REVIEW: Breaking the Mold? ANIMAL MAN #18 and SWAMP THING #18

The end of the ROT WORLD crossover arc raises the question that Umberto Eco posed in his famous essay on Superman in 1972: can there really be change in a superhero universe? Doesn’t that imply aging, and movement toward an end, death, in fact? Whereas the constant return to a status quo at the end of each trial or adventure puts readers back in a position of looping time, and any seeming change in the lives of superheroes is seen to be a kind of necessary illusion. Eco even pointed out that “What If” stories are the only recourse to exploring meaningful life developments for superheroes like having long-term relationships or kids, milestones that can be neatly tucked away as “out of continuity”. We’re still struggling in superhero comics with the same realities of narrative constraint introduced by the Man of Steel, but that doesn’t mean that some writers and artists are satisfied to make all monumental events, the reason we read superhero comics in the first place, transient. Some are determined not to hand the property on to the next writer or artist in the same condition in which they received it, and that does suggest a lot of gumption on their part. Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire have suggested in interviews before the ROTWORLD finale that they fought to incorporate lasting change into the universes of SWAMP THING and ANIMAL MAN respectively, and the question is, are those changes really meaningful to the reader? What did the ROT WORLD arc add to the mythology of the DCU and will its impact continue to be felt, or will there still be a gradual return to the status quo to follow?

[Spoilers for ROTWORLD arc, ANIMAL MAN #17, 18, and SWAMP THING #17, 18 below!]

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All evidence points to New 52 marketing wanting readers to believe that ROT WORLD was culminating in something monumental, something unheard of that might never be seen again. SWAMP THING #18’s cover, depicting Abby and Swampy embracing reads, “’Til Death Do Them Part!”, and ANIMAL MAN #18’s even more emotionally gripping cover, with Buddy Baker screaming in the dark, reads in rather gigantic letters: “This is the Most Tragic Day in the Life of Buddy Baker!”. As far as hype goes, it’s pretty extreme, and even though fans might not want these characters to suffer, anything less might seem like a rip off after this kind of advertizing. Maybe they want readers to feel conflicted because that means they are personally engaging with the titular characters.

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Let’s start with the ROT mythology, and the way in which it affects a reader’s view of the DCU, then discuss the kind of “change” ST #18 and AM #18 introduce. As mythology, the introduction of The Rot is a significant accomplishment. It shines a light on the dark corners of the underlying principles of the DC Universe and helps fill out the cosmic principles that hold it together for readers. The Rot functions as a third element to stand in balance to The Red, the element of animals (and humans), and The Green, the element of the plant world. It makes sense there should be more than just The Green and the The Red struggling, often against each other. Adding a third principle, first as a mutual foe, that represents “decay” is pretty ingenious. It speaks to the reality of death and entropy in the DCU and gives readers a greater sense of just how things function in the DCU. So from an overarching standpoint, thumbs up. But honestly, it gets even better. In issue #17 of SWAMP THING when Swamp Thing and Animal Man start questioning their own view of what The Rot is, things get more “real” in the sense that the opposition between The Red and The Green versus The Rot becomes instead a triad of opposing forces.

As Constantine had warned earlier, The Red and The Green are not “black and white”. They are not alone, and don’t simply have a mutual foe. They have a mutually equal principle to deal with taken over by Anton Arcane. They begin to realize that the avatars of each principle can determine whether the element works in more helpful or harmful ways and that The Rot, a principle of decay, is, in fact neutral, though corrupted by Arcane. Though readers might have seen this coming, it forms a sudden clear paradigm for principles acting in the DCU, and suggests a satisfying emphasis on “harmony” between principles as a universal goal. It syncs well with all the struggles of heroes in the DCU, and could speak to Superman’s endeavors just as well as Batman’s. The ROT WORLD arc has added this paradigm to the DC Universe, and contributed to its mythology.

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So much for a view from a distance. It’s wonderful, and maybe even essential to have a solid and well thought out mythology behind a superhero universe, but without elements of humanity in its characters, there are no real stories to be told. The entire ROT WORLD crossover is deeply psychological. One could argue that perception and uncertain perception of reality are some of its key themes, particularly focused upon Swamp Thing and Animal Man. Are the worlds they fall through and move through even real at all? Can anything be fixed and certain when time-travel and world-travel are involved? That could move the reader away from a sense of seriousness in the events they are witnessing, not being sure that anything happened “for real”. Snyder and Lemire actually break through the “fourth wall” in a way by writing this uncertainty into the storyline openly. When Swampy and Animal Man storm Arcane’s stronghold in Rotworld in ST #17 and AM #17, they encounter monstrous, twisted versions of their loved ones, Abby (Abigail Arcane, Swamp Thing’s girlfriend) and Maxine (Animal Man’s daughter) respectively. The loved ones seem lost, bent beyond recognition into Arcane’s principle of Rot, and though they speak in familiar voices, Swampy and Animal Man still question whether it’s “really them”. It’s a version of them, Arcane confirms, since he’s grown them from infancy for this role, but there’s a lingering possibility that somewhere, if only in a version of the past, Abby and Maxine are still untainted. It’s emotionally engaging to see Swamp Thing and Animal Man interact with these twisted versions, but if it’s not “really” them, the impact is limited.

