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Grant Morrison and superheroes as the new gods

14th July 2011 - Benjamin Lovegrove

Supergods imageLast week a group of comics fanatics were graced by the messianic presence of Grant Morrison, premier DC comics writer and Scots savant, talking about his recent release Supergods - Our World In the Age of the Superhero, in our Charing Cross Road gallery. Originally, he stated, this was meant to be a chronicling of his many interviews over the years, ones which he'd either been the conductor or the conductee. But the event morphed into something larger - a mainstream comics history and a biography of sorts, taking in such grand ideas as Greek mythology, Nietzsche and Generation X along the way.

Author Grant MorrisonNow this all sounds a little too high-brow for comics you may think. Who is this squeaky domed Glaswegian Nosferatu, pandering lofty concepts about super heroes being modern day Gods and differing character paradigms appropriating a range of facets in our society? - The Flash archetype equals cocaine culture apparently! So what pedigree does he have to deliver such a bombastic critique upon comics history and our own civilisation? He only writes the stories for Superman and Batman right? Well for the uninitiated let me fill you in....

Morrison was signed up to DC comics in the late eighties upon the strength of his 2000AD Zenith strip, an opening salvo towards the deconstruction of the superhero myth and a vicious attack upon the Thatcher government of the time. The first foray into the kind of mind-bending, fourth wall toppling fantasies that are now his M.O. came in the form of a couple of adopted titles, Animal Man and Doom Patrol. Both these moderately established runs changed drastically in his hands. Most notably he transformed the former into a eco-friendly every-man who was coming to grips with being a D-list superhero.

This was an interesting counteraction to Alan Moore's Watchmen, which arrived a few years previous, in that it not only humanised the superhero but still managed to glorify it's existence. This is a dichotomous trait that rings throughout Morrison's work. These were still, after all, men with superpowers, symbolic of ideals and heroic truths, and were the God's of sort that we could rely upon. Animal Man could actually fly (if he absorbed the powers of a hawk) and run as fast as the wind (if he came near to a cheetah). He was a character still rooted firmly in non-reality, a figure of fantasy, of aspirational dreams.

It was interesting to hear Morrison talk last week of the 'realism' in 80's comics which sprang from the success of Watchmen and Frank Miller's Batman, The Dark Knight Returns and Year One - A comics epoch now classified as the Dark Age. It is clear that he respects this approach but he also wants his heroes to be otherworldy, in a word - Super! 'Batman has never pissed ever...', Morrison cracks on the evening, 'He's no need to piss, he has no bladder!'

Doom Patrol on the other hand was completely bonkers, dropping any homage to realism entirely. This was a series that in his hands, boasted a sentient street named Danny. A kind of Justice League from loser-ville - containing a schizophrenic named Crazy Jane, who could pool upon as many as 64 separate personalities at any opportune (or ill-opportune) moment, Rebis, a kind of hermaphrodite Mummy, Cliff an existentialist robot and Dorothy Spinner - a girl with the face of an ape and the power of 'imaginary friends' - the Doom Patrol were a maniacal faction sent to clean up the problems the superhero deities weren't aware of, or more importantly, turned a blind eye to.

The painting that ate Paris imageThis is a run that contains my favourite comics story of all time - The Painting That Ate Paris. This introduces us to The Brotherhood of Dada, a superannuated society that tries to melt reality from within, primarily through the means of a nefarious painting with so many levels that it absorbs anyone that gazes upon it. Morrison's run on this series, starting at issue #19, is a five dimensional multiversal melée. It's also sharp and very funny and the writer at his very best. What's most important about Doom Patrol, apart from showing of the writer's knack for lacing a great fantasy story with levels of history and philosophy, humour and irreverence is that it began looking beyond the truths and supposed realities of our world, a theme that he'd splinter entirely with his next work.....

Invisibles volume 6 imageInvisibles, published on Vertigo, DC's independent imprint was his masterwork. Being his first creator-owned franchise, this gave him free reign on a proto-Matrix phalanx of secret societies, alternate histories, Mayan philosophy, religion and alien psychedelia. Its the tale of Dane, a disruptive Scouse teen who becomes embroiled in a troop of underground freedom fighters, headed by the enigmatic King Mob, a kind of Morrisonian analogue, drawn in the likeness of the man himself. It is Morrison at his most unhinged (he claims to have been ill at the time of writing - an affect of a possible alien abduction) and the oppressive themes of schizophrenia and paranoia lurk, bubble and seep throughout. An intratextual honeycomb maze of feigns, parries and reality bluffs, many readers simply won't endure this seven volume hyper-real mire and you really can't blame them, but it truly does consistently reward, amuse, scare and conjure doubt. This is the kind of fourth-wall frenzy that we all want from our literature right...?

Though breathtaking in it's scope and ambition, Invisibles perhaps unsurprisingly pulled Morrison further from the mainstream. Publication was nearly abandoned after a few issues but he implored fans to take part in a hypersigil, a simultaneous 'self satisfying' act (that I can't mention here) to wondrously motivate sales. It actually worked and the series saw completion.

Contrarily though, it needed a few runs on larger corporate owned titles to bring his actual talents into sharper focus. Throughout the nineties, classic runs on X-Men and the Justice League America (retitled the JLA with a newly mulleted Superman) countered his more experimental creator-owned comics and kept him in the limelight. It is in this domain that he has truly found his footing.

All Star Superman imageHe makes no secret of enjoying an adherence to DC comics canon, at 70 years strong, surely the most complex and expansive continuity ever written. It is within this arena that his most rewarding work is composed as he twists and re-imagines the models which we recognise and understand, whilst staying close enough to the universal truths inherent in these characters. His ongoing Batman epic - which nimbly weaves all of the Dark Knight's continuities into one adhesive whole, All Star Superman which is possibly the best 'end of Superman' story ever written (ran close by Alan Moore's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow) and the manner in which he has re-invented the event comic through the multi-temporal, multi dimensional Final Crisis are all prime examples of this.

Talking last week, Morrison used an astute metaphor of the 12 bar blues. Once the rules of a medium are learnt he said, the modes of creativity and ways to tell stories are endless. This is sometimes better than playing free-form. This is reflected prominently in his work.

He suggests that characters transcend the companies that own them and the creators that write them. Through their continuing existence they become public domain - a thought maybe prescient of Pottermore and what this may become. Characters, once written are open to the interpretations of the reader and in the case of comics, further writers and are constantly evolving through this process. As Morrison intones in the first chapter of Supergods - 'Set free of his creators, [Superman] was to change radically and constantly over the next seven decades, to keep up with - or, in some cases predict - seismic shifts in fashion, politics and audience demographic.' He argues that established characters or 'New Gods' (to crib a phrase from king of comics Jack Kirby) are far more real and enduring that we can singularly ever be.

He certainly has the authority to construct our beliefs in these myths. Many find him irritating, convoluted and pompous but these are the very reasons why he is so important. He challenges as well as entertains..


A tiny selection of Grant's titles follow this blog but click here for the full list.

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