The “eternity edition” is the term given to the fullest, most scholastically correct edition of Hamlet. Kenneth Branagh once mused that Hamlet is the great hoop through which every actor must at one point launch themselves. And after four years of exclusive interviews, PopMatters discovers that so too is Grant Morrison that great hoop that every critic must consider…
Superman vs the 24-Hour News Cycle
Grant Morrison’s landmark runs on both Batman and Superman, runs which both draw to a close in 2013, have not only created shockwaves that have defined the DC Universe, but are made from shockwaves that have defined the DC Universe.
Case in point.
Around the time of release for Tiny Titans: the Treehouse and Beyond Art Baltazar tells me, “We did a spoof about the comicbook Battle for the Cowl.” This will be the second-to-last volume of Art Baltazar and Franco’s critically acclaimed Tiny Titans, and in reenacting the magic that they always do, spoofing the DC Universe as a whole, Art and Franco introduce us to the Justice League of Cows, an extension of an even longer standing spoof, Bat-Cow.
Bat-Cow is nothing more than a cartoon cow wearing Batman’s cape and cowl. And in beguiling tag-team style, Art and Franco relate the story of his creation. It was more than likely Art’s son who was most directly responsible. Art and Franco had been skyping back and forth about current events in the DC Universe, including the apparent death of Batman at the end of Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis.
This was the middle-phase Grant’s grander Batman story. For all intents and purposes, Batman had died, but of course Batman, wasn’t dead at all, but in the strangest of all cliffhangers, escaped death by being hurled into Pleistocene. Grant himself had left writing duties on Batman to prepare for similar duties on Batman & Robin and eventually on the Return of Bruce Wayne. These books would tell the story of Batman’s slow crawl forward in time.
But before those stories could be told, Dick Grayson, erstwhile Robin (the first of four thus far) and soon-to-be erstwhile Nightwing had to grow comfortable with the idea of adopting his mentor’s mantle. A network of Bat-agents and criminals contended for the Bat-cowl. This would be the trumpeted “Battle for the Cowl”, and Art and Franco would Skype feverishly about this significant Batman event. Art’s son simply wanted to know what the big deal was with his dad and the “Battle for the Cow”.
The power of Grant’s storytelling with the grander Batman story he’s been crafting since 2006, since Batman & Son introduced Damian Wayne, Batman’s actual son, is clear in what happens next, in issue #1 of the second volume of Batman, Inc. It’s a new kind of storytelling and one Grant has been perfecting for over a decade. We see it most clearly in the moment Damian Wayne decides to become vegetarian. In “the Demon Star”, Batman and Robin pursue a goat-headed masked criminal through a slaughterhouse. Solving this case only leads to one conclusion—that the food supply has been contaminated, all cows bearing the downwards-pointing star are vectors for a new kind of mind control disease. Robin claims one cow for genetic testing, “From now on I’m vegetarian, and this is Bat-Cow.”
It’s an easy laugh but not a cheap one. The hard work done by Grant is truly phenomenal in both its ambition and execution. And the hard work is conceiving of every instantiation of the Batman as both worthy and relevant. And from that more compassionate point of view, integrating all visions of Batman into a single vision of Batman. If Art and Franco come up with Bat-Cow as a parody of current events in the DC Universe, Grant’s insight is to see this act as neither flippant nor irrelevant, but something that speaks directly to the power of Batman. Every Batman is of interest, every Batman is relevant, because Batman is an idea. Batman is fertile with meaning, vibrant, vital, virile.
“The very first storyarc was ‘Batman & Son’ and I kinda thought, could Batman handle this?” Grant speaks directly to the risk with introducing Damian Wayne, Batman’s actual son by genetic lineage. It’s a wild move from the initial 1940’s insight that would introduce Robin as Batman’s teen sidekick. Rather than an adoptive son who shares a formative experience similar to Batman’s, how would an actual son who’s never known his father’s love play to audiences? What’s more, would Batman now seem old and on the edge of needing to be retired? Would Damian seem like not only a likely successor, but more and more over time, a necessary one?
“But it’s the confidence of knowing Batman can handle anything,” Grant continues, “Batman can be a cartoon, Batman can be Adam West, Batman can be a 1940s serial. Nothing can destroy Batman. So that gave me the confidence to just introduce a son. And I think giving him a son, it made Batman more sexual and more masculine, y’know. Because we certainly knew he was capable of it, and that he had dealings with women. But a lot of depictions of Batman almost suggested that he was some kind of weird monkish, virginal, angry bizarre character. So giving him a son was a good thing to do. And as we imagined it didn’t affect him, it didn’t make him seem any less virile or young. The fact that he had a son was just something of the rockstar to him. So when his son comes up and it’s from some groupie he shagged twenty years ago, it makes him seem slightly more masculine, slightly more virile. And there’s aspects of Batman maybe disappearing into the background, this idea of Batman as an introverted vengeance-driven guilt-ridden man. So I think it worked out quite well. And for Damian himself, it’s really easy to imagine this really aristocratic kid who was spoiled. For me Damian is really a Bruce Wayne who was badly brought up.”
