St Swithin’s Day, a comicbook tale of a lonely disaffected youth, has a unique place in Grant Morrison’s output. Rather than being a tale of brightly-clad super-people outshining us all, or 5th dimensional Gods breaking into reality, the action is set in the mundane world we all live in, and its hero is a young man whose only distinguishing characteristics are his over-active imagination and his absorption in himself. Further, being set in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain in the 80’s, the main protagonist doesn’t even have a job or opportunities, let alone super-powers. Exploring such mundane subject matter, it’s an important milestone in our overview of Morrison’s work.

St Swithin’s Day, with art by Jack Staff’s Paul Grist, was produced for the independent Trident Comics company in the UK and was originally published, starting in 1989, as four individual chapters in the black and white anthology comic Trident, alongside work by Eddie Campbell and Neil Gaiman. The 4 chapters were subsequently brought together as a one-shot in 1990. As Trident Comics quickly went out of business, St Swithin’s Day was only reprinted once more, in colour in 1998, by Oni Press in the US.

I managed to find both editions of the one-shot in bargain bins lately, but I’m sure that otherwise a copy might be hard to find. Nevertheless, St Swithin’s Day is of interest to fans of Morrison, so I thought I’d provide a summary of it here and some frames from the comic, purely in the interest of scholarly appreciation. Of course I’d urge Morrison fans to seek out their own copies as it’s an enjoyable turn from him, and another great artistic collaboration.

The comic is almost entirely made up of 6 panels per page, 3 on the top half of the page and three on the bottom. I decided to reproduce some of the 3-panel sequences here to give an idea of the rhythm of Grist’s storytelling and also to highlight the disjointed stream-of-consciousness effect that Morrison is going for. As the narrator skulks around these cityscapes, his mind jumps from one non-sequiter to another, and we slowly build up a picture of his background and inner world, without needing any outside narration.

This is one of the ways Morrison shows great control of his art in this little book. Hopefully I can highlight a few more as we look through it.

Each of the 4 chapters leads into a splash page early on with the chapter heading and somewhat dramatic setting of the scene. The splash pages are one of the few nods to classic superhero storytelling style in the book, although each splash focuses on a stark modern frontage of a public building, rather than action as such. The style is mainly a sort of understated indie grunge for most of the book.

I’ll look at the first three chapters/days in this opening post, so consider the rest of this post as Major SPOILERS!! The final chapter/day has a fine resolution of the story, and you might want to save that for when you eventually read St Swithin’s Day yourself. I’ll cover that in a subsequent post further down. For now I want to look at this comic on its own terms, but I’m also hoping to add a post later, highlighting some of the ways this early autobiographical piece ties into Morrison’s wider body of work.

In the first chapter, it quickly becomes clear that the unnamed protagonist is a lonely outsider. He has arrived in London for a few days, so during the course of the story he’s far from any family or friends he might have. When we meet him he is shoplifting some classic outsider books from Foyle’s bookshop in London. Rimbaud’s poetry and a copy of Catcher in the Rye. “I want them to find it in my pocket when this is all over”, he muses. By the end of the first 6-page chapter, we find out that he has a gun and plans to shoot Margaret Thatcher when she visits a Technical College in a few days time!

One of the things which evoke the specific time and place is the fact that he doesn’t really give any reason why he’s going to kill Margaret Thatcher. It seemed like all young people at the time hated her, and everything she stood for. That a fictional teenage anti-hero should be trying to kill her would have seemed like self-evident common sense! Later on he quotes from the Wizard of Oz:Ding Dong he wicked witch is dead!” I have to admit that while I lived in London, I always meant to get some T-shirts printed with just that line on it, to be ready for the celebrations when Maggie eventually popped her clogs…

The chapters each count down another day until our anti-hero’s fateful meeting with Thatcher, so they are titled Four to One. In St Swithin’s Day – Three, our hero leaves London for a day trip to Winchester town and its famous Cathedral. Apparently, the main character’s inner monologue is based on Morrison’s diaries from the 1980’s, and would seem to be very autobiographical. Morrison also wore black and adopted quite an outsider pose in his youth too. In Winchester we encounter one of the motifs of the book which ties it all together and helps to shape it more into more of a work of art than the formless, self-pitying teenaged journals on which it is based.

St Swithin himself is buried on the grounds of Winchester Cathedral, and the authentic English folk belief grew out of the story of his burial. He wanted to be buried amongst the common poor that he loved and when he was laid to rest in the shrine inside the Cathedral, he wept for forty days and forty nights, in the form of rain. Today, people still believe that if it rains on St Swithin’s day then it will rain for 40 days subsequently, but if it doesn’t then 40 days of glorious summer sunshine will follow.

