The genius of superheroes
Grant Morrison –
(Jonathan Cape) In 1999 I was living above a pub in London, working double shifts in the kitchens, slinging pies at drunks for £5.50 an hour, six days a week.
It was a bleak existence. The few hours I had off a week were spent either at the British Museum – it was free, warm, and filled with the promise of human accomplishment and history – or at my spiritual home, a comic book store called Forbidden Planet on Salisbury Ave.
Dizzy London was a grim mistress. The harder you worked, the harder she worked you over. But at Forbidden Planet, in the charmed and charming company of plastic fantasies and pen and ink illusions, the bitter realities of life in the Metropolis fell away.
Most of the stories in comics in those days were still set in a million mythical metaphors for America – escapist fantasy of the first order. But then I discovered a British comic called The Invisibles, and everything changed.
Psychic underground guerrilla cells, a plot by the Illumunati to install a monster on the English throne, Brazilian transvestite shaman battling faceless pandimensional trickster gods, and an ultra-violent, leathertrousered antihero named King Mob, all at play on the streets – recognisable down to the bill posters and shopkeepers – I walked day in, day out.
Suddenly, with The Invisibles on my side, life in ‘‘Grey Britain’’ was so much more than just my Kiwi rite of passage. It was an imaginary, imaginative, illusory, extra-sensory, otherworldly adventure.
And the man responsible was a sensitive Scot named Grant Morrison.
Morrison’s career in comics now spans more than 20 years and 53 publications. His name is legend and his intellectual, ephemeragathering style of storytelling has attained almost untouchable status. Indeed, his work in the 90s is credited, along with that of fellow Brit alumni Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis, of changing the face of the medium from so-called tacky escapism for children to a mature, adult art form.
Gathering together and embellishing on essays and talks he has given during the course of his career, Morrison has written his first non-fiction work, Supergods – a study of the role played in the modern world by superheroes. Far from bubblegum playthings, to Morrison the supers are literary figures for whom, unlike some other ‘‘adult’’ comic book writers, he has a great deal of respect and passion.
The book is a curious combination of artist’s autobiography, fanboy memoir, spiritual road trip and academic study. Unfortunately, Morrison never fully commits to any of these strands, so the casual reader may be left with more questions than answers in the end.
But for fans of comics, and Morrison’s comics in particular, Supergods provides an opportunity to commune with the eclectic genius-mage, see what makes him tick, what aspects of his career he feels define him, and perhaps learn one or two of his secrets – after all, what comic fan doesn’t have a character or two of their own waiting to burst forth from the newsprint? Morrison is never better than when he is telling tales about his own genesis as an artist. His tone is so witty, self-deprecating and full of love, I can’t help but wish the book had had more of this, and fewer musings on the wider political and social landscape.
More stories like the one he tells about meeting a living emanation of the ultimate Supergod, Superman himself, at San Diego Comic-Con. And how that conversation – with Superman in character the whole time – inspired the creation of Morrison’s award-winning series, All Star Superman.
But then, I would never expect a linear narrative from the man who created Danny La Rue – the sentient, cross-dressing thoroughfare – and wrote comics about Hitler and killing your boyfriend. Thank the Supergods the magnificent mind of Morrison just doesn’t work that way.
Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero