By Erin Woo
Years ago, one of the prompts on the Common Application essay used to say, “Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.”
The Common App essay prompts have since changed. But our popular culture, and young adult content in particular, remains obsessed with this moment: stepping through the one-way door, saying yes in the crucial moment of growth.
“Swamp Thing: Twin Branches” — the latest young adult graphic novel from DC Comics, written by Maggie Stiefvater and illustrated by Morgan Beem — is no exception. Before the end of the novel, protagonist Alec Holland will have to face down danger, have to look his options in the eye and make an irrevocable choice.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Released Oct. 13, “Swamp Thing: Twin Branches” is an eerie, lush reimagining of the DC Comics character Swamp Thing: an origin story more concerned with growing up and coming into oneself than the humanoid plant elemental of the title. The graphic novel centers, as the title would suggest, on a pair of twins: brilliant, awkward Alec, who is much more comfortable with plants than with humans, and the effortlessly confident Walker, who moves through the world with an ease that confounds his brother.
In the summer before college — those liminal months, teetering on the edge of the rest of your life — the boys find their dad cheating on their mom with the realtor, and they wind up sent to live with their cousins in rural Virginia. Easygoing Walker fits in immediately with the backwoods world of parties and hijinks; Alec, to no one’s surprise, does not, retreating to his lab and his research on plant consciousness and memory.
Echoes of Alec’s experiment find themselves in Beem’s artwork; the illustrations play on botanical motifs, creating a verdant if often foreboding world out of the novel’s Virginian setting. Plants unfurl from the edges of the panels; the color palette leans heavily on shades of green and violet that grow more psychedelic as the comic-book aspects of the story ramp up.
And ramp up they do. This is an origin story, and the stakes play out accordingly. As Alec fumbles his way through the summer, trying and mostly failing to make friends as his research project evolves in ways he doesn’t expect, themes of dysmorphia and alienation take on new, supernatural elements. Think of the most uncomfortable you have ever felt in your skin, and dial that up to 12, or maybe 15, with a dash of mad scientist thrown in: That is what it means to be Alec Holland.
“Swamp Thing: Twin Branches” is strongest in its exploration of Alec’s psyche. Generous closeups on his face and well-timed flashbacks add nuance and complexity to his character; deliberately paced, rich interludes that step away from the main plot and into discussions of botanical processes feel like safe havens within the story, glimpses into the most precious parts of Alec’s life.
In comparison, except for Alec’s twin, the other characters read as fairly one-note. The supernatural elements are accepted jarringly quickly, with none of the outcry from supporting cast members that you’d expect if the weird, quiet kid from out of town starts doing a research project with, to put it mildly, unintended consequences.
But you don’t come to a DC Comics book for verisimilitude. That being said, you shouldn’t come to this one if you’re looking for superhero antics, either. Yes, there is a science experiment gone wrong (or right?); there is light body horror and creatures-that-turn-into-other-creatures and a high-stakes confrontation at the novel’s climax. More than that, though, this is a story about growing up and about choosing to grow up. In a pivotal scene that will be familiar to fans of Stiefvater’s “The Raven Boys,” it is a story about looking the options in the eye and saying: I choose the hard thing and the right thing. I choose the one-way door and the transformation.
Gift this book to your sibling or your cousin in their final year of high school, sending off their college applications and waiting for their life to start. Send this book to your favorite member of the Class of 2024, for whom senior year is stretching on indefinitely from the stifling familiarity of their childhood bedroom.
Give this book to anyone who has ever tried to remake themselves in their own image, or hey, just pick it up for yourself: In this endless, terrible year, with a slow drip of horror coming in every moment through our newsfeeds, trapped in a summer that seems to be spooling out forever — what a comfort it is to remember that we can choose to change ourselves, even if we are still waiting for fall to start.