REVIEW: Swamp Thing #2

I used quite a bit of hyperbole in my praise for Swamp Thing #1 last month.  I called it the best of DC’s New 52, I said it was the best issue #1 of any comic I’d read in quite some time.  I’ve now reread that first issue several times, and it holds up under repeat scrutiny as a perfectly-orchestrated return to the world of Swamp Thing, and a triumph for the whole creative team.  The difficulty with such hyperbole, however, is that there’s nowhere else to go from there.  Which is quite problematic in the case of Swamp Thing #2, since it’s even better than Swamp Thing #1.

One complaint I’ve seen other reviewers level towards the first issue of the series is that, for new readers, there wasn’t enough about the history of Alec Holland and Swamp Thing.  This wasn’t an issue for me, given my love for Alan Moore’s run, but anyone who did have such a problem will surely be left satisfied if they returned for this second instalment.  The first half of the book immerses us in the mythology of Swamp Thing and how Alec Holland fits into it all.  For new readers, this introduces concepts such as The Green and the Parliament of Trees, and gets the plot moving along by further establishing the monstrous creature that rose in the desert last issue.  This being now has a name – Sethe – and a backstory of its own, linked to that of the Swamp Thing.  I think, as an introduction to Swamp Thing, this issue does a great job.

But while this is accessible to new readers, it’s a real treat for old readers.  Scott Snyder is not just reintroducing Swamp Thing: he’s reinventing him.  Carefully threaded through this sequence is a revelation that nothing is quite as we thought it was, and he adds a wrinkle in the mythology that adds a whole new dimension to the character.  This is, in a lot of ways, like “The Anatomy Lesson”, arguably the most famous issue of The Saga of the Swamp Thing that Moore and Bissette gave us, and quite possibly my favorite single issue of any comic, ever.  Like “The Anatomy Lesson”, “When It Comes A’Knockin'” is the second issue of the run, with the previous issue following on from a status quo set up by someone else.  And like “The Anatomy Lesson”, this totally changes our perspective of what Swamp Thing is, but instead of doing it as a retcon, does it in a way that feels integral to what has come before, as if it’s rooted in a love for those earlier stories and the depths seemingly hidden within them all along, waiting to be dug up.

Snyder is certainly a fan of Swamp Thing.  That can be seen right from the opening page, a flashback to the life (and death) of the previous Swamp Thing before Alec Holland.  This is a character first alluded to all the way back in The Saga of the Swamp Thing #47, where Swamp Thing found a toy plane in the forest where the Parliament of Trees reside, and felt “an inexplicable sadness” upon touching it.  Here, we see how that toy plane found its way there, and the gaps in the story of the doomed pilot are filled in for us.  It’s like Alan Moore left these little nuggets of gold for later writers to uncover, as if this was the way the tapestry was always supposed to unfold.  Even the bad guys of that era could now be retroactively viewed as followers of Sethe: the nightmarish creature they invoked, the Invunche, is eerily similar to Sethe’s mangled servants in this issue.  It seems to me like Snyder is returning to the classic Len Wein characterisation of Swamp Thing, but is inserting that more human interpretation of the character into the a story containing the ambitious concepts and scope of Alan Moore’s work, mixing it all into something bigger and entirely his own.

But Swamp Thing #2 isn’t all talking heads and info dumps.  The second half of the issue gives way to a frenzied action sequence, culminating in the return of a favorite character from the mythos.  It would seem that next issue should provide another crucial piece of the puzzle of Swamp Thing lore for readers old and new alike.

But amidst Snyder’s careful pacing, some might be unhappy.  They might grumble that we’re now two issues in, and Alec Holland isn’t Swamp Thing yet.  By the looks of things, he might not even be Swamp Thing by the end of issue #3!  But that’s exactly the point.  Swamp Thing has cool powers, and is one of the most awesomely-designed characters in comics.  But Snyder wants our connection to him to be deeper than that.  He is setting this Swamp Thing, our Swamp Thing, apart from all those other Swamp Things through the ages.  And to do that, he is giving us reasons to care about Alec Holland, the man, before his inevitable transformation.  With each passing chapter, we are being immersed deeper in the mythology of Swamp Thing, and it’s at once familiar and inherently different because Holland – originally little more than a prologue player – is now immersed in it too.  We’re discovering this world anew with him.

