Thursday, September 8, 2011

Grant Morrison: Of SuperGods and Supermen

Words: Christopher Irving
Pictures: Seth Kushner

“I think we were taking it seriously but, at the same time, we weren’t taking it seriously,” Grant Morrison says. The subject is the European comic book crowd of the 1980s. “We saw in superhero stories a vehicle for our ideas about politics, sex and religion but we brought a quite dark sense of humor too. It’s hard to say…

            “Back then we brought influences from outside comics, from music and cinema, poetry and theater. American comics had become formulized, but we had grown up loving the stuff [from before] and we just wanted to get our hands on it to apply all the influences that we had—like the punk stuff. American comics were given a little bit of a jolt, because we loved this material and we were able to come up with a different angle on it. We revitalized the scene, for at least a few years. American creators learned from that, and their comics became just as good. Right now, I think comics across the board are better than they’ve ever been, and there are a lot more great writers coming in.”

            With a career writing British comic books like Doctor Who and his own Zenith under his belt, Scot-born Grant Morrison first made his mark in American comics with trippy adult-aimed Animal Man in 1988, followed by the freakish Doom Patrol. Writer Alan Moore had been the advance guard for an infusion of British talent, primarily with Watchmen and Swamp Thing, while Neil Gaiman made waves with Black Orchid and his literary fantasy series Sandman. Where Moore celebrated the superhero in the comic book version of the real world and Gaiman focused on other worlds, Morrison’s work balanced between the two—placing unlikely and quirky superheroes in absurdist fantasy versions of the real world.
Animal Man and Doom Patrol were outside of the superhero books, and were quite easy for me to write. Animal Man was a family man who had a wife and kids, but didn’t quite fit into the DC Universe. He commuted to the DC Universe,” Grant laughs. “People didn’t quite take him seriously, and he didn’t quite fit into his costume so he wore his jacket over it so he could avoid the embarrassment. The Doom Patrol were very much circus freaks, and they weren’t happy. It was easy for me to write, because I was basing them off of people I knew.”
Animal Man featured the everyman hero, Buddy Baker, facing off against big ideas, most notably when he faces his reality-bending arch-nemesis—revealed as none other than Morrison Animal Man #26, in a surreal adventure where Grant discusses comics in a metatextual vein with Buddy Baker. It was akin to the Looney Tunes shorts where Daffy Duck faces the animator’s vengeful eraser or brush, and further proof that Morrison was not constrained by the conventions of any genre.

In 1989, he and surrealist painter Dave McKean presented Arkham Asylum, a surrealistic and dark graphic novel which pits Batman against the denizens of Gotham’s looney bin for the criminally insane after being taken over from a cross-dressing Joker. While Frank Miller had re-established the Dark Knight’s Darkness, Morrison and McKean pushed it further to question the roots of that darkness, and the state of Batman’s own sanity in this trippy headrush of a graphic novel. Even after starting his mind-bending and oddly autobiographicalVertigo title The Invisibles, Morrison was well-respected as a cutting edge writer of unconventional superhero tales featuring arguably “post-modern” heroes.
When he relaunched Justice League America with artist Howard Porter in 1997, he brought a classic vibe back to the once mediocre superhero team, reuniting DC Comics’ seven most powerful superheroes in a run that smacked of the brightness reminiscent of Mark Waid’s full-on embracing of the superhero in The Flash, but was coupled with Morrison’s unique brand of high concept.
“I always saw it as going to another nation,” Grant reflects. “There are things that have been there before me and will exist long after I’m gone. Working for DC and Marvel, it’s like going to a pre-existing country and having to be with the natives there, and go through certain customs. That’s why I always liked looking at how it was for the superheroes, rather than the ‘80s stuff like Watchmen, where it took the problems of the real world and put them into the comic world.
“It was interesting for a little bit, but ultimately what was more interesting for me is the idea of this continuum that existed and was created by different artisans over the decades, and to be able to play with it. I guess that over the years, writing and going to that place, taught me a greater appreciation,” he laughs. “I’ve learned their ways.
            “Animal Man was still a case of trying to do something maybe more realistic and polemical, but then I got the opportunity to write JLA and there I went for an approach that was more expansive and Jungian, like the bible or the Greek myths.”

