THIS INTERVIEW CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR ‘JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK ANNUAL’ #1.
by Jarrod Jones. Justice League Dark is working its way through the shadowy corners of the DCU towards something big. But during every era-defining run, there comes a time when the larger narrative constructs are set aside for a solid one-and-done where serious character work can be done.
Amid the formidable roster of JLD is Swamp Thing, of late lamenting the loss of the Parliament of Trees and feeling as though they are at their very end. Of trying. Of giving a damn. And because this is a DC Universe book, this is where we cue John Constantine, who saunters into this week’s Justice League Dark Annual with a bit of advice… and a damning lesson for our be-vined hero.
Justice League Dark Annual #1 brings in writer Ram V. to navigate us through the latest journey for the being that was once Alec Holland. Tasking the writer of Vault Comics’ These Savage Shores, one of the finest horror comics in recent memory, to script the eldritch pages of JLD and its coterie of mystical miscreants is a wise choice on DC’s part; Ram’s knack for lush narratives of fiery passions and terrifying secrets makes him a perfect fit for “A Carious Bloom”, the title to the story running through JLD‘s annual and the story we’ll be discussing today.
“Bloom” takes Swamp Thing to Robb’s End, a farm in rural Maine and the current residence of one Dr. Oleander Sorrel, who, with his wife Natasha, has been in a process of mourning the loss of their young son during a crucial point in his floricultural research. And it is in his grief that Oleander will experience a horror amid the crimson blooms he’s grown in the winter snows—ripe conditions for a Swamp Thing tale to blossom.
“Sure, it’s a story about Swamp Thing and The King of Petals and the greater events of The Justice League Dark storyline,” Ram tells me. “But on a thematic basis, it is a story of trees and flowers.”
And the boundaries of grief and how we are all susceptible to crossing them. Time for a proper horror story.
DoomRocket spoke with Ram V. about his great leap into the Dark side of DC’s Justice League line, working with James Tynion IV, Guillem March and Arif Prianto, and the essence of horror in the world of Swamp Thing.
DoomRocket: As we enter ‘Justice League Dark Annual’ #1, we’re privy to a bit of set-up concerning the wider to-do currently powering through the ‘JLD’ series. If you would, please set the tone for this annual. Specifically, where is this issue’s central character, Swamp Thing, during this arc?
Ram V.: I think he is lost. Unsure of his place in the larger scheme of events. Overcome with feelings of failure having seen the Parliament of Trees burned and replaced. He is untethered and finding it hard to bring himself to care about the state of things.
You and co-plotter [‘JLD’ series writer] James Tynion IV kick off the story by tearing a page from the journal of Dr. Oleander Sorrel, a geneticist who has just experienced the sudden and tragic loss of his son. He’s moved himself and his wife, Natasha, to New England during a frost to further his agricultural research in peace—fertile ground for a proper horror story. Tell us how you and James seeded this story, and what you needed to add to it to make it flourish.
When James got in touch, he had an idea of the beginning and end of the story. He wanted it to start with John [Constantine] telling Swamp Thing about this new guardian and that it had to end the way it did. And of course, he had the concept for The King of Petals. Beyond that he asked me to really lean into the horror and tragic elements of the story and I had room to come up with the details and the narrative as I saw fit.
I looked for the things that I wanted to talk about. Sure, it’s a story about Swamp Thing and The King of Petals and the greater events of The Justice League Dark storyline. But on a thematic basis, it is a story of trees and flowers. Of things that last for hundreds of years and things that die within a matter of hours. How is our understanding of life, beauty and the value of things skewed by the length of time we spend on this world? Why is it hard to be a guardian? Why is it tragic? These are the things I wanted to explore. Really it is a story of short-term gratification and long-term consequences.
“A Carious Bloom”, or “a decaying bloom”, is a curiously fitting title for your story, considering where it goes. Who came up with that?
I’ll take that one. Pretty proud of the title, to be honest.
On pages 8 & 9 there’s a beautiful montage sequence by artist Guillem March (and colored by Arif Prianto) that walks us through the last days Oleander has with Natasha before he succumbs to an accidental fire and becomes something horrible. Flowers bloom on vines that snake around the panels, with that perfect asymmetry nature always provides. Is this a visual metaphor to show how deep the roots of the Parliament of Flowers actually go, or is this a way of showing how intertwined Oleander has become with his grief?
I think, in my head, the flowers were a metaphor for grief. A slow blossoming of the grief that would go on to overtake Oleander and Natasha’s lives, invading their relationship like vines taking over some long-abandoned wall.
What notes or descriptions did you have in place for the artists to realize the flowered form of Oleander, this King of Petals?
Honestly, I didn’t burden Guillem with too much in the script. I knew I wanted the text and the art to have their own spaces. In my experience it creates a sanitized detachment. A sense of loneliness. So, I had planned that out in the script and just ended with a note about having flowers and vines in spaces on the page, if possible.
Of course, Guillem takes that and just produces this incredible baroque, art nouveau version of a comic book page. When I first saw it, I was blown away and I knew immediately that Guillem understood the tone. And, Arif so masterfully produces that note of over-ripe sweetness in the whole issue.