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That’s where issues #18 of both comics come in. They hold the key to determining if these are just essentially rather gruesome “What If” stories that have plenty to say about the DCU and especially a great deal to say about the psychology of central characters, but then, like a dream, will cycle back to normality having won the battle against Arcane and restored balance to the newly defined three principles of the universe. Lesson learned, life could more or less return to a version of the DCU that readers recognize. This is where, it seems, Snyder and Lemire’s determination to insist on change in the DCU after ROT WORLD comes in. They each take divergent paths to accomplish this, but the principle seems the same: restoring balance takes personal cost. If the universe is capable of righting itself after an imbalance, it does so with little concern over the impact on human lives, but works toward a bigger goal. Let’s also remember that Swamp Thing has agreed to be the avatar of The Green and give up his Alec Holland matrix of identity (as introduced originally by Alan Moore) and that Animal Man faces the same strict principles though his daughter Maxine is actually the avatar of The Red. This means that nothing is safe, and nothing is more sacred than that role.

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Snyder brings humanity to the post-Rot roles of Swamp Thing and Abby through the unlikely final farewell to their humanity and a backward-looking but meaningful sentiment about their connection to each other, visually depicted by Yanick Paquette in stunning terms as their two human bodies lying together, presumably deceased, gradually covered by the flowers of The Green. It’s a farewell for fans, one that deserves some rites of its own, but its implications bring actual change to the DCU also. Abby has knowingly taken on the role of avatar for The Rot in its new, neutral form as a safeguard for keeping it that way. She’s not only resisting the kind of horror arcane unleashed upon the entire DCU in the form of his own version of The Rot, she’s doing something about, and sacrificing her humanity to do so.

As counterbalanced principles now, she and Swamp Thing cannot truly be together (witness the ashes arising between them when they touch). He is growth and she is decay, interactive elements with their distant parts to play. Satisfyingly in some ways, Abby is now Swamp Thing’s equal. Surprisingly, that makes sense, as if her potential and future role had something to do with bringing them together in the first place. How can it be satisfying, though, that they can never be together again? It’s satisfying only in the sense that it rings true because it is honest to goodness change in the DC Universe, one Snyder went to bat for. How can these stories continue to be deeply meaningful to us if there is never any deep change visible? Bravo, Mr. Snyder, no matter how miserable you have made Swampy and Abby. To be fair, they seem to accept this fate the way elementals do, with rather profound wisdom.

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Jeff Lemire has, in some ways, a more difficult task at hand in ANIMAL MAN #18. Thrown back into his world to learn if things have changed, if at all, he has his entire family to worry about, not just his daughter Maxine. To introduce change into a family configuration is complicated. Do you change the nature of the relationships? Does Maxine, assuming she’s alive, stop being the avatar of The Red? What about losing his mother? That seems somehow like a reasonably nod toward change. But the scale of ROT WORLD has been so extreme that, simply stated, losing a parent might not quite satisfy readers. If Swamp Thing and Abby were tragic and nostalgic (and isn’t The Green usually anyway?), Animal Man needs something raw and violent to contend with, something primal perhaps. Steve Pugh does an excellent job rendering scenes between Buddy and his family human, and physical, once he returns to his world (particularly necessary with a title like ANIMAL MAN).  I wouldn’t say that having his already ill son Cliff Baker, finally die, was predictable. It was a roulette spin on who might die, though death did seem likely, especially given the book’s cover art. Cliff doesn’t need to be the avatar of The Red like Maxine, and his death can be an emotional touchstone for readers to connect to Buddy Baker. Superhero stories have contained quite a few lost sons over the years, but that doesn’t mean the trope doesn’t pack a punch.

After everything Animal Man has been through to save the universe from the Rot, doesn’t he deserve better than this? And yet, that’s the point. In this way, he’s not special. He’s vulnerable and human, and could experience the loss of a child. This is change for Buddy, but it’s more a psychological change than a major plot shift for future issues of ANIMAL MAN. This isn’t to say that losing a character doesn’t change the DCU, it does, but Cliff’s death doesn’t change it on the same scale that Abby’s transformation will. Is the change that Lemire introduces less of a success because of this? Nope. He introduces change to the fabric of Animal Man’s life, and an emotional impact that will last forever in psychological terms. Exactly how Cliff’s death will impact the ANIMAL MAN comic, in fact, remains to be seen, but it would be very hard to brush it aside. This certainly isn’t a “What If” story.

