It’s an obvious pun when the subtitle here is “Seeder”, but Charles Soule’s first Swamp Thing book is such a scattershot of ideas and beginnings that it’s like he’s planting the seeds of larger storylines in this volume.
Which isn’t to say it’s a bad book at all, especially as Soule, a relatively unknown writer (though certainly one who’s becoming more well-known) is following DC’s golden child, Scott Snyder, after his so-so run on Swamp Thing. But because of its disjointed narrative, Soule’s Swamp Thing is off to a fractured start rather than a powerful new story arc.
Oddly, for a book you’d think would be about the character of Seeder – a natural sorcerer, traveling the world planting magical seeds, who may or may not be good – he barely figures in the book, though his actions direct Swamp Thing’s throughout.
But here’s why this book immediately draws the reader in: Soule makes Swamp Thing a compelling character by giving us two sides to him – the heart of a human and the actions of a monster. Swamp Thing appears to be both hero and villain at the same time, which is an unusual way to present the leading protagonist.
First, Soule establishes Alec Holland’s humanity, regardless of his appearance. His opening monologue reminds us that his predecessor was a plant thinking it was human, and that he’s a man thinking he’s a plant. He’s drawn to Metropolis because he wants to be around people who remind him of what it felt like to be human. But he also goes there because he wants to speak to Superman and ask him: with so much power, why does he choose to act like a human? To which Superman’s answer is that he connects with people by helping them. “We’re not monsters – we can be as human as we want to be,” a response which instantly makes me wish Soule was writing Superman because that line shows a profound understanding of the character! Right from the start Soule shows the reader Swamp Thing’s heart, bringing the reader closer to him.
Second, he contrasts this by having Swamp Thing undo Seeder’s work. But Seeder’s the villain, you say. Is he? What little we know of him is that he’s going to desert regions and bringing water. He’s going to starving third world countries and giving them crops. That sounds more like the work of a humanitarian than a villain. Swamp Thing – the avatar of the Green, the natural life force of the planet – is doing what he’s told, like a mindless soldier, by destroying Seeder’s work because we’re told Seeder’s draining power from the Green (a storyline that almost matches the one in Robert Venditti’s Green Lantern where a being called Relic tries to stop the Lanterns as their rings are depleting the light reservoir of the universe; Soule was also a part of that storyline, writing the Red Lanterns series that crossed over into it). It’s understandable for Swamp Thing to undo Seeder’s work, as he’s disrupting the ecology of that particular area, but it doesn’t change the fact that Swamp Thing’s actions are killing thousands of people.
The two part Superman story has some nice moments between Swamp Thing and Superman, and even with Scarecrow, whose fear toxin causes Swamp Thing to inadvertently attack Metropolis. But despite its brevity, it’s still an overlong story with not much to it. Basically the scene with Superman was the whole reason for this narrative, as well as showing us that Swamp Thing is incredibly powerful – a quality that doesn’t really need to be established, but is present here.
Later on in Louisiana, Swamp Thing encounters an ancient creature called Capucine, who asks for sanctuary in a scene that reminded me of Soule’s day job (yes, writing seven monthly comics is apparently not enough for this chap!) as an immigration lawyer who must deal with matters of sanctuary all the time. Capucine is an intriguing character, but the storyline is barely explored here, though there is a fascinating flashback from several centuries ago showing how one of Swamp Thing’s predecessors established the rule for all future avatars of the Green.
The best part of the book is The Whiskey Tree two-parter where Seeder has popped up in Fetters Hill, a remote Scottish village which used to have a thriving whiskey business but has fallen on hard times. Seeder gives the town an unnatural whiskey tree whose fruit produces an intoxicating amber liquid – and drives the drinker mad! This is the first time where Seeder’s actions point unambiguously toward villainy as Swamp Thing appears to once more undo the damage wrought. Constantine is drawn to the area, too, due to the magical presence, but (uncharacteristically) is unable to tell that the whiskey he drinks is cursed and dangerous, and becomes a bloodthirsty, deranged person as a result.
The Whiskey Tree storyline is interesting but concludes much too quickly. The story ends in a near-silent four page finale with the cop out that the severely weakened Swamp Thing somehow manages to contact the Green and is able to incapacitate everyone who’s drunk the whiskey via a special flower. It’s a very unsatisfying ending that felt hurried through.
The book concludes with the Villain’s Month one-shot of Anton Arcane (aka Swamp Thing #23.1) which, contrary to a lot of the Villain’s Month issues, was actually quite good. Following the events of Rotworld, Arcane has been disposed as the avatar of the Rot – that title has now fallen to Abby Arcane – and is now imprisoned in his version of hell, the Green, where everything is fertile and alive. The issue retells Arcane’s life story in all its gruesomeness.
If the writing in Swamp Thing – not just in this book but for the character as a whole – is inconsistent, one quality about the character that remains constant is the high standard of the art. From the early comics’ artists Bernie Wrightson, Stephen Bissette, and Rick Veitch up to Yanick Paquette’s gorgeous work, Seeder’s art team (Kano, Alvaro Lopez, David Lapham, Jesus Saiz, and Jock) produce wonderful work in this book.
Soule takes Swamp Thing to many disparate regions of the planet – the deserts of Africa, the urban Metropolis, Louisiana, Scotland – and, because Swamp Thing is made up of the plants of that region, he’s noticeably different in each incarnation. In the desert, he resembles a cactus; in Louisiana, he’s more viscous to reflect the swamplands; in rural Scotland, he’s greener to reflect the forests.
Swamp Thing can be anywhere in the world via the network of the Green and his travel through it looks like a trippy alternate world, like a natural version of the internet! Kano/Lapham’s work in Scotland is especially delightful as we’re treated to an amazing splash page of Swamp Thing as big as a mountain covered in a forest, complete with a waterfall on his shoulder, compared to an earlier scene where he can reduce himself to the size of an eye on the side of a tree, both drawn beautifully while also reminding us of Swamp Thing’s range of powers.
Jesus Saiz’s highly detailed art brings to gory life Anton Arcane’s Gollum-esque appearance, while rendering the decay in his story in a very realistic, grisly way. Given the horror-esque script, Saiz is certainly the best artist to adapt it (maybe Travel Foreman, too) and the issue stood out thanks to his strong line work. There are also some fantastic covers provided by Jock, whose art is always eye-catching and creative.
The series feels refreshed under Soule’s new direction, but a more focused story arc would’ve made for a more enthralling read. As it is, Seeder contains a couple of decent short stories and the makings of some epic ones. Given Soule’s success in other titles like Marvel’s She-Hulk and Oni’s Letter 44, there’s every chance that having now taken root such fertile beginnings, his Swamp Thing could really grow into something great.