Just another dead bird

Rereading Swamp Thing #166-#171 by Mark Millar, Phillip Hester and Kim DeMulder. 

The beginning of the Dark Age of comics, a phrase which refers to the adult comics stroke graphic novel revolution in the mainstream which I’m finding increasingly useful, was also the end of something. It was, approximately, the last time anyone joined the industry who wasn’t a fan.

Try this thought experiment; a new writer is appointed to Green Lantern who freely admits she doesn’t know much about the character. She’s a sci-fi novelist with a couple of critically acclaimed books behind her who says she’s going to write the title as science fiction, exploring new concepts and revelling in the freedom to have them appear visually, not just as words on the page. No, she’s not written comics before but she’s a big comics reader who cites From Hell, Love & Rockets, Darwyn Cooke’s Parker adaptations and Preacher as her favourites. No, she doesn’t really know the history of Green Lantern but she sees that as an advantage because she’s planning to lose that baggage and take the character in a new direction. No, she doesn’t really know any other characters in the DC universe but she’s planning to create a new supporting cast to go with the new direction. Is that a problem?

Imagine the outcry. Or don’t bother, because the above would never happen. It might have once, when comics were available to casual readers, sales were close to 100,000 for the average title and the industry was interested in new directions. That pool of potential new readers went stagnant long ago. If you’re reading DC or Marvel comics in the 21st century then you’re a fan, and if you’re writing DC or Marvel comics in the 21st century then you’re a fan, and the pool of comics fans is shrinking, shrinking, shrinking. Comics readers nowadays know their favourite character’s history and expect the writers who serve them – and there is a direct relationship, there are few fields where it’s possible to know an audience so thoroughly – to know that history too. They don’t want Hal Jordan without Carol Ferris or Sinestro or Hector Hammond and all the rest. They want stories written by the fans for the fans, stories which use all the familiar elements in different ways. They don’t, essentially, want anything new.

That includes new characters. At the moment DC and Marvel are under the spotlight for their shameful treatment of creators, specifically in reference to Before Watchmen’s disregard for Moore and The Avengers’ failure to credit Jack Kirby. Both companies believe their role is to maximise commercial exploitation of their intellectual property and damn the creators. But that adamantine stance is the reason why they haven’t had any popular new characters in more than 30 years. The first half of the 1980s, when Marv Wolfman and George Perez were on The New Teen Titans for DC and Chris Claremont with John Byrne, Dave Cockrum and John Romita Jr were on X-Men for Marvel, was the last time new characters became fan favourites. Maintaining their right to rip off creators means that the Big Two have fenced themselves in; before too long Marvel will run out of movies to make. Who have they got left? Quasar?

Alan Moore and the mature readers creators who came after him didn’t help this state of affairs. They were fans. I was surprised when I reread the Swamp Thing run to find that John Constantine, one of the few exceptions to the rule above, was the standout in a handful of characters created over 44 issues. All the others were old characters repurposed, joke Justice League villains turned into monsters, mystical warriors turned into spiritual guides. The other British and mature writers, whether because of fandom or reluctance to lose their ideas, followed his lead. Grant Morrison created Crazy Jane in Doom Patrol, Peter Milligan created a supporting cast in Shade, Neil Gaiman created Tim Hunter. Otherwise a great deal of material got produced without anyone – and these were people who’d come from 2000AD, where your ideas were new or you went home – creating anything much. Unearthing, reviving, and repurposing was the thing.

Mark Millar’s run on Swamp Thing, which was essentially a Mature Readers comic published a few years after they’d gone out of fashion, followed that template. In its first ten issues it waltzed around with the supernatural characters Moore had so fruitfully reintroduced: the Spectre, Deadman, Dr Fate. The Riverrun arc was a gallop through DC’s pre-Crisis alternate Earths. The Air arc was all about the forgotten 70s barbarian characters. And in the final arc, Trial By Fire, we’re zeroing in specifically on the Swamp Thing’s continuity. Woodrue, Constantine, the Phantom Stranger, Abby and Tefé, Chester and Liz, Arcane, andeven a new face from the past, Timothy Raven from the original Wein and Wrightson run. The love, Millar’s fan-love for Moore’s work on the title, had moved from general to specific.

