“The Notion that Mankind is Diseased and Must be Replaced at all Costs”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 26

from Swamp Thing #166 by Millar, Swan, DeMulder et al

Continued from last week.

The conflict between Millar’s two opposing teams of Masons appears to represent a clash of empathy and hubris, tolerance and tyranny, good faith and a world-razing secularism. Where one Lodge is determined to “inspire mankind to greatness,” the other is bent on replacing humanity “by something better at all costs.” (SW#167) On the patently heroic side of the divide stand the good-hearted believers, led by The Phantom Stranger and dedicated to the preservation of humankind. With two-thirds of their number being long-established, book-carrying DCU protagonists, there’s little doubt about the moral superiority of their cause. As an alliance, they embody a broad range of convictions and approaches. In Constantine, they’ve the greatest oath-breaker and taboo-flouter of the DCU, although Millar recasts him as a strangely respectful apostate when it comes to Masonry. In The Phantom Stranger, they’ve a centuries old mystic adventurer who Millar appears to definitively out as a fallen angel. (The character’s appeal had always previously relied upon the uncertainty of his backstory, with four quite distinct origin tales having once appeared in a single comic without any being labelled as canon.) (*1) That the two might combine forces in the name of the greater good was entirely in keeping with their previous histories. Constantine and the Stranger had often crossed paths, most notably in 1990′s mini-series The Books Of Magic. But to have such distinct and disparate figures take orders from a previously unseen Freemason was so out of keeping as to be absurd. The idea of Masonry being one of great powers in the DCU/Vertigo-verse not only arrived out-of-the-blue, but in contradiction to the movement’s public image. Caught between a mocking contempt for Masonry’s apparently silly rituals and the lingering finger-pointing of conspiracy theorists, the public image of Freemasonry was unlikely to be generally marked by either admiration or awe. What had needed to be carefully established by Millar – whose high opinion of Masonry we discussed last week – was instead presented as a taken-for-granted fact, and the story suffered accordingly.

from Swamp Thing #169 by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al

Nowhere was the audacity of Millar’s reworking of continuity so obvious as in his depiction of John Constantine. As the final arc progressed, Millar reinvented an implausible past for the character’s teenage self. Once, it seems, a shy, easily cowed and deeply religious Catholic boy, Millar’s Constantine had been drawn into the membership of an upper-class Lodge and pushed through some truly disturbing initiation rites. Taking what’s symbolic in Masonic ritual and presenting it as fact, Millar had his clearly apocryphal Constantine regretfully urinating on a crucifix before being ordered to slit the throat of a close friend. It’s a confused as well as counterfeit narrative which depicts this particular Lodge as thoroughly evil even as the wider story demands that the opposite be true.  Was Millar suggesting that the youthful Constantine had mistaken the symbols of initiation for a real-world evil? Was the Grandmaster’s assertion that Constantine now had, following his defilement of the cross, “no god” merely a metaphorical device? After all, the Lodge was well aware that was a God who was also the creator, and was dedicated to preserving his creation if not his rule. (Was Millar once more carelessly recycling old and unused plots by putting to use his previously rejected proposals for Hellblazer?) Without making such key plot elements clear, the later respect of both Constantine and the Phantom Stranger for this Lodge appears nonsensical. Why in particular would Constantine ally himself once again, and with so little rancour and distrust, to the same apparently barbaric institution that he’d once quite understandably fled?  At the very least, we might expect a considerably more vitriolic response from a Constantine who feels compelled to ally himself with his enemy’s enemy, but nothing of the sort emerges. Whatever the solutions to these enigmas, they’re sadly not to be found in Millar’s script, which consistently generates confusion and yet rarely resolves it.

from Swamp Thing #167 by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

But despite the evidence of Millar’s own flashbacks, the world-defending Lodge and its allies are unambiguously associated with the greater good. As if to emphasize the point, the broad church that mobilises against Swamp Thing and the elemental Parliaments also incorporates the openly bisexual Timothy Raven, “the last of the Ravenwind Witches.” If such a sympathetic portrayal of a LGBT character was no longer a revolutionary business in the monthly American comicbook, it was still a relatively rare one. (*2) Though a positive representation of bi-sexuality had appeared in Swamp Thing before – with writer Nancy Collins’s humane depiction of supporting character Elizabeth Tremayn – Timothy Raven was the first heroic, super-powered lead to be so identified. In the context of Millar’s career, the empathetic portrayal of Raven marked a clear and substantial break with how he’d previously tended to depict non-heterosexual characters. As we’ve discussed before, Millar’s pre-DC work had tended to represent gay men in a regrettably homophobic fashion, with the reprehensible 1992 depiction of the villainous “Ducky Leatherpants” in Robohunter standing as the worst of a wretched lot. (*3) But the years had slowly brought a mellowing of Millar’s approach. In 1995′s Trial Of The Parliament Of The Vapours, he’d sympathetically depicted the plight of sufferers in an AIDs ward, while the same year’s Chester Williams Super Cop saw him aggressively mocking the reactionary right’s anti-gay agenda. Stepping beyond such empathetic gestures, Millar’s depiction of Timothy Raven as a valid and admirable character in his own right is a respectful and, in several aspects, touching business.

from Swamp Thing #167 by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

It is, however, undeniable that Raven’s character is often mannered to the periphery of campness, and therefore coloured at times by the pernicious stereotype of the archly over-cultured pederast. But his predominant qualities remain those of loyalty, bravery, and compassion. If he’s previously followed his Grandmaster’s orders to break the law in order to undermine his own ego, then his personal inclinations remain fundamentally gallant and even noble. Riddled with inoperative cancer, he willingly embraces a fate that might prove far, far worse than his approaching death could ever be. Though he himself would see little if anything at all of the coming holocaust, he still risks all to prevent it. As he does so, and in what remains one of Millar’s most touching scenes, Raven tenderly recalls his estranged male “partner” and wishes “so much that I could speak to him.” Even in the least well-judged aspects of Millar’s portrayal, the script insists that it’s the quality of Raven’s character and not the fact of his sexual preferences that’s important. Though the plant-alien Jason Woodrue is shown distrusting Raven’s libidinal ambitions, the script avoids either confirming his prejudices or suggesting that they’d be in themselves unacceptable and immoral.  As Millar has Raven declare;

“Oh, for God’s sake. Just because I’m bisexual doesn’t mean every invitation I make is a proposition.”

Of all the cast involved in Millar’s last Swamp Thing serial, it’s Timothy Raven who emerges as the most fully rounded and beguiling individual. Regrettably, he would disappear from sight until a brief 2005 cameo in Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers Of Victory: Zatanna #1, in which he was shown being incinerated.

To be continued.


*1:- In 1987′s Secret Origins #10, in which four creative teams speculated on the character’s origins. Millar’s choice unsurprisingly opts for the back story therein written by Alan Moore.

*2:- The pages of Swamp Thing during writer Nancy Collins’s reign had, for example, revealed that longstanding supporting character Elizabeth Tremayn was bisexual.

*3:- As discussed in more depth here, in a previous section of Shameless.

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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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