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So, the bottom line about the end of an era with Snyder’s final issue of SWAMP THING and the end of the ROT WORLD arc is that it does remarkable things to alter the way in which readers perceive and understand the DC Universe as a whole, and is a pretty impressive feat of universe building from the inside out. It creates growth and greater appreciation of a universe perpetually under construction, and for that reason, rarely explained in broad terms. But Snyder and Lemire also do something that shows a lot of fortitude and personal vision for what readers need to see in superhero stories to really grasp their significance: the potential for change. If these characters cannot be affected by their life experiences, where does that leave us, the readers, trying to connect and apply their experiences to our own?

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SWAMP THING #18 and ANIMAL MAN #18 complete what you might term “Eco’s loop” in terms of creating continuity again in the DCU (by restoring balance in The Rot), but they also break through that loop and give us a glimpse, hopefully an enduring one, of heroes in a “real” situation of loss, maybe even a form of sacrifice to restore that balance. There’s nothing more human than the realization that things don’t always work out the way you want them to. Thankfully, for Snyder and Lemire, they did this time.

Title: ANIMAL MAN #18/ Publisher: DC Comics/Creative Team: Jeff Lemire, Writer, Steve Pugh, Artist, Lovern Kindzierski, Colorist, Jared K. Fletcher, Letterer

Title: SWAMP THING #18/ Publisher: DC Comics/Creative Team: Scott Snyder, Writer, Yanick Paquette, Artist, Nathan Fairbairn, Colors, Travis Lanham, Letters

Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.

 

 

Comments

  1. Michael P says:

    “monumental events, the reason we read superhero comics in the first place”

    What do you mean “we”, white man?

  2. Not sure what you mean Michael- this reviewer is a girl for one thing. Care to weigh in on what you thought of the books?

  3. White man?

  4. Jonathan L. Miller says:

    Two points:

    1. There already was a third element, back in the early ’90s–the Grey (i.e. fungus and the decay associated with it), meant to counterbalance the Green. So this wasn’t a completely revolutionary idea, though tying it into Animal Man’s Red certainly adds a lot.

    2. As I recall, the cover copy on Animal Man 18 is a direct reference to a Morrison issue–wasn’t it the one where all of Buddy’s family are horribly murdered? (Spoiler: they got better.) Honestly, I’m not sure it was a good idea to reference the earlier story if the issue is supposed to bring permanent change; what it said to me was, “Cliff won’t stay dead.”

  5. Richard says:

    “It was so intimidating to meet [Grant Morrison], but he was so kind and warm and he knew I was doing Animal Man. He wished me luck on it. His only advice was to not fuck with Buddy’s family. (laughs) I promised I wouldn’t do that. It was kind of cool to meet him.” – Jeff Lemire, August 25, 2011 in http://multiversitycomics.com/interviews/artist-august-jeff-lemire-interview/

    Well. That was quick.

    And I have to second Jonathan Miller re: the Grey. There is nothing new here, only a retelling of a story that fails to match what the first version accomplished twenty years ago.

    (Queue Morrison’s death of Damian being used as an “excuse” for the death of Cliff in 3… 2… 1…)

  6. v wiley says:

    Sadly, I believe that expecting permanent change or anything other than a return to the status quo should give up reading the big two’s comics. Licensed products aren’t meant to do anything other than establish status quo.

    And of course, as we ALL know by now, nobody dies forever in mainstream comics.

  7. I am shocked you would actually waste your time to write this article. It made my head hurt especially against the backdrop of the New 52. What is the point of establishing continuity and rules in a universe specifically unbound by continuity and rules?

  8. I liked the look of Animal Man over Swamp Thing and opted out on ST. Wish I’d switched it up. More potential and interesting ideas in Swamp Thing. Thanks for the article, keep up the good work.

  9. Stephen Schumacher says:

    Michael P was making a pointed reference to the joke where the Lone Ranger says, “These Indian savages have us surrounded… we’re in a heap of trouble now, Tonto!”

  10. That’s the danger you face when you make a cultural reference in a room full of 20 year olds.

  11. Rich Harvey says:

    It’s ok, Jesse. I got the joke and laughed.

    “but that doesn’t mean that some writers and artists are satisfied to make all monumental events, the reason we read superhero comics in the first place, transient.”

    I never read comics for monumental events. I always preferred good stories. Bring on those 8-page SPIRIT stories by Will Eisner.

    “The loved ones seem lost, bent beyond recognition into Arcane’s principle of Rot, and though they speak in familiar voices, Swampy and Animal Man still question whether it’s “really them”. It’s a version of them, Arcane confirms, since he’s grown them from infancy for this role, but there’s a lingering possibility that somewhere, if only in a version of the past, Abby and Maxine are still untainted.”

