“[The] Most Morally Objectionable Comic DC Has Ever Published”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 23

Continued from last week.

As ever, it’s impossible to precisely disentangle Morrison’s influence from Millar’s. Yet Swamp Thing’s storylines and themes certainly bear the stamp of many of the former’s recurrent passions; magic and folklore, parallel worlds, the apocalypse, long-standing occult conspiracies, taboo-challenging sexuality, the absurd and colossal potential of the pre-Crisis DCU, and, initially, the works in particular of Benoit Mandelbrot and Terrance McKenna. But within the context of Morrison’s framework for the title, Millar succeeded in creating a tale that’s in many ways distinct from anything his mentor had – or ever would – produce. In particular, Millar’s stint resulted in a conspicuously Christian tale. Mystically rather than religiously inclined, Morrison has frequently appropriated the iconography of the Church without ever wanting to affirm its ideology. Despite his use of the image of the Cross in Batman: Arkham Asylum and the language of fire-and-brimstone preaching in Kid Eternity, Morrison’s attitude towards Christianity has always been – to put it politely – indisputably sceptical;

“I think religion per se, is a ghastly blight on the progress of the human species towards the stars.  At the same time, it, or something like it, has been an undeniable source of comfort, meaning and hope for the majority of poor bastards who have ever lived on Earth, so I’m not trying to write it off completely. I just wish that more people were educated to a standard where they could understand what religion is and how it works. Yes, it got us through the night for a while, but ultimately, it’s one of those ugly, stupid arse–over–backwards things we could probably do without now, here on the Planet of the Apes.” (*1)

But in Swamp Thing, Millar ran with the opportunities offered by his mentor’s outline and produced what would ultimately become an undeniably heartfelt expression of religious conviction. If his Swamp Thing tales contain much that seems to challenge the orthodoxies of the Roman Church, they’re frequently underpinned by a profound belief in the most fundamental tenants of the New Testament. In direct contradiction to Morrison’s beliefs, Swamp Thing ultimately portrayed what Millar regarded as the essential, redeeming truths at the core of the Church’s teachings. Was Morrison’s plan for the series designed with an eye to Millar’s faith? Did he set out to enable Millar to discuss beliefs that Morrison himself fiercely disagreed with? If so, it was a remarkably generous and thoughtful gesture. If not, Millar’s scripts on the title radically informed the material he’d been given with his own deeply-held convictions.

There’s no doubt that Millar had a very considerable deal of freedom when it came to turning Morrison’s overview into individual stories. It’s a fact that’s underscored by Swamp Thing editor Stuart Moore, who later confirmed that Millar “didn’t start with a firm structure worked out for each arc.” (*2) Rather than having to mechanically follow Morrison’s issue-to-issue and page-to-page instructions, as some have chosen to believe existed, Millar actually functioned as a largely autonomous storyteller. It was a degree of freedom that allowed him to creatively respond to the prospect of the title’s cancellation in 1995. Having already rethought how he’d like to approach the comic’s penultimate serial-within-a-series, Millar grasped the opportunity to radically shorten the trial of the Parliament Of Vapors. On other occasions, his tales were entirely uninfluenced by Morrison and his plans. What Millar called the “non-PC brainwave” of Swamp Thing 165 arose in response to the American Presidential campaign of 1995/6. (*3) Appalled by the likes of Bob Dole and “Newt” Gingrich, Millar ripped out a single-issue sneer of contempt that avoided the inadvertent friendly fire of Big Dave while matching its scornful intensity. One of the run’s outstanding issues, it was illustrated on Millar’s request by veteran Superman artist Curt Swan. The tension between the scabrous script and the nostalgically elegant art made the exercise seem all the more daring. Drawing on his love of cinema, Millar suggested the effect was akin to that achieved by;

“cult film directors taking classic but unfashionable actors and playing around with viewers sensibilities for effect  (ie Travolta in Pulp Fiction, Sergio Leone casting Henry Fonda in Once Upon A Time In America.)” (*4)

If Swan himself seems to have been perplexed by Millar’s “weird” method and message, their brief collaboration was warmly received. (*5) It was a reception that even Millar’s self-aggrandising announcement of his own generosity towards Swan couldn’t diminish;

“I heard Curt was looking for work and I really felt kind of sad about it. The problem is that his style just doesn’t sell comics anymore and, despite efforts of a lot of good people in DC editorial, there just isn’t really much work for him.” (*6)

As has so often happened, Millar’s good intentions clashed with his obsession with publicity. To have sought out work for Swan was an undeniably compassionate business. But to announce that he’d done so while baldly labelling Swan’s work as uncommercial was surely good for neither the artist’s career prospects or, it might be presumed, his self-esteem.

Strangely enough, Millar’s disdainful mocking of America’s New Right in Swamp Thing #165 didn’t once take aim at Fundamentalist Christianity. Elsewhere in his time on the title- as we’ll soon discuss – Millar would pointedly criticise reactionary religious views. But in Chester Williams: Super Cop, he reserved his contempt for the association he saw between the New Right and a host of political sins; sexism, authoritarianism, racism, homophobia, American Exceptionalism, neo-McCarthyism, state terror, and corporate squaderism. The story was, Millar declared;

“…my own version of what Vertigo and Swampy could look like post-election. The issue is probably the worst taste, most morally objectionable comic DC has ever published, but I’m really pleased with it.” (*7)

Quite deliberately bereft of the slightest trace of subtlety, Chester Williams: Super Cop featured an alternative-Earth in which Swamp Thing’s resident “stinking hippie” had aggressively adopted the politics of America’s far right. Rising from party-hard liberal professor to minority-beating cop and on to the Oval Office itself, William’s success is driven by the very values that the story most obviously abhors. Millar’s method is the same as he and Morrison used on Big Dave. His characters express without nuance the ignorance and bigotry that Millar detests, and the sheer absurdity of their doing so is presumed to be at the very least compelling. Unlike much of Big Dave and 2004′s disastrously misjudged The Unfunnies, Swamp Thing #165 succeeds in joyously making its point without jejunely alienating all and sundry. Indeed, much of what’s amusing about the tale relies less on the wider political situation and more in its reversal of the long-term reader’s expectations. The sight of the characteristically kind and welcoming Chester Williams declaring that an “instinctive recoil from homosexuality is a sure sign of a healthy society” might amuse regular readers even where Millar’s primary purpose can’t; the inter-textual shocks can carry the day even when the politics might not. A dark mirror image of Swamp Thing‘s long-established status quo, Chester Williams: Super Cop’s satire can even be read as a criticism of Vertigo’s then-typically left-of-centre bias. Why was it, the comic often seems to demand, that sympathetic expressions of right wing issues are so conspicuously absent from the imprint’s pages? Why is that such principles and policies only present in the form of Millar’s burlesque? (*8)

Even now, the story probably remains one of the most biased – if not necessarily the “most morally objectionable” – of tales ever printed by DC Comics, and it’s impossible to believe that it could ever be printed in today’s considerably more cowed,  conformist and corporate-minded times. That Millar so smugly declared it “an evil book put together by diseased individuals” shouldn’t be allowed to obscure its virtues. (*9)

But elsewhere in his Swamp Thing stories, Millar’s concerns would ultimately prove to be far more religious than political. At first, this was an intermittent and confused business, and it reflected Millar’s exuberant sensationalising of Christian beliefs and practise in strips such as Savior and Canon Fodder. But by his final arc, Millar’s approach would be far more sober and sincerely expressed. A gently told and empathetic conclusion, it would have nothing in common with the acid-bath mockery of Chester Williams: Super-Cop. Instead, Millar would be earnestly struggling to tie together an immense number of loose plot-threads with reference to the cruel and divisive effects of religious fundamentalism and sectarianism.

To be continued.


*1:- “All Star Memories” #9, interview of Grant Morrison by Zack Smith, Newsarama, 31-10-08

*2 – Stuart Moore at Google Groups, 25/09/98

*3:- referenced pending, mea culpa.

*4:- pg 8, “Millar Mixes Old With New”, Comics International #66, March 1996

*5:- Curt Swan: A Life In Comics, by Eddy Zeno, Vanguard Press, 2002, page reference pending

*6:- pg 8, “Millar Mixes Old With New”, Comics International #66, March 1996

*7:- Mark Millar’s introduction, Swamp Thing #165, April 1996, Vertigo/DC Comics

*8:-Vertigo’s books eventually began to reflect an even broader range of beliefs. In particular, writer’s Bill Willingham work on titles such as Fables would represent aspects of right-wing thinking while achieving both critical and commercial success.

*9:- as (*7)

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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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