Everything you once were

Rereading Swamp Thing #144 to #150 by Mark Millar, Phil Hester and Kim DeMulder. 

We are in Vertigo now, in Mark Millar’s Swamp Thing. The formalisation of the Mature Readers stroke Karen Berger unofficial universe hit during the Nancy A Collins years. We’re still in the first phase of Vertigo as the Morrison/Millar revamp begins, so the other titles in the line are all the original guys. The ones who appear, in analogue, at Jack Carter’s funeral in Planetary: Shade the Changing Man, the Doom Patrol, Animal Man, Sandman, Black Orchid. Minor DC characters taken somewhere strange and now separated from the DC universe, able to see it but not allowed to touch it. Years on from Animal Man’s membership of Justice League Europe, from the Doom Patrol’s use of their old mountain headquarters, the Vertigo titles are a sub-universe. They’re allowed to cross over with each other occasionally and any characters who’ve become important to these titles have been dragged across with them, but they’re forbidden to hassle Batman or shake Superman’s hand.

For most of the Vertigo guys that isn’t a problem. John Constantine effectively left the DC universe as soon as he got his own title. Shade was never really in it. Grant Morrison, the writer with the greatest love for superheroes, has left the Doom Patrol and Animal Man to writers with no interest in integrating their charges into the wider universe. The Sandman brushes up against it sometimes, successful enough to break the rules, but it’s done obliquely and occasionally. Though all these titles, and Vertigo itself, owe their existence to Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing we’ve come a long way from it, and using the superhero set in a Mature Readers comic is forbidden.

Which is a problem for Millar. Because what he wants to do in Swamp Thing is exactly what Alan Moore did; use the central character as a great excuse to romp through the DC universe playing with all his favourite characters. In a couple of revealing text pieces in letter columns he says as much: recounting an encounter with Uncle Alan at a convention, saying he’d like to see John Constantine fighting the Parasite. He wants Swamp Thing to continue where it left off being popular. You can’t fault his reasoning. Why not? That mix of sophisticated writing and familiar characters was wildly successful less than 10 years ago. Why wouldn’t it be again? But, with that terminal idiocy that’s led the comics industry to the edge of its own grave, DC – probably Paul Levitz – banned that kind of interaction for 20 years, for no reason which has ever been stated.

Mark Millar fights hard to break that rule. He’s not allowed full integration but he gets partial integration. He gets to use Deadman in a cameo, the Spectre and the Justice Society in flashbacks, Sargon the Sorcerer as one of his villains. It’s a compromise solution – one foot in the DC universe, the other in Vertigo – that continues for the rest of his run. And it does give the comic some of that original gravitas it used to have, the feeling that we’re looking at four-colour land through a dark mirror.

The plot for this arc – and for the whole run – also appeared back in the DC days, when Swampy crossed over into a Captain Atom comic along with Firestorm. It’s simple, almost brainless, but gets us going: if there’s an earth elemental, what else are there elementals of? Back in that crossover, Firestorm was a fire elemental, Red Tornado was an air elemental, and Captain Atom was a quantum elemental, or something else which didn’t stand up to a moment’s thought. (Which was still better than the Neil Gaiman-written Swamp Thing Annual where Brother Power, a 60s hippy oddity by Joe Simon, was revealed as a Doll Elemental.) That particular story is rightly ignored but the idea remains; Swampy meets the Parliament of Stones, the Parliament of Waves, the Parliament of Vapours and the Parliament of Flames in the next four arcs. Obvious, yeah, yet effective.

Unfortunately, in this Stones arc, we’re still dealing with the Mark Millar who can’t write. I seem to recall Millar once being named as one of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic’s worst ever writers by readers of 2000AD but can’t find any reference to it online. It wouldn’t have been unjust; he wrote some truly awful stuff for 2000AD, and he writes some awful stuff here. Everything I said about the opening arc applies: the dialogue is false, clunky, sub-action movie. The characters are confused, unmotivated and boring. The plot only makes sense to itself, and the action scenes are at once baffling and unexciting.

Examples? Well, the chief villain of the arc is Nelson Strong, a hunter of superpowered characters (the remains of the Creature Commandos, GI Robot and Chemo are displayed at his home) who’s been obsessed with killing Swampy for years and who we’ve never heard of. He has a white moustache and an eyepatch and gets lines like: “I think I can wipe my ass with your ‘big discovery.’” and “Hard to believe this dumb piece of shit killed sixty Cajuns.” and “I’ve waited fifty years to tackle this bastard!” He uses the last one twice, it’s so good. His big action set piece gets him hit by a tram, then he’s resurrected as Rock Thing and killed again. Both times he lasts less than an issue. Tommy Lee Jones in Under Siege is way more nuanced and believable as a villain than this guy.

