thing looks as at home underwater as he does in the heart of the Louisiana swamp. The characters float on the page, move with the currents.
In addition, the colors by Matthew Wilson are exceptional. Aquaman shimmers like a golden fish. Swamp Thing is a deep and watery green. I find myself flipping through the pages just to enjoy the artwork, something that I don’t find myself doing often enough. And Soule does not weigh down the pages with narration, as Moore was wont to do. He allows Saiz to tell much of the story through pictures alone, something he is very capable of doing. (As were Bissette and Totleben, for that matter.)
This is the New 52, a new Aquaman, a new Swamp Thing, a new universe. I miss the old, from the time before, but I like it here too. I like Aquaman’s menace. I like Swamp Thing’s ambiguities. I like the way the colors pop on my new high resolution tablet screen: Aquaman in green, yellow and gold; Swamp Thing in green and black, with hints of blue. I miss the old days, but I like it here, too.