Robot 6

Balloonless | Grant Morrison’s Supergods

Grant Morrison is a very smart comics writer who writes very smart comics, a fact that often results in many of his  vocal readers calling his more complicated work confusing.

Supergods, his new prose book on the subject of superheroes, isn’t the least bit confusing. It is, however, slightly confused.

While the book eventually earns its self-help book-sounding subtitle of “What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human” in its closing chapters, that subtitle is a poor distillation of the actual contents of the book, which are a bit scattershot.

Supergods is partially a history of American superhero comics (and their British reflections). It’s partially a biography of Grant Morrison and his career in the comics industry, which naturally overlaps with the first concern at a certain point. And it’s partially a cultural history of the concept of the superhero in the 20th and 21st centuries, with the Promethean subject of what superheroes can teach humanity shining through here and there.

Morrison is an excellent writer, in prose as well as in comics-scripting it turns out, and the pages of the book are fiercely passionate, vibrating with authority and conviction on their subject, and thoroughly encrusted with often lyrical sentences and clever, even brilliant turns of phrase.

Despite these considerable virtues, the wandering mission makes it a frustrating read, as does the fact that Morrison’s many tics come to the fore almost immediately, and can make for a rather uncomfortable read (perhaps especially for those of us who have heard versions of many of these stories before, and from different perspectives).

Spending so much time with Morrison’s words, without an artist acting as intermediary and without a month or so wait between chapters, Morrison’s tics are here inescapable. He has an unfortunate tendency to slip into talk of drugs, not just the many, many drugs he’s done and his experiences with them (two of the book’s key literal epiphanies come while he’s on drugs, whether or not they were the cause of his visions), but also in his metaphors. These he also tends to repeat quite a bit.

Morrison also has a tendency to look backward at comics history from its future, our present, and claim that comics predicted broad cultural trends or specific pop culture products, which may or may not be true, but feel true, even if it’s easier to spot these things in hindsight (like assigning real-world events to fit Nostradamus’ predictions, for example).

Worse still is his Stan Lee-like tendency to, if not quite take credit for something, to at least point out he thought of it first, or did something like it first, or had a hand in it.

You’ve probably heard of his strange, strained mentor/friend-turned-alienated-rival relationship with Mark Millar; some of that gets mentioned in passing, including that Morrison got Millar many of his original jobs and essentially co-wrote much of Millar’s earlier, better work (Morrison even mentions recommending Millar to Marvel for The Ultimates, and to point out that Millar’s takes on Thor and The Hulk were Morrison’s ideas). He also shared a story with Neil Gaiman that ultimately inspired Coraline, calls Warren Ellis’ The Authority his JLA meets his Invisibles meets Kingdom Come, says Ellis’ Planetary followed his Flex Mentallo point of view, Civil War his Zenith work (an early Morrison comic discussed at length, but, sadly, not excerpted at all — the book is badly in need of images and samples) and he even wrote an unused screenplay that was similar in basic plot to Batman Begins.

I don’t challenge any of this, and Morrison is obviously ahead of the trends in many cases and his work has inspired other creators, but it seems gauche to keep bringing it up. Perhaps that’s because the many creators Morrison discusses are his peers, rivals, colleagues and bosses — it’s nice to get a book like this that’s unafraid to engage in industry gossip from a working creator, but, at the same time, it makes one suspicious of the writer, who becomes an unreliable narrator of his own career. This is perhaps exacerbated by the fact that early on in the book, Morrison says he was acting a part, an invented persona as a sort of demonic, enfant terrible punk early in his career, publicly sneering at Alan Moore’s work and engendering animosity. How does a reader know he’s not still playing a part?

There are comparable weaknesses in each of the major elements. Morrison’s discussion of comics history, particularly before the part where he started engaging it as first a reader, then a participant and then a driving force, is at its best when he discusses it in broad metaphorical terms, like saying National Comics had chained Shuster and Siegel’s original anti-establishment socialist Superman and enslaved him, or implying that the rise of Marvel was a sort of curse from Fawcett’s Captain Marvel placed on National for their suing him off the newsstands.

