“A Martyr for All Mankind”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 24

rom Swamp Thing #150 by Millar, Swan, DeMulder et al, continued from last week.

Continued from last week.

At first, Morrison and Millar’s scripts were religious only in the very broadest sense of the term.  With the former’s influence clearly dominant, Swamp Thing’s series-opening crisis of identity is clearly framed in terms of a shamanistic initiatory crisis. Cast as the wounded healer, “Alec Holland’s” physical and mental disintegration drives Swamp Thing towards a visionary epiphany and a supposedly world-saving mission.  That the very same purpose will involve the extinction of humanity is also cleverly foreshadowed by Morrison. Swamp Thing’s equivalent of spiritual guides exist not in a trance-accessed plane beyond our own, but rather in a distinctly profane take on reality. There, a trinity of ancient and apparently supernatural characters – The Traveller, Don Roberto and El Senor Blake – manipulate Swamp Thing according to their secret, billion-year-old agenda. Just as the plant world’s psychedelically-accessed message to Swamp Thing is murderous rather than transcendental, so too his patrons are frequently and unsettlingly self-obsessed and callous. In suggesting that neither revelation nor interpreter are necessarily to be trusted, Morrison kicked off the series with a disorientating sense of mystery and unease.

But once securely in position as scripter with Swamp Thing #144, Millar started to introduce his more-than-familiar Catholic fascinations. Two of his four major solo arcs would be conspicuously Roman in content.  In the first, which featured Swamp Thing’s trial by the Parliament Of Stones, a great many of Millar’s most familiar religious tropes and themes reappeared.  As in 1989′s Saviour and 1990′s Canon Fodder, the 7-part series featured a rebellion against Heaven in the notable absence of God. There was even a reappearance of the secret, forbidden world of the Vatican, in which the very apple that had tempted Eve in Eden had been kept hidden. With tongue pushed firmly into his cheek, Phil Hester depicted it bearing a single, telltale bite-mark.

from Swamp Thing #144 by Millar, Swan, DeMulder et al.

As throughout his work for both Trident and Fleetway, Millar relied upon undermining religious expectations in order to scampishly generate a sense of transgression. As before, it was a strategy unlikely to thrill anyone who hadn’t once bought into the more traditional aspects of Christian, and in particular Catholic, thinking.  And so, Millar clearly intended the kidnapping by a demon of the saintly Father Kelly in A Hope In Hell (Swamp Thing #144) to both chill and cheer the reader. How could the Almighty allow his opposite number to harvest “the purest hearts from God’s good Earth” and betray his people’s faith in him? (Swamp Thing #150)Yet in the context of Vertigo’s corner of the DCU, where other realms and their endless species of god-like beings are forever interacting with humankind, the matter isn’t in the slightest bit shocking. Indeed, Christian traditions were constantly being referenced, played with and, to one degree or another, challenged in Vertigo titles such as The Sandman and Hellblazer. In such a context, the matter of God’s absence, and the violation of his edicts, is neither unexpected nor shocking. God, in a traditionally Christian sense, is nearly always absent in the superhero universes, and his rules are so perpetually flouted that their very existence appears doubtful. (Indeed, what would have been truly shocking would have the undeniable and active presence of a recognisably Christian god who was directly involved in the world.) It was a situation in which Millar’s religious nose-tweaking lost whatever fascination it had held elsewhere. Instead, his determination to play with Catholic preoccupations seemed ever more futile. Why, for example, did Millar show Father Kelly, the “cornerstone of (a) poor Christian community”, blaspheming with a casual “Ah, what the Hell?”. (Swamp Thing #144) It’s a touch that adds nothing but a layer of confusion to the plot; is this the sin that allows the priest’s living damnation?  Instead, it appears that it simply amused Millar to play with the rules of his faith, and to perhaps suggest that minor sins have little if anything at all to do with virtue.  In doing so, he produced what was at best a convention-challenging remix of a throwaway tale from the all-ages horror titles of DC’s past; a demon fibs to a priest about God’s intentions, and shockingly gets away with it! A distinctly juvenile confection, it sat poorly with the inventive and ambitious traditions that Vertigo had associated itself with.

from Swamp Thing #150 by Millar, Swan, DeMulder et al.

The same problem undermined Millar’s attempt to play out another of his familiar Catholic tropes; the war of Hell against Heaven. In this version of the young Millar’s favourite plot device, a reborn Sargon The Sorcerer has decided to “save mankind from eternal oblivion” by conquering Heaven. Once achieved, he intends to unseat God and throw open the high ground of the afterlife to the “souls” of “ordinary people” who had “failed to reach the overmind”.  (Swamp Thing #149) For reasons that are never explained, and which are barely referred to, these “souls” turn out to be those of fiendish sinners condemned to Hell. (Or so it seems, for the story, full of contradictions, is particularly hard to make sense of.) But the context of the DCU neuters any sense of heresy on the part of either protagonist or writer. As a result, Millar’s script seems to do little more than ape Moore, Bissette and Totleben’s innovational treatment of similar scenarios during the book’s golden era. Worse yet, the neutering of Millar’s religious playfulness, and the smothering of any suggestion of transgression it might create, exposed even further the lack of sense in his scripts. Nowhere was this more painfully obvious than in the final scene of the seven-issue trial of the Parliament Of Stone. (Swamp Thing #150) There, Sargon is portrayed “crucified to the Earth itself”, trapped in an ill-specified realm “between heaven and hell” and bound and penetrated by roots of some unspecified kind. Having finally recognised his own love for his niece, Sargon has abandoned both his plans to sacrifice her and his invasion of the celestial city. The consequence is that he’s somehow become a Christ-like “martyr for mankind”, suffering eternal pain and yet buoyed by the redemptive power of his self-sacrifice. (*1)

from Swamp Thing #150 by Millar, Swan, DeMulder et al.

There’s an obvious reverence for the figure of Christ in Millar’s script here, and a clear and fundamental respect for the virtues of penance and fortitude.  Sargon may be bound to a form of the cross and doomed to eternal torture, but his suffering is the inevitable and necessary price of his “illumination.” His comics-absurd form of atonement and enlightenment may well have been in Morrison’s roadmap for the series, and yet it’s hard to imagine him putting such a specifically Catholic spin on things. But in taking such an approach, Millar was striving for meaning in the absence of either shock or sense. For his scripts gives no reason at all for Sargon’s imprisonment.  Having been determined to sacrifice his own loving niece in order to complete the fall of Heaven, Sargon is shaken to the core by her sudden and fierce hatred for him. Though Millar doesn’t explain why this should suddenly cause the sorcerer to renounce his scheme, the implication is that he’s somehow managed to empathise with her plight. (Swamp Thing #150) Having made a brief and rather pathetic apology, Sargon then disappears with the declaration that he’s off to “do what is right”. When he next appears, he’s suddenly been elevated to the status of martyr. The problem is that Millar doesn’t show how Sargon has earned such an exalted rank.  He hasn’t played any part in Swamp Thing’s defeat of the malignant, rebellious spirits, or even assisted in the closing of the escape from hell. Whatever has caused Sargon to be trapped and punished and, presumably, redeemed, and whatever he’s done to earn the reflected glory of Jesus himself, it occurs unhelpfully off-stage. It’s a page that radiates its own importance, and yet it reads as if it’s the climax to a tale that’s been told in some other comic and added to this one by accident.

To be continued.


*1:- It may be that the ever plot-recycling Millar finally got to use at least part of the end for his cancelled Saviour here.

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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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