In light of Action Comics #2, there is a lot of talk of Superman as Moses.  But if we’re looking for Biblical parallels, how about Alec Holland as Jonah?  He has a great responsibility, and he’s trying to run away from it, but no matter where he runs it’s going to claim him eventually.  The swtich in the comic’s central conceit from being a monster haunted by memories of a man he never was to a man haunted by memories of a monster he never was makes Holland a fascinatingly damaged character, one who says, “I’m not the hero you think I am.”  And that, to me, is an interesting twist.  The mantle of Swamp Thing was originally seen as a curse, but here Snyder presents it as an important responsibility, perhaps even a gift.  Swamp Thing is prophecised not to be an outsider or a monster, but to be a great hero and protector, and Alec’s reticence to return to that role is based largely on doubt about whether he can live up to that calling.

At this point, I’ve written over 1000 words, and I haven’t even talked about the incredible artwork of Yanick Paquette.  Every word of praise I uttered about the masterfully crafted page layouts when discussing last issue, I carry over to his work here, and then some.  The old Swamp Thing’s tale is presented to us amidst a network of vines.  And when Holland speaks of seeing these images through vines himself, we realise that Paquette is letting us see this narrative through Holland’s eyes, experiencing it as he experiences it.  Then, when we take a trip into The Green, the panel borders flourish into arrangements of flowers and greenery.  The highlight of the layouts, however, remains the sequences when the agents of The Other make their presence felt, with the panels seemingly breaking down and decaying before our eyes.  One page in particular stood out for me, where we see a fly buzzing along the border of the page, bringing the decay with it.  This instantly reminded me of Stephen Bissette’s stunning work in another classic Moore issue, “Love and Death”: another nod to the character’s history.

I want to take this moment to go on a brief tangent and praise the lettering of John J. Hill throughout this issue.  Paquette creates some visually-ambitious tableaus, some spreading across two pages, but we never lose sight of the order in which our eyes are meant to fall on each image.  Why is that?  Because through his speech bubbles and captions, Hill carefully lays out a trail that leads the eye unobtrusively from image to image.  This is an eample of how skilled lettering can really enhance the reading experience.

But back to Paquette.  It’s not just with the panel layouts that he excels.  The images within are incredible too.  Snyder gives Paquette some nightmarish stuff to draw here, and he brings it to life with pinache.  The Invluche (even if these poor folk aren’t necessarily Invulche, I’ll keep calling them that until told otherwise – it’s better than “twisty head people”) look suitably terrifying: the whited-out eyes make them look truly ghoulish, but the way the skin folds on their twisted necks makes you cringe, and in turn empathise with the fact that these mindless killers were once human.  I think the most unnerving bit of their appearance in this issue is that one of them talks.  To me, the thought that there’s just a little bit of the person they used to be left in there, rather than them simply being a mute zombie, is enough to give me the shudders.

If it wasn’t immediately obvious from the cover of the first issue, Paquette also renders a great Swamp Thing.  I love how he’s constantly changing from panel to panel, with branches growing and leaves falling off from his body.  Nathan Fairbairn helps here too, presenting a Swamp Thing who changes from summer green to autumn brown with the passage of time.  In general, Fairbairn’s rich, textured colors add much to the aesthetic of the book.

The solicits tell us that Yanick Paquette will be getting a partial assist from Victor Ibanez next month, with Ibanez taking over for the entirety of issue #4.  I have mixed feelings about this.  Paquette has made such an immediate impact on this title, to the point where I’m already having difficulty imagining what the comic is going to look like without him.  And I appreciate the sentiment that while short term delays suck, long term it would be a better investment to be able to release graphic novel collections with consistent, beautiful artwork from Paquette throughout.  But on the other hand, I’m selfishly thinking of the short term, and I don’t know if I could bear to wait more than a month for each new instalment of this saga.  And even back in the Moore days, Swamp Thing was a title that always had fill-in artists.  And while the downside was not having Bissette draw every issue, the upside was that artists like John Totleben and Rick Veitch – great in their own right – also got to leave their mark on the character.  All I’ll say is, Paquette’s going to be a hard act to top, and regardless of any requirement for fill-ins, I hope he keeps on returning to the title as primary artist for a good while yet.

It’s still early days, and the story is just starting to come together, but I already think that both Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette could be shaping up to give us the finest work of their careers thus far with this Swamp Thing saga.  Issue #1 was a brilliantly-constructed introduction, and issue #2 is a masterclass in escalation and building upon the groundwork laid.  Right now, along the top shelf of my bookcase, I have a hardcover DC Comics Library edition of The Roots of the Swamp Thing, collecting the original Len Wein/Bernie Wrightson run, and next to it I have volumes 1-5 of Alan Moore’s The Saga of the Swamp Thing.  If this story keeps up the quality, I already yearn for a hardcover edition I can place next to those all-time classics.

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