REVIEW: Swamp Thing #7

At this stage, I imagine it goes without saying that Swamp Thing #7 features the long-awaited return of the title character.  I mean, it’s on the cover.  So, most of us knew going in that this latest instalment of Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette’s New 52 relaunch would give us the much-delayed moment that even those who have thought the book to be otherwise perfect have been clamouring for, and for that it was always going to rate highly.  Buth both Snyder and Paquette do more than simply give the readers what they want.  That happens too, of course, but Swamp Thing #7 manages to exceed even lofty expectations and emerge as a truly stunning comic, possibly the best in the series so far.

Over the course of what is basically a single extended scene, Scott Snyder condenses the key themes and ideas that have been explored over the preceding 6 issues into a single chapter that will serve as both a pivotal turning point in the larger narrative, and a mission statement for Snyder’s whole interpretation of the Swamp Thing mythos.  Snyder’s Swamp Thing is a story of choice VS destiny, and you could make a case for both claiming victory here.  Since the relaunch, we’ve been told that becoming Swamp Thing has always been Alec Holland’s destiny, and that his attempts to escape this fate were futile, and here, indeed, the prophecy is fulfilled.  But we also see that, this time round, Alec Holland is not a victim of fate, but rather an active participant in his own transformation.  And as Abigail Arcane battles against her own transformation, it becomes apparent that this choice VS destiny theme will continue to play out as the story enters its next phase.

On the subject of Abigail, one of the other key themes of the series is love, and its ability to overcome impossible odds.  Alan Moore’s seminal run on Swamp Thing was, at its core, a love story, and I’m glad this element has been maintained.  While Moore set up obstacles of distance between Swamp Thing and Abby, first sending Swamp Thing on missions around the world and then sending him to the far reaches of the universe – with the goal of being reunited with his love always what drove him – Snyder’s obstacle is more abstract, but arguably much harder to overcome.  Just as Alec Holland is the avatar of life, Abigail Arcane has been summoned as the avatar of death.  The two are sworn enemies, and have always meant to be so.  We get ominous glimpses of the monstrous creature Abigail is becoming throughout this issue, foreshadowing the heartbreaking conflict that lies ahead.  But even so, it is still Abigail that Swamp Thing is fighting for, still that desire to be reunited with her that drives him.  “I’m doing it for her,” are his final words as a human.

The motif of death and rebirth – and how the two are linked – is also given enhanced attention here, obvious even from that beautiful front cover.  How much do the designs surrounding Swamp Thing remind you of a butterfly?  In the issue itself, Alec Holland’s body (and indeed, Abigail Arcane’s body also) is housed in a cocoon while his transformation takes place.  In the previous issues we’ve seen much of the encroach of death and decay, but the final image of this issue is that of flowers blooming: from death springs life.  In his argument with the dying Parliament of Trees, Holland suggests that The Green is not too different from The Rot.  Life and death may be in constant struggle, but they complement one another.

I’ve said all this, without even getting into Yanick Paquette’s astounding artwork.  It’s interesting how, even when talented artists fill in for him, Paquette’s return to the book after an issue’s absence always feels like an act of triumphant restoration.  This is how Swamp Thing is supposed to look.  But Paquette pushes his invention to a whole new level this issue, with every page becoming a jawdropping, meticulously-crafted tableau.  Traditional panel borders are abandoned altogether in favor of lush vines and floral patterns doing battle with the black, splotchy chaos of The Rot.  The images themselves are surprisingly packed with detail, demanding to be lingered over, savoured.

Though the whole issue is gorgeous, undeniably the standout visual sequence is the aforementioned transformation.  In a collection of wince-inducing extreme close-ups, we see various parts of Alec Holland’s body – inside and out – being converted by The Green, the images getting smaller and more tightly packed as the transformation picks up pace.  And then it all culminates in a pageturn reveal that is sure to become an instantly iconic image.  Though the experimental tableaus Paquette has liberally employed throughout the book often feel like splash pages, in this instance here when he actually uses a full page splash, the impact is like a gut-punch.

It’s also worth emphasizing again how much the rich, vibrant colors of Nathan Fairbairn enhance Paquette’s artwork.  In Holland’s dialogue with the Parliament of Trees, the deep shades of green and orange make the pages feel like they are teeming with life.  And on the flipside, our glimpses of the Kingdom of Bones become laced with an almost tangible pestilence, that richness of tone turning sickly sweet when shifting to a palette of reds and yellows.  Snyder and Paquette have been showered with much well-deserved praise, but Fairbairn just might be the unsung hero of Swamp Thing.

This is a title that has ranked near the top of DC’s output since the month of its debut, but with Swamp Thing #7, the creative team raise their game.  This feels like a culmination of all that has been brewing in the series over the past six months.  But more than that, it makes those excellent first 6 chapters feel like little more than a prelude, suggesting that the stage has been set for a truly epic saga to unfold.  Swamp Thing truly is back.

