“Old Souls, Dark Agendas”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 28

Everyone's heaven? from Swamp Thing #1 by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

Continued from last week.

The final pages of Millar’s Swamp Thing depict the Earth on the eve of a historically unprecedented golden age. (*1) Humanity has been empathetically transformed through the god-like Swamp Thing’s influence, while the planet as a whole is primed for a new era of ecological respect and coexistence. It’s a hopeful if saccharine vision that’s delivered with a guileless measure of Christmas-card sentimentality. (Despite Millar’s distaste for what he calls “hippies,” there’s nothing in the comic’s finale to challenge the values of the late-Sixties’ counter-culture.) (*2)But as Maggie’s unacknowledged ordeal insists, the new order appears to work in the favour of the same old social elites.  In the pages which detail the consequences of this “universal illumination,” there’s no-one but White characters to be seen. (The text declares that Swamp Thing’s palace has been “blessed with visitors from all over the world,” but the art shows no sign of that being so.) The same was true of the preceding war against the as-then unreconstructed bog god. Despite it being a conflict of global importance, events are nearly always shown through a Western – and predominantly White American – perspective.

Most uncomfortable of all, the only two recurring non-Caucasian cast members had been magic-wielding Masons who were mercilessly bent on humanity’s annihilation. Loading the dice from the off, Grant Morrison had introduced Don Roberto and El Senor Blake in terms of South-of-the-Border, this-ain’t-Texas-no-more representations of the Other, and Millar did nothing to challenge this set-up. (It was surely Millar’s job to do so, given how short-lived Morrison’s direct involvement had been.) Instead, the two clearly sinister diabolists were consistently depicted as the malevolent citizens of a noir/horror Latin America pieced together almost entirely from clichés. The vampiric El Senor Blake functioned as a gruesome, shadow-bound wheeler-dealer, fundamentally untrustworthy and physically repellent. Don Roberto occupied the role of the laconic, manipulative and threateningly mystic native.  The rotgut bars and shack-like motels they occupied teemed with shadows and distortions, dishonesty and disaster, confusion and cowardice, reprehensible schemes, pseudo-Shamanistic magiks and a deeply unconvincing patois. Rarely depicted as anything other than disturbing, menacing and unappealing, they left even the distinctly rumpled and sinful John Constantine seeming clean-cut and unambiguously heroic by comparison.

How to tell a charming rogue from a complete rotter; from Swamp Thing #169, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

Even when Millar and Philip Hester depicted El Senor Blake facing down the sociopathic presence that’s The Word, he was shown as an abominable, misshapen figure, as a denizen of a grimy and inherently faithless periphery. For all his admirable if understandably reluctant show of bravery, Blake was still the entirely unsympathetic Other. Had Constantine been in the same situation, his self-indulgences and scheming would have played to his status as a roguish anti-hero. As such, his compulsive drinking and smoking would have been used to stress his laddishly dissenting virtues. But the same indulgences on Blake’s part are satanic markers of physical and ethical corruption. (When he and Constantine are finally placed fag-smoke to fag-smoke together in Judas Tree, there’s no doubt about who’s the heroic self-abuser and who’s the devilish one.) Quite simply, El Senor Blake is nothing but repulsive. If the stereotype of an indigenous shaman that’s Don Roberto was never similarly portrayed as physically distasteful, he was always depicted as an impenetrable, malignant presence.   The result is a story that can seem to be suggesting that the world is at risk from more than just an evil, ages-old conspiracy. In addition, it seems that the West is somehow also being threatened by the more apparently untrustworthy of its neighbours from the wild southern hemisphere.

