52/1: The varieties of horror
I’d like to clear up a bit of a myth — you can actually follow either Animal Man or Swamp Thing without reading the other. Writers Jeff Lemire and Scott Snyder have clearly spent the first year of the two titles building a common world with a number of common elements and themes, but they each have their own plan. Together, the two titles considered together form a dark, rich tapestry, but they’re each outstanding titles on their own. You don’t have to read both Animal Man and Swamp Thing, although I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to.
At first glance, Buddy Baker and Alec Holland don’t have much in common. Baker is a sometime actor and stuntman who has embraced his public role as Animal Man not just to fight crime, but to be an advocate for animal issues. He’s married with a son and a daughter, and while his acting career has never really taken off, he’s just starred in a little indie film which is garnering a some attention and even a hint of Oscar buzz. In the pages of Animal Man, there’s an ongoing contrast between the humble, salt-of-the-earth (I’m trying to avoid the phrase white trash) nature of the Baker family, and the way modern media occasionally intrudes on the story — the first page of the first issue of Animal Man is a faux interview with Buddy Baker from the deeply hip magazine The Believer, and most of the sixth issue consists of scenes from Baker’s indie film Tights, as viewed on Baker’s son’s smartphone while the family is on the run in their RV.
Alec Holland, on the other hand, is a renowned plant biologist who in the first issue of Swamp Thing is working in construction. He’s recently returned to life after a lab explosion years ago to find not only that his wife wasn’t so lucky, but that he shares memories with a monstrous superhero animated by a force known as the Parliament of Trees using what they were able to salvage of Holland’s personality after his death. The Parliament now wants Holland to become their champion himself as they had always intended, and he feels the unwanted pull of that destiny in both his waking hours and in his dreams.
But for all their differences, Baker and Holland have one thing in common. Their lives have been shaped and directed by forces that are beyond anything they had ever imagined, and the first year of each of their titles can be read as an extended cinematic pull back shot. In every issue, the frame expands a little, revealing a world bigger, deeper, stranger, and more dangerous.
In the New 52, Animal Man and Swamp Thing are revealed to be champions (“avatars”) for the constantly battling forces of animal and plant life, known as The Red and The Green, both of which oppose the embodied force of death known as The Rot. In times of balance, each of the three forces keeps the others in check. If things were in balance, of course, we wouldn’t have much of a story, and both titles at the inception find themselves in a place where the way things are is far from the way things should be.
In Animal Man, artist Travel Foreman evokes this dislocation by creating a world of open, realistic but flattened spaces with bizarre, hyper-detailed intruders. (Steve Pugh largely takes over by issue #7, but maintains Foreman’s overall stylistic deisgn.) Buddy Baker and his family are pursued by a grotesque, distended group calling themselves The Hunters Three who can consume living beings and wear their skins. The Hunters are portrayed as occasionally struggling to fit within their assumed shapes, which become cartoonishly distorted when a hunter is distracted or fatigued. Nothing about the process is pleasant or pretty. “This will hurt very badly,” one of the hunters tells a victim as he is being eaten, “but I need your sssskin. . .”
The flatness of Buddy Baker’s “normal” world is a vivid illustration of the new series’ central revelation. While Baker has been empowered by the Red as the de facto champion of the animal world, he is only a placeholder. The untimely death of the Red’s previous avatar left them in need of a temporary replacement, so they granted some of the next avatar’s abilities to her father. Maxine Baker’s connection to the Red far exceeds anything Buddy Baker has ever experienced, and her nacent powers already far exceed his own. Maxine is also just four years old, and for all her power, far from able to protect herself from the Lovecraftian figures pursing her.
While Buddy Baker finds himself a smaller figure in a bigger world, a custodian more than a champion, then Alec Holland is precisely the opposite, the champion who was taken from the Green and has now returned. Holland, however, wants nothing to do with the destiny the Green so fervently desires that he embrace, and he finds himself trying to prune back the tendrils the Parliament of Trees have wrapped around his soul. Fittingly, Yanick Paquette’s art is lush, flowing, and sometimes oppressively detailed. In the second and third issues, Holland meets a kindred spirit in Abigail Arcane, a woman whose family has a deep connection to the Rot, and who has a history with the Alec Holland simulacrum that was the previous Swamp Thing. Holland finds himself irresistibly drawn to Abigail, defending her life against both the Rot seeking to reclaim her, and the Green’s demands that he destroy her.
In different hands, we might have had two strong but unrelated titles, the interim hero and the reluctant champion with their very different stories in their own separate worlds. Linking the two together is a brilliant idea which has been executed with what I’m certain was no little effort and a great deal of skill. The star-crossed lovers and the father defending his progeny are both classic, even primal stories, but together they form a rich and unexpected epic about blood and family, and creating a future beyond what is encoded within history and genetics.
Because of this, Animal Man and Swamp Thing are comics about heroism and not just superheroes. Both titles have seen, groundbreaking work in the past (as written by Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, respectively), but they existed for all practical purposes in their own pocket narrative universes. With their New 52 incarnations, Snyder and Lemire have been able to bring themes (and a level of quality) more often found in indie comics or imprints like Vertigo to the mainstream DC universe. It’s an effort whose first fruits are just beginning to mature, but the ground is rich, and there’s the promise of even better to come.
Gavin Craig is co-editor of The Idler. You can follow him on Twitter at @craiggav.