Morrison builds a lot of the tone and poetry of this comic around the St Swithin’s Day myth. In striking out against Thatcher and the oppressive ruling elite that she represents, the youth is showing a similar identification with the poor that St Swithin showed and a hatred of privilege. We slowly learn that he is obsessed with time and his youth and his death in a very teenaged Romantic way, and he is convinced that unless he can do something big on St Swithin’s day, then the rain will fall miserably on him for the rest of his life.

After the cathedral, the youth visits a café and imagines having a deep and satisfying relationship with a good-looking girl at another table. In his loneliness, he even conjures up another girl who discusses his options with him. As readers, we only realise she is a figment of his imagination when she disappears in the next frame.

In St Swithin’s Day – Two, the day before his fateful appointment with Maggie at the technical college, our hero visits the scene of the prospective crime again, calls his mother from Euston station, throws away his shoplifted Walkman and arty books, and finally visits Karl Marx’s tomb at Highgate Cemetary.

The true action is in the hero’s head however. At the Technical College he imagines how the assassination will make him instantly famous on the news. At the train station, we only hear his side of the conversation, but it’s easy to see that he has a very dysfunctional relationship with his mother, who doesn’t understand him in the least. We slowly realise over the course of the comic, too that his father is dead, further isolating him from any support from that quarter. His purpose in throwing away the loot is so that know-it-all commentators would have nothing to base their assumptions about his character on. He’s only got the books in the first place to give them a few blind alleys to go down once the deed was done. The whole comic illustrates that the shallow chatter which occupies modern society can’t really assume to understand the rich inner life of an individual.

At Marx’s grave (a communist plot!) the Romantic themes of youth, rebellion, imagination, art, life and death all come together in a few panels where the youth dances to the imagined sound of his favourite pop song, the beautiful, sorrow-laden 'There She Goes', at the grave of the celebrated champion of the downtrodden.

It’s understated, but there seems to be indications along his journey that there are ways out of the lonely trap he’s found himself in. One way is to swap his ruminations for taking action in the real world in some way.

For instance, written on Marx’s tomb are the words “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways – The point however is to change it”

In a later post, we’ll look at how our young narrator fares on the titular St Swithin’s Day itself ...

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Comment by Cavaliere (moderator emeritus) on August 4, 2010 at 12:53pm
Well, crud. I had most of a post done about Joseph de Maistre's 1811 quote, "Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite" ("Every country has the government it deserves") but then I looked something up in Google and forgot to open a new tab to do it. Bye-bye, post.

Let's just say that I don't believe assassination is the answer in a democratic society and that I don't believe all the people deserve the government in power, only those who elected the officials or didn't bother to vote.
Comment by Figserello on August 4, 2010 at 4:42pm
Well, I'm fine with attempted assassination in fiction. Day of the Jackal is a great book/movie. Maybe not the Bruce Willis one...

And she was an evil old crone.

Democracy may be the best system we have, but it has its downside. You can have a tyranny of the majority. Thatcher's supporters - predominantly older voters - outnumbered miners, the unemployed, the gay community, the Scottish, the Welsh, anyone north of the Watford Gap, Northern Irish Nationalists, etc etc and she gave them all a hard time in the name of the state.

Hatred of Thatcher is just a 'given' in this comic - the paragraph above is just to illustrate why this was so, but there is no analysis of why anyone should hate her in it. It's just part of the 80's context. It's kind of like how the US being great is a 'given' in any comic Captain America appears in.

Tune in for the ending of the comic, Cav. I think you'll like it...
Comment by Wandering Sensei: Moderator Man on August 4, 2010 at 11:40pm
I would love to read this. I've never seen it around, but I love both creators. Great review...looks like it's different from your typical Morrison fare, but from what I've seen here, it feels very Paul Grist.
Comment by Mark Sullivan (Vertiginous Mod) on August 5, 2010 at 1:39am
I'd love to read this, as well. I'm bound to come across it eventually (most likely the Oni edition). So I'll have to avoid the ending spoilers you warned about. How many pages long is it (if either of the prints have page numbers)?
Comment by Figserello on August 5, 2010 at 2:05am
It's 24 pages long - 4 chapters of 6 pages each. This mildly depressed kid's wanderings and musings seem very unstructured, but the format of each chapter covering a full day gives it some kind of shape. Perhaps Morrison had the 24-page format of his beloved yankee comics in mind all along.

I'll post the ending elsewhere and just link to it here, as I want to include a few images and they will definitely be spolilerific.

