Wednesday, March 2, 2016
Swamp Thing #3 Review and **SPOILERS**
When You Wish Upon a Disembodied Hand
Written By: Len Wein
Art By: Kelley Jones, Michelle Madsen
Letters By: Rob Leigh
Cover Price: $2.99
Release Date: March 2, 2016
*Non-Spoilers and Score At The Bottom*
We return once again to the hazy swamps of Houma, Louisiana, where Swamp Thing likes to hang out. Do you think he sticks around the swamp because his name is Swamp Thing? Like, if his name were Beach Thing, would he be made of succulents and cacti and palm trees? What if he were Drug Thing, then he’d be an assemblage of marijuana and poppy flowers and magic mushrooms. Which, come to think of it, isn’t too far off from his current composition. In this issue, Swamp Thing gets to hang out with Zatanna, and another secret friend from his past that I’m pretty sure died. He did come back to life, but he could only hang out in the realm of Dream, and plus he had been turned into a raven. I guess that’s “story over continuity,” right? Token nods to past events and characters but eradicating everything we knew? Makes sense. This issue gave me lots of food for thought, and if you’re interested in examining my brain poops, then read on!
First, I’d like to give a tip o’ the digital pen and a thank you to Joseph, who corrected me in my review of issue #2, where I wrote that Swamp Thing had a dalliance with Shade the Changing Man. I was incorrect, that was actually a different Shade from the Golden Age of DC Comics, and who showed up in James Robinson’s and Tony Harris’ much-respected series Starman. Thanks Joseph, and I throw myself on comic book fandom’s tender mercies! Which only goes to show how truly naïve I am.
One thing I will never be is a new Swamp Thing reader. I read my first issue (vol. 2, no. 38) thirty years ago, and have read nearly every issue before and since in the interim. So I will never lay fresh eyes on this character, I’ll never come to a Swamp Thing comic book without my own baggage in the form of preconceived notions based on the work of other creators. Therefore, in the beginning of this issue, when Matt Cable shoots a snake that he thinks is attacking Alec “Swamp Thing” Holland, I couldn’t help but think that name was awfully familiar. Indeed, I remember it well, from the early days of our pal Swampy: a CIA agent, married to Abigail Cable (née Arcane,) who died in a car crash and was subsumed by completely evil demon-monster-ghost and Abigail’s uncle, Anton Arcane. Matt was later redeemed and turned into a raven that hung around the Dream Lord in Sandman. So…what the hell is he doing here, walking around the Louisiana swamps and shooting shotguns like a member of the third dimension? Perhaps you could say this story happens before Alan Moore began his run—that would work fine for me. But then you’ve got the Phantom Stranger showing up in the first two issues talking about the Parliament of Trees, which is solidly a Moore invention. What is happening here? Some more of that loosey goosey continuity, I suspect.
I never thought I was such a stickler for comic book continuity until DC editorial began to treat it like an absolute joke. So the reason Matt has shown up here is because he feels he owes Alec a debt, and has traveled the world to find a cure for Holland’s moss-encrusted state. He finally found something in Nanda Parbat—you know, that mystical place that I thought was destroyed at the end of the Blight tie-in to Forever Evil (though I suppose it could be brought back via some sort of magical construction project)—a magical disembodied extremity known as the Hand of Fatima, which is essentially a “monkey’s paw” type of deal that will grant one wish to anyone not grossed out by holding a disembodied hand. Okay, fine. So why does this have to be Matt Cable, except for the name recognition to older readers? And if that’s the case, is it only to frustrate and annoy us? Why does he even have to mention Abigail, who has factored into this story not at all up to this point? To someone never having read Swamp Thing, this is just a guy with a cool name. So why not make him Dick Stryker or Hank Fisticuff or whatever the hell else, instead of dragging a dead character out of his grave? The only important point to make is that he and Alec are long-time friends, so why not use his hippie pal Chester, who is ostensibly out there somewhere listening to Jefferson Airplane or something??
It’s the sort of thing that nags me throughout this whole book. The Swampster tells Matt that he’s got a buddy that can help crack the Hand of Fatima, and they drive to Shadowcrest, New England—not a short trip from Houma, Louisiana, mind you—to visit Zatanna and ask to use her decoder ring. She agrees to help, but first has to bone up on magic. Fearing reprisals from the Retention Department at Nanda Parbat, Matt and Alec want Zatanna to hurry up—and break her balls about it for like three pages. Do you want magic done fast or do you want it done right, fellas? She does her Penn & Teller routine, and the muck bodysuit slides right off of Alec, who appears to have turned into a real live boy again, but at a cost: Matt Cable is now the Swamp Thing!
The fact that Matt Cable was inserted into this, presenting all kinds of continuity conflicts for me, is really my own problem—I suppose I should do as DC suggests, and somehow eliminate my memory of previous issues by having a lobotomy or something. But there were other problems too, and it really pains me to have to point them out. Much of writing is juvenile, like something you would see in a high school creative writing class—albeit an AP class. For instance, when Matt is telling Alec about what he’s been up to since they’d last met, he says, “Don’t interrupt. At least, not ‘til I’m finished.” Well, if you’re finished, he wouldn’t be interrupting, would he? But okay, you tell me that Matt is speaking colloquially or some other nonsense, fine. What about the conversation Zatanna and Swamp Thing have later, where she’s warning him that the magic they’re about to perform is irreversible and will have dire consequences, and he replies, “There are always consequences…it’s called life!” Uh, what? Are you or are you not the Avatar of the Green, protector of flora and conduit to the world of man? If anyone should know how fucked up consequences can be, it’s Alec, and it seems so out of character for him to be cavalier about it. It would be like if someone asked a survivor from the sinking of the Titanic to go deep-sea diving, and they were like, “Meh, we’ll probably be okay.” I feel like there is no editorial oversight on this title, it’s just whatever fever dream Len Wein has gets put right onto the page without any guidance. And what’s on the page looks absolutely perfect—Kelley Jones remains a master of comic book horror style and some of this seems like it could have come right from the initial run drawn by Berni Wrightson. Even the overall story here, of Alec regaining his humanity at the expense of Matt’s, is pretty good. But Matt’s existence raises a lot of continuity issues, and much of the dialogue in this book is annoying. And I can’t tell you how much I hate to have noted this, to know of Len Wein’s awesome Gothic style writing on the original run or to recall that Matt Cable is a character that simply should not be. I want to love this Swamp Thing as much as I have loved previous runs of the series. But there are some real flaws inherent that I just can’t overlook.
Bits and Pieces
The overall story in this book could be summed up in one sentence, and there’s really nothing wrong with it. But a lot of the dialogue seems lame and contrived, and irrespective of the characters saying it. A character from the past is dredged out of limbo and crammed into this issue, raising continuity alarm bells in my head that didn’t wane until I reached the conclusion. I would love to know what someone new to Swamp Thing thinks of this, their opinion would likely be very different. But I will never be that person, and I can only review a comic book based on my own experiences.