But the scholarship here is shaky (and unsourced), the handful of “Books on Comics” in the “Suggested Further Reading” section of the back of the book consisting of the work of classic writers on comics history. This lack of sourcing leads to some rather impolitic statements (at least one of which has already been notably aired out in publicity interviews).

When Morrison discusses his own biography and career, however, the only real weakness beyond the occasional discomfort of hearing him diss Moore or praise Jim Lee and wondering whether he means it, is how little detail he can go into.

For example, at the dawn of his interest in the occult, he mentions his performance of his first ritual:

Skeptical but willing to try anything that might improve y luck, I performed a traditional ritual and on cue witnessed the appearance of a blazing, angelic lion head, which gave me quite a jolt when it started growling out the words “I am neither North nor South.”

I would kind of like to hear more about that particular miracle, but Morrison talks more about the sorts of drugs he used, the clothes he wore and how much he and Peter Milligan drank at conventions. Later he states, “I performed rituals of all kinds to see if they worked, and they delivered every time.”

Few of these are given much attention or discussion in the book, even when a voodoo-summoned scorpion entity attacks his aura and almost kills him (until he’s visited by Christ in the hospital and bargains away the deadly bacteria in his body).  The most attention goes to his infamous Kathmandu visitation by angels/aliens/entities, which enlightened him (and gave him his own superpower, “5-D” vision).

It’s not as crazy as it sounds in summary, and Morrison acknowledges various interpretations, but what matters most to him is that the effect was real, and it changed his life for the better. He occasionally even slips into a weird, guru-like argument that these beliefs have made him both famous and a lot of money, as if the invisible hand of the free market has validated his shamanic experiences.

Essentially, Morrison narrows his discussion of the occult and his experiences with it to the points where it intersects with superheroes, and his conception of the DC and Marvel universes as real, what his visitation from Superman through a cosplayer reveals about his process (you can’t argue with the results of All-Star Superman!) and what the 5-D aliens taught him about the universe are all fascinating, even important insights — particularly to superhero comics and the creation thereof.

So, too, are his insights into the way in which superheroes seem to be marching toward us (from comics to more realistic media like film to the rise of real-life superheroes) at the same time we’re marching toward them (through technology and worldview).

It’s well worth immersing yourself in the book then, whatever your level of interest in comics and superheroes (and if you’re reading Robot 6, you’re going to get a lot out of this, as you already know all the players), even if it is at times a frustrating read.

It’s a frustrating read because Morrison seems to be trying to write two or three different books at the same time, between the same covers, because of his controversial appearance within the story itself and because he suggests dramatic, more exciting stories and events by mentioning them in passing or offering only cursory descriptions, leaving it to the reader to imagine them in full in their own heads.

So I guess it’s not all that different from his superhero comics writing after all.

**********************

Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human by Grant Morrison, Spiegel & Grau, 465 pages, $28

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Comments

29 Comments

What? I`m leaving the first comment? Cool. Or am I? It might be that I don`t, `cause I`m usually wrong about many things.

This was a great review Caleb. I think that I`ll probably go nuts, but I`m gonna read this anyway. Borrow it from a library, maybe.

“He has an unfortunate tendency to slip into talk of drugs…”

Yes, there are substances – harmless substances which your rulers have nonetheless decided *you* are not to use – which can quite literally transport a person to Wonderland; how “unfortunate” that Morrison would dare to speak about such things.

Way to parse Caleb’s analysis to get on your high horse, Jason.

Drug metaphors are fun when we’re teens, but they can be boring to read when we become more sophisticated readers. Particularly if they tend to be repeated so much. Sounds like Morrison’s editor did him no favor on that aspect.

I consider it the Hemingway shtick. It’s not enough to drink me under the table, you have to tell me repeatedly you drank me under the table (directly or through subtext). Got it.

I don’t think Caleb objects to Morrison’s affinity for drugs, but rather his penchant to blather on about it, diminishing the impact of his analysis and derailing him from getting to the actual substance (pun intended) of his theories.

Oh do shut up.

