“Try Telling That to a 23-Year-Old Who Just Wanted to Play with the Toys”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 19

Steve Yeowell cartoon which accompanied Millar's interview in April 1994's DC Shop Talk.

Continued from last week.

That “bloody big shadow” of Alan Moore’s extended far beyond the pages of Swamp Thing. Trying to compete with his achievements on the title was a daunting enough prospect.  But Moore’s example had helped to radically transform the marketplace in which Morrison and Millar’s Swamp Thing would be competing.  As we’ve discussed before, much of that influence had been  filtered through obtuse and opportunistic minds and used to create the stiflingly crass bloodfests of the Dark Age.  (*1) But the more insightful and ambitious voices at DC – and in particular that of editor Karen Berger – had recognised how Moore had helped to open up a lucrative, credible and hitherto-untapped marketplace of older, literate readers. (*2) In the years following Moore’s acrimonious break with DC, the company floated a string of titles aimed at the very readership he’d tapped into.  As with Moore, the writers commissioned were all British, ambitious, gifted and sceptical.  As with Swamp Thing, the properties involved were untypical, quirky,  and challenging by comparison to the superhero  genre’s norms. The result was a string of innovative, singular, and genre-pushing  titles which included Morrison’s justifiably revered reinventions of Animal Man and Doom Patrol.

By 1993, Berger’s books had been carved away from the DCU and collected under the banner of Vertigo. The imprint was, she declared, a way for the company to push artistic boundaries in a mature and considered fashion.  (*3) Protecting DC Comics from moral panics and the cries for censorship which tended to follow also played no little part in the process. As Vertigo senior editor Stuart Moore later explained;

“The decision to keep these books largely separate is partly an editorial one regarding sensibilities (does Tim Hunter really fit into a Superboy story?).  But it’s much more a higher-level decision based on not wanting to entice children to read “mature readers” books … (to cite an extreme example) featuring John Constantine on the cover of Superman, where a six-year-old reader might read the book, be intrigued by the character, and bug his mother to read Hellblazer (or just get hold of it and bring it into the house).” (*4)

Black Box, from 1995's Swamp Thing #151, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al

As time passed, the imprint began to focus more and more upon creator-owned titles that had no connection with either each other or the DCU.  Yet even as its character evolved, Vertigo remained a progressive and principled imprint.  Grant Morrison was hardly alone amongst his fellow creators in the fiercely positive opinion of the line he expressed during the imprint’s  tenth anniversary in 2003. It had, he argued;

“… provided a platform for some of the most distinctive and revolutionary voices in the comics industry, or anywhere else, deny it if you can – Gaiman, Ennis, Ellis, Milligan etc, the result being some of the most explosive and creative work ever done in the comics field. The concept of the ‘Graphic Novel’ flourished into ambitious and ground-breaking long-form, creator-controlled works like Sandman, Preacher, The Invisibles and Transmetropolitan. Vertigo opened doors into the bookstore market which are now starting to look like escape hatches for many creators as specialist store monthly comic sales float in the doldrums and book shop sales go up. Vertigo also introduced progressive creator ownership deals which remain the best in the business.” (*5)

If Millar’s name was conspicuous by its absence in Morrison’s list of “distinctive and revolutionary voices,” the general point was clear; the example set by the likes of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing had developed into a broad, inventive and creator-friendly tradition.

It might be thought that the nascent Vertigo was a perfect platform for Millar to kick off his American career.  Moore had been alienated by DC’s fear of provoking self-righteous outrage, while Veitch had walked away from Swamp Thing after a previously-sanctioned – and entirely respectful – guest appearance by Jesus Christ had been brutally censored. By contrast, Millar was now practically obliged to challenge preconceptions and, by implication, ruffle a feather or two.  Yet both he and, it seems, Morrison were frustrated by the decision to separate Swamp Thing from the DCU as a whole. The freedom that the Vertigo line offered came at the cost of losing access to the vast library of stories that both men had grown up adoring.  Where Moore had been able to access and reinterpret the company’s long and complex history,  Morrison and Millar were faced with a seriously constrained range of sources to draw from. Throughout his run, Millar would be constantly – and obviously – trying to shoehorn the DCU into his Swamp Thing tales.  Speaking half-a-decade later, Millar would declare that he hadn’t really “understood Vertigo” at all. (*6)It had been created in part to be free of superhero continuity, and yet that was exactly what Millar wanted to be part of. As he’d explain to Barb Lien-Cooper, Vertigo was ” a brilliant idea, but try telling that to a twenty-three year old who just wanted to play with the toys.” (*7)

The Word, from 1996's Swamp Thing #170, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al

Remarkably, Millar would make no bones about his feelings in his 1994 interview with DC’s house magazine Shop Talk;

“No, Grant and I are both super-hero terrorists; we’re the guys at Vertigo who love super-heroes – it’s the reason we started reading comics in the first place. I like doing real-life stuff and horror, but there’s this kind of snobbery against superheroes that’s a bit crazy. I would like to do as much of it as possible.” (*8)

Rather than not understanding Vertigo’s raison d’être, it might be more accurate to say that Millar simply didn’t agree with it. It was a position he’d make perfectly plain in the letter column of Swamp Thing #159;

“Yeah, well, I’m the bloke who wants to see Tim Hunter going head to head with The Parasite, John Constantine up against Sinestro and Sandman’s magical land of the Dreaming shrunk down to microscopic size and trapped in one of Brainiac’s cool sample bottles.” (*9)

It was an ambition that editor Stuart Moore was very well aware of:

Certainly Mark Millar is one Vertigo writer who could not be described as reluctant to use older and/or supernatural characters from the DC Universe. If he had things his way, he’d be using many more – and most likely getting us into lots of trouble with the DC Universe as a result! (*10)

Throughout his time on the book, Millar would regularly propose tales which featured well-established DCU characters. The almost inevitably negative response to his proposals left his run studded with obvious take-offs of DC properties.  Denied the chance to use characters such as the Spectre, the Phantom Stranger and the golden age Green Lantern, he’d create the Word, the Traveller and Black Box instead. The effect was consistently counter-productive. The relationship between his analogues and their inspirations was always distractingly clear, while his own versions were rarely distinctive or interesting in their own right.

To be continued.


(*1) And the same in the great mass of DC’s Nu52 line.

(*2) I write “helped” because Moore was, of course, part of a large number of “Third Way” creators in the 80s who pioneered a more considered approach to action/adventure comics, and in particular the superbook.

(*3) source pending

(*4) Stuart Moore in conversation on Google Groups 14/6/1998 https://groups.google.com/forum/#!search/The$20decision$20to$20keep$20these$20books$20largely$20separate$20is$20partly$20an$20editorial$20one$20regarding$20sensibilities$20/rec.arts.comics.dc.universe/WJCalvN5S-g/v7LlgCDSjPQJ

(*5) The Final Draft, by Alan Donald, 2003, originally up at Comics Bulletin, archived at https://sites.google.com/site/deepspacetransmissions/interviews-1/2000-2005/comics-bulletin—the-final-draft

(*6) Speaking With The Authority: Mark Millar, interview with Barb Lien-Cooper, Sequential Tart, August 2000

(*7) Ibid

(*8) Miller’s Crossing, interview with Wally Pinochet, DC Shop Talk, April 1994

(*9) Mark Millar, “Bayou-Rhythms”, Swamp Thing #159, October 1995

(*10) Stuart Moore, “Bayou-Rhythms”, Swamp Thing #150, January 1995

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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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