Swampy himself is barely in this last run, which is one way of dealing with comics’ most immobile protagonist. He’s three-quarters of the way to being God and is only there as a terrifying presence for the other characters to approach. The first pilgrim, fittingly, is Woodrue. Once again in opposition, his will to survive putting him at odds with the Swamp Thing’s proposed apocalypse and his compromised position between plant and human making him the perfect emissary. The first issue of the run, one of the first issues I read of this run which sold me on getting the rest, is his journey through the incredible palace Swampy’s made around himself. Woodrue’s back to being a scientist, recording his impressions of what’s been created and what it means while confessing to his awe. The whole sequence is reminiscent of the first issue of Gaiman’s Miracleman run, the climb up Olympus, but in that we knew the god at the end of the journey was benevolent. Here he’s unknown and close to unknowable. On rereading relatively few pages are devoted to Woodrue’s journey but they’re the ones that stick in the mind. There’s even a cameo from Connie Sunderland, in one of the few callbacks to the Nancy A Collins run, basically appearing as Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now.

The next pilgrim is Timothy Raven. In his original appearance a child who turned out, in a twist ending, to be a witch he’s now fully grown, jaded, suffering from cancer and gay. With the Phantom Stranger handling the cosmic end of the attempt to stop Swampy and Constantine, characteristically, handling the street-level end Millar needed a character who could do proper magic. Enter Tim, last of the Ravenwind witches, who in his one issue in the spotlight establishes himself pretty well; vain, striving, brave but weak. We see him drinking in the bar from The Books of Magic, see his advances which could be sexual or just friendship rebuffed by Woodrue, see him go alone to the Swamp God’s body palace to raise his greatest enemy from hell. Tim’s here to perform a function, to get this title’s nemesis back on the board. And Swampy, determined to pass his trials, is waiting for it to happen.

So our third pilgrim, and the word is apposite, is Anton Arcane. Doctor Frankenstein without a moral compass was a spider-monster in Pasko’s run, a undead soul fleeing hell in Moore’s, a presence gathering threat in Veitch’s, and a full-fledged demon on Collins’s. His arc is, therefore, established; his evil brings him power, but not enough, and every defeat makes him more evil and more powerful. Millar decides, with his instinct to shock the reader, to reverse this progression entirely: he makes Arcane a Born Again Christian.

Apart from Chester’s turn as a cop it’s probably the best-known element of Millar’s run, the archvillain’s turn from heel to babyface as the hero goes the opposite way. It’s a good example of Millar’s ability to think outside of the box, to use the same toys as everyone else on a series but still come up with something new. Arcane’s impact had diminished because he always got beaten. Despite Tim’s attempt to talk him up, Swampy is correct to only belatedly recognise him as a threat. When he was an uncle, when he was human on the outside and therefore Alec’s opposite, he had power to frighten the reader. As a demon fighting an elemental he was just another monster in the monster crew. Millar’s trick here pits him against the Swamp Thing one last time, armed with only words to stop his opponent destroying the earth.

But Millar’s ideas exceed his skill to execute them. He’s come a long way since #140 but not far enough. The Swampy-Arcane dialogue has moments, mostly on the former’s side as he demonstrates his contempt for humanity. Arcane’s conversion seems to have rendered him a different person; there’s none of his former egotism, there’s little remorse for his past actions, there’s nothing but a position and rationality. He doesn’t begin to convince the Swamp Thing or the reader that his is the right course. Millar, never a Christian, doesn’t know how to make the arguments. It’s something he learns to do by the time he’s writing The Ultimates, where Thor and Cap and Tony’s views fight it out and the writer’s weight is equally behind them all. But here he’s unable to make Arcane the Christian work as a character or a viewpoint. What should be the highlight of this arc is a missed opportunity, a conversation that ends without getting to the point.

The fourth pilgrim is John Constantine, and there’s nothing straightforward about his approach. He doesn’t expect words to do the trick, though of course he brings them. He’s carrying power. Millar’s Constantine doesn’t have much psychological depth – he’s a trickster and a chancer who stands by his friends – but he’s very recognisably the man we first met in this title, the one who’s playing a game you never see and rips you off just when you’re telling him you won’t fall for that again. Over 23 pages he pisses off Woodrue, cons Senor Blake, gives his old pal Swampy a faceful of attitude and leaves him alone and defenceless and facing death. As ever he’s a shot of energy, of motive, into a title that always had trouble summoning it. It makes you wonder how the title would have run if Constantine had become a regular, Black Widow to Swamp Thing’s Daredevil? Did the success of his own title inevitably mean it would outlive the one he came from?

