I like that DC Comics brought back its Annuals to help fill the schedule for a 5-week month, like "Swamp Thing Annual" #1 by Scott Snyder, Scott Tuft, Becky Cloonan, Andrew Belanger and Karl Kerschl. Telling the previously untold first meeting between Alec Holland and Abby Arcane is a perfect use of the Annual format.
Written by Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft, the book opens and closes with a framing device drawn by Belanger and Kerschl set in the midst of next week's "Swamp Thing" #14. Snyder and Tuft quickly set up the idea that Alec met Abby earlier than he remembers, and in the blink of an eye we're whisked into the main story. This framing device works well; it establishes "Swamp Thing Annual" #1 as part of the ongoing story, but at the same time for readers who might have just jumped on board it is short enough that it's not the focus of the comic. Clocking in at only five pages total, it still gives plenty of space for the main attraction.
At first, that story actually felt a little underwhelming. Detailing the arrival of Alec in the Carpathian Mountains, it feels so by-the-book and predictable that even Alec himself is commenting on the sequence of events as he's brought to Arcane's castle. Fortunately, Snyder and Tuft quickly push into the meat of the story, as Alec heads out on his own to investigate a new type of flower and finally meets Abby. From that point on, the comic is fun and attention-grabbing. The strange bloom raises all sorts of alarms for the reader but even then its properties end up being a bit of a surprise, which is nice. All in all, the story ends up moving briskly, provides a reasonable explanation for why Alec and Abby don't know each other later on, and gives us another glimpse into the power of Anton Arcane and why both he and the Rot are such dangerous foes.
It's Cloonan's art that I think people might remember the most, though, and I'm good with that. Her second collaboration with Snyder (the first being "Batman" #12), the comic looks great. Don't let Cloonan's open, clean style trick you into thinking that she can't pack the detail into her pages. The interiors of Arcane's castle show that to not be true, with flagstones, wood grain, tapestries and ornately carved bannisters being just a few of the background details. Her foregrounds are pretty special too, mind you. I love the half-page image of Alec surrounded by the strange new flowers; with their thick twisting vines and the delicate purple hues (thanks to colorist Nathan Fairbairn), it's an eye-catching image. Of course, Cloonan makes Abby's first appearance here memorable as well; she's beautiful while remaining well-composed. Then again, well-composed should be a familiar adjective when describing Cloonan's art. Even something as simple as a woman giving a silent cry to Alec is paced perfectly, with the zooming in on her mouth and throat both effective and creepy.
"Swamp Thing Annual" #1 is a great way to get through the dreaded fifth week of the month. It adds a new piece to the overall story being told in "Swamp Thing" and it also stands on its own rather well to boot. This is the perfect way to use the Annual format.