Comics

Becoming Swamp Thing

Swamp Thing first shambled into my heart with Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette and John Totleben’s The Saga of the Swamp Thing #24-64 (DC, 1984-7). At a time when I was reading mostly alternative comics, Swamp Thing brought me back to DC, Vertigo, and, eventually, superhero comics. It’s appropriate then that after a break, I return to the Big Two publishers* and superhero–or superhero adjacent–comics with Ram V., Mike Perkins, Mike Spicer and Aditya Bidikar’s’ Swamp Thing (DC, 2021-2). 

Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson created Swamp Thing in 1971. He appeared in House Of Secrets #92 as Alex Olson, a scientist who becomes a “muck-encrusted mockery of a man” after he is betrayed by a jealous lab assistant. In 1972, Wein and Wrightson created a Swamp Thing series, settling on a new name and a new contemporary setting for their protagonist, Alec Holland. Holland is transformed into a swamp monster when hired goons plant a bomb in his Louisiana laboratory. Wein and Wrightson’s comic has a Gothic horror feel and focuses on the body horror of transforming into the Swamp Thing and in Swamp Thing’s confrontations with the frankensteinian body horror of Anton Arcane and his Un-Men as well as the Patchwork Man. Swamp Thing lasted 13 issues with some help from the redoubtable artist, Nestor Redondo. I am incredibly fond of this comic series. I love the Gothic atmosphere and Wrightson’s abyssal blacks.

Levi Kamei is having a rough time.

In The Saga of the Swamp Thing , Alan Moore and Stephen Bissette continue with Alex Holland’s story. His Houma, Louisiana lab is attacked by men who want to steal a bio-restorative formula Holland and his wife Linda have developed. Linda dies, but Holland survives. And there is a twist this time, Holland survives because he was chosen by the Parliament of Trees to become protector of the Green–the interconnected consciousness of the plant world. In the new Swamp Thing, a character describes the Green as, “A collective of thought and memory.” Between facing horrors, defeating existential threats, falling in love, and confronting Batman, Swamp Thing realizes that he is not Alec Holland, but something else that remembers and dreams Alec Holland. And so Swamp Thing must decide what his relationship to humanity, the people in his life, and the world will be. I loved The Saga Of The Swamp Thing’s mix of horror, melancholy meditation, character-driven story arcs, and gorgeous art**. I appreciated that these characters existed not only outside the mundane world, but also marginally to the overarching DC continuity. 

Alec Holland and Levi Kamei explore the history of Swamp Thing.

Holland has been the Green’s avatar in multiple runs since then. While I love Swamp Thing as a character, I have also been picky about iterations. The versions that followed Moore and Bissette’s run vary in quality and my preferences. But the latest Swamp Thing (DC, 2021-2022) is exactly my thing. Written by Ram V. with art by Mike Perkins (and John McCrae), colors by Mike Spicer (and June Chung) and letters by Aditya Bidikar, Swamp Thing builds on all the previous runs in an intriguing and frequently gorgeous way. The comic is only 16 issues with a special two issue contribution to DC’s recent crossover series, Future State. I wish there were more, but I also recognize that sometimes it’s better to stop while everything is so good. And I am always grateful when a series I like is not canceled halfway through.  The extant run is available in three trade paperbacks. The comic reminds me of Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, and Nancy A. Collins’ runs in the best way. It doesn’t feel like an echo of old school Vertigo. It feels like Vertigo. Ram V and Perkins blend all the other iterations, story lines, and characters of previous runs on Swamp Thing so well. The integration is smooth. At the same time, I don’t think a reader needs to be familiar with Jason Woodrue, Tefé Holland, or Jason Hawksmoor to enjoy the book. It might help to know about Hal Jordan, Poison Ivy, and the Trinity Site.

