One Year Later: Animal Man/Swamp ThingA comic review article by: Steve Morris
One year in, and "The New 52" has now shifted to "The 52." How's it been? Steve Morris investigates in a group of essays we're calling "One Year Later."
Animal Man and Swamp Thing both started to immense critical acclaim, as writers Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire immediately began to establish themselves as two of the strongest writers in DC's new lineup. Both books took much-loved Vertigo concepts and redrafted them, acknowledging the past while building up the present in a way nobody else had dared to in decades. Animal Man lives in the shade of Grant Morrison's run, of course, which saw the hero develop the power to emulate any animal on Earth, and simultaneously also come to the realization that he was a comic-book character. As he became more and more aware, Morrison ramped up the references to the reader and deconstructed the way comic books were written. Meanwhile, Swamp Thing is heavily overshadowed by Alan Moore, the man who wrote one of the all-time greatest DC stories.
With that obstacle, Snyder decided that Swamp Thing needed a bit of a kick. Waking up the original Swamp Thing -- Alec Holland -- and spending the next six issues building up to him becoming Swamp Thing once again, Snyder languished in a lovely pool of horror conventions, ramping up the focus on Swamp Thing's nature and endlessly teasing the reader as to when he would finally return. A supporting cast quietly built up, with Abigail Arcane returning as a love interest and several other characters getting revamped and brought back into Swampy's life. Drawn by Yanick Paquette, who did some astonishing work with the layouts and storyboarding, the book became rooted (pun!) in mythology and destiny.
Meanwhile Lemire teamed up with artist Travel Foreman to create a crazy story for Animal Man, a.k.a. Buddy Baker. Revealing that Animal Man was no longer the "avatar" of animals, the book shifted focus towards Buddy's daughter Maxine, and his attempts to protect her. With so many other books halting marriages and ending families, this was a series which emphasized the importance of family in Buddy's life. Foreman's art was grotesque, and revelled in it, as he created a series of impressively freaky monsters to chase down Buddy and end the family he fought so hard to protect.
The books eventually started to dovetail together, with Animal Man being part of "The Red" and Swamp Thing part of "The Green." Meanwhile, "The Rot" started to threaten them both. After six issues, both books switched focus to become an allied story. Each character spent the next six issues looking for the other, with little effect until their issue #12s, which came out this month. This also happened to be the period of time where critical acclaim died down, and readers started to grow incredibly restless with the books. Here were two very strong writers, with excellent artists, essentially treading water for half a year until the crossover story could occur.
And now we're finally at the crossover stage, things have fallen somewhat flat. By the time you've read both issue #12s, it becomes clear that there's really far less of a story at work here than had been suggested. What had been built up in pages and pages of gorgeous prologue in Swamp Thing becomes a simple case of "we fought some of the monsters and beat them. Now we'll go beat the rest." Swamp Thing and Animal Man both jump into the heart of the Rot in these issues, finally working together, and… not much happens.
The ending of the story seems to suggest, as well, that the characters will be isolated from each other for another six issues, too. Trapped in the Rot by villain Arcane, Animal Man is going to have six issues of exploring "The Red Kingdom" while Swamp Thing will be in "The Green Kingdom" for half a year. It's an incredible anti-climax, as so much was set up over those first six issues that it seemed we were going to get a much more ambitious and intricate story than the one we're presented with here.
The artwork has also fallen. Travel Foreman has left Animal Man for personal reasons, with new series artist Steve Pugh doing a decent job of emulating his work, while retaining his own style. But Paquette is absent from Swamp Thing, and replacement Marco Rudy doesn't come close to matching his work on the title. Paquette didn't just draw the story -- he gave it the unique tone and atmosphere which made the book work. Snyder's scripts were at time very dry, and it was only Paquette's lush work in preparing each page which made the story feel like it was developing. Rudy doesn't try to match him -- which is a smart move -- but as a result the book feels underwhelming, with less there to help structure Snyder's exposition-heavy style.
It's rather fascinating to see how these two books have moved from being the critical darlings of the New 52 to being two books nobody talks about anymore. The storyline grew stale a long time ago, and as a result the strong character work and unique approach to superhero stories became trapped in a substandard narrative structure. Rotworld was an exciting future event -- now it looks like something we're going to have to frustratedly wade through, waiting for the next storyline to kick in and give us something new to read. The second year for both books looks like an obstacle rather than something to anticipate.
For more not-so-new-52 coverage, check out Steve's other One Year Later essays:
- One Year Later: Animal Man/Swamp Thing
Steve Morris is the head and indeed only writer for Comics Vanguard, the internet's 139th most-favorite comic-book website. You can find him on Twitter at @stevewmorris, which is mostly nonsensical gibberish you may enjoy or despise. His favorite Marvel character is Darkstar, while his favorite DC character is, also, Darkstar. He's on Team X-Men, you guys.