“There is Something Wrong with This World”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 34

from Swamp Thing #143, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

Continued from last week.

Even when Millar put an appropriately exotic backdrop to use, he frequently neutered its dramatic potential. The desert setting used to conclude the first arc was portrayed in an entirely throwaway fashion. (ST143) What could have been used to fiercely accentuate Swamp Thing’s unique strengths and weaknesses was instead thrown away as a generic locale. Moore would have ensured that his Arizona was a beguilingly unique proposition, but Millar was far more concerned with playing out a trite homage to Terminator 2. It was as if Millar had nothing but the raw surface material of comics and action movies to put to work, while research seems not to have crossed his mind. Casting Abby as a cussing and gun-toting Sarah Conner was hard enough to swallow in the light of the character’s past. (Depicting her as a cold-hearted damsel-in-distress who couldn’t either defend herself or thank Swamp Thing for her eventual rescue left her looking not heroic and independent, but self-regarding and pathetic.) Since the plot demanded Swamp Thing feel isolated and anguished, Millar delivered up an embarrassingly hysterical parting-of-the-ways between the two. As a scene, it exceeded the melodramatic excesses of Stan Lee’s most purple sequences. But worse yet, it made no sense. Swamp Thing and Abby had long since taken their leave of each other. Accommodations had been made, lives had been restarted. Overwrought and nonsensical, it reduced the two to soap opera clichés desperately emoting in a back lot of sand. Only in Swamp Thing’s undersea journey to meet with the Parliament Of Waves was an appropriate sense of awe, difference and menace effectively conjured up. (ST 158) With Hester producing some of his most effective visuals, the sense of truly exotic creatures inhabiting a fearsomely threatening and yet beautiful world was clearly transmitted. Yet such was Swamp Thing’s power by that point, he swiftly learned to master the underwater environment and, in short order, the Parliament’s challenges too. Within a few pages, the bottom of the sea had become nothing but another mundane territory, an underwater bayou of sorts that Swamp Thing could stride across with impunity.

from Swamp Thing #143, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

The combination of ill-exploited settings and the limitations of the ongoing plot cast Swamp Thing as a fundamentally passive victim and saw the series persistently underachieve. No matter how Millar roped in moments of high drama and personal intimacy, the same debilitating structural constraints persisted. The result was a protagonist who ultimately seemed unworthy of the role as hero and victor. Without even the initiative to once seek either practical help or personal comfort from any of his friends and colleagues in the DCU, Swamp Thing had effectively become a great galumphing bit player in his own book. Though he constantly behaved heroically in his defence of others, it was always to ultimately further the schemes of the Parliaments. For all that he seemed well-meaning and brave, he was left looking like a rather dim, self-pitying and fundamentally ineffectual patsy. Though certain aspects of Millar’s work undeniably improved with time, the same underlying problems remained. Even during the eight issue sequence that was River Run, during which Millar produced most of his finest work on the series, his efforts would consistently be undermined by the same combination of problems. (ST: 151/8)

Nick Cardy's cover for Justice League Of America #108, the second appearance of Earth-X.

In River Run, Swamp Thing encounters what appears to be the ghost of Anna, a writer and suicide who’s convinced her inability to reach the afterworld is constrained by the incomplete short stories she’s left behind. In order to investigate this, Swamp Thing somehow visits the worlds of her fiction in a six issue sequence. Each is based upon one of DC’s old and ignored parallel Earths, and each, it seems, is in some way real enough to cause Swamp Thing considerable suffering. These single issue stories are, with the exception of Chester Williams Super Cop, the best of Millar’s work up to that point. But then, each of the fictional worlds played precisely to his then-strengths. He was largely familiar with them from his childhood reading, and they allowed him to revel in the conventions of the alt-world superhero tale. I’ve argued that Millar’s career has been one in which he’s constantly taken the superhero genre and deconstructed it according to his own tastes. The parallel Earths of DC’s Silver and Bronze Ages were in their own way deconstructions too. What-if tales in themselves, they took the existing continuity and rewrote it according to one basic change in conditions. What if the universe followed magical rather than scientific laws? (ST: 152) What if our perception of good was another reality’s understanding of evil? (ST: 154) What if superheroes had appeared at the beginning of the Second World War and were now entering late middle-age? (ST: 155) What if there was an Earth where superheroes had never existed? (ST:156) To Millar, the chance to play in, for example, the sandbox of Earth-X – in which the Nazis had won World War Two – must have been an wonderfully enticing prospect. (ST:153) First appearing in late 1973′s Justice League Of America #107/8, Earth-X had likely been encountered by the pre-pubescent Millar. It was a prime published example of the themes that Millar had begun to discuss in The Saviour, and that he would later develop in the likes of Wanted and Old Man Logan; the triumph of evil and the dislocations to our expectations of the superhero genre that it would bring.

from Swamp Thing #153, by Millar & Chris Weston.

Even though he was denied access to the super-people of the DCU in River Run, Millar could draw closely on Swamp Thing’s backstory. (*1) As such, he was working within closely constrained parameters that were immensely familiar to him. Since Millar was determined that Swamp Thing would remain a horror book, he now had a string of tales in which genre and setting were largely determined for him. Though he struggled to bring the series-long arc of his Swamp Thing tenure to life, River Run played to his strengths. With the scheming of the Parliaments and their Masonic allies pushed largely to one side, Millar could concentrate on delivering largely self-contained tales. Rising to the opportunities offered by what appears to have been another part of Grant Morrison’s plan for the series, Millar span a sequence of pithy and forceful B-stories, each revelling in generic clichés and each designed to deliver a considerable emotional punch. (*2) In particular, Twilight Of The Gods and its depiction of a world ruled by Hitler’s successors remains one of Millar’s very best scripts. Superbly illustrated by Chris Weston, it was the first work by Millar since 1990′s Mother’s Day to truly show how disciplined and effective he could be. (Revolver Special #1) As the remainder of his time at DC would show, Millar needed the constraints and opportunities of the one-off story to express his talents and develop his skills.

To be continued.


*1: From 2000′s Speaking with the Authority: Mark Millar by Barb Lien-Cooper;

“I kept introducing DC characters into the scripts which had to be changed to slight variations. Alan Scott/Green Lantern became Black Box, The Spectre became The Word and so on. Again, it was just a combination of enthusiasm and stupidity on my part.”


*2:- Parallel superhero worlds have of course been a favourite trope of Morrison’s career too, from Zenith to The Multiversity.

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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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