SPIDER-MANDATE: The Lowe-down on "Secret Wars," Tie-Ins and Stacey Lee
Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.
Strap yourself in, kids, because this is going to be a big one, as we run through the lengthy and considerable career of one of mainstream comics’ biggest stars, Grant Morrison.
If nothing else, Grant Morrison is a writer with a definitive vision. A big believer in the power of the superhero genre to inspire hope and change, his stories often — despite his considerable ability to frighten and disturb — are optimistic affairs, suggesting that even in one’s darkest moments, things are never as bad as they seem. That he can frequently pull this type of sincere optimism without seeming saccharine or winsome is a testament to his skill as a writer.
Morrison is not always an easy writer to read. He’ll frequently break the fourth wall, indulge in non-linear storytelling or throw out obscure references. He expects his readers to meet him halfway and often a bit of work is required to suss out exactly how everyone moved from plot point A to B. Usually this type of effort is rewarded, however, as at his best his writing blends surreal, dense and sometimes elliptical storytelling with a fondness for humanity and a yen for crafting likable, fully rounded characters.
Note: In culling this list together I decided to skip over some of Morrison’s single-issue stories, anthology contributions and unfinished projects (like those two issues of The Authority). Otherwise we’d be here all day. Feel free to yell at me about it in the comments section.
Morrison’s most well-known and beloved work is easily All-Star Superman, and thus makes as likely and new-reader-friendly a place to begin as any. Working with his best and frequent collaborator Frank Quitely, Morrison penned a loving mash note to the Silver Age, Weisenger-era Superman that didn’t ever once come off as nostalgic sentimentality. In many ways, All-Star Superman is a thoughtful treatise on the fragility and splendor of life, with Morrison asking readers what sort of legacy they’d like to leave behind for friends and family after they’ve gone. The series is available in two softcover volumes, or you can buy the whole shebang in one expensive Absolute edition.
Personally though, I feel that Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol features not only some of his best writing ever, but it’s also one of the best, if not the best, superhero comic of all time. Teaming up with artist Richard Case, Morrison created a comic that reveled in playful sense of surrealism and absurdity. New, bizarre ideas and characters seemed to spring off every page — Paintings that eat cities! A villain that has every super power you can’t think of! — only to be tossed aside to make room for the next big notion. But it’s all grounded by the main cast of characters who, despite their odd appearances and complex problems, remain very sympathetic figures. The series has been collected in five six easy-to-find trade paperbacks: Crawling From the Wreckage, The Painting that Ate Paris, Down Paradise Way, Musclebound, Magic Bus and Planet Love.
After his run on Doom Patrol concluded, Morrison spun-off one of his creations from the series, Flex Mentallo, into a self-titled four-issue mini-series. The comic followed the “Muscle Man of Mystery” as he tried to find his former friend and fellow crimefighter, The Fact, while also focusing on a burned out rock star calling a suicide prevention line who may or may not be imagining the whole Mentallo storyline. Working again with Quitely (who does some of his best work to date here) Morrison lays out his entire feelings about the superhero genre and why he’s so sweet on it. As manifestos go, it’s a pretty sterling one. Though it’s long been out of print, it’s scheduled to come out in a deluxe hardcover collection early next year.
Morrison’s other great superhero project is the wildly ambitious Seven Soldiers of Victory. The idea was to create a loosely interconnected series of comics, each starring a semi-obscure character from the DC Universe: Klarion, the Guardian, Mister Miracle, the Shining Knight, etc. It all builds up towards an epic battle against a nefarious enemy from the future, the catch being none of the characters ever meet (at least not for more than a few seconds). Really, it all comes together a lot better my meager description would suggest and features some great art from folks like Doug Mahnke, J.H. Williams III, Frazier Irving and Ryan Sook. The whole blessed extravaganza has been collected in two hardcover volumes.
