I believed in a million things and none of them were right

Rereading Swamp Thing #159 and #165 by Mark Millar, Jill Thompson, Curt Swan, Kim DeMulder and Phillip Hester.

Sincerity is a question that’s debated in few areas of the arts except superhero comics. Does the Ghost Rider artist believe in Ghost Rider? Do they mean it? Have they wanted to draw a man with a flaming skull head riding a chopper ever since they were a kid, or is it just another job to them? Or less than another job? Do they secretly mock Ghost Rider? Do they – gasp – think Ghost Rider is bullshit? If they want to draw somebody else, or if they’ve got some pathetic dream about doing their own comic with their own characters, then why don’t they go do that and leave Ghost Rider to the people who love him, the fans, the ones who care?

The only artistic fields where you get the same doubts about sincerity, the same suspicions that the artist doesn’t believe in it and is only in it for the money, are fields where it’s worth doing it for the money. Movies and sport. Daniel Craig, to drop a Bond reference for the second week running, was accused of not having his heart in it, of being too blonde and sensitive to play a misogynist superspy. George Lucas has, according to the internet, thought of nothing but stacking up dollars since the mid-90s. And every well-remunerated football player gets told, by journalists and fans, that their wealth has eroded their passion.

It doesn’t happen elsewhere. Brett Easton Ellis wrote a sequel to his first hit novel which was considered for its art, not as a cashgrab. The third act of U2’s career, despite their stated intention to get back in the charts, was considered as valid as their odder stuff. And while artists like Damien Hirst work against a chorus of people telling them they’re only in it for the money those people are expressing a belief about everything the artist does, not directing it at specific projects.

Nobody in comics, surely, is in it for the money. But there are certainly those who don’t mean it; who aren’t completely committed to the Nova or Firestorm or Huntress revival they’re writing or drawing. How can they be? Surely they’re the smart ones? When your comic can be cancelled at whim, when your characters are owned by someone else, why waste your sincerity? Keith Giffen, a writer and artist with a stellar track record, know the score. He does whatever assignment gets handed to him, makes it as interesting as possible for himself and the readers, then moves on to the next one. He’s seen his commercial successes retconned, his characters murdered for cheap shocks, his comics shelved and mutilated. He knows that sincerity, passion, will leave you wounded in a company-owned world.

Back in the 80s and 90s when company-owned comics were going through rapid change the question of sincerity kept coming up. Can these sophisticated, intelligent, British writers really love superheroes like they claim? Do they mean it? Or are they pretending to love them and laughing at us? Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, two writers who’ve done much to redefine superheroes, were dogged by accusations of insincerity. How could Moore deconstruct masks so brutally in Watchmen and then claim, in the pages of 1963 and Supreme, to have so much affection for them? If Morrison thinks the X-Men look stupid in brightly-coloured spandex, doesn’t that mean he hates superheroes and shouldn’t be allowed to write them?

Mark Millar, to my knowledge, hasn’t been questioned like this. He slipped into American comics without making much of a fuss until The Authority, and that was such a controversy magnet that he escaped without a reputation as a non-believer. The Ultimates was a huge success and, despite the politics, was treated mainly a traditional superhero book. He wrote runs on Spider-Man and Wolverine drenched with his love of the characters. His sincerity stands unassailed.

Which is strange because, of all the writers who’ve done big stuff with superheroes in recent years, I reckon Millar is the least sincere. He does his big action set-pieces, his destroyed cities, with a wink and a smile because he doesn’t mean it. It’s not that he’s doing it for the money, though if anyone in comics is making out like a bandit it’s Millar. He’s doing it for the thrills, for that signature superhero comics buzz, but he’s smart enough to recognise that doesn’t come from his side of the political fence. Superheroes are right-wingers keeping the status quo for their bosses; a revelation when Frank Miller made Superman a USA covert strike weapon in Dark Knight, a commonplace now. Millar’s success as a writer has been to run with that, to craft stories about unpleasant people fighting for unpleasant causes and to hit all the right notes to make them thrilling. They’re not heroes to him. He wouldn’t want them running around in the real world. In two volumes of The Ultimates, the team only fights one menace – the Chitauri – that isn’t of their own making. But that cynicism, that lack of belief, is what frees him to make these stories work as action dramas.

Anyway, before I return to insincerity or sincerity, a word about how fill-ins had changed since Alan Moore wrote Pog in this same title ten years earlier. I wrote here about how that was an insightful way of making artistic hay from commercial constraints, using the qualities of a fill-in artist to tell a different kind of story. Like so much else Moore did it became standard practice through Sandman, which created the model of rotating artists which looked set to become standard practice at Vertigo for a while. Which is to say that slotting one-off stories like these two which came between arcs, barely featured the title character, and told complete stories at a tangent to the main narrative, was no longer in the least remarkable. Not so much interruptions in the flow as islands in the stream.