Morrison took the seven major DC stars—Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Martian Manhunter, and Aquaman—and treated them as the Greek Gods of the DC Universe. Positioned on the moon in their Olympus-like base The Watchtower, Morrison made JLA the book where big things happen, as opposed to the mediocre title of third-stringers that it had been the years prior, after the brilliant and satirical run by writers Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis.
“Getting the Justice League was like handling the American Constitution,” Grant admits. “I wanted to do it justice, quite literally, and to not drag it down but to go into that big world that was very mythological. Superman was a pure essence, and Batman was a pure symbol.
            “We didn’t have too many problems, but the strangest problem of all was that nobody wanted me to do those seven central characters. ‘This is the Justice League, with the seven most recognizable characters, and they should be in the same comic together.’ That was the thing that there was resistance to most of all. The Justice League had been filled with characters no one had even heard of, and most of the time they were just wandering around whining, or going to the bathroom.
“I’m being serious: there was one issue where someone went to the bathroom,” he laughs. “It was like a sitcom in its tenth season. They were relying on that guy walking in through the door, and it was very exhausted.
“For me, it was about putting the imagination back in. I wasn’t dictated by anything, except to have plot-driven stories that didn’t rely on having Superman weeping,” Grant jokes. “I gave it big ideas and had the characters deal with it.”

Perhaps Morrison’s biggest idea with JLA was DC One Million, a 1998 crossover series that introduced the JLA of the 853rd Century. The final issue had Superman, in the far future, emerging from the sun as a being of pure energy, reuniting himself with Lois Lane. It was the happy ending for Grant Morrison’s ideal Superman, one that he wouldn’t start for a few more years, when he wrote All-Star Superman in 2005, a twelve-issue series that presents an iconic Superman reminiscent of the 1950s version as he grapples with his imminent death. The All-Star Superman cheats death by living in the Earth’s sun, building a machine to keep it burning.
“In my head, there was always that quintessential Superman,” Grant admits. “I had him restore Lois at the end of time, recreate Krypton and walking about everyone on Krypton and giving them super powers (because Superman’s emitting solar energy). I thought it was a nice ending to what I was doing with All-Star Superman, where you see the moment where he left us all to live in the sun and to save everyone he built an engine in the heart of the sun. I liked the idea of tying it all together.”

When Mort Weisinger took over editing Superman in the ‘50s through ‘60s, he built an entire mythological world around the classic superhero and his supporting cast. Weisinger’s Superman was a misplaced alien, first and foremost, impossibly powerful and tinged with a bittersweetness in being the last of his race. First and foremost, the Weisinger era stories were fun, which Morrison and Quitely embraced.
“The Weisinger stuff, to me, was the best,” Morrison says. “I’d read the entire history of Superman, and those struck me as being the most universal, because they’re all about things that people understand. Superman could become old, or fat, or skinny—he’s constantly changing shape—but the stories were very grounded in human emotions, which I love. Kids could buy into it, because it didn’t talk down to them, and adults could also read those stories as fables or Hans Christian Anderson tales. I went back to that because, honestly, I thought that the most universal version of Superman was where he was the least like us. Because there were so many other costumed superhero characters, to try to separate Superman away from it, you have to go back to something where he represented something a lot bigger and talked to a more mainstream audience. That’s why I chose that era, because that Superman was at his peak there.”
“People are always saying If he’s too powerful, then he’s unrelatable,'” Grant adds later. “In All-Star Superman I wrote the most powerful Superman I could, but tried to show how he could be emotionally wounded and is vulnerable.”

Grant Morrison continued to write superheroes: either changing things up in 2001 with Marvel’s X-Men (a run which earned critical acclaim and gave the book a much-needed shot in the arm, yet was the bane of many die-hard X-Men fans), and even writing the uber-mega-meta-story for DC Comics in Seven Soldiers (a handful of inter-related comic book series starring lower tier character) and Final Crisis, the latter of which quite literally ended and started the DC Universe anew.
When he took the writing reins on Batman in 2006, it was the start of a long run that entailed introducing Bruce Wayne’s illegimate son Damian as the new Robin, apparently killing off the original Batman and replacing him with the first Robin, Dick Grayson, and turning Batman’s bizarre world even more bizarre.