Congratulfreakinglations, you do drugs. Aren’t you a unique, counter-cultural soul. Shouldn’t you be on Entourage?

Unless you’re a thirteen-year-old boy, there’s nothing cool or hip enough to be discuss about that. Especially not in a book that has nothing to do with it.

Do you also put your list of recreational on your tax returns every year?

Yes. The meth addicts in my town are a misunderstood group of fun-loving explorers. The government has lionized them to keep all trips to Fantasy land for themselves. The crack and cocaine dealers who mow innocent people daily with gunfire are simply helping people on their trip to Heaven faster. Please Mr. Morrison, spread the word and shepherd the masses into the land of mind altering substances and addiction. It’s a Happy place!

Lots of sanctimonious, Nancy Reagan prudes in the comic fandom, eh? Wow, the ignorance.

To be honest I put it down half way through and forgot about it till I saw this article.

The book really is a LOT wanky with some clever insights that can only be applied AFTER the event, for example his analysis of Action Comics #1′s cover. I doubt that as much thought and careful design went into it as Morrison claims.

He’s honestly starting to feel like Frank Miller, running on his own hype and becoming a parody of himself.

Robot 6 Thread:

Great essay by contributor.

Comment 1: First!
Comment 2: I will take this quote out of context and willfully misinterpret it, because I have an axe to grind.
Comment 3: Hey Comment 2, learn to read, fool.
Comment 4: Are you 12 years old?
Comments 5+: Supercilious sarcasm.

@ lead sharp: That’s entirely possible. The difference being, Morrison’s probably aware of it, and as a result I’m getting a much more entertaining show from him than I did from Frank Miller, before or AFTER he became a parody of himself.

Seriously, All-Star Superman or All-Star Batman? Batman thinking “WHORE WHORE WHORE” would be hilarious if I were 12, but its only mildly funny at 23, and nowhere near as subversive as all these people in their 40′s who haven’t liked Batman in a long time think it is,

I enjoyed the book, but found the chapters on shamanism and drug use to sound very much like like many geeks I know who… embellish their reality a bit to make a point. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing, Morrison is obviously a creative soul, and I have no doubt has dabbled with pharma for pleasure. He does however all but acknowledge that those experiences are as much what he WANTED them to be as what they WERE. I don’t begrudge that, but recognize creative people’s pasts are often (in the words of Alan Moore) multiple choice.

When he is focusing on the comics and their meaning though is rather fantastic in this book. His chapter on Jack Kirby especially stands out for me, along with the interpretation of the “New Gods.” Worth the read, even if you skim some tripping…

And very honest, good review. Thank you.

Let me write a review about all the things I disagree with, rather than, you know, actually reviewing the book for what it is, likes/dislikes be damned. This isn’t a review. It’s a glorified book report.

I really enjoyed this book. The way he connected his life experiences to the superhero comics brought a really fresh take on the industry and its history and, honestly, brought up a lot of good, well thought on analyses of the text. It’s worth reading for any superhero fan or anyone interested in the people interested in superheroes.

@SageShini I would very much like to think that and you are spot on with All Star Superman and ASBAR comparison.

I found myself nodding and smiling at ASBAR like you would a small child presenting you with a mudpie with cream on top, then pretending I’d never bought it.

@Mikael “glorified book report”? doesn’t that make it a really good review of a book then? Which is kind of what a book report is?

You people are everything that’s wrong with everything. It’s a soapbox tower of babel up in here.

You did drugs, it didn’t make you a better writer.
Complicated doesn’t always mean good, sometimes it means you are dicking around to get to an incredibly simple point and it doesn’t make the end result any better.
Perhaps had you skipped the new age, 1992 era crap, you could get someone other then a giant fan to review your book in a postive light.

Grant Morrison is overrated. I’ve been saying that for years. For every amazingly well thought out idea or kick-ass comic he writes, there are scores of crap that he’s written also.

