“Take a Look Inside My Mind”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 29

Don Roberto & El Senor Blake face the supposedly ominous prospect of The Word's intervention; from Swamp Thing #147, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

Continued from last week.

It’s impossible to believe that Morrison and Millar’s Swamp Thing wasn’t intended as an allegory. For all that Morrison’s original plans appear to have been significantly modified by his junior partner, the series remains recognisably structured as such. By the closing serial that’s Trial by Fire, events appear designed to illustrate a debate between two vehemently opposed world-views. With the conflict purportedly resolved in Millar’s portentously heartfelt conclusion, the suggestion is very much that important issues have been thoroughly discussed and decisively resolved.  Yet for all that the narrative appears to demand interpretation, the nailing down of its author’s intentions is an arduous and knotty business.  In this, Millar’s storytelling falls short of either clarity or even a playful, intriguing sense of ambiguity. Even the most apparently simple of matters can, at second glance, reveal itself to be anything but. The result is a supposedly theme-settling conclusion that seems both ill-considered and, in several ways, even sinister. As we’ve already discussed, Millar’s ringing in of a rapturous new world is undermined by his disconcerting representations of less powerful social groups. It’s just one of a series of ways in which his craftsmanship and his lofty intentions clash.

Even the most important and apparently straight-forward of Millar’s scenes could be obfuscated by a range of consistently baffling choices. Perhaps the most bewilderingly obvious example of this appears in Swamp Thing #150′s Illumination, in which Millar attempted to set up the book’s eventual climax for two years hence. Hearing that The Word is determined to destroy Swamp Thing and terminate the plot to destroy humanity, a clearly daunted Don Roberto invites the heavenly executioner to a game of cards in a dilapidated bar. It is, we’re led to believe, a desperate and last-ditch strategy to divert the murderous intentions of an inconceivably powerful and brutal spirit. As Millar has the Mephistophelian Roberto declare,

“I hear these ancient forces are bound by forgotten laws. Some say they can be stopped if you beat them in a game of cards.”

from Swamp Thing #147, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

For all that that might initially sound intriguing, the information was entirely new to the book. Even ignoring the carelessness by which Millar wrote of “forgotten laws” that were somehow also being readily discussed, the effect is that of a belated and baffling info-dump. As far as Millar had previously explained, Don Roberto and his depraved accomplices were ancient beings themselves. Their plans to cleanse the Earth of its human inhabitants were a “billion years” old. Whatever might be their relationship to these other “ancient forces,” it passed confusingly without explanation. The result was less a sense of deep time and a mysterious cosmic order and more a debilitating confusion. (But then, Millar never did explain who Don Roberto, The Traveller, and El Senor Blake actually were, or how they’d come to believe that humanity must be wiped out. Similarly, these other nigh-immortal, card-playing powers were never again discussed.) If Millar intended the suddenly-introduced and vaguely-explained backstory to seem alluring, the context in which it was used defied his already attenuating efforts. For the suggestion that “ancient forces” and “forgotten laws” would allow God’s own destroyer to be diverted by a game of cards was a clearly laughable one. As ludicrous comicbook conceits go, the suggestion that the dawn of time had seen mighty forces playing poker for their freedom of action sits comfortably with the proposition that mongoose blood grants super-speed. (*1) Even as he was trying to rack up the sense of his character’s power and status, Millar was making them seem irredeemably preposterous.  Striving for the depth and poetry of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman’s world-building, Millar’s ambitions far outstripped either his imagination or his skill.

from Swamp Thing #149, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

The suspicion is that Millar was attempting to playfully smuggle in a nod to 1991′s comedy-fantasy movie Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, in which Death himself is defeated at a string of children’s games by a pair of surfer naïfs. But Millar’s scripts were reaching for an overwhelming and unadulterated sense of dread. It’s a framework in which the notion of a game of cards being played by stony-faced spooks for the title character’s life appears less playful and more incongruously foolish.  That’s especially so since The Word regards Swamp Thing’s potential to destroy humanity as both dangerous and blasphemous. Why then would he delay his divinely-sanctioned plan of assassination to play, of all things, poker in a ramshackle South American bar? How was it that his intervention was never foreseen by the conspiracy to eradicate mankind, who must surely have known that their rebellion against God would catch the eye of the Lord’s enforcer? (*2) What are these “forgotten laws” that stipulate absurdly that Don Roberto would have to “win one game in three” of poker in order to save the bog god, and why do they still apply? Why would God create a cosmic cutthroat who could be lastingly diverted from his celestial duties by the prospect of a few hands of cards? Can God himself be thwarted by the challenge of a round or two of poker? Without any kind of convincing set-up, the sequence reads as if it were a parody of the worst of Vertigo’s allegedly adult-orientated fantasies, all overreaching pretension and po-faced cardboard cast members.