REVIEW: Swamp Thing #3

Anyone who follows my reviews/talks to me for more than five minutes will know that I absolutely love Swamp Thing, and that I’d mark it out as the single best title of DC’s relaunch.  Issues #1 and #2 were 10/10 comics, and the best new releases of their respective months.  After issue #1 set the stage and provided a startling debut that was laced with menace, issue #2 took things to another level with a dense narrative that added a whole new layer of complexity to the Swamp Thing mythos.  The standard has been set dizzyingly high, and with that my expectations.  Would Swamp Thing #3 continue the escalation, and would the series somehow manage to top itself again?

The way it works out, the narrative here is a little more subdued.  After the revelations came thick and fast in the previous chapter, here we don’t actually spend that much panel time with Alec Holland and Abigail Arcane, now reinvented as star-crossed lovers destined to be enemies.  I’ll admit, with the cover to this issue (and the thematically loaded image of Abby blasting Swamp Thing’s heart out of his chest) I was expecting an in-depth exploration of the pair’s storied history – in my opinion one of the all-time great romances of comics – with Scott Snyder once again skewing it and presenting it in a whole new light, in turn adding more depth and scope to another aspect of the mythos.  And we do get a bit of that here, but at this stage it’s mostly through allusion and foreshadowing of further revelations down the line.  I do like the tougher, battle-worn Abigail we get here, though.  If the Abby we knew in the earlier stories was Sarah Connor in The Terminator, this is her in her badass Terminator 2: Judgement Day phase.

Alec Holland himself has a couple of interesting beats, as he learns a couple of surprising things about himself.  But while I commended Swamp Thing #2 for keeping us so enthralled that we didn’t feel antsy about getting to Alec’s inevitable return to the role of Swamp Thing, three issues in I’m starting to feel that way now.  When the title character of your comic only appears on the front cover and in a one-panel flashback, the desire to get things moving starts to niggle at the back of your mind.

With the Abby/Alec relationship is placed on the backburner in this issue, what becomes the central focus of this chapter is the story of William, a boy with an extreme aversion to chlorophyll who must spend his life locked in a protective bubble.  Through him, we discover that just as Alec Holland has been chosen as the champion of The Green, The Black (also known as The Rot, or The Other) is also seeking a champion, someone with the same connection to the forces of death and decay that Holland has to life and growth.  The way William shifts from victim to terrifying threat is gruesome to behold, but also darkly compelling.

I love how Swamp Thing is currently complimenting Animal Man, where each title works as a story in its own, but if you’re reading both at once you get a tangible sense that this is the same war being fought on two fronts.  People seem to be tired of events and crossovers, but this is an example of crossover done well, when it legitimately feels like a story too big for a single book to contain.  It also helps that it’s the two best comics in DC’s lineup that are the sister titles.

A big part of the success of the first two issues was the incredible, boundary-pushing artwork of Yanick Paquette.  Such was his massive contribution to the unique atmosphere of Swamp Thing that I was initially concerned upon seeing a co-artist solicited for the issue.  I’ve seen enough examples of fill-in artists helping with pages leading to a comic that feels more like a patchwork than a coherent narrative to be wary.  Thankfully, this is not the case with Victor Ibanez.  The art style is so consistent throughout that, especially with Ibanez’s name being absent from the cover, I initially thought that Paquette had drawn the whole issue after all.  Ibanez works hard to draw in a style highly reminiscent of Paquette’s figure work, and the slick colors of Nathan Fairbairn do a great job in making the transition between artists feel largely seamless.

The one area where Ibanez doesn’t quite match Paquette is in his layouts.  Ibanez is a very talented artist, and if he’d been drawing Swamp Thing since issue #1, I’m sure it would still be getting praised as a very good-looking comic book.  But while Paquette certainly brings good-looking work to the table, what has really set his work on Swamp Thing so apart from the crowd is the innovation on display, the mind-blowing construction of panels into immersive, envelope-pushing montages that evoke the landmark work of Steve Bissette.  And as such, it’s the handful of pages Paquette does here that really stand out.  Just take a look at this image:

In the context of the narrative, the image is pretty abstract, its significance not yet clear.  But it’s haunting, and beautiful, and so jarring in its stillness – amidst a comic that up until this point has been dialogue-heavy and kinetic and flowing in its imagery – that it can’t help but make a powerful impression.

Paquette also excels in a double-page spread touching on the troubled history of Abigail and the Arcane family.  The central focal point recalls an image that will pack particular punch with those familiar with Moore’s run, and I got a kick seeing Paquette’s take on the infamous Anton Arcane.  The visual cameo of the Patchwork Man was also a real blast from the past.  Speaking of references to Swamp Thing history, did anyone spot that William’s doctor was called Dr. Durock, after Dick Durock, the actor who played Swamp Thing in the films and the short-lived TV series?

If Swamp Thing #3 might has lost a step from the first two issues, it’s only a step.  This is still superior comics storytelling, steadily setting the stage for an epic drama.  Once again, Swamp Thing and Animal Man are the best comics of their week, and stand proudly as the crown jewels of DC’s New 52.