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 ...