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Jonathan Vankin Searches for Swamp Thing in the DCU

Written by Christian Hoffer on Thursday, June 02 2011 and posted in Features

The Outhouse sits down with Jonathan Vankin about the reintroduction of Swamp Thing and John Constantine to the DCU!

Remember when Swamp Thing rejoining the DCU was the most controversial thing in comicdom?  The Outhouse spoke with Jonathan Vankin about his new miniseries Brightest Day Aftermath: Search for Swamp Thing and the role that Swamp Thing and John Constantine will be playing in the DC Universe.

The Outhouse: Jonathan, you were an editor at Vertigo for several years before Search for Swamp Thing.  What's it been like transitioning from an editorial role back to a writer?

search-for-the-swamp-thing-1Jonathan Vankin: Yes, I was a Vertigo editor, then senior editor, from the start of 2004 until the end of last year. In terms of my daily existence, the transition has really been no problem because I've always been a writer first. I had a great time with the job at Vertigo and I'm incredibly proud of the work I did there, particularly graphic novels like INCOGNEGRO, HOW TO UNDERSTAND ISRAEL IN 60 DAYS OR LESS, THE QUITTER and many others (including some that haven't even been published yet). But before I became a comic book editor, I'd spent almost every day of my life writing one thing or another, much of which you can find with a quick Google search. So the return to full-time writing felt perfectly natural to me.

On the other hand, writing for comics professionally is just as tough and competitive as any other kind of professional writing, or for that matter, as any creative job in the entertainment industry. So in that respect it's a lot of hard work and I expect it will continue to be. But so was editing! Fortunately, I've got no problem with that, especially when the hard work is doing something I love to do.

OH: How did you become involved with the Search for Swamp Thing?

JV:- When I was getting ready to shift back into writing, I approached (DC Co-Publisher) Dan DiDio and (DC Editor-in-Chief) Bob Harras to see if they might be interested in what I could offer them. I was thrilled to find that they wanted to work with me! I was even more thrilled when they told me they wanted me write John Constantine's DC Universe comeback story. That's how it began. When I started talking about the actual story details with Bob and (DCU Executive Editor) Eddie Berganza, given how Brightest Day ended and given that Constantine's history is so closely tied to Swamp Thing's, it made perfect sense to everyone that we should tell the tale of John's search for Swampy following the events of Brightest Day.

OH: For readers unfamiliar with the end of Brightest Day, what's the premise for Search for Swamp Thing?

JV: Well, what I just said is pretty much it. At the end of Brightest Day, Swampy appears to have committed a rather brutal crime, murdering a group of oil company executives. Not to say they didn't have it coming, but that degree of savage retribution is way out of character for Swampy. The beauty of Swamp Thing is that he's a monster who's more humane than most of humanity. John knows that something is very wrong. Something had changed.

Now, John Constantine isn't exactly a "Save the World" type of guy. He's a pure anti-hero and whatever heroism he's ever displayed comes with an ulterior motive. But at the start of "Search," the activities of this apparently out-of-control Swamp Thing begin affecting John on a very personal level. That's when he knows he has to do something — when it's his own neck at stake.

OH: This isn't the first time that you've worked with the characters, having edited both Hellblazer and Swamp Thing in the past.  What's your connection to these characters and what makes them unique in the DCU?

Aftermath_The_Search_for_Swamp_Thing_revealed_MLDJV: I think any editor or writer would say the same — when you spend so much of your waking life, for years at time, living with the fictional characters that we deal with, they start to seem somehow more than fictional to you. I felt that was especially true of Constantine. Maybe it's because he's been around for such a long time and has been handled by so many different writers without ever changing his core character, but it always felt to me like John had a liftoff his own outside of the mind of any writer, artist or editor. Maybe that's John's true magic.

Swamp Thing is similar. He has a lengthy history that gives him what feels like his own independent existence. What makes Swampy special is his humanity and his deep, instinctive compassion and decency. Unlike most of the characters in the DC Universe,  Swampy never chose to be a super-hero, he never wanted to put on a costume and fly around having adventures. The life he has was never the life he wanted. Everything he does is driven by his desire to be a human being, not a monster.

John's the opposite. He's all-too-human and yet he's cut himself off from his fellow human beings in so many ways. As I mentioned, he's a pure anti-hero. What he stands for is pretty much the opposite of what most every other DCU hero stands for. That makes his interactions with characters like, for example, Batman and Superman, well, complicated to say the least.
OH: What do you feel are the differences between working with characters like Constantine and Swamp Thing in the DCU as opposed to working with them through Vertigo?

