“Even The Worst Among Them Has Potential”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 32

from Swamp Thing #171, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

Continued from last week.

So, the Millar who wrote Swamp Thing was enthusiastic, ambitious, and ethically engaged. But for all his efforts and good intentions, and for all the occasional highpoint, the run was heavy-handed, over-egged, and underwhelming. A significant part of that can be laid at the door of Grant Morrison’s original plan. Though it provided Millar with a clear structure and sense of purpose, it did so at the cost of a stultifying obviousness. By the conclusion of the second of the trials, the overall arc of the series had become overwhelmingly predictable. Swamp Thing was to become ever more corrupted even as he became ever more powerful. Since it was his ability to empathise with humanity that was being progressively impaired, the run’s final conclusion itself became, in its broadest outlines, similarly foreseeable; just as he prepared to wipe Homo sapiens from the globe, Swamp Thing would experience a faith-restoring epiphany. The potential of the species to rise above its harrowing worst would be emphasised, the good deeds of its more promising members accentuated. So it would prove to be.

A writer of Morrison’s experience and talent may well have been able to obscure the predictability of it all, but Millar was clearly out of his depth. For all his toiling, the consequence of Millar’s storytelling was a title character that appeared to lack either personality or free will. (*1) Instead, Swamp Thing existed only to suffer while trudging along the predetermined beats of the plot. In essence, he quickly becomes a cosmic patsy. No matter what the punch-up or mystery, the result was always the same; less feeling and more might and the soporific tick-tick-tick of the never-to-reach-midnight doomsday clock. What Swamp Thing felt and believed and did were all largely irrelevant, given that the schemes which drove him to the brink of genocide were always determining his fate.

from Swamp Thing #158, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

Something might have been rescued by convincingly depicting Swamp Thing’s descent from bafflement into acquiescence. But instead, Millar opted for protracted and deeply-meaningful foreshadowing broken by unconvincingly broad strokes of emotion. The Swamp Thing who howled with despair at Abby’s rejection wasn’t simply embarrassingly overwrought. Given that the two of them had split and moved on prior to Millar’s run, the burst of hysteria – which was then never followed up – made no sense at all. It was to be a familiar problem. Millar could show his character’s state of mind at particular moments, but he couldn’t make the display convincing. Perhaps his most authentic stab at doing so occurred during the third of Swamp Thing’s trials.  But in portraying his star as a deeply depressed victim, Millar made the story itself a miserable, joyless experience. If it was the closest to a convincing psychological portrait that the series had to offer, it was also so grindingly bleak and obvious that it counted for little. That a story might flourish if it contained well-mixed measures of light and shade, good humour and despair, was something that the writer had yet to recognise.

from Swamp Thing #160, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

But most unforgivably of all, Millar even had Swamp Thing’s final switch from humanity’s nemesis to its protector happen off-page. In the run’s final issue, and as the whole story was insisting that the end really was nigh, Millar suddenly had his lead character announce that he’d, well, changed. And changed a while ago too, although we’d not be shown the process occurring in anything but the most elliptical of fashions. On the tale’s fourth page, a priest who’d slashed his wrists in despair while sitting on a toilet was accompanied by Swamp Thing’s declaration that;

“This is the end and everyone knows it. I can read the thoughts of the idiots huddled in their churches, taste the despair in the heart of every suicide. God is real and he is me.” (ST: 171:4)

Tellingly, the last moments of mankind came couched in the worst sins that Millar’s Catholic upbringing could summon up. No matter how alienated he seemed to be from key aspects of his Church, his imagination still expressed itself in terms of sin and blasphemy.

from Swamp Thing #171, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

From there, Millar showed his supposed destroyer experiencing obtuse aspects of six character’s psyches. Finally, the globally conscious Swamp Thing was elevated into the company of the Parliament Of Worlds, a hitherto-unmentioned congregation of sentient planets. At such a point, credulity collapses in the face of one last desperate lashing of pretentious silliness. Yet it might have been maintained had there some measure of drama still convincingly in play. But faced with the somewhat-humanoid form taken by the planet Mars, Swamp Thing shifts in just three panels from believing “humanity has committed atrocities against nature and must be punished” to rejecting the very same. It’s a crushingly banal payoff for almost three year’s worth of story. To have a static Swamp Thing explain in the past tense that he’d learned from Anton Arcane that “even the worst among them has potential” was to break with the most fundamental of storytelling principles; show, don’t tell. The single most important beat of all 32 issues simply failed to appear on the page as anything but exposition.

from Swamp Thing #171, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

Though Millar had added shadows of the relevant plot-points to the issue, he’d not succeeded in making them either relevant or moving. The dots were on the paper, but they were neither clear nor joined up. Tracing back through the issue, the essential components of a satisfying climax can be found; the threat to the Earth’s people, the heartlessness of the comic’s title character, the wildly different experiences of the cast, the kindness of the implausibly-reformed Arcane, Swamp Thing’s empathetic probing and so on. But plot hasn’t been transmuted into story, and only the desperate sincerity of Millar’s intentions links one sequence to the next. A deeply predictable saga that had reduced its lead character to a cipher puttered out like a massively expensive, promisingly huge and yet sadly counterfeit firework.

To be continued.


*1:- The most interesting attempt by Millar to deal with this problem is the “River Run” serial. Its strengths and weaknesses will be the subject of next week’s penultimate look at Swamp Thing.

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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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