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Maggie Stiefvater & Morgan Beem Talk Swamp Thing: Twin Branches

Interview conducted by James Ferguson

DC Comics has been releasing a slew of young adult and kid-focused original graphic novels over the past year or so. These stories, free of the decades old continuity of the DC Universe, provide not just a complete tale with a beginning, middle, and end, but also a gateway into these icons of pop culture. The latest OGN in this line is Swamp Thing: Twin Branches, a young adult take on the Keeper of the Green, putting a very unique spin on it. I spoke with writer Maggie Stiefvater and artist Morgan Beem about the project.

Twins Alec and Walker Holland have a reputation around town. One is quiet and the other is the life of any party, but the two are inseparable. For their last summer before college, Alec and Walker leave the city to live with their rural cousins, where they find that the swamp holds far darker depths than they could have imagined.

While Walker carves their names into the new social scene, Alec recedes into a summer-school laboratory, slowly losing himself to a deep, dark experiment.

This season, both brothers must confront truths, ancient and familial, and as their lives diverge, tensions increase and dormant memories claw to the surface.

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James Ferguson: Swamp Thing is a character with strong horror roots (please pardon the pun). Did you approach the genre any differently for a young adult audience?

Maggie Stiefvater: To my mind, there’s one main thing that separates a YA book from an adult book, which is where the story is located along a character’s timeline. If it’s a character looking back on teen years with the wisdom of time, it’s adult. If it’s a character looking forward at their teen experience with just their childhood behind them: it’s young adult.

General fiction features characters overcoming or using their past to tackle the future. Coming of age stories and YA novels are less about processing the past than understanding the future.

All of this is just a long way of saying that when I write for teens, I don’t think about simplifying the story. I think about adjusting the mirror closer to where they’re at. So, Swamp Thing needed to become a metaphor for growing out of high school and into adulthood. It wasn’t a huge stretch, really. Swamp Thing’s always been about identity. Shifting the age down just winnows away the loss and regret, because this teen Alec hasn’t had as much time to acquire identity and baggage.

He wrestles with who he is becoming, not who he used to be. That’s as elegant a summation of the differences between YA and adult as anything.

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JF: We know Swamp Thing traditionally as Alec Holland, but in Twin Branches, we meet his twin, Walker with the retelling of this origin. What is the dynamic like between the brothers and how does Walker play into it?

MS: Alec is the cerebral, awkward twin, more at home with plants than humans. Walker is the outgoing, loquacious twin, more at home with a keg. Or so they each think. It’s easy to mistake the external landscape for the internal if you don’t look any deeper — and they haven’t been, because they take it for granted that they know each other.

In Twin Branches, I wanted to explore Alec’s alienation from as many angles as possible. He doesn’t understand his twin. He doesn’t understand his own body (he has been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes). He isn’t even sure he understands his own feelings. He retreats into plants, because they make sense, but the truth is he’s just better at communicating with them because he’s been trying.

Yes, I could have done all this exploration with a best friend or a non-twin sibling, but it felt more intimate to give him a twin. You’re supposed to know your twin. You’re supposed to know yourself. You’re supposed to know how to be human.

Alec doesn’t, though, not anymore. In many ways, he’s Swamp Thing long before the physical transformation.

JF: There's a distinctive look and feel to the artwork in Swamp Thing: Twin Branches. It's a nice blend of intriguing and scary. How did this design come about?

Morgan Beem: Thank you! I have been a lifelong fan of fairytales, and I think aesthetically my work is very influenced by that. Fairy tales generally have so many components of beauty to them- from settings to characters, but oftentimes the things that happen in them are horrifying creepy, and downright disturbing (For example- I’ll never forget being young and learning that in Cinderella, the stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to fit in the glass slipper- brutal). I love the blend of that. I also think in comics, a big contributor to the scary or creepy feeling of the story is the composition and pacing of the panels. Making sure to zoom the audience in and draw out tense moments or frame a certain action as if your protagonist is being watched. I think those kinds of “unseen” choices in comics, especially horror comics, dictate more of the feeling than anything else, and it is something I am continuously working towards achieving in my work.

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JF: The body horror in Swamp Thing: Twin Branches is out of this world. Do you ever get grossed out by your own imagery? Or have you had to dial anything back?

MB: No, I never get grossed out- I’m not sure what that says about me, haha. I actually really enjoy drawing body horror, and the scenes with that in Swamp Thing: Twin Branches were some of my favorites to draw. I don’t think I felt I had to dial anything back for this book, especially since generally my choice for horror/body horror tends to be more disturbing and creepy than overly gory and graphic. I do remember submitting THE BIG transformation scene to our editors at DC though, and asking “so, how far into horror-horror can I take this…?” But they were really on board and supportive.

MS: I asked myself: how much can I do to dogs before readers send me angry letters? I feel obliged to say that I’m a dog person (I’ve got six). I’m also far more finicky about the sanctity of the human mind than I am about the human body, which I have to remind myself of sometimes. My father’s an ER doctor and he used to regale us with gruesome stories from his shifts over dinner — can I blame him for a somewhat broken concept for what might be gruesome? I think I will.

JF: After tackling Swamp Thing, are there any other dark corners of the DC Universe you'd like to explore, particularly with a YA focus?

MS: I think if I dove back in, I’d like to continue following Alec and Abby from Swamp Thing. The transformation was just the beginning; watching how they navigated that change? That’s a coming of age story that’s still got miles to go.

MB: You know, I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately, since DC has so many great characters, and they’ve already done some stellar jobs in these YA graphic novels. But I think aside from continuing on in this Swamp Thing universe, I’d really love to work on a YA re-imagining of Deadman. I think a ton of fun (and creepy!) things could be done with that character.

Horror DNA would like to thank Maggie Steifvater and Morgan Beem for taking the time to speak with us. Swamp Thing: Twin Branches is available now at your local comic shop, bookstore, and Amazon.

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About The Author
James Ferguson
Lord of the Funny Books
James has a 2nd grade reading level and, as a result, only reads books with pictures. Horror is his 5th favorite genre right after romantic comedy and just before silent films. No one knows why he's here, but he won't leave.
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