Review: Swamp Thing Vol. 1: Raise Them Bones trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, January 28, 2013

It's definitely good to have a new Swamp Thing title on the newsstands. Irrespective of whether one would prefer the Swamp Thing title under the auspices of DC Comics or Vertigo, it remains that Swamp Thing is back for a new audience in the New 52, with writer Scott Snyder and artist Yanick Paquette. But Snyder's Swamp Thing: Raise Them Bones is a devoutly New 52 series, focusing to a surprising extent on the man within the monster. This will certainly be a point of controversy -- depending on what version of Swamp Thing a reader subscribes to, Snyder's incarnation may amount to heresy.

[Review contains spoilers]

When Alan Moore took over the Saga of the Swamp Thing title in the 1980s, beginning the best-known run for the character, one of his first changes was to reveal that scientist Alec Holland was not the hulking Swamp Thing. Rather, Swamp Thing was a plant elemental created at the moment of Holland's fiery death, as other swamp things had been created before him, who mistakenly believed for a time that he was Holland. This freed the Swamp Thing character for more self-actualized stories; gone was the pathos of a man trapped in a monster's body, but at the same time Moore could now tell stories about Swamp Thing proper, not Alec-Holland-trapped-in-Swamp-Thing's-body.

Snyder's Swamp Thing is both entirely faithful to Moore's version, and radically different. Snyder's focus character is one Alec Holland, mysteriously resurrected from the dead and having never been Swamp Thing, though sharing all of Swamp Thing's memories. In this way, Moore's Swamp Thing existed, many of his adventures happened, and it's all preserved within Holland. And yet, Snyder retroactively reveals that Holland had been meant by the ruling Parliament of Trees to be Swamp Thing all along, and only with Holland's untimely death had Moore's "substitute" Swamp Thing been created as Holland's replacement. Moore's Swamp Thing existed, but he's been relegated to an experiment or placeholder; his adventures took place, but they don't necessarily "count."

If this dismays some Swamp Thing fans, the fault is not necessarily Snyder's; the idea of Alec Holland as the true Swamp Thing bore mention in Geoff Johns's Brightest Day finale, too. Undoubtedly some will see this as another strike by DC against Moore; with these changes, DC's Swamp Thing acknowledges Moore's work but simultaneously unshackles itself from it.

For better or worse, all of this adheres well to the tenets of the New 52 -- younger characters, more realistic and believable. Snyder makes the interesting creative choice -- in a book called Swamp Thing with an image of the "classic" Swamp Thing on the cover -- never to have the monster appear in the book until the end, and then mostly off-panel. The New 52 Swamp Thing's first volume is entirely Alec Holland's. The audience is therefore reminded for however long the Swamp Thing series lasts that there is a living, breathing man inside the monster, because that man gets seven issues of his own in the spotlight before he becomes the swampy beast. It's the equivalent of Grant Morrison writing about the T-shirted Superman before he gets his costume; Raise Them Bones is Swamp Thing's pre-origin.

The book itself is entertaining enough, though it pales in unfair comparison both to Moore's seminal Swamp Thing work and to Snyder's Batman: The Black Mirror -- Raise Them Bones is adequately scary, but it's not James Gordon Jr. scary. Snyder's Holland wants nothing to do with Swamp Thing or the Parliament of Trees until he's stalked by agents of the dark Rot, broken-necked zombies with a penchant for sharp objects. The action scenes with these demons are good, as are Holland's interactions with old friends and enemies, but Snyder gives over too many pages to repetitive exposition from the Parliament, especially later in the book. For seven issues, there isn't especially much that happens from the beginning to the end of Raise Them Bones.

Fans of Moore's Swamp Thing won't recognize the motorcycle-riding, shotgun-toting Abigail Arcane in Snyder's story, either (there's an apocalyptic Walking Dead vibe to the book that's too heavy in comparison to Moore's lighter, episodic Swamp Thing horror). Snyder does, however, finally offer a plausible explanation for Moore's sudden, inexplicable romance between Abby and Swamp Thing -- that, like Romeo and Juliet, they are representatives of two warring sides, the Green and the Rot, who can only find peace with one another. Abby exits the book at the end, just as Holland becomes Swamp Thing, and one hopes Snyder does not permanently keep her out of the book, nor make her (like Mary, Queen of Blood in I, Vampire) Swamp Thing's permanent nemesis and opposite number.

The amalgamation of old and new Swamp Thing legend here can't help but remind the audience of DC's recent steps with the Legion of Super-Heroes, cutting off their history after Great Darkness Saga and Crisis on Infinite Earths and grafting it to the present, leaving the "Five Years Later" and other eras in limbo. The same thing happens here -- Snyder's Abby makes no mention of she and Swamp Thing's daughter Tefe, for instance, suggesting that Swamp Thing's history has been snipped roundabouts the end of Moore's run and brought forward to the New 52 (this is beneficial, and perhaps not accidental, in that Moore's Swamp Thing trades are the ones most available to interested readers). But Snyder's Parliament also suggests that the "original" Swamp Thing has died, a story untold in previous comics, so one might hope Snyder will tell a flashback tale at some point and indeed spotlight the classic monster for an issue.

