‘Animal Man’ and ‘Swamp Thing’ Intertwine in an Epic Mythology of Horror and High Fantasy
When DC Comics relaunched its superhero line last year, it tapped writer Scott Snyder (American Vampire) for Swamp Thing and Jeff Lemire (Sweet Tooth) for Animal Man, two Vertigo mainstay titles defined by monumental, careermaking runs by creators Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, respectively. Together, Snyder and Lemire have mixed and matched the characters’ histories into an epic mythology linking the two characters that tells the ages-old story of the history of life on earth, and the battle between the Green (the life-force and connection of plant matter), the Red (the life-force of animal matter), and the necrotic forces of the Rot. The two complementary titles are finally meeting in the “Deadworld” crossover event this August, but for all of the shared connective tissue between the titles, it’s remarkable how incredibly different they are in their approach not only to horror but to general storytelling as they explore the same story from two different angles.Despite their creative synergy, Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire couldn’t come from more different creative backgrounds: Lemire drew his own indie comics and Snyder came out of writing prose fiction. These are two creators tackling the medium from monumentally different perspectives, and this is noticeable if for no other reason than Snyder uses a hell of a lot more words while Lemire tends to be way more comfortable letting the art tell the story.
The story of Animal Man so far is that the villainous Rot is trying to claim Buddy “Animal Man” Baker’s daughter Maxine. Maxine, apparently, is the real champion of the Red, not Buddy, and Buddy was only given powers to protect her. (This leads to a somewhat hilarious/apropos retcon of Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, as the Red claim they came as Morrison’s reality-writing aliens to give Buddy “a narrative [he] could more easily comprehend.”)
Three former champions of the Red, now working for the Rot as the Hunters Three, chase down Buddy’s wife Ellen and son Cliff while Buddy and Maxine commune with animal spirits in the Parliament of Limbs, the fleshy counterpart to the Parliament of Trees from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Buddy and Maxine eventually get back to Earth and meet up with the rest of the family, as their new companion Socks the Cat (actually an ancient champion of the Red) tells them they need to find Alec Holland, the Swamp Thing.
Animal Man‘s horror is immediate and real, coming for your family, your children, the entire concept of domesticity. It’s all supremely visceral stuff: manipulation of flesh into hideous sculptures of guts and tendril, attacks aimed primarily at the protagonist’s family, body horror, survival horror, and more body horror. Seriously, artist Travel Foreman — who’s regrettably leaving the title to seek less depressing material, and I can’t really blame the guy — has put on a clinic over the course of the first five issues, ably assisted by inkers Dan Green and Jeff Huet and especially colorist extraordinaire Lovern Kindzierski. The whole thing feels like a sequential Francis Bacon painting, and I don’t recommend it before bedtime.
In general, it’s arguable that Swamp Thing, with art by Yanick Paquette and Rudy Marco, is more ornate than Animal Man, in its approach to both storytelling and horror. Animal Man punches for the gut, while Swamp Thing‘s horror is a distant, creeping wasteland. But what Swamp Thing loses in immediacy, it gains in scale, because much like The Dark Tower novel series by Snyder’s mentor Stephen King, its goal is less jumping out to scare you than slowly selling a massive threat.
Swamp Thing is less horror at its heart than high fantasy. Alex Holland has returned to the living after the events of Brightest Day, and is being targeted by the Rot, which is building a kingdom in Arizona and New Mexico for their lord Sethe, who’s implied to be Set, Satan, basically every figure opposing life in human mythology. (I am totally going to get crap for calling Satan “human mythology.”)
Just as the Red runs in the Baker bloodline and the Green in the Holland bloodline, affinity for the Rot runs in the bloodline of the Arcanes, descendents of old Swamp Thing villain Anton Arcane. His daughter, Abby — Swamp Thing’s lover and girlfriend for most of the Alan Moore run and on — is still around, this time as a badass biker chick with a shotgun trying to deny her true nature, as well as his son (and her half-brother) William, a new character with an allergy to chlorophyll and the ability to manipulate necrotic tissue (which, to be fair, brings Swamp Thing into the body horror realm as well). For six issues, basically everyone keeps begging Alec Holland to man the hell up and go become Swamp Thing to beat the crap out of the Rot, but he won’t, and when the Rot finally takes Abby and he gives himself in to the Green, the Parliament of Trees is already burning, so he’s S.O.L.
Still, Swamp Thing can’t really be characterized as a horror story, because Holland doesn’t really have anything to lose. None of the relationships he has in the book are really his; they belong to Swamp Thing, which is to say the Swamp Thing that pretended to be him while he was dead. The Arcanes make up the book’s entire supporting cast so far, with one of them as a sneering villain and the other one becoming, for now, a damsel in distress, with Holland as the reluctant warrior-king who needs to claim his destiny. The scene at the end of #6 where Holland is impaled by a chainsaw in a swamp is almost a bizarre inversion of the Arthurian Sword in the Stone; while it performs the same role in the cycle, with the hero finally accepting their destiny, it’s a dude getting impaled on a damn chainsaw.
Despite their vastly different approaches, the two books have become so narratively interconnected that one couldn’t exist without the other. As time has gone on, Animal Man‘s creepy body horror and immediate danger has set up camp in Snyder’s narrative; meanwhile, the scope of Animal Man is increasing from the personal to the global. This interconnectivity isn’t a curse, but rather a blessing to both stories, making them not only stronger individually but also even stronger together. The two books, and their creators, are feeding off of each other, and the honest collaboration between their disparate approaches has lead not just to the upcoming “Deadworld” crossover event, but to better comics for both of them.