Buddy Baker returns from his trip into The Rot with Swamp Thing to find that a year has passed on Earth. The Rot played a trick on the heroes, distracting their biggest opponents in their realm for what seemed like hours while they attacked an unprepared world. And now most people are rotting, warped slaves of The Rot – including superheroes and villains.
Animal Man is immediately attacked by one of The Rot’s elite warriors, a gnarled, mindless Hawkman. Luckily, help appears in the form of Black Orchid, Beast Boy and Steel. They’ve stayed safe due to Beast Boy’s connection to the Red, Black Orchid’s status as ‘an anomaly’ and Steel’s decision to abandon his fleshy form and dump his mind into a robot body. They believe the battle is lost, but keep calm and carry on, looking for their chance to take back the world.
They’re based in the Red Kingdom, a city of transformed animal totems, where John Constantine tries to make Buddy face up to a grim reality (click on image to enlarge).
We see what happened to wife Ellen, daughter Maxine, son Cliff and mother-in-law, er, Ellen’s Mom, one year ago, on the night Buddy entered the Rot, and it’s not pretty …
I’m surprised I’m here for Rotworld: Part One, being rather tired after a year of Buddy and family driving around, staying in motels, arguing and being attacked by especially bad-tempered lumps of meat. What kept me with the book was the Baker family, a compelling lot – everyman Buddy, supportive wife but worried mom Ellen, increasingly powerful Maxine and tragically mulleted Cliff. I wanted to see them get out of this. Yet on hearing that the battle with The Rot was continuing for at least another six months, across both Animal Man and Swamp Thing, I was ready to bail.
But Rotworld is an alternate future tale, and I love those. Dead heroes, warped heroes, villains working for good, everything to play for … it’s my personal Nerdvana. And so far, I’m glad I stuck around. Jeff Lemire’s script piles on the intrigue and ups the tension as The Rot storyline powers towards a conclusion (please God!). Buddy’s never-say-die attitude, his cautious optimism, is tremendously appealing, while the special guest heroes are great value – we see Black Orchid use her powers in ways unseen in Justice League Dark, Steel adds emotional spice and Beast Boy seems less irritating in his New 52 mode (though I miss his green skin).
The art duties are shared between Steve Pugh on pencils and inks, and Timothy Green II on pencils, inked by Andrew Silver. It all looks great, with Pugh’s Rotworld both nightmarish and rather awesome, and Green and Silver’s present day sequences so pin sharp as to make the encroaching Rot all the more horrible. A special commendation to Pugh for the Steel design, which is miles more appealing than his debut look in a recent Action Comics. The colouring by Lovern Kindzierski is superb, with such subtle touches as Buddy and John’s differing shades of blond, and Maxine caught in headlights.
Buddy’s hell is happening on America’s west coast. Across the country, in Swamp Thing #13, muck monster Alec Holland is on the same learning curve. The Rot holdouts he meets are Poison Ivy and Deadman – she Green-connected, he a ghost. But where Buddy is accepted by his new colleagues, Swampy is treated with contempt by Ivy, who believes he and Buddy hid away for a year. Even Deadman entering him, and backing up his story of a meant-to-be-brief trip to The Rot, doesn’t turn off her tap of disdain. Still, she leads him to the Green Kingdom, where the Parliament of Trees – currently little more than sprouts – tell Swampy of how the world fell.
We see something of this in flashback sequences that show Abigail Arcane flying across Europe to confront her rotten roots. There are no snakes on the plane, but something far worse.
The Parliament’s story is interrupted by a Rot attack – not just transformed humans but a zombified version of the Teen Titans. And even if Swampy, backed by Ivy, Deadman and an army of Swamp Thinglets, prevails, the Parliament has bad news for him …
While Swamp Thing #13 hits several of the same story beats as Animal Man #13, that’s inevitable in parallel first chapters. As it turned out, I rather enjoyed comparing the heroes’ particular brands of woe. Scott Snyder’s well-wrought script makes for a riveting read. The addition of the sparky Ivy and sardonic Deadman freshens up the ongoing Rot business, while the Abby flashback hits a fine note of horror.
Yanick Paquette’s artwork is exemplary, whether we’re talking creatively composed pages or fine figurework. The organic panelling evokes The Rot and The Green by turns, while Paquette gives characters individual body language – Ivy is the haughty green goddess, Deadman the eternal acrobat, Abby the confident fighter against fate and Swampy the most magnificent of heaping man-things (even with the stupid antlers he’s recently sprouted). As for the monsters, they could give David Cronenberg body horror bad dreams. Nathan Fairbairn’s colours are as good as Kindzierski’s, toned for setting, time zone and, of course, drama. I especially like how Ivy’s red hair pops against the green backgrounds. Fairbairn also colours Paquette’s splendid cover, while Kindzierski does the business on Pugh’s Animal Man grabber.
All in all, a fine start to the second year of these two breakout hits of the New 52. I’ll be thrilled when we’re free of The Rot, but if the next five months’ worth of both titles are as entertaining as their opening chapters, I’ll be a very contented reader.