“About Sixty Per Cent Happy”:

The American Superhero Comics of Mark Millar, Part 40

From Swamp Thing #170, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

Continued from last week.

The rest of Millar’s Swamp Thing tales shared the same weaknesses as River Run, although they only intermittently reflected the same strengths. The likes of Twilight of The Gods and Chester Williams: American Cop showed that Millar could deliver punchy, exuberant, done-in-one entertainments, while other stories, such as Swamp Dog, were only a editor’s red pen and one less O’Henry twist away from being similarly effective. (ST: 159) But taken as a series rather than a selection of individual and occasionally successful issues, Millar’s Swamp Thing was a mediocre run that did his reputation and his career few favours.

Characteristically, Millar himself has tended to speak warmly of his achievements on the title.  In 2000, he told Barb Lien-Cooper that there “were fifteen or sixteen issues which I thought worked out well”, although he also admitted that taking “over something shit means you can write something half-readable and still be acclaimed.” (*1) His time on Swamp Thing was, he declared, the point at which he’d “really” started to “get any good”.

Whatever the evidence to the contrary, a small coterie of admirers in the press and on the fledgling net clearly shared his high opinion. Swamp Thing #169, for example, was described by Comics International reviewer Ian R Salmon as containing “more wonderful work”, while his fellow critic Richard Hopkins declared that Millar’s “finale…bears comparison with the great days of the book”. (*2) It was a degree of appreciation that would persist. When Brian K. Vaughan became the writer of a new Swamp Thing comic in 2000, he was faced by “a lot of readers” who were “furious that my take deviated too much from Mark’s prior run”. (*3) (Millar generously contacted Vaughan and encouraged him to plough on regardless and make the title his own.) Almost two decades after Millar’s last bow on the title, the news that DC Comics were finally collecting Millar’s Swamp Thing was warmly received by, amongst others, Rich Johnson at Bleeding Cool, who referred to the run as “a personal favourite”. (*4)

From Swamp Thing #164, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

For all of that, the book had been cancelled in large part because of persistently poor sales. Former 2000AD editor Alan McKenzie once suggested that Swamp Thing had been put to bed because “Mark felt he was written out on the subject and DC didn’t want to continue a regular series with anyone else”. (*5) As an argument, it touches on the truth while missing the fact that DC would never have cancelled a company-owned sales success. Phil Hester would later explain that “DC didn’t really have any Swamp Thing pitches in hand that they thought were worth pursuing”, but the company would surely have sought out a new creative team had the Swamp Thing brand not seemed worryingly tarnished. (*6) Both the book’s editor Stuart Moore and Millar himself have suggested that it really was sales that did for the title, if not for Millar’s role on the comic. (*7) For all that the book itself was commercially dead in the water, it seems that Millar had always intended to step away from it at the end of his fifth arc. Stuart Moore has agreed that Millar ended the overall run exactly where he wanted to, which implies that the writer was planning to shake hands and jump ship regardless of what happened to the comic. (*8) But by Millar’s final issue, Swamp Thing was far, far away from featuring in the American market’s top 100 comics, and the book’s sales have been estimated to have been mired in the low-to-mid twenty thousands. (*9) (Millar often slightly undersold the copies being shifted during that last year at anything between 18 000 and 20 000.) (*10) The brief presence of Grant Morrison in addition to Millar on the title when it was launched in 1994 had, according to an initially crowing Millar, more than doubled the comic’s “diabolical” 29 000 sales under Nancy A Collins. (*11) But the upsurge wasn’t to last.

From Swamp Thing #168, by Millar, Hester, DeMulder et al.

Rather than considering the impact of his own contributions to the book, Millar tended to blame the very real and catastrophic collapse of the American comics marketplace during the mid-’90s. (*12) Even Grant Morrison’s much-feted, Vertigo-published magnum opus The Invisibles struggled to survive in the period, although it typically outsold Swamp Thing. (Such was Morrison’s desperation to keep The Invisibles alive that he encouraged his readers to participate in a “wankathon” —  a mass masturbation-activated work of Chaos Magik — in an uniquely esoteric and ultimately unsuccessful effort to boost sales.) (*12)  Yet for all the economic turbulence, there were still a great many titles shifting many thousands more copies than Swamp Thing, and these included fellow Vertigo comics such as Books Of Magic, Hellblazer and Sandman. The truth was that Millar simply wasn’t very good at emulating the work of Vertigo’s senior British writers.  He’d discuss his attempts to do so in a 2002 interview with Barb Lien-Cooper:

My first American work appeared at a time when Pete (Milligan) and Neil (Gaiman) were writing very clever captions in their comics for Vertigo and I basically just copied them. (*13)

Despite aping as best he could the style and content of such writers , Millar was both out of his depth and playing against his strengths. When success eventually turned up, it would arrive because of a sparse, immediate and populist style that had little to do with the more conspicuously literary style approach by Alan Moore and his successors.

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

Many a creator has built a useful reputation in comics doomed by low sales to cancellation. But for all the pockets of support it secured, Millar’s Swamp Thing proved to be more than just a sales disappointment.  Whatever its strengths, the comic apparently led to no new offers of work that Millar cared to pursue. Even recognition in the shortlists for fan and industry awards eluded him. Whereas Alan Moore’s time on Swamp Thing had established him as an exciting and immensely able creator, Millar’s tenure inspired no such enthusiasm and regard. It’s hard to believe that the disappointment could have been anything less than crushing. To have followed in his idol’s steps without emulating anything of Moore’s success must have been difficult to bear.

Even Vertigo appear to have been unconvinced of Millar’s merits, and the imprint conspicuously failed to put Millar’s talents to any significant use from that point onwards. After 31 consecutive issues of Swamp Thing, his only subsequent appearance in Vertigo’s pages would come in the form of a brief 8-page chapter in 1999′s The Books of Magic Annual #3.  A parody of over-wrought teen superhero tales that was meticulously illustrated by Phil Jimenez, it allowed Millar to once more riff on alt-Earths and slaughtered superheroes. It also contained a homophobic, misogynist doppelganger of teen magician Tim Hunter. Even with such little room to work in, Millar still managed to add his familiar, signature dollops of shock-the-rubes offensiveness. As far as it could be from Karen Berger’s taste in considered, adult-orientated storytelling, it seems now to underline how unsuitable Millar’s work was now considered to be.

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

Yet the indefatigable Millar kept pitching to Vertigo. As we’ve discussed previously, the imprint passed on his hopes of rebooting The Saviour with Alex Ross. A project entitled Comics Babylon was put to editor Shelly Roeberg in 1998, but Millar’s hopes of emulating Kenneth Anger’s entertainingly muck-raking Hollywood Babylon in comics form came to nothing.  (*14) Similarly, his repeated attempts to helm a Phantom Stranger series repeatedly floundered. (Millar had been trying to get a Phantom Stranger project underway since 1991, but whether working with Morrison or alone, his efforts had always failed.) (*15) Though one proposal for the character had apparently been waved through by Vertigo editor-in-chief Karen Berger in 1998, it was never given the go-ahead by the higher-ups at DC itself. Millar later spoke resentfully to Marv Wolfman about the way that project had been treated:

I spent YEARS writing 12 page proposals and rewrote Phantom Stranger eight times before hearing that one of the Group Editors said they were just “fucking” with me. (*16)

If that was so, and Millar’s memories haven’t always proven to be reliable, then it’s a sign that he had at least one powerful enemy at DC who delighted in frustrating his ambitions. If not, it still speaks for Millar’s capacity to publically express enmities that other, more careful professionals might keep to themselves. Even though he’d moved on from DC and begun working for Marvel by the time he spoke to Wolfman, it was still an untypically brazen example of boat-burning.

To be continued, with a look Morrison and Millar’s Skrull Kill Krew.


*1. ‘Speaking with the Authority: Mark Millar’ by Barb Lien-Cooper, Sequential Tart, 2000, http://www.sequentialtart.com/archive/aug00/millar.shtml

*2: Reviews, page 96, Comics International #71, Quality Communications, 1996

*3:Brian K Vaughan Leaves Under The Dome For Comics“, interview with Rich Johnson, 27/5/14.

*4:  “A Neal Adams Omnibus And More In 2015“, by Rich Johnson, 21/8/2014.

*5: In a post at Google Groups.

*6: – Phil Hester in conversation at http://www.mightycrusaders.net/interviews/hester.htm

*7:  Strongly implied, for example, by Millar speaking at Google Groups 30/8/98.

*8:- Stuart Moore at Google Groups 8/6/98.

*9: http://www.comichron.com/monthlycomicssales/1996/1996-08Diamond.html

*10: as in (*6) above

*11:  Comics Aren’t For Adults Anymore, Interview With Grant Morrison & Mark Millar by Steve Moore, Comics World #40, 1994

*12: For a discussion of the wankathon, see “Interview With An Umpire“, interview with Grant Morrison, 2/9/ 2002.  For Morrison’s request to his readers to join the experiment, and his instructions as to how to do so, see the letter’s page of The Invisibles #16.

*13:- The Ultimate Writer, interview by Barb Lien-Cooper, Sequential Tart, 2002.

*14:- Millar on Google Groups, 14/8/98.

*15:- He first mentioned his efforts as regards the Stranger in the interview Gordon Rennie conducted with him in 1991′s Fantazia # 12, where Millar declared that the comic would most surely be out in the following year; it never did.

*16: – Speaking With Mark Millar, interview by Marv Wolfman, 2002, http://www.marvwolfman.com/marv/Speaking_With_Mark_Millar.html

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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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