Sneaking Barry Allen Back:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 20

1996's Swamp Thing #171 by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al

Continued from last week.

Millar’s habit of writing Swamp Thing tales, which demanded the presence of off-limits DCU characters, never entirely faded. Even at the climax of his run, and despite almost three years of working for Vertigo, Millar’s work radiated a sense of incompleteness. Rather than plotting a conclusion to the series which worked within Vertigo’s limits, Millar produced a final arc that highlighted the arbitrary separation of its affairs from those of the DCU. In it, humanity was knowingly faced with the prospect of its impending doom at the hands of Swamp Thing, and yet the major and minor powers of the superheroic world were conspicuously absent from events. To both Millar and Hester’s regret, and yet surely not their surprise, the former’s request to use icons such as Superman and Batman had been once again knocked back. (*1) Yet continuity demanded that at the very least lip service was paid to the absence of the likes of the JLA. Although the Vertigo and DCU titles were kept mostly separate from one another, the conceit remained that they shared the same universe, the very same history. As such, it was inconceivable that DC’s multitudinous superpeople should have been so noticeably absent from the apocalyptic events that Millar was portraying. It was surely a tale that ought have been written so as to convincingly avoid such an explicit problem, and yet Millar had done nothing of the sort.

Nor could his habit of plugging plot-holes with new and obvious imitations of costumed protagonists save the day. After all, he could hardly invent an entire cadre of pseudo-Justice Leaguers. Their presence would inevitably intensify the awareness of the original’s absence, while in turn raising the question of  why these newly minted champions had never been seen before. Millar’s references to the DCU continuity that he was allowed to access only compounded the problem. If he could use characters such as the Floronic Man and, at last, the Phantom Stranger, and if references could be made to Arkham Asylum and “super-teams”, then where were the rest of the company’s cast who’d be inevitably concerned with events? The result was a distinct sense of anti-climax which helped to undermine the sense of planetary jeopardy that Millar was striving for. A curate’s egg of a finale, it referenced both the traditional appeal of the DCU and Vertigo’s progressive agenda without ever truly resolving the conflicts and contradictions between the two.

From 1994's Swamp Thing #150, by Millar, Hester & DeMulder. Here Millar pointedly has the Traveller described in a way that (1) evokes Barry Allen's defining tardiness while (2) reminding us that the second Flash's funeral took place in the absence of his corpse.

The first half of Millar’s term on Swamp Thing had seen him adopting a far more mischievous approach to DC and Vertigo’s editorial strictures. Right from their first co-written issue on Swamp Thing, both he and Morrison seemed keen to tweak the company’s nose over the limits it set to what was and wasn’t canon. As die-hard fans of the pre-Crisis multiverse, the two men began by heretically suggesting that they’d surreptitiously returned the Barry Allen incarnation of the Flash to life. (*2) By far Grant Morrison’s favourite superhero, the Silver Age Flash had been purposefully killed off in 1985/6′s Crisis On Infinite Earths, a symbol of past and yet declining glories that DC was anxious to leave behind. Determined to be seen to be standing by that epic mid-80s reboot, the company had thenceforth insisted that Barry Allen would never be resurrected. But Morrison and Millar’s opening salvo on Swamp Thing would challenge that diktat with the figure of The Traveller. What at first appeared to be nothing but a hastily-sketched stand-in for the Phantom Stranger was soon revealed to be a markedly older version of the nine-year’s dead Flash. Though never stated so nakedly, the evidence was clear and overwhelming to anyone familiar with the history of the DCU. The Flash’s iconic lightning-bolt logo could be seen in The Traveller’s pupils, while the character declared himself “an electrical messenger” who’d “died to gain knowledge … My friends would not recognise me now”. The passing years had evidently seen the second Flash taking on aspects of Odin’s identity, and yet the underlying presence of Barry Allen was hidden in plain sight.  An impossibly swift runner who followed the news from Allen’s hometown of Central City and admitted to having fought Sargon The Sorcerer, The Traveller could hardly be anyone else. (*3) Even as Morrison stepped away from co-writing the title, Millar continued the playfully schismatic campaign.  Though Millar’s use of him was always playful and never malicious, the Traveller’s existence suggested a mindset scornful of bureaucratic priorities. So obvious was the impish subversion that Mark Waid, the-then writer of the third Flash’s title, publically  insisted that – despite being sure Millar was “a nice guy” –  the Traveller was most certainly not Barry Allen. (*4) Four years later, Morrison and Millar would take over Flash for a year at Waid’s invitation, but for the moment, the plans of the two camps were anything but in sync.

The Traveller - still with that lightning in his eyes - from 1996's Swamp Thing #171, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

As a challenge to DC’s status quo, The Traveller was just a smidgen more restrained than Morrison’s 1990 lament for the multiverse in Animal Man #24. (*5) But it showed once again how contrary Morrison and Millar could be. Far from keeping his newcomer’s head down, Millar had kicked off his American career with an obvious critique of his employers’ editorial policies. Yes, Morrison had almost certainly planned this barely-covert return of Barry Allen in the first place. But Millar would enthusiastically continue with the  revisionism for the remainder of his first year on Swamp Thing. Little could seem less appropriate to the pages of a Vertigo book that a debate about the value of a long-buried superhero and the policies his death embodied. In that, Millar’s spirited approach hardly seems likely to have impressed the DCU’s editorial gatekeepers.  Yet Millar, with his propensity towards challenging authority while stubbornly pursuing his own enthusiasms, seems not to have considered the option of a prudently low profile.

It may be that Millar lost interest in pursuing the matter of Barry Allen’s strange afterlife, or perhaps  it was suggested he ought to desist. For whatever reason, the insistence that the Silver Age Flash was still alive largely disappeared after the end of Millar’s first extended storyline. (Not that he abandoned the conceit entirely; the final issue of his Swamp Thing referred pointedly to the “lightning” in the Traveller’s eye.) Yet Millar’s love of pre-Crisis conventions would go on to serve as the backdrop for his second solo arc on the book. There, the string of mysterious worlds visited by Swamp Thing during the River Run series were all discernible versions of parallel Earths from the days of the multiverse. Presented even in the pages of Swamp Thing as fictions, their mournful, bleak set-ups suggested cruelly lost opportunities and squandered potential. It’s quite possible that they’d also been part of Morrison’s original plan for the series, and their presence certainly suggested a further rebuke. With their presence underpinning perhaps the best sequence of issues in Millar’s run, the implication was clear; the retirement of the Silver Age’s “infinite Earths” had been an ill-judged business.

To be continued.


*1:- Phil Hester: Straight Shooter, interview by Rik Offenberger, 10/7/03, at

*2:- Their committed preference for the pre-Crisis DCU was discussed in a previous post in this series;

*3:- I take no credit for these observations. Several Google Group threads in the late 1990s discussed the matter in considerable detail. For example, you might start here!search/swamp$20thing$20$20mark$20waid/rec.arts.comics.misc/IvFy4oqgZuo/lqfiXZsH3wUJThose old GG threads are fascinating, and full of information that’s rarely be put to use since.

*4:- Waid’s words – written on 22/11/95 – are quoted in the above thread.

*5:- As touched upon in the post referenced in (*2) above

Tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


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

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Colin Smith:

New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


Leave a Reply