When DC relaunched all of its books in September, one of the publisher's central goals was to emphasize the shared universe nature of its stories, promoting the concept that all of its characters lived and operated in the same world. On the whole so far, the results of this effort have been mixed at best. Right off the bat (so to speak), the multiple simultaneous appearances of Bruce Wayne each month call the credibility of a unified story space into question, and the truncated five-year timeline imposed by the flashbacks in Justice League make it next to impossible to figure out how everything that is supposed to have happened in these characters' histories actually could have.
In one corner of the DCnU, however, that kind of grand scale world building is really beginning to flourish. From the start, it has been heavily implied that the tales told in Jeff Lemire's Animal Man and Scott Snyder's Swamp Thing were connected, and that connection is finally ushered to the forefront here in the series' fourth issues, released simultaneously this past Wednesday. Both books take time out this week for in-story sequences that not only detail the extensive historical lineages of each one's title character but how the two legacies are entangled with one another.
On the Animal Man side, you've got the Red, a mystical force representing the lifeblood of all of Earth's fleshly creatures and which gives Buddy Baker — and, to a greater degree, his daughter — their animal-based abilities. The Red's opposite number is the Green, the collective energy of all the world's plants that, when coalescing to imbue a chosen figurehead with its power, creates the Swamp Thing. Both sides enjoy a tentative alliance to ward off a third force, the Rot, a horrific engine of death that seeks to consume all things living. It's essentially the type of mythologization DC has been using to revitalize many of their long held properties for the better part of a decade, the kind of thing Geoff Johns built a career on.
In lesser hands, the Red/Green/Rot struggle could have come across as trite fodder for the plot of a Saturday morning cartoon, but Lemire and Snyder are among the tops in the biz, so there's not much chance of that happening here. Each writer packs the high concept with complexity, proving it to be the product of much careful and clever planning. Though the Rot is clearly the villain of these stories, neither the Green nor the Red is innately virtuous, each one a primal, impersonal force that would gladly decimate the other were it not for a greater foe necessitating a reluctant partnership.
For that reason, neither Buddy Baker nor Alec Holland fully embrace the directives of their respective higher powers. As any loving parent would be, Buddy is quick to resist the Red's insistence that his daughter be designated its avatar — basically making her the "real" Animal Man and putting her in a whole lotta danger. In Snyder's book, Alec is even more fiercely defiant of the Green's claim upon his life, outright refusing to take up the Swamp Thing mantle. While Alec does come across as a bit of a malcontent at times, his stubborn repudiation of the Green seems justified once it starts ordering him to murder a woman — the mysterious companion with whom he harbors a deep-seated affection.
The magnitude of these books' primordial conflict is amplified through each writer's mastery of the conventions of horror, transforming each issue of Animal Man and Swamp Thing into a thoroughly unsettling read. Of the two authors, Snyder takes the lead in this regard, rarely missing a chance to point out the deceptively destructive capabilities of the seemingly harmless plants that surround us every day. Never has a flowering meadow felt so terrifying! Lemire's knack for the scary is primarily accomplished by contrasting it with the serene. He sets up the normal, everyday family life in the Baker household so well that it's extra disturbing once the bad guy, a twisted pile of rotting flesh cloaked in human skin, comes a calling.
Of course, the bone-chilling effect wouldn't be complete without the artists to bring it to life, and Lemire and Snyder both have the men for the job. Animal Man's Travel Foreman may be the breakout penciller of the year, crafting creepy and imaginative images that stick with you long after the page is turned. His depiction of the world of the Red is a place full of bizarre creatures with anatomy barely comprehensible to the human mind, and it'll be hard to top the panel in which this issue's body snatching monster villain nearly sneezes off his fake human head mask.
Snyder's Swamp Thing cohort is typically Yanick Paquette, but he takes an issue off this month to make way for guest penciller Marco Rudy. Paquette's presence is still all over this book, however, as Rudy does an admirable job in mirroring the regular artist's unorthodox page layouts. Swamp Thing #4 still makes heavy use of the wavy panel borders that resemble sprouting plant life, and the dichotomy between the lush Green and the death mongering Rot is an essential feature of this issue's visuals.
Had it not been for the groundbreaking work of Grant Morrison and Alan Moore several years ago, it is unlikely that either Animal Man or Swamp Thing would be starring in their own series today. Just as those writers got the most mileage out of what could have been a pair of throw-away Silver Age characters, so too are Lemire and Snyder, both building on those former creators' genius and adding a measure of their own. Within this small slice of the New 52, a sprawling narrative is unfurling, one that — in just eight combined issues — feels like it sits atop millennia of unchronicled history. You don't need to read both Animal Man and Swamp Thing to enjoy either one, but I dare you to find a pair of sister series more deserving of a spot among your monthly haul.
Raised on a steady diet of Super Powers action figures and Adam West Batman reruns, Chris Kiser now writes for Comics Bulletin. He once reviewed every tie-in to a major DC Comics summer event and survived to tell the tale. Ask him about it on Twitter, where he can be found at @Chris_Kiser!