“Why Try to Create a New God?”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 30

from Swamp Thing #168, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

Continued from last week.

But for all the carelessness and clumsiness of Millar’s scripts, his and Morrison’s Swamp Thing consistently displays a deliberate and serious moral purpose. Indeed, the comic persistently plays out two quite separate if frequently overlapping allegories. The first appears to be Grant Morrison’s, and it draws from the work of Terence McKenna in order to broadly criticise the 20th century West and its “dominator culture”. (*1) By contrast, the second seems to be of Millar’s devising, and it juxtaposes institutional Christianity with a personal faith based on the most fundamental of Christ’s purported teachings.  Both allegories use the corruption of Swamp Thing to suggest a catastrophic darkness at the heart of modern culture. From what can be perceived of Morrison’s framework, he’d defined that darkness as the alienation of humankind from the natural world and its “Gaian mind”. (*2) In short, Swamp Thing’s corruption suggests something of humanity’s catastrophic isolation from, and war upon, the Earth. By contrast, Millar suggests that the world’s evils are caused by the absence of key Christian virtues.  In the younger man’s tales, the arrogance of science, the accumulation of power, the brutality of fundamentalist religion and the ultimate toothlessness of liberalism all contribute to humanity’s calamitous situation. Where Morrison suggests that humankind needs to reintegrate itself back into the world consciousness, Millar argues that the Church-not-built-of-hands approach of Mark 12.31 offers the only hope; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. That such a universally-embraced and species-transforming measure of compassion and understanding will also save the environment is, it seems, taken for granted.

from Swamp Thing #168, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

In dramatic terms, the solution to both dilemmas involves the very same plot-twist; Swamp Thing is reinfused by empathy before transmitting the very same quality to humanity as a whole. In that, Morrison’s original framework is made to serve, with some nipping and tucking on Millar’s part, both writer’s intentions. As Morrison had originally laid out, each of the tests of the elemental Parliaments had resulted in Swamp Thing becoming more and more powerful. The consequence was a god-like being who was unable to perceive the world with any measure of understanding or benevolence. Corrupted by the scheming of the Parliaments and their Masonic allies, Swamp Thing can only understand the world through the prisms of murderous resentment and apocalypticism. But in overcoming his final challenge and attaining supreme control over the Earth, he becomes able to objectively perceive reality through the kaleidoscope perspective of billions and billions of consciousnesses. From that comes the revelation that peaceful and lasting cooperation is the only way forward for both human and non-human alike. In that, the saving of both homo sapiens and the planet as a whole depends upon the equivalent of a global psychedelic re-awakening, in which the Earth, now whole and healed and embodied by Swamp Thing, dissolves humanity’s psychotic egotism. In short, Swamp Thing functions as an incredibly potent dose of psilocybin mushroom, restoring the link between Gaia and her broken, destructive children. Despite Millar’s tales working to push a quite separate agenda, the survival of Morrison’s plan for the series in its most basic terms ensures that McKenna’s prescription for the saving of the world is, in the very broadest of senses, fulfilled.

from Swamp Thing #170, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

To suggest that Millar’s scripts were concerned with different values and separate debates isn’t to insist that he hijacked the series from Morrison’s intentions. The rapid infusion of Christian debate into Swamp Thing under Millar might have occurred with Morrison’s blessing, if not his ideological assent. For all that it seems unlikely, it may actually have been part of the latter’s original plan for the series. Given how repeatedly supportive he was of Millar, it’s hardly a struggle to picture Morrison creating a framework in which his friend could express his own fascinations and convictions. Yet it seems an implausible proposition. More probable is the hypothesis that Millar was simply far more interested in discussing the Christian myths, themes and values that had been central to his work from day one. Though the cycle of Swamp Thing’s testing and corruption would continue as Morrison had established, the conflict would now appear to illustrate a discourse quite distinct from those typically favoured by the older man. Even if certain of Swamp Thing’s trials seem at times to step away from explicitly Christian content, the series as a whole serves as an unmistakably sincere and specific testament of faith on Millar’s part. Accordingly, the concepts of sin, surrender, repentance and redemption as cast in a distinctly Christian light were woven through proceedings. From Father Kelly to Sargon, Anton Arcane to Swamp Thing himself, the most ultimately virtuous and influential of Millar’s characters express recognisably New Testament values. In the end, success, and the settling of the run’s thematic questions, is earned by the book’s title character as he assumes the role of the new era’s John The Baptist, as the forerunner and enabler of the Star-Child. For all of Millar’s repeated attempts to produce edgy, shocking and even terrifying work, his Swamp Thing tales actually express a back-to-basics, dogma-bare version of ecumenical Christianity. (*3)

from Swamp Thing #170, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

By the conclusion of the series, the unguarded and wholesale appropriation of the traditions of the Nativity would – for all the unfortunate problems it caused – seem entirely in keeping with Millar’s run as a whole. (*4)Though the outline of Morrison’s original intent for the end of the series can still presumably be perceived, the dominant message is a Christian one.  As such, Millar’s Swamp Thing shares little with the eco-occultist values expressed throughout Morrison’s career. Similarly, it means that the ethics of Millar’s Swamp Thing are antithetical to those expressed by his idol Alan Moore during his own era-defining time on the book. What had once been a radically questioning and confrontational book had in many ways become anything but.  Millar’s fever-dream of the Kingdom’s arrival and the rise of a perfectly harmonious society would have undoubtedly appalled Moore, whose career has been dedicated to the challenging rather than the acceptance of established authority. One man’s Christian utopia is inevitably another’s mind-controlling theocratic dictatorship, and there’s a more-than-merely-disturbing air of the Invasion Of The Body Snatchers about Millar’s supposedly joyous conclusion. After all, the individual members of humanity had been given no choice over whether they wanted their heads invaded and their perceptions completely and irrevocably rewired, and their lotus-eating paradise seems disturbingly devoid of debate and choice.

Under Millar, even John Constantine was transformed into a man of the new hive-minded status quo, revelling in the Star-Child’s birth and happily reborn as a community-minded and loving citizen. Even before Swamp Thing’s removal of humanity’s distorting individual perspectives, Constantine had abandoned his cynicism in favour of a belief that “everything’s going to be fine”.  Despite all the evidence to the contrary, he’d somehow embraced the belief that mortal designs were always likely to fail and that a greater benevolent purpose ought to be trusted in. Faith and submission were entirely unlikely virtues for Constantine to adopt, but it served Millar’s purpose to show him doing so.

To be continued.


*1: As so pithily and usefully summarized here: “Dominator culture (refers to) a Western patriarchal culture that lacked social conscience or concern for the environment.”

*2:- Head here. I think it’s a fine presentation of the concept.

*3:-It could be argued that that the “God” in Millar’s Swamp Thing is actually the DCU’s “Voice”, a surrogate for the almighty that allows controversy to be sidestepped. From that, it might be said that this Swamp Thing run is a far less Christian text than I’m suggesting. It’s a point that I’ll come back to next week.

*4:- As discussed in the past few posts in this series.

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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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