    Hmmm … reminds me a bit of the SUPERNATURAL television arc, when Sam Winchester is resurrected. “Did we resurrect 100% Sam, of did we get something else?” But if the authors take it in an interesting direction, this might be worth looking at. Nice cover on SWAMP THING, though …

  12. Uh? I’m quite suprised to read this positive review on this never unding arc. I mean, I only bought the animal Man issues and already fnd this way too long. We have been waiting 18 issues to finish on a “let’s go back in time” and “let’s kill someone randomly” because someone did the same on another volume of this serie?

    We haven’t been acquainted with Cliif enought to really miss him. Perhaps instead of having a “let’s have 10 characters battle a zombie JLA”, we could have had a nice episode about cliff..
    The onyl thing Rotworld made is make me ask myself if I shuld drop this serie. I wasn’t asking myself this question before it…I’ll stay because Steve pugh work is impressive and John Paul Leon is also coming back and I still have some faith that I will find some parts of Jeff Lemire story to enjoy but it only proves once more for me, on a personnal level, that I really shouldn’t read the mainstream super hero stuff writers I really liked on more personal comics are doing (Sweet Tooth was terrific).

    So, to react to “that it does remarkable things to alter the way in which readers perceive and understand the DC Universe as a whole, and is a pretty impressive feat of universe building from the inside out”,
    I would say that, yes, it did alter the way I perceive and understand the new52: its building will no correct anything that was bad in the old DC universe, we will stil have the same sh.tty never ending crossovers, making you want to drop comics you first wanted to keep on reading…

  13. I appreciate the more detailed comments guys. I know that a large number of readers don’t like the New 52 anyway, but I was still impressed by these two issues particularly. I think the people working on them did their best to create good stories with strong characterization. You have to keep in mind that many readers haven’t read the arcs 20 years ago, new readers, and so bringing in this cosmic principle stuff would be exciting for them, and also I think it’s more spelled out here than it has been in the past.
    I agree that Cliff needed more attention to make you care more and engage more about his fate. It may be that they are hinting that he won’t “stay dead”. For the sake of meaningfulness, I hope, in a way, that he does. I think the Swamp Thing #18 was particularly strong here and I hope Animal Man will fill out some of those missing details/moments and develop on its potential.

  14. Swamp Thing started with much promise, but Snyder fumbled it thanks to the whole Arcane arc. ST volume one established a man turned into a monster. Volume two did much more: it showed he was a monster who merely remembered being human, had him become an avatar of the green (one of many), established the red and grey in opposition/balance to the green, and eventually turned him into an avatar of the planet Earth, with mastery over all elements. After a volume three detour to follow his daughter, volume four gave us the god of the green without any human element remaining… They were rejoined and we returned to the status quo from the end of Moore’s run.

    Having Alec Holland alive was a great start. Having a previous Swampy show up was brilliant. Destroying the Parliament of Trees was audacious. Then we had ST become, essentially, Alec Holland in a swamp monster suit. A different take on Superman in tights, but tired superhero cliche nonetheless. And now we have a Holland-less Swamp Thing that’s lost Abby. Or to put it another way, it’s the Wein/Wrightson ST with the least difficult elements of Moore’s run thrown in and the shock tactics of volume three diluted and thrown into the mix.

    This is not a brave new take on ST, it’s an admission that either the great ideas of the last 40 years are beyond dealing with by the current creative teams, or alternately too scary for the DC brass to contemplate releasing. They have undone almost every interestind development in this book since the 1980’s.

    Look at Swamp Thing:Roots, a one-shot released between volumes two and three. Jon J. Muth created a new avatar of the green, created to amend his mistakes made during his lifetime after a violent death. This was wrapped around a battle of biblical proportions, set during war time and framed in childhood memories.

    Compare those ideas with the spandex-by-numbers current run. I think returning Swampy to the DCU was a mistake. Not letting China Mieville write ST was a mistake. The whole Rot World cross-over was a mistake. So much potential, and we just wound up moving the pieces around the board again.

  15. This really cracks me up Synder gets more cred for rehashing other people’s ideas than anyone in comics. I am supposed to be blown away by Death of the Family because it’s such a subtle play on Death IN the Family? When the whole story revolves around the Batman Family “dying” because Bruce kept secrets from them? If I was Mark Waid I would little irritated he stole my plot device from Tower of Babel. And this ST -AM run is Moore-rison (pun intended) rehashed universe building and characterzation BUT I love the supposition that because no one has read it in 20 plus years it’s cool. Oh f$&@ me that is awesome! Do you think that’s why comics are failing as an art form? Because that’s what you take as creative and innovative? Keep setting the bar high, I can’t wait till Snyder writes a massive opus about aging suphereos and comic nostalgia. Maybe there will be a college course about it? That would be cool.

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