Old Stuff From Today’s Stars Part 2 (of 3): MILLAR (and Morrison)!

*But first: new column alert! Click here! This one is about the bargain bin and how I’m a big fraud. The kids'll love it!

*And new dvds too! On February 22, we finally get R1 releases for two of Shinya Tsukamoto’s more recent films: 1998’s “Bullet Ballet”, and 2002’s “A Snake of June”, from TLA Releasing (who haven't got either of them listed on their site yet). Tsukamoto was once a darling of fans of low-down low-budget rough-edged Asian cinema, with his 1988 feature debut “Tetsuo” (perhaps better known in the US as “Tetsuo the Iron Man”), a feverish dime-store wonder of metal-flesh sexploitation, b&w and barely over an hour long. Nobody who’s seen the uncontrolled camera work in this film can forget it, and despite being made for plainly no money the film achieves an amazingly potent atmosphere of erotic confusion and the joy that comes from shattering society‘s grip on behavior, a theme that will recur in sever of Tsukamoto‘s future films. But around the mid-90’s, Tsukamoto’s work became less visible, and he seemed to slip from the American radar after the releases of “Tetsuo 2: Body Hammer” (absurdly violent, pushing the themes of the original straight into a redefinition of the family) and “Tokyo Fist” (a pretty excellent meditation of boxing, romantic jealousy, and feral human violence). Perhaps this is because Tsukamoto has only released 8 feature films in 17 years, quite the opposite of his contemporary, Takashi Miike, who’s directed one complete film in the time it’s taken you to read this far (the two filmmakers, both the same age, are thoroughly connected: Miike once shot a documentary on the making of Tsukamoto’s 1999 film “Gemini”, and Tsukamoto has appeared in several of Miike’s films, like “Ichi the Killer” and “Dead or Alive 2: The Birds”). And while I guess if you’re a hardcore fan, you’ve probably already seen this stuff via bootleg or region-free players or whatever, it’s good to note the presence of official R1 discs. I’m looking forward to these.

*So right, back to the theme.

Swamp Thing #140-143

“…I look forward to seeing [Mark Millar] become the comic-book field’s equivalent of perhaps Harlan Ellison or Gerald Kersh. As I understand it, his style is along the lines of what Alfred Bester… termed ‘arrest fiction’ - grabbing the reader off the street or shooting bullets past his/her head.”

- Sean Donnelly, from his letter published in the back of “Swamp Thing” #143, in reaction to the opening of Millar’s run on the book, with Grant Morrison in tow.

Quick! We’ve got a popular, long-lived brooding hero, with a strange past that sometimes casts him in the role of little more than a monster. A new creative team hits his book, hoping to pump some life into things, so this dark title hero suddenly goes on the rampage, driven by sinister forces that control his formidable killer instincts. He murders indiscriminately; perhaps not every member of the supporting cast is surprised, as he’s always been kind of edgy, but they’ve got no choice but to take their former pal down. Mark Millar is involved in the writing.

Am I talking about Millar‘s recent “Wolverine” arc?

Well, yes.

But I’m also talking about Millar’s initial 1994 arc on “Swamp Thing”, a four issue arc that’s sometimes collectively dubbed “Bad Gumbo”, although the issues aren’t specifically titled as parts of any proper multi-part story. Millar is not flying solo, however, as mentor Grant Morrison is also along for the ride; the two had just begun collaborating on “2000 A.D.” the year before, and this was their first collaboration in the US. Indeed, it was Millar’s first work at all for the Big Two, while Morrison was floating around in quiet period at Vertigo after “Doom Patrol” but before “The Invisibles”. From examining the editorials and letters in the back of each of these four comics, it becomes evident that much of the attention surrounding the arc is on Millar, who is plainly understood to be assuming the solo writing duties after an initial period with Morrison. It’s a ‘big’ arc, one that’s meant to redefine Swamp Thing and give him a Bold New Direction following the lengthy individual tenures of writers Doug Wheeler (who had taken over directly following Alan Moore successor Rick Veitch’s ill-fated run) and Nancy A. Collins. Millar’s run would last until 1996; he would be the final writer of that iteration of the book, until its relaunch under Brian K. Vaughan, four years later.

