Saturday, May 23, 2020

Swamp Thing: New Roots #1 Review

Bitter Fruit

Written by: Mark Russell

Art by: Marco Santucci
Colours by: John Kalisz
Letters by: Comicraft's Jimmy B
Published by: DC Comics
Price (digital first): $0.99

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention and there's nothing like a worldwide pandemic that's, among other things, threatening to destroy the traditional comics industry for forcing comic companies to think outside the box. (Unless you're Marvel, I guess…) DC has responded to the shutdown of the economy with a rebranded digital publishing arm flexing its marketing muscle with DC Digital Firsts, a brand that seems something of a misnomer when you consider that most of these digital comics have appeared in print as Wal-Mart exclusives, but beggars can't be choosers and comics is comics and let's see what Mark Russell and Marco Santucci have been up to…

The issue opens with our swampy hero launching a night-time assault on a Sunderland Foods factory. The reason? Sunderland is producing and marketing a type of grain that is genetically modified not to reproduce itself, thereby ensuring that farmers will have to keep coming back to buy more of it. The only problem is that the grain passes on this genetic trait to other plants it cross-pollinates with and, if left unchecked, it could lead to the death of all plant life on the planet. Needless to say, Swamp Thing is deeply concerned about this. Hence his ongoing campaign of destroying Sunderland's facilities.

This is all entertaining, if somewhat pedestrian, stuff. Big business as the bad guy is a well-worn trope in comics and there is more than a whiff of the familiar about all this. What elevates this from the more clichéd approach to the idea is Russell's script which is, as might be expected, witty and politically pointed without being labored. There's a very funny bit of dialogue between Swamp Thing and a Sunderland factory guard, which manages to make its ecological point about the responsibility of the individual towards the wider world sharply without being too preachy. Similarly, although the Sunderland board members are clearly motivated by greed and have scant regard for the consequences of their actions, they are not two-dimensional caricatures. Evil can be urbane, personable, and clever. Thank you for the reminder, Mr. Russell.

As well as the ongoing Sunderland-Swamp Thing confrontation, there is a B plot that appears to be nothing more than a gentle counterpoint to the corporate ugliness going on in the A-plot until the two plotlines converge in an unexpectedly dark way and the whole story is wrapped up with the kind of savagely cruel irony for which Mark Russell has become somewhat famous. In fact, there are a couple of pages towards the end here where we're almost into Alan Moore territory – and I don't say that lightly. Indeed, some of the panels evoke the slightly surreal Bissette/Totleben art of the 80s and the plot revolves around a modified (and, if anything, darker) version of a device first introduced in 1985's Swamp Thing #43.

Throughout the issue, Marco Santucci's art is clear and engaging, his Swamp Thing powerful and looking, appropriately enough, like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. Russell doesn't mess with Swamp Thing's character too much; in fact, I'd say that this is perhaps the most engaging I've seen the character for some time. This being a Mark Russell comic, though, that Swamp Thing's belief in human beings' ability to change – though sorely tested throughout the story – is strengthened and affirmed while, at the same time, leading to a particularly dark form of justice in that story's conclusion is not all that surprising. It is, though, an indication of just how strong Russell's writing can be. To be honest, about the only negative thing I can say about the issue is the quite frankly appalling pun in the story's title, but, as the weak humor of that title completely belies the soil-dark irony of the ending, I'm prepared to give it a pass.

Bits and Pieces:

Mark Russell displays his writing chops here in a neatly plotted self-contained story which, despite its short length, manages to be engaging and, at its end, pretty disturbing. Marco Santucci's art is strong and effective. There's a fair amount of entertainment here for a buck. I'd give it a look, if I were you.


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