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History and humanity give deep roots to Charles Soule’s Swamp Thing #30

Exploiting Swamp Thing’s vulnerability

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Swamp Thing #30. Written by Charles Soule (She-Hulk, Letter 44) with art by Jesus Saiz (Birds Of Prey, Manhunter), Javier Pina (Suicide Squad: From The Ashes, Manhunter), and Matthew Wilson (Secret Avengers, Wonder Woman), this issue makes the title character more vulnerable than ever by turning him into a human. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

When a character is as strong and resilient as Swamp Thing, it can be hard to establish high stakes for a story. If he can regenerate himself from a single blade of grass, how vulnerable can he really be? Charles Soule’s run on Swamp Thing has been outstanding because it exploits the weaknesses of the man beneath the moss, emphasizing Alec Holland’s struggle to live up to the expectations placed upon him as the Avatar Of The Green, the force that connects all plant life on Earth (and beyond). Over the past 12 issues, Alec has overcome his personal flaws to become more powerful than ever, but there’s still one crack in his leafy armor, and his desire to be human again puts him in a more compromised position than ever before.

Soule’s first year saw Alec questioning his capacity to do the Green’s dirty work and facing the consequences of that doubt when his position as Avatar was threatened, forcing him to concede his title to classic Swamp Thing foe Jason Woodrue for a brief period. In order to regain his power and stop the bloodthirsty new Avatar, Alec destroyed the Parliament Of Trees and took their power for himself, eliminating the threat of Woodrue and giving Swamp Thing sole control over the Green. That may sound like superhero-comic nonsense, but there’s a mythical quality to Soule’s storytelling that makes this a title about forces much bigger than costumed vigilantes.

Soule is exploring the relationship between man and nature through the dynamic between Alec and the Green, and it’s no coincidence that just as Alec gains complete control of the Green, he falls prey to a human organization trying to assert its dominance over the natural world. Last issue, Soule introduced The Sureen, a group of humans who worship the Green and have the ability to give their bodies over to the Avatar so that he or she can walk as a human, and when a group of robed followers make Alec this offer, he’s eager to get back to a life of flesh and blood. Those men are not actually The Sureen, but because of all his new power, Alec isn’t thinking defensively and willingly gives himself over to a group of mercenaries hired to procure Swamp Thing’s body for scientific research.

Swamp Thing is a horror title before all else, and while the ending of Soule’s first big storyline began to focus on more epic fantasy elements, “The Gift Of The Sureen” makes things scary again by showing the terrifying things done in the name of science. Alec is left to die so that a mysterious group could have the body of the Avatar, and while he survives, others aren’t so lucky. A chilling sequence shows the husk of Swamp Thing in a lab where its body parts are getting cut off, blended into a green liquid, and poured into a petri dish, a scene that is brightly lit by colorist Matthew Wilson, showing that this isn’t some shady supervillain at work, but an organization with an air of legitimacy, extensive resources, and access to a steady supply of people ready to give their lives for science.

After the green liquid is poured, it is brought into another room where a test subject is waiting for the next stage of the experiment. Last issue, Swamp Thing offered the fake Sureen pieces of fruit that allow them to commune with their god, and those fruits were pocketed so that they could be fed to human guinea pigs who commune with pureed pieces of Avatar and turn them into food. It’s a process that works up until the point where the subjects starts bleeding out of their eyeballs and die, and the most frightening thing about the entire sequence is the nonchalant reaction of the unseen figures orchestrating it all: “There are some hurdles to overcome. Nothing we can’t handle.”

One of the best things about Soule’s run is the sense of history he’s brought to this title by expanding the supporting cast to include Avatars from different eras and Capucine, a centuries-old warrior woman destined to become the host of Etrigan The Demon. The former Avatars give Soule the opportunity to explore different points in the Green’s past, and artist Jesus Saiz uses their designs to show the versatility of the Swamp Thing’s appearance by applying era-appropriate fashion to the full-body foliage. Establishing the long history of tradition within the Green makes Alec’s actions even more dramatic when he decides to rebel, and delving into the mythology of this character has considerably expanded the scope of Swamp Thing to make it one of DC’s most ambitious titles.

