A desire to retreat

Rereading Swamp Thing #160-#164 by Mark Millar, Phillip Hester and Kim DeMulder.

We have to invent our terms, writing about comics, and revisionism is one of mine. If there’s another term that means the same then I apologise for not knowing it. What I mean when I talk about revisionism is the storytelling trick where we learn everything we know is wrong; that a character who thought they knew their origins turns out to have been deluded all these years, etcetera. It’s also a retcon, a term spawned by comics and now used in other serial media, but retcons can be quite small, neat little corrections of history. Revisionism is big and shouty and designed to draw attention to itself. At its worst it’s a stunt that provides a shock, a jolt of discontinuation. At its best it gives a character out of obscurity to a new lease of life.

The most obvious beneficiary of revisionism, at least for this blog, is the Swamp Thing. Deftly turned from a mud Frankenstein to a force of nature, the facelift Alan Moore gave him is still holding up today. It wasn’t Moore’s first crack of the revisionist whip; he’d already filleted Captain Britain of much of the mess of his origins and turned Marvelman from a 50s copy of Captain Marvel into the first of the modern, self-aware and self-conscious, Dark Age superheroes.

It became a thing in comics for a while, revisionism. Other mediums don’t need it because they don’t have that albatross, continuity, hung around their necks. A new actor playing James Bond comes with a new first mission for James Bond and nobody cares how that fits in with Doctor No. In comics we’re stuck with the notion, for better or worse, that every part of a character’s history is true or needs to be explained somehow. A good writer can, by revealing parts of a story previously unknown, keep the good stuff and get rid of the bad. It’s a refurbishment programme for company-owned intellectual property.

So Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol revealed that Niles Caulder was the cause of his teammates suffering. The same writer’s Kid Eternity told us that the historical figures he summoned were actually demons from hell. Neil Gaiman made Black Orchid an actual plant and Jack Kirby’s Sandman a deluded idiot living in his sidekick’s mind. JM DeMatteis and Mark Badger helped Martian Manhunter get rid of that beetle-browed 50s look and turned him into an angular alien from thousands of years past. Poor Dan Dare, in a series I think of as the end of revisionism’s rainbow, became an old colonial and a child-killer under Grant Morrison.

That was the disadvantage of it. Characters could be rejuvenated or they could be torn apart. The superhero that appears in Planetary #7 is a comment on revisionism, a pure and noble costumed character ruined by the revelation of his origins as a clone of Hitler’s sex midgets. It became a technique with a reputation for destroying company-owned assets. A reputation that was first unfair, because it happened very rarely, and second kind of daft, because the very fact that you can change characters so radically means that they can be changes back, but this is comics. Nothing has to make sense.

The first wave of revisionism – there’s been a second wave in the last decade where all characters get aligned to the new sensibilities – had run its course by the time Mark Millar was writing Swamp Thing. DC and Marvel were too worried about seeing their intellectual property damaged or destroyed. But Millar was a one-man revival of the beginning of the Dark Age, that period when revisionism had its way, so he naturally wanted to sneak a little in here. He did the right thing and chose a character nobody cared about even slightly: Jim Rook, the Nightmaster.

If this blog’s known for anything it’s for not doing its research. So it should come as no surprise that I’ve not read the three issues of Showcase that contained the Nightmaster’s original adventures. Who has? It was a drop in the wave of Conan fever that swept comics in the 1970s, joined at DC by Stalker the Soulless, Klaw the Unconquered, and a few others who apparently also turn up in climactic issue of this storyline. (The most important comic to come out of this brief craze was, of course, Cerebus.) Jim Rook was a rock star who wandered into a bookshop called Oblivion, Inc and from there into a dimension of swords and sorcery where he and his flaming sword stood against the evil warlocks. At this point the only thing that makes Jim unique is that, as a rock star before he even goes to Myrra, he’s a male fantasy figure squared. That and his hopelessly generic costume – all-over blue bodystocking, red cape, trucker beltbuckle – which stands out only because he’s so overdressed in a genre where heroes wear loincloths.

The opening pages of the arc see Jim’s friends escape from Myrra to find him in our world and, uncomprehending of our reality of trucks and guns and aeroplanes, one gets killed pretty much immediately. It’s an scene with a couple of good lines – “Tark the barbarian unsheathes his sword and prepares to battle his first eighteen-wheeler.” – that suffered, for the contemporary reader, from its similarity to the opening of the Game Of You arc in Sandman. Still, it’s a good introduction to the fantasy world vs modern world conflict that’s one of the drivers of this arc. It’s also revisionism in miniature; barbarian vs eighteen-wheeler, childish fantasy versus brutal reality.

