The end of the ROT WORLD crossover arc raises the question that Umberto Eco posed in his famous essay on Superman in 1972: can there really be change in a superhero universe? Doesn’t that imply aging, and movement toward an end, death, in fact? Whereas the constant return to a status quo at the end of each trial or adventure puts readers back in a position of looping time, and any seeming change in the lives of superheroes is seen to be a kind of necessary illusion. Eco even pointed out that “What If” stories are the only recourse to exploring meaningful life developments for superheroes like having long-term relationships or kids, milestones that can be neatly tucked away as “out of continuity”. We’re still struggling in superhero comics with the same realities of narrative constraint introduced by the Man of Steel, but that doesn’t mean that some writers and artists are satisfied to make all monumental events, the reason we read superhero comics in the first place, transient. Some are determined not to hand the property on to the next writer or artist in the same condition in which they received it, and that does suggest a lot of gumption on their part. Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire have suggested in interviews before the ROTWORLD finale that they fought to incorporate lasting change into the universes of SWAMP THING and ANIMAL MAN respectively, and the question is, are those changes really meaningful to the reader? What did the ROT WORLD arc add to the mythology of the DCU and will its impact continue to be felt, or will there still be a gradual return to the status quo to follow?
[Spoilers for ROTWORLD arc, ANIMAL MAN #17, 18, and SWAMP THING #17, 18 below!]
All evidence points to New 52 marketing wanting readers to believe that ROT WORLD was culminating in something monumental, something unheard of that might never be seen again. SWAMP THING #18’s cover, depicting Abby and Swampy embracing reads, “’Til Death Do Them Part!”, and ANIMAL MAN #18’s even more emotionally gripping cover, with Buddy Baker screaming in the dark, reads in rather gigantic letters: “This is the Most Tragic Day in the Life of Buddy Baker!”. As far as hype goes, it’s pretty extreme, and even though fans might not want these characters to suffer, anything less might seem like a rip off after this kind of advertizing. Maybe they want readers to feel conflicted because that means they are personally engaging with the titular characters.
Let’s start with the ROT mythology, and the way in which it affects a reader’s view of the DCU, then discuss the kind of “change” ST #18 and AM #18 introduce. As mythology, the introduction of The Rot is a significant accomplishment. It shines a light on the dark corners of the underlying principles of the DC Universe and helps fill out the cosmic principles that hold it together for readers. The Rot functions as a third element to stand in balance to The Red, the element of animals (and humans), and The Green, the element of the plant world. It makes sense there should be more than just The Green and the The Red struggling, often against each other. Adding a third principle, first as a mutual foe, that represents “decay” is pretty ingenious. It speaks to the reality of death and entropy in the DCU and gives readers a greater sense of just how things function in the DCU. So from an overarching standpoint, thumbs up. But honestly, it gets even better. In issue #17 of SWAMP THING when Swamp Thing and Animal Man start questioning their own view of what The Rot is, things get more “real” in the sense that the opposition between The Red and The Green versus The Rot becomes instead a triad of opposing forces.
As Constantine had warned earlier, The Red and The Green are not “black and white”. They are not alone, and don’t simply have a mutual foe. They have a mutually equal principle to deal with taken over by Anton Arcane. They begin to realize that the avatars of each principle can determine whether the element works in more helpful or harmful ways and that The Rot, a principle of decay, is, in fact neutral, though corrupted by Arcane. Though readers might have seen this coming, it forms a sudden clear paradigm for principles acting in the DCU, and suggests a satisfying emphasis on “harmony” between principles as a universal goal. It syncs well with all the struggles of heroes in the DCU, and could speak to Superman’s endeavors just as well as Batman’s. The ROT WORLD arc has added this paradigm to the DC Universe, and contributed to its mythology.
So much for a view from a distance. It’s wonderful, and maybe even essential to have a solid and well thought out mythology behind a superhero universe, but without elements of humanity in its characters, there are no real stories to be told. The entire ROT WORLD crossover is deeply psychological. One could argue that perception and uncertain perception of reality are some of its key themes, particularly focused upon Swamp Thing and Animal Man. Are the worlds they fall through and move through even real at all? Can anything be fixed and certain when time-travel and world-travel are involved? That could move the reader away from a sense of seriousness in the events they are witnessing, not being sure that anything happened “for real”. Snyder and Lemire actually break through the “fourth wall” in a way by writing this uncertainty into the storyline openly. When Swampy and Animal Man storm Arcane’s stronghold in Rotworld in ST #17 and AM #17, they encounter monstrous, twisted versions of their loved ones, Abby (Abigail Arcane, Swamp Thing’s girlfriend) and Maxine (Animal Man’s daughter) respectively. The loved ones seem lost, bent beyond recognition into Arcane’s principle of Rot, and though they speak in familiar voices, Swampy and Animal Man still question whether it’s “really them”. It’s a version of them, Arcane confirms, since he’s grown them from infancy for this role, but there’s a lingering possibility that somewhere, if only in a version of the past, Abby and Maxine are still untainted. It’s emotionally engaging to see Swamp Thing and Animal Man interact with these twisted versions, but if it’s not “really” them, the impact is limited.