Swamp Thing, having been directed to the Black Forest in Germany while unable to enter the Green, decides to grow a Matt Cable lookalike body and use a dead man’s passport to fly there. The hook here is that Swamp Thing, whose potency has been a problem for writers ever since Moore made him an elemental, is cut off from the source of his power. Alone and afraid, hunted by the authorities and feared as a monster: back to his roots. It’s a decent idea but badly explored. Surely masquerading as a penniless, dead human when you desperately need to get to Europe is exchanging one set of insoluble problems for another. That doesn’t matter, however, because the plot is a succession of coincidences that work out exactly as planned. A priest released from hell – a priest who blasphemes in his opening line of dialogue, because in Millarworld everyone does that – gives him the money and the demon who arranged his day release sends him to meet a prostitute calling herself Linda Holland. The Parliament of Trees blow up his plane and Linda Holland turns out to be a false lead arranged by the Traveller. Then he goes to the Black Forest to fight Sargon and Rock Thing in the trial arranged by the Parliament of Stones, which in a cute detail communicates via Stonehenge.

I hate plotlines that are all coincidence, that rely on a protagonist making strange decisions that have been exactly predicted, but this story’s a particularly egregious example of the trope. Swampy gets immediately recognised as Cable: what are the chances of that? Why did the Parliament of Trees destroy the plane when they make no other hostile move? Why does the Traveller create Linda Holland to get him to Amsterdam when he’s going to the Black Forest anyway? How was Nelson Strong able to track him? What would the Parliament of Stones done for a champion if Strong hadn’t been killed? What does Sargon have to do with the trial of stones? Who wrote this mess?

And for an exile from the Green who can’t use his elemental powers, Alec sure uses his elemental powers a lot. He regrows or at least heals himself after the plane crash, he regrows his legs after getting hit by a tram, he kills Strong’s snatch squad by growing tulips from their bodies. The central concept of this arc, the isolated and powerless Swamp Thing, is dropped whenever Millar’s got a louder idea.

I could go on listing stupidities – the elite task force who venture into the swamps, burn one discarded Swamp Thing body and run away scared to call Washington, the Amsterdam punk who invites Alec to her room after one page of conversation to which his contribution is “Hhhn… nuhhr… muh-mind… cuh-can’t concentrate…” – but you’ve got the idea by now. Better to mention the good points of the arc, and there are good points. The priest sent to hell is a nice idea, and the fake Linda Holland who gets killed three times a night by horny sex tourists is a nice idea – nice in horror terms, meaning that it gets under the skin – that’s actually pretty well executed. There’s no reason for it to be Linda or even a fake Linda, but the conflation of nervous lads egging each other on to fuck a prostitute or to kill one hits a truth. Alec’s stumble around a horrific Amsterdam immediately afterward, while lacking any real rationale, is also fairly effective and the scene in the sex cinema is comic and nasty, surreal and revolting, at the same time. The Spectre’s warning to Alec’s mother is a well-judged piece of atmosphere building. Nelson Strong’s fate, his head displayed in his trophy room, is fitting. There are hints, throughout these six issues, that Millar knows what horror is and wants to write it. Behind the stale leftovers of action movies there’s something actually frightening waiting to come out. The surprise is that Millar changes from inept slugfest impresario to writing some of the best comics Swampy’s appeared in between one arc and the next; between one issue and the next.

Swamp Thing #144-#150 by Mark Millar, Phil Hester and Kim DeMulder have not been reprinted.

3 Responses to “Everything you once were”
  1. kate h says:

    IIRC, the “puppet elemental” line was supposed to suggest that Brother Power was an Earth elemental gone wrong at conception rather than imply a whole category of similar creatures. Gaiman had worked out a detailed “vegetable theology” for his Swamp Thing run that didn’t happen, but is still hinted at in the stories from his Swamp Thing Annual.

  2. Turns out we’re both right; Brother Power’s described as “a failure, one of the earth’s mistakes,” in the annual, but in the very next panel is called “a doll god, a puppet elemental, like others before it.”

    Notes Toward A Vegetable Theology, the essay Gaiman wrote with his Swamp Thing notes in – and I’d guess a bunch of stuff related to the Black Orchid mini where he first linked all the flora characters – was, according to Google, published in Prince of Stories a few years ago. Given the number of words I’ve written about Swamp Thing on this blog I really should pick it up.

  3. kate h says:

    It’s probably not essential. Black Orchid and the short Poison Ivy story ‘Pavane’ probably give a better idea of where he would have gone with Swamp Thing. I wonder sometimes if the whole ‘Mourning of the Magician’ situation wasn’t – in a roundabout way – a lucky break for Gaiman, who suddenly wasn’t taking on a big commitment to an additional monthly comic at exactly the time that he was beginning to find his voice on The Sandman.

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