Monday, July 24, 2017

Review of Grant Morrison's Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human

Grant Morrison’s Supergods is ostensibly an autobiography of a comic book writer with rock-star status. It’s a heady mix of mysticism, personal history, anecdotes about the business, replete with allusions to his indelible contributions to the medium and even a précis on landmark graphic novels such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight ReturnsSupergods is all these things, and not in any particular order. Even while unevenly paced, boastful and often utterly self-conscious, Supergods is great fun at all turns. The reader never knows what Morrison will relate next, whether his self-proclaimed practice of chaos magic, an off-handed quip about the British and Scottish invasion of comics in the late 1980’s, when DC Comics wooed the overseas talent, or a casual social encounter with celebrity Sean Connery.

The author writes with a swagger, relating his reclusive youth in Scotland and growing up with a larger-than-life father who protested U.S. nuclear bases then in Scotland. Morrison’s own dread of nuclear war budded along with his imagination even while his parents' marriage eventually failed. He immersed himself at an early age in the super heroics of British comics magazine 2000 AD and then DC Comics and Marvel Comics staples. There are more colourful details for readers to discover themselves, so I won’t particularize. From these roots, Morrison became cognizant of conspiracy theory and locked onto the idea of characters with great powers who might intervene on humanity’s behalf. He played in a punk rock band, the Mixers, during his early and shy and drifting twenties. Around the same time, Morrison began drawing and writing for comics, eventually stringing for 2000 AD and other British titles, always with a keen eye on subverting the form.

It’s personal history writ dramatically. Grant Morrison feels the need to defend the book's theme, perhaps, about how a kid can become enraptured by the concept of beings with godlike powers, able to intervene in the event of nuclear catastrophe. He essentially argues that his younger obsession forms the man he becomes as a creator.

Cover art by Gary Frank. I'd recognize
his particular line work and facial
expressions anywhere.
Random House Publishing Group, 2011
Morrison also allots real estate to pontificate on the game-changers of the medium, describing The Dark Knight Returns as a Norse Opera, analysing Alan Moore’s masterful and yet in his view still imperfect clockwork-like symmetry in The Watchmen, and even explaining his theory that Batman snaps the Joker’s neck in the denouement of Moore’s The Killing Joke. His shrewd eye catches many fine details and illuminates themes and undercurrents as adeptly as any scholar poring over a text.

Throughout his catch-all book, Morrison is outlandish, spiritual, and self-aggrandizing. He is not without grounds. Morrison did, after all, shift many paradigms, including Arkham Asylum, his collaboration with artist Dave McKean and the conspiracy-theory-laden and cult-following-gathering The Invisibles, to name but two of his game-changing works. Since about three quarters of Morrison’s work is rather provocative or mind-bending or avant-garde, he is within his rights to strut the stage of high-brow comic-book intellectualization. So he swaggers like a peacock across the page, a raconteur backed by his own startling achievements. Think Ray Bradbury, were he still with us, musing about current sci-fi writing.

With the 1989 publication of Arkham Asylum, and its stratospheric success, with multiple sold-out print runs, Morrison found himself the fortunate co-signatory to a lucrative royalty contract. Here was a hard cover comic book with gorgeous paintings and psychological writing. It discomfited and fascinated readers. This was not exactly a comic, but more a bona fide book, and a gorgeous one. Still, everyone who could afford the book wanted it (Editor's Note: Even young readers at the time such as myself). Morrison has said in interviews that Arkham Asylum is about the nightmare that he believes Batman must have every night. 

With his newly earned funds, Morrison traveled the world and wrote The Invisibles, inserting an avatar of himself into the comic in the form of the character King Mob. With artists with a talent for dazzling detailed including Phil Jimenez pencilling interiors or Brian Bolland drawing covers, the series ran for three volumes. Morrison incorporated his own life into the book whenever possible, and had a blast doing so, from depicting fetish clubs in a magical setting or trans character Lord Fanny (Editor's Note: Morrison has always been ahead of his time!) having a fling in New Orleans. The title holds the infamous distinction of Morrison asking readers, in the letters column, to masturbate and perform a magical ritual using a sigil to save the series from cancellation. 

In Supergods, Morrison expounds on chaos magic, as he often does, relating his world-view-altering spiritual experience in Kathmandu and his claim that he is a chaos magic practitioner. Morrison has spoken at length about his transformation in interviews, in particular, in the extraordinarily bizarre two-part Fatman on Batman podcast interview he did with director and filmmaker Kevin Smith. I won’t repeat the details here, because you really should seek it out for yourself. It's here.

Morrison extends his spiritual beliefs to comics, also positing that comic books are another dimension and that somewhere someone is reading our human stories from another dimension as well. As in other interviews and podcasts, Morrison philosophizes that we are tapping into archetypal and older power.

Whether or not one agrees with Morrison, he is consistent in his responses about his own mystical views. In his outspokenness about magick, he is similar to only one other warlock in the business. While he and Alan Moore have not seen eye-to-eye in some time, you can search online and find articles about their antagonist relationship. The crux of the matter, though, is that Moore disputes Morrison's claim to be a magic practicioner as well, citing Morrison's coming-out as a chaos magician as being suspiciously close to Moore's announcement that he was a warlock shortly after Moore turned 40. To his credit, Morrison pays only tight-lipped flattery to Moore in Supergods, however. When Morrison does go on a little long about Watchmen, one suspects he is trying to make amends through praise of the other rock-star warlock of comic books.

As a result of his multiplicity of reality-bending interests, and his accomplishments, he is a fascinating subject for documentarists, biographers and Ph.D. students alike.

And Morrison is a truly an avant-garde rock star of comics as well. His opus not only includes the thoroughly engrossing The Invisibles (in fact, sometimes dizzingly so), but also its spiritual predecessor, The Filth, the postmodern and reality-shifting Flex Mentallo, the dysfunctional Doom Patrol with emotionally troubled and schizophrenic anti-heroes, a pivotal, several-year-run on Batman, a fourth-wall­-breaking run on Animal Man, not to mention his fearless Final Crisis and Convergence, two complicated, multiple-Earth shattering DC-Comics-mega-series that any sensible writer would have steered clear of. Also of note is All-Star Superman, his 12-issue collaboration with artist Gary Frank, in which Superman lives out his last days performing 12 great feats after his nemesis Lex Luthor bombards him with cancer. The storyline carries an irascibly enjoyable tone. Readers will be ruined for reading any other notable Superman books afterward. In All-Star, Morrison show the Man of Steel showing compassionate when he intervenes to save a suicidal young woman from committing sucide. This show of compassion is rare for the flagship character.

Because of Morrison’s street cred and his undeniable charisma, whether as a guru or comics creator or self-professed chaos magician, Supergods is worth picking up. You will learn a lot more about Grant Morrison here than in the pages of his comics even while some of the material has appeared elsewhere, online and in interviews. Steel yourself for a plunge into mysticism, chaos magic, mind-bending transcendental experience and a cocky overview of Morrison’s accomplishments and his take on comics and graphic novels that made history. The book has a multiple personality disorder, but this oddly is part of the roguish raconteur’s charm. Supergods is a rich, introspective and, at times, humble trip. 

No comments:

Post a Comment