SWAMP THING by Vaughan and Petersen

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Brian K. Vaughan has, in the last 15 years, become something of a comic-world King Midas. Already wreathed in laurels from his work on Y THE LAST MAN, EX MACHINA, PRIDE OF BAGHDAD and Marvel’s RUNAWAYS, he’s spent the last couple of years perfecting his golden touch on the gloriously intimate epic SAGA, which has basically won every award there is including the Nobel Peace Price and the Oscar for sound design, and the webcomic THE PRIVATE EYE, with its visionary hey-just-pay-me-whatever business model and sizzling, compulsively readable story. (When you can make a lot of money by simply giving things away, you are in a rare and enviable position.) These are shaping up to be his two finest works with his two greatest collaborators, Fiona Staples and Marcos Martin respectively. Vaughan has already reached the top of the comic-maker mountain, but his ascent continues.

And thus we have a newly-collected edition of Vertigo’s little-remembered 2000 SWAMP THING series, a book that largely flopped upon release. I’m not sure why — it’s a pretty terrific comic in its own right. It’s a little ironic, though, that it’s been branded in large text on the cover, spine, and back as SWAMP THING BY BRIAN K. VAUGHAN, when it’s in fact a document of a gifted young writer who’s just starting to find his way, collaborating with a stellar but mostly unknown cartoonist at the very top of his game.

Roger Petersen has lineage on his side. He’s the grandson of the legendary EC cartoonist George Evans, and the echo of Evans’ clean, expressive precision can be found in Petersen’s effortless line-work. Anyone drawing a Swamp Thing title is going to be working in the long shadow of Wrightson, Totleben and Bissette — Petersen deals with this by running in the opposite direction, away from the obsessive, overgrown undergrowth of detail that characterized the stories of Alec Holland, towards a sleeker, more gestural style given full voice by the sharply minimal inks of Joe Rubenstein and the subtly bold colors of Alex Sinclair.

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Which is a fitting choice, because the stories in this collection are about a younger, angrier, more human Swamp Thing. Tefe Holland is Alec’s daughter, a young woman adrift & searching, commanding & self-confident yet unsure of her own nature or agenda. She has no real allegiance to man or plant, though she inevitably ends up serving (and killing) both. She’s faked her own death, through plot contrivances too convoluted to mention here. (Vaughan spends the first two issues trying and not-quite succeeding to write his way out from under 30 years of continuity, and it’s here more than anywhere else that you see the talented writer struggling to master a generic language — it may be no accident that Vaughan’s major triumphs are all books starring how own original characters.) These stories are somewhat old-fashioned — stand-alone adventures, heavily compressed, each with a traditional structure, a moral dilemma for Tefe, and a satisfying resolution. The serial aspects build slowly, without straining for effect, to answer the central question posed by the series: who is Tefe Holland? Is she an impulsively angry young woman who makes mistakes and selfishly hurts people? Or is she a violent force of nature, barely held in check by a scrim of humanity? She is animated by rage and by conscience, but which one is at her core?

There are real guts in his depiction of Tefe. Where a lesser writer may have pitched a character’s conflict along the same lines — vengeance vs. conscience — very few would have the courage to make her an amoral murderer as well as a hero. That courage, in fact, may speak to the poor reception of the series — we’re being asked to identify with this character who is clearly something other than human, who has few qualms about executing people for the crime of chopping down trees. But she also has a deep, instinctive compassion and empathy that is just as compulsive as her fury. She is a metaphor for nature: that which nourishes is also that which kills. It makes for a bafflingly complex protagonist, if not for a likable one. That courage, that resistance to reader-identification (along with the deeply confusing slog of an info-dump in act one), may be partly to blame for the book’s poor initial reception, but I found it fascinating. Like he did with EX MACHINA’s Mayor Hundred, he uses a serial structure to gradually try to tease some truth out of a character who’s always in motion, who seems to deflect our gaze.

Whereas this series is a forgotten footnote in the apotheosis of Vaughan, it was Roger Petersen’s biggest appearance on comics’ main stage. As good as Vaughan’s storytelling already is here, there is awkwardness and over-explanation and some dialogue that is too-clever by half. These missteps are easily papered over by Petersen’s highly developed cartooning voice, which is strong and funny and rhythmic, simple yet rich, with the fully realized environments that are necessary in a continent-crossing road-trip story like this. Most importantly, it reads with a rare and effortless music that provides a perfect platform for Vaughan’s text-heavy, morally knotty story.

Petersen is a colleague, a collaborator and a hometown boy. He mixes up a hell of a Manhattan at Fishtown’s Atlantis pub and does illustration work for a wide variety of clients. His art, which needed no improvement, has gotten much better in the last decade and a half. We are extraordinarily proud to feature his beautifully yearning strip in our upcoming book LITTLE NEMO: DREAM ANOTHER DREAM.

I hope this SWAMP THING edition does gangbuster sales — there are still eleven uncollected issues, and I’d really like to read them.

* Wondering why I go on and on about Rog Petersen’s cartooning and there’s none of it to be seen? It’s because my scanner is broken, and there doesn’t appear to be any artwork from this book online, except the two panels shown above, and this random panel of a guy without a shirt (which I’m not even 100% sure is Roger).

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Instead, I’ll show you what I’ve got: the gorgeous first panel from his LITTLE NEMO strip.

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Flip and the Imp on the moon. As good as his grandad.

- Josh O’Neill

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