Part One: Another Boyhood in the Trenches…
[Note: “The Eternity Edition” is the term for the complete, unabridged version of Hamlet that is considered by scholars to be the most correct form, and the form intended by Shakespeare. “Hamlet is a hoop through which every actor must jump,” Kenneth Branagh once suggested. The same is true for every comicbook writer and Superman and Batman. Grant Morrison is just about wrapping up his tenure on having written both iconic characters.]
The past is always with us, Grant Morrison says to me but not at all in those words, and I understand exactly what he means. Grant’s busy talking about his ideological perspective of time and the best parts of him shine through. His passionate commitment to reconstituting the known in a new arrangement is inescapable. This is the real work of magic. Not some preternatural notion of being off with the faeries, not some fakeout prestidigitation of a dove being crushed in a collapsing cage, but the real genuine work of carefully studying the mechanisms of meaning. Maybe Grant is a little like renowned linguist Benjamin Whorf, or maybe he shares some of Whorf’s beliefs. Whorf who held the belief that language really is the very limit of perception, and that consequently all discourse, even science, actively constructs what we perceive as reality. As much as very much of Grant’s writing seems to point to this process of language in constructing reality (Seven Soldiers, the Invisibles, but perhaps particularly so the Mystery Play), Whorf isn’t the right fit for Grant. Someone else is a far better fit, but I won’t get to that realization until much later in the interview, not until the point where Grant offers the most vividly compassionate statement about writing comics I’ve ever heard.
But that’s for later. Right now, I’m listening to the chief architect of Batman (for nearly the past seven years) and the chief architect of Superman (Superman in Action, for nearly the past two) expound his theory of time, and of the DC Universe. “The DC Universe is a handheld universe”, he says to me. Grant explains that the DC Universe is something that happens within the pages of the magazines published by the company. That the stories are as real and as vivid as our own lives but they play out in the span of two dimensional space. “We exist in higher dimensional space, in 4D. You could stack a pile of Superman comics or Batman comics and throw paint across them and that paint would reach Superman in 1938 or Batman in 1940 or in 1988 but for you it’s a single moment.”
And in the moment it all seems wild and surreal. How could this have any bearing on anything? But then I remember reading the stories. Profound stories all of them, and perhaps the most beautiful visions of these iconic characters. Singular visions that will endure, and perhaps even come to be known as definitive of this generation. Definitive in the same way that Frank Miller’s the Dark Knight Returns was definitive of Batman a generation ago, or Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ Kryptonite Nevermore was definitive of Superman a generation before that.
When we first spoke about his run on Action, and his redefinition of Superman as that kind of Liberal Avenger and fictive frontman for FDR’s New Deal, Grant had suggested that “what we (he and artist Rags Morales) want to do is tell the complete story of Superman from birth to death…”. It was that kind of throwaway comment that blazed with the newness and the promise of the New 52—a ground-up reenactment of all the DC characters’ origin stories, but with Millennial sensibilities. Grant was actively looking to wrestle with the iconic moments in Superman’s past—his flight from Krypton, his adoption by the Kents, his first encounter with the Legion of Super-Heroes (teens from a millennium hence in time who were inspired by his own heroic deeds) and even his battle with Doomsday and his ensuing death.
Was there a hesitation on my part, when we spoke back in 2011? Was there a secret fear that Grant’s reenacting of the Superman mythologies would somehow be transduced as linear narratives? I can only guess at what I was thinking. The past is always with us, but often it’s with us as a mystery; folded in between the creases and crevasses of memory and time-sunken beneath the waves. But whatever hesitation I might have had, clear to me or not, surely vanishes before the kind of death Grant has written for Superman over the last few issues of his Action run.
