“Her Deepest, Hidden Secrets”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 36

from Swamp Thing #151, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

Continued from last week.

As so often before, Murder In The Dark saw Millar indulging in two of his greatest fascinations: body horror at the expense of helpless female victims and the tradition and dogma of the Catholic Church. The Traveller’s simulacrum of Linda Holland allowed Millar to play once again with both the tropes of the resurrection and a distinctly Pauline sense of women as irredeemably sinful and corrupting sexual objects. As discussed last week, there was no attempt by Millar to consider his story from a broader perspective. But there was his typical habit of using female suffering to motivate his male character’s emotions, thoughts and actions. Accordingly, Linda Holland’s situation matters only as it affects Swamp Thing, who plays the role of a deeply distressed and self-pitying once-lover who has discovered an old lover is now a member of the oldest profession. (*1)

It might be argued that this particular version of Linda Holland is no more than a phantasm, lacking free will or suffering. Perhaps that means that she stands for nothing but the Traveller’s choices. But it would be a disingenuous defence. The reader has no idea that she’s unreal until her part in events is over. To encounter her is to inevitably empathise with her situation as an individual rather than a plot twist. Even if Millar hadn’t meant to touch on a host of rightly livewire debates, his storytelling choices lead his work right into their midst. From that comes the inevitable question of what it is that “Linda Holland” signifies, and of why the writer’s chosen to present that as he did. It’s a matter that’s further complicated by the wider context of Millar’s work both on Swamp Thing and elsewhere. Had Murder In The Dark’s distasteful and reactionary attitude to women and male violence been a one-off, then it might be defined as a deeply regrettable blemish. But that same mix of Catholic fascination and the explicit harming of female characters appear again and again in Millar’s work. In that, Swamp Thing #146 is anything but an exception to the rule.

from Swamp Thing #151, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

Despite it being the best of his work on the series, River Run itself is repeatedly marked by such distinctly chauvinistic choices. As such, it’s the frequency and intensity and heedlessness of Millar’s misogyny that damns the work. The very first issue of the arc begins and ends with the autopsy of Anna’s naked body, and in each scene, a scalpel is shown apparently slicing through the skin of her back. (ST:151) By the end of the issue’s second scene, we’ve also been shown a languidly naked Anna in the bayou that’s the scene of her suicide. Why she should be naked as she kills herself is a question for Millar and her collaborators. It offers nothing to the story and tells us nothing about Anna either. Why she needs to be portrayed as being so conventionally attractive even during her darkest hour is similarly a mystery. There’s certainly little of despair or even resignation in Hester’s art. Even when shown as a dead body, the only unsettling aspect of her appearance is her wide-opened eyes. Though the blade is allowed to cut through her form, though the waters have filled her lungs, her body itself remains tellingly beautiful. The long-limbed and nubile female form, the sinful act of suicide, the naked body being investigated by the crowd of faceless male surgeons, the opportunity to discuss Anna’s “jelly-bits”; the sequence is a prime example of how Millar’s obsessions had a tendency to express themselves. A quite different suicidal end for Anna is later presented in Sink Or Swim, in which she deliberately drinks a potion of turpentine, paint stripper, paraffin and weed killer. (ST:157) (*1) There, at least, she’s allowed to keep her clothes on.

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

The motif of the conventionally beguiling woman who is doomed to suffer terribly reappears over and over in River Run, with no equivalent fate being dished out to the arc’s men folk at all. In particular, there’s a fascination with the possibility that beautiful women might, at a stroke of fate, become physically and threateningly repellent. City Of The Dead features PI Harry Moon discussing his attempt to seduce a woman who’d neglected to tell him she was a zombie;

“So I looked up her skirt and almost lost my lunch. I swear to God, Felipe, it was the most disgusting thing I ever saw. This broad was crawling with maggots. I mean teeming with them, y’know? That’s when she told me she’d been dead nearly three weeks.” (ST:152)

Later, Millar had Moon add for effect that the skirt-wearing member of the undead had “a great ass for a zombie”. Needless to ask, there’s no mention of similarly corrupted male sexual organs to be seen in the comic.

In Darker Genesis, another version of Linda Holland has her head entirely blown off. (ST: 156) Nothing above the line of her cheeks remains, while the floor where she falls is an explosion of blood and even yet darker material. Yet fill-in artist Phil Jimenez still manages to show the elegant, trim form of her intact, collapsed body clothed in a delicate, thin night-dress. If not the prurient display that a less able and conscientious artist might have presented, it’s still an image which suggests that even an unfortunately headless woman must be otherwise delicate and alluring. Above the lines of her cheeks there’s nothing but an explicit explosion of scarlet, and yet her softly parted lips have survived the blast, as if she wouldn’t be attractive enough in her murder without them. No horrifying grimace for her. By contrast, when an aged Anton Arcane has his head removed in The Bad Seed, his body is portrayed as a dreadfully contorted frame. (ST:154)

from Swamp Thing #156, by Millar, Jimenez, DeMulder et al.

Even in stories which display a touching sympathy for female characters, sexual violence and gratuitous representations of the female form still frequently abound. Again The Bad Seed features a middle aged and terrified version of Anna who’s been stripped naked and bound to a table where she’s apparently doomed to be raped by a dead sex abuser reincarnated in the form of a horrific scarecrow. (ST: 154) For all that Hester’s art realistically represents this Anna as a women in her midlife, it’s still one more story of sexual humiliation and violence. A significant quota of youthful and naked flesh has already been served up in the same tale, with a sociopathic and naked alt-world Abigail Arcane apparently masturbating – although it may somehow be a fully fledged physical rape – against the same scarecrow, who’s tied to a cross that pruriently and purposelessly suggests the Cross and the suffering of Jesus. Yet even in a tale that focuses on the perfidy of a female serial killer, and even given that several of her victims are male, the story’s conclusion focuses on a woman’s sexual violation, a woman’s terror, a woman’s nakedness, a woman’s helplessness.

To be continued.


*1:- I oversimplify for the sake of brevity. Swamp Thing was never Alec Holland, although he had once believed that he was. Yet he had Holland’s memories and feelings, and so, after a fashion, emotionally defined Linda Holland as his ex-wife.

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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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