“Ritual Must Be Observed”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 31

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

Continued from last week.

As for his two warring Lodges of super-mages, Millar seems to have used them as a symbol of religious sectarianism and reconciliation. Their differing interpretations of how to save the world had almost resulted in humanity’s destruction. But exposure to the fundamental New Testament virtues that Millar so values – “fellowship and charity” – ultimately forges a united community from a fractured one.  (*1) As we’ve seen, Millar saw Masonry as a tool for resolving conflict between different Christian groups , and it’s an idealised view of the organisation that he’d go on to presents in 1997′s Aztek #10. There, the as-yet inexperienced Aztek is initiated into the Justice League. The ceremony is a recognisable and respectful parody of Masonry’s induction rituals, and the sense is that they promise a fuller life and a better world. (Ironically, Aztek’s JLA career would be short, unremarkable and end in an early, tragic death.) Entering into a secluded, darkened room in which his future teammates are gathered, Aztek is faced by the costume of a long dead DC superhero. As Millar has the Martian Manhunter – tellingly shown in his true alien form – explain;

“The Crimson Avenger was the first of our kind… Conducting the ceremony before his costume is a sign of respect. Ritual must be observed.” (pg 22, Aztek 10, May 1997.)

from Aztek #10, by Millar (Script), Morrison (Co-plot), Harris & Champagne.

There’s undeniably something of the deconstructionist about the view of Christianity that emerges from Millar in these stories. Stripping back what he regarded as the inessential and dysfunctional aspects of his religion, Millar proposed a back-to-basics model founded on his own readings of the original texts.  In doing so, he presented a startlingly disapproving version of the God of the Old Testament. Though a take on Jehovah himself had been present in DC’s comics since February 1940′s More Fun Comics #52, and its origin of Jerry Siegel and Bernard Baily’s The Spectre, the company had always avoided making the association so specific that it couldn’t be denied. As such, the heavenly presence that raised slain detective Jim Corrigan in the guise of the fearsome Spectre was never directly named as God. Yet who else could it be that had brushed aside death, controlled the “gates to eternity” and overseen the administration of justice on Earth and in the afterlife? In an America dominated by Christian churches, any other reading would have been impossible.

More Fun Comics #52, "The Spectre" by Siegel & Baily.

But Millar closed the gap in Swamp Thing between a strong and respectful allusion and a direct and critical assertion.  The God of his stories was associated not with “Eternity,” but “Heaven.” Though at times Millar labels him “The Voice,” as convention demanded, at other moments he’s quite unambiguously God. Making no effort to draw back from associating his character from that of the Lord of the Bible, Millar defines his God as the maker of the Earth and the giver of it to the exclusive use of humankind.  In doing so, Millar deliberately references Genesis 1:3 and God’s creation of light. It’s a moment that Millar co-opts to show God’s simultaneous invention of The Word, the apparently all-powerful psychopath who unquestionably destroys all and any challenges to his maker’s order.  Never once giving him a sympathetic moment of any kind, Millar uses The Word to express his horror at religious tyranny and the violence it promotes.  It’s a point he makes explicit when he has The Word struggle to understand why anyone – or anything – would rise up against his Lord;

“Why did they do it? Why try to create a new God when they could serve the voice for an eternity on bended knee? They tried to replace him with a new king and it nearly worked. Holland almost succeeded. But he will be the last.” (ST. 168, PG 18)

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

It wasn’t as if Christian beliefs had gone unmentioned in Swamp Thing before. Yet during his 1985/6 American Gothic run on the title, Alan Moore’s description of Heaven and Hell had presented them as visions of good and evil, with their form being determined by the beliefs of those who perceived them. One character’s Boschian vision of hell was juxtaposed with another’s belief that the truth of things was to be found in Hindu interpretations.  But in depicting the Christian god as an objective, active and supreme presence in the DCU, Millar fundamentally altered the company’s continuity. As might be anticipated, it was yet another of his innovations that would be buried.

from JLA #8, by Morrison, Porter, Dell.

In fact, he and Morrison would soon ensure that the heresies of Swamp Thing were left far behind. When Heaven next made a major appearance in one of DC’s books, it was in Grant Morrison’s scripts for 1997′s JLA #7/8. There, God is conspicuous by his absence, while his role in the DCU’s creation and maintenance is left entirely unmentioned. Nothing of Millar’s contributions in Swamp Thing remains. (*2) Instead, Heaven is presented as an armed camp inhabited by warlike and often warring angels. From it falls to Earth Zauriel, a kindly angel who’s run afoul of Asmodel, a “King-Angel of the Cherubim Alpha Battalion,”  (In time, the former would join the Justice League, an angelic replacement for Hawkman.) No matter how Morrison references the Pax Dei and the “old Red Sea trick,” the Walls Of Jericho and the Apocalypse, the suggestion is that this Heaven is very much not that found in either the Bible or the Quran. Though the inhabitants of this celestial afterlife may have once been active on the Earth of the DCU, and influenced certain Middle-Eastern legends in doing so, there’s not the slightest hint that they represent, let along satirise, religious truths. In that, Morrison’s work is as uncontentious as Millar’s was factious;

If anything, the former uses Zauriel’s introduction to reference and celebrate Jack Kirby’s magisterial work on Thor and his Fourth World titles. As Morrison wrote on his noticeboard in 1999;

“…I decided to write (Zauriel) as DC’s Thor but with a Judeo-Christian/Muslim background to replace the halls of Asgard, et cetera.” (*3)

As such, the Heaven of Morrison’s JLA was a noticeably comicbook appropriation of certain religious traditions, made so playfully extreme and cartoonesque that it was free of offense to all but the most fanatical of believers. When Millar was given the chance to use the same interpretation in the following year’s JLA: Paradise Lost, he took a similarly broad and uncontentious approach.

To be continued.


*1: Millar at Google Groups, April 13th 1998 http://groups.google.com/group/alt.freemasonry/browse_thread/thread/c1bbd218258932fc/bb6ff60e778ac49b#bb6ff60e778ac49b

*2: We could believe that the Swamp Thing tales take place in the DCU’s future. It would make sense, since the new millennium still hasn’t arrived in any DCU version of Earth. But even then, the differences between Millar’s Heaven and Morrison’s are so marked that they can’t be reconciled.

*3: From Grant Morrison’s message-board at Nextplanetover, in response on 25/11/99 to a question by “shirleydoe”.

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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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