The last visitor to Swampy, the final trialist, is The Word. A bone-white figure in a red cloak and hood who was introduced way back in the Parliament of Stone arc, who I didn’t mention in the blog post about that arc because he was too boring. Introduced as a big bad, he played a game of cards with Blake, won, then failed to end the elemental experiment because of something he saw in Blake’s mind. We never find out what. (Of the trio that set Swampy on his way through these trials only Blake appears until the final issue where Don Roberto and the Traveller get cameos. Maybe they, and the Star Child plotline I also neglected to mention, would have done more if the title had continued. Maybe Millar had already thought better of them.) He comes back at the beginning of this arc, given extra gravitas simply because of the improvement in writing, and gets a decent build-up by massacring the Parliaments. The hint is dropped that he’s the Spectre’s brother. So we’re ready for a throwdown between The Word of God and a 75 per cent God. Instead, thanks to Constantine, we get The Word versus a powerless Alec Holland. And because there’s plot machinery going on elsewhere The Word does nothing but make threats; four threats in the closing panel of four pages by my count. The subplot, where Woodrue broods over the potential of the captured Tefé, is where the heart is. The child that never really worked as a child – superpowered children who don’t use their powers don’t work – is at once scary and pitiable in a laboratory, an asset waiting to be used but with the eyes of a child. She was turned in by her mother in fear and desperation and recognition that this wasn’t her child, that it never was, that being the bride of Frankenstein means giving birth to something that isn’t human.

But Abby and Constantine meet on a bridge in New Orleans. They’ve never been friends. Their relationship, even when it involved sex, was far more antagonistic. Neither trusted the other’s intentions for the Swamp Thing; she for love, he because he knew that love with an elemental being wasn’t really a long-term possibility. But they have the Swamp Thing in common, and they know their instincts, and they know that whatever they’ve done was wrong. Done with the best of motives for the best of reasons, but wrong. So they put it right. All the blood and thunder, all the elemental parliaments and supernatural lodges, and it comes down to a few lines exchanged on a bridge by two characters who’ve been at the heart of this title’s reinvention for a decade. It’s a fitting ending: trust the monster. Trust in the humanity of the thing that’s telling you it’s no longer human.

The finale, where Swamp Thing gains cosmic consciousness and decides not to kill everyone after all, is what you’d expect. The Parliament of Worlds, I should point out because I’ve not been slow to suggest similarities between Millar’s work and others, is very like the parliament that worlds attend in Sandman: Endless Nights, even mentioning Oa. An unnoticed crossover, Gaiman picking up on a bit of continuity otherwise forgotten, or a coincidence? The apocalypse turns out to be something that happens on another plane and isn’t really an apocalypse, just like in Swamp Thing #50. The last issue is, as it should be, a chorus of farewells.

The Vertigo page in that final issue detailing what else is out that month is revealing. Almost all the old companions are gone: Shade, Doom Patrol, Animal Man, Sandman. In their place are the creator-owned lead titles of Vertigo’s second phase: Preacher, The Invisibles and, within a couple of months, Transmetropolitan. The landscape of mainstream comics, changed so radically by Swamp Thing and Alan Moore, has changed again. The writer-as-brand is established in the audience’s mind and comics are now the first run of stories that will be collected in trades and available forever. Writing about Moore’s run was writing about a vanished world. Ten years later, the world mainstream comics live in today is established. Millar’s run was anachronistic even then; a love-letter to the recent past. Time, a commodity rationed in comic-book universes where no-one is allowed to grow old, is held off for so long then falls like a landslide. Everything is washed away.

Swamp Thing #166-#171 by Mark Millar, Phillip Hester and Kim DeMulder have not been reprinted.  

2 Responses to “Just another dead bird”
  1. kate h says:

    I had thought that Mark Millar was a practicing Christian – as described here http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Celebrities/Interviews/Mark-Millar-God-and-Comics.aspx

    Also, wasn’t Rick Veitch (prior to the Jesus controversy) supposed to end his run on Swamp Thing with a final confrontation with Arcane that basically leaves the latter healed and redeemed from evil? I’m not saying that Millar was consciously informed by this but it feels like an echo of an earlier idea.

    • You’re quite right and I had no idea – it’s obvious that Christianity takes up a lot of his headspace, but I thought it was in the predictable God-is-for-losers geek way. Thanks for telling me. A shame he didn’t articulate Arcane’s POV better, then.

      Roots of the Swamp Thing, which has a summary of events in the Veitch run on its timeline, has details of the proposed conclusion to the time travel story where Arcane burns our his hatred and becomes a country doctor. It could well have been inspiration for Millar but a conversion through conflict and a conversion that happens off-screen through simple righteousness are different enough that Millar deserves credit for his radical approach.

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