[Editor’s Note: This review may contain spoilers]
Writers: Len Wein, Tom King
Artists: Jason Fabok, Kelly Jones
In “Talk of The Saints”, Swamp Thing struggles against a brutal, unending snow storm that cuts him off from the green to protect a young child from an unseen “snow monster” in pursuit. The unnamed child claims this snow monster happened upon his family and killed them before Swamp Thing intervened, but the muck-encrusted Avatar doesn’t remember any of that, let alone keeps track of the events of the previous day. Besides the cold, the creature once known as Dr. Alec Holland protects the boy from both a bear and an insane cannibalistic hunter, but no snow monster. Little by little, Swamp Thing starts to wither away, given the constant cold and disconnection from The Green. But what he discovers next will shake him, and the audience, to their cores.
In Len Wein’s plotted story – intended to be the first issue of a miniseries entitled Swamp Thing: The Dead Don’t Sleep – Solomon Grundy steals a baby from Gold Manor outside Gotham City. Marc Cable, in the hospital following his possession by Anton Arcane, informs a visiting Swamp Thing he is sticking around and contemplating a career in private investigation. Back in Gotham, Commissioner Gordon and the GCPD investigate the kidnapping at the manor. Batman consults with Gordon on the matter and swears to get to the bottom of this. Grundy, meanwhile, has taken refuge on a box car train and attacks hobos that happen upon him. The child, Cynthia, dissolves his finger as she grasps it; the appendage reforms upon her release of it. Back in the swamp, Swamp Thing gets into an altercation with fan boat sailors which is ended by the intervention of Batman.
Both stories in this annual work in terms of creativity and presentation. However, instead of in order, I would like to start with the final story; specifically, Len Wein’s final story. I remember a line of Marvel comic books back in the early 2000’s called the “Nuff Said” line. The concept was only visual storytelling in one month of their titles with no text. This left the reader to their own devices and imagination as to what the dialogue could be. This concept made it possible for this presentation of Len’s plotted first part. According to the editor’s note, Len had sadly passed away before he could provide dialogue, so collaborator Kelley Jones had only the plotted script to work from.
Given his role as regular Swamp Thing artist, Jones’ work doesn’t deviate from the main title in spite of it being a miniseries. The manner in which he conveys both the gargantuan brutes – Swampy and Grundy – shows Kelley to truly be Bernie Wrightston’s successor. With few surface details and distinctive line thickness, you can feel the weight of Swamp Thing’s mass and almost cringe when he snakes out of that potted plant and forms in Matt Cable’s hospital room. He keeps the surface detail to a minimum, but the linework on the neck veins and the basic head design taps into Bernie’s original concept.
Jones was a regular on Batman books back in the nineties, first as cover artist – he got the distinct honor of drawing the cover featuring that infamous back breaker from Bane during the Knightfall storyline – and interior artist later on. His style and composition evokes the right balance of noir and horror that made Swamp Thing the hit that it was at its outset and through the Alan Moore years. Without color, it would not lose its hold over the audience and yet become a brilliant demonstration in negative space. Any art student wishing to break into comics should take a look at these pages; this is the true test of any penciller specializing in sequential storytelling. The art has to tell the tales as much as the dialogue, and Jones does that beautifully. And he has not lost his touch on drawing Batman.
As to the main story, “Talk of the Saints,” Fabok and King craft a unique tale which feels very stand alone, also in the spirit of Alan Moore. There are no thought balloons, no real way to determine how long it’s been, save for the repetitive word “Later” in captions. Fabok’s design of Swamp Thing succeeds in incredible surface detail. The fact that he is also the cover artist and delivers a truly haunting image of Swamp Thing and the child draws you immediately in. You can almost feel every root or twig sticking out of him. King’s interesting demos of his abilities – tearing off his own hand to provide material for a fire, or growing edible berries from his forefinger – shows just how disconnected Swamp Thing is from his own humanity. There’s not one scream of pain or visible agony save for the starvation of his very environment.
Further, Tom shows how stoic the creature is to kill a bear and a trigger-happy hunter with the same speech. Not one sign of anger or outrage on the character, nor one exclamation mark or bold lettering in the dialogue balloons; it’s Tom’s desire to show nature at its most merciless by showing how emotionless and resolved Swamp Thing can be. Tom gave the Dark Knight a similar repetitive sentence directed towards his Venom-addicted nemesis in the “I Am Bane” plot in Batman. As to the snow monster that never comes, Tom builds your anticipation through the boy’s accounts of unforeseen, previous events, but then at the midway point you start to question the boy’s honesty as Swamp Thing simultaneously does.
Fabok’s decision to make the revelation a splash page reveal is powerful in its simplicity. Both figures are set against a snowy, barren wasteland with nothing deviating the reader’s eyes from the central focus on Swamp Thing, the boy, and Holland’s orange dialogue balloons. The shock value is not lost on the reader, nor is the final solution. The tears Jason draws in Swamp Thing’s eyes returns that notion of humanity to this withered plant man. For what is claimed as years, he’s tried to save the boy only to discover he’s been had, and must make a very difficult decision. Further, he feels that by sacrificing the boy he cuts away another part of him that was human. Anyone can identify with that inner conflict. That idea of us believing one person’s story, only for it to be revealed as a deception and the need to break away in spite of a part of us that wants to believe in that person. What makes this work is the boy is still crying and still insists Swamp Thing saves him; whether he knew what he truly was or was just as deceived as Alec Holland remains up to the reader. Brilliant writing and fantastic visuals overall.
The only drawback to Kelley’s work on Len’s final story is all of the above details were only possible through the accompanying outline of the plot. You’re trying to make sense of what is happening or who Grundy is attacking without the benefit of captions or signs. There are times when your eyes are wandering to find some sense of direction and identification of some of the players. If you’re new to Swamp Thing, you only notice him first and not any of the other human characters, save for staples like Batman and Gordon. Also, James Gordon is depicted as a younger man in the comics these days, so the white mustache is out of place.
Speaking of displacement, if this is the Rebirth era, why does Jones draw Batman in his New 52 uniform? You can tell by the kneepads and the lines connected to the chest emblem in that final shot. Did Len intend on making it a tale told in the past? As to the longer story, there’s very little I can say that’s bad about it. It’s a true testament to the spirit of Swamp Thing and Len Wein’s legacy. The only complaints I have begin with the fact that we never find out exactly what that boy was, or why the radio broadcasts were relevant bookends to this story. Also, you can’t exactly tell how many years Swamp Thing was in that snowy wilderness, or how far the weather extended. It shares the same flaw as the second story in that it feels very time displaced.
In spite of some notable flaws, both stories bring out the best in the character and honor the legacy left by one of comics’ most brilliant writers gone too soon. I sincerely would’ve loved to have read that miniseries. Thank you, Len, for Swamp Thing, for Wolverine, for your run on The Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four, and every relevant title for both Marvel and for DC. You will not be forgotten and can never be replaced. Your legacy, and especially a certain muck-encrusted mockery of a man, is left in capable hands.