How 'Swamp Thing' Got a YA Makeover

Swamp Thing Twin Branches Interview-SWAMPTHING_00-H-2020-1602538509
Morgan Beem/DC
'Twin Branches' writer Maggie Stiefvater and artist Morgan Beem examine the horror behind their DC release.

DC’s popular line of young adult releases continues this week with Swamp Thing: Twin Branches, a new version of the origin story for the iconic muck monster that originally debuted in 1971’s House of Secrets No. 92.

Reinvented by novelist Maggie Stiefvater and artist Morgan Beem, Swamp Thing: Twin Branches is a story about anti-social teen Alec Holland, and his easygoing — and more popular — twin brother, Walker, as they relocate to Louisiana for one last summer before college. Alec brought a school project with him, however, and it’s one that’s likely to change his life… and Walker’s… before the season is over.

Swamp Thing: Twin Branches is available digitally and in bookstores now, offering a new generation a chance to experience the character for themselves. The Hollywood Reporter talked to Stiefvater and Beem about the book, and their intent in creating it.

This book is very much not what I expected. It is definitely a Swamp Thing story, but it's a totally different type of Swamp Thing story. Maggie, this has the metaphysical nature of an Alan Moore Swamp Thing, for example, and obviously it has the science element as well. How did you arrive at this particular take on Swamp Thing?

Maggie Stiefvater: I actually first got into it, because I liked the idea of wandering more into biology, more into plants, more into science. All of my fantasy has always had an element of science in it already, and it's already been really tied to nature. So, just from the optics, Swamp Thing seems like it would be a natural jump for my readers to get into it. But the deeper I got into it, the more I kind of fell in love with this Alan Moore concept, when he reinvented the character, when he made it so that when Alec Holland becomes Swamp Thing, he doesn't actually become something it says Swamp Thing is something totally different. It's a pile of organic material that remembers being Alec Holland.

I was so intrigued by this, because at the same time because I was actually reading his big treatise by Daryl Bem, who is a psychologist from the '70s. He talking about the theory of personality, but he says basically that we don't have personality, we choose our personality every single day. We can experience multiple events, and we choose to see how we interpret these events. And we decide whether that means that we're heroic or we were selfish or whatever, that by themselves, they have no meaning, but we give ourselves personality and then act like ourselves, essentially, and I thought, "Perfect! Amazing! Tie that with a teen coming of age story, we're done!" (Laughs.)

That is the greatest summation of what this is, though, because it is it's not just the supernatural, it's not just the horror aspect of Swamp Thing. By bringing in his twin Walker, and by bringing in this idea of almost an alternate Alec — the Alec that Walker remembers and, and harkens back to and asks about — there is an idea that Alec is already reinventing himself as he's exploring the plants and the plant memories.

Stiefvater: Yes. I'm really obsessed with the idea of versions of selves right anyway, in my other novel work, I'm also doing things with versions of selves — it's quite literally cloned of selves, but still, this idea that we're different things to different people, different things in different situations...!

And I think it's just such a such a good moment for teen fiction to be looking at it, because we're being thrust into growing up online, where you are a version of yourself online but you're also a version of yourself on your distance learning to school, you're also a version in your texts, but you're also a version to your parents. Is there a single version of [you]? It made a lot of sense to me take Walker, to give Alec a twin, to split him off like that, because then you have it an alternate version that you're looking at right there. Alec gets to wonder, "Is that who I should be right there, that dude moving effortlessly through the world?"

You're both familiar with the Alan Moore version of the character, obviously, but Swamp Thing has been around for decades at this point. Was it strange, stepping in and making this story yours — because it reads like Maggie and Morgan's story. It feels very much like an original story from you, but you are dealing with property that has existed for 40 years.

Stiefvater: I'm laughing when you said that, because 40 years old makes it the newest mythology, basically, that I've retold. (Laughs.) That's what I do! The last book I did, The Raven Cycle, is a four-book retelling of the Arthurian myth with a dead Welsh king — which, by the way, I found out after all of that, I was related to the dead Welsh King. If I find out that I'm related to Swamp Thing after this, I'm over, I'm done. (Laughs.)

The thing that I love about having characters that come with their own baggage is that we can reinvent them. We love our heroes and our anti-heroes for that reason. What makes mythology fresh is when it reflects the current moment, which means, yes, if you do it 10 years later, maybe that was too soon for Swamp Thing. Forty years later, I think it's Swamp Thing can mean something different.

So, yeah, did it feel like I was working with someone else's toys? Yes. But it also felt like the world had changed enough that I could make the toys mean something different. It was really just a question of being respectful. You want to not cut away so much of the character that people don't recognize it as something engaging with the original material, but you also want the metaphor to be something fresh and new and relevant to this moment.

