Continued from last week.
Millar’s command of his craft wouldn’t significantly improve over the remainder of his time on Swamp Thing, though progress would undeniably occur. He’d dial back on the degree of redundant dialogue and dilute a measure of his Moore and Gaiman-aping portentousness. As the months passed, Millar would notably reduce the degree of explicit material on the page, opting more for suspense and suggestion. The pace-miring mass of foreshadowing in the Trial Of The Parliament Of Stones would also be gradually, if only partially, abandoned. But only in Millar’s use of religion could the evidence of a truly dramatic change in his approach be seen. Always a writer fascinated by the subject, he’d previously ploughed a distinctive and ever-more predictable approach to Christian concerns. On the one hand, he’d consistently delighted in playing with the narrative traditions of the major Churches. In doing so, he’d depicted the likes of an argumentative baby Jesus, several versions of a grotesquely vicious God, and a callously world-ignoring Heaven. On the other, Millar had often broadly, and rather uncontroversially, mocked the aspects of his own Church that appeared most regressive. As if suggesting that Catholicism should have long since renounced its less liberal aspects, he’d described appalling sexual scandals covered up by priests while depicting the soul of a suicide welcomed into the after-life. For almost six years, his approach had remained remarkably and enervatingly consistent, playful in its mockery and gentle, almost timid, in its criticism.
But in Swamp Thing’s final arc, Millar appears to present a far more deliberate critique of traditional Christianity, and, with a typical measure of idiosyncrasy, he does so using aspects of Freemasonry. As an approach, it’s surely unique in comics history. Though uncompromisingly proscribed by the Roman Church since 1738, Millar was becoming more and more fascinated by Masonry during the mid-to-late 90s, and references to it would be frequently woven into his work. To my knowledge, he hasn’t discussed in print the influence of Freemasonry upon his later Swamp Thing tales. But Millar has drawn attention to the “sub-text” of some of his subsequent work such as Superman: Red Son and the final issue of 1996′s Aztek, in which membership of the Justice League was associated with Masonic Rites, (*1) As Millar would later explain to another Mason;
“…. the Justice League are a team of superheroes comprised of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc, who have bound together and formed an oath of allegiance to make the world a better place. I haven’t explicitly said they’re Freemasons, but an issue (contains) a scene where a new hero is raised by the Master of the League to full membership and given a special hand-shake. Being someone hoping to be raised as an Entered Apprentice soon, you’ll no doubt see other positive references to Masonry cropping up in my both my comic book and movie work.” (*2)
His regard would also be expressed in the likes of 1999′s Superman Adventures #34, while the time-displaced Steve Roger’s love for his lodge would be smiled at in several post-Millennium issues of The Ultimates I and 2.
That the subject meant a great deal to Millar can be seen in his passionate 1998 defence against the charge of religious hypocrisy;
“Actually, I don’t think this has anything to do with loyalty. I am a Catholic currently seeking to be a freemason and have strong feelings on the subject. There are a great many problems I have with the Catholic Church, but I chose to remain a catholic due to belief in God and Christianity and a respect for my family and social commitments. What attracts me to masonry is the non-sectarian nature of the organisation in a country (Scotland) which has had tremendous religious problems among the populace. The basic Christian ideals of fellowship and charity which masonry promotes are exactly what I was raised to believe as a catholic. The historical gulf between the church and the lodge is nothing more than Rome seeing a threat to their financial and political interests. I mean this as no slight to Catholicism, but the notion of freemasonry as evil is ludicrous. An organisation is only the sum of many parts and the masons I’ve met are generally very nice people.”(*3)
The cynical-minded might argue that Millar’s approach to the two institutions had something in common with his dealings with comicbook continuity. In both cases, Millar tended to follow his own conscience and regard himself, wherever possible, as the best authority at hand. (From that perspective, it’s a distinctly Protestant approach to life for a lifelong Catholic.) But it ought also to be noted how heartfelt Millar’s defence of both Catholicism and Freemasonry was, and of how his personal fusion of the two reflected a loathing of religious sectarianism. There’s certainly nothing flippant or casual about Millar’s contentions. Instead, it’s a vivid example of him fusing together some of the greatest passions of his life; Catholicism, politics, and his experience of living in the often religiously-divided city of Glasgow. To add comics to that brew, and use the page to express his convictions, must have been an irresistible urge. After all, the Vertigo line of comics – and its immediate predecessor books of the DCU – was famous, or perhaps notorious, for the political freedom granted to writers. The teenage Millar would have been more than aware that Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing was grounded in the writer’s anarchism, that Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was a purposefully humanist text, and that Grant Morrison’s Animal Man was a polemic in favour of animal rights, vegetarianism and ecological sanity. In addition, Millar would also have known that Rick Veitch- Moore’s successor on Swamp Thing – had walked away in protest from the DCU after his unimpeachably respectful use of Jesus Christ had been censored. Politics were practically de rigueur, and yet politics brought their own challenges and threats. It was a situation that Millar must have found fiercely alluring.
The influence of Freemasonry appears quite out of the blue in the first issue of Millar’s final Swamp Thing serial. There, the reader is introduced to three sorcerers, two of which are long-standing stars of the DCU; The Phantom Stranger and John “Hellblazer” Constantine. Although it had never been referred to before, and would indeed never once be referenced again, both were shown to belong to the same Lodge. Along with their fellow Mason and magic-wielder Timothy Raven, they were tasked by “the Grandmaster of their lodge” with the prevention of Swamp Thing’s eradication of humankind. (Swamp Thing #166) Without any telling foreshadowing at all, and in the midst of an immensely complicated morass of plot elements, Millar had thrown Freemasonry right into the centre of the DCU/Vertigo-verse. Even more confusing was the revelation that the end of humanity was being hurried along by an opposing Lodge composed of The Traveller, Don Roberto and El Senor Blake. At the very heart of the universe, it seemed, was a conflict between Masons, and that war appeared to be billions of years old.
To be continued.