Book review: Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero
SUPERGODS: Our World in the Age of the Superhero
By Grant Morrison
Jonathan Cape, 444pp, 17.99
HALFWAY through his memoir, Scottish comic book writer Grant Morrison – he's just about to revamp Superman from the ground up for DC Comics – mentions going on holiday to Kathmandu. When he was there, he claims, beings from a higher plane of reality took him on a fantastic voyage and explained Man's place in the universe.
Most people will simply dismiss this as a drugs trip, but in his book it's the seemingly inevitable climax to a journey that begins in Govan, where he was born to activist parents who would take him and his sister on anti-nuclear demos. Comics – many of whose protagonists gained super-powers from radiation accidents, ironically – were always around in his childhood, both the British weeklies and the more glamorous, full-colour American monthlies. They fired Morrison's creativity, stirring him to produce his own strips and begin to think about becoming a comic book artist. That's when he wasn't imagining life as Captain Marvel, who transformed from newsboy to adult hero with one magic word: "I remember walking alone as a child, chanting every word in the dictionary, in the hope of finding my own SHAZAM!"
After graduating from Glasgow's rich underground "stripzine" scene and having had some success with DC Thomson's Starblazer digests – Commando books in space – Morrison was invited to write and draw Captain Clyde for the Govan Press ("… his enemies, no matter how powerful, tended to instigate their insane bids for planetary domination in the immediate environs of Chris Melville's rented flat in Hillhead").
Eventually he won regular writing work with London's Fleetway, publishers of the hugely popular 2000AD, which was beginning to serve as a seedbed of talent for DC Comics. The Americans liked the refreshingly punkish, art-school approach of the British invasion led by Alan (Watchmen) Moore. Zenith, Morrison and artist Steve Yeowell's thoroughly modern, terribly British take on the American superhero genre, paved the way for his first DC work, Animal Man, in 1988. A revamp of an obscure hero, Animal Man developed from a quirky take on that rarest of superheroes, the family man, to a meditation on what it means to be a comic character. Over time, Buddy Baker – "the man with animal powers" – learned that his reality was someone else's fiction, and met the creator who was destroying his life for the entertainment of an unseen audience. That creator was Morrison, in the first of several memorable comic book appearances.
For Morrison, who had developed an interest in magic, was embarking on an experiment: could he alter his own reality by donning a "fiction suit" and entering the comics? The project – which embraced shamanism, magic mushrooms, speaking in tongues and cross dressing – seemed to pay off. He based King Mob, in The Invisibles, on himself, making him the super-sexy, super-cool guy he wanted to be. Before long, Morrison's real life was a whirl of good fortune and synchronicity. He communed with, for want of better terms, angels and demons and his writing improved: "The world felt intensely awake and alive, as if I'd somehow learned to dance with it a little. My comics began to reflect this new freedom, becoming looser, more personal, and more psychedelic in that word's literal sense of 'mind manifesting'. It was hard to believe that people were paying me for what I soon came to realise was something close to self-therapy."
Whatever was going on, it led to Morrison's vision in Kathmandu, an experience which informs his world view – actually, make that worlds view – and writing to this day. "I understood that we were all holographic sections of something invisible to me in its entirety; I was reminded how to plug into the silver 'grid lines' that zipped and glistened in and out of being all around me. These lattices, I knew, were for the input and output of pure information." Sounds familiar, possibly, but this was before The Matrix.
Admittedly, there was the small matter of a brush with death via a bug caught on his world travels, but for Morrison – at least on this plane of reality – the only way is up. He's become one of the biggest names in comics, with such work as Doom Patrol, The Invisibles and Seaguy behind him.
Even when he works on the most corporate of characters, such as DC's Batman and Marvel's X-Men (in which one storyline was influenced by The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), he weaves in the biggest of ideas while never losing sight of his players' humanity. All-Star Superman, a 12-issue series produced with illustrator Frank Quitely and colourist Jamie Grant – fellow Scots – eschewed modern miserabilist trends to show us the Man of Steel as he should be – the best of us all, a shining star. And this positive take on an American icon became the best-selling Superman run for years.
If this were just Morrison's story, the reminiscences of an original Scots thinker who works in a medium that silly people scorn, it would be worth your time. The sections detailing the writer's relationship with his father are especially touching. What makes this book exceptional is the history of comics that comes with the history of Morrison.
Starting with Superman's 1938 debut, he takes us through the most significant characters, identifying the motifs that recur again and again – chief among them the primal flash of lightning – and linking them back to the heroes and gods of classical times. Super-speedster the Flash, for example, is a modern Mercury, messenger of the gods, representing the power of language. Giants of the industry such as Jack Kirby are given their due, and the connections between the real world and the comics world are examined, such as Marvel's Sixties pretensions to Pop Art, and the "relevant" period when Green Arrow's boy sidekick, the aptly named Speedy, became a junkie.
My favourite chapter details how 1950s and 1960s Superman editor Mort Weisinger, a regular partaker of therapy, would use stories to address his issues, resulting in work that was inspired in its insanity. One memorable cover, which traumatised/excited a generation, saw eternally frustrated gal pal Lois Lane lash a life-sized Superman puppet while the real thing lay tied to a bench. Morrison writes: "The story itself was tame fare by comparison, but Weisinger's trademark, self-searching ability to transform every dirty subconscious coal into the gem of an idea was never more evident than here. This was a Jungian bowel movement rendered as a story for children."
At the same time, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen was finding any excuse to dress up as a girl. In one tale he went undercover as a gangster's moll, only avoiding his beau's mucky mouth by turning the lights off and shoving an amorous chimp at the grateful hood. No one at the News of the World ever went to such lengths for a story.
As a superhero fan, I found this a diverting read. As a people fan, I found it unputdownable. Grant Morrison never found the magic word that would turn him into an instant Superman, but he learned to weave a few magic words along the way, altering not just his characters' reality, but his own. And maybe yours.
• Grant Morrison, interviewed in tomorrow's Scotland on Sunday, is at Edinburgh Book Festival on 20 August, www.edbookfest.co.uk Martin Gray writes about comics at dangermart.blogspot.com