Artist Yanick Paquette brings forth both the Green and the Rot well, often using creative panel bordering to highlight each. His twisted-headed zombies and various undead farm animals are appropriately gory, and will undoubtedly become more so as the Swamp Thing title nears the upcoming "Rotworld" crossover with Jeff Lemire's Animal Man. As a boon to collection and digital readers, Paquette's pages often seem like two-page spreads, but they're instead single, thematically similar pages, making single-page reading easier. Guest artist Marco Rudy emulates Paquette's style well at first, but when he inks himself in issue #6 the art becomes too dark and scattered; though it features a climactic fight, this is the poorest of the issues.

Alan Moore's Swamp Thing is a literary highlight in DC Comics's library, a run that was frightening and cosmic, socially aware and romantic, funny and faithful to the overarching DC mythology around it. In contrast, Scott Snyder's Swamp Thing: Raise Them Bones is Swamp Thing-light, a story where Alec Holland runs around for a while before the book's inevitable conclusion. Whereas Jeff Lemire's Animal Man felt as though it stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Grant Morrison's ground-breaking run, Snyder's Swamp Thing still has a ways to go. That the DC Universe has a Swamp Thing again is auspicious, however, and hopefully things only get better from here.

[Includes original covers, sketchbook and cover designs by Yanick Paquette]

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7 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed this book, although I say that without having read any of Alan Moore's run (I know, this makes me a bad person; it's on my to-do list).

    I will simply say that for someone who is most unfamiliar with the character, Snyder does an excellent job of introducing the Alec Holland and making the reader care about his situation. Some people might feel like this arc could've used a bit more decompression, but I felt more than satisfied with what I was given.

    I also really enjoyed Yanick Paquette's artwork. This art was a perfect match for the aesthetic of the series, and unlike Suicide Squad, the violence was earned rather than violence for its own sake.

    All in all, I'm really excited for the "Rotworld" storyline. My copy of Animal Man vol. 2 should be arriving later this week. It's unfortunate that we have to wait until April for the second volume of Swamp Thing.

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  2. It's hard for me to separate this from previous portrayals of Swamp Thing. As a New 52 series on its own, certainly Snyder's Swamp Thing is more intelligent than some, has a good mythology, and the art overall stands up -- Paquette definitely, some of the fill-ins not so much. I do appreciate Snyder's focus on the man inside the monster -- that is, I do think this is a new and unique approach to Swamp Thing -- I think I just liked it more when Swamp Thing was his own guy and not Alec Holland. I'll be curious to see what the book is like with an actual Swamp Thing on the page.

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  3. I think you're putting too much pressure on Snyder's Swamp Thing to being compared to Moore's epic Swamp Thing. I know it is bound to happen for all character comparisons among writers (like Jeff Lemire being compared to Grant Morrison's Animal Man, for example). But Snyder's own take stands up pretty good within the New 52.

    But don't expect Snyder's run to follow Moore's guidelines in terms of the monster itself, because you'll be disappointed. Snyder's Swamp Thing is mostly an action packed affair from here on out until Snyder's departure in issue 18.

    And I still think Snyder's Swamp Thing is great, regardless of comparisons.

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  4. Well, I kind of get that, though as you say, it's inevitable any Swamp Thing is going to be compared to Moore's. And it's not an impossible challenge -- Lemire's Animal Man does stand up to Morrison's, in my opinion, and Snyder's Batman stands up to Morrison's, too.

    But even separate from a Moore comparison, in Raise Them Bones most of what takes place is that Holland ventures out into the desert, fights Arcane, and that's it. There's the digressions to talk to the Parliament of the Trees, but there's one too many of those, I thought, and they're essentially word-dump -- interesting, attractively-drawn exposition, but exposition nonetheless.

    Swamp Thing is "good horror" in that it's horror done sensitively with it's shocks and gore well thought-out, but plot-wise I thought it was slow, even despite that I questioned its action-adventure. The book is helped mightily by Yanick Paquette such that it looks better than the New 52's "same old thing," but I thought it was far outpaced by all the other New 52's good books -- Animal Man, I, Vampire, Flash, Batwoman, etc. etc. Maybe I'd call Swamp Thing "the worst of the best."

    Respect your opinion of course Lionheart; just thought I'd give a bit more why I felt how I did about this one.

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  5. I can agree to "worst of the best."

    I do agree with you about the exposition. While I was fine with the pace of this volume, I will be disappointment if the next volume is more of the same.

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  6. I haven't read any of the original Swamp Thing (other than that story in the "DC Universe by Alan Moore" TPB), so had just rudimentary knowledge of the character when I bought the New 52 #1 issue. I wasn't expecting to care much for it, but I really liked it. The reverse-headed zombie characters were really creepy. I ended up getting the first TPB's worth of issues, and really enjoyed it. CE, you say that plot-wise, not much happens, and I guess I can't argue that, but I never felt like any of the issues were dragging. Actually, more times than not, when each one ended, I wanted to keep reading onto the next.

    All that being said, I think I'm not going to continue with the title. The upcoming crossover with Animal Man means that the cost effectively doubles (as I would feel compelled to buy that series as well), and I believe they announced that Snyder was leaving the book? That alone makes me less interested in investing more time and money in it.

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  7. I get not wanting to double-invest for the crossover. However, I might recommend you switch sides and start collecting Animal Man, which is really good -- better than Swamp Thing, in my opinion. Then you can still read Rotworld and still have Jeff Lemire on Animal Man when you come out the other side.

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