Batman’s potency as a character is rooted in his potency as a concept, and in the potency of Grant’s all inclusive view of Batman’s publication history. What if Batman’s publication history could be read as a fictive biography? What if the camp Batman portrayed by Adam West, the zany scifi Batman of the 60s written by Carmine Infantino, the pseudo-militaristic Batman of the 90s who operated a network of global Bat-agents were all equally relevant visions of Batman? In Grant’s own words, “…It’s the confidence of knowing Batman can handle anything. Batman can be a cartoon, Batman can be Adam West, Batman can be a 1940s serial. Nothing can destroy Batman.” This is an entirely new kind of storytelling, one that Grant himself has been perfecting for more than a decade, one that goes back to his writing of Seven Soldiers, before that to New X-Men and even before that to JLA during the mid-90s. And now, to finally be here at the full realization of this kind of storytelling, it feels more like a beginning than an end.
This sense of booting up for the first time, of storytelling by way of the wider-angle of publication history when it comes to perpetual fiction is nowhere more apparent than in Grant’s Superman who appears in Action. Action was the inheritor of something of an unhappy accident. All that summer of 2011 that DC teased with its New 52 initiative, we saw images of Superman running across the roofs of cars in Metropolis. But this wasn’t the Superman we knew, although, it was a Superman we could recognize. He work farmer’s denim, a t-shirt that was nothing more than a bright blue field, with the S within the Diamond insignia (a Kryptonian symbol for hope and not as many have guessed, the initial of his moniker). He wore a cape, bright red and little more than a childhood blanket. And we could just see in that visual, the original Superman, the first Superman, the great and grand Liberal Avenger who acted as frontman for FDR’s New Deal. This would be that Superman, again. The first Superman, reiterated, right there from the ground up.
And of course, by the time Action #1 released, the New 52 Action, Occupy Wall Street already happened. And the kind of Superman stories being told during the relaunch, Clark Kent and Superman both hounding the corrupt business magnate Glenmorgan, both seeking social justice, were stories that fit almost magically with the grander social narrative of the 99%.
Grant comments on this during our 2013 wrap interview with genuinely human responses. There’s a slight chuckle when he begins, and then a tone that leads back to a kind of quiet forgiveness. “Yeah it shows why it’s probably best to try not attach anything to politics, because politics changes so rapidly,” there’s another chuckle. “And I think that it was always better that Superman would fight mainly on a symbolic level. And that’s really where we took him. We felt that that’s where he came into his own, in the moments of history that Superman himself was created from.” There’s a pause and a hesitation and then he picks up again, “I gave up on politics pretty fast actually, like I always have done. Politics are actually something I have to admit I have no interest in. And it’s hard that it impacts so much of our life, but I think the best thing to do is avoid it altogether. So for Superman to be Superman is have him deal with things that are more important, things like the stories we tell and the symbols we use and the way we care for one another.”
Listening carefully to it now, this is the exact point Grant made all those years ago when we first spoke about Superman and his New 52 reboot, his debut in the new Action. In 2011, while Occupy began to feel like something with legs, Grant was talking about Superman moving through a 24-hour news cycle and on to something deeper. How Action could become a reframing of Superman as something of a national icon, a platform for grander mythology like Johnny Appleseed.
But also the conceptual opposite of the 24-hour news cycle, an ideological opposite to the 24-hour news cycle in a more deterministic sense. That at some point, the very character that ushered in the notion of the superhero, that permanently wedded that idea to the tradition of perpetual fiction, should be held to the higher standard of undoing some of the damage done by that cultural system which entrenches attention deficit. Could Superman save us from cultural machinery that builds our shortened attention-spans from the ground up? Could Superman, could this new kind of storytelling save us all?
I’m chuckling now, almost as an act of forgiveness. I know how high the stakes are, but I also know they shouldn’t be. Our next question will deal with Muhammad Ali. I’ve been hemmed into Muhammad Ali since rereading Hunter Thompson’s “Last Tango in Vegas” in preparation for Constantine #1. In slightly less than one minute Grant will say the most compassionate thing I’ve heard or you’ve heard said in response to the emergent culture of celeb gossip. He’ll say that he doesn’t mind Kim Kardashian or Justin Bieber not being able appear in a book with Superman, because them not popping with the same bright, shamanic intensity of Muhammad Ali doesn’t make them worth any less a space in the cultural landscape. He’ll say, that he doesn’t want to judge the world in that way for not producing an Ali this generation. He’ll say he’s just more interested in how the world changes.
But that’s still a good 38 seconds away. And for now, preparing this piece, and drawn back into an earlier issue of Action, issue #9, “the Curse of Superman”. In it this issue Calvin Ellis, the Superman of a parallel seemingly blaxploitation earth, encounters a meta-dimensional thoughtform of Superman designed by a corporation to be the most fearsome of all Supermen. A Superman combined with Doomsday, Super-Doom, a Superman who hunts down and kills other Supermen. A Superman who seems to embody the logical extension where the limited fictions of the 24-hour news cycle seem to be leading us. When faced this fearsome monster, Cal Ellis digs deep and draws on what his dad taught him while boxing. And in a single moment, there’s Ali, still honored by a world that can equally accept Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian.