“If this book has made any point clear, I hope it’s that things don’t have to be real to be true. Or vice versa.”
– Grant Morrison
Ask any 12-year-old and he or she will tell you. Becoming a superhero isn’t easy. Superman had to give up his home planet. Batman had to watch his mother and father die. Peter Parker’s spider bite alone would’ve been a deal breaker for a lot of arachnophobes. Clearly, the price of admission to the Super Friends is a lot higher than the cost of a spandex jumpsuit.
On the other hand, what if all you had to do was read a book?
Grant Morrison’s new book, Supergods, is unlike anything you will read this year.
At first glance, it looks like a cultural history of superhero comic books written by a bestselling comics writer, but peer a little deeper and you will find much more—a personal memoir, a demonstration of superhero tropes in the real world, and an essay on the meaning of life and the inner workings of the universe.
Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human
(Spiegel & Grau)
More importantly, for readers who immerse themselves in Morrison’s thought processes, Supergods boasts the ability to inspire a level of mental acuity and insight that feels, at times, like a superpower.
For those who don’t know, Morrison is one of the most influential comic book writers in history. He, along with Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, led the so-called British Invasion of American comic books in the ‘80s. Together, they revolutionized mainstream comics and defined the role of the modern day comic book writer. Since that time, Morrison has created highly innovative original series like The Invisibles and Flex Mentallo, but he has also specialized in more established, brand-name superheroes including Superman, Batman, and the X-Men. His series, All Star Superman, is regarded by many as the definitive Superman story, and this fall he will take over the Man of Steel’s monthly adventures in Action Comics.
When I spoke with him, it was late in the afternoon and Morrison said he was “pretty buzzed” on 12 cups of coffee. That kind of caffeinated superpower might help explain how the highly prolific Morrison found the time to squeeze out a 400-plus page book like Supergods while putting Batman through his paces at the same time. The real answer, though, is that Morrison didn’t see writing the book as much of a stretch from his day job. “I approached it as creatively as I would one of the comics, relating to it the things that make a very beautiful, symmetrical story, so it was pretty much a piece of cake”.
Morrison’s creative stamp even enlivens the first part of Supergods where he analyzes the earliest adventures of the biggest icons of the ‘30s and ‘40s, including Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Captain America, and Wonder Woman. Morrison told me he wanted to “reconnect with the modernity of [the old comics] as they might have appeared when they first came out”. Although most readers associate Morrison with the future rather than the past, he credits these old stories with making the Supergods experience particularly rewarding. “The stuff I discovered in old comics that I had kind of written off, not realizing how interesting they were, really made it for me”.
Morrison’s enthusiasm is contagious. In the first chapter, he spends four pages scrutinizing the cover to Action Comics no. 1, invoking everything from Edvard Munch’s The Scream to a Haitian voodoo spirit. It’s a tour de force of close analysis, all without the benefit of X-ray vision.
His discoveries are also quite funny. In looking at early Batman stories, he notes, “Batman habitually found himself dealing with crimes involving chemicals… lethal Laughing Gas, mind-control lipstick, Fear Dust, toxic aerosols and ‘artificial phobia’ pills… heroically inhaling countless bizarre chemical concoctions cooked up by mad black market alchemists”. Morrison’s conclusion isn’t likely to pop out of Adam West’s Bat-Computer anytime soon, but it’s no less entertaining: “Batman was hip to serious mind-bending drugs… and that savoir faire added another layer to his outlaw sexiness and alluring aura of decadence and wealth”.
Honestly, if Fredric Wertham, the man who led the comic book witch hunts of the ‘50s, had been able to see half of what Morrison does with these old comics, the American government might’ve banned the books altogether.
However, Supergods does far more than analyze some old stories. As Morrison told me, “I knew that a straight up history of superhero comics would appeal to a certain audience, but I wanted to introduce the whole range of superhero comics to a more mainstream audience, so my feeling was that the best way to do that was to introduce the personal story of someone who’s currently still at the forefront of creating superhero comics”.
That “personal story” is Morrison’s own, and its inclusion creates a seismic shift in the tone of the book. Such shifts are familiar to longtime Morrison readers of series like Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and Batman. Morrison often begins his longer narratives in a somewhat conventional manner before introducing elements that fundamentally change the entire story and suggest to his readers what the series is “really” all about.
In the case of Supergods, that means looking at how the principles of a superhero story might apply to the real world. As Morrison told me, “What I tried to do is tell the story of superhero comics almost as the story of a child’s development”. In some passages, Morrison treats his own life as if it were merely another plot thread in a comic book story. “I felt my own life had grown stale and repetitive. My own personality seemed crudely fashioned, and often ill-fitting. I was thoroughly sick of chronic vague depression, and chose to treat myself as another poorly conceived and barely developed character in need of a revamp”.
This personal “revamp” transforms the somewhat insecure young Scottish comic book writer into the counterculture spokesperson with shaved head and designer clothes, the hipster theorist who talks about chaos magic and quantum physics and often seems like the comic book world’s equivalent of Bono.