‘Swamp Thing Winter Special’ a melancholic distillation of Wein & Wrightson’s sad boy
This review of ‘Swamp Thing Winter Special’ #1 contains spoilers.
By Brendan F. Hodgdon. Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson’s Swamp Thing has always lived very comfortably (albeit sadly) at the nexus of hero and monster. As Alec Holland has been passed down through a who’s who of comics masters (Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Phil Hester, Brian K Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, Scott Snyder, Yanick Paquette) the tragic heart of the character has always endured. Given the existential history of the character, it was only a matter of time until Tom King gave him a go. And with the gorgeous help of Jason Fabok, King has delivered a tale of the Swamp Thing that distills his melancholic essence down in a most upsetting way.
The issue follows Swamp Thing as he trudges through an unending blizzard, trying to safeguard a young child from an unseen snow monster. As the story continues, we see very little action, though the child constantly informs the confused and disoriented plant elemental that the monster is still chasing them. In terms of plot, this is pretty much 90% of the issue; like many King stories, the narrative is minimalist and opaque in a way that demands a greater focus on the characters and themes. As is usually the case, King demands a level of engagement from his readers to truly recognize the purpose of the story… and because of this, it might not be as enjoyable for those just looking for a fun little read.
For those that are willing to engage with the story, however, there is a lot to admire here. The reveal that the boy Swamp Thing is protecting is actually the monster that is tormenting him provides the framework for a lot of interrelated thematic threads. The fact that Swamp Thing must destroy the snow monster, innocent façade and all, in order to return life to the bayou speaks to the perpetual cycles of nature, which adds a certain degree of conceptual grandeur to the proceedings.
Then there is the framing device of a sports talk radio host lambasting the idea of blaming your problems on “monsters”, saying in the end “The only monster out there is you.” Which, combined with the undoubtedly unsettling events of the issue, plainly reflects the dichotomy at the heart of the Swamp Thing. How much of his (and for that matter, the snow monster’s) existence can be blamed on this monstrous existence he is trapped in, versus his own choices and attitudes?
Despite the over-sized length (and matching price tag) of the issue, perhaps the biggest shortcoming of the story is that King doesn’t have the chance to examine Swamp Thing as a figure, or Alec Holland as a character, beyond the exact events of this issue. So without having a larger metatextual knowledge of the character, this story could ring a little hollow, despite the clear thematic depth. Were King and Fabok to expand on this in another patented Tom King 12-parter, it would almost certainly rank up there with King’s other terrific longform work. On its own, it is a nuanced yet detatched piece of philosophical storytelling.
Having gone on as long as I have about the Tom King of it all, I would be remiss not to recognize the great work of Jason Fabok and Brad Anderson throughout this issue. Fabok, as one might expect, provides strong work here, staging the deliberately-paced narrative with great restraint and his usual detail-heavy design work. And Anderson’s colors capture a very naturalistic tone that serves the story well. Their rendition of Swamp Thing in particular is very evocative, and conveys a great deal of emotion that the script doesn’t spell out.
I’m not going to lie; trying to wrap my head around this issue after only a couple of reads was a little harder than I expected. And I could see the detatched and philosophical tone being off-putting to some, especially without the added context that some of Tom King’s longer works provide. But there’s no denying that the Swamp Thing Winter Special will get inside your head, and that it really summarizes the spirit of Wein & Wrightson’s love child in typically tragic fashion.
Written by Tom King and Len Wein.
Art by Jason Fabok and Kelly Jones.
Colors by Brad Anderson and Michelle Madsen.
Letters by Deron Bennett.
7.5 out of 10
Check out this preview of ‘Swamp Thing Winter Special’ #1, courtesy of DC Comics!