Book review – ‘Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero’ by Grant Morrison

I’ve been reading Grant Morrison’s work for almost as long as I can remember. When I was eight, I was an avid fan of the ‘Spider-Man and Zoids’ anthology comic, (a slightly strange juxtaposition of characters, now I come to think about it), where Morrison interpreted the Zoids’ conflict through the lens of Cold War superpower geopolitics. (I admit this would have gone completely over my head at the time.) In the late ’80s, for 2000AD, he wrote one of the greatest British comic stories of all time, ‘Zenith’, a feverishly intelligent pop-art take on the superhero genre that managed to be mind-bendingly bizarre, horrendously violent, weirdly profound, and incredibly funny. In the mid- to late-1990s he wrote one of my all-time favourite comics, ‘The Invisibles’, which read as if it had been tailored specifically for my own secretive interests and obsessions. His other masterpieces include one of the best Batman stories ever written, ‘Arkham Asylum’, and the superb, blackly comic one-shot ‘Kill Your Boyfriend’. He’s deconstructed and reinvented just about every major superhero character for both Marvel and DC, and is one of the most highly respected writers in the comics industry. Morrison, for all his grandiose invention and baffling originality, writes stories that feel bespoke when you read them. Even better, he’s from Glasgow, so there was always the chance you could actually see him, this lunatic-genius who has killed both Batman and Superman in his career, loitering in the foyer of the GFT, or walking down Buchanan Street. I’ve always thought he had a good claim to being Scotland’s greatest writer, even if, or especially because, he “only” wrote comic books.

His new book, ‘Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero’, combines an insider’s forensic analysis of the superhero genre’s wider cultural significance with an autobiographical account of his own upbringing and comics career. As would be expected of anyone so deeply embedded in the comic book industry, Morrison has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the medium. His analysis of how superhero characters have changed to reflect their times displays the close reading of a passionate fan as well as of a professional who knows his work inside out. The first Superman and Batman stories are now over 70 years old, but no facet of them escapes Morrison’s notice. He gives us the ultimate insider’s guide to the fiendishly complicated continuity-mesh of the 1960s and 1970s Marvel and DC universes, and demonstrates how the postmodern reinterpretation of the genre by writers such as Alan Moore (and himself) inadvertently led to the cul-de-sac of a comic book ‘Dark Age’, where genuinely gratuitous violence and flashy graphics began to cater for an increasingly vocal, nihilistic minority who used the internet to demand a medium tailored exclusively to their own poisonous and cynical worldview.

Morrison obviously reveres superheroes and comic book characters, but his reverence doesn’t blind him in the slightest to the ludicrous or the eye-poppingly weird. Writing a comic script is in many ways equivalent to writing a film script or a play, and the skills required for the medium don’t necessarily translate to extended prose. It helps then that Morrison is a gifted writer, with a sinuous, elegant style. His analysis of the 1940s Batman cinema serials starring Lewis Wilson and Robert Lowery as the Dark Knight (pp.329 – 333) is one of the funniest passages in any book I have ever read, describing Lewis and Douglas Croft (as Robin) as a pair of “bored fops”, whose Bat Cave “resembled a serial killer’s converted basement”. The 1949 Batman serial with Robert Lowery was even worse than the wartime propaganda effort, where both Batman and Robin “have a thuggish, sozzled, and aggressive air … There was nothing glamorous about this pair of sinister sleazebags who appeared to have made all their money from exploiting the poor and the ignorant.” (pp.331-333) I could go on, well beyond the bounds of fair usage, and if you can interpret and describe the tendency of early Batman stories to climax in chemical factories or to feature mind-controlling gases in the following way:

“Indeed, his [Batman’s] career had barely begun before he was heroically inhaling countless bizarre chemical concoctions cooked up by mad black-market alchemists. Superman might have faced a few psychic attacks, but, even if it was against his will every time, Batman was hip to serious mind-bending drugs. Batman knew what it was like to trip balls without seriously losing his shit, and that savoir faire added another layer to his outlaw sexiness and alluring aura of decadence and wealth.” (p.21)

then you have a 430 page book that is essentially unputdownable.