Strangely enough, as far removed as this story is from Grant's usual territory I can see a lot that connects it to his more famous work. It's almost central, even...
Comment by Figserello on August 7, 2010 at 1:07am
So for those of you interested, here's my spoilery review of the last chapter of the story.

By the way Cav, you aren't the first to complain about the content of this fine piece of fiction. From wiki

"Reaction to the story was hugely positive within the comics community. However the story of its publication had been picked up by the British tabloid newspaper The Sun, a pro-Thatcher newspaper.

They ran an item on the story under the headline "DEATH TO MAGGIE BOOK SPARKS TORY UPROAR" with quotes from MP's such as Teddy Taylor condemning the book. This even led to questions being asked in the House of Commons about the comic.

All this proved great publicity for Trident Comics and they took advantage of it, even going as far to reprint The Sun's article in advertising for the reprint edition."

It was the Mar 19 1990 edirtion, for what its worth. The Sun is the British tabloid forerunner of Fox News, so you're in good company! ;-P
Comment by Cavaliere (moderator emeritus) on August 7, 2010 at 1:19am
I just threw up in my mouth a little. Thanks, Figs, for comparing me to The Sun, Fox News, and Tories. Blurch!
Comment by Captain Comics on August 8, 2010 at 4:34pm
I bought and read St. Swithin's Day back when Oni collected it, and probably didn't have any idea who Grant Morrison was. (Did I? When did he get famous in the U.S.? Maybe that's why I bought it.) Anyway, I didn't take much away from the story. My patience with self-pitying adolescent autobiography in indie comics -- which is about 80 percent of indie comics -- is reallllly short. (I even hated Blankets, which most reviewers swoon over.) I may not have even read it all ... I might have skimmed it. I don't recall.

But I'm enjoying your deeper insight, Figs, as it helps me over my own blinders and I get more out of it. Carry on!
Comment by Figserello on August 8, 2010 at 9:17pm
I have a fair tolerance of comics about whining self-pitying adolescents, perhaps because I used to be one myself! Now I'm a self-pitying adult...

The Oni press edition was released in 1998, so Morrison would have had Animal Man, Doom Patrol and JLA under his belt at that stage, and I'd guess you'd have held him in high regard then.

I've occasionally boxed him in with the pretentious and self-regarding set, but obviously by now I'm very favourable towards most of his work. Morrison has a very positive and optimistic streak that sets him apart as a writer. It almost always shines through. Even, surprisingly, in something like this that would normally be more fatalistic and downbeat in tone.

The ending almost deconstructs the usual direction of stories about aimless unemployed youths. Yes, there is much about the context the hero lives in which is crap, but he isn't the context, and finds that he can rise above it all at the end. The only person he has anything to prove anything to is himself.

This is as close as St Swithin's Day gets to the Gnostic view of the universe that Morrison loves to explore - the idea that we as individuals are more valuable than this fallen world we find ourselves in.

Morrison can also be ambiguous, leaving gaps in the narrative that can be interpreted variously. It's possible to read the last page as the poor guy getting his skull cracked by overzealous security men and his journey on the train represents his shuffling off the mortal coil altogether. I'm ok with that, as what he set out to do wouldn't have been worth doing, or a life-changing catharsis for him, if it hadn't contained an element of risk, and the ambiguity acknowledges that.

St Swithin's Day in particular is a comic that rewards looking beneath the surface. Morrison put a lot of himself, mixed with about an equal amount of of 'art' into the 4 short chapters. It is an example of the downbeat, autiobiographical self-pitying indie comic that you so despise, Cap, but its also a commentary and subversion of them.
Comment by Figserello on August 9, 2010 at 3:44am
St Swithin’s Day and other Morrison comics.

Although it is a well-made piece that stands fine on its own two legs, I was surprised to see a lot in it that connected to other sequences in Morrison’s huge output. Not so much themes and motifs, but specific imagery and storytelling structures.

I could build an argument around them to show the cohesiveness of Grant’s work or somesuch, but it’s less effort just to list them as I find them. Often similar sequences used in two very different works tends to illuminate how and why they work in each case. Sometimes it’s just notable how a writer can use very similar scenes and imagery in vastly different types of work, or how Grant reformulates scenes for very different purposes, in some cases decades apart.

For starters, the countdown of the chapters from Four to ‘St Swithin’s Day’ anticipates the unusual numbering of the final volume of The Invisibles, which counted down to issue one.