There’s a bit during these pages that hints at the level of physical pain Oleander endured during his transformation, and it might be the most frightening part of the entire story: “Then came the fire. How it began is yet unclear to me but I remember it was brighter and cleaner than any flame… It was the sort of searing, beautiful pain that wipes out every memory of failure.” But he remembers his son anyway, dying, and the hope his family was clinging on to. Blighted by failure and insane with agony, Oleander utters this line, as we watch him feebly reach one arm out towards the night sky, the stars offering no respite: “I wanted to scream.” This is a profoundly terrifying sequence that nudges ‘JLD’ towards the deep-rooted terror that was once commonly found in Vertigo titles of yore. Did you know going in that you wanted to reach for this rather extreme level of horror?
Yeah, of course. I mean, it’s Swamp Thing. Is there a non-extreme kind of Swamp Thing horror? Grief often coaxes people into terrible choices and often, in reflection the choices are inevitable ones. And so, you cannot possibly criticize the choices, for that is the nature of grief. That is terrifying to me, the eroding nature of grief—hence “Carious”, hence the caustic. I am fascinated by it.
So grief is the clear motivating factor behind “A Carious Bloom”. It’s what drives Oleander to obsess over his work, and it’s the thing that’s so palpable in Oleander and Nat’s day-to-day lives that it creates a silence that ultimately pushes them apart. Later, we read an entry from Oleander’s journal that equates grief with epigenetic memory, the evolutionary tool that allows plants to adapt over generations of bloom and rot. An effective (and affecting) narrative sleight-of-hand. How did you and James end up using epigenetic memory to underscore grief, the story’s central theme?
Rather than looking at Grief as the motivating factor, I’d probably say choices driven by grief are the motivating factor. And it is really those choices we get into. Choices for long term consequences or choices for short term gratification. I mean look at the state of the planet today, aren’t we contending with the same questions? I thought this would be something The Green would be pre-occupied with.
And if our choices are reflective of our understanding of life. What better way to explore it, than through memory? Again, we use the ephemerality of memory. We have the memory of Oleander’s more immediate grief, but we have Swamp Thing advocating a different kind of memory—the memory of a collective. Of grief and pain learned over eons, encoded into our behaviors. It is important, especially when making decisions from a place of power, to recognize that sort of grief and memory.
Enter: Jason Woodrue, the Floronic Man. This vile plantman slithers out of the woodwork to confuse Oleander at the height of his madness. This is the turning point in the story, where Oleander becomes truly lost in the Green, manipulating plantlife to create a child that resembles the one he lost—and then he sends it to his wife. Later, he forms new children to create the family that fate denied him. How much of Oleander is behind these macabre decisions? Isn’t he being played by Woodrue, prodded into exploring the extent of a newfound power that the Floronic Man wants for himself?
Where do we draw the line between influence and choice? The King of Petals is responsible for his choices and he makes quite a few bad ones. But then, can we blame him? Grief and power are a terrible combination. Oleander, as Swamp Thing would point out, doesn’t exist. It is only his grief wrapped in petals.
And therein lies the essence of Swamp Thing’s heroism, for me.
Sometimes it is heroic to have to watch terrible things happen and shoulder their grief while still making considered and wise choices. There is heroism in being a Redwood.
Oleander’s research has him planting and nursing solanaceae—nightshade. Is this meant to be a metaphor for how, in his grief, Oleander pulled the wool over his eyes, obscured himself from the horrible truth of his transformation?
The Solanacae are a family of plants. In this particular case, they’re Petunias!
Was Oleander under some sort of thrall from the Parliament, exploited by his grief to become their champion? Constantine mentions that they have plans in the works, and Swamp Thing, driven by the winds, is led directly to Oleander’s Maine retreat.
We don’t have to be enthralled by greater powers to lie to ourselves, do we? I fear we’re entirely capable of doing that ourselves. So perhaps there is no one place we can lay the blame.
Like Swamp Thing says later, answers seldom make you happy, but answers are forever.
And some answers, I fear, are best left for future stories to explain. Answers might be forever, but stories last even longer.
Swamp Thing considers this particular melodrama to be a failure on their part, but that they convinced the King of Petals to read Oleander’s words—made this creature see what Oleander did that created this mockery of their former self—isn’t that a victory in some small way? Or is this just one of those “imperceptible” changes that is ultimately, as Swamp Thing puts it, “meaningless”?
Yes, perhaps there are small victories, but it takes a detached view to be able to see that. Swamp Thing is too close, and this is a reflection of his grief. Another tragedy he was helpless to prevent. There is perhaps a more important thing to say here that John touches on. Sometimes, you don’t get big victories. Sometimes, bringing people in from the rain has to be reward enough. But it’s difficult to see that—even when you’re a big green swamp monster that’s seen it all.
Now that the Floronic Man has positioned himself as the Parliament of Flowers’ latest champion, how will this particular story come to affect Swamp Thing—and by extension of that, ‘Justice League Dark’—going forward?
Apologies for being a cliché. But, you’ll have to read it to find out!
‘Justice League Dark Annual’ #1 is available both in stores and on comiXology now.
Check out this 5-page preview of ‘Justice League Dark Annual’ #1, courtesy of DC!
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