So naturally, to kick things off, we begin with one of the classic New Direction tricks: claiming that what has come before was but an illusion. Moore had pulled a similar stunt with his own revamp way back in the day, so it seems almost respectful for Millar and Morrison to tap a similar vein, although their plan isn’t nearly as far-reaching. Basically, Alec Holland wakes up in human form in the jungles of Peru, having apparently dreamed his entire life as Swamp Thing over the course of a three-week fever brought on by a powerful natural hallucinogenic. Perusing his own journals, Holland discovers that he’s really a researcher, curious about the spiritual symbiosis between man and plant that can be established through the use of natural mind modifiers, an experience dating back to the roots of tribal shamanism. His visions of Swamp Thing were merely his mind crafting a crude allegory for animal/plant interrelation. Or, rather, that’s what it looks like for about three quarters of the first issue; by the end, back in the US, something resembling Swamp Thing explodes out of a guy’s stash of weed and starts slaughtering folks connected to Swamp Thing left and right, with Swampy’s beloved Abby Arcane as his prime target.

Alec, dully warned of the danger by a strange local shaman, begins wandering through the jungle, ravaged by industrial development, the sorry state of it mirroring his own tortured mind. Then he boards the Soul Train, where he encounters lots of tortured spirits, and a fellow who I’ll just call the Infodump Warlock, due to his scary hat and staff and his purpose to the plot. He tells Alec that, ha ha, no all that stuff from earlier in the arc was just tomfoolery and really Alec’s human aspect has been cast out of his swamp body by the Parliament of Trees, since, well, he’s just acting too damn human, but then his human aspect traveled to the mysterious Far Beyond and met a bunch of mysterious entities that told him some mysterious stuff and now he’s back and he’s On The Run (and he can maintain a human appearance), and his ex-body is busy wiping out all of his connections to the human world on autopilot. And he’s being watched by the mysterious forces of the Parliament of Stones who need him for (all together!) mysterious reasons. And then in the fourth, concluding issue, there’s a huge fight scene, complete with Abby trying to drive away to escape The Monster but her car Just! Won’t! Start! and the evil Swamp Thing gets hit by a truck and it all ends in a massive eruption of flame. Boom!

It’s slightly dopey, although it does hearken back to the image of Swamp Thing as a menacing killer beast of the bog (perhaps I sense the hand of Morrison, guiding Swampy back to a bright monster-mash world in rejection of angst... unless I'm totally off base with Swamp Thing history?), while retaining much of what’s gone before. It’s very much a set-up arc, with ideas and themes (drugs as the connecting fabric of man and plant, industrialization as a severance) tossed out then left to fall, maybe to be picked up later. There’s a delight in this book, in seeming like it’s changing its world when really it’s closely tied to the past. One can sense the presence of future Millar works through this, from the Avengers of “The Ultimates” to the supervillain analogs of “Wanted”. He indeed grabs you off the street and shoots those bullets, and besides arresting the reader's attention he draws it away to where they can't see where these stories he's telling have gone before.

But more than anything, I was pleased with how effective a set-up arc this was, considering that it doesn‘t just shitcan what‘s happened before (the simplest road). You might dub the swiftly dropped ‘everything I know is wrong’ façade a cheap trick, a half-hearted shock opening meant only to reel the reader in. But by orienting Alec to his surrounding environs, the new reader becomes informed as to current happenings in the “Swamp Thing” universe. And even some of those neophyte readers might find the execution of said orientation to be clumsy (to say nothing of longtime fans), but it does eventually work. I felt fully up to speed on Swampy’s adventures, and I could see a clear path to the future. It’s a temporary sacrifice of smoothness in the name of building a new readership. I don’t know if it pays off. I haven’t read the rest of Millar’s run. But it’s a noble, flawed, precognitive start for a new Big Two writer on an old Big Two book.