The New 52 was a weird time.
Continuity was constantly in flux. We had no real bedrock as to what “major events” like Batman: Year One and the Death of Superman were still in play (a question I don’t think we EVER really got a real answer for). There was a fucking TEAM 7 ongoing. I am talking, real deal cuckoo.
It is even weirder still that one of its first major crossovers, one roping in two of the line’s most critically acclaimed and fan enjoyed ongoings, was a plaintive, shockingly gross epic about the anxiety of parenthood and toxic relationship dynamics.
Rotworld, branching from the pages of Animal Man and Swamp Thing (also kinda Frankenstien, Agent of S.H.A.D.E., but not as much), might not have been the most flashy of crossover events, but even now, almost ten years later, it largely holds up. And serves up a choice bit of Halloween reading, bringing the best of both titles and creative teams to the forefront in all their gory glory.
And with all that in mind, I present to you, A Dis-Comfort Food Comics Halloween Special. Rotworld Rips.
So when we open on Rotworld, both Swamp Thing and Animal Man are titles in transition. After two fairly successful opening arcs, both fully establishing the Baker Family and the reunited Alec Holland and Abby Arcane, writers Jeff Lemire and Scott Snyder aimed to unite the “kingdoms” of their respective titles. And of course to do so, they obviously throw them in the middle of a dystopian DCU, felled by the enemies of both Swampy and Animal Man.
But aside from the marquee potential of Animal Man and Swamp Thing teaming up, both Lemire and Snyder make this crossover a weirdly concurrent emotional experience. Branching (heh) across both the titles, first with a “prologue” told through both series, then 4 issues of Animal Man into 4 more issues of Swamp Thing, finalizing in a two-part finale once again spread across both series, Snyder and Lemire show they are very much playing in the same emotional sandbox, leaning into the anxiety of superheroes, the nihilistic stakes of the event, and established texture of Buddy and Alec’s co-stars. Both of whom are arguably the LEADS of the prologue issues.
So let’s just start there, shall we? The prologues, cheekily titled for their respective “Kingdoms” of the Red and Green, really set the bar as to what kind of crazy we are in store for. Each title by this point had been engaging in their own respective openings. Animal Man had just vanquished it’s first recurring baddie The Hunters Three, who were assassins of The Rot and Swamp Thing had just finished an arc restoring Alec into the Green, reuniting Abby Arcane with Alec, and introducing a new Arcane (the death obsessed, but ailment stricken child William). But even through those opening arcs, the threat of The Rot was persistent throughout, finally acted upon by Buddy Baker as he uproots (HEH) his family and heads for Louisiana.
I should also mention at this point, in the Animal Man title, Buddy’s daughter Maxine Baker has been exhibiting signs of power, even greater than Buddy’s. A power so great in fact, The Red deemed it necessary to supply her with a mentor in her skills, her childhood pet Socks, transformed from simple household pet to a sassy, Olde English speaking companion. It’s a fun bit of silliness from the usually fairly self-serious Lemire and something that gives the title and this event a neat jot of wit in the middle of the Cronenbergian weirdness and family strife.
But once the Bakers make it to Louisiana, drawn by the swirling power portal both Buddy and Maxine can feel the silent draw of, Buddy and Alec are somewhat supplanted as the leads of this event, much to the series’ benefit I feel. Determining that the portal is the connection to The Rot they need to take the fight to it and Anton Arcane, Buddy and Alec decide, of course, to hop the fuck down it, suspended by a thick vine from Swampy’s back as their own tether. Naturally, this goes pretty poorly as Anton and his Un-Men attack the pair, revealing that the portal was a trap all along, and then cut Alec’s tether to the “real world”, sending them tumbling into the darkness.
It is here that Ellen Baker and Abigail Arcane take the reins of the story and start sprinting with them. Cut off from their super significant others, Ellen and Abby set off on their own respective side-quests. Abby sprinting off to her ancestral home to kill Anton Arcane herself and Ellen taking up the cause of protecting her children, even in the face of her son Cliff being infected by the Rot.
To be totally honest, Lemire kind of fumbles his time with this particular ball. He does so by entrenching his characterization for Ellen and her long-suffering mother in some pretty hack “mom” archetypes. Ellen is rarely talking about anything other than her kids, when before only haranguing Buddy for his chosen career path and how it’s affected their family. Her mother doesn’t fare much better, as she is herself only always talking about how Buddy sucks and how she needs to take the kids and run away. It speaks to a larger problem Lemire has writing women (which works in eerie tandem with his Nolan-like obsession with dead wives), but that is a whole other plate of spaghetti I don’t have the time or column inches to get into here.
Thankfully Snyder’s prologue issue picks it up a bit better. Armed with a truly activated Yanick Paquette, who at that point had launched the new Swamp Thing title to much acclaim as well as finished the highly fun Batman INC run with Grant Morrison, Snyder launches Abby into the Himiylan Mountains, only to bring her crashing back down to earth due to a well-timed Rot attack. As she tumbles, Anton speechifies about how she was always doomed from the start, working in a ghoulish tandem with the strikingly horrible scenes of the plane being overrun with Rot infected passengers. It’s a very striking issue and adds a very bleak, slightly morbid streak into the event which Snyder and Lemire then double down on in the main issue bulk of the crossover.
