Swamp Thing Winter Special #1 review

Swamp Thing rules.

I don’t know the exact reasons why, but I love this guy.  Sure, Swamp Thing is a great, great character, but what is it about him that’s so appealing?  Is it the cool character design?  The deep, rich mythology?  The fairly silly name that belies one of the most compelling and sympathetic characters in comics?

All of the above and more, no doubt.

Created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson in 1971, Swamp Thing has been one of the most quietly enduring characters in DC’s repertoire.  He’s a magical swamp creature with a deep rooted (ha) connection to the life of the planet, which at least on the surface seem like pretty focused traits.  Somehow, though, Swamp Thing is remarkably versatile, finding his way into street level murder mysteries, universe-spanning crises, and anything in between.

Sadly, both Wein and Wrightson passed away last year.  It’s difficult to say if this was planned ahead of Wein’s passing or if it’s meant as a tribute to the two creators, but what a tribute it is.  With a brand new story from Tom King and Jason Fabok and the final script Wein wrote before passing away, Swamp Thing Special #1 is a pretty good one-shot featuring a really great character.

Beautiful and melancholy, “The Talk of the Saints” is a collaboration between writer Tom King and penciler Jason Fabok.  These guys are two of the top creators in comics right now, so any story from the two of them will be met with great anticipation.  It’s wonderfully illustrated, delicately paced, and remarkably sad, which is no doubt the goal and intent.  It’s also really, really good, though it falls short of perfection.

Had this story just been the journey Swamp Thing undertakes through a bitterly cold wasteland, it may have been a contender for the best issue of the year.  Indeed, it’s fantastic for a long stretch, but doesn’t quite stick the landing when its bookending scenes are factored in.

The story opens on a lush green swamp, full of life and greenery.  A radio broadcast is playing a post-game recap of a recent football game wherein the Gotham Knights’ quarterback choked, resulting in a win for the New Orleans Saints.

“I don’t know, really,” he says.  “It was like there was a monster out there.”

The broadcast plays on with QB Chris Campbell explaining this feeling of unease that suddenly came over him, the sense of dread that caused him to falter.  As he speaks, the swamp is slowly overtaken with snow, going from a wetland teeming with life to a cold, frigid wasteland.  The radio broadcast is also slowly swallowed up in the white, a wonderful effect from Deron Bennett with the letters gradually fading away as the blizzard overcomes the land.

Not all is lost and dead, though, as out of the snow comes Swamp Thing, cradling a child he found in the cold.  The two begin a trek through the icy wastes to escape an unseen snow monster, always just behind and just out of frame.

King is a master of the abstract and the metaphor, making his stories just esoteric enough as to warrant deep thought and discussion without forgetting that they are first and foremost entertainments.  For this long stretch with Swamp Thing and the child, he writes some of his best work to date.  The child tells Swamp Thing that he can’t be a monster, to which the creature responds “I’m… not?”  No, he’s not, because monsters do bad things.  The snow monster is a bad thing that does bad things, so he is a monster.  Swamp Thing is as much a victim of those bad things as the child, yet he’s serving as protector anyway.  That’s not something a monster does.

The duo have a rather fascinating ongoing dialogue about the nature of goodness, how Swamp Thing saved the child, and how the snow monster is always just behind them.  They encounter hazards of the wild, both animal and natural, with Swamp Thing using his powers to perform tasks from fighting a bear to creating a bridge.  As expected, it is absolutely gorgeously illustrated by Jason Fabok, with Brad Anderson’s colors giving life to the figures and environments.  Swamp Thing himself is a mass of greenery, red eyes peaking out from under his viney brow.  I said before that the design of the creature is phenomenal, and Fabok truly gives a rendition for the ages.

Even the ways Swamp Thing uses his abilities are illustrated incredibly well, especially the scene above where he grows berries so the boy doesn’t starve.  It’s clever and creative, bringing life and color back into a story that is largely about death.

