Tuesday, October 09, 2018

On Swamp Thing Halloween Horror Giant #1

I finally gave in and bought myself one of those DC Walmart exclusive 100-page giants last weekend, which, based on the number of stories The Beat has devoted to the subject, is one of the biggest stories in comics right now. This one was the Swamp Thing Halloween Horror Giant #1, which appears to be a holiday special, as opposed to the four ongoing series devoted to Superman, Batman, the Justice League and the Teen Titans. It had its own little cardboard display case set up right next to the usual one that I see on my biweely-ish trips to the Ashtabula County Walmart.

Unlike the other Walmart giants, I wasn't immediately sure I had read all of the reprint stories within this (although it turned out that I had), and I wasn't as confident that the all-new Swamp Thing story advertised on the cover would show up in a collection, as I am confident the Brian Michael Bendis-written Batman story and the Tom King-written Superman story will. And hell, it's only $5--that's significantly less than most of the magazines they shelve near check out aisles in supermarkets to entice impulse buys.

I don't want to get too deep into the logic and ethics of these things again, nor to play armchair publisher regarding them, although I think in general that extremely cheap, mostly reprint comics marketed to a mass audience of civilians is a pretty good idea, especially around holidays like Halloween and, even more so, Christmas. I remain a little baffled as to who exactly these are meant for, though. As with the Batman one I had previously read, this seemed to be geared toward an adult--or at least older teen--audience, rather than an all-ages one. There's some blood, some unnecessary swearing, a particularly gratuitous dark and an oddly out of place story from the 1970s with barely veiled drug humor (Unlike the comics DC sells to the direct market, there's no rating on this one).

And the contents are extremely haphazard, although, in general, the idea seems to be popular-ish DC characters with one foot in the world of horror and the other in the traditional world of DCU superheroics. Off the top of my head, I feel like I could come up with 100-pages of better Halloween comics to fill this thing with, and I got the sense that after the new Swampy story that kicks off the anthology and the Swamp Thing-related reprint that closes it out, the stories were chosen more for the characters featured or their ability to hit the pre-determined page count than for their quality or their accessibility to new readers or their likelihood of selling brand-new readers on particular characters, concepts or comics.

So here's what we've got.

*Swamp Thing in "Hollow" This 12-page short is the "Brand-New Swamp Thing Story! Written by Brian Azzarello and Art by Greg Capullo!" That...doesn't sound, right, and makes me suspect that story selection is hardly the only issue with editing that went into this thing. Anyway, if people who ever visit comic book shops by this, chances are this is the reason they will be buying it. The story itself is kind of simple, and echoes one that appears later in the collection, as well as dozens or even scores of other comics stories. The basic idea is that there are good monsters that fight bad monsters, and that there are places in this world where bad things from other dimensions try to enter when the veil between the worlds is weak enough, and some noble, self-sacrificing types must endlessly keep a lonely vigil for the good of all.

Swamp Thing fights a giant, eye-less, albino crocodile-monster from hell, and there's a pretty neat reveal regarding some other monsters. Azzarello does his usual cute word play, which is either clever or annoying depending on the generosity of the reader, but I imagine Capullo is the big draw here. Indeed, it's the art that sells the reveal, and it was fun seeing his big, scary Swamp Thing, which is much bigger than usual, although I did find myself a little disappointed by one of his entrances (There's a bunch of dead leaves that seem to stir from the wind, and then form into Swamp Thing, but he just looks like he always does, rather than being made out of fall leaves; I've always liked when artists tweaked his design to reflect the type of plants he made his body from in a particular appearance).

*The Enchantress and Blue Devil in "The Pumpkin Sinister" This is the first of the four shorts taken from either the 2007 DC Universe Infinite Halloween Special #1 or 2008's DCU Halloween Special #1. The premise for those was that various villains all sat around telling scary stories starring DC heroes, and so when you remove an individual story from those books and present it by itself, it doesn't quite make sense, as each includes at least a panel of a supervillain, who then serves as narrator (To be honest, DC probably could have just reprinted one of these in their entirety here behind the Swamp Thing stories, and it would have made for a smooth and more comprehensible read). The Scarecrow narrates two of them, and he also appears in them, so those mostly work, but this one is particularly weird in that the villain narrator isn't someone I recognize by sight and never gets named, and he's awkwardly introduced, so the first panel of the story seems to include a giant in goofy '90s Image Comics-style armor, sitting near a house that he dwarfs with his immense size, and then the story begins (In actuality, he's regular-sized, by the creative team of Dan DiDio and Ian Churchill weren't exactly masters of comics storytelling, and it reads much worse removed from its original context).

