Review: Swamp Thing Vol. 5: The Killing Field trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

With DC Comics's long-standing superheroes, stories often fall into two categories. Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Aquaman and so on can fight bad guys in and around their respective cities, or Superman can have an adventure on one or another resurrected Krypton, Wonder Woman can engage with the Amazons, Green Lantern uncovers some mystery of the Guardians in space, Aquaman navigates Atlantean politics, and so on. There are the adventures without, and the adventures within.

I find the heroes versus villains stories more interesting, frankly, or at least I like a good mixing of the two. In Charles Soule's first Swamp Thing collection, most of it took place on the outside -- a team-up with Superman and a horror romp with John Constantine. Soule's second collection, Swamp Thing Vol. 5: The Killing Field, takes place almost entirely within, dealing with the Green avatar's ruling Parliament of the Trees. Soule still writes well the human voice of Alec Holland's consciousness within the body of the Swamp Thing, and you can't beat art by Jesus Saiz, but the story felt plodding and insular to me, too much fantasy and not enough sci-fi horror. I'd rather read about Swamp Thing out in the world than traversing the Parliament's nether realm.

[Review contains spoilers]

The last volume, Swamp Thing Vol. 4: Seeder, set up the Seeder character as an interesting threat for Swamp Thing, given both Seeder's altruistic, if destructive, environmental acts and also the bloody chaos he causes in a small village. I appreciated here that Soule reveals Seeder as Jason Woodrue, the once-and-future Floronic Man, keeping it all within the Swamp Thing mythos and wrapping up a dangling thread from Scott Snyder's Swamp Thing run. But the air goes out of the story a bit with this reveal; Woodrue suddenly becomes a whiny figure, a wannabe avatar repetitively professing his value to the Parliament. The challenge that follows, with Swamp Thing and Seeder facing off like arena gladiators, has an air of ludicrousness; that may be somewhat intentional on Soule's part, but I think Seeder comes off so silly as to take most of the danger out of the storyline.

Soule presents the Parliament's decision to pit Swamp Thing against Woodrue for the role of avatar as absurd on their part, but to an extent I see this as a feint by Soule to explain something that doesn't really make sense. Apparently what we've understood to be the grand Parliament of Trees all these years is actually a loose collective of argumentative and petty former avatars; I find it stretches believability that for as long as the Parliament has been in existence and for all they've done, only now and only with Alec Holland does anyone discover the rot in their roots (that one Parliament member is a Swamp Thing dinosaur, however, is visually awesome). Also that the Parliament tries to compel Alec to kill seems out of step with what came before; it's hard to care about what the Parliament does when they're shown as de facto unreasonable and their actions don't have much cause.

A good chunk of Killing Fields, before and after Swamp Thing's face-off with Woodrue, involves Swamp Thing traveling the Green to confer with past-avatar mentors. I do like that Soule includes a lot of talking -- at four issues and an annual, this still feels like a text-heavy long read, not too padded by action. But it's all taking place in a fantasy world, really just the Green's mental constructs, populated with chateaus and jungles and horseback riding, and that makes it hard for me to be terribly invested in it. At risk is Alec's soul and, I guess, the fate of the world with the maddened Seeder as avatar, but it's tough to feel that through all the artifice.

At Soule's most bold, he introduces the Alec Holland Swamp Thing to the previous Alan-Moore-era Swamp Thing, done up in 1987 Swamp Thing #56 "My Blue Heaven" form, but even this feels flat. The meeting is brief, and old Swamp Thing's advice for Holland to defy the Parliament doesn't seem grounded in any of the old Swamp Thing's past adventures. It's exciting that they met (and that old Swamp Thing is still out there), but the meeting seemed to serve the plot more than to stem from the characters. Consider, for instance, nary a "How's Abby?" in the entire conversation.

Killing Fields ends on a cliffhanger, but not one I wholly understood. Swamp Thing puts the Parliament to sleep in order to escape the Green where he's been trapped -- except this was previously demonstrated to Swamp Thing via eating a certain fruit, and instead he just sends out his tendrils and the Parliament sleeps. Further, on the last page, Swamp Thing stands with a couple naked human bodies around him; I'm guessing this is supposed to be the de-Greened Parliament, but why this would be the result of Swamp Thing's actions, I'm not sure (and also where did the dinosaur get to?). No doubt Soule will explain next time, but it was an odd end to an equally shaky book.

I should say that if you haven't read Charles Soule's Red Lanterns run, stop now and go do so; it is utter brilliance from start to finish and as fine a Guy Gardner story as you'll find outside Beau Smith. But Swamp Thing Vol. 5: The Killing Field is too much of a "bottle episode" for me, navel-gazing (and then writing off) too much on things that don't matter as much as the worldly weirdness Swamp Thing usually encounters. My hope is that Soule has the Parliament of Trees out of his system now and that the Swamp Thing series can return to previous form posthaste.

[Includes original covers, sketchbook section]
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