“Not Walking in Alan Moore’s Footsteps”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 33

crop from John Totleben's cover to 1976's Swamp Thing #171.

Continued from last week.

Of course, there’s no reason why an obvious ending can’t also be a satisfying one. Similarly, a protagonist that seems to lack personality or potency can still be used in a compelling way. But the finale of Millar’s Swamp Thing failed to cap an uneven and disappointing series with a suitably dramatic and involving conclusion. In truth, Swamp Thing only decides to save the world through the accident of the powers he’s been perverted by. Rather than overcoming the Parliament’s design through some mix of brawn and brain, he’s merely transformed by forces beyond his control. Agency is entirely lacking from the climax. “Global consciousness” brings with it empathy, and with empathy comes understanding and mercy. There is a potentially sharp irony in the twist that the Parliaments’ psychotic plan resulted in a world-saving psychic network of compassion and charity, but Millar makes nothing of it. Instead, that network and its consequences simply arrive on the page, without Swamp Thing having to raise a finger or edit an intention. His corruption and his redemption are both largely beyond his control, and therefore of no credit to him at all.

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

Millar seems to have struggled to analyse the stories that he was most influenced by. Though he clearly knew Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing tales backwards in terms of their narrative surface, the strengths of Moore’s method appears to have eluded him.  And so, Millar’s work fails to show an understanding of how to suggest that a passive protagonist still deserves our sympathy and respect. With its helpless, tool-of-fate Swamp Thing, Millar’s concluding issue of the book falls short of sparking any significant sense of catharsis, or even relief. Yet Moore’s run offers a series of strategies to help ensure that even an ineffectual lead character can seem thoroughly heroic. When his Swamp Thing is finally returned to Earth after an alarming and enforced exile in space, it’s through the kind intervention of the plant Green Lantern Medphyl. Just as with Millar’s conclusion to his time on the book, it’s a climactic scene in which Swamp Thing is saved without having to act directly to deserve it. In essence, he turns up on planet J586, inadvertently causes a catastrophe, and then gets sent home through the skills and power of his rescuer Medphyl. Yet Moore used two approaches to ensure that the return was in no way tinged by disappointment. In the first, he continued a months-long process of emphasising how brave and determined Swamp Thing was in refusing to abandon his quest to return home. Against all costs, and in the face of horrors stretching from appalling despair to the spectre of mechanical rape, Swamp Thing had persevered. In the second, Moore had the spirit of Swamp Thing by necessity inhabit the corpse of Medphyl’s beloved teacher Jothra. It allowed the Terran’s consciousness to survive and prosper while enabling a grieving Medphyl to find a measure of closure. Accordingly, Swamp Thing’s final leaving sparked a pathos mixed of both joy and sorrow. For all that the story had seen Medphyl rather than Swamp Thing as the hero of the piece; the latter’s success in returning at last to Earth felt entirely earned and immensely satisfying.

from 1987's Swamp Thing #61, by Moore, Veitch, Alcala et al.

By the same token, Millar seems not to have noticed that Swamp Thing’s finest moments have tended to see him portrayed as a baffled and yet unwavering protagonist who’s been thrown into incongruous and implicitly menacing environments. In such a way has the plant monster at his best become the reader’s representative in bizarre and disconcerting locations? Though Millar grasped the need for bafflement, he missed the context in which it might function. Once again, it was a trick that Alan Moore had worked the best. Forever hurling Swamp Thing into settings, in which the bog-god was alien, isolated and overwhelmed, Moore dropped him into the nature-denuded fortress of the Sutherland Corporation’s HQ, Hell and the borderlands of heaven, an America of gothic horrors, the concrete wildland of Gotham, and the absurdly alien worlds of the DCU. It was a lesson that Rick Veitch ran with in his wonderful time travel tales, in which Swamp Thing was ricocheted backwards through a variety of comics history-rich periods following an alien attack. The point, it would be thought, has long been obvious; the post-Wein/Wrightson Swamp Thing has only truly shone when lifted out of a standard-issue portrayal of the bayou and its attendant conventions. As a god of sorts, safe in his marsh-heaven and its endlessly weaponisable elements, Swamp Thing seems all too powerful and predictable and familiar. But ripped from his natural environment, and reduced to the status of a threatened and yet benevolently conscious eco-system, he becomes a remarkably evocative figure.

from 1985's Swamp Thing #32, by Moore, McManus et al.

Even when Moore and his colleagues excelled in creating remarkable swamp-based stories, they often worked because of the way in which the horror-ladened marshlands were juxtaposed with unexpected genres and apparently incongruous guest-stars. The Justice League’s involvement in Roots brought with it the excitement of seeing Moore, Totleben and Bissette rework the DCU in a radical fashion. The swamp had become a cauldron in which long-familiar super-people were radically – and even disturbingly – reframed. Similarly, Moore and McManus’ heart-rendering Pog works as a homage to Walt Kelly’s brilliant funny-animal strip Pogo, and does so by hybridising its sweetly satirical humour with elements of horror and science fiction. New comicbook traditions were being forged from long-familiar components, and in that whirlpool of innovation, the swamp and its guardian were continually being presented in fresh and surprising lights.

By contrast, Millar tended to play to the apparent strengths of Swamp Thing in his choices of setting, and, like many before and after him, failed to bring out the character’s counterintuitive virtues. Stranding Swamp Thing in situations in which he not only seemed at home, but destined to dominate, Millar reduced him to the status of a rather run-of-the-mill monster. In focusing on a narrow definition of horror, he also reduced his capacity to create new fictional hybrids from long-familiar set-ups. No matter how corrupted they were, the likes of the blood-stained Black Forest and a string of swamp-set adventures on other Earths were still nothing other than familiar territory for Swamp Thing. Trying to intensify the degree of shock in these stories only served to intensify how abjectly mundane they were. More of the same is still, after all, the same. Despite all Millar’s bravado and sensationalism, his run is characterised by the lethargy of a fundamentally conservative approach.

To be continued, with a little more on Moore’s approach, before a look at Millar’s fascinating, and at moments undeniably successful, “River Run” stories.

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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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