As part of the fallout of cutting down the Parliament Of Trees, Alec pulled three of the former Avatars out of the Green and gave them human form, firmly planting the saintly Brother Jonah, deceptive Wolf, and vicious Lady Weeds in this book’s regular cast. It’s a very smart decision that introduces new relationships for Soule’s second year, with Brother Jonah and Capucine partnering because of their shared history while Wolf and Lady Weeds team up to take advantage of their second chance at human life.

The second pairing is particularly intriguing because those two are shaping up to be Alec’s next big problem after this Sureen debacle is over, and their desire to reconnect with their former power is shown visually in their human designs, which incorporate green in ways that reflect the personality of the characters: The proper, fancy Wolf wears a business suit with a green shirt and tie, and the wild, dangerous Lady Weed takes advantage of the freedom afforded by the modern age and gets thorny vines tattooed all over her body, a signifier to all opponents that she is a woman who loves pain whether she’s giving it or receiving it.

After the Etrigan revelation, Capucine has become this book’s main connection to the larger DC universe, and Soule uses her to bring immortal dictator Vandal Savage to this issue for a quick, but very effective scene. Capucine and Savage have a history together, and she suggests that Savage may know where Alec can find The Sureen considering his expansive knowledge base. Savage drops by the Louisiana swamp so that he can flirt and spar with his female acquaintance, and the humor and action of this scene help alleviate the tension of the narrative before Soule ventures into even more suspenseful territory when Savage directs Alec to Bangalore, India.

Soule has been gifted with excellent collaborators on Swamp Thing, beginning his run with artwork from Kano and David Lapham before settling into the regular rotating team of Jesus Saiz and Javier Pina. Saiz and Pina have such similar styles it can be difficult to tell their issues apart, and while Pina handles the finishes for half of the pages this week, there’s no dip in quality. Saiz has done career-defining work on this title, and although this issue doesn’t show off his skill at creating spectacular images using a massive array of botanical influences, it spotlights his ability to ground the story’s fantasy elements with realistic rendering.

Each location is brimming with detail in the architecture and plant life, and Saiz’s characters have a legitimate sense of weight to them, a quality that makes the fight between Capucine and Vandal Savage a highlight of the issue. It unfolds over just two pages, but Saiz’s staging makes it a thrilling scene that captures the fun these two experience facing off against each other. Most of Savage’s joy comes from watching Capucine fight, and Saiz makes her the focal point of the action so that the reader is just as impressed by her skill. Because of the weight Saiz gives his characters, Capucine backflipping through the air and springing off a helicopter blade looks even more extraordinary.

The action stands out because so much of this issue is about creating a tense, creepy atmosphere, and Saiz is just as talented when it comes to that aspect of the narrative. The issue’s most horrifying moment occurs at the end when Alec receives comfort from a young woman named Miki after he learns his human body will expire soon, taking her to bed where she reveals her dark secret by sticking a tongue of white fungus in his mouth. The cliffhanger ends with a close-up shot of Miki’s face with streams of fungus flowing from her eyes, nose, ears, and mouth, an image that has a strange beauty under the ick factor. Miki tells Alec that The Sureen offered their gifts to more than just the Green, suggesting that Soule is going to be creating even more mythology in his second year on the title.

Matthew Wilson’s colors have provided visual consistency through each artist shift, and he’s become an invaluable part of this title’s aesthetic thanks to his lush, evocative palette. There is a lot of green in this book, but Wilson finds incredible variation within that color. For the scene showing Alec waking up in a new body outside his smoldering home, the green of the surrounding environment is washed out to suggest a dry, dying atmosphere, but the shading of those same plants becomes warmer and more saturated when Vandal Savage arrives, creating a more lively setting that matches Savage’s charisma. The coloring for the Bangalore sequences is dominated by a pinkish brown, and that shade amplifies the visual impact when Alec’s arm is cut and neon green plants burst through the wound.

Wilson’s coloring doesn’t just enhance the artwork, it helps tell the story. The yellow background of that final image of Miki draws a connection between Miki and Alec’s bloody coughing during their earlier dinner scene, a moment that uses that same yellow background. The one-word teaser for next issue simply says, “mycosis,” and the last thing Alec Holland needs right now is a fungal infection from a mysterious new enemy while he tries to get his body back from his other mysterious new enemy. Things are looking very bad for Swamp Thing, but if the past year has been any indication, this title will only get better as Alec Holland’s situation gets worse.