Swamp Thing: Tefe, Not Alec

Swamp Thing: Tefe, Not Alec

Mar 04

tefe

Confession: back when I was reviewing single issues of comics with some regularity, I didn’t really know how said comics were being received by the nerd masses. Well, at least “the nerd masses” beyond the five guys I went to the local comics emporium with every week.

This was because 1) I didn’t have very much time to dick around on the internet (or at least not as much as I do NOW, apparently) and 2) I didn’t really want my opinions to be influenced by anyone else’s and 3) there wasn’t so much stuff out there. Blogs were not A Thing yet, websites only sort of were, and message boards were…I don’t even know. They were there, but they still felt like something that only ten people actually knew about (and therefore, were probably home to a lot of sentiments I wouldn’t think of expressing anywhere now, not even on a padlocked Twitter account under a clever, not-related-to-my-real-name-AT-ALL alias).

All this is to say I had no idea that Brian K. Vaughan‘s Swamp Thing — circa 2000/2001 — wasn’t all that well-regarded. In fact, I don’t know if that’s even an accurate statement, I just know that it only lasted 20 issues, it doesn’t appear to have ever been collected in trade form, and Vaughan says something on his “farewell” page about how his next series will feature “more likable protagonists.” From what I can gather, some of the grumbling was less about what the series was and more about what it wasn’t: it wasn’t Alan Moore-esque and it didn’t focus on Alec Holland, who most folks think of as the Swamp Thing. Instead, it was all about his prickly teenage daughter, Tefe.

I’m glad that I didn’t know what the general reaction was at the time, because maybe it would have colored my from-the-gut perceptions. And I was totally freakin’ into the Tefe Holland Swamp Thing.

For starters, the premise is so my thing: half-human/half-elemental teenage girl with megapowers that we can’t even hope to comprehend tries to understand…herself. And the world and her place in it and how the fuck she’s going to reconcile these two halves of her soul that are constantly at war. The book is a deeply personal journey set against an epic backdrop.

Secondly, the set-up is awesome. In issue #1, we follow a reasonably normal highschooler named Mary as she engages in seemingly typical teenager-in-a-small-town exploits. But we know something’s up. We just know. OK, the dead body displayed in the very first panel is probably a good tip-off, but still — the mood of vague unease created in this single issue is fucking masterful. And the slow burn pays off in the end.

Thirdly, I remember really, really appreciating the downright weird twists the book was willing to take. There are issues devoted to single conversations (Tefe and Constantine, Tefe and her dad). There are stand-alones and arcs. It is occasionally held together simply by the sheer force of Tefe’s personality. And in that vein, I have to say…I suppose we could debate the likability question for a good long while, for pages and pages of message board thread, but I always found her ridiculously compelling in a bracing, balls-to-the-wall kind of way. She’s angry a lot, but has a well of instinctive compassion. She often seems defiantly sure of herself, yet she doesn’t quite know what she is. She’s stone-faced serious most of the time, but she’s capable of the driest of humor when it suits her. (In issue #6, she writes Dad a letter that starts out like this: “In case you were wondering, the body they found on that football field wasn’t me. It was a lifeless doppelganger I created by manipulating my sexual organs to act like a flower’s carpel and stamen. Sorry, this isn’t exactly going to read like a letter from summer camp…”) And she comes up with the craziest of plans for the craziest of reasons (like kidnapping a popular politician’s daughter because she feels, like, a connection to said daughter…what, that’s not how you like to spend your weekends?) and gets the people around her to go along with them. There’s no one like her in comics. That’s what I felt then, that’s what I still feel now.

Speaking of the now…I recently unearthed a complete 20 issue run of this Swamp Thing in one of my old longboxes and gave it a read to see how it’s held up. I have to say, the things that I loved about the series in the first place — the things detailed above — are still there. But there are some other elements I feel a bit differently on, or things that just look a little different when viewed through the prism of time. One of my favorite issues, for instance, is one that I remember being kind of “meh” on: #7, wherein Tefe befriends a random teenage girl and gets a taste of the evil humans are capable of. What’s so fascinating — and so great — about this issue is that it perfectly captures Tefe’s complete lack of understanding when it comes to human behavior, highlights her shifting desire to empathize with others, and displays her terrifying powers. All in 32 pages! (Less with ads, actually.)

