Delayed Gratification and Genre Mixing in Scott Snyder’s Swamp Thing

Swamp Thing #1

When Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette’s Swamp Thing #7 saw release, it was met with generally spectacular reviews, at least in part because after six issues the book finally delivered on the promise in its title — it finally featured Swamp Thing. Not many mainstream comics would wait over half a year to introduce their main character to audiences; a decade ago it was a noteworthy when Brian Michael Bendis waited just a couple months to do so in Ultimate Spider-Man. So why did author Snyder choose to wait, and what effect does it have on the series as a whole?

To answer that, let’s look at the genre or genres in which Swamp Thing operates. On one hand, as part of DC’s New 52 Swamp Thing is essentially a superhero comic. And although DC has been open to featuring different genres as part of its massive relaunch (All-Star Western, Men of War), Swamp Thing also stars a character that has previously been associated with straight-ahead action, a character that spends time with Superman and Batman. He’s a warrior whose job is to protect the Green from its assailants in violent, action-packed ways. In that sense, at least, Swamp Thing is a superhero book.

But Swamp Thing also possesses strong elements of the horror genre that can’t be denied. The Swamp Thing character has always had roots (pardon the pun) in supernatural thrillers, an angle that was famously put to great use by Alan Moore in the 1980s. Additionally, Scott Snyder’s comic-book pedigree certainly tends toward the horror vain; his most notable success coming in to Swamp Thing was American Vampire, a modern thriller created with Stephen King. In that way, then, we can rightfully talk about Swamp Thing‘s relationship the horror subset of fiction.

Swamp Thing, then, is a book that lives in two worlds. In the first eight issues of his run on the series, Scott Snyder uses the tactic of delayed gratification, especially when it comes to revealing the book’s protagonist, to fully embrace both genres in which it operates.

The horror aspect of Swamp Thing is perhaps the easier of the two to pin down. Snyder’s artist partner-in-crime Yanick Paquette (as well as fantastic fill-in penciler Marco Rudy) must be given equal credit for contributing to the terrifying world in which Swamp Thing lives. The first eight issues of this book are filled with demented visuals of men with their heads spun backwards, half-rotten animal carcasses and cancerous growth that literally explodes from sick bodies. Complete with Nathan Fairbairn’s dark, broody palette, Swamp Thing is a book that can rightfully be called both ugly and beautiful.

But as good as the art is, it would be wrong to not recognize Snyder’s contribution to Swamp Thing‘s horrific tone. He does so not just in the scenarios and antagonists he cooks up but also in the way he structures his narrative. The book is deliberately plotted to reveal only things its audience needs to know. There are always questions and unanswered threads hanging over every scene, creating an aura of suspense, of waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is a tactic horror filmmakers have used since the dawn of the genre — each scene is limited in what it shows you; there’s always a sense that something really awful’s about to turn the corner.

The most obvious example of this is the through-line connecting the first seven issues of the series — will Alec Holland embrace his destiny and become the Swamp Thing, or will he continue to run from it? We assume from the title of the book that eventually he’ll become the hero he’s meant to (or else there’s really no story), but we can never be sure when. The second issue teases his transformation when we meet a previous iteration of the Swamp Thing avatar, but that issue ends with the Green’s protector horrifically wilting away and Alec affirming his choice not to give into the destiny the Green’s chosen for him.

Alec’s decision prolongs the title’s suspense in a couple ways. For one, it obviously keeps readers wondering when the hero of the book will appear. But it also means that whatever threats Alec and his companion Abby encounter will be actual threats — without the powers of a wood god at his disposal, Alec’s basically just a mere mortal (even though he has flashes of being able to control the Green, which are limited in his human form). What results is that readers spend six issues on the edge of their seat, waiting for Alec to become the title character and finally take care of the bad guys.

But then, at the end of issue #6, Alec dies.

Issue #7 seems like it’s finally going to embrace Alec Holland’s transformation into the Swamp Thing — and it does! — but then the series’ most obvious example of delayed gratification rears its head. Issue #7 doesn’t give us a full image of Alec’s new Swamp Thing form — we only see his eye, his back and his image in shadow (much the same way we’re introduced to main antagonist Sethe in issue #1). We have to wait until about halfway through Swamp Thing #8 — after a brilliant page by Paquette that images Swamp Thing as a dot on the horizon, then a figure approaching, then so close he’s practically out of frame — to finally see the fantastic full-page image of Swamp Thing’s new, impressive look.

From that point on, the game changes. Paquette’s design indicates that this Swamp Thing is a fighter through-and-through. He can grow wood claws from his forearms, he can sprout wings from his back, and his mossy tendrils act as piercing arrows. Within a few pages’ time, Swamp Thing fights off a horde of Sethe’s army, only to be stopped by the twisted appearance of his one-time love, Abby, now corrupted by the Rot.

Swamp Thing #8 plays out in full-on superhero mode. After seven and a half issues of waiting for Alec Holland’s true power to manifest, Snyder and Paquette deliver here in a spectacular and exciting sequence. Readers get caught up in the action much like they would seeing Wonder Woman fight off an invading army. Just for a moment, Swamp Thing drops the cerebral suspense of its first seven issues for a superhero brawl, and it’s fantastic.

But this sequence wouldn’t work nearly as well had it come earlier in the series. Snyder needed the seven issues of horror and suspense to set the tone for the book, so that when its champion was finally introduced his impact could really be felt. Put another way, seeing Swamp Thing battle a threat that’s been built up for eight issues means a lot more than seeing him scuffle with an enemy that we only just met. It gives us a deeper understanding of the abilities of both Swamp Thing and his enemies, and it just makes for a more satisfying story.

Therefore, to really optimize the payoff of Swamp Thing’s heroic debut, Snyder needed to spend months playing up the title’s horror and suspense. Conversely, the horror and suspense seem more satisfying when they eventually collide with a mighty hero on the level of Superman or Wonder Woman; they contrast brilliantly with the things we love about the superhero genre. The two genres in which Swamp Thing lives feed into each other, creating a perfect blend of superhero action and, as the old Vertigo tagline read, “sophisticated suspense.” There is perhaps no one more qualified than Scott Snyder to merge these two worlds, and what results has consistently been — and will likely continue to be — one of the most compelling books of the New 52.

tags: scott snyder, swamp thing, yanick paquette

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