In June 2016, DC Comics kicked off the start of its Rebirth initiative. After a wave of criticism surrounding the way they have treated their characters’ rich histories since 2011’s New 52 relaunch, DC has decided to rebrand. They hope that by restoring their characters’ pasts, they will restore readers’ faith in them as well. Do they succeed? That’s what the Comics Beat managing editor Alex Lu, entertainment editor Kyle Pinion, and contributor Louie Hlad are here to discuss. Book by book. Panel by panel.
THIS WEEK: Louie is excited to see two monster-centric 80 page giants! Swamp Thing Winter Special #1 is a fitting tribute to the late great Len Wein, and Young Monsters in Love #1 is a different kind of Valentine treat.
Note: the reviews below contain **spoilers**. If you want a quick, spoiler-free buy/pass recommendation on the comics in question, check out the bottom of the article for our final verdict.
Swamp Thing Winter Special #1
Story: Len Wein & Tom King
Art: Jason Fabok & Kelley Jones
Colors: Michelle Madsen & Brad Anderson
Letters: Deron Bennett
I’ll tell you up front, I’m giving this book a hard buy. It’s an 80 page giant that has two original Swamp Thing stories and a beautiful tribute to the late Len Wein, who died last September. Easily the best thing on the shelves this week.
Len Wein wrote an awful lot of stuff. Look up his bibliography — it will make you suddenly feel behind schedule. My first and fondest encounter with Wein’s work was mid-1980’s Green Lantern. These were cherished issues that featured a discontented Hal Jordan and classic villains like Hector Hammond and The Shark. His stories were epic and implausible and felt like they mattered.
And then I found Swamp Thing.
The original Swamp Thing series in 1972 was a comic like I’d never seen before. It was not so much superhero sci-fi, but straight horror. As of this writing, the first issue is free on Comixology (a 100% discount off the original 20 cent price tag). In that issue, Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson created a shambling, elemental monstrosity that battled with its lingering shreds of humanity. The first ten issues are comic book must-reads. Wrightson’s art is profoundly unsettling; impish demons that are all bulging eyes and distended bodies. They will give you goosebumps and keep you up at night.
Swamp Thing at its core has always been about monsters, both within and without. Len Wein emphasized the sense of terror by using bombastic, dramatic language like “the darkness cries” and “the tragedy that has long been known as man.” It may sound hokey out of context, but it draws you in like a great campfire story. The monster speaks in broken fragments of thought, poetic and forlorn. You quickly realize that the monster is you and a happy ending is not assured.
This week’s Winter Special publishes Len Wein’s last Swamp Thing story, which was originally intended to be the first issue of a new series. It is illustrated by the ostentatious Kelley Jones, with his signature pointy-eared Batman and everything. Wein’s original script is also included in its entirety so readers can witness the master at work.
And all of that happens after page 40. The first half of this book is a harrowing tale of horror written by Tom King and drawn by Jason Fabok. A classic-looking Swampy is protecting a lost child by fighting monsters in a winter blizzard as he slowly deteriorates from the unnatural hibernation of the flora. This book is gorgeous. The colors by Brad Anderson make Fabok’s visual storytelling even more impressive, with the white of the snow drawing extra attention to the red of hot blood.
As with every great Swamp Thing story since that first debut, the plot and characters are a dark metaphor. Tom King uses winter to represent difficult times of stagnation with which we are all familiar. The characters are running from an unseen enemy, too terrified to stop and consider what they are actually fighting. The child narrates the off-scene battles as if they are haunting memories. The tension quickly builds as the story loses its own sense of time — repeatedly labeling scenes only as “later.” Time tends to slip away in the winter.
In the end, as always, the monster must face himself. Spring always comes but happy endings are never assured.
Young Monsters in Love #1
Story: Kyle Higgins, Tim Seeley, Mairghread Scott, Collin Kelly, Jackson Lanzing, Paul Dini, Mark Russell, Steve Orlando, Alisa Kwitney, Phil Hester, James Robinson
Art: Kelley Jones, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Cam Smith, Bryan Hitch, Andrew Currie, Javier Fernandez, Guillem March, Frazer Irving, Nic Klein, Stephanie Hans, Mirko Colak, John McCrea
Colors: Michelle Madsen, Tomeu Morey, Nathan Fairbairn, Trish Mulvihill, Dave McCaig, Mike Spicer, John Kalisz
Letters: Rob Leigh, Clayton Cowles, Carlos M. Mangual, Sal Cipriano, Travis Lanham, Tom Napolitano, Dave Sharpe, Clem Robins
There is another 80 page giant on the shelves this week that also features Swamp Thing on the cover and Kelley Jones art inside. This one-shot’s title plays on an obscure DC concept called Young Heroes in Love from twenty years ago. Aside from the uncanny similarity in titles, there’s no relation. Young Monsters is a Valentine’s Day themed look at the horror corner of the modern DC universe. That’s right — horror romance. There are ten 8-page tales in this special, most of which are worth the read. Especially if you enjoy the weirder corners of the DCU.
