The parallel worlds you used to read about in comic books

Rereading Swamp Thing #151-#158 by Mark Millar, Phillip Hester, Kim DeMulder, Chris Weston and Phil Jiminez.

“The superhero genre is like a big field,” Kurt Busiek once said, “and we’ve built this gigantic city in one tiny corner. Every now and then some visionary guy drives out of the city and goes off in a different direction, and everybody goes ‘Look, look, you can do that,’ and they all drive in a straight line right after him. I think that the lesson that we need to learn from the likes of Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Animal Man and the Fantastic Four as done by Lee and Kirby isn’t to say ‘Look, there’s a new direction that might work,’ it’s to go off and find your own direction. We should try and explore as much of this big field as we can instead of building another little suburb and overbuilding it until nobody wants to live there either.”

The suburb that was just open land until Alan Moore and Swamp Thing built a house there, where all the Mature Readers comics built their own places, eventually becomes Vertigo City. The characteristics that make up a typical citizen have been discussed here: briefly, an adult sensibility using a shared universe, five-and-a-half ounces of nastiness, company-owned characters revised in very different incarnations.

But Alan and Alec’s property crossed county lines. Half of it sat on an area that’s nothing like a city; that’s a plot of land with some impressive structures on but with long grass growing between the vacant plots. Swamp Thing was a comic of storytelling experimentation, of looking at the comics page and the comics form and saying ‘Okay, what hasn’t been done?’ Watchmen was built on this tract of land. So was much of Matt Wagner’s Grendel. Chaykin, with American Flagg!, was one of the first residents. Frank Miller laid out a street. Art Spiegelman owns a couple of places. Dave Sim built a fucking cathedral.

Mark Millar has done what Kurt Busiek suggested and gone off in his own direction in his career since Swamp Thing. It’s a very commercial direction, sure, but he’s followed through on his vision and he deserves his success. He’s not interested in changing the medium. He doesn’t experiment. The first ten issues of his run have third-person narrators when they fancy it, throw in first-person captions when necessary, but the main driver of events is dialogue. Millar’s thing is movies-on-paper and movies are about dialogue.

Which makes it all the stranger that in the Riverrun arc, the eight comics that take Swampy from Earth-squared elemental to Water elemental as well, Millar has set himself a formal challenge. He’s decided to tell five short stories in five issues, each one complete to itself. Each one has to contain its writer Anna, taking a different role every issue, and each one has to find room for the Swamp Thing. They move up the Mississipi river to its source. Finally, each one takes place on a different Earth. Not just any Earth; the pre-Crisis Earths of the DC multiverse. Earth-Magic , Earth-X, Earth-Three, Earth-Two and Earth-Prime.

It’s like one of those creative writing exercises where you set yourself limitations. And, like an inexperienced writer cowed by the blank page, Millar excels when straining against those limitations. The five short stories are each little triumphs where the writer finds his voice, mean as it is. He’s hateful to his characters and they’re hateful to each other but in short bursts, as Alec travels through a string of worlds, they make for an entertaining and unified arc. Even in the context of the story they’re all meant to be by one writer, after all.

The structure of the arc’s straight from Swamp Thing Classic. Moore took Swampy through space, Veitch took him back through time, Millar’s taking him through parallels. The first issue of the arc does nothing but wind him up and set him going. A writer called Anna, who doesn’t appear to be given a surname, runs backwards from dead to alive until she’s in the Louisiana swamps. She’s dying eternally, reliving her suicide every day, until the stories she wrote in a book called Riverrun can be resolved. The missing element in those stories is, she thinks, Alec. Without any argument he goes in there, from the Green to a fiction, to see what he can do. #151’s not a great comic or anything – eight pages are spent on a subplot about a cop called Casey which goes nowhere, it’s never explained why Anna’s suicide runs backwards – but it’s trying to tell a story which suits a comic, rather than a direct-to-video schlock horror. It does it with some charm. Which puts it head-and-shoulders above the preceding arc already.

It’s the plunge into the parallel worlds where Millar really gets good. The first is the only one I’m not confident in identifying; Wikipedia says there’s a Magicland in a Gardner Fox story that could fit, but this one’s more an Earth-Horror. It’s an Earth of zombies, vampires, werewolves, all that. It’s also a world that, like most of those Millar’s written, is epically mean-spirited. Everyone is – forgive the word which I’m using in its British context – a cunt to everyone else. Harry Moon, a private investigator straight off a case with a sexy zombie, takes on the case of Anna’s husband and promptly screws her. He’s a deadbeat, a black-hearted cynic, Constantine without the redemptive streak, and apparently a murderer. He stumbles through his investigation, getting nothing right on purpose, turns tail and runs when faced with the monster, and finishes up paying for Anna’s abortion. He’s a one-dimensional asshole, like so many Millar characters. You wouldn’t read a series starring this guy. There’s nothing to him.