Swamp Dog in Swamp Thing #159, beautifully drawn by Jill Thompson, is Millar’s sincere story. It’s set in Scotland, just a few miles away from the town where he grew up, and it’s dedicated to his pet dog. It’s writing from the heart, but since this is Millar that means degenerate aristocrats and bloody murder. The story of The Crianlarach Hotel’s Gastronomy Society wastes no time establishing its low-skied world, where a coach and horses rides through the streets of Motherwell and poverty stands at every elbow breathing everyone’s air. We begin with Jerry and his friend, a year before the main story, and the sale of his pet dog Scooby to the Society by his crying parents. They’re desperate for money, asking each other “How did we get into this mess?” in a line that sums up the banality of evil. Cut, after a title page showing us how the other half live, to the Society themselves and the rules of their annual dinner. We’re not told it’s a year later until the cloche is lifted to reveal Jerry himself, the main course the year after his beloved pet was.

While the Society agonise over two evils, on the one hand murder and cannibalism and on the other social death, the unthinkable prospect of being thrown out of the club, Jerry pleads for his life and we flash back to earlier in the evening. Jerry and his friend are a year older but Jerry still can’t forget Scooby. He can’t help longing for his lost dog, his best pal, even dreaming about him. He’s saved up all year to buy him back. Instead he finds himself a meal for the same men who ate his pet. Millar’s pacing is perfect; keeping the news that we’ve moved on a year until Jerry’s unveiled to provide a genuine shock, keeping Jerry’s dream back so it’s just a detail in the rush of fear and anticipation. The expected heavy irony of horror is that the salad starter, an abandoned head of the Swamp Thing, is animated by Snoopy’s restless spirit and kills the members of the club. The gastronomes eaten by their own meal. That’s the savage, bloody bit that we expect. The moment that really stabs at the heart is the aftermath, when Jerry hugs his mossy dog one last time, until “everything that was his little dog drips off the end of the table,” but Jerry won’t let go. Because we can’t let go when we love something that much, even if it is just a stupid dog.

But that’s not the end: the final cruel O. Henry twist is on the last page, the ordinary domestic horror of Jerry’s parents climbing into bed. They sold their son’s dog and they sold their son because they needed the money and they didn’t even get much. Millar makes these people commonplace, hopeless, but still guilty of unimaginable evil. It closes the circuit; their desperation to remain in society is the same as the members of the Society, both the underclass and the overclass willing to become monsters rather than become outsiders. It’s a beautiful little story.

#165 is the insincere story, and kind of notorious because of it. Beginning with a smirking apology from the writer, framed by a lovely montage page by Phillip Hester inking himself, it’s a comic for the Clinton-hating American right-wing of the 1990s. Hippie drug-addict college professor wises up, shops his buddies, joins the police and takes down criminals without any mercy or letting the law get in his way. He rises far and fast enough to be sent to teach the Swamp Thing a lesson and finishes up as President.

There aren’t many jokes in the issue, or to put it another way the mask doesn’t slip much. A line about injecting marijuana, Chester’s rejection of post-marital sex, the unmotivated beating of a black man. Change the dialogue slightly and it could actually hit big with the Fox News crowd. Plotwise it doesn’t stand up: no reason is given for Chester’s change of mind, and the whole bit where he goes to see Swampy is a diversion where there should be a climax.

But this is a comic of lines, not of character or plot or any of that guff. And it has great, great lines. College professor: “Feast your bleary eyes on the eighteen-year-old nymphette from my first-year geology class, man. I promised her all the junk she can snort if she strips off for my friends.” Thief: “Thanks for the money, sweetheart! This added to my welfare check means another week where I don’t have to work like you suckers!” Chester: “Too many clever opinions just make you confused, so I burned my textbooks along with all my old hippie clothes and my Grateful Dead albums.” “Giving the world’s biggest hippie a serious lecture on market forces will be a real pleasure.” The dialogue Millar’s become famous for, expository and formal but at the same time wise-ass, knowing, creating a tension between what’s being said and the intent behind it, begins here.

What was a joke proved the foundation of a career. Nemesis, the worst Millar comic I’ve read and one that is truly putrid, has a hostage scene very like the one in this comic and the hero police commissioner isn’t unlike this issue’s hero. “Surrender? You think this letter on my heads stands for France?” could come from Chester Williams, American Cop. And what’s the last page of this issue if not one man fucking, as Wanted screamed on its final page, the whole world up the ass?

Swamp Thing #159 and #165 by Mark Millar, Jill Thompson, Curt Swan, Kim DeMulder and Phillip Hester have not been reprinted.

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