Morgan, I feel like you're doing something similar, because this is again, something that feels like your work, and something that isn't harkening back to the Stephen R. Bissette art style of the 1980s run, which is very iconic. Is that something that you're intentionally doing trying to, you know, recreate what people expect from this character?

Morgan Beem: Definitely, I think it's a conscious choice. You know, comics are a visual medium, and we use a lot of the same visual storytelling rules as movies, you know, we talk about "the camera" all the time — "you flip the camera 180," "pushing and pulling the camera" — but the really cool thing about comics is that you're not just constrained into what you would see in the actual shot, right?

So you can have the shot, you know, teens moving through a party, or somebody driving a truck or whatever, that you have in the frame. That's the actual story being told at that very moment. But then, in comics, you can actually add all this other visual information that's going to inform the story and the mood, probably equally as much, but it doesn't necessarily need to be something that you're seeing in real-time, or in that shot.

I think that's one of the things that makes comics a really unique storytelling medium, especially just with the work that Maggie put in, connecting the plant science to humans, and really kind of connecting this mood and these abstract concepts. I really wanted to kind of push that idea in the storytelling with this, and make it so it wasn't necessarily a superhero book in its storytelling, because it's not really a superhero-style book, in our telling at least.

Something that I think is happening both in terms of writing and art is that there is a great mixture of science and supernatural — both in terms of the visual information that's being given to the reader, but also in terms of the writing. Is the purposeful interplay between those two worlds something that you discussed before starting on this?

Stiefvater: I think one of the only things that I asked Morgan absolutely at the beginning was, can we have plants in every single page? I love the way that Morgan incorporated those plants.

One of my favorite things about this book is that it can be quite daunting to be in a lab and it can be quite comforting to be out in nature, but I like to think that in our book, it's the opposite. Morgan did a really amazing job — not to talk about you while you're right here, Morgan — a really amazing job of making a lab seem like place where it's comforting and cozy, and this is where the answers are. And then, when you get out into the wild, instead of it feeling like a comforting walk in the park and nature, it's 'oh, this is creepy.'

Beem: I want to say, big shout out to Jeremy Lawson on that. He was our colorist on the book. I feel like he really did a good job of tying everything together using this green palette, even using a color hold to turn the line art green — it's a dark green, so it's hard to see the printed book — but it feels like when you're in a really humid forest, and you can just like almost taste the air around you. I feel like he really consciously thought about the color scenes and transitions in the book to try and at all times link us to that. And then, when the plant life starts to get a little weirder, the color palette definitely gets a little bit more into the psychedelic and I think a lot of that mood you're probably experiencing reading is probably due to Jeremy's work.

It's such a visceral book, I think that's the thing that really surprised me. At times, it's almost body horror, which I didn't expect.

Stiefvater: Writing it, there were times when I thought, "am I allowed to do this? Are people going to write me angry letters?"

Beem: There was a moment when I was submitting the dog character designs to Alison Diego, our lovely editor, and being like, "is this too far?" (Laughs.) I remember having a moment where I submitted it and I even put a note where I was like, "I really want to push the body horror of this, but I'm not really sure where the line is." And they were like, "go for it." I am a huge fan of supernatural kind of organic creepy things, rather than just "gore!" and shock value things. Taking forms you're familiar with, and changing them enough that you're like, "that's disturbing."

I mean, it's Swamp Thing, and everyone has an idea of what to expect from Swamp Thing, but you play with the ideas both visually and intellectually, and in a way that makes complete sense considering the history of the character, but it's still something new. There are moments that creeped me the hell out when I read it.

Stiefvater:: Good! Well, I'm glad, anyway. If I can make people not sleep at night or cry in public, either these things, I will be glad to do.

That's approaching what I wanted to ask, which is, what was your intent with this book? Did you both approach this as, it's a horror book, we're here to creep people out, because it's also a coming of age book.

Stiefvater:: Well, when I went into the telling of the story, I knew I wanted it to be a horror. I love playing with horror in general, I just think it's a fantastic analog for the teen experience, right? "Welcome to adulthood, children: Horror!" (Laughs.) What I was actually most worried about is that I didn't want it to be like a tragedy, because it could be very easy to interpret all of the upside as — not being spoilery — but is this an origin story or a tragedy? What are we looking at?

What [Swamp Thing is about] is body horror, right? What does that mean to completely change your physical form and the way your thoughts travel? But that's adulthood, right? I mean, we don't know what happens as an adult [when we're young]. But hopefully, at the end of most young adult novels, when you change into something else, it's also not a tragedy. It can still be a horror, but it's not a, you know, get out the box of tissues and the cry bucket.

Beem: When I read the ending of the script, it felt almost peaceful. It felt like the inevitable conclusion. "This is probably where you were headed all along."