Character as well as plot suffers from Millar’s befuddling approach. The poker game takes The Word and reduces a potentially fearsome antagonist to a pitiful, if powerful, idiot. For though Don Roberto’s victory would have stopped Swamp Thing being slaughtered by The Word, the latter has nothing to gain from success at the table at all. Inexplicably, Millar has the Hooded Man jeopardise his heavenly mission for nothing, it seems, but the challenge of the game. If he defeats Don Roberto, he wins naught beyond that, while even then his mission will have been unnecessarily delayed.  But if he loses, his capacity to defend his maker’s creation will be entirely and disastrously stymied. It’s hard to think of a character as imposing and dangerous when they’re capable of throwing away their God-determined reason to exist for no obvious return at all. By the same token, the supposedly formidable and fiendish Don Roberto is made to look like a coward and a blockhead. Why does he so fear the 52-card confrontation with The Word when there’s nothing to be lost by it?

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

Nor is that the final shortcoming in the scene’s construction. For having been defeated in the poker duel by The Word, Don Roberto then surprisingly reveals the awesome, if previously unshown, ability to frustrate his opponent anyway. This revelation not only defeats the entire point of their gambler’s duel in the first place; it also creates a mystery that Millar – once again – never thinks to explain. Instead, we’re shown how The Word accepts a defiant Don Roberto’s invitation to read his mind. Whatever it is that’s lurking there, it shocks and intimidates a character who’s previously been described as unchallengeable.  But what might this deus ex machina amount to? Is it some form of trick or an expression of genuine power? Does it relate to Don Roberto’s previous comment that he has “many tricks up (his) sleeve”? After all, the content of the conspirator’s mind both dismays and deters one of the DCU’s most powerful and merciless creatures, and in doing so, closes a conflict that had been ominously brewing for several consecutive issues.  Indeed, the appalling information that the Hooded Man had perceived will change the entire nature of the war against Swamp Thing. Despite his ever-growing threat to God’s blueprints, the plant elemental’s murder will now be delayed by The Word for two more years.  Without that adjournment, Swamp Thing’s daughter Tefe would never have developed the ability to defend her father by destroying The Word. Yet for all the apparent importance of its consequences, the enigma of what did and didn’t lurk in Don Roberto’s mind goes anti-climatically unexplained.  Not only had Millar plucked the conflict-closing gambit out of thin air, but he’d also avoided explaining anything at all about it.

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

It was as if Millar was attempting to spin a deeply meaningful and deftly-layered epic tale without detailed planning or careful revision. (By the same token, the impression given is that neither Millar nor Vertigo’s editorial staff were able to spot and correct the book’s most obvious problems.) As an approach to storytelling, it inevitably confused and compromised the book’s polemical content.  For if the story itself fell far short of making sense, or of even feeling satisfyingly crafted, then how could its meaning retain its clarity and integrity?

To be continued.


*1:- Robert “The Whizzer” Frank had received his ability to run at incredible speeds from a transfusion of mongoose blood in 1941′s USA Comics #1. But what understandably passed without comment in a children’s comic from an exploitation publisher in the Forties was hardly going to pass muster in a Vertigo book of the mid-Nineties.

*2:- The evil Lodge’s determination to destroy humankind is rooted up their certainty that the world will be destroyed if they don’t. But if their ability to foresee the future can’t even predict the intervention of The Word, then surely their capacity to be sure of any future event is in doubt. Nevertheless, Don Roberto and company simply plough on, unable to recognise how terribly flawed their methods are. It would’ve been an interesting situation for Millar to discuss, but he never refers to it.

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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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