During the early ’90s, Grant Morrison was wrapping up his acclaimed runs on Doom Patrol and Animal Man and moving away from mainstream super-heroics. It was a time when an increase in self-publishing heralded an oncoming boom of adult-targeted, non-super-hero comics. That revolution never quite came to pass, but a lot of Morrison’s early ’90s work was informed by that moment in culture. St. Swithin’s Day is a perfect example of the kind of low-key, realistic stories people were writing at the time.
That’s not to diminish it as derivative. Instead, it serves as a test run for a lot of the themes Morrison would explore in more depth in Kill Your Boyfriend, and the difference between the two works is a great demonstration of what makes the “Day-Glo Years” such a unique era in his work. Where Kill Your Boyfriend spotlights the stylized pop-art color artwork of Philip Bond, St. Swithin’s Day is drawn by Paul Grist in a low-key, black-and-white style, a difference in style that is echoed in the themes and approach Morrison takes to the work.
While Kill Your Boyfriend is about the Girl realizing a fantasy persona and moving into a fictional life that becomes quite real in the world of the story, St. Swithin’s Day is about the frustrations of an unnamed character (I’ll call the Boy) who dreams of using violence to overthrow the existing social order but is crushed by an inability to act.
The story takes place almost entirely inside the mental space of a depressive teenage boy traveling alone around the U.K., dreaming of assassinating Margaret Thatcher. There’s virtually no dialogue; the story is conveyed mostly through captions relaying his inner thoughts.
The story’s greatest achievement is capturing the unique depression and angst that teenagers feel. The protagonist, despite his violent aspirations, feels almost too precious to survive in the world. As adults, most people come to terms with existence and accept that some things are out of their hands, but some teenagers haven’t realized this yet, and this unique mix of idealism and existential depression is perfectly expressed when he says “I hate being 19. I want to be 19 forever.” For this kind of person, adulthood is a form of death, but isn’t his desire to assassinate Margaret Thatcher just a glorified form of suicide? He would rather be truly dead than accept the shackles and boredom of an adult life.
In the second chapter, we see the Boy reflecting on a relationship with a girl that’s since ended. It hurts him to recall the details, but Morrison skillfully evokes the feelings of first love in a few well-chosen captions. The character can’t process the heartbreak; he struggles with it and it cripples him, the weight of the world pouring down like the endless rain that falls throughout the story.
The entire sequence in the cafe immerses you in the Boy’s subjectivity so thoroughly it’s hard to tell what exactly is real and what’s not. The girl he’s talking to seems more like a friend than a girlfriend, and a few panels indicate that she’s not even there, that the conversation is taking place in his head. Was his relationship with the girl real, or was it just a fantasy he indulged in? He talks about receiving a five-year diary from his grandmother at age sixteen, one that’s now five years of blank pages. It’s all fantasies and desires, no achievements.
At the start of the work, the Boy pointedly buys copies of The Catcher in the Rye and a book of Rimbaud’s poetry, trying to make a statement to the world. Rather than keep the books on him, he chooses to hurl them into a river. He bought the books to make a point, but soon realizes that the point he’s making might be lost on the world. He doesn’t want to be analyzed, he doesn’t want people to come up with reasons why he did what he did, a prescient observation considering the real-life focus on Marilyn Manson and videogame violence in the wake of the Columbine shooting.
Rather than let them label him, he chooses to label himself as a “Neurotic Boy Outsider.” A key point of the magic principles that guided Morrison during his ’90s experimental years was to create an aspirational persona and inhabit it until it became real. In Kill Your Boyfriend, the Girl simply decides to become the person she wants to be, rather than go through all that tiresome learning and growing to get there. However, here, the Boy wears the label that society would give him. He doesn’t set his own identity, and that’s his ultimate tragedy.
Throughout the story, he lets society define him and gradually limps towards a drastic, terrible act in an attempt to find meaning in a meaningless world. To die killing Thatcher would make him a hero, it would remind people that a difference can be made in the world. But, as the act grows closer, rather than focusing on that change, he’s concerned about how people would perceive him. He realizes that the act will not be seen as something revolutionary, rather as just another example of teenage rebellion gone wrong.
This is particularly stressed when he looks at the statue of Marx, which quotes “The Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point however is to change it.” This violence is his way to change the world, but over the course of the story, he’s lost in his head, trying to come to terms with the world around him, and passing through it alone and unconnected to anything.
In the end, the Boy turns out not to have found a gun outside a bank robbery; his big stand is all a pantomime. In The Invisibles, King Mob says that “a bullet in the right place can change the world,” but all a fake gun can do is scare Thatcher for a moment before her security team crushes the Boy. He says that “it was worth it just to see her scared.” He was so powerless, so invisible to the world around him that just being acknowledged by someone in that position of power was worth potentially ruining his life for.
A lot of Morrison’s characters from this era were struggling to find themselves and used violence as a way to get attention in a world that ignored them. The Boy here isn’t so far off from Dane McGowan at the beginning of The Invisibles; full of rage, in search of love, without an outlet for his emotions and feelings. As the series goes on, Dane comes to understand the futility of violence, something the Boy never gets a chance to do.
The story ends on an ambiguous note, with the Boy riding through a sunny stretch of hillside on the old-style train he longed for. It would seem that he’s either dead or in some kind of detached psychiatric state. The stress and strain of his struggle with the world is over, and now he can relax into a fantasy. Earlier in the comic, we’re told the story of St. Swithin and the forty days of rain that followed when he was moved from a pauper’s grave to a fancy shrine. To the Boy, this is a romantic story of sacrifice. St. Swithin is the folk hero he aspires to be, but the end of the work implies that the only remnant of the Boy’s existence was that moment of fear Thatcher felt. However, that fleeting bit of fear seems to have brought the Boy peace, so maybe it’s enough. It’s enough to know that, for a second, he was not invisible to the most powerful woman in the world.
St. Swithin’s Day presages many of the themes that would become key to Morrison’s work in the Day-Glo Years, and the book’s ending is an example of the way that fantasy becomes a retreat from real-world problems. As his writing career progresses, the characters realize that they don’t need to die to achieve their dreams, they can live them right out in the real world. For Wally Sage in Flex Mentallo, suicide isn’t the answer to becoming a super-hero, living is. And, for Morrison himself, the early ’90s were a coming-out-of-his-shell period that would ultimately lead to his emergence as the outrageous chaos magician rock star we know today.