For every All-Star Superman, there’s indeed a Batman RIP which is just Filth. It doesn’t matter. People seem to think he’s some sort of comic book Jesus when in reality his stuff is just way too “look at me and how smart I am and how smart you aren’t” to make good comic book reading. And he’s full of it. He believed Warner Bros ripped him off when the Matrix came out, stealing his ideas from the Invisibles, and vowed that because they left the taste of shit in his mouth, he’d never work for DC Comics again.

How long did that last?

I’ve read this book, its not really what anyone thinks it is. What it is, is Grant Morrison writing fan fiction about Grant Morrisons favourite Mary Sue character…. Grant Morrison.

There really are only two audiences for this book
1. Grant Morrison Fanboys, who want to fellatio Grant Morrisons shiny bald head
2. An people who want more reason to hate Grant Morrison for being a credit stealing hack, who is to comic book writing what Hipsters are to everything else.

Honestly, the Marvel thing blew my mind and definitely rings true. Those connections are what make the book great for me.

Hey, if Grant Morrison wasn’t interesting, then a Grant Morrision’s view of the world he lives in book would not sell. Ego and questionable behavior did not diminish the genius/talent that was Beethoven, (Nor does genius/talent add or subtract to an individual’s character). Since public morality is a thing of the past (or at least just mocked at in blogs and webcomics) the only virtue left is being interesting. I now believe that Grant Morrison is the most interesting person he knows, which is why he is so prominent in the book.
(If you know anyone more interesting, please feel free to write your own book about them. We’ll talk about them later)
Yes bragging about how well you can hold your S— is about as interesting as bragging about how many women/men you slept with or how much you can regularly save on particular computer components, but for those who want to justify themselves in either substance abuse, sexual activity or spending hours in online auctions, seeing someone with impressive credentials who do the same thing will always make them feel better. So let’s stop having any critical opinions out there because it only makes people like Tom and Johnny feel bad about themselves. (hence their constructive contributions to the discussion) How can they participate in the discussion with all these people with opinions that differ from theirs! Poor guys!
As they say, there are three sides to every issue: Yours, mine and Grant Morrisions! But only Grant is making money off his. How much, is up to us

I listened to Supergods as an audiobook and loved it. It was like Hunter S. Thompson meets TwoMorrows Publishing. In talking to friends, I summed it up in a similar way, describing it as three books in one. Frankly, that’s where its charm comes from, IMO. It’s not just history. It’s not just an autobio. It’s not just superhero theory. It’s all of them.

My 80 year old grandmother underwent a crazy dangerous operation, and instead of being impotent and going crazy, the night before the operation I applied Grant Morisson’s sigil magic, created a symbol and enchanted it with prayers, candles and surrounded it with photos of my deceased mother (her daughter) and my deceased grandfather (her husband). It was all I could do.

After she woke from the operation, she cried and her first words were “I saw Junior and MJ” – my mother and grandfather. I have not asked what was said in that meeting where she teetered on the edge.

Now skeptics can easily dismiss all of this, and regardless of what really saved her life (like modern surgical medicine), the thing is that Grant gave me a feeling of power in a time of complete impotence, and for that you can not dismiss.

Oddly I have only used sigil magic twice, and it has worked both times. And the other time I used it, I would say the odds were much more against it having succeeded than the prior story.

I was 41 and an old school, but non conservative, Catholic, and have never thought of doing Sigil magic. But whoa. It’s not something I’m going to mess a lot with, but for me it has had tremendous healing energies. There just are some things we don’t know.

As far as Grant’s book, I have a copy, and I’m hoping it’s not as difficult to read as Final Crisis. More like Batman and Robin, please.

Anti-drug nerds? Who’da thunk it?

As Grant would say: The people who want to tell you about how terrible drugs are are always the ones who have never done any.

Just like the people who don’t “get” his stuff prolly haven’t done very much reading outside of the last issue of Nightwing.

Try doing something yourselves, haters. Like, maybe, get laid or something.

@mvdc

Insecure about your intelligence much?

Grant not working for DC lasted exactly as long as it was supposed to… Until they called him and begged him to come back, telling him that he could do what he wanted while being treated much better.

@LSD,

What anti-drug nerds? Who has been saying anything anti-drugs? The author of the piece and some posters did say the repeated metaphors and other references were over-used and dragged. There is a difference.

