“Swamp Thing was Just a Vegetable who Lived in a Bog, after All”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 18

Continued from last week.

For almost a decade, Wein and Wrightson’s estimable if brief spell on Swamp Thing would prove impossible to follow. At best, the character would feature in some mildly suspenseful tales marked by a respectful if fatigued degree of competence. At worst, he was relegated to bathetic supporting roles in by-the-numbers superhero tales. Either way, the very qualities that had originally marked out the feature from its ever-blander fellow titles at DC would be neutralised.

It would take the arch-deconstructionalist Alan Moore to finally rescue Swamp Thing from the comicbook equivalent of one-hit wonder status. Now editor of the book he’d co-created, Len Wein audaciously installed Moore as Swamp Thing’s writer, and, in doing so, kicked off perhaps the finest sustained body of work  that the mainstream monthly comicbook has ever seen. (*2) Recognising that the strip was hamstrung by Alec Holland’s unrealisable longing to be human once again, Moore reinvented Swamp Thing as a sentient plant-god who’d only believed that he’d once been a loving husband and brilliant scientist. The most remarkable and successful of deconstructions, it left intact everything that had previously been seen while portraying it all in a bewitchingly unfamiliar and invigorating light. The result was a thrillingly approachable comic which unashamedly revelled in the traditions of the form while infusing it with a seismic degree of artistry and ambition. As Millar would later write, Swamp Thing was “just a vegetable in a bog, after all”, and yet Moore had transformed him into an unexpectedly fascinating character. (*3)

Previously a title that had tended to tepidly flirt with the least contentious of horror tropes, Swamp Thing became both purposefully unsettling and politically contentious. Reaching out from the margins of the likes of Lacroix, Louisiana, Moore portrayed the icons and supporting players of the DCU from an iconoclastically challenging perspective. Intriguingly depicted as the distant costumed demigods of the “Overpeople”, who were struggling to maintain the semblance of order in a chaotic and constantly threatening cosmos, Superman, Batman and the Justice League were amongst the first of many to be reenvisaged. Prior to Moore’s arrival, the mass of the superhero industry had  appeared  to be settling for a fan-pacifying homogeneity of style and content. (*4) Now the same material was suddenly revealed to be a uniquely rich tapestry  spun from decade’s worth of comics adventures, with its potential limited only by the creator’s talents and aspirations.

For the first time ever, an industry that had been catering more and more to the tastes of its hardcore fans found itself receiving widespread and high-powered praise from far beyond the comic press. Nor was it that Moore’s work was only catching the attention of seasoned and respected writers of the fantastic such as Michael Moorcock, Ramsey Campbell, and Clive Barker. By the mid-80s, the British music press had enthusiastically taken note, while even the likes of Marxism Today, The Guardian and even The Sun could be seen applauding. For a brief and regrettably truncated season, Moore had taken the disdained adventure serial comicbook – with all its absurd traditions – and reshaped it to speak to the broadest range of audiences. In the company of outstanding artistic collaborators such as Steve Bissette, John Totleben and Rick Veitch, he’d dramatically changed the way in which monthly mainstream titles could approach storytelling in a shared, immersive universe.

Both Morrison and Millar were well aware of how influential and treasurable Moore’s work on Swamp Thing had been. Speaking soon after he and Millar had agreed to take the title forward, Morrison declared that ” everything since Alan Moore’s run has been barnacles on his yacht, so we scraped off the barnacles and then torpedoed the boat”. (*5) Openly disdainful in 1993 of the work on Swamp Thing that had followed on from Moore’s 1987 resignation, Morrison was faced with a considerable challenge. (*6) Everything since Moore’s closing issue would have to be swept away, and yet, the result couldn’t be in any way a shadow of Moore’s achievements. It would hardly be the first time that Morrison had used a debate with Moore’s work in order to shape his own projects. In 1987′s Speakeasy #76, Morrison had discussed the way in which his Zenith strip was a deliberate reaction to Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, with he and artist Steve Yeowell wanting “to get away from that very dark view of superheroes”. (*7) This time, however, the dialectical process would lead not towards “a kind of lightness of touch”, but into the same bleak territory that the Dark Age had claimed as its own. (*8)

As we’ve seen, Moore’s Swamp Thing has long been revered by Millar, although he came a touch late late to the title. As he wrote in the letters column of Swamp Thing #150, an impressionably young Millar had encountered Moore at a 1984 comics and sci-fi convention in Glasgow. Despite being set against buying anything which “didn’t have superheroes in it”, the 13 year old Millar found himself entranced by the “gravel-voiced Englishman” and, as a consequence, anxious to read his Swamp Thing. (*9) It was a meeting that would have a considerable effect on the barely-teenaged Millar. Not only would his horizons be broadened by the then-freshly printed Swamp Thing #26, but Moore’s kindness would stand as an exemplar of how to relate to fans in person. By the same token, Moore’s counter-cultural appeal – all passion, bonhomie, Miracleman t-shirt and freely-shared cigarettes – suggested a world in which Millar could irreverently follow his own star while earning a richly meaningful living.

As such, Swamp Thing was both a welcome opportunity and a dizzying challenge to Millar. The book had long been moribund, shedding readers while sliding down into the third rank of comics. If it still retained something of the lustre of its two golden eras, it was undoubtedly ripe for reinventing.

But as Millar himself would write;

“The worst thing about Alan Moore is that he casts a bloody big shadow. Many people have said that writing Swamp Thing, post-Moore, is a thankless task because you’re always going to be compared unfavourably with the bearded one.”

To be continued.


*1:- pg 186, Grant Morrison, Supergods, Vintage Books, 2011

*2:- Wein would move on from the book at the end of Moore’s arc, to be replaced by Karen Berger.

*3:-  Zap! Pow! Comics Aren’t For Adults Any More, interview w. Morrison & Millar by Steve Holland, Comics World #40, 1995

*4:- None of this is to deny that there weren’t both experimental and enjoyable Big Two titles and a developing mass of fine independent titles. But as a rule, the Big Two books of the era were predominantly bland and predictable.

*5:- interview with Morrison and Moore in Comics World 18,  1993

*6:- ibid

*7:- interview with Morrison,  Speakeasy #76, 1987


*8: ibid

*9:- All the references from the remainder of this post come from Millar’s contribution to Bayou-Rhythms, the letters column of 1995′s Swamp Thing #150.

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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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