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Published on September 21st, 2012 | by Joshua Mosteit

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Jack of All Trades – At the Late Night Triple Feature Picture Show

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Reviews of SWAMP THING VOL. 1: RAISE THEM BONES, RESURRECTION MAN VOL. 1: DEAD AGAIN, and THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS VOL. 1: SCIENCE BAD

Science. Science and madness. Science and madness and monsters. All come into play in today’s line of books which include the revitalization of two languishing DC properties — a woe begotten creature from the bogs of Louisiana battling the forces of decay and ruin, and a man of many lives and many deaths and many a superpower questing for lost memories and answers — and a new series from Image which takes us down an alternate route through history powered by unadulterated feats of SCIENCE!

Swamp Thing Vol. 1: Raise Them Bones

Created by writer Len Wein and artist Berni Wrightson, Swamp Thing first appeared in the anthology series The House of Secrets in 1971 but soon received his own ongoing series exploring the desperate battle between man and monster. Featuring botanist Dr. Alec Holland chemically transformed into a vegetative monstrosity, the series naturally gravitated toward horror — the body horror of Holland’s transformation, the horrors of man’s hubris both scientific and supernatural, and, of course, the the simple horror of a monster-of-the-week. And, in many respects, Swamp Thing has enjoyed a far more illustrious career than some of DC’s more well-known characters with two theatrically released films (the first, and by far the more worthwhile, directed by Wes Craven) and a seventy-two episode television series under his belt.

In comics, however, Swamp Thing’s most definitive run came in the wake of his film adaptation under the tenure of Alan Moore who established the most long lasting aspects of the character. Sweeping aside the previous series’ cast of secondary characters, Moore deemphasized the Alec Holland side of Swamp Thing in favor of the monster, reminiscent in many ways of the eponymous creature of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, especially in Swamp Thing’s grandiose narration and dialogue. Moore introduced the Parliament of Trees, a supernatural group of elementals who speak for the Green, the force governing all vegetative life, for which Swamp Thing became guardian and champion.

Building upon the mythology originated by Alan Moore while tying into Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man mythos, Scott Snyder — author of American Vampire and the New 52’s highly acclaimed Batman series — revitalizes the Swamp Thing name once again. And rather than wiping previous Swamp Thing continuity out of existence, Snyder’s series assumes those events transpired (at least in broad strokes) while reintroducing us to an untransformed Alec Holland — the memories of his monstrous years made fuzzy and foreign to the now human Holland. This has the advantage of creating an entry point for new readers without disregarding previous continuity in its entirety (so for a second time Snyder proves why the reboot may have been unnecessary).

Snyder draws a clear line between Alec Holland and the Swamp Thing of previous comics as Holland’s reclaimed humanity makes him a radically different character. Thus, he can act as the audience’s voice when encountering new, strange sights while not being completely uninformed as well — a good example of Snyder having his cake and eating it too. The only hiccup here comes through an exposition scene early in issue 2 which fails to derail the book’s plot but is nevertheless stilted and awkward. That aside, the book hits all the high points one would expect from a Snyder-penned horror title.

All over the world animals are spontaneously dying in large groups — birds falling from the sky, cattle collapsing in the field, entire schools of fish sinking to their graves — and the superheroes of the world take note. Alec Holland, meanwhile, works construction outside the swamps he once roamed as a monster, tormented by memories he can’t bring himself to call his own. The Green still calls to him but Alec, having finally rid himself of the monster and reclaimed his humanity, will have nothing to do with it. That quickly changes when the Rot, supernatural embodiment of decay and death, gathers its undead forces for yet another war against the Red and the Green, setting sight on Holland, the man destined to be the Green’s greatest champion.

Much like Animal Man, Swamp Thing emphasizes supernatural body horror to chilling effect. As an emissary of the Rot forces an archaeologist’s neck to twist and snap of its own accord while said archaeologist can only wait and scream as his own body turns against him, the hairs of one’s own neck will be standing on end. Emissaries of the Rot (alternatively, the Black in keeping with the color theme) are more frightening than ever, quite the accomplishment considering how well they were rendered in Animal Man. All glory in that regard goes to Yanick Paquette’s artwork which integrates beautiful linework with creative layouts and arrangements that evoke J.H. Williams III. His monster designs give Travel Foreman’s a run for their money but aren’t nearly as spine chilling as the Rot’s supernatural ability to manipulate dead or necrotized flesh, turning tumors and diseases into mutant abominations that kill from the inside out.

And, again, much like Animal Man, the book’s greatest strength is its characters. While Holland’s reluctance to become Swamp Thing again leads to some damnable consequences, you nevertheless sympathize with his situation and never blame him for the tragedies that ensue. The sacrifice of Holland humanity holds greater weight because it’s no longer an accident of science and mutation, and his guardianship of the Green feels more grandiose because it’s something he must choose to uphold rather than a duty foisted upon him by a higher power. As well, Holland’s relationship with longtime Swamp Thing supporting character Abigail Arcane rings true despite the relatively short interval the characters spend together, evoking the romantic connection shared between the characters from previous continuity while also developing into circumstances that can seemingly only lead to tragedy. However, Snyder gives the reader enough hope and establishes the characters so well that one can’t help but root for Holland’s triumph over the Rot.

