Comic Picks By The Glick

Swamp Thing by Brian K. Vaughan vol. 1

January 27, 2014

"Vaughan was last seen working on a revival of Swamp Thing over at Vertigo, which is tantamount to wearing a sign around your neck saying 'I am not Alan Moore, please kick me'."Paul O'Brien, The X-Axis

It’s been years since I first read that quote, but it sums up the general state of the character better than anything else I’ve read.  Granted, it doesn’t actually give you any real indication as to the actual quality of Vaughan’s work which is really besides the point.  The only hint you have there is that it has taken this long for a collection of it to surface in the first place.  Normally after a creator hits it big at either DC or Marvel, they’ll rush to get the writer’s previous work back into print to capitalize on their fame.  DC didn’t do this when Vaughan gave them “Y:  The Last Man” and “Ex Machina,” but now that he has the arguably more popular “Saga” and is the showrunner for “Under the Dome” (and won’t likely be writing anything for them in the future) we’re finally getting a collection of his work with the character.

That being said, if it’s taken this long and with such particular circumstances for this volume to be released, one could be forgiven for wondering if these stories are actually any good.  The answer to that is they’re “okay.”  More than anything else, the issues contained here represent a writer still trying to find his voice and work out the kinks in his style.

There’s also the fact that for a “Swamp Thing” series, the focus isn’t on the title character.  A bit of history for that:  Before the previous title ended, it didn’t just contain Moore’s definitive run but was Vertigo’s longest-running ongoing title by a significant margin.  I can only assume that Vertigo’s editorial staff wanted to express some reverence for these facts and decided that a different approach was needed if they were going to go for a relaunch.  That’s why this series focuses on the character’s daughter, Tefe.

The character’s complicated backstory is glossed over here for the most part.  All that a new reader needs to know is that in addition to being the daughter of the Swamp Thing and Abby Holland (as well as John Constantine -- hey, I said it was complicated) she’s an elemental force like her father who can manipulate flesh as well as plant life.  Originally she was thought to be someone who could bridge the divide between the plant life represented by the Green and humanity.  However, the rulers of the Green thought that she could be put to better use by ridding them of mankinds corruptive, pollutive influence and people died before she was put into a situation that would “deprogram” her from this kind of thinking.  This only lasts for a while and now Tefe finds herself out in the world, angry at both sides of her heritage, and trying to forge her own way in this life.

So let’s see here.  We’ve got an angry young adult protagonist.  One who is heir to great power with two sides to its use, and is also angry with both of them and trying to find a middle ground between them.  That’s right, Vaughan is giving us “Star Wars:  Legacy” several years before John Ostrander and Jan Duursema got around to it.  Just give Tefe a lightsaber and she’d be a perfect stand in for Cade Skywalker.  Well, not really.  There’s also the fact that “Legacy” is easily the more entertaining work that hit the ground running right from the start.

With this iteration of “Swamp Thing,” it’s clear that Vaughan was still finding his legs as a writer at the time.  The “big twist” of the first issue probably won’t make a lot of sense unless you’re already familiar with the character.  In fact, the whole second issue is a massive infodump bringing us up to speed on how the character got to that point.  The third issue is a murder mystery of sorts on a fishing boat involving a writer who crosses paths with Tefe and it isn’t until the fourth issue that we finally start establishing the groundwork and supporting cast for the title’s direction.  Mind you, by the end of the volume it still hasn’t been fleshed out anymore than Tefe trying to find that “middle ground” in her heritage.

Still, there are flashes throughout the issues here of the writer that Vaughan will eventually become.  Seeing what happens with the family who survives the forest fire is one example.  The characters of Barnabas, the scarred former smokejumper, and Pilate, a former military sniper who finds new purpose in working with Tefe, are also worthy supporting characters.  Yet the writer has also said that he likes working out his issues through his comics, and his thoughts on the environment and other things come off as pretty heavy-handed here.  Those of you who find Vaughan’s tendency to throw in random bits of knowledge about what he’s writing to be more annoying than anything else will see that he’s actually become much better at that over the years than he is here.

I do have hope for the following volume as the final issue in this collection is easily the best one.  Spurred on as an offhand barroom question by the waitress serving them, Tefe, Pilate and Barnabas talk about the times they saw their fathers cry.  Each story is illustrated by a different artist, and they managed to get some of my favorites to do them:  Steve Lieber, Guy Davis and Paul Pope.

Lieber shows us what happened when Pilate’s dad snuck him him onto the grounds of Cape Canaveral so that they could see a space shuttle launch.  Though the character’s dad is initially established as a standard-issue military hardass, his change in the wake of the launch still feels believable as the moment is sold as a significant changing point in the young boy’s life.  Guy Davis illustrates the last conversation Barnabas ever had with his father which goes in a very unexpected direction.  The short is a great example of the “unreliable narrator” device and makes Barnabas into a much more interesting and potentially dangerous character than he had seemed before.  Best of all is Pope’s story, and not just for the art which is excellent and highly memorable if only for the panel in which a gleeful Tefe follows what she thinks is her dad’s example in showing what will happen to humans if they continue to pollute the land.  It’s also notable for the fact that the Swamp Thing realizes that her actions are his fault and that she needs better instruction than he can provide, which has effectively led us to the situation the character finds herself in now.

As for the artist who illustrates the majority of this volume, Roger Peterson, I’m left feeling rather indifferent towards him in the end.  He’s got a style that’s reminiscent of another former “Swamp Thing” artist, Phil Hester, but minus the energy and stylishness.  Peterson’s storytelling is clear enough that following the narrative is never a problem, but his work here just isn’t all that memorable even before you get to Lieber/Davis/Pope.  Cliff Chiang also contributes a story here and his work is comparable to Vaughan’s writing.  You can see the beginnings of the elegant simplicity of the artist’s style here, but it’s still in need of some refining.

At this point all I can say is that if the second volume can keep up the level of quality seen in the final issue as it gets back to the main story, then it’ll have been worth making my way through this volume.  Vaughan’s work on “Swamp Thing” shows that most great writers have to keep working for years to refine their style before they finally hit it big.  If seeing this writer work through his growing pains on the page sounds like your idea of a good time, then the issues collected here will certainly appeal to you.

Jason Glick

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