Apologies up front—my updates here at the House Of Haunts have been pretty scarce lately, mostly due to the run-up and recovery from this year’s Fan Expo convention in Toronto (where I was off selling copies of my Eighties Pro Wrestling comic, Slam-A-Rama). I failed to score autographs from Robert Englund, Lance Henriksen, Michael Biehn, and Tom Savini—the lineups were too damn long—but I did snag an original 1979 poster for Prophecy: The Monster Movie for a measly twenty bucks, so there’s that. Anyway…
It’s old news to comics fans by now that DC is relaunching their entire line all September with 52 brand new number one issues, spanning a wide variety of genres—okay, mostly capes-and-tights stuff, but classic non-superhero titles like All-Star Western and Men Of War are getting a spit-and-polish too. Of course, DC has a proud tradition of publishing titles that straddle the line between superheroes and horror; it’s from out of this tradition that the venerable Vertigo label was born in the early Nineties, as titles like Sandman and Doom Patrol graduated from the DC Universe to deluxe format, mature readers-labelled books. So naturally, two of the most fondly-remembered comics from the Vertigo inaugural class—Swamp Thing and Animal Man—are once again part of the DC Universe, kicking off a horror-edged sub-imprint of the so-called “New 52”. Both of these titles have an intimidating legacy to live up to—after all, they did kick off the American comics careers of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, respectively, ushering in a new era of “Sophisticated Suspense” (this tagline adorned Moore’s Saga Of The Swamp Thing for much of its run) and selling strongly in collected editions for years, even to this day. With such a frankly terrifying precedent, how do these new interpretations hold up?
Quite well, as it turns out, thanks to each book’s energetic creative teams and a surprising mix of both new and old ideas. Animal Man, written by Canadian superstar Jeff Lemire (Essex County), works as either an entirely new series, or as a continuation of the character’s previous incarnation, depending on your level of familiarity. The title hero, known publicly to be former stuntman-turned-superhero Buddy Baker, is a mostly-retired crimefighter when the story begins—he’s more interested in acting (he plays—what else?—a washed-up superhero in a gritty indie drama) and spending time with his wife Ellen and their two kids, Cliff and Maxine. Still, he occasionally pulls on the tights to help when needed, like when a grieving father takes a bunch of kids in a cancer ward hostage. During this crisis, Buddy’s powers—which involve siphoning animal abilities from the “Life Web”—start acting strangely, causing him to bleed from his eyes. Things get weirder still Cliff wakes from a horrific nightmare about Maxine and some monstrous apparitions called the Hunters Three, only to find Maxine playing in the backyard with some creepy new four-legged friends. Lemire’s homespun approach to the fantastical, honed to perfection in the Vertigo monthly Sweet Tooth, fits nicely with the balance of the domestic and the horrible established in Morrison’s Animal Man. The art by Travel Foreman (The Immortal Iron Fist) is startling and nightmarish, in the mold of New Mutants-era Bill Sienkiewicz. His work really comes alive in the more outlandish set pieces, such as his depiction of how Buddy’s powers work (and their strange new consequences), the gray-and-red dream sequence, and on the super-weird last page cliffhanger.
While new readers can come to Animal Man pretty much cold—there’s a passing reference to the Justice League, but that’s about it for acknowledging the larger DCU—the relaunched Swamp Thing may prove a bit more intimidating as a first issue. That doesn’t mean that new readers who only know the character from the 1982 Wes Craven film or its soggy sequel should be put off, even if they haven’t read Brightest Day or The Search For Swamp Thing. I haven’t, and I still was taken with/thoroughly creeped out by this new take on the classic muck-monster. A mysterious rash of animal deaths catches the attention of various Justice League members, causing Superman to seek out Alec Holland, formerly known as the Earth Elemental called Swamp Thing (well, sort of—it’s a bit complicated). Recently returned from the dead, the scientific genius is now a humble construction worker who knows nothing about any supernatural mysteries of either the dead animal kind or the one where a strange twister carried a mastodon skeleton out of an archaeological dig a few pages earlier. Where his swampy alter ego was a living avatar of the plant world, Holland now believes that Swamp Thing’s precious “Green” is a place of violent nature run amok, and he wants no part of it. Of course, The Green isn’t quite done with him yet. Writer Scott Snyder (American Vampire, Detective Comics) gets off to a shaky start with all those superhero cameos and references to previous series and crossover events, but when the horror stuff kicks in, Swamp Thing takes off. A group of archaeologists, discovering that their mastodon fossil is missing, are attacked by something pretty awful; whatever it is, it involves flies and backwards-turned-heads, both of which are callbacks to Alan Moore’s legendary run on Saga Of The Swamp Thing. However, you don’t need to get the reference to be seriously unnerved by this sequence. Yanick Paquette (another Canadian!) wouldn’t have been my first choice to draw this book, as his work has been previously…er, rooted in more realistic depictions of the human form; it also usually involved a fair bit of T & A. However, the more realistic elements of his art style provide a striking and effective counterpart to the supernatural craziness of whatever the hell the book’s antagonist is (Paquette brings a bit of classic Bissette-and-Totleben to his rendering of it), and his Swamp Thing, unseen until the final page, has just the right mix of noble and monstrous. I’m still not totally sold on the “New 52”, but the creepier corners of the DC relaunch are most definitely off to a solid start.