Scott Snyder brings us another must-read book, especially for any fan of supernatural horror or Swamp Thing’s previous incarnations. Suspense, horror, and action deliver in equal measure, never once battling for a greater share of the spotlight but blending together seamlessly (something which won’t be shared by our next title). As well, Swamp Thing is essential reading for any fan of Lemire’s Animal Man as the two’s intertwining mythologies will soon have them crossing over in the “Rot World” event where the forces of the Green, the Red, and the Rot will finally wage war.


Resurrection Man Vol. 1: Dead Again

Conceived by British writing duo Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning with American Jackson Guice, Mitch Shelley, alias Resurrection Man, originally appeared in a self-titled series in 1997 which lasted until 1999. Written as a “non-traditional” superhero, Mitch Shelley possessed a seemingly immortal body following experimentation by your typical clandestine super-science organization; after each apparent “death”, Shelley resurrects with a new superpower based on how he previously died. Eschewing colorful costumes and superheroics in general, the original Resurrection Man series focused on Mitch’s journey across the United States in search of the truth behind his past and rebirth as Resurrection Man. After cancellation, Shelley made sporadic cameos in other DC books but never received any spotlight attention until eleven years later when Abnett and Lanning returned with a rebooted Resurrection Man for the New 52.

Featuring a rewritten origin that ties Shelley into the larger DC universe, the new Resurrection Man once again follows Mitch Shelley battling amnesia as he struggles to uncover the secrets of his past and his powers. Along the way he’s accosted by a rather demonic looking angel, a pair of lesbian assassins, a retired supervillain, and even crosses paths with some of Gotham’s mentally disturbed denizens. And as exciting as those things sound, the execution largely disappoints.

Next to nothing of the previous series’ continuity remains although enough changes have been made that the book doesn’t retread old territory. Rather, the book’s failings stem from its general lack of focus, the plots aimless meandering, Shelley’s weak sense of agency, and an unnecessary amount of fan service.

With the introduction of the Body Doubles, the aforementioned lesbian assassins (characters introduced in the original Resurrection Man), the book seems to start moving in a plot progressive direction as we learn more about Shelley’s revamped past and his relationship to the Doubles, Bonnie and Carmen. But the narrative swiftly abandons these threads as one of Shelley’s eponymous resurrections spirits him away to Arkham Asylum. Following that diversion, the book then decides it’s time for Shelley to learn the value of heroism as he confronts some meth manufacturers held up in an abandoned Metropolis apartment complex.

This shift isn’t wholly without setup and Shelley never acts out of character, but it nevertheless feels underdeveloped and unearned. Mainly due to Shelley’s poor sense of agency leading up to that point. The book’s narrative primarily focuses on things happening to Shelley rather than him taking any sort of action of his own. We understand the motives of those hunting him more so than his own motivations to avoid them. Supposedly, he’s trying to find answers to his past but he inevitably happens upon those truths by accident rather than discovering them himself. The only time he takes any sort of action is in self-defense against the Body Doubles or his supernatural hunters. It’s also telling that, while other characters reveal personality through dialogue, Shelley’s character mainly emerges through narrative captions rather than his interactions with others. Consequently, Shelley comes off as bland and uninteresting — an ironic contrast to his former life, prior to amnesia, which reveals Shelley’s unfeeling, malicious past as a bastard, a more compelling characterization for no better reason than at least he has a personality.

Abnett and Lanning can’t seemingly decide if they want the series to have a linear narrative or indulge in episodic adventures. As such, the book becomes unfocused and even a bit confused as to what it wants to be, fluctuating between supernatural horror and action thriller, ultimately failing to terrify while the action feels unmotivated and pointless. An extended sequence features the Body Doubles trying to take down Shelley for the sake of transporting him to their boss, but dialogue reveals that Shelley would have come with them willingly just to learn about his past and lost memories. So, basically, the Doubles murdered dozens of civilians and caused millions of dollars in collateral damage over a failure to communicate. Fucking hell.

Pencils by Fernando Dagnino are nothing spectacular though neither are they terribly lazy or incompetent. At worst, panels can seem a bit cluttered or crowded and certain visuals rely heavily on poorly integrated CG and Photoshop effects, particularly any “energy” effects or powers exhibited by certain characters. The colorist puts a heavy emphasis on black ink and darker tones, a trait common to many New 52 books, but here it’s especially overdone despite the darker shades matching the general feel of the book. However, as soon as the Body Doubles emerge on scene, the artwork perks up for a good helping of fan service, including a full page spread of the girls in their underwear, and some panty shots during their action scenes. The spread had to be a request of Abnett and Lanning — a particularly fetishy request, at that, as the girls are surrounded by guns and ammo, posing seductively for…well, no one since they’re alone and seemingly not in the mood to entice each other — but the panty shots are no doubt Dagnino’s choice and completely unnecessary. I’m not normally one to get uptight about fan service, especially in books obviously aimed at a more mature audience, but when the person being eroticized is an unrepentant murderer and generally repugnant in every other regard, I find it difficult to get hot and bothered.