From Action #18
Grant completely rebooted the idea of classic Superman villain, Mr. Mxyzptlk, the imp from the 5th Dimension. Rather than cast Mxyzptlk as the simple villain of old, in the New 52 Mxyzptlk is the Mystic Mr. Triple X, a 3D magician who’s old and dying by the time Superman meets him. Yet he’s also Mxyzptlk, the lighthearted, romantic traveling 5D imp who takes on the role of jester to the king of Zfff and suitor to the kingdom’s princess. It’s a feud between Mxyzptlk and the darker, saturnine Vyndktvx that causes Mxy’s self-exile into the 3rd dimension. And consequently causes Vyndktvx to form the Anti-Superman Army and attack Superman throughout his entire lifespan. Superman, after all, was Mxy’s favorite trick, a trick who could trick back, a trick who existed in an artificial 3D universe Mxy created for the old king’s amusement. And Superman himself, remembers nothing of his encounters with Mxyzptlk, because in the third dimension, these jousts haven’t happened yet.
Grant wraps his talk about the ideology of time by focusing on the conflict between Superman and the conniving Vyndktvx. “That’s when Superman realizes that it may seem like Vyndktvx is attacking throughout his [Superman’s] life, but he’s [Vyndktvx is] really weak because in the 5th Dimension, he’s attacking for the first time, he’s only attacking once. He’s never done this before and doesn’t know how to do it properly. But Superman’s had a lifetime of defending against these attacks.”
It’s a profound shift, and while Grant talks I’m remembering an earlier issue, and in a few compact movements unheard over speakerphone, I have the actual issue in front of me. It’s Action #6, “When Superman Learned to Fly.” Saturn Girl from the Legion of Super-Heroes picks up the closing narration for the story. “When I looked in his memories, I felt so ashamed. Remember we were so disappointed in him that first time?” She’s talking about the time the Legion time-bubbled back to meet Clark Kent when he was just a kid. A time long before Superman or even high school. “We’d built him up as this idol in our minds, as this myth, and he was just a gawky cavemen kid. But for him… Meeting us was when he knew the universe was bigger than he ever hoped. We were the proof that Planet Earth had a future that was worth fighting for. Meeting us, was the greatest day in his life.”
This issue stands out as one of the more poignant moments throughout Grant Morrison’s 19-issue run on Action. It’s the moment Clark Kent actively begins to engage with his powers, it’s the moment he actively imagines, for the very first time, how the world can be better, can be more by the use of his powers. It’s the moment the idea of Superman succeeds. And it’s also a moment that savages me.
There’s no way for me to engage the hope and optimism of Superman as a boy learning to fly, without attempting to reconcile this moment with another—Damian Wayne as Robin who brought his own crowbar to interrogate the Joker.
It’s a far darker story, but you’ve heard this one before. Inside a locked room, there’s Robin, the Joker and a crowbar. It’s 1988 and it’s the first time this scene has played out. The Robin in question is the second Robin, Jason Todd, current events are playing out in a story that in just one month will be aptly (rather than incongruously) titled “A Death in the Family”. The Joker beats Jason Todd with the crowbar, beats him to within an inch of his life. A wounded Jason crawls to the door, but the door is locked. A bomb explodes while Batman races towards the scene. End issue. Will Jason Todd have magically escaped the cliffhanger ending? There’s a phone line and readers get to vote on whether or not he does. The marginal majority a mere 65 votes of over 4,000 delivers a verdict of “Dead.”
From Batman & Robin #13
Grant’s already spoken about how one insight of his, when launching himself into Batman, was to treat Batman’s publication history as his biography. The same would no doubt be true of the Bat-Family the alliance of singular individuals inspired by the Batman and who share his resolve. At some level then, the scene from Batman & Robin #13, where Damian strikes the Joker in the head with a crowbar he himself smuggled into a locked interrogation room, is in some ways a wrestling with a liturgical trauma from 1988.
How can a single vision of the DC Universe by a such singular writer produce such emotionally disparate moments? The question snakes through my brain as Grant and I converse, talking about the mechanics of Batman’s ascendancy, about him being a rockstar, about Superman needing Metropolis but not as much as Metropolis needing Superman, about how personal friendships he’s made inspire supporting cast members in Action. The years of interviews with Grant about Batman and later Superman cascade in, this is the Long Meanwhile. Everything’s here, everything’s available.
I come back to a question I’ve been wanting get at for some time now. And unexpectedly it provides an adequate response to how such a psychological brutal scene as that from Batman & Robin Must Die! can be reconciled with the hope and optimism of the scene from “When Superman Learned to Fly.” I’ve been conspiring to this the entire interview, and I finally get here, to a point where asking the question feels right.
Maybe it’s just because I’ve been rereading Hunter S. Thompson on Ali that framed this line of questioning. HST on Ali, HST picking up on a story that got HST to a place where “just couldn’t piece it together” in the words of Sondi Wright, Hunter’s ex-wife (according to the documentary Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson). Ali was on my mind and I forge ahead. I want to know if Grant has any regret Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, the 1978 book that saw a great perpetual fiction pitted a great self-made celebrity. Does Grant regret not being able to write a story like that?
There’s a slight, happy sigh on the other end of the line and I can imagine Grant looking off into the distance with a thin, wry smile. “Muhammad Ali is just so angelic isn’t he? There’s really no one like him today.” Grant jokes a little about Superman versus Kim Kardashian or Superman versus Justin Bieber, and he comments that those pair-ups don’t really make any sense. How long might those comics last, I wonder. I push Grant when I know I shouldn’t. I already have the story. That TMZ-crazed world is fire from the gods, it can be written up as exactly the kind of enduring conflict against the backslide of popculture. But I push grant nevertheless. Do you regret the world having changed in the way it has to preclude the possibility of you writing a Superman vs. Muhammad Ali style of story, I want to know. Do you regret there not being a real life Ali or Michael Jordan or someone, somehow the equal of Superman?
This time there’s a chuckle at the end of the almost-imperceptible sigh. Grant Morrison says the most compassionate thing any writer can say, and things slide into place. “I don’t know if I want to allow myself to judge the world in that way. I’m a writer, and I’m just interested in the ways in which the world changes from generation to generation. I’m just interested to know that these days the world likes Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber.”
It’s yesterday now, and while I’m still hours away from blowing the deadline for this piece, it feels like things haven’t quite slotted into place. Grant’s thoughts are profound and hard to distill and even hard to render into a coherent story. In frustration I leave my writing desk and wander into the world ready for anything, anything. But as is usual, I make my way into a coffee shop and just settle into another nest. I flip through the pile of Action comics and finally lock into issue #19, where Superman confronts Vyndktvx for the final time. Justin Bieber drones over the in-shop sound system, the downscale, melodic, what in the 90s would have been called unplugged version of “Beauty & a Beat”.
I try thinking of a way that would unite this random encounter of mine with Bieber’s work and with what Grant will once again say about Superman in the broader spectrum of popculture, once I play the audio file of our interview stored safely on my phone. I’m drawing dead though, there seems to be no immediate connection. My mind drifts to a moment just before a private prerelease viewing of Tron: Legacy some years ago now. A young producer with no possible way to have the kind of insider Hollywood access he fronts is speaking to me about just Bieber. They’re going to use him up, the producer is saying, this is the only moment he’ll have because soon his voice will break. I grate against the cynicism, and excuse myself. This is company I don’t want to have to endure. As a kind of balm, my subconscious leads me to remembering my favorite line from Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. It’s Xmas again, and the Thieves are at it again, this time stealing Xmas toys from poor kids. Mac knows that only he can stop them, and only if he raises the alarm in time. He hurls a brick through a store window, but pauses just before and mutters, “Another Christmas in the trenches…”.
I listen to the pared-down version of “Beauty & a Beat”, and there’s nothing there. But there could be something there. Maybe with a little bit of work, some emotionally genuine moment could be gestured at. Bieber, now older, certainly has the vocal range. I think about Grant’s point about compassion for the ways in which the world changes. I think about what Justin Bieber might learn from the fortitude of a character who inaugurated an age of perpetual fictions. This article begins to take shape.
To Be Continued…