But moreover, I can’t think of a crossover event that goes as much out of its way to bench it’s leads and add more texture to their co-stars than Rotworld does. Much less as an OPENER! It’s a weird, slightly self-indulgent feint that I can’t really help but love (despite Lemire’s efforts into it being a little lackluster). Even better, the next crop of issues waste little time getting super weird and super gross.
We start with “The Red Kingdom”, a four-issue arc in Animal Man. Much like how Snyder scaffolded his opening story with Abby, Lemire now hinges the arc on action surrounding Maxine and Socks in the “present” and Buddy in the hellish year later that is Rotworld. Oh yeah! I should have mentioned, remember that Rot portal from earlier? Well, apparently it was also a TIME VORTEX, cutting Buddy and Alec off from their known time and advancing forward a year. Naturally, outside of the portal soon fell to ruin thanks to the forces of The Rot and the avatars of the Green and Red being MIA.
The end result is a New 52 that has fallen into a roiling, body horror filled menagerie of gross, morphing each hero into nightmarish soldiers of Arcane and the yet-to-be-revealed Queen of the Rot who hunt and turn everything that isn’t Rot they can find. Furthermore, the Totems of the Red who have been guiding Buddy up to that point have congealed themselves into a massive, living city, housing the few remaining uncontaminated humans, protected by John Henry Irons (now a full on robot), John Constantine, Beast Boy, and Black Orchid (who was once in a Justice League and no, I’m not joking). Along the way they run afoul of Felix Faust and Blackbriar Thorn, giving this team plenty of chances for artist Steve Pugh to engage in some next-level goopy set pieces and supernatural showdowns, allowing them to turn their flesh-city into a fortress by which to stand against the amassed forces of the Rot who seek to overrun it and the Red altogether.
Over in “The Green Kingdom”, Swamp Thing heads down a similar path. Hooking up with Poison Ivy and Boston Brand, The Deadman, Swamp Thing is brought to the Parliament of Trees, who have grown into a massive forest nest in the sky, far above the flesh fights on the surface. They implore him to travel to the City of the Red and face the Queen of the Rot, of course neglecting to tell him its Abby he will have to kill in order to set things right again (just as the Avatars of the Red have neglected to tell Buddy Baker that Anton Arcane has his daughter and plans to use her as his own personal Red power source toward immortality) and set him on the path to reconnecting with their allies in the Red.
This takes him and his merry band across the newly fallen Gotham City where a Man-Bat serum-powered Barbara Gordon protects the city as best she can from monsters and the relentless Rot-ified Batman. One thing that I think Rotworld does really well is contextualizes its “fallen” version of the DCU. Not only that, but it plays with the universe in fun ways beyond all the ways it shows a monster version of a DC icon. Things like making William Arcane a sort of necromantic Aquaman and allowing a plant-based Green Lantern, newly assigned after Hal got his neck bit off, to stand as the “A-list” Lantern presence of the event.
Which then culminates in a super weird, highly disgusting two issue storming of Arcane’s stronghold in the finale issues. And while, yes, the real “water cooler” moments are seeing DCU monsters stand against some of the more “cult classic” characters that are harder to love, the core elements here are the oddly emotional threads Lemire and Snyder string across the macabre action and cameos.
Throughout persistent narration across both titles, Buddy and Alec (and arguably Jeff and Scott) struggle with the pain of worrying about how well they have reared their children along with wondering if relationships have to be THIS hard of work to be worth it. Of course, these worries are being expounded by a guy who can take on the strength of a gorilla, thus grossly contorting his flesh to accommodate it and another guy who just downloaded his whole brain into a body made of vegetables on the word of some trees who may have also dosed him with hyper-mushrooms, so it still has the broad theatrical smacking of Vertigo-adjacent weirdness (a harder edge than most people would expect from “marquee” superhero launch titles of a major publisher).
But that doesn’t make the emotions any less real, or the anxieties any less relatable as they lay out on the page. Nor does it distract from the sheer ghoulish delights found throughout this crossover. If anything it just enhances them, giving this crossover the rarefied ability to be “horror with a heart”, which at this time was Lemire and Snyder’s real sweet spot, one I hope they return to soonish in the world of creator owned comics.
But for my money, Rotworld is a solid example of them both at the peak of their work-for-hire DC powers and a rewritable window into one of the more insane publishing moments of the “modern era” of comics.With darkly entertaining artwork, a myriad of cult favorite cast members, and a keen emotional edge blading just underneath the monsters and the blood, I can confidently say that Rotworld Rips and should genuinely be something you might think to reach for once spooky season starts to roll around.
The New 52 was a weird time…but it was weird enough to give us Rotworld and that ain’t nothing.