“Terminate This Pregnancy”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 37

from Swamp Thing #147, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

Continued from last week.

Millar makes more use of the topic of abortion in Swamp Thing than most superhero writers do in a lifetime. In each case, abortion is used either as a symbol of evil fortune or a reason for blokeish laughter. Never is it once portrayed as either a necessity, a right, or a positive choice. Appearing four months before River Run kicked off, Amsterdamnation featured a flashback to a 1951 confrontation between Alice Holland, pregnant with her son Alec, and The Spectre. (ST:147) After fiercely warning that the “child forming within you is a monster (who) will arise and destroy the world”, The Spectre insists that Alice “terminate this pregnancy before it is too late”. In terms of continuity, it’s a scene that hauls both The Spectre and his heavenly Creator off in new and prurient directions. In all his many incarnations, the Spectre had never been portrayed as a character who would set out to so terrify blameless, defenceless individuals. Nor had he ever conspired to have a character – let alone a foetus – killed for sins they might commit in thirty and more years time. Yet here was Millar depicting a Spectre who was brutally demanding that an innocent women abort her blameless child, and the implication is that he’s doing so on the orders of the highest power there can be. (*1) Perhaps the scene was part of Millar’s scheme to redefine the suggestion of an Old Testament God in DC/Vertigo’s continuity into a blood-splattered tyrant. Perhaps the combination of taboos – pregnancy, helpless women, abortion, the innocent in the womb, heavenly terrorism, the ripe-for-deconstruction superhero – had simply proven irresistible.

from Swamp Thing #147, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

But the care that Millar took with such a sensitive and crucial topic can be seen from the slapdash nature of the scene itself.  The very idea of Alice Holland being told to “abort” her child is patently daft. If the Spectre’s celestial lord knew of Alec Holland’s fate, then why not ensure he was never conceived in the first place? (Similarly, why wait another 35 years to kill Swamp Thing, when such a delay only brings him to his fullest measure of power?) If a dramatic scene of intimidation was required, then why not sidestep the whole rightly controversial business of abortion and show the Spectre insisting that Alice not consummate her marriage on its wedding night? Not only is the use of abortion entirely unnecessary to the plot, it actually helps to undermine it. In that, it’s just one of a series of careless mistakes that mar this single three page scene. Constantly contradicting himself, the Spectre declares that he has “no special knowledge of the future” while insisting that Alec Holland “will” destroy the world. Two sentences later and Millar has the Spectre suddenly downgrade his own prediction. Now the threat has been reduced to the deaths of millions rather than the end of the Earth, and even that’s become a possibility rather than an inevitably. Considered in the context of the series as a whole, the Spectre’s words make even less sense. The schemes of the dark lodge and the various elemental Parliaments were never about “destroying” the Earth, but rather about remorselessly transforming it. If they’d succeeded, the world would remain while billions – not “millions” – of people would be killed. As a Cassandra, Millar’s Spectre clearly had great difficulty on settling on one prophecy, let alone ensuring that its predictions were accurate. Clearly it wasn’t just the ethical dimensions of his stories that Millar failed to deal with in a careful and considered fashion. (*2)

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

Five months later and, with River Run underway, Millar returned to the same topic. In City Of The Dead, Private Eye Harry Moon makes a joke of how he’d resolved the problem of an ex-lover’s rumoured pregnancy. (ST:152) In the banter of a tattoo parlour, Moon insists that he “did the honourable thing. I paid for the abortion.”

Hester’s art shows Moon smugly smiling to himself as he says so, which reinforces the punch-line: abortion is nothing but a gag between men about the clearing up of loose ends. The fact that Moon’s new tattoo is being carved into his behind as he indecorously kneels for the process, trousers around his ankles, only accentuates the sense that it’s the joke and not the woman or the issue that matters here. Again, it’s a scene that’s irrelevant to the plot, and it offers nothing to the debate about abortion as a right, a social problem or an individual experience. As such, it exists solely because Millar finds it amusing to joke about laddishness, and abortion, and pregnancy. If the scene undoubtedly marks Harry Moon as callous, it fails entirely to make him repugnant. For all that he’s a roughneck, and even perhaps a wife-murderer, he’s portrayed by Millar as a fascinating, funny and ultimately engaging protagonist. With the woman that he’d made pregnant nowhere to be seen, it’s Moon’s perspective on events that predominates. What she felt or thought about the matter, and what light that might shine on the wider issue, is entirely absent from the page. Millar’s is, once more, an irredeemably malecentric, reactionary perspective.

from Swamp Thing #157, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

Five months on again and Millar came back again to abortion in Sink Or Swim, where the subject was framed in a somewhat more tragic air. (ST: 157) But even there, it passes as a plot-beat that’s referred to in comic language and lent no convincingly sympathetic or informed context. Where Millar’s script suggests anything specific about abortion at all, it’s in the implication that it’s a ill-judged, selfish and destructive act.

To be continued.


*1:- As we’ve discussed, later issues of Swamp Thing would indeed emphasise that the Spectre works for the creator of the world, the natural order and humankind itself. By implication, this character was indeed the God of the Old Testament.

*2:- Even the minor moments in Millar’s script fall apart on reflection, such as when Jim Corrigan, who’s been a policeman for more than a decade and the Spectre for nearly as long, announces that he’s never seen a doctor’s home before. Presumably Millar wanted to underscore that Corrigan is a working class city boy, but the truth is that it’s exceptionally unlikely he’d never encountered such a house before in either of his identities.

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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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