As of issue thirteen, the series has been slated for cancellation and it’s not difficult to see why. While there are certainly worse titles still under publication, Resurrection Man fails to recapture any of the qualities that garnered critical acclaim for its original series. Shelley isn’t an engaging character, the mysteries at play aren’t particularly enthralling (or have obviously telegraphed conclusions), and the whole affair reeks of blandness. I doubt we’ll be seeing another resurrection out of Resurrection Man. (Had to get that pun in there eventually.)


The Manhattan Projects Vol. 1: Science Bad

SCIENCE!

Delicious, delicious science.

Science stays crunchy, even in milk!

The internet certainly loves its enthusiastic exclamations of “Science!” While one could hope that this enthusiasm represents a growing affinity for critical thinking in popular culture, more likely it proves that some spirit of the ‘50s and ‘60s era of limitless scientific discovery and accomplishment still lingers in our society. And likewise, the latent fear of science — the potential unwelcome truths and weaponization of grand notions — still pervades. The Manhattan Projects proves a perfect vessel for both, reimagining the program that would eventually give the U.S. the atomic bomb as a cover story for even deeper explorations into the untapped realm of super-science, leading down heretofore unexplored realms of war, death, and madness.

The book brings together some of the most well-known scientific minds behind the historical Manhattan Project — Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynman, Wernher von Braun (an unhistorical addition to the team), and project director Major General Leslie Groves — and recasts them as a troupe of inglorious bastards, paving the way for America’s future through the paranormal, extraterrestrial, and whatever preternatural means they can get their hands on.

These first five issues focus on the introduction of our cast, each issue giving focus to a different member of the Projects while delivering revelations and secrets that will no doubt play bigger roles later in the series. Indeed, author Jonathan Hickman (Nightly News, Fantastic Four, Future Foundation, and S.H.I.E.L.D.) hints at future plot developments and grander schemes via excerpts from fictionalized records of the Projects which precede and conclude every issue. These excerpts simultaneously build character and expand upon the nature of the world at play, hinting at a vast and marvelous history.

Meanwhile, the characters themselves resemble little to nothing of their personalities (actual or perceived) in favor of gross caricatures which fit the twisted, paranormal world they inhabit. Major General Groves is the hard-nosed, Doc Savage-esque man-of-action never without a live grenade strapped to his lapel. Oppenheimer is the off-putting eccentric masking a dark secret. Feynman, a successful popularizer of science and physics in real life, is an utter narcissist. And Wernher von Braun is your classic only-in-it-for-the-science madman, willing to poison his peers and betray the Cause just for a whiff of steel and rocket fumes. Each enthralls and enriches the story in their own way and the book could easily follow any one of them while working equally well as an ensemble cast.

Summarizing the plot proves difficult because only the inklings of a larger narrative reveal themselves in this volume, opting more for episodic adventures and stories while hopping through the Projects’ timeline. Suffice to say, it involves a lot of science, madness, aliens, and a good dose of reckless abandon.

In the vein of Frank Quitely, Nick Pitarra’s art is detailed, fantastical, and perfectly suited to the madcap nature of the book — especially as a teleporting Japanese Torii gateway spews mechanical samurai into the Projects’ underground Los Alamos base — but will nevertheless be off-putting to those who don’t like his particular stylization. Personally, the art took a moment’s adjustment for me but soon felt perfectly natural for the cartoonish and outlandish nature of the book.

If any make-or-break fault can be found in the book, it’s that it has no relatable protagonist. No one speaks for the audience or acts as the conscience of the book. And while the cast is not without their sympathetic aspects, all of them possess some quality that fundamentally dissociates them from the reader. Whether it’s Feynman’s simple narcissism or General Groves’ fanaticism or Von Braun’s…well, being a Nazi (he never removes his uniform and no one else seems to mind) or the more radical fates of Oppenheimer and Einstein, there exists no character who acts as the series’ moral compass. Rather, the book opts for the unfiltered madness and lunacy that ensues when all these personalities are thrown into a room and given fantastical tools of super-science to play around with.

So, any objections against the book devolve into a matter of taste more than anything. Hickman has the story he wants to tell, knows the audience it will appeal to, and is more than comfortable with how narrow that audience will be. Nevertheless, The Manhattan Projects is compulsively readable if only to see what strange sights and abominations will emerge out of Los Alamos next.

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About the Author

Joshua Mosteit

A great calamity struck the West, devastating all for miles around, scorching the earth, plaguing the waters, shattering the hearts of the feeble and the weak, bending the minds of the slow and the dim, rendering men unto ants and ants unto men, laying waste to the brave, the bold, and the beautiful. Out of this calamity, I WAS BORN. Oh, and comic book reviews...



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