We catch up with Jim Rook himself in a bar spewing a bunch of aged-rock-star tedium. If Millar means this to be a satire of the deluded music veteran dropping truth on the kids, it’s perfect. If he wants us to be fascinated by Rook’s counter-culture stance he fails. Rook meets his old pal from Myrra, which he’d written off as an acid trip, gets his sword back, dons the scuba-suit of the Nightmaster, heads into the bookshop which serves as a portal to that other dimension, and isn’t seen again for most of the arc.

It’s very uneven, this five-issue stretch taking us from Water Thing to Air Thing. We’d seen Alec gain elemental powers by winning in a slugfest, we’d seen him getting even more by blundering uncomprehending through parallel worlds. Now it was time for him to face an intellectual challenge. The problem with that is that Mark Millar didn’t have much idea how to write an intellectual challenge, so we get about five ideas thrown in to fight it out and see which one wins. While the Nightmaster is coming out of retirement for one last job Swampy’s reverted to default and is sitting around the swamp feeling sorry for himself in plodding internal monologue. Killer Croc’s stalking around, apparently having been imported to Louisiana in a Batman storyline, and provides the necessary action for the first issue before being washed away in a tidal wave. Abby arrives to tell Alec she still loves him and wants him back, and she’s around for the next couple of issues talking about the way they used to be. But before she’s finished Alec gets dragged off to Houma for a skirmish with a warlock of Myrra which, in its James Herbertesque six-panel biographies of a bunch of civilians, follows the same principles as Woodrue’s supervillain turn back in Moore’s earliest issues. It even features a superhero turning up too late but in this case it’s not the Satellite League but Tim Trench, a former private eye co-opted into the Hero Hotline on the same team as a super-ventriloquist and a sentient psychic turtle. The trio who manipulated Swamp Thing into becoming Rock Thing turn up again and despair of their efforts. Alec talks to the trees that used to be Cajuns. Finally, Swampy goes to New York, revises the Nightmaster’s origin and meets the Parliament of Vapors.

Where’s the intellectual challenge? Ostensibly it’s that bit at the end, where Swampy solves the problem of Jim Rook with his usual mystic intuition. According to the Vapours, Alec’s challenge was making the choice to pass the trial and become an air elemental, discarding his humanity and becoming something new and frightening. The brief battle with the warlock didn’t have anything to do with it; that was just a flexing of muscle. The better challenge, and the one which Millar seemed to be edging around, was the rejection of Abby and the pretence that love could serve as a restraint on power which had kept him going for all those years. By turning her down, by accepting that he’d already moved beyond that, Alec was engaging his intellect for the first time in years. Unfortunately because of the scrap with the warlock that happens off-stage, Abby sent away by a Swamp Thing simulacrum, and there’s a frustrating lack of resolution to the whole thing. Millar’s distracted by all the different things he wants to do.

All over the place they may be, but these issues are written well enough to be compulsive. Abby is recognisably Abby and her brief stint as Linda Hamilton is ignored. Don Roberto, the Amazon medicine man with the attention span of a Western teenager, becomes an interesting guy to watch all these machinations through. The Killer Croc appearance, incongruous though it is, demonstrates Swampy’s expanded power pretty well; our boy just keeps on monologuing while wiping Croc out. There’s an entertaining subplot featuring Jim Rook’s old girlfriend that plays out engagingly if pointlessly. And the art, which became more fluid and sketch with the Riverrun storyline, has become perfectly itself; Hester and DeMulder have found a style which is neither of them and both of them.

What about Jim Rook? What about the Nightmaster? We see him step into Oblivion Inc in #160 and we see him step out in #163, shouting about warlocks. We’re left to assume he’s fought a few in the meantime. By the final issue he’s been joined by Stalker the Soulless, who had his own four-issue series in the 70s, and apparently a bunch of others I’m not knowledgeable enough to recognise. The world of fantasy is breaking through to Manhattan. Well, it turns out he was deluded all along. He’d retreated into the sword-and-sorcery novels he’d loved so much during his childhood as a way of escaping trauma in the real world, and the Parliament of Vapors had empowered his retreat and allowed it form and force. The whole Nightmaster thing was just a child’s fantasy lived out by an adult.

Quite apart from the plot holes in that – what, the Vapors created Myrra 20 years earlier just in case? – that’s some pretty bad revisionism. It was all a dream. Comics that articulated a slew of fantasy clichés were that way because a rock star was wallowing in those clichés. It’s an example of why revisionism got a bad name: if someone comes up with a great Nightmaster idea, if Conan comics get cool again, then they’ve got to explain away this lame update. But as an example of bad revisionism, it’s first-class. Millar wanted to have his cake and eat it; to enjoy using all those old characters and to call them silly and outdated at the same time. His undoubted affection for the Nightmaster fought against the duty of every adult comics writer to rub those old properties’ noses in gritty realism. Sadly, the latter won.

Swamp Thing #160-#164 by Mark Millar, Phillip Hester and Kim DeMulder have not been reprinted.

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