Morgan, I'm curious about the visual pacing of the book. One of the things that I love is that there are pages where there's just one panel, and there are pages where it's so much busier. Was that in the script? Is that something that you did to control the pacing, because it changes the reading experience in such a way that it really does emphasize specific moments and humanizes Alec.

Beem: When I got the script, a lot of that pacing Maggie had figured out, and also — Maggie, this where I profess my undying love for you, because most of the pages were between maybe three to five panels, tops, which is, like, so great for the artist to really give me the breathing room to be able to control the pacing, to focus in on what the most important moment is on that panel.

I've worked with a lot of writers on different scripts, and everybody has their own style, which is great, but sometimes, there's not a ton of time to tell their story. Sometimes, the reaction to that is to try to cram as much stuff in as they can. So then, everything is an eight to ten-panel page.

Maggie wrote the story in such a way that, I think, conveys so much information, but also really had the breathing room to work up a mood. She was especially good about the moments that needed to take a pause. One of my favorite sequences to draw, actually — I don't think this is spoilery — was when there's a box that fall off of the truck —

Stiefvater:: Oh, this is my favorite one, too! You're going to say it! (Laughs.)

Beem: — you're seeing the liquids sitting out, the bird eating the moss, and then there's a whole page of the bird just flying away afterwards. I remember sitting there after drawing the thumbnails and being like, "this is such a great moment for building the mood of this book." Yeah, a lot of that is definitely based on Maggie's genius.

Stiefvater: This is the first graphic novel that I've ever done. Actually, I was a full-time artist before I was an author, but not like not sequential storytelling. So this is definitely my first attempt at doing this. When I write my novels, definitely, you're always asking how to spend your pages, what amount of prose, what amount of sentence, what chunk of a block of description is going to be worth the space that you're using, and that kind of equation becomes even more fraught once you get into something which is 180 pages long.

Also, like Morgan just said, you're not even dealing with just your time, you're also asking, "what's worth this artist's labor?" Is it worth spending two pages of their time just to have this emotional moment of the bird flying off into the sun? Is that worth the cost of debt to space? So it was a really interesting kind of back and forth.

It was kind of delightful to have to guess in the script, because of course, I'm not thumbnail sketching it out. Instead, in my head, I'm sort of doing the math and thinking, "well, I have no idea what she's gonna do with this, how they show up or whatever," and then to watch it come back. I think that's one of the reasons why I love that bid section so much, because I knew what I wanted it to do, and then it did so much more when I actually got to see the page. I thought, "Yes, that's it."

I just want to ask you one last question. People have certain assumptions about certain things, and as we've talked about, there are expectations around Swamp Thing. What are you hoping this book is going to do in terms of surprising people? Are you hoping this is going to be a surprise, are you hoping this is going to be something that is going to introduce people to other Swamp Thing stories?

Stiefvater: For me, it's twofold. First of all, this is my first graphic novel that I put my name on. And for a lot of my readers, it's going to be the first graphic novel that they have ever picked up in their life, because it has my name on it. So I'm hoping it will be an entry for them to go through because I love this format so much. I think there should be more picture books for adults. We have completely decided that anything animated is for kids, and that is terrible and wrong. So I'm hoping that we will see their entry.

And then the other thing is what I want out of every single young adult novel I write, and especially Swamp Thing. Swamp Thing has always been about what it means to be human, and what it means to be you. And if those two things are the same. So I'm hoping that this one thing will still make people ask those questions about themselves.

Beem: Mirroring Maggie a little bit, the really cool thing about properties, you know, like Swamp Thing, like Superman, like Batman, all the DC things, is that they have been around for so long, right? They are their own mythos, and that makes it actually like a really cool sandbox to play in, because so many different artists and writers have already put their mark on it, and put their new spin and tried something out.

So even if you're a long time Swamp Thing fan,you already have the classic versions or these reinventions that you love, and so I think it's important to do something different. Maybe we probably won't be for everybody, but that's kind of the beauty of having so many different versions: that everybody can find the one that they like, and so I think it's kind of exciting that no two are the same.

One of the things that I particularly really love about these new DC YA books is that it is a comfortable starting point for western comics. That was definitely one of the things that, when I was growing up in comics, I struggled with. You go to the bookstore and look at the shelves, and you'd be like, "OK, I think I'd really like to start reading the X-Men," but then you'd have no idea where to start, because there's volumes and volumes.

Luckily, I made a bunch of friends who were like, "here, read this thing," and kind of walk me through, but the nice thing about these YA volumes, is that you can just kind of pick one up and have a starting point, and then decide if you like, kind of this character or this idea, and then research other points from there. So, I'm really hoping it'll bring in new readers.