 While continuing to work within the existing Swamp Thing cosmology, Ram V. avoids some of the potential difficulties of writing Swamp Thing after Alec Holland has, in the past, become not only an avatar of the Green, but of the Earth itself. Holland has also, apparently, died, but death is less of a problem in comics than becoming inconceivably powerful. Ram V. follows the lead of Wein and Wrightson and introduces a new champion of the Green, Levi Kamei. Levi has just returned from visiting his family in India. He was directed by his employer, Prescot Industries, to acquire the Anghom tribal lands his family has protected for generations in the Kaziranga National Park forest. The Anghom people reject Prescot’s offer and there are confrontations between Levi and his family and between the Indian government and the Anghom people leading to the death of Levi’s father. Something else happens in Kaziranga. Levi has connected with the Green. Unlike, Alec Holland, though, Levi can transform between human and Swamp Thing forms. Or at least he chooses, to. Returning to New York City, tormented by guilt and filled with anger, Levi stays in the apartment of his friend Jennifer Reece. As he dreams at night, he travels through the Green as its new avatar. Levi is drawn to the Sonoran desert, where he encounters the Pale Wanderer, who feels very much like a 1970s DC horror comics character. The Wanderer claims to emanate from the desert itself and has been murdering whoever he comes upon. As he explains to a confused Levi, who can barely control his power, they are both ideas and eventually one of them will devour the other. Levi defeats or at least contains the Pale Wanderer for now. But, of course, a bad idea is never really gone.

Levi discovers that Prescot Industries CEO Harper Pilgrim manipulated him into a transformation and a crisis that has implications for the whole world. There is a conflict in the Green’s point of view. Levi’s brother Jacob believes Levi has betrayed his family, his people, and the Green. He believes that Levi is too weak to do what must be done. As Levi holds to humanity, choice, connection and memory, Jacob spreads his grief, rage, and vengefulness throughout the Green, attempting to convince the Parliament of Trees to destroy humankind. As Levi struggles with becoming Swamp Thing and staying himself, he also struggles with saving his brother, humankind, and the world. Meanwhile, because there is always a meanwhile in comics, there are new ideas forming, even constructing themselves. A new parliament is forming. The Parliament of Gears from the memories of things that are made and not born. This all also involves Detroit as a benevolent entity and that makes me happy.

Ram V. presents this all as a battle of ideas and information that becomes very concrete and deadly. The mythology and world-building in the series is intriguing without overwhelming all the other aspects of storytelling. I don’t know if I agree with Ram V.’s take on ideas, information theory, memory and trauma, but it works in the comic. It’s engaging and I’m interested. I enjoy Ram V. and Perkins’ embrace of the forms of science both narratively and artistically–whether an information paradigm, meme theory, anatomical drawings, biochemistry, or botanical taxonomy. And Swamp Thing’s potentially abstract conflicts and meditations are beautifully illustrated.

Levi and Parasite.

In the brief Future State story, if Swamp Thing had monologued about how his children’s muscles work, I would not find it engaging. But I am there for Mike Perkins’ anatomical drawings that include notes that the reader can savor or enjoy in passing as the story continues. I think Perkins enjoys drawing plant cell walls and Spicer enjoys finding interesting ways of coloring them. The art is very contemporary, but also hearkens back to earlier iterations of Swamp Thing. It has a 1970s high contrast Gothic horror feel with deep black shadows, extreme angles, and Spicer’s almost black light colors. I am there for the art altogether. Aditya Bidikar’s lettering supports characterization without being obtrusive.

In books that focus so much on vast, even cosmic, beings and events, there is a fine balance of narrative and characterization with  necessary worldbuilding and explanation. There is a temptation to rationalize and systematize whole fictional worlds and tidy them up***. And while I know there are people who love worldbuilding and “rational” systems more than the narrative and characters, I am not one of those people. There is nothing simple or tidy about beings and cosmologies so beyond the human in scale. And there is especially nothing simple or tidy about beings that narrow themselves down to the single point of one human being’s consciousness. Swamp Thing maintains its balance and stays true to that beautiful messiness. And I love it for that.

I would like Gail Simone to write Chemo, thank you.

*I am referring to DC and Marvel, even though they are not dominating the comics market anymore. Scholastic Books / Graphix and Viz Media are, according to the most recent Bookscan analysis here.

**I wrote more about Saga Of The Swamp Thing here

***I am looking at you, August Derleth.

~~~

Carol Borden is only an occasionally muck-encrusted mockery of a human. Usually in the summer. Sometimes in the spring.

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