I actually sighed out loud when I saw this was included, as it is one of the few stories I remember from either of those specials...not because it was good, but because it was so bad. Blue Devil and The Enchantress, who were back then both co-starring in pre-Justice League Dark Justice League Dark book Shadowpact, are giving out candy to trick-or-treaters while, across town, grown-up Peanuts characters Linus and Charlie Brown have just sacrificed Snoopy in a pumpkin patch in order to raise The Great Pumpkin The Pumpkin Sinister, which Charlie Brown sics on Blue Devil because, long ago, BD kissed The Little Red-Haired Girl.

I suppose there's a way to read this in which DiDio was parodying his own direction for the DCU line, which was progressively darker, gorier and more violent, despite the fact that the characters were all created to entertain children, but it is so clumsily executed that there's no textual basis to make that argument.

*Zatanna in "Kcirt ro Taert" Get it? That's "trick or treat" spelled backwards! And Zatanna casts spells by saying words backwards! Another short from the Infinite Halloween special, this one was written by Paul Dini and arted by Dustin Nguyen. The Scarecrow's head appears at the beginning--Nguyen draws a nice Scarecrow head--and he proceeds to tell of a recent Halloween in which he tried terrorize children by putting his chemical concoctions in candy, only to have Zatanna track him down and take her revenge. Nguyen's art is nice on a panel by panel basis, but the story's flow is difficult to read, and I honestly would have had no idea what the fuck was happening at the climax if I haven't read a dozen Scarecrow stories before (So not only can I recognize him without his costume, but they all tend to end the same way). It's an unusual case of great art not quite working right.

*Superman in "Strange Cargo" The last of the Infinite Halloween shorts, this one is a pretty simple Superman vs. Zombies story by horror comic writer Steve Niles and artist Dean Ormston, as told by Poison Ivy (who only appears in the first panel). Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane are at the docks, as they suspect Lex Luthor has just imported something illegal. They open the shipping crates to find a bunch of zombies, and when Superman arrives to fight them, he finds that they are infused with magic or Kryptonite, as they are kicking his ass. When the reporters point out that they are already dead and thus Superman doesn't have to go easy, he rallies and says, "So, they are...Well that changes everything." But rather than pulverizing them all or burning them to ash with his heat vision, he tosses them back in their shipping containers and flies them to the moon, where they are free to stagger around harmlessly. So, it changes nothing, I guess. Those two lines of dialogue really bugged me, because they have no impact on what is otherwise a pretty strong story that would demonstrate how much Superman respects life/abhors killing and violence...and that he's so powerful he never actually has to resort to it. Also, Poison Ivy's presence feels sort of random. It's frustrating because it's almost a perfect Superman story, but makes a few unfortunate unforced errors that keep it from reaching perfection.

*Batman and The Scarecrow in "The Ballad of Jonathan Crane" This is the last of the villains-telling-stories stories, and the only one from the DCU Halloween Special. Once again it's The Scarecrow's turn to tell a story--it occurs to me that there are at least 100 pages worth of solid Scarecrow short stories that DC could have easily done an all-Scarecrow Scarecrow Halloween Horror Giant #1 had they so chosen--and he basically just remixes "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" with himself as Ichabod Crane and Batman as The Headless Horseman. I do love the latter.
Plus, you know, Batman on a horse.

In fact, I love that image so damn much that I was thinking I wouldn't mind seeing a whole Elseworlds-like tale of a Batmanified Legend of Sleepy Hollow, although I guess writer Mikey Way and artist Mateus did the whole thing in just eight pages...the page of which reveals just how it is that what looks so Elseworldsy is actually canonical.

*Aquaman and The Demon in "Night Gods" This unlikely team-up by writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Jesus Saiz is from the 32nd issue of the 2007-2010 Brave and The Bold revival, long after the book stopped being very good (as it was the first year or so, when writer Mark Waid and artist George Perez, and then Scott Kolins, were using it to tell compelling team-up stories that served as chapters in an overarching, universe-spanning story arc). This isn't bad, though. It is basically the two unlikely allies fighting Cthullhu on the ocean floor with the same basic set-up as the Swampy story--monster hero, portal between two worlds, little-known guardians performing thankless task for an ignorant world--framed like so many of these stories as a story one character tells another. It's structured a bit like an old horror comic too, with a surprise ending that is anything but surprising. Saiz is a remarkably solid artist, and he does stately superheroics quite well, but his Demon looks a little...boring compared to so many other artists' takes on the character, and while I liked his (unnamed) Cthullhu design, in general the monsters and settings lacked the weirdness and expressionistic energy I would want in a story in which a guy who is caught in the middle of robbing a grave explains that he recently got magic gills and journeyed with Aquaman and a rhyming demon to the bottom of the ocean and watched an army of sea creatures do battle with undead aqua-zombies and Lovecraft mythos monsters.