That’s where issues #18 of both comics come in. They hold the key to determining if these are just essentially rather gruesome “What If” stories that have plenty to say about the DCU and especially a great deal to say about the psychology of central characters, but then, like a dream, will cycle back to normality having won the battle against Arcane and restored balance to the newly defined three principles of the universe. Lesson learned, life could more or less return to a version of the DCU that readers recognize. This is where, it seems, Snyder and Lemire’s determination to insist on change in the DCU after ROT WORLD comes in. They each take divergent paths to accomplish this, but the principle seems the same: restoring balance takes personal cost. If the universe is capable of righting itself after an imbalance, it does so with little concern over the impact on human lives, but works toward a bigger goal. Let’s also remember that Swamp Thing has agreed to be the avatar of The Green and give up his Alec Holland matrix of identity (as introduced originally by Alan Moore) and that Animal Man faces the same strict principles though his daughter Maxine is actually the avatar of The Red. This means that nothing is safe, and nothing is more sacred than that role.
Snyder brings humanity to the post-Rot roles of Swamp Thing and Abby through the unlikely final farewell to their humanity and a backward-looking but meaningful sentiment about their connection to each other, visually depicted by Yanick Paquette in stunning terms as their two human bodies lying together, presumably deceased, gradually covered by the flowers of The Green. It’s a farewell for fans, one that deserves some rites of its own, but its implications bring actual change to the DCU also. Abby has knowingly taken on the role of avatar for The Rot in its new, neutral form as a safeguard for keeping it that way. She’s not only resisting the kind of horror arcane unleashed upon the entire DCU in the form of his own version of The Rot, she’s doing something about, and sacrificing her humanity to do so.
As counterbalanced principles now, she and Swamp Thing cannot truly be together (witness the ashes arising between them when they touch). He is growth and she is decay, interactive elements with their distant parts to play. Satisfyingly in some ways, Abby is now Swamp Thing’s equal. Surprisingly, that makes sense, as if her potential and future role had something to do with bringing them together in the first place. How can it be satisfying, though, that they can never be together again? It’s satisfying only in the sense that it rings true because it is honest to goodness change in the DC Universe, one Snyder went to bat for. How can these stories continue to be deeply meaningful to us if there is never any deep change visible? Bravo, Mr. Snyder, no matter how miserable you have made Swampy and Abby. To be fair, they seem to accept this fate the way elementals do, with rather profound wisdom.
Jeff Lemire has, in some ways, a more difficult task at hand in ANIMAL MAN #18. Thrown back into his world to learn if things have changed, if at all, he has his entire family to worry about, not just his daughter Maxine. To introduce change into a family configuration is complicated. Do you change the nature of the relationships? Does Maxine, assuming she’s alive, stop being the avatar of The Red? What about losing his mother? That seems somehow like a reasonably nod toward change. But the scale of ROT WORLD has been so extreme that, simply stated, losing a parent might not quite satisfy readers. If Swamp Thing and Abby were tragic and nostalgic (and isn’t The Green usually anyway?), Animal Man needs something raw and violent to contend with, something primal perhaps. Steve Pugh does an excellent job rendering scenes between Buddy and his family human, and physical, once he returns to his world (particularly necessary with a title like ANIMAL MAN). I wouldn’t say that having his already ill son Cliff Baker, finally die, was predictable. It was a roulette spin on who might die, though death did seem likely, especially given the book’s cover art. Cliff doesn’t need to be the avatar of The Red like Maxine, and his death can be an emotional touchstone for readers to connect to Buddy Baker. Superhero stories have contained quite a few lost sons over the years, but that doesn’t mean the trope doesn’t pack a punch.
After everything Animal Man has been through to save the universe from the Rot, doesn’t he deserve better than this? And yet, that’s the point. In this way, he’s not special. He’s vulnerable and human, and could experience the loss of a child. This is change for Buddy, but it’s more a psychological change than a major plot shift for future issues of ANIMAL MAN. This isn’t to say that losing a character doesn’t change the DCU, it does, but Cliff’s death doesn’t change it on the same scale that Abby’s transformation will. Is the change that Lemire introduces less of a success because of this? Nope. He introduces change to the fabric of Animal Man’s life, and an emotional impact that will last forever in psychological terms. Exactly how Cliff’s death will impact the ANIMAL MAN comic, in fact, remains to be seen, but it would be very hard to brush it aside. This certainly isn’t a “What If” story.
So, the bottom line about the end of an era with Snyder’s final issue of SWAMP THING and the end of the ROT WORLD arc is that it does remarkable things to alter the way in which readers perceive and understand the DC Universe as a whole, and is a pretty impressive feat of universe building from the inside out. It creates growth and greater appreciation of a universe perpetually under construction, and for that reason, rarely explained in broad terms. But Snyder and Lemire also do something that shows a lot of fortitude and personal vision for what readers need to see in superhero stories to really grasp their significance: the potential for change. If these characters cannot be affected by their life experiences, where does that leave us, the readers, trying to connect and apply their experiences to our own?
SWAMP THING #18 and ANIMAL MAN #18 complete what you might term “Eco’s loop” in terms of creating continuity again in the DCU (by restoring balance in The Rot), but they also break through that loop and give us a glimpse, hopefully an enduring one, of heroes in a “real” situation of loss, maybe even a form of sacrifice to restore that balance. There’s nothing more human than the realization that things don’t always work out the way you want them to. Thankfully, for Snyder and Lemire, they did this time.
Title: ANIMAL MAN #18/ Publisher: DC Comics/Creative Team: Jeff Lemire, Writer, Steve Pugh, Artist, Lovern Kindzierski, Colorist, Jared K. Fletcher, Letterer
Title: SWAMP THING #18/ Publisher: DC Comics/Creative Team: Scott Snyder, Writer, Yanick Paquette, Artist, Nathan Fairbairn, Colors, Travis Lanham, Letters
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.