FOUR

When we first meet our Neurotic Boy Outsider, he is snaffling a copy of Catcher in the Rye. As well as signalling that the NBO’s aimless wanderings are in the same literary vein as Holden Caulfield’s this book has a special place in Grant’s work. One of Grant’s first ever pieces for 2000AD – a Time Twister short story called ‘Candy and the Catchman’ riffs very obviously on the Catcher in the Rye. John Lennon’s killer was famously carrying a copy of the book when he did the deed. In an early chapter of The Invisibles, Grant evokes the very moment just before Lennon was shot by Mark Chapman. So the book has both light and dark connotations. On the one hand it is a celebration of youth and rebellion and on the other, it’s disillusionment and self-obsession has been associated with a terrible moment in pop culture.

Grant has stated that Superman’s declaration at the end of the first arc of JLA is a homage to Salinger's book, in particular the passage of it that refers to the catcher in the rye. Superman says he doesn’t see the team’s role as leading mankind to a better future, but instead to let mankind make the journey upwards itself and be waiting on the sidelines ‘to catch them when they fall.’

One of the earliest intrusions of a fantasy into the comic is where the youth imagines being able to scream almost in Blackbolt fashion to bring destruction and carnage to the street he is walking down. It’s significant that it’s his voice that he is trying to find. Perhaps this ties in a little with Superman’s final resolution of his battle with Darkseid in Final Crisis by singing the perfect note that will vanquish the evil God.

THREE

The hero’s cold and his wish to infect the ‘rich yuppies with cars and smug Home Counties accents’ with something ties into the imagery of germs infecting the body in The Filth, and elsewhere. One of Morrison’s three Doctor Who stories, for instance, tell of the Doctor’s meeting with a civilisation of microbes infecting a host.

In Winchester Cathedral, he says he feels like Phillip Larkin in ‘Church going’. That poem is where Morrison got the subtitle for Arkham Asylum – ‘A serious house on a serious Earth’.

Cathedrals pop up again and again Morrison’s work, often very centrally. Gothic, Sacreda Familia in the Doom Patrol story about The Cult of the Unwritten Book, St Paul’s Cathedral in The Invisibles.

The imagined life with the beautiful girl in the café seemed to be further brought to life in Morrison’s depiction of King Mob’s reminiscences about his lost love in The Invisibles.

NBO imagines himself entertaining the imaginary girl with pithy Wilde-isms – “I’m not anti-society. Society is anti-me!” and Morrison would return to a Wildean character with Sebastian O, or so I believe. I have yet to read it!

Morrison’s stand-in refers to the diary he got from his Gran when he was 15, and in reality that diary formed the basis for this story. Perhaps it is a confluence of reality and fiction much like we see at the end of Animal Man? Diaries recur again and again in Morrison’s work, particularly in his Bat-books, for some reason.

TWO

The hero visits the scene of the crime several times before the fateful day. It is a Technical College. Learning and training – initiations into knowledge – are a big recurring theme with Morrison. The Invisibles starts with a lesson between King Mob and his mentor, but really kicks off with Dane firebombing the school library. It’s all about the Invisible College, after all. So, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that St Swithin’s Day, a comic about learning through experience and action, centres around an educational institution.

The scene of NBO collapsing during an emotionally charged, but communicatively ineffective phonecall on a public phone looks like a dry run for King Mob’s last phone call after the climax in St Paul's Cathedral.

That the lead character is processing his father’s death is a recurring theme in all great literature, but is central to All-Star Superman (twice over),All Grant’s Batman work (including his appearance in Aztek), and Zenith, off the top of my head.

The church bells that NBO hears in his head have apocalyptic connotations for him, as he nears his fateful catharsis, and the initiated in The Return of Bruce Wayne hear apocalyptic bells in association with the box that they guard for Bruce Wayne down through the centuries.

The youth’s rant against ad men and how they reduce us with their easy categorisations has been expanded into the surreal cartoonish ongoing trilogy that is Seaguy. Seaguy is all about living in an over-commodified consumerist society.

ST SWITHIN’S DAY

Highlight to reveal spoilers:

The moment that inspired me to come up with this list of connections is the crucial moment where our Neurotic Boy Outsider confronts Thatcher. Isn’t the moment where he points his ‘gun’ at her thus vanquishing all his fears and demons, very similar to the key moment in Final Crisis where Batman shoots Darkseid with a single God-killing bullet?

“Bang”= “Gotcha!”

Remember too, Dorothy Spinner’s answer in Doom Patrol as to how she was able to kill her imaginary friends – “With an imaginary gun, of course!”

I think that illuminates the climax of this story very well. Our boy’s fears and demons were a product of his way of looking at the world, rather than actually personified in a demented old lady. It’s fitting that he uses an imaginary gun to defeat those demons.


St Swithin’s Day, if mentioned at all, is usually referred to as an early and peripheral work of Morrison’s. A curiosity and an interesting footnote at best.

It can be argued that it is in fact really central to Morrison’s output.

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