“Make Him a Monster Again, Make Him Dangerous”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 21

Continued from last week.

Morrison later made a point of emphasising how central his contributions to Millar’s Swamp Thing had been;

“I worked out a large scale thematic structure based on a journey through the four elements and talked him through the individual story arcs, even supplying dialogue and caption suggestions, which he applied diligently.” (*1)

Especially in the light of their shattered friendship, it’s understandable that Morrison might want his beneficence to be more widely known. Yet Millar’s run on the series is hardly an advert for either man’s craftsmanship. If Millar did indeed apply Morrison’s directions with “diligence”, then neither comes out of the project with any excess of credit. With the exception of a few impressive stand-alone issues and the occasional scene, the work is characteristically stiff, careless, confusing, and wildly over-ambitious. If Millar was indeed under his mentor’s “supervision”, then Morrison – along with Vertigo editor Stuart Moore – appears to have either missed or been unable to correct the persistent flaws in his work. (*2) A curate’s egg from beginning to end, the series at best suggested how outstanding a writer Millar might one day become.

Yet the bare bones of Morrison’s proposal are undeniably intriguing. His plan called for a sequence of five strongly interconnected tales, the first of which would dramatically draw a line under the book’s more recent past.  In Millar’s words;

“We wanted to reemphasise the horror aspect that we felt had been missing for a while. In the last few years, Swamp Thing had become this kind of family man, sitting around with his wife and cats; the book was like Thirtysomething. We thought it would be good to take him out of that environment and make him a monster again, make him dangerous.” (*3)

Credited to both Morrison and Millar, the first issue of the new take began with a cruelly calculated insult to the work of both Doug Wheeler and Nancy A Collins. In a single page summary of the title’s status quo, the two Scotsmen pointedly – and rather pettily – ignored the previous 6 years of stories while harkening back to the era of Alan Moore and Rick Veitch. A brief and bucolic portrayal of Swamp Thing’s heart-warming family life, it was followed by a pointedly disorientating depiction of a world in which the plant elemental seems to have never existed. Instead, the human soul of a murdered scientist that had served as the template for Swamp Thing’s consciousness is shown to be alive, fully human and working in Peru. Instead of having passed onto heaven, as Alan Moore had depicted, Alec Holland has apparently survived, a deeply perplexed and distinctly corporeal researcher who’s studying “native plant hallucinogens”.  Not only is Swamp Thing nowhere to be seen, but Holland appears to have no memory at all of the creature. As a reader-capturing enigma, it’s an undeniably good start; everything that came before may well have been a dream. Is this somehow the original Holland, a mysterious doppelganger, or some strange transformation of Swamp Thing himself?

But from that point onwards, the tale stumbles into four issues worth of ill-thought through and frequently incoherent plot twists. Though the broadest outline of the story appears vaguely comprehensible, the serial’s packed with logic-sapping coincidences, inexplicably transformed characters, patently illogical events, stodgy exposition, a massively uneven tone, and a great weight of unconvincing if not even entirely unestablished motivations. In this, there’s often key similarities in the problems with the work that Morrison was most responsible for and the stories where Millar was more obviously in charge. Flaws that would be characteristic of the 32-issue run as a whole were very much present from its off.

Though the worst of the two men’s collaborations has typically been ascribed to Millar, the scripts for Swamp Thing 140 and 141 – large sections of which have escaped into the wild – suggest – in this particular case at least – a somewhat different story.  Despite credits for the series’ 4 issue long opener being shared in the credit boxes, the individual scripts for it appear to have been written by one or another of the pair. This process undoubtedly took place within the context of Morrison’s proposal, and it certainly involved a great deal of discussion between the two. But the evidence is that Morrison took the final responsibility for the opener Vegetable Man, or at the very least its first 6 pages, while Millar typed up the final draft of Bad Gumbo. (*4) Key differences between the two men’s work is immediately obvious, and no-one could sensibly suggest that their scripts are so similar as to be in any way interchangeable. Even where the formatting of the work is concerned, the two scripts are quite clearly the product of quite different writers.

For example, Millar’s panel descriptions are at times vague and challenging, while Morrison’s tend to be clearer and more artist-friendly. Despite having been a professional writer for four years, Millar was still prone to asking for Hester to rise to the challenge of portraying “a bad feeling in the air creeping in”, or, in a single panel, depicting a character looking up and sighing at what “should be a plane” passing the sun when it’s in fact “some grotesque, hellish bird”.  There’s also a strong impression given that Morrison is drawing from a broader range of influences. Where Millar references “Big Al’s last issue”, Morrison trusts his artist to know his Manet from his Mignola with a request for a Swamp Thing who “looks like a posed figure from Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe“. At moments like this, it seems the stereotype of the differences between their styles, skills and tastes is an entirely accurate one.

But weaknesses that have been traditionally associated with Millar’s work are clearly evident in Morrison’s script too. Just as the younger writer habitually and unhelpfully weighed down his work with his own fascinations, so Morrison loaded up Vegetable Man with a great irrelevant weight of psychedelic theory gleamed from the likes of Terence McKenna’s True Hallucinations. (*5) (As Supergods tells us, Morrison had recently travelled America while immersed in McKenna’s work.) The material does little to drive the story forward or define its characters, while its clogging presence sabotages the story’s forward momentum. Yes, it’s amusing to note that Morrison has playfully challenged McKenna’s association of plant-based psychedelics with human spiritual rebirth and, yes, it’s a witty irony to make nature’s message a genocidal one. But the problem is that the material isn’t made to work dramatically. Similarly, the references to environmental collapse and economic/cultural imperialism sit flat on the page, too facile to work as sub-text and too ill-focused to function as foreshadowing. Even giving the tale the title of an unreleased Pink Floyd track by tragic acid-causality Syd Barrett hints at a playful profundity that’s quite absent from the story itself. In attempting to transmit the confusion and paranoia of a psychedelic experience gone disturbingly wrong, Morrison ends up delivering an unhelpfully baffling curtain raiser. Even the dialogue, which had long been one of his great strengths, is frequently arid, jargon-filled and leaden.

In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, it would be easy to imagine Millar being blamed for the storytelling flaws that are evident in Vegetable Man. They were certainly typical of his pre-1998 work. Yet here, it’s Morrison who was displaying many of the very same shortcomings.

To be continued.


*1:- Page 318, Supergods, Grant Morrison, Jonathan Cape, 2011

*2:- Ibid

*3:- Millar’s Crossing, interview with Wally Pinochet, DC Shop Talk, April 1994

*4:- I’m being especially cautious here. Though I’ve only read 6 pages of Morrison’s script, the contents of the published comic suggests that he wrote the whole thing. The huge degree of McKenna alone would seem to be something that Millar would be unlikely to have had a taste for. But Millar told Pinochet – see *3 above – that he “might write 5 pages of a comic” before Morrison would “write the next seven. It happens quite seamlessly.” It’s possible, if not likely, that the scripts of ST#140 & 141 were more of a collaboration than the evidence suggests. Certainly the use of McKenna in #141 indicates that Morrison had, for that at least, a hand in its script.

*5:- Page 257, Supergods, Grant Morrison, Jonathan Cape, 2011

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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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1 Comment

  1. Colin, it’s fascinating to see you do the hard work of parsing out the Morrison / Millar collaborations, as you’ve repeatedly and fascinatingly done. Kudos for doing this hard but important work.

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