Interview: Grant Morrison, comic book writer

COMIC BOOK writer Grant Morrison didn't have to look far to find a hero to inspire his comic book creations. He reveals in his memoir how it was his father who influenced the anti-establishment, socialist slant he brings to some of America's biggest superheroes

An uncharacteristically bright day in Glasgow, and several hundred people are lining up outside Forbidden Planet, the comic book store on Buchanan Street.

An elderly couple stop and ask what's going on. "It's a queue to meet Grant Morrison," they are told. "He writes Superman and Batman."

Inside, Morrison is signing copies of Supergods, a book which combines personal memoir with a history of superheroes. He is a slender, shaven-headed Glaswegian with a self-contained physical presence who looks younger than his 50 years.

He has on white jeans and a pinstriped jacket. For around three hours the fans come, a level of interest that would be envy of most mainstream authors.

Vicki Kinnaird, a 23-year-old with the words 'Bulletproof Heart' tattooed across her chest, says, "The way that he's reinvented the superhero is astounding."

Kirsten Harwood, an 18-year-old from Dunfermline, has drawn a pencil sketch of Morrison, which he has signed. "It's awesome," she says, "there's someone so cool and famous from Scotland."

Hollie Dockrell, 15, has come into the city from Lenzie with her 12-year-old brother Robbie. "I can't really use words to describe him," says Hollie. "He's like a god himself."

In person, close up, over vodka and Red Bull in a private club not far from Forbidden Planet, Morrison is less a comics deity and more a reflective individual who speaks softly but with confidence about the influences and complexities of his life.

He is regarded as having a tendency towards hyperbole and self-dramatisation, but today seems - if anything - a little demure.

"I'm kind of just a guy," he says. 'I live in the country and I write stories and watch the clouds and the trees."

It would be wrong to understate Morrison's cultural impact, however. His Arkham Asylum has sold over 600,000 copies, making it the most popular original graphic novel of all time, and his comic book series The Invisibles is believed to have inspired The Matrix. His Batman collection Return of Bruce Wayne topped the New York Times bestseller list for six weeks earlier this year.

He has written a screenplay, Dominion: Dinosaurs vs Aliens, which is to be filmed by Barry Sonnenfeld, the director of Men In Black.

"Along with a couple of other British writers in the Eighties, Grant redefined what it meant to be a comics writer," says Dr Chris Murray, who lectures on Morrison's work at the University of Dundee.

"He brought a literary sensibility. It's always a great surprise to people that Superman and Batman are written by someone from Glasgow. But his run on Superman was mindblowing. He plays with these big commercial brands and is always doing something subversive with them."

Morrison was born in 1960 and spent his early childhood in Govan and Corkerhill. His father Walter, a well known community activist, had served during the Second World War but afterwards became a pacifist.

Young Grant was raised according to his father's principles. Once, when a scoutmaster visited his school, seeking recruits, Morrison stood up at his desk and proclaimed, "I refuse to be part of any paramilitary organisation."

Walter Morrison was a member of the Committee of 100, an anti-nuclear group which carried out acts of civil disobedience. He would take his son - as a sort of decoy - to nuclear facilities around Scotland, kick the boy's football over the fence, and then climb in to retrieve it.

Once inside, he would take photographs for the underground press. Morrison has a memory of being inside Coulport, the Trident missile base, and seeing a bunker full of cardboard coffins, intended presumably for casualties of an atomic war.

It was an influential sight for a fledgling comics artist and writer - "The idea that there is a hidden underworld where things go on that they don't like to tell us about has always haunted my work" - as were the anti-nuclear pamphlets, full of illustrations of charred and screaming skeletons, which his father would distribute.

Fear of nuclear Armageddon was the defining emotion of Morrison's childhood. But he found solace in the comic books - "Superman, as an idea, was stronger than the Bomb; we had invented something to counter that terror" - which, ironically, had become available in Scotland to meet demand from American military personnel based here.

He was also inspired by a hero closer to home. "My father was, for me, a genuine superhero. A big man. A super-tough soldier guy. He was really clever. I saw him going out on campaigns, going up against the police, breaking into bases and taking photographs to get information out to working class people. He was an immense presence, and he actually helped people. My mother would say that maybe he didn't help his family as much as he helped everyone else, but you know what these committed activist guys are like.

"He was always looking to improve somebody's life, while maybe neglecting what was going on back home. That was his Kryptonite. But I only saw that later."

Morrison's parents split in the early 1970s after his father had an affair - "the fallout slowly blew the family apart". The divorce, and an unhappy, lonely experience at Allan Glen's, a school for boys to which he had won a scholarship, caused Morrison's teenage years to feel flat and bleak. Hit hard by a rejection from the Glasgow School of Art, he imagined a stale future on the dole.

"His father, however, came to the rescue, giving him a gift of a typewriter with a message taped inside the case: "Son - the world is waiting to hear from you."

