“Do You Remember Earth Two or Earth X?”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 35

from Swamp Thing #152, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

Continued from last week.

Though Millar’s River Run tales are rarely anything other than predictable, they’re also undeniably focused, purposeful and enthusiastically told. Even when he’s sketching out the inevitably baleful career of a psychopathic house guest, the predominant sense is of how much fun Millar was having with the raw material of genre. (ST: 154) Sprinkling smart little details into his essentially formulaic horror vignettes, he ensured that the more-than-familiar often feels well-considered and substantial. That some of these ideas came from Morrison does however seem highly likely; the combination of “plant-based fractal organisms” and “one word from the cabala” that brings Swamp Thing to Earth-X seems to reflect the older man’s preoccupations all too precisely. (ST: 153) Whatever their point of origin, it was Millar who embedded them into his Swamp Thing scripts. And so, on an Earth that’s overrun by occult phenomena, the Miranda warning includes “the right to an exorcist,” while the walls of sorcery-infested New Orleans are plastered with posters declaring that magic-infused super-folks such as Ragman are dangerous and wanted by the state. (ST:152) Later, in what’s a smartly underplayed and chilling scene in Twilight Of The Gods, the Fascist United States of Amerika’s library of forbidden books contains a last copy of Othello, undoubtedly banned because of the presence of the Moor himself. (ST:153) With Hitler having “sentenced half of the planet to death”, the very idea that there were once people of colour is suppressed.

Several of Millar’s most common themes are woven through these six stories. If his predilection for the obvious, blood-soaked twist remained, it was frequently partnered by broad portraits of families quietly and desperately bearing with loss. Though the Golem’s wiping out of the Nazi Empire is a dramatically bloodcurdling conclusion to Twilight Of The Gods, it’s Anna’s loveless marriage and her romantic humiliation at the hands of the opportunistic dog-handler Karl that lodges in the mind. (ST:153) Recast in the vast majority of the issues as a wife whose various lives are blighted by lovelessness and grief, Anna’s many unhappy fates reflect the corruption of Millar’s out-of-kilter alt-Earths. Whatever the genre might be, her role is that of a trapped and vulnerable female stereotype; the suspicious wife, the glamorous femme fatale, the unloved spouse, and so on. It would have been a perfect vehicle for Millar to comment on the various forms of misogyny that infest genre storytelling. But the sense is that Millar was celebrating rather than criticising the forms he was playing with. It was a choice that, once again, reduced the female leads in his stories to either ultimately powerless and dependent victims or conscienceless predators.

from Swamp Thing #153, by Millar, Hester et al.

This doesn’t necessarily preclude his tales from emphasising with Anna and the small number of other female cast members in River Run. Millar’s persistent sympathy with embattled and bereaved families often brings his stories to life in unexpectedly poignant ways. And so, The Secret Of Slaughter Swamp, with its ageing superpeople and perpetually reoccurring menaces, features an elderly Anna who’s secretly killed her own child while suffering from a terrible depression. (ST: 154) Another of Millar’s distinctly Christian stories of forbearance and, where possible, forgiveness, it portrays a marriage that grimly survives even the worst of circumstances. If it no way a hopeful story, it is at its heart a tender one. Even in City Of The Dead, where Millar played out the scenario with an awkwardly adolescent, pseudo-hardboiled tone, there’s still a palpable tenderness present in the farewell between Anna-as-steely-faced-vamp and her doomed, monstrous husband. (ST 152) As we’ve discussed several times before, the trope of the grieving spouse and/or parent seems to have long held a particular importance for Millar, and his work has tended to be sensitive and moving when dealing with the subject.

from Swamp Thing #155, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

But if the themes of sorrow and regret were often smartly played out, there was also a sadly predictable excess of misogyny to wade through. As one Usenet commentor of the era declared, Millar’s River Run could be both dark and funny “aside from (his) rather bizarre ideas about women and abortions …” (*1) Bizarre and indeed frequently unpleasant these ideas were. The violation of the female form, and specifically the stereotypically attractive female form, gives every impression of having obsessed Millar throughout his career. We’ve already discussed what was essentially the multiple rapes of Maggie by Swamp Thing, and the shocking depiction of her as a joyous Madonna following the child’s – or is the creature’s? – birth. (*2) The fusing of body-horror at the expense of his female characters with a specifically Catholic sensibility appears over and over again in Millar’s Swamp Thing. It found what was perhaps its fullest expression several months before River Run, in Murder In The Dark. (ST:146) In what’s a deeply confused and confusing tale, The Traveller creates a doppelganger of Alec Holland’s murdered wife Linda in order to drive Swamp Thing further into despair and towards the role of humanity’s executioner. Somehow the very fact of his encountering the spitting image of Linda Holland as she goes about some distinctly unsettling activities is supposed to drive Swamp Thing even further towards madness. Why this would help him survive the coming trial of the Parliament Of Stones is never explained. Given that Swamp Thing’s eventual victory in that conflict would come from clear and well-considered thinking, the entire conceit of Linda Holland’s duplicate appears nonsensical.

from Swamp Thing #146, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

But Millar’s interests are, as we’ve so frequently discussed, far less about story-logic and far more about deliberately disconcerting effect. And so, Millar had The Traveller recreate Linda Holland as a prostitute of sorts who’s happily and even enthusiastically making her living in Amsterdam’s red light district. As The Traveller has her express to Swamp Thing;

“God’s blessed me with a special gift and I want to use it to make people happy … You’re a lucky guy — I’m the most popular hooker in Holland.”

Her trade, however, isn’t sex but violence. Possessed of the capacity to immediately return to life after being murdered, she’s servicing five men a night as they live out their fantasies of violently torturing and then killing a woman. It’s a deeply unsettling scenario made all the more unpleasant by the attitudes of both punters and prostitute. For Millar portrays “Linda’s” customers as shy if boisterous and rather endearing sweethearts out for a little harmless fun, while the constantly-resurrecting victim herself is dedicated to her career. “Jesus friggin’ Christ! Check those scars!” howls one youthful window shopper at the sight of Linda’s maimed body , “I’m getting a hard-on just lookin’ at them!”. Once pushed over the threshold by his drunken mates, Linda encourages him to assault her with the following speech;

“Don’t worry, Stevie. We’ll take things nice and easy. Maybe you should start with the bottle. It’s always best to use something you’re familiar with if it’s your first time.”

Where many would look at the plot for Murder In The Dark and immediately recognise a host of pressing and disturbing real-world issues, Millar saw cause for comedy and shivers and melodrama. Indeed, he presented what comes across as an affectionate depiction of a lad’s cross-channel bout of sex-tourism. The broader picture seems to have entirely eluded Millar, and indeed all of those who collaborated on the issue. It appears perplexingly and disturbingly clear that Millar expected his audience to laugh along with his depiction of a blokeish search for a woman to disfigure and kill.

To be continued.


*1:- reference pending

*2:- http://sequart.org/magazine/47907/american-superhero-comics-of-mark-millar-part-27/

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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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