*Batman and Robin in "Night of The Reaper!" This one is something of a Halloween classic, set as it is during the Rutland, Vermont annual Halloween parade and featuring the talents of a pretty all-star creative team: Writer Denny O'Neil and artists Neal Adams and Dick Giordano, "from an idea by Bernie Wrightson with an assist from Harlan Ellison." As you can probably guess by the credits and my use of the word "classic," it's an old one, originally appearing in Batman #237 from 1971...the year my father graduated from high school! So, it's that old.

Obviously that means the Robin in question is Dick Grayson, who, at the time, was a college student. He and some guys go to take in the parade and party scene, and one of them is stoned out of his mind from "gulping coffee and who-knows-what-else" to keep his eyes open while studying. In a strange running gag, he is obsessed with parade floats, and spends the rest of the story talking about them to anyone who will listen.

As likely happens to Dick Grayson a lot, he goes out to have fun and ends up stumbling into a strange murder plot by someone dressed as The Grim Reaper. Not The Reaper, but, like, the generic one, with a scythe. Kind of like a murderous Scooby-Doo plot. Involving Nazis. There's lots of rather strong Adams art in this fairly lengthy and substantial comic, showing off his abilities to draw incredibly realistic characters and dramatic Batman poses and action. It's also kind of neat to see so many Marvel superheroes appear in a DC Comic, as many of the revelers are dressed as superheroes from both sides of the DC/Marvel rivalry. There's at least one cameo by a comic book creator too, but I'll be damned if I can recognize who it's meant to be: I was like -7-years-old when this came out, after all.

*Swamp Thing in "The Origin of Swamp Thing!" Like the previous story, this is a decades-old story that I've read before--multiple times, actually--although I'd actually be hard-pressed to tell you where exactly I've encountered it. This is, of course, the original, eight-page Swamp Thing story by his creators Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, from 1971's House of Secrets, the one with the famous-ish cover (not included).

Rereading it today, after spending so much time looking so closely at Kelley Jones art in the past few weeks, it is really striking how evident Wrightson's influence on Jones was. Not just in certain elements of his rendering or style, but even in the layouts and storytelling. Jones' current style and Wrightson's from later in his career don't really look all that similar, but one can see how the Wrightson of the early 1970s influenced the Jones of the 1990s.

This one seems a bit out of place in this anthology, despite starring the title character. Those last two from 1971 are kinda sorta evergreen DCU Halloween story classics, ones that standalone, whereas so much of what preceded them begs a degree of familiarity with the characters, and tend to be fairly forgettable. Like, I've read all of them before, but don't really remember doing so...only that I fucking hated that Blue Devil/Peanuts comic. Just as it would be easy to imagine a DC Halloween 100-page giant that was all Swamp Thing stories or all Scarecrow stories, it's also easy to imagine one that is all short, "classic" scary stories by some of the greatest creators in DC history from the 1970s and '80s.

For those who care--given that one of the ways in which DC was trying to sell these at the time they were announced was that they would push the comic shop locator and be a way to herd Walmart shoppers into their local comic book shops--I'll mention the ad content. There are shockingly few, given how cheap this comic is. There's just two in the interior of the book, in fact: One for DC/Vertigo's series of Alan Moore-written, Stephen Bissette and John Totleben-drawn Swamp Thing collections and the Comicshoplocator.com one featuring an image of the Trinity drawn by Jason Fabok, which I recall seeing from the last Walmart exclusives I looked at. And then the back cover has an ad for Grant Morrison and Liam Sharp's upcoming Hal Jordan book, the one which is will be about Hal's core workout, based on his abs in that image.

I'm curious to see if there will be a #2 next year, and kind of excited to see what happens in December, as I kind of love Christmas comics. I'm not sure what they would call a Christmas giant though, as I can't think of a DC super-character associated with the holiday spirit in the same way that Swamp Thing (or a dozen or so other characters) is associated with horror/scary business...


Garrie Burr said...

Phew... bought Night of the Reaper when it first came out! Dick Grayson's friends in the story should be paid closer attention: they were modeled on Len Wein, Gerry Conway, and other young comics pros of the time. It was the second Rutland story in comics -- the first being the Roy Thomas-penned Avengers story introducing the Lady Liberators. There were a few after that, a couple of which actually carried a cross-over in their respective stories between the issue published by DC and the one published by Marvel. Good times!

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

I might be wrong on this one, but Amazing Adventures, starring the new furry Beast, had an issue out at the same time and I want to say that the same comic creators were in that one. It might also have been an Avengers comic.

Tom Fagin was the guy who ran the real-life Rutland parades, and he's dead now. I've always had my fingers crossed for a Marvel/DC book with all the Rutland settings. Aside from The Beast, all the stories were pretty much early 70s Avengers and early 70s JLA.