“I kind of have a plan,” Grant admits. “But the plan is always subject to change once you get into it and start to understand the characters more. Usually for me, I have a lot of stuff that I want to do in the first three years, planned out going in. Epic is what it should be, because people are paying a lot of money for these things, and they should be getting something that they can think about, relate to, or get stories that have hidden meanings and other secrets that you can dig out. It gives a mythological slant to this stuff when people talk about it online. That’s a big part of the business now, where you find out what’s not working for readers. I really do like adapting to that.”

From a technical perspective, Morrison’s Batman is a masterpiece in narrative structure: like a stage magician, he’s an expert at misdirecting the reader from story clues that have been there all along; he embraces obscure story elements from the ‘50s and makes them work with the contemporary Batman; and he manages to make the single issues a different reading experience from the eventual trade collections.
“I go with the feel of it—‘Does it feel right?’ I rewrite a story a few times before settling into it, and will wrestle with it for days or weeks until something clicks and it seems right,” he reveals. “I think that every issue should have a different feel from every other issue, and it should be about a specific thing, even when it’s a chapter in a long-running story. It should feel like a unit unto its own self, which is where the structuring comes in.”

            Right now, Morrison is gearing up to revisit the Man of Steel, this time reimagining him from the ground up, as part of DC Comics’ relaunch of their entire comics line. Action Comics, with art by Rags Morales, is Grant’s shot at giving us a new classic Superman, starting from day one. They may be new stories, but Morrison still has a keen eye on the character’s past:
“For me, what makes him different from the other pulp fiction characters before him characters is that initial on his chest,” he observes. “The superhero brought the idea of branding and self-promotion. The first time we see him, he’s busting a car, which is a symbol of mechanization; so Superman also represented humanism and the individual in the face of the Great Depression, poverty, and mechanization (where factories were putting people out of work). The superhero is like a pop star.
“Look at everyone now—they’re on their own Facebook page with their own likes and dislikes, where everyone is a rock star who can present themselves as a brand. Superman was the first to do that, which is what has kept him vital for all those years, along with very much emphasizing the individual over society.  I’ve also come to recognize him as almost mythical, with basic qualities and story elements that each generation refreshes.”

            In Grant’s Action, Superman starts his career in jeans, a t-shirt, and work boots, smacking of the laboring class—a blue collar take similar to his 1938 origins as an activist. The main Superman book will be set five years later than Grant’s, featuring Superman in a modified costume, sans red trunks.
“With Action Comics, I wanted to go back to that original Superman, who can only jump (he can almost fly), he can be hurt by a bursting shell; it’s the basic idea getting back to a Superman who can be hurt, so that he has gets that relatability and humanity back. He doesn't even wear his traditional costume at first. But when I actually give people what they think they want, they freak out. ‘Give him back his [under]pants, please!’ For years, they’ve been asking us to take his [under]pants away, and suddenly we do it, and they go off into a fury.”
Grant thinks in terms of his new Superman mythology with Action, where it all ties together—
“For me, it’s the same guy as twenty years earlier than All-Star Superman,” he reveals. “In my head, I see it as one continuum. It doesn’t quite mesh with John Byrne’s version, but I hope that this Superman will work and can be plugged in to any continuity.”

By embracing the traditional aspects of long-running superhero comics and merging it with the punk rock experimentation and edginess of the British comics culture, Grant Morrison continues to put a new spin on old material. Reading Supergods, his essential manifesto on the superhero genre that combines his observations with history and autobiography, is being taking on a long ramble that is so fluid in imperceptibly shifting from subject to subject. Much like a Grant Morrison comic book, where Batman encounters cavemen, a satanic cult, and alien technology within a handful of issues—it all comes together beautifully in the end.
Perhaps that’s the secret we can pull out of comics’ own narrative alchemist—a way to blend the best of all worlds (no matter how prominent or esoteric) into an unapologetically off-beat masterpiece.

Learn more about Grant Morrison at his official site.