JV:  Beyond the obvious, I don't think there is a big difference. The characters are the characters. Just because they're in a different environment doesn't make them essentially different, any more than you or I become a different person if we, say, travel to a foreign country. Both at Vertigo and in the DCU, my main job was, and is, to let these characters be themselves.

OH: How closely will the DCU John Constantine be tied to the Vertigo John Constantine?  Will we be seeing any carryover from Hellblazer?

JV: As Dan DiDio has explained elsewhere, this DCU John Constantine is younger than the Constantine currently appearing in the Vertigo series, both in appearance and attitude. So in that sense he's a different version of the character, but not a different character. I don't think that's especially unusual, especially for comics.

In "Search," references to Constantine's history pop up throughout the story, though some of them you may have to be alert to catch. That was all part of making him the John Constantine we know and love.

But Vertigo's "Hellblazer" is doing just fine on its own. Peter Milligan and his editor Shelly Bond are doing brilliant stuff with John and the last thing anyone wants to do is mess with that.

OH: How will the other DC heroes view Constantine and Swamp Thing?  Will there be much of an explanation for their absences in the DCU?

JV: Like I said, their relationship with the more traditional DCU heroes is complex to say the least. I don't want to say too much about Swampy's role in the story because that would be giving away the story. But as far as John is concerned, let's just say they view him with a strong skepticism. And the feeling is mutual.

OH: What other characters will be appearing in Search for Swamp Thing?  Will Constantine be returning to any of his old roosts during your series?

sfst3JV: Batman and Superman are in there, plus a few others some of whom have already appeared on the solicited covers. I don't want to give away too much beyond that. I'd much rather people read the story and have fun with it than just read some boring interview with me where I tell them everything that happens.

OH: There's been a lot of talk and scuttlebutt about the reappearance of Swamp Thing being tied to the alleged canceling of a Vertigo Swamp Thing project.  For people who have grown accustomed to Swamp Thing and Constantine being separate from other DC characters, what you say to them to get them to read Search for Swamp Thing?

JV: All I can really say is that you can read it or not — but if you don't, you're missing a pretty good story!

Look, I can be quite a purist about certain things myself. I remember that when I was a little kid I loved Batman because he was human and I felt like he lived in the "real" world. For some reason, that really appealed to me. It drove me crazy to see Batman having adventures with Superman and the other "fantasy" characters (as if, in my youthful mind, Batman was not also a fantasy). The first, last and only fan letter I ever wrote was a meticulously reasoned (or so it seemed at the time) essay on why Batman should be dropped from the JLA. I was sure that when the editors read my treatise, the ineluctable force of my logic would cause them to see the light.

Instead, I got back a handwritten note from a well-known editor at DC that read, in its entirety (and I've never forgotten this, years and years later), "Drop Batman from the JLA? Unthinkable!"

That's when I had a revelation. I can read the regular Batman stories and enjoy them AND I can read the Batman/JLA stories and get a kick out of them — in a whole different way. It suddenly occurred to me, even with my ill-formed little kid's brain, that not everything in comic books had to be exactly the way I wanted it to be. That didn't mean it wasn't good.

The point of that story is not that, as fans, we should give up our strong opinions. It's only to say that these are great, timeless characters and like all great characters, they are versatile. Wherever you put them, they always have the potential to make a great story. Hopefully, we've accomplished that with "Search." But I know that what we have NOT done is to wipe out 275-plus issues of Hellblazer. Nor for that matter, have we wiped out the many, many appearances of Swamp Thing, who as you obviously know, used to co-star with DCU superheroes on a fairly regular basis.

OH: Finally, what do you hope to accomplish with Search for Swamp Thing?  If there's one thing that readers should take away from the book, what should it be?

JV: The first thing I hope to accomplish is the same thing I always want to accomplish — to tell an entertaining story with great characters! I feel incredibly lucky and honored to write these characters, even in a short series like this one. What I hope you'll take away from the experience, more than anything else, is the desire to see more of these characters. I hope that if you've never read Hellblazer, you'll feel compelled to read it after getting a taste of John Constantine in the DCU. And whether you're a current Hellblazer fan or not, I hope you'll want to see more of John and Swampy wherever they happen to appear. Stay tuned!

Brightest Day Aftermath: The Search for Swamp Thing #1 hits stores June 22nd.

Written or Contributed by: Christian Hoffer

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