There are also the things that I like less now than I did then. I remember being thoroughly gripped by the ambitious six-part “Red Harvest” arc while it was unfolding. Now I think it goes over the top — it gets lost in spots, just cause there’s so much story and so many threads that need to come together and when they finally do, it’s a little…much. Like there’s evil on top of evil and weird on top of weird and it culminates in a grotesque, pitch-black sequence that practically has OVERKILL emblazoned over every panel. Also, while I still admire the odd little twists and turns I mentioned earlier, they sometimes make the book feel rudderless, like it doesn’t exactly know what it wants to be (hey, like Tefe!).

My final bit of retrospection: there’s some stuff I think I understand more now, just cause I know the book ends at #20. I was completely confused about the way Vaughan wrapped up the politician’s daughter character — Heather — who is left in a dangerous, cliffhanger-y situation, then written out with a line or two a couple issues later. Now I realize it’s probably not because Vaughan didn’t care about Heather, but because his book was getting canceled and he only had two more installments to wrap that shit up. (Still: WTF happens to Heather?! I WANT TO KNOW.) I also remember being shocked, upon picking up issue #20, that the book was ending (again, because I had no idea how it was being received, how it was selling, etc). But re-reading that aforementioned “farewell” page, there are clues as to why. In addition to Vaughan’s comment about “more likable protagonists” (and by the way, kids, he’s talking about his about-to-be-launched creator-owned series called Y: The Last Man — you might want to look into that when it drops), editor-at-the-time Heidi MacDonald says that Tefe “may not have been the easiest character to get to know, but now, 20 issues later, I can’t believe I won’t be visiting her and her friends every month. I’m going to miss her. A lot.”

I don’t think I caught the first part of that statement at all at the time, because I never had that complaint about the book. In fact, I think Vaughan took us more deeply into his character’s soul in 20 issues than some writers manage to in hundreds. But it sounds like not everyone liked what was lurking there.

Well, I did — despite the quibbles I may have with the series now, it’s still a incredibly intriguing read with an amazing lead character. And it introduced me to Brian K. Vaughan as a writer. I’m glad I saved those issues.

It’s hard for me to unabashedly recommend this book now, because it’s so strange and specific and I don’t know exactly who would be into it. People like me, I guess. Or people like me when I was 23. Or people who want to see a 19-year-old Darick Robertson dressed as Robin, cause that’s featured in one of the issues, swear.

Nah, screw that. Tefe would never offer up so many qualifiers. If everything I’ve described sounds like your sort of thing, seek it out. Alec may be the Swamp Thing, but Tefe’s no slouch.

6 comments

  1. Matt

    Great piece Sarah! These issues are now at the top of my want list.

  2. Hello! Great post! Me, too, was delighted by Brian Vaughan Swamp Thing at the time. It’s so emotionnal, wild and surprising. My favorite issue is the one where Tefe brings the whole faily who made the trees burn and ask the husband to choose which one she’s gonna killed to save the other: his daughter or his wife?!! So nasty! :p

    I wrote a 4p article on this serie in Scarce n°67, the famous french magazine on comics. People have to check those issues! I’m also putting a link to a very nice Tefe drawing i asked Giuseppe Camuncoli to draw at an Angouleme festival. It’s so beautiful!! You’re gona like it!

    http://xavier.lancel.free.fr/Fredeur%20contreattak/tefe.JPG

    And if you like to see your male comics character barechest, check my blog, that’s gonna be your reward to spread the word about B.Vaughan Swamp thing! :p

  3. Wow, thanks for this! I have never heard of this run (I’ve never even read the Alan Moore ‘Swamp Thing,’ NerdFail) but this sounds fascinating.

  4. Anonymous

    Okay, I have to ask– what issue is the Robin costume in? That is too funny to miss.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. ZEITGEIST / Land o’ Links 3/5/09 (now with WATCHMEN) - [...] Sarah at Alert Nard looks back at the Brian K. Vaughan run on Swamp Thing and finds that time…
  2. The Book Smugglers » Blog Archive » Smugglers’ Stash & News - [...] them. Sometimes you stand alone in loving a super niche-y run of a popular comic book series (like Sarah…

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