ERUDITE, mischievous, obsessed with complex structures and unafraid to challenge readers, Glasgow’s Grant Morrison is essentially the James Joyce of contemporary comics writers (to, say, Neil Gaiman’s Oscar Wilde or Alan Moore’s Patrick Kavanagh). While you won’t find him on any Booker lists, there’s no denying that Morrison is one of the best-selling, hardest working, and inventive authors on these islands. He’s also the most divisive.
Supergods, his first substantial work of prose, is Morrison’s attempt to explain the enduring appeal of the comic book and its protagonists, characters conceived as “unstoppable warriors on behalf of the best that the human spirit has to offer”. But Supergods is more than just a popular history of the form. Though Morrison’s close readings reveal much, the book is most alive in an autobiographical strand which develops in tandem with his surface analysis: the journey from teenage fanboy to the most successful superhero writer of recent times. The relationship Morrison has enjoyed with the genre has been unrivalled and transformative.
It is naïve to interpret his argument as simply equating superheroes to modern gods. In fact, Morrison positions them as something more powerful again, modern myths: elaborate, decades-long narratives “in which the characters could become children or animals or travel across space, time, and alternate dimensions with ease”. In doing so, he traces how story content and narrative technique evolve as society evolves, reflecting the hopes and anxieties of the twentieth century with a level of success no other art form has achieved.
Take Barry Allen, the forensic scientist better known as The Flash or the fastest man alive. For Morrison, Allen is the ultimate “Kennedy Man”, the epitome of the “postwar Madison Avenue pioneer astronaut American role model”. Unlike the brooding billionaire Bruce Wayne and his succession of young wards in tights, Allen and other Silver Age characters from the ‘50s and ‘60s were “settled young couples with good jobs and positive can-do attitudes”. Their adventures taught children about science and their look defined the metrosexual four decades before the mainstream.
But of course it is Superman, the original of the species, to whom Morrison is most drawn. He cites the character’s initial incarnation, a brash young champion of the oppressed in the 1930s, as something he plans to return to in September’s relaunch of DC’s flagship title Action Comics. Débuted in time for San Diego’s recent Comic-Con, the cover to that book depicts Morrison’s Superman in worn blue jeans, a working-class superhero or a kind of Kryptonian Bruce Springsteen.
Resonating with this, Morrison recounts his own modest origins in Supergods, something which may surprise his detractors. After all, it is easy to dismiss him as pretentious if his breakthrough work, 1989’s Batman: Arkham Asylum — with its dense, dreamlike symbolism and heavy thematic debt to Carl Jung and Antonin Artaud — is the only book of his which you have read. Though one of the most successful graphic novels of all time, Arkham attracted disdain from other writers, something which Morrison claims “stung horribly” to this “dropout pretending to be the art student he never was”.
In its aftermath, the author resolved to focus more on character, setting out to ‘revamp’ himself, as he had ailing properties like Animal Man and Doom Patrol. This brought him a new wave of recognition, and those who still think Morrison is pretentious are directed to the deeply moving ‘Funeral in Smallville,’ an issue of his out-of-continuity All Star Superman — the pinnacle of his superhero writing — or to We3 (2004), a tear-jerking cybernetic spin on The Incredible Journey which is more affecting than the work of many fêted literary novelists.
The inspiration for many of these stories provides one of the most fascinating sections of Supergods, an elaboration on Morrison’s ‘science fiction revelation,’ that glimpse of ‘planet Earth’s singular living form’ which he experienced in Kathmandu in 1994. This event was either a hashish-fuelled hallucination, a result of alien abduction, or a seizure triggered by temporal lobe epilepsy.
While one may not believe in the objective reality of his ‘holistic five-dimensional perspective’, neither can the reader simply ignore it. Like Yeats’s A Vision or Philip K Dick’s Exegesis, Morrison’s semi-spiritual awakening provided him with ‘a way of ordering information into meaningful patterns in the service of lateral creative thinking’.
Balancing such biographical strangeness, discursive chapters of Supergods discuss comic book responses to real world events. A ‘gloomy new paradigm’ defines the last decade, he says, with the ‘apish antics of George W Bush’ and his ‘eager-to-please sidekick Tony Blair’ manifesting in a trend for stories ‘where the villains had already won’. Post 9/11, Morrison explains, the world has been gripped by a ‘conformity culture that appears to be in the process of greedily consuming the unusual and different’.
His own response to this was to dramatise ‘the breakdown of the rational enlightenment story of progress and development as it succumbed to a horror tale of failure, guilt, and submission to blind authority’. However, the reaction to the magnificent, mind-bending book which resulted — 2008’s Final Crisis — was discordant to put it mildly. Says the author, ‘if only one tenth of the righteous, spluttering wrath of these anonymous zealots could be mustered against the horrors of bigotry and poverty, we might find ourselves in a finer world overnight’.
That aside, Morrison largely avoids outright negativity in Supergods. He never deals directly with the breakdown of his friendship with fellow writer Mark Millar but is quite happy to detail his collaborations with Scottish illustrator Frank Quitely. They created the Charles Atlas pastiche Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery, a hero ‘as ludicrous, camp, serious, and dependable as we could make him’. Later they partnered for acclaimed runs on New X-Men, All-Star Superman, and Batman and Robin.
Throughout all of this there is an inspiring quality to how Morrison tells the tale of benefiting artistically, financially, and even spiritually from his involvement with the superhero genre. ‘Stories can break hearts or ferment revolutions,’ he says; ‘they contain all the dreams and fears of generations in vivid miniature’. In fact, Supergods is like a challenge to sit down and work as hard as Morrison has. For that alone, this is a definite contender for book of the year.
Dr Val Nolan lectures on 20th and 21st century literature at NUI Galway. His article on Flann O’Brien and Science Fiction will be in this autumn’s Review of Contemporary Fiction.