All that does is delay the inevitable realization that something just isn’t quite right, though.  The duo trek ever on, with time moving always later, yet a destination is never reached.  More than that, the snow monster is always in pursuit without ever surmounting them.  This culminates in a tragic twist that, had the story ended right then, would have been a perfect ending.  Instead, it goes on one scene too long, with the opening broadcast starting up once more.  The symbolism never quite gels, and whatever metaphor King is going for falls short for me.  Are we supposed to assume that Swamp Thing imagined a monster?  Is Swamp Thing himself the monster, and he’s simply in denial?  The actions of the story and the parallels with the Knights’ quarterback never quite match up, so what could have been bittersweet ends up a bit confusing instead.

Tom King is a fantastic writer, there’s not doubt about that.  I’m not saying this as a qualifier or to turn around and tear him down, either.  He’s possibly one of the best writers in the business, equally as capable of writing straightforward comic book fun in Batman as he is more philosophical fare like Mister Miracle, Omega Men, and Vision. Swamp Thing seemed like a perfect fit for him, and for a long stretch it is.  That it falls just a bit flat is unfortunate, but it doesn’t mean the story isn’t worth reading.  Given the chance, I’d love to see more of King and Fabok’s work on the character in the future.  After all, Swamp Thing is a great character deserving of great stories, and they’ve managed to give him a pretty good one.

Get ready to shed some tears with this one.

Before he died, Wein completed an outline for a new Swamp Thing #1, hoping to serve as a pilot for a new ongoing series.  Printed here are the full outline he submitted to Kelley Jones, Jones and Michelle Madsen’s completed and fully colored pencils, and a genuinely moving note from editor Rebecca Taylor.

Even just from a process standpoint, this is fascinating stuff.  Seeing how Wein described scenes to Jones is really interesting for anyone who’s ever wanted tips on how to structure an outline, and the genuine enthusiasm he has for the project is infectious.  He describes it as “the first of what I hope will be a long-running series that will make us both rich and famous,” which is at once funny and heartbreaking.

Wein never got past the outline stage, so he never wrote a full script with dialogue, but Jones and Madsen took the outline and illustrated the entirety of the issue.  Theirs is a style that’s very unique and distinct, and it’s perfect for the monstrous and macabre inherent in Swamp Thing.

Plus Swampy skis on lily pads.  That’s amazing.

The story and bits of dialogue that are presented are very different from the King and Fabok story: whereas the Swamp Thing of “The Talk of the Saints” spoke in… a broken… laborious… manner, Wein’s creation is almost quippy and sarcastic.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t prefer the more taciturn approach King takes, but this choice works with what Wein is doing.  His tone gives the story a sense of adventure, and the way Swamp Thing interacts with his old friend Matt Cable is engaging.  Even limited to hypothetical dialogue and snippets in Wein’s notes you still get a sense that the men are old friends.

There’s even a brief excursion to Gotham, the heavy inks on Jones’ pencils evoking a noirish mood.  The plot is pretty involved, jumping from locations as varied as a swamp to a freight train, and introducing key players that are both expected and a surprise.  It’s an intriguing story of a kidnapping that will never be solved, featuring cameo appearances that won’t ever be fully realized.

Yes, Batman is in it.

Would I have loved this had it been released as a standard issue?  That’s hard to say.  I enjoyed Wein and Jones’ The Dead Don’t Sleep miniseries well enough without being truly blown away.  This feels like a direct continuation of that (which it is), so I would have at least given it a fair shake.  As the last Len Wein Swamp Thing story, though, it has an air of melancholy about it.  There’s no denying the sadness here, made even more moving by Wein’s candid excitement.

It’s a fitting tribute to a writer who did so much for comics, an artist whose style will never be imitated, and their humble swamp monster.

Rest well, Len and Bernie.

Recommended if:

  • You love Swamp Thing.
  • You want to pay tribute to two legendary creators who are gone too soon.
  • Batman’s in it too, I guess.

Overall: Two very different stories that are both pretty good.  Any amount of Swamp Thing is great, so getting two new stories in one volume is a treat.  The King/Fabok half has lofty ambitions that aren’t quite realized, but it’s gorgeous and fascinating just the same.  Wein reuniting with Kelley Jones is a different affair, with a fairly standard story idea that resonates more due to the unfulfilled promise of a bright future with the character.  Swamp Thing Winter Special is a little messy and unkempt, but ultimately lovable, just like Swamp Thing himself.

SCORE: 8/10