It was like being given a tool, Morrison recalls. He felt a responsibility to use it wisely and well. It gave him the self-belief he had been lacking during his prolonged slump. He did not have to wait long for his first commission - by the Scottish science-fiction comic Near Myths. It was the beginning of a steep upward trajectory.

In 1986 he began to work for the important and influential British comic 2000AD, creating the Zenith strip, and from there was headhunted by America's DC Comics - publishers of Superman and Batman.

His commercial breakthrough came in 1989 with the graphic novel Arkham Asylum, a none-more-dark Batman story. It sold 120,000 copies on the first day and Morrison was paid a dollar per book. He was rich. Turning 30 in January of 1990, he decided to reinvent himself. He split up with his long-term girlfriend, shaved his head, travelled the world, and set about - for the first time in his life - drinking alcohol and taking drugs, in particular hallucinogens.

"I felt that's what you're supposed to be as a writer," he recalls. "I'd been a pretty straight kid all my life and I wondered what my work would be like, what would my life be like if I did this? It took me to a lot of very strange and interesting places and opened up the world in ways I could never have imagined. I set about with a will to destroy everything I thought I was and to see what would remain."

His experiences during this period include a kind of prolonged cosmic vision in Kathmandu, described in Supergods, which Morrison says he is happy for readers to regard, if they choose, as nothing more than a hallucination. He himself sees the world in a mystical way and has practised magical rituals since receiving a deck of tarot cards from an uncle for his 19th birthday.

Does he still use drugs? "I've kind of left it behind. I'm married now and I'm 50 and my wife doesn't do anything like that, so it's not the same. If someone invites me into the desert, obvious I'll do it, but apart from that, no."

His period of intensive hedonism began to come to an end as the 1990s ended. He had a George Best-style "Where did it all go wrong?" moment when he found himself spending a night in a hotel room with three strippers, smoking dope, drinking champagne and discussing quantum physics.

He was introduced to his wife Kristan by Gillian, the wife of fellow Scottish comic book writer Mark Millar. He and Kristan spend the winter living in Los Angeles, and the rest of the year near Dunoon. "It's a yin and yang thing," he says.

"Kristan's got a business mind and I don't. So she was able to take my little insane cottage industry and turn it into a business; she does contracts and deals with publishers and film people. I don't even know what I earn and I honestly do not care.

"And on an emotional level, I've never connected with anyone quite as much. This is the end of the line. I don't fancy anybody else anymore. I don't even look at anyone. It's cool that 10 years later I still feel that way. It's been a very big thing for me. I've met the person I always would have liked to have found."

Another fascinating relationship in his life is that with Mark Millar, writer of Kick-Ass, which last year became a hit film. They met when Millar was 18 and Morrison, almost ten years older, was already an established name. They were very close friends for a decade, but in 2001, according to Morrison, there was a falling-out. He won't say what caused the rift, but is clearly irked by comparisons with the younger man.

"What makes me gnash my teeth is people's constant accusations - 'How do you feel that Mark's doing so well?'" he says. "I've bought a house in Hollywood, I've got three houses in Scotland, I write movies, I write comics, I do everything I want to do and I've got more money than I can spend. I'm glad he's doing well. But there's this strange equation that if my proteg is doing well then somehow I have to be failing. That's the archetype. But it's not true."

In 2004, Morrison's father died. Towards the end of his life, he wrote a short history of Corkerhill, the area of Glasgow he loved best. He asked his son, to whom he had given that typewriter and the belief that he could be a writer, to edit the manuscript.

"Getting the chance to type that up and make it right while my dad was on his deathbed was a gift," Morrison recalls. "It was a real closure thing, the two of us getting to work on something like that, which we'd never done before. It felt very complete."

He channelled his feelings about his late father into the issue of All-Star Superman which dealt with the death of Clark Kent's adoptive father Jonathan. "The words that Clark Kent speaks at the funeral were what I wanted to say about my own dad showing me how to be tough, how to be kind, and how to dream of a better world. It made me cry to write it, and I still cry when I read it."

It is fitting and poetic that the father who he regarded as a real-life hero is now providing Morrison with inspiration as he works on a new story. This September, DC will relaunch Action Comics, the title in which Superman first appeared in 1938, and Walter Morrison is very much in his son's thoughts as he writes the scripts. "The Superman I'm doing is very much an activist, a socialist Superman," he says. "I love the idea of him being the champion of the oppressed."

As he writes Superman in an upstairs room of a renovated Victorian mansion on Loch Long where the Trident submarines sail, looking across to Coulport and the landscape of his adventures with his father, Morrison has every reason to reflect on the role that superheroes - both personal and professional - have played in his life.

So what, finally, does he owe to them? "I'd have to say," he nods, "everything."

Supergods is published by Jonathan Cape. Grant Morrison will be appearing at Charlottle Square Gardens, Edinburgh, at 9.30pm on 20 August as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 24 July, 2011

Back to the top of the page