Saturday, 9 April 2016

Swamp Thing (2016, vol. 6) Issues 1-4

Pic from DC Comics

WARNING: Contains spoilers for Swamp Thing issues 1-4 (2016)

As I’ve mentioned before, I always liked comics as a kid, but Swamp Thing is the one that really pulled me into my current level of interest. Y’see, back in the late 1990s, DC republished a bunch of Alan Moore’s run on the title as black and white single issues. Flash forward to 2006 and Gosford Book Exchange had a bunch of them in stock – a relic of the long-closed Phantom Zone store that had once been next door. This was right around the time the film of V for Vendetta had been released, so I held Alan Moore’s name in quite a bit of esteem. They were going cheap, so I picked them up and promptly became a huge fan.

Anyway, DC has relaunched Swamp Thing again for 2016, apparently with the intention of restoring him to his early horror comic roots, as opposed to the surreal mix of philosophy, theology and occult themes that the 1980s Alan Moore run tackled. This shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing – few people aside from Moore would have had the skill to pull that kind of thing off. These first four issues have also featured quite a bit of action alongside some vaguely Lovecraftian themes, and it's avoided the ponderous pace that (good as it was) sometimes plagued Moore's run. 

The series was initially announced as a 6-issue miniseries, but this qualifier was dropped after issue 1 – so at this point I’m a little unclear as to whether the series will be continuing. I guess it will depend on sales, which seem to be quite strong thus far. Also, DC's Rebirth event is coming up in a few months, so maybe he'll get a new issue 1 at that point. Time will tell. 

Issue 1 assumes a little bit of familiarity with the existing Swamp Thing mythos, but also serves as a basic introduction, too. From there, we see a dead teen resurrected into a (now curiously bald) zombie – it seems he’s been resurrected by a local professor who’s been fooling around with the darker side of the occult. Swamp Thing expects it to be a pretty straightforward matter, but it transpires that the zombie is much stronger than expected, and literally tears Swamp Thing in two by the end of the book. In a post-Walking Dead world, where zombies are well past saturation point and bare, this more supernaturally-inspired take on the creature seems pleasantly (and ironically) fresh. Issue 2 wraps up the situation with the zombie, by revealing that not all is quite what it seems with the dead teen’s parents. Shade shows up, revealing the secrets of how to slay the beast, and later on the Phantom Stranger shows up to speak to Swamp Thing in his usual maddeningly cryptic style.  

With the zombie now dealt with, Issue 3 sets up a new story arc. Old ally Matt Cable reappears in Swamp Thing’s life, having acquired a mystical artefact called the “Hand of Fatima”. Now, back in the 1980s, Matt Cable ended up getting himself possessed by the villainous Anton Arcane, and did some pretty awful things while under his spell. I’m unclear as to whether Matt appeared in the 2011-2015 run of Swamp Thing, but going off his introduction here it seems like he’s been MIA for some time. But at any rate, he offers to use the Hand of Fatima to restore Swamp Thing to human form – which is an offer he can’t really refuse. Zatanna is the big guest star in this issue, which is great. I’ve always really liked her, but I think it's a shame that she hasn't been a full-fledged member of the Justice League since...the 1980s? I don’t think she’s ever even had a standalone series that wasn’t simply a miniseries. At any rate, always good to see her. She's been rendered with a Betty Page haircut here, which works with the noirish tone of the book. She’s also in full-blown mystic mode here, enacting a ritual with the Hand of Fatima to turn Swamp Thing back to Alec Holland.

Issue 4 picks up right where issue 3 finished – Matt Cable is now the Swamp Thing, with Alec Holland restored to humanity. Alec spends a few days teaching him how to control his new-found control of The Green, but in a (not really) shocking twist we discover that Matt has actually staged the elaborate transformation for his own sinister means – specifically to gain control of the Green to “police the world”. So what happens next? We’ll find out in May, when issue 5 is released. 

So there’s the plot summaries, but how does the whole thing track? Well, Kelley Jones’ art has a great noir-ish style, but I actually think it would be better if it had been published in black and white. Its got an appropriately eerie vibe, and I feel like it would have been better served by going all-in with B&W; the colour feels like it undercuts things to some degree.

As one of the co-creators of the character, Len Wein’s writing is also engaging; though the plot twists and turns are easy to spot coming, it’s entertaining enough that I want to keep reading, and see how some of the potential plot threads touched on may expand on in future issues. However, Issue 4 is probably the weakest of the bunch. Its plot of Matt Cable-Swamp Thing turning up in town and terrorising the inhabitants hits too many similar notes to a plot from a 1984 issue, where the Floronic Man shows up with similar intentions. This borrowing of plot points is common in comics, and were it some kind of obscure issue then it probably wouldn't be a big deal. But it's from -- you guessed it -- Alan Moore's run on the character, which means the issue is still readily available in reprints for re-reading and comparison.  

Swamp Thing is one of my favourite DC characters, so I’m pleased to see him return to print. Inevitably, this book will be compared with Alan Moore’s run – it definitely doesn’t hit those highs, but for those looking for a slightly darker/horror take on the superhero genre, it’s well worth a look. Hopefully it continues to maintain the same standard, and that Issue 6 isn’t the last -- or at least that he gets a Rebirth along with the other DC characters.

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