“So Many Questions are Left Unanswered”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 39

from Swamp Thing #158, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

Continued from last week.

For the third time in ten months, Millar’s Swamp Thing had presented abortion in a wholly negative light. Nothing that he’d write in the remainder of his tenure on the book would qualify that. Though Swamp Thing’s repeated abuse of Maggie during Millar’s final arc cried out for a discussion of reproductive rights, none appeared. Instead, Maggie was shown to be wordlessly ecstatic at having borne and given birth to the Starchild that Swamp Thing implanted, and then remodelled, within her. As we’ve discussed, Millar even used the final transformation of the foetus from world-scouring destroyer to planet-educating saviour to lend Swamp Thing the air of a benevolent god. With no regret indicated, no apologies offered, no condemnation uttered and no shame attached, Swamp Thing’s hijacking of Maggie to unwittingly and unwillingly serve as an incubator of monsters and messiahs becomes a perversely heroic act. As such, Millar’s work suggests a clear moral contrast between the Madonna-like Maggie, the violated and yet disturbingly euphoric mother of an inhuman infant, and Anna, whose multiple abortions mark her out as a profoundly feckless human being. It’s a glib, dismissive approach that would alienate many of those who share what appears to be Millar’s fierce opposition to abortion. For all his protestations to the contrary, his issues of Swamp Thing were often anything but liberal in their content.  Whether he was conscious of the implications of his storytelling choices or not, his Swamp Thing run stands as one more example from him of fundamentally misogynistic work.

cover to Swamp Thing #40, by Stephen Bissette & John Totleben.

Despite having spoken so frequently and reverentially about the past history of Swamp Thing, Millar seems to have had few if any concerns about contradicting a great deal of the book’s more progressive traditions. Alan Moore, for one, had engaged imaginatively and daringly with feminist issues during his run on the title, with Swamp Thing #40′s The Curse being an especially powerful if undeniably contentious statement. (*1) Perhaps if Millar hadn’t been so openly disdainful of Nancy A Collins’ time on the book, he might have noted more carefully her own commitment to representing gender and sexuality in a considered, respectful and nuanced fashion. By contrast, Millar wrote as if he’d never once heard of feminism, or indeed the debate about reproductive rights, in anything but the broadest traditions of gutter press journalism. For it seemed less that he was conducting a deliberate debate with his predecessors and more that he was quite often oblivious of how extreme and disdainful his values often appeared to be. This wasn’t always so, for as we’ve seen, Millar frequently delighted in deliberately winding up different aspects of his audience.  Yet in both his scripts and his interviews during the period, he repeatedly seems unaware of how indisputably ultraconservative his work as a whole appeared, with his detractors blithely dismissed for their supposed bias and ignorance. Even given the undeniably scathing attack on America’s NeoCon politicians that’s Chester Williams: American Cop, it’s  hard to see Millar’s Swamp Thing as a predominantly liberal comic. (After all, a loathing for neo-conservatism is hardly incompatible with a fundamentally conservative frame of mind.) Rather than a comic which is at times playfully baiting its readers, Millar’s Swamp Thing seems to be one that is, at its heart, intimidatingly right-wing.

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

The taken-for-granted reactionary nature of Millar’s work serves to leave even River Run feeling repetitive, contemptuous and facile. The weight of sexism in general, the fascination for sexual violence at the expense of women, the disgust of abortion; it all overwhelms the more tender and considered aspects of Millar’s work. Of course, entertaining storytelling, let alone great art, needn’t be in any way marked by what’s disdainfully labelled “political correctness.” But the rightist values expressed in Millar’s Swamp Thing become all the more jarring and disconcerting because of the persistent and fundamental flaws in his scripting. For all of the previously-noted improvements in his craft over the period, Millar’s Swamp Thing tales are often shockingly, poorly written. A more skilled and capable writer could have obscured his weaknesses and sold his opinions with care and technique. But Millar seems to have once again struggled catastrophically with the fundamentals in particular of his plotting.

from Swamp Thing #158, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

So obvious and detrimental had the problem become by the concluding issues of River Run that Millar was reduced to admitting as much in his scripts. With the climax of the arc at hand, he had an utterly baffled Swamp Thing reflect that so “many questions are left … unanswered.” (ST: 158) As an example of misdirection, it was at least audacious. Yes, Millar was admitting, what came before is indeed baffling. But the suggestion was that all the confusion was part of the writer’s long-running plans. After all, who’d own up to a plot that was that bewildering if they weren’t about to prove the contrary? Yet such a trick required a wonderfully convincing solution, and that was awkwardly, embarrassingly absent. What should have become obvious to the reader after seven months of stories was anything but, and even a side of Swamp Thing’s nod-to-the-audience musings couldn’t obscure that. If each of the separate chapters of River Run had at the very least been intriguing in their own terms, then the plot which connected one to the other was clearly a terribly muddled mess. Nothing Millar offered could obscure the fact that no single, common theme could be found to convincingly link each of the arc’s preceding adventures. Having Swamp Thing conclude that the “lesson” he’d been taught by the scheming Parliament Of Waves was “fluidity” and the need for “humanity (to) adapt… or become extinct” only emphasised the absence of any such content in the River Run chapters. All stories are about change, by definition, and many if not all of Millar’s characters had indeed found their lives changing, if not definitively ending.  But the conceit that such disparate tales suggested anything as specific as the need for further human evolution was as farcical as it was implausible. Nor did the explanation make sense in terms of the Parliaments’ master plan, in which humanity was to be exterminated rather than given a chance to evolve. It was as if Millar knew that the Parliament Of Waves’ challenge had to have something to do with water, and something to do with a lesson being taught, and so, having filled the River Run chapters with the likes of swamps and storms on parallel Earths, he grasped at the vague idea of ‘fluidity’. The sense of jigsaw pieces from quite different sets being desperately forced together is inescapable.

from Swamp Thing #158, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

Indeed, several of Millar’s preceding stories had actually suggested that change was either impossible to achieve or something to be avoided. In that, they serve to illustrate the fragility of human lives and their inability to alter fundamental conditions. ‘Fluidity’ was anything but the message of The Secret Of Slaughter Swamp, in which Laurence and Anna’s marriage survives in all its sadness because they don’t acknowledge their son’s murder, because they don’t embrace change. (ST:155) By contrast, The Bad Seed describes a world in which change to the existing order simply cannot occur. There, evil always has and, by the very nature of the universe, always will triumph. (ST: 154) No-one could possibly interpret those stories as a consistent argument for ‘fluidity’, let alone ‘further human evolution’. In fact, finding any kind of common thematic ground between them – beyond a love of old DC Comics and genre storytelling – poses a-more-than-simply considerable challenge. Grant Morrison’s grand plan for the series may well have suggested using a sequence of alt-Earths as an argument against any belief in a single, fixed natural order. But whether it did or not, Millar proved quite incapable of convincingly linking the various self-contained sections of River Run with the sweep of the arc they were supposed to serve.

To be continued.


*1:- Megan Condis’ critique of The Curse is well worth your time: http://www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v5_4/condis/

Tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Colin Smith:

New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


Leave a Reply