Starting Out Again at the Top:

Swamp Thing (1994 to 1996) — The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 17

Continued from last week.

It’s no overstatement to say that Mark Millar’s first major breakthrough at DC Comics owed everything to Grant Morrison.  Offered the chance in 1993 to write Swamp Thing, Morrison assumed the role of gatekeeper and manoeuvred his friend into the post instead.  It was a remarkable act of generosity which finally helped Millar overcome the company’s reluctance to hire him. As Millar would later explain to Barb Lien-Cooper;

“Grant, very graciously, just came on board for the first four issues to make sure that DC selected me above anyone else pitching for the gig (a few other writers had been mooted and I doubt I was the most likely). I’d tried to get a couple of books in the past, but was over-looked …. It was very, very decent of him, actually.” (*1)

Perhaps the degree of uncertainty felt by DC/Vertigo over Millar’s suitability can be seen in the degree of responsibility that Morrison assumed for his friend.  Not only would he co-write the first four issues  of Millar’s tenure, but he’d also plan out the comic’s future direction and supervise its writer’s progress. (*2) Though never directly credited as such in the comic, Morrison was effectively assuming the twin responsibilities of mentor and editor.  The extent to which he was directly and intimately involved in all of the 27 issues of Swamp Thing credited to Millar alone is something that we’ll return to.  (*3) But as a strategy to lend Millar a mighty leg-up into the American industry, it was as benignant a process as it was essentially thankless. To the majority of the book’s readers, Morrison’s input beyond that first arc would pass largely unacknowledged. The result, however, was exactly as Morrison had intended; his friend’s by-line was not just to be regularly lodged in the credits of a monthly comic, but associated with a highly prestigious title for a considerable period of time. Not until 1998 would Millar secure another chance to write anything other than mini-series, fill-ins and one-shots, and even then, it would be on the unfairly disregarded Superman Adventures.

Millar’s reflections at the time on the two men’s partnership were enthusiastic and heartfelt.  When interviewed by Wally Pinochet for DC’s Shop Talk – an in-house magazine for the company’s freelancers – Millar explained that;

“There’re not so many years between us, age-wise and we come from the same Scottish background. We’re also into the same music, so we almost know what each other’s thinking and work well together. I might write five pages of a comic, then he will write the next seven. It happens quite seamlessly.  We just seem to click. If we think a story would be a laugh, we’ll do it; and when we get fed up looking at each other, we each just go home and work on our own stuff.” (*4)

Yet for Morrison, the same period marked the beginning of their creative relationship’s slow decline.  Writing in Supergods, he’d declare that “as soon as we were working together on American superhero dramas, the division of labour became lopsided.”  (*5) In retrospect, it seems hard to know how any other arrangement could have been possible. Compared to Morrison, Millar was inexperienced and technically unpolished.  A slow learner for the first decade of his career, he would inevitably be, to a lesser or greater degree, dependent upon Morrison’s patronage and hard-won skills. Such appears to have been the unavoidable consequence of the older man’s sponsorship.

According to artist Phil Hester, who illustrated most of Millar’s Swamp Thing run, both he and the writer were “far too young to be given such an important character, but we had a lot of fun”. (*6) Though both men produced work that was always at the very least interesting, and despite their skills significantly improving as the months rolled on, Millar and Hester were indeed surprisingly inexperienced choices for the book.  Though hardly a consistently front-rank comic in terms of sales, Swamp Thing had twice hosted award-winning runs marked by daring content and exemplary storytelling. As such, and despite long years of underachievement, it remained a highly creditable assignment. Created in 1971 by writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson for a self-contained horror tale, the character proved so unexpectedly popular that he returned in a solo title in the following year.  Tragically transformed into a monstrous creature composed of  the detritus of the Louisiana Bayous,  the mind of scientist Alec Holland appeared doomed to a harrowing existence as the Swamp Thing. Forever seeking a cure that the comic’s originally promising sales would apparently deny him, Wein and Wrightson’s character inhabited a horror-tinged and lonesome periphery of the DCU.  In the context of its time, Swamp Thing was a breath of thrillingly fetid air, a radical challenge to the ever-growing  domination of superhero titles in the marketplace.

So much of the character’s appeal drew from influences that the period’s costumed crimefighter comics tended to ignore.  And so, Swamp Thing was clearly inspired by the Heap, a self-evidently similar Golden Age character originally published by Hillman Periodicals. Similarly, the book’s creators revelled in updating the conventions of Universal monster movies and the EC Comic’s line of horror books. Yet they did so in a way that skilfully avoided the slightest suggestion of camp while infusing their storytelling with a distinctly contemporary air of dark unease and emasculated despair. In doing so, they also put to use the tradition established during the Marvel Revolution of the early 60s by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s superhero/horror hybrids. Just as the likes of the Hulk and the Thing were both fearsomely different and yet piteous examples of social exclusion, so too Swamp Thing expressed the alienation of the atomised individual who simply couldn’t  conform.  It was a surprising, invigorating fusion of a variety of genres that offered the chance to view the already over-familiar DCU from a quite different perspective.  Rather than sublimating their influences to the house-styles of the period, Wein and Wrightson created their own aesthetic and portrayed the DCU accordingly.  When the Batman guest-starred in late 1973′s Night Of The Bat, he appeared both entirely familiar and yet simultaneously a character from out of the broodingly threatening adventure pulps of the 30s. Though Wein and Wrightson’s tenure only survived for 10 issues, their example helped lay the foundations for the deconstructionists of the ’80s. Here was a way for the progressively more conceptually-inbred superhero universes to reinvigorate themselves, so as to rejuvenate their ever-more staid set-ups with other traditions  and unfamiliar world-views.

To be continued, with a look at Alan Moore’s version of Swamp Thing, and at Morrison and Millar’s response to it.


*1. Speaking With The Authority, Interview with Barb Lien-Cooper, August 2000,

*2:- Page 318, Grant Morrison, Supergods, Vintage, 2012

*3:-So as not to leave such a controversial issue entirely hanging, I’m going to contend that Millar had far, far more autonomy on Swamp Thing than is sometimes argued. To say that isn’t to diminish Morrison’s contributions, but the evidence points to Millar deserving the title of the comic’s “writer”.

*4: Miller’s Crossing, interview with Wally Pinochet, DC Shop Talk, April 1994

*5:- as (2)

*6:- Interview w. Phil Hester by Danilo Guarino,

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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Also by Colin Smith:

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