However, like Superman hiding his godlike powers behind the identity of a mild-mannered reporter, by the end of the book it becomes clear that Morrison has actually smuggled something like a spiritual/revolutionary manifesto inside the pages of a work of cultural criticism. The autobiographical sections are not just Morrison’s account of how he came to work in the industry, or of how he wanted to complement the ground breaking work of comic book pioneers like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. He is startlingly frank about the quasi-religious way in which he views superheroes as archetypes, or rather, the quasi-religious ways in which they can be used to radically change our world for the better. For Morrison, the DC or Marvel ‘universe’ isn’t just a term used to define the collective continuity and cast list of a sequence of interlinked comic books, but a genuine autonomous alternate reality – one that just happens to be in two dimensions and that we can hold in our hands. That ‘we’ made it is what imbues it with a kind of life – we look down on it in the same way that a being living in a five dimensional universe would be able to look down on us. Bleeding edge science, string theory, the concept of the multiverse, actually gives some kind of outlaw credence to this idea. Morrison talks about the way he would appear in his own ‘Animal Man’ stories as him donning a ‘fiction suit’ in the same way an astronaut would don a space suit, an idea so thrillingly bizarre I had to close the book for a few minutes and stare out of the window until I had calmed down. When he talks about his mid-1990s semi-breakdown as an opportunity to rewrite his character the same way he would reinterpret an established comic book superhero, and that as a result of this ‘The Invisibles’ is actually a form of spiritual and physical autobiography, you realise that you are not dealing with someone who just ‘loves’ comic books and takes a geekish pleasure in writing them. The occult vision he had in Nepal, where he breezily claims to have seen the secret workings of the universe (in which time is a kind of amniotic fluid used by ‘chrome angels’ to incubate their offspring, the baby-universes of which ours is one of many, and where all life on earth is actually one thing, “a single weird anemone-like mega-Hydra with its single-celled immortal root in the Precambrian tides and its billions of sensory branches, from ferns to people, with every single detail having its own part to play in the life-cycle of a slowly complexifying, increasingly self-aware super-organism.” (p.273)), turned Morrison into his own version of a superhero, with King Mob in ‘The Invisibles’ becoming effectively a reciprocal self-portrait.

Morrison is quite frank about the way this staggering vision could fit the bill for either alien abduction or temporal lobe epilepsy; the significance of the vision was in the way he consciously chose to interpret it. If it made him feel like a superhero, it also convinced him to use his powers for good. The amoral characters and stories best exemplified by Image Comics were talking only to a cynical minority, even if the sales were huge. Worse, sustained cynicism on this level helps create the larger culture in its own image, a self-sustaining feedback-loop of shallow fame, casual violence, and black nihilism. What happened to the real superheroes, Morrison asks, the ones who show us at our best, who can deal with any threat no matter how vast and existential? Superman will never be beaten, ever, and as the human race was responsible for creating him in the first place, we all have it in us to be supermen too. It might not seem obvious from just a cursory glance at Morrison’s huge body of work, but he is a genuine optimist, about the capability and creativity of the human race to surmount all obstacles. In an act of sympathetic magic, Morrison is convinced that changes he is making in the culture of the superheroes’ 2-D universe will have reciprocal changes in our own 3-D universe, and (perhaps) in the 5-D universe of that slowly maturing weird hybrid anemone thing that we are all a part of. How’s that for a mission statement?

Of course, if none of the ideas I’ve tried to summarise above resonate with you (and my efforts don’t do justice to the sheer page-turning entertainment value of this extraordinary book), then you probably won’t have read this far. If you don’t like superheroes, or comic books, or the very idea of a techno-psychedelic counter-culture, then you’re not going to want to read this. But I urge you to do so – you have no idea what you’re missing.

(Grant Morrison will be appearing at Forbidden Planet on Buchanan Street, Glasgow, on Thursday 14 July at 5.30pm to sign copies of ‘Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superheroes’)

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2 thoughts on “Book review – ‘Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero’ by Grant Morrison

    1. richardstrachan Post author

      Thanks, I’ll have to read the Superman book. There was a great book by Will Brooker that came out a few years ago, ‘Batman Unmasked’ – it covers much the same territory, definitely worth reading.

      Reply

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