Where America itself is concerned, the message is admittedly a confused one. At moments, the Republic is even portrayed as a rapaciously oppressive state, complete with fiendish Men-In-Black secret agents.  (Their brief presence suggests a guest appearance by Millar’s own Shadowmen, from his 1990 Trident comic of the same name.) But when Swamp Thing’s cast is divided up into its humane and its dastardly members, the clichés that inform the fiendish Don Roberto and El Senor Blake stand out, obvious and unfortunate.  While there are both corrupt and honourable American citizens on display, there’s no-one that’s supposedly to be associated with South America who’s anything but appalling. When the new millennium arrives, it does so despite everything that Don Roberto and El Senor Blake can do to prevent it. (*3)

Return of the Shadowmen? from Swamp Thing #166, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

If only either Morrison or Millar had taken the time to explain who these two genocidal antagonists were as individuals rather than clichés. Sadly, they did nothing so judicious once Romantic-sounding, Latinesque names had been attached to paper-thin stereotypes. Though all three of the world-threatening Masons were associated with lies and skulduggery, only the conspicuously Caucasian figure of The Traveller was given any depth or shown in anything of a sympathetic light. Similar in appearance to DC’s heroic Phantom Stranger while aspiring to the status of an Odin, “a god in human form,” The Traveller arrived bearing associations that fans would immediately warm to. Here was a character that seemed to be not just a superhero of sorts, but a wizard bearing the mark of the ambiguously noble druid, a comicbook Gandalf or Merlin. Unlike Don Roberto and El Senor Blake, The Traveller was portrayed as a dynamic, physically powerful and, at moments, compassionate figure. He was active in the world while they conspired in the shadows. He was capable of fantastic feats of speed while they worked solely through deceit and spell casting. He dared to challenge the great powers while boldly suppressing his fear, while they attempted to work their schemes at a safe distance. While his colleagues appeared to think nothing of Swamp Thing’s welfare, he was compassionately concerned for the elemental’s wellbeing. The Traveller may have been in part designed to suggest that the alliance against homo sapiens was nothing to do with any one culture or colour. But whatever the writer’s intentions, or their lack, he stood out in the terms of the superhero book as a far, far better class of super-villain. The result was that Don Roberto and El Senor Blake seemed despicable even by comparison to their exceedingly White accomplice.

The Traveller proves himself a more caring kind of monster; from Swamp Thing #143 by Millar, Swan, DeMulder et al.

It was a process made worse by Morrison and Millar’s suggestions that The Traveller was actually a phenomenally aged Barry Allen. (*4) No matter how many thousands of years had apparently passed off-panel, it was simply impossible to believe that the second Flash could ever have been so corrupted. How could the steadfast Justice Leaguer have been transformed into a god-like destroyer of his own species? In fact, it was nigh-on impossible to believe that Allen would ever have attempted to slaughter his fellow human beings, and yet, that’s what was being implied. Such playfulness on Morrison and Millar’s part inevitably sparked a series of expectations that were never, and perhaps never could be, fulfilled.  Whether because of editorial fiat or not, The Traveller largely disappeared from Swamp Thing after Millar’s first year’s worth of tales. But even then, the implication for long-standing readers was that the real Barry Allen would eventually reveal a noble purpose before dramatically changing sides. Since no clarification of the situation ever appeared, The Traveller’s brief reappearances tended to emphasise the frustratingly confusing nature of Millar’s storytelling.

Of course, those who knew nothing of Barry Allen were untouched by Morrison and Millar’s allusions. But even under those circumstances, The Traveller was by far the most compelling and attractive of the three murderous Masons. In such a way were the stereotypes of Don Roberto and El Senor Blake made to seem even more ill-chosen and unfortunate.

To be continued.


*1:- The way in which women are represented in Swamp Thing is something I’ll be returning to.

*2:- “I really fucking hate hippies.” – Millar to Steve Holland in “Comics Aren’t For Adults Anymore,” from 1995′s Comics World #40. You can read the article at Ben Hansen’s Deep Space Transmissions site here.

*3:- I’ll be returning to the absurdity of such ancient beings adopting these stereotypes, and remaining as them even after the conflict’s over, in two weeks time. It’s not just an insensitive choice, but a profoundly daft one too.

*4:-As discussed 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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