At the same time Morrison was pushing the dada envelope in Doom Patrol, he was cheerfully breaking the fourth wall in Animal Man.The series started off as a familiar second banana character revamp, with art by Chas Truog, but quickly became something deeper and stranger as main character Buddy Baker started fighting for animal rights and inadvertently found his world literally coming apart at the seams, with the end result being a meeting between the character and his creator. The entire storyline is collected in three volumes: Animal Man, Origin of the Species and Deus Ex Machina.
While I disagree somewhat, many consider The Invisibles to be Morrison’s definitive work. Certainly it’s one of his most fondly remembered works and the one that won him a decidedly devoted audience. A superhero/spy story that draws on countless conspiracy theories, the Invisibles follows a clandestine group of operatives who work at overthrowing a shadowy Illuminati-type group that manipulates humanity and history behind the scenes. The first half is excellent, but it begins to falter somewhat in the second half before gaining steam again, perhaps in part due to the fact that Morrison fell gravely ill while writing the series. You can read the whole thing via seven volumes: Say You Want A Revolution, Apocalipstick, Entropy in the U.K., Bloody Hell in America, Counting to None, Kissing Mister Quimper and The Invisible Kingdom.
Rounding out Morrison’s collaborations with Frank Quitely is We3, a surprisingly effective sci-fi revamp of The Incredible Journey with a cybernetically outfitted (and incredibly dangerous) rabbit, cat and dog on the run from the military that wants to “decommission” them and trying to find their original owners. In a rather neat feat, Morrison manages to give all the animals speaking parts without ever having them lose their animal nature or resorting to easy sentimentalism. As violent as this book can be, it’s hard to reach the end with a dry eye.
And then you should read
The Filth was Morrison’s follow-up to The Invisibles and something of a flip side to the latter’s more positive, rebelling against the status quo attitude. I think it’s a more successful book though it certainly has its detractors. It’s about an average schlub of a man who (re)discovers he’s actually the member of a super-secret organization devoted to maintaining the “status q” known as The Hand. Or maybe he’s a pedophile who’s starting to hallucinate because he can’t handle the fact that his beloved cat is dying. Morrison keeps readers guessing the true nature of the story’s “true” reality all the way up to the end and beyond. It’s one of the writer’s densest, most challenging books to date largely, but a hell of a ride, largely due to the considerable artistic abilities of Chris Weston.
Seaguy and its sequel, the yet-to-be-collected Seaguy: The Slaves of Mickey Eye, is an energetic, dystopian superhero fable dealing with a scuba-outfitted hero who slowly comes to realize the seemingly perfect, amusement-park world he’s living in is a facade hiding lots of nefarious goings-on. It’s a fun, affecting ride, largely abetted by the cheerfully clean styling of Cameron Stewart. Morrison has promised a third and final Seaguy series but as of yet nothing has been announced.
Morrison must have a deep fondness for Oscar Wilde. How else to explain Sebastian O, which re-imagines the author of The Importance of Being Earnest as a witty assassin, wrecking havoc on the establishment that sent him to prison decades ago? It all wraps up a little too quickly, but longtime collaborator Steve Yeowell and Morrison manage to spin a clever and occasionally disquieting steampunk ode to Wilde and his contemporaries as well as giving a fat raspberry to the voices of censorship and repression.
One of Morrison’s most recent Vertigo books is the just-collected Joe the Barbarian, a charming fantasy story about a boy who, in the midst of a diabetic seizure, imagines himself transported to a fantasy kingdom where he is “the chosen one” who can save their world (Notice a pattern here? Morrison’s big on the ability of imagination and fantasy to transform everyday life.) Despite the Vertigo label and seemingly convoluted storyline, this is one of Morrison’s most direct, straightforward works ever and his first and only all-ages styled book to date. He and artist Sean Murphy do such a fine job here that you wonder why he doesn’t try his hand at this type of thing more often.
