Killing the Planet:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 22

Continued from last week.

Those first four issues of Swamp Thing by Morrison and Millar set the template for the rest of the series. The pretence of an everything-you-know-is-wrong reboot was swiftly abandoned, and “Alec Holland” revealed to be the mind of the Swamp Thing reincarnated into a perilously unstable and vulnerable pseudo- human form. Weary of his constant refusal to obey their commands, or so the script initially maintained, the ancient plant minds of the Parliament Of Trees had torn Swamp Thing’s consciousness from his bog-built frame. Returned to a form of life by a group of mysterious others, he was now obliged to track down and destroy his mindless and murderous old body. Should he fail, it would continue to murder its way through the ranks of his old friends and associates before, ultimately, coming for him.

But what seemed like psychotic behaviour on the part of Swamp Thing’s elemental overlords was really an aspect of a God-challenging conspiracy. Rather than wiping Swamp Thing’s mind in a rage of disappointment and frustration, the Parliament was actually brutally testing him. Should he be strong and capable enough to survive their assaults, he’d be permitted to face further such deadly tests from the Parliaments of Stone, Vapors and Fire. As each trial was passed, Swamp Thing would find his powers substantially increased and his kinship with humankind diminished. To overcome the challenges of these archaic institutions was to absorb their extraordinary capabilities and ultimately become, in essence, the world itself. Once raised to such lofty heights, the Parliaments intended for Swamp Thing to wipe the ever-destructive human race from the face of the globe. Their capacity to work together limited by Godly decree, the Parliaments were surreptitiously reshaping Swamp Thing as an instrument of genocide, as a blasphemous weapon that might tear down the celestially sanctioned order.

The broad outlines of Morrison’s plan for what was obviously intended as a long occupation of the book by Millar were clear. After a board-sweeping, tone-setting opening, four long serials would detail the testing and transformation of Swamp Thing. Yet for all its clarity and sense of forward momentum, Morrison’s plan was badly flawed. No matter how much variety was added to the plot of each individual arc, events soon gained a sense of inevitability. One Parliament’s schemes and threats would be succeeded by another, and the sense of predictability became more and more overwhelming. By the second year of Millar’s tenure, Swamp Thing’s gradual loss of his human perspective pointed inescapably towards the threat of war with homo sapiens. Morrison’s scheme was undeniably clear and logical. But by the same token, the obviousness of the grand conceit would have tested a far more experienced and capable writer than Millar. That Swamp Thing would eventually become a form of god, and that he’d finally regain his sympathy for humanity rather than destroying them, seemed inescapable. After all, what was the alternative? That the character would be permanently recast as an antagonist seemed almost as unlikely as the prospect of the Earth being scourged of the mass of the DCU’s cast members.

Millar’s scripts, which constantly stressed the virtues of empathy and self-sacrifice, did little to undercut the sense that the book was trudging towards an obvious conclusion. The result was an epic tale which had long since run out of momentum before its own climax appeared. As such, it’s no surprise that several of Millar’s finest individual issues on the series had little if anything at all to do with Morrison’s grand design. Stories such as the gleefully Republican-baiting Chester Williams: American Cop - from April 1996′s Swamp Thing #165 – appeared as one-off breathing spaces between one arc and another. Though not all of them were successful, these self-contained tales showed a degree of control, enthusiasm and purpose that was often missing elsewhere.

It says something of Morrison and Millar’s disillusionment with DC during the late Eighties and the early Nineties that they embarked on such a substantial undertaking in the first place. For they were very much not the first creators to extrapolate the existence of other potentially vengeful elemental Parliaments from Alan Moore’s work. In particular, the Firestorm tales of John Ostrander had already featured many of the plot-elements that Morrison and Millar would later use in Swamp Thing. In 1990′s four-part Elemental War, Ostrander investigated the prospect of the Parliaments’ ever-more threatening alienation from humanity and the violence that might ensure. Given Morrison’s scrupulous habit of actively crediting his inspirations, it seems unlikely that he knew anything of this Firestorm run. (As far as I can tell, neither he nor Millar mentioned the book during the period at all.) Yet it is surprising that neither Morrison or, in particular, Millar seemed particularly interested in Ostrander’s achievements during the post-Crisis period. In his long stint on The Spectre, for example, Ostrander had skilfully and sensitively engaged with a great many of the religious issues that Millar has so frequently explored. But as we’ve seen, 1996′s origin of the new Justice League by Morrison and Millar used The Spectre in a way that was completely out of keeping with Ostrander’s contemporaneous work. Whatever the reason, Ostrander and artist Tom Mandrake’s exploration of the three other elemental Parliaments went unmentioned. (Notably, the figure of Mother Earth/Maya is completely absent from Morrison and Millar’s stories.) By the same token, the war that the Parliaments of Wind and Water had declared in Firestorm went similarly unreferenced, and that despite Swamp Thing’s successful part in bringing the conflict to a close.

Nor was Ostrander the first at DC to pursue this whole line of thinking. As the writer himself explained in 2010, the later years of the Eighties had already seen it “decided that Red Tornado was actually the Wind Elemental”. (*1) But despite Millar’s determination to wedge in every reference to the DCU that he possibly could, the direct antecedent of his Swamp Thing run passed unacknowledged. (If it was an editorial decision on the part of Vertigo to ignore Ostrander’s superhero-filled work, then it’s hard to grasp why. The series could have been alluded to even if its super-people were kept off-page.)  For those who’d already read Ostrander’s Firestorm tales, this broad if undeniably partial similarity of plot and theme only increased the sense that the 1994-6 Swamp Thing was a far more familiar prospect than it ought to have been.

To be continued.


*1:- From a 2010 interview by “Shag” from the Firestorm Fan site:

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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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