As the hero of a short story, however, he’s perfect. Moon’s voice is distinctive, always ready to with a one-liner nastier and more cynical than the rest of the cast. His chaotic approach to solving the case actually works. The dropped hints to his past are intriguing: he used to be a cop, he’s got a tattoo for every case he’s solved and a mystery one with feathers on his back. Millar’s weaknesses as a writer – smartass dialogue for everyone, cardboard characters, plotting that’s holes held together with string – prove to be strengths when he’s writing genre short stories. Rather than quoting lines for their sheer awfulness, there are lines in this worth quoting because they’re cool.

The next story is set on Earth-X, which I’ve never read a single comic set on but I know features US heroes fighting the Nazis who won the war. It could be any of the thousands of books and stories set on worlds where the Nazis won the war. It’s not distinctive. But Millar has some decent lines, like the White House secretary’s casual and American “Sure, catch you later. Heil Hitler and all that.” Once again everyone’s a mean prick but hey, it’s Naziworld. You wouldn’t want people to be good. Chris Weston draws the issue and he does a nice line in pervading ugliness, which again is suited to the subject.

The only story that can be definitively identified as taking place on one of the old worlds of the DC multiverse is also the most powerful horror story of the run. Earth-Three was the home of the Crime Syndicate, evil opposites of the Justice League, who we hear about on the radio within the first few pages. The deal on this earth is that fair is foul and foul is fair, which makes Anton Arcane a good man, an honest farmer, and his niece Abigail a monster. She’s trapped the spirit of her father in a scarecrow, she buries her cousin alive, and with the help of Alec she murders her uncle. It’s skewed in just the right way, this dark mirror. Abby is wicked and everyone knows it but nothing is done about it; the compact of good is that you must do evil before you can be punished for it. Swampy is a patsy, an idiot used because he asks to be used. From the first page, where the plot’s introduced in a letter and Abby walks toward the farmhouse out of all proportion, the figurework wrong in the right way, everyone’s doomed.

Alan Scott, the Golden Age Green Lantern, is the disguised hero of the next story. My guess would be that editorial fiat saw him substituted for Laurence, the Black Box, an old man who’s a superhero and seems tired of it. This would be Earth-Two if Earth-Two was allowed. Again we’re in a cursed place, though this time it’s just Slaughter Swamp rather than the world, and again we’re seeing characters acting horribly to each other. Indeed, we begin with a montage of murders that’s reminiscent of Stephen King’s It but without the guiding influence. There’s nothing especially original about any of this, in content or execution, but there is style. Michael’s conversation with his father, his perky explanation of his own death, is ordinary and disturbing though the secret’s obvious from the start. The Black Box narrating the story is a trick stolen from Peter Milligan but it unifies the story, makes it flow. Swamp Thing popping up in Solomon Grundy’s body follows an established pattern. And the whole is tragic for everyone involved; there’s no villain and no hero and no absolution.

Finally Swampy travels to Earth-Prime, where DC characters exist in comic books and there are no superheroes apart from a version of Superboy who crashes into DC continuity in the 00s and leaves it forever worse. This is our Earth and a chance for Millar to begin developing his Kick-Ass muscles; bad men with guns do bad things and there’s no happy ending. Alec and Linda Holland are scientists trying to develop a brand of plant super-science that doesn’t work because they’re in the wrong universe for it. Bad men, brutal hitmen equipped with guns and Tarantino dialogue, threaten them and Matt Cable can’t help. Linda Holland is killed. The hitmen are killed. There’s no moral because this is the modern world, and violence doesn’t win moral arguments. Swampy kills the bad guys but draws the wrong conclusions.

There are two concluding issues where Anna has the worst run of luck ever – this is apparently how water elementals get chosen, by being driven to suicide – and Alec visits the Marinas Trench and meets the Parliament of Waves. Both are decent. Millar’s managed to get a handle on the slow, drifting tone of Alec’s thoughts and spends a few pages enjoying the scenery. Anna has a sardonic voice that contrasts well with his eternal naiveté. There’s not a lot of sense in the arc if you think about it: why did her stories increasingly involve the Swamp Thing’s past? Why did she write herself such passive roles, as a wife in four stories and a child in one? What does all this have to do with water, apart from the first story where the devolving monster accepts the possibility of change? How is Swamp Thing any different for his rock powers?

Don’t ask questions. The achievement here is that Swamp Thing, by going back to first principles and treating its hero as an accessory to tell stories through, has become entertaining again. Millar has manages to fuse his instincts and his influences together to create good comics. It’s not a new city, it’s a building that looks very like the one across the street, but it’s a pleasure to look upon.

Swamp Thing #151-#158 by Mark Millar, Phillip Hester, Kim DeMulder, Chris Weston and Phil Jiminez have not been reprinted. Kurt Busiek quote from Writers on Comics Scriptwriting by Mark Salisbury. 

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