Though the bulk of his work has been done for DC/Vertigo, Morrison spent some time a decade or so ago at Marvel. The most notable fruit of his labors there was his run on the New X-Men, where he shook up and in some cases completely altered the status quo on the long-standing, convoluted superhero soap opera series, laying lots of established back story to literal waste and giving a hipper sci-fi edge to the proceedings, all while re-emphasizing the adolescent angst that gave the series’ its heart. It all suffers quite a bit from the revolving door of artists that came in to handle various arcs or fill-in issues (Igor Kordey’s best work is certainly not represented here). But still, there are some great ideas at work here and some really stunning sequences, usually involving Frank Quitely (there he is again). The best way to experience the series is probably through the latest three-volume set of omnibuses (omnibi?).
Morrison teamed up with Duncan Fegredo for Kid Eternity, a three-issue prestige-styled mini series that was yet another dark revamping of a long-forgotten superhero character, in this case a boy who could summon classic (and dead) characters from history just by saying the word “Eternity.” Teamed up here with a hapless stand-up comedian, the series is basically Morrison’s take on Dante’s Inferno, as the pair wend their way to hell and back in order to save the Kid’s mentor and possibly the human race. It’s a bit muddled at times, but still entertaining.
Having attempted a convoluted mega-crossover series with Seven Soldiers, Morrison got the chance to try something similar with DC’s A-listers in Final Crisis, one of those super-duper “event” stories that plague superhero comics these days. Morrison basically dares to ask the question “What if Darkseid really won?” and then goes on to explore how the Superman and friends manage to pick up the pieces and restore order and justice to the universe. It’s kind of a mess — the divergent elements don’t cohere very well, part of which may be due to the fact that artist J.G. Jones was replaced early on in the series by a variety of artists, including Doug Mahnke. And I recall being very irritated at figuring out at the end that I needed to read some of the tie-in series in order to figure out what was going on. Still, all that tie-in stuff has been included in the collected edition, so maybe it all reads better in book form.
Morrison first made his name in 1989 with Arkham Asylum, a heavily-hyped standalone graphic novel that teamed him up with a pre-Cages Dave McKean. The book had Batman wending his way through the titular mental institution, combating various villains and Jungian archetypes along the way. At the time (and despite the strong sales) it was derided by some fans as being needlessly convoluted and self-important, but I think it’s held up rather well over time, though it does perhaps take itself a bit too seriously.
Those looking for a more straightforward Batman story should check out Gothic, which was originally serialized in Legends of the Dark Knight. The story, featuring some nice art by Klaus Janson, pits the caped crusader against a seemingly immortal killer named Mr. Whisper who’s secret origins may tie into Wayne’s own personal history. It’s one of Morrison’s most simplest and straightforward stories ever and perfect for those who are just looking for a nice Batman story without all the surreal frou-frou.
If you haven’t guessed yet, Batman is clearly Morrison’s favorite superhero. Or, at any rate, he’s the superhero he’s spent the most time with, having not only done the previous two books but also having written the eponymous Batman series from 2007 to 2010. Here he attempted to incorporate every single aspect of the character’s mythos from the past 70-odd years, from the silly to the profound. Again, it’s hard to fault his ambition, but it’s clear certain artists weren’t on the same page as Morrison or weren’t capable of matching his vision and thus the quality and tone vary wildly. Morrison’s run is collected in Batman and Son, The Black Glove (the best of the bunch, with some great art by J.H. Williams III), The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul (another multi-series crossover Morrison took part in), Batman R.I.P. (where everything comes to a head), and the coda, Time and the Batman, which also re-explains some events from Final Crisis.
Morrison hit the ground running from his Batman run with Batman and Robin, which imagines first Robin Dick Grayson taking over the Batman role in Bruce Wayne’s absence, joined by Wayne’s cocky illegitimate son Damian. This was a deliberate attempt to harken back to the goofy TV show and carefree era of the 60s, while maintaining a bit of menace and gravitas. Overall it’s a more successful run than Batman, though, once again, there are some really awful stumbles depending on who’s handling the artistic chores. You can read the whole thing in Batman Reborn, Batman vs. Robin and Batman and Robin Must Die!