The editor and nitpicker in me complains that some of the feature characters aren’t technically monsters. Etrigan is a demon being tormented in hell and Raven is a gothy teen who happens to be the daughter of a demon. Deadman is definitely a ghost. For that matter, I’m not sure all of these characters are young either. I’m guessing the marketing department pushed back on the title “Young (and Some Old) Monsters (and Other Esoteric Spooky Things) in Love.”
The good news is that this isn’t one of those trial anthology books designed to give new creators their first crack at the industry. Some well-known talent is represented here: James Robinson, Phil Hester, Paul Dini, Frazer Irving, Guillem March, Brian Hitch. Kelley Jones draws both Batman and Man-Bat in a Kyle Higgins fable about addiction and self-love. Tim Seeley and Giuseppe Camuncoli show Frankenstein and his bride bonding over a typical day at the office (battling satanic butler robots) only to go home separately, their love forever unconsummated.
Plenty of these short stories end in heartbreak rather than joy. The Swamp Thing and Etrigan endings are especially tragic, as we are reminded that monsters don’t always get what they want. Solomon Grundy spends his Valentine’s Day remembering all he has lost and the Creature Commandos relieve their amorous frustrations with good old-fashioned violence. Love, like horror, is not for the faint of heart.
One of the most unlikely and intriguing comic book romances is between a superintelligent gorilla named Monsieur Mallah and a human brain named, um…The Brain. It’s hard to explain. Mallah and the Brain are a tragic pair of lovers whose evil aims aren’t usually all that evil. They just want to be left alone to enjoy each other’s strange, strange company. I have to admit I find myself pulling for the weirdos.
This comic might not be for everyone, but then again it might just hit your sweet spot. It’s filled with short tales that spotlight the odder character concepts that rarely get a long form exploration. The theme of love is addressed from multiple angles, some heartwarming and others heart wrenching. You’ll have to be honest with yourself — how weird do you like your love?
- Forgive me for being late to the party, but the second chapter of Milk Wars this week was my very first introduction to Mother Panic. I didn’t feel knowledgeable enough about the character and history to write a proper review but I will offer my impressions. Sub-bullets!
- First and foremost, the issue (Mother Panic/Batman Special #1) is a great product. It’s well written and interesting, with a stylized dialogue for the Gather House inhabitants that is fun to read. The layouts are playfully creative and the art matches the tone of the story perfectly. The cover was done by Frank Quitely and of course it is magnificent.
- The first page gives you a quick recap of everything you need to know. Jumping in cold was no problem and I never felt like I was missing context. You could even read this comic before reading chapter one and I don’t imagine it would matter. Maximum accessibility. Thank you, DC.
- Mother Panic seems to be a story about a young woman who grew up Catholic and was left with some emotional scars. A lot of us feel that way, though few of us would go so far as to burn the church down.
- Or wait, maybe it’s about standardized education and how it transforms kids into complacent sidekicks. The children at Gather House are taught “drugs are bad” and to watch your language.
- Actually, I’m pretty sure the story is about the homogenization of comics and constant resets back to “normal” versions of the characters. This could be seen as a rebuttal to Rebirth as a whole.
- But it could be about sugar?
- Alex and Kyle have already written glowing reviews about the current Justice League run by Priest, but I’ll heap on another thumbs up. The beauty of the approach to me is that the book’s not about super fights, it’s about the team. The main stage is the headquarters rather than the battlefield. In that way it resembles the 1980’s Justice League International, when Guy Gardner was flirting with Ice and Blue Beetle was goofing off with Booster. Missions are the background — this is a study on team dynamics. I like that Batman and Wonder Woman don’t get along (why would they?) and that Simon Baz has a chip on his shoulder. Now if we can just get Martian Manhunter back…
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