Can we please retire the “Mary Sue” term? Like every other pejorative term that nerd culture seems to get its hands on, it’s been stretched so far past its orginal meaning that it no longer -has- a meaning beyond “broad/all-purpose insult/put-down that I’ll throw at anything/anyone I don’t like.” It was meant to refer to the insertion of ridiculously idealized, blantently autobiographical characters into fan-fiction, it does NOT apply to autobiographical elements in an -actual- autobiography, people.

Personally, I thought that Morrison was rather shockingly honest in talking about his own fears, flaws, personal mistakes, and regrets. I actually would have preferred it had the book been a straight memoir, jettisoning the historical survey aspect entirely. As far as anyone who is majorly offended or put off by the fact that Morrison has, in the past, smoked hash and used psychedelics (which is a -world- away from using “hard” drugs like meth and heroin), no judgement is implied, but Morrison’s work and worldview are probably not for you. And you should really, really stay away from the works of Philip K. Dick.

The review was a little disjointed but I got the gist of it and it seems reasonable (having not read the book).

To those objecting to Morrison’s drug references, it’s obvious drugs are important to HIM, and it’s his autbiography so, um, congratulations to you for outgrowing drug references. >insert eye-rolling emoticon here<

There really weren’t that many drug references/

Morrison is absolutely as overrated as it gets. He’s got some very strong work on his resume (All Star Superman and WE3 come to mind) and more than his share of utter rubbish.

And his fans aren’t nearly as “smart” as they are “generous.” There’s a big difference there. Just because he doesn’t hand the reader all the information on a silver platter doesn’t mean there’s anything smart going on at all. He gets so much credit for his wild imagination and big ideas, but his greatest weakness is his inability/refusal to flesh them out and actually explore them in his writing, because that’s a lot harder to do than throw out a “buzz” word that hints at something potentially interesting and let the reader do all the work.

I read somewhere that when he writes an issue he tends to write 40 pages and then throws 18 of them in the bin, but with much of his work those 18 pages are badly missed. Sometimes they might be 18 of the 20 most important pages in the story, the stuff we really want (or even need) to see as readers.

He has a tendency to put plot above character to the extent that his characters, which are the lifeblood of the industry, behave without a shred of internal logic, like pawns in his smug personal game of chess. Sure he’s the God of the universe he’s writing at any given time, but readers (especially ones as snobbish and nitpicky as comic book fans) are able to suspend their disbelief of these impossible stories as long as the characters themselves act and feel real. Morrison’s characters rarely do.

I’ll use Xorneto as a relevant example, because it’s a plot twist for which he’s been lauded excessively, and one that is a prime example of terrible writing. Sure, it was a surprising reveal. But that’s only because it doesn’t make any sense and was riddled with plotholes. The reader is forced to accept that Magneto (1) was barely screened at all before being welcomed into the fold and allowed to teach children, (2) was able to create a static field to keep Wolverine and Beast from smelling him… even in his sleep, (3) never once removed his helmet… even in his sleep. and even when we actually saw him remove his helmet on panel in the 2001 Annual, (4) somehow managed to infiltrate the school for months but recruited nothing but useless students, even though there were powerful students known to be sympathetic to him, (5) accomplished nothing besides blowing up an empty building that gets blown up once or twice a year anyways.

Just because the smartest character in the book (Beast) said it was obvious, doesn’t make it obvious. We saw the guy animate a dead bird on-panel. Guess it must have been a mechanical bird. The idea that Magneto was more powerful as a cultural icon and martyr than he is as a person is a good idea. If it was executed with any grace at all, it would be a worthwhile and thought-provoking story. Except Magneto is high on drugs and cartoonishly duplicates Nazi gas chambers and it doesn’t make any sense, so it achieves nothing in terms of storytelling. I even read an interview where he basically apologized for going so far over the top with that story, explaining that he was going through a dark time in his personal life at the time, so God knows why any of his fans would claim that story as some kind of accomplishment. There’s a lot of crap like that.

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