The whole saga came to a head in Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne, which found Bruce Wayne traveling through time — here a caveman, there a puritan — but still solving crimes and righting wrongs. Honestly, the whole thing feels a bit perfunctory and is not one of Morrison’s better works. Much better is the series it led into, Batman Inc., which finds Wayne expanding his superhero empire around the globe. So far that series has been pretty solid and though it’s currently on hiatus, there’s no reason to suspect the quality will dip down once it returns.
Morrison went Bollywood with Vimanarama, a three-issue mini-series he did with Philip Bond about a nebbishy British Asian man who finds himself battling ancient giant monsters bent on destroying the world as well as juggling various personal crises, most notably his impending arranged marriage. On the whole this is slight and more than a bit silly (deliberately so), but it has a devoted fan base among Morrison devotees.
Along with New X-Men, Morrison worked on the series Marvel Boy with artist J.G. Jones. The short-lived comic featured a surly Kree warrior as its anti-hero, who, after having his ship destroyed and friends killed, felt little love for humanity and was more than happy to carve a giant “F.U.” into the New York landscape, in between battles with a villainous armored millionaire who craves his technology. After X-Men, it’s probably Morrison’s best work at the House of Ideas.
Apart from the X-Men, Morrison didn’t get to handle to many of Marvel’s iconic characters, though he did get to offer his take on the FF with Fantastic Four: 1234. This short, slight story features some nice, moody art by Jae Lee as the Richards family find themselves beset with doubt, with Doctor Doom moves in for the kill. The best part in the whole thing is Sue Storm’s verbal takedown of Doom.
Finally, there’s Skull Kill Krew, which Morrison worked on with Mark Millar and Steve Yeowell. The comic, about a group of misfit anti-heroes hell-bent on destroying the Skrulls hiding in society (and presumably plotting world domination) adopts a cheerfully amoral and anarchistic tone as the group merrily goes about slaughtering aliens left and right (and in the end decimates an entire town). The defiant, tongue-in-cheek attitude isn’t for everyone certainly, but there’s something to be said for a superhero comic that comes off as having an attitude without seeming like a cynical marketing ploy.
Millar and Morrison also collaborated on Aztek the Ultimate Man, an original superhero character blessed with a magic suit of armor and given a quest to save the world from … well, you know the drill. N. Steven Harris’ angular art gives the whole thing an off-kilter, claustrophobic edge, which works to the story’s advantage, considering it takes place in an allegedly “sick city.” Beyond the simple “hero saves world” plot is a nice running commentary on the uber-violent, “dark” superheroes that were all the rage in the 1990s that gives the series a little kick.
Aztec’s final fate is revealed toward the end of Morrison’s run on JLA, better known as Justice League of America to simple souls like myself. Morrison took over the then moribund-title in 1997, attempting both a back to basics approach by bringing in heavy hitters like Superman and Batman and giving the series an epic scale by having them face off against some seemingly staggeringly tough opponents. It was an enormous success and garnered a new group of fans for Morrison that had previously found his work alienating or confusing. In retrospect, however, the series suffers a bit from repetition: each plot involves the JLA facing being painted in a corner, either by a super villain or a universe-shattering event, only to come through at the last possible second. The series was also a slave to the vagaries of various plot threads going on in other books, which can be irritating (Superman’s blue and electric! Now he’s normal again! Wonder Woman’s dead! Now she’s not!). And then there’s Howard Porter’s art, which is serviceable at best. The entire run is collected in four oversize volumes, the fourth of which collects also collects JLA: Earth-2, a stand-alone story where the heroes face evil versions of themselves. It’s far, far better than the bulk of the rest of the JLA material, perhaps due in large part to the fact that — you guessed it — it was drawn by Frank Quitely.
