We Can Be Heroes: Talking ‘Supergods’ with Grant Morrison

“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.

Book: Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human

Author: Grant Morrison

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Publication Date: 2011-07

Format: Hardcover

Length:464 pages

Price: $28.00

ISBN: 978-1400069125

Author Website: http://grantmorrison.com

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/c/carpenter-supergods-cvr.jpgMore 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.

Transformation

All good superheroes must have an origin story, and Morrison is no exception. His takes place in Kathmandu and involves a mysterious encounter that he has frequently discussed both in lectures and in the documentary film, Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods. He describes the revelatory moment in even greater detail in Supergods. While the specifics of the event have been attributed to everything from a hallucinogenic drug trip to an alien abduction to temporal lobe epilepsy, the end result is always the same. Morrison experienced something extraordinary and left Kathmandu with what he calls “superhero vision”—an ability to see and understand the interconnectedness of time, life, and the universe.

Morrison’s 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.

Morrison told me, “It was a complete experience of a completely alternate reality that seemed bigger and more important and meaningful than this one. So I described it as a 5th Dimension. While in a state of consciousness, I was able to see my room as a whole, and I saw all of the history of the universe as one constantly existing thing. It was everything happening at once”.

These concepts can sometimes seem more abstract than a Zen riddle, but Morrison didn’t have to look far to make them more tangible. He found a perfect working model for most of the ideas embedded in the unassuming adventure stories of comic book superheroes. As an example, he told me that one way to understand the nature of time is to consider Superman. “His reality is 70 years old, so we can gaze in at any point in that. We can go back to the 1958 Superman, but we can lay it side by side with the 1972 Superman, we can see into his thoughts, we know what he’s thinking, we can jump along his timeline even though he’s having the experience in a linear fashion”.

At first, some people regarded Morrison as “odd”, but today, when notions such as multiple dimensions and non-linear time are becoming increasingly mainstream, many of Morrison’s ideas might as well be spoken by Morgan Freeman in the Science Channel’s Through the Wormhole.

DVD: Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods

Director: Patrick Meaney

Cast: Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis

Distributor: Halo 8

Release date: 2010-11-22

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/c/carpenter-talkinggods-cvr.jpgArmed with his new power of superhero vision, Morrison left Kathmandu and experienced all the ups and downs one might find in a typical superhero story. As he told me, “The chapters where I talk about making myself into a comic book character were all real things and came out of a kind of art installation approach to writing, but definitely I was trying to really connect with the idea of being a superhero and what that would mean. How close could I get to comic book reality”.

Throughout the second half of Supergods, one other name keeps popping up—Alan Moore, the writer of Watchmen. Since Morrison plays with superhero conventions, I asked him if it was fair to call Moore the supervillian of his story. “No, no. Alan’s my long lost twin, not a supervillain”. He laughed, but then added, “People have created this schism between us that doesn’t exist”. Morrison does write with regret about some of his youthful public comments about Moore long ago, but he stresses that there is no feud. “I’m now a big fan of his work. I just was not a big fan of Watchmen. I had a bunch of problems with the way that Watchmen is presented as the exemplar of the best that we can do. It’s certainly set an example of technical excellence, but I had some fundamental problems with the notion of Watchmen’s basic story”.

When it was first released, the young Morrison had also criticized what he calls the “extreme formalism” of Watchmen’s style, but he now says that same formalism is actually inspiring his next big project—Mulitiversity. “When I re-read [Watchmen] for Supergods, I gained a whole new appreciation for it. What I want to do with Multiversity is a modern kind of version of those [formalist] techniques. Where in Watchmen there are nine panels on a grid, based on Steve Ditko’s nine-panel grid, we take an eight-panel grid which breaks down into sixteens because the whole story is on musical octaves and so on”.

In this case, he credits Alan Moore for the inspiration: “The idea was to create, with Multiversity, an absolutely self-reflective comic book where every single little note of it was a fractal that carries the rest of it. So Watchmen kind of inspired me in a new way again”.

Indeed, if Supergods is about anything, it’s inspiration. From the inspiration of re-reading legendary comics to the inspiration of modeling his own life after superhero conventions, Morrison tackles his subjects with a religious fervor. As our society continues to evolve, Morrison sees our reality becoming increasingly like the reality of comic book superheroes. He looks at everything from tattoos to the transgender community, from personal branding in social media to genetic experiments, and he concludes that at some point in the future, we will all be the equivalent of superheroes.

Author photo from
Grant Morrison’s website

That’s certainly what it feels like to read this book. Morrison’s ability to make connections between seemingly humdrum events and grandiose ideas becomes infectious. Reading Supergods and immersing in Morrison’s ideas gives us all as much extra kick as a short-term radioactive spider bite, so that, as David Bowie might put it, “We can be heroes, just for one day”.

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