Home doesn’t feel like home anymore

Rereading Swamp Thing #141-#144 by Mark Millar, Grant Morrison, Phil Hester and Kim DeMulder.

Everything I’ve ever written has been first draft, Alan Moore once said. It wasn’t a vainglorious remark meant to elicit awe at the master’s works. It’s a statement of fact: when working in a serialised medium, you don’t get to go back and change the beginning to match up with the end. Those early pages where the characters are yet to fully become themselves can’t be redrafted because they’ve already been published. You’re stuck with your first version.

This needs to be kept in mind when reading some of the iconic works of comics. V For Vendetta’s got some dreadful writing in the first few chapters, notably the “…Lewis Prothero’s nightmare is only just beginning!” caption that concludes an early episode. Most of the first two books of Miracleman are pretty rough going for a modern audience. Sandman begins as a note-for-note tribute to Moore’s Swamp Thing and takes a year-and-a-half to find its feet. Luther Arkwright’s underground comixy first half is light-years away from the sophistication of the second half. Love & Rockets’ initial sci-fi trappings are incongruous with the stylised soap opera it becomes.

So it’s no surprise, to the experienced comics reader, that Mark Millar’s run on Swamp Thing begins crudely. Like many a British writer his previous work was in the six-page strictures of 2000AD, so there’s some excess to be expected when working for the first time in 24 pages and in colour and with swearwords allowed. The comic and the characters had, under Nancy A Collins, settled into tediously cosy domesticity – they even had a nanny – so it was incumbent on the new writer to shake things up and bring back the readers who’d got bored and wandered off. But none of that explains why Millar’s first ten issues are so fucking awful.

There can be no excuses. The writing fails at every level; the characters are unrecognisable, the plotting is full of holes, the dialogue is a string of clumsy, half-remembered clichés from violent 80s videos, and it’s thematically completely confused. Right down to the granular level there are stupid errors and the new characters, the mystic figures guiding Swamp Thing on a new journey to power, are two-dimensional at best. Perhaps they’re even racist. If someone’s an El Senor, why’s he got an English surname? El Senor Blake? Is it because he’s magic?

The art’s not great, either. Phil Hester’s undoubtedly a good artist. He’s trying, with angular panel layouts and twisted figurework, to channel some of that Steve Bissette creepiness. But there’s so much that’s just straight wrong. In these four issues, when the Swamp Thing has become a rampaging, murderous beast for no good reason, he’s consistently drawn with a massive hump. Not consistent as in it’s the same size or on the same side of his body or anything like that. It seems to be an attempt by the artist to depict bulk and power, to make this vegetable monster slaughtering his former friends something akin to the Hulk. But he just looks broken. Some of the people, notably the ones killed In Chester’s house, look the same; so grotesque that when they’re slaughtered there’s no emotional impact because who were these fucking twisted homunculi anyway? And the all-out action sequences, never formerly a big thing in this comic but the whole point of this arc, are impossible to follow. You need, as an artist, to be very clear where everything is and when everything’s happening when you’re drawing action. If Batman’s surprise punch is to work as a surprise we need to know exactly how he got in the position to throw it, otherwise it’s unsatisfying and out of nowhere. Hester doesn’t do this; perhaps the scripting’s at fault, but every page of action requires close reading and a lot of licence to work.

For example Abby in #143, pursued to her car by the mindless Swamp monster on the splash page, seems to be in his grasp in the first panel of the next page – and where’s the proportion at in that panel? – and to be sliding in the car window, Dukes of Hazzard-style, in the next. So when we see her standing holding a shotgun in the next, we need to go back and reread the first two to make sense of the sequence of events. Maybe Swampy wasn’t that close. Maybe she got out the other side of the car? She shotguns the monster –  the second time this happens in this opening run. Someone had been playing Doom. By the next page she’s back in the car, fleeing the beast she could never have expected her shotgun to stop, and when she’s held back by his Mr Tickle arms suddenly a truck crashes into them and explodes. So we’re lateral to a freeway, not in a diner car park? What have I seen? Why was it worth it?

Kim DeMulder’s inks, each line varying weight like Gustav Dore, are the saving grace. On that level, at least, the partnership works like the Bissette-Totleben team that started all this off. And Hester’s art gets better, as does Millar’s writing, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about these comics at all. I didn’t start reading them in order, that’s for sure. This was the last comic series I collected in the old-fashioned way, constructing a complete run in bits and pieces from dealers around the UK. I bought these comics from Preston, from King’s Lynn, from Carlisle, from a child-murderer in Manchester. I can’t remember where or why I bought the first one, but it was from the final storyline and intriguing, different enough to send me after the rest. The first four were by Grant Morrison, at the time someone whose work I followed avidly. They at least would be good.

Grant Morrison and Mark Millar were friends back then, which they are no longer. Grant Morrison’s recent claim that he essentially co-wrote everything with Millar’s name on it before that date should be considered in the light of that broken friendship. From my readings, which probably aren’t as close or considered as they should be for such a claim, the reverse is true in many cases: those works which claim to be by Morrison and Millar seem to bear few fingerprints from the former and to be covered in dabs from the latter. The Judge Dredd story Crusade, their joint work on the Dredd epic Inferno, Aztek, this… a guess, but I’d say Morrison’s involvement was a chat about the plot and lending the weight of his name. In this case he also dropped a few mushroom references. But there’s nothing of him in the dialogue and while he can lapse into incoherent action sequences he usually saves them for the end of his longer stories, rather than just throwing them in for shock value which Millar loves to do. Bringing the pre-credits Jerry Bruckenheimer action sequence to the comics page is one of Millar’s achievements.

So what happens in these four issues? Well, we begin with a bit of fake revisionism; a one-issue callback to Alan Moore’s everything you know is wrong beginnings. Alec Holland wakes up in his own bed and his whole existence as the Swamp Thing was nothing but a long dream. The idea that a comic reader would be shocked by this, would for a second believe it, is insulting. But we’re forced to go with it and to meet Holland’s colleagues in his South American researches. He’s into psychedelics and chasing some big truth, but after a nasal blast of a strong hallucinogen and two pages of dream static he’s off to America on foot, chasing memories from a life he never lived. Meanwhile back in Houma the Swamp Thing has arisen as a mindless murderous monster, killing hippies and Cajuns like a B-movie beast. And his estranged wife Abby, alerted by the silent appearance of her ex-husband Matthew the raven making a cameo from Sandman, takes all of two issues to decide that a) Alec has run amok and the gentle creature she’d known for so long is gone, b) that this new, killer Swamp Thing will soon come for her, c) that her only course of action is to load up on guns and gasoline and go kill it in the desert. Essentially, for the course of a single storyline she decides to become Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2.

Alec, wandering into hallucinatory territory where all around is evil and disturbing, encounters the three men who will pull the strings for the next 40 issues, their motives never made clear. Don Roberto the shaman who plays video games, El Senor Blake the hard-drinking barroom sorcerer, and Odin. Not one who’s appeared in the DC universe before, but one who calls himself the Traveller and says “By the Gods!” Which, y’know, I don’t think Odin would say any more than I’d swear “By my co-workers!” Our protagonist, after riding a creepy soul train which fails absolutely to convey any of the horror and awe the creators seem to be striving for, ends up on a collision course with Abby and the monster in the Arizona desert. He’s realised by now that his dream was real, that his life as the Swamp Thing was his real life, that he’s just been through one of the laziest fake-outs in 90s comics. He enters the fray at the wheel of a speeding car which jumps Abby and hits the Swamp Thing, then he fights it, then Abby burns them both, then he regrows, whole again. Apparently the Parliament of Trees had split him into two and, for reasons barely explained, the Swampy half went around killing people from his past. But not using the godlike powers of the Green or anything. Well, a bit but not much. And only killed one lot of people he knew. Anyway. The other half, “a ghost made of flowers” in a line that does sound like Grant Morrison’s, thought it was Alec for a bit. They’re back now, he makes a half-hearted attempt to woo Abby who wisely absents herself from the comic for most of the rest of the run, and he’s in unspecified trouble.

What doesn’t work? The central conceit, to bring horror back to the book, fails because the writer’s idea of horror is a big monster that massacres. It’s straight-to-video horror. Alec’s return fails because he barely exists as a character before he’s deconstructed, and the stuff about drugs is thrown in without really connecting to anything. Abby as action heroine is woeful; how was her plan ever expected to work? This guy regrew a desert. How would burning him in a desert do anything? And how did she expect to do it? The action sequences, as discussed, are boring, hard to follow, and slapped together from clichés. The conclusion leaves us no closer to anything: the Parliament have turned against him and he’s become a monster hunted by government again. And thematically, on the grander scale, there’s nothing there at all. Is Alec Holland fighting a murderous nature? Does his time as a man awaken old feelings? Hell no. It was all backdrop to a big fight.

What works? There are a few things. The vignettes of horror we see in the background, the thrashing guy in bandages, the puppet ticket collector on the train, bring back the squirming nastiness of the title under Rick Veitch. That’s better than the cosy domesticity which saw even Alec get so bored he fucked the nanny. Tearing him away from all that, breaking the partnership Moore set up and the family Veitch created, was necessary to create something new. But doing it as crudely and feebly as this wasn’t an improvement. All comic writers improve on their first efforts. Millar gave himself a long way to go.

Swamp Thing #140-#143 by Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Phil Hester and Kim DeMulder have not been reprinted. 

3 Responses to “Home doesn’t feel like home anymore”
  1. Just started re-reading this and, while Morrison and Millar might be co-credited on all four of these issues, I think their collaboration was limited to the overarching plot (which Morrison takes all of the credit for anyway in Supergods), with alternate issues being scripted by GM and MM individually.

    Both #140, with it’s meditations on DMT and Invisibles-esque contact experience (published only a month or two before Invisibles #1) and #142, with the Soul Train sequence and the ‘ghost made of flowers’ exposition you’ve mentioned above, are *very* Morrison; while all of the low-rent knock-off action movie stuff (a hallmark of Millar’s early writing, as covered extensively in Colin Smith’s Millar overview currently running on Sequart) appears in #141 and #143. Both those issues are conspicuously light on any mystical mumbo-jumbo and are all the worse for it.

    I’ve seen a couple of pages of the scripts for #140 and #141 and they’re definitely distinct Morrison (#140) and Millar (#141) works, so I’d imagine the same holds true for the following two issues. I haven’t read any of Millar’s subsequent run before but I’m looking forward to seeing if it divides up as distinctly as these 4 issues do.

    Incidentally, I read somewhere that Morrison/Millar wanted to use the Phantom Stranger (pretty obviously The Traveler at this point) and John Constantine (El Senor Blake?) but the request was nixed by DC editorial. Not sure if Don Roberto was supposed to be someone else too, but I’d agree that any gravitas they might have had is pretty much totally negated by them being a bunch of nobodies we’ve never seen before (though ‘protagonist cynically manipulated by the Trenchcoat Brigade’ was surely pretty old hat by then?).

  2. dan this says:

    Proof that people finally started paying attention to this run around the start of the decade: articles claiming it’s actually shit and awful and made of shit and you should be ashamed for reading it.

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