Morrison teamed up with Mark Waid, Geoff Johns and Greg Rucka for 52, a year-long, weekly series that juggled various plot threads to reveal what was going on in the DC universe after the events of Infinite Crisis. It’s a bit all over the place, but still entertaining. One of the most fun parts is trying to figure out what sections were written by Morrison.
Remember Virgin Comics? At one point they planned a multi-part animated Internet-0nly series based on the classic Indian text the Mahabharata, to be written by Morrison. It all fell apart when Virgin collapsed, but you can read Morrison’s lengthy story pitch and some of his initial scripts in 18 Days, published by Dynamite. The book also features some lavish illustrations by Mukesh Singh that, combined with Morrison’s conceptual ideas, make you wish the project had come to fruition.
An enormous amount of Morrison’s early work, especially his work for 2000AD and other British comic magazines, has yet to be collected in the states, including Big Dave, Bible John and the New Adventures of Hitler. Some of these are available online in various illegal fashions. Probably his most notable early work is Zenith, another epic superhero saga starring a snotty youth who would rather be a pop star than fight crime. It’s a bit too jam-packed, though it settles itself out a bit as it goes on, and you can see a lot of his initial ideas on the superhero genre being laid out here. Eclipse published two volumes of Zenith but those have sadly long since fallen out of print. Supposedly a collected edition will be coming out from 2000AD sometime in the near future but I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting, as Morrison and the publisher have supposedly been at loggerheads about who truly owns the rights to the character.
One early Morrison comic that did get reprinted here in the states was St. Swithin’s Day, which Oni released only to let fall back out of print again. The comic, featuring some lovely art by Paul Grist, follows a sullen teenager who may or may not be plotting to kill Margaret Thatcher (Morrison has gone on record as saying the comic is at least partly autobiographical). The whole thing’s terribly earnest, but sweet in its own way and worth tracking down.
Fans of the classic British TV show The Avengers will want to check out Steed and Mrs. Peel, in which Morrison and Ian Gibson dream up new adventures for the classic spy duo. It’s pretty amusing, but really only if you’re a fan of the source material. BOOM! plans to re-release these comics in January.
Finally there’s Dare, a modern politicalized rethinking of the classic British Dan Dare sci-fi comic done with artist Rian Hughes. As with The Avengers, it helps to be familiar with the source material. Dark but still entertaining, the comic is more of a showcase for Hughes’ considerable talents work than for Morrison’s writing. The story can be found in the Hughes collection Yesterday’s Tomorrows, which is well worth tracking done because Hughes is such a masterful artist.
Don’t let the subtitle to Supergods fool you. The book is not really about “What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human.” Instead what you get is a rambling, warmed-over, rather problematic (to put it mildly) look at comics history, along with some rather self-aggrandizing reminiscences by Morrison. On the other hand, it is a good place to find out more about a number of events the author has hinted at in various interviews, particularly a transcendental experience he had in Katmandu. More than anything, though, this book was in really bad need of a good editor.
The news that Morrison was going to return to Superman in Action Comics as part of the new DC revamp was heralded by many, but so far the series has proven to be something of a disappointment, feeling tired and rote where it should be vibrant and fun. Perhaps it will improve as it progresses …
Morrison can be a little too “on the nose” sometimes, and that’s absolutely the case with The Mystery Play, a graphic novel team-up with Jon J. Muth that reeks of symbolism and allegory to the point where you want to scream “Enough already.” The story takes place during the modern re-enactment of a medieval mystery play, see, only God gets murdered in the first act. The rest of the book is more of the same painfully obvious allusions that cause the reader (or me at any rate) to wince inwardly when reading them.
That “on the nose” thing also plagues Kill Your Boyfriend a “youth on the run” comic with Philip Bond that despite its apparent desire to shock and awe seems a bit too overly familiar and annoyingly cute. You don’t necessarily have to “avoid” it but I’d recommend saving it for last.
Next month: Jessica Abel