Yes, it’s a book review! Because who doesn’t love book reviews at a comic book site? Fascists, that’s who!
Recently I bought Grant Morrison: The Early Years by a Mr. Timothy Callahan. Did I buy it because Mr. Timothy Callahan is devilishly handsome and I couldn’t resist his charms? Did I buy it because his blog, Genius Boy Fire Melon, despite having an inexplicable (to me, a lesser mortal) name, is a wealth of reviews and information (Tim reviews comics and writes a column for the Mother Ship, annotates stuff, chats with noted bon vivant Chad Nevett, and basically makes the rest of us look like pikers)? Did I buy it because I’m a shameless Whorrison, despite my disappointment with his recent work? Yes, yes, and yes! And now I’m going to review the damned thing!
Well, the book is good. I mean, it’s for hard core Morrison fans, but that’s cool. You’ve probably already made up your mind with regard to Morrison, after all, and this book will probably confirm your opinion that he’s a) the most brilliant comic book writer in existence; or b) a pretentious, pseudo-intellectual git who can’t write a coherent story to save his life. This book doesn’t cross the aisle – Tim is a hopeless Morrison fan (and yet he doesn’t write for Comics Should Be Good!?), but you kind of need to be a hopeless fan of something to write an in-depth analysis of it. I mean, why would you spend so much time with Morrison’s comics (or Coppola’s movies, or Proust’s books, or Dylan’s music) if you weren’t a huge fan already? But that’s cool, because I love books that delve deeply into things that I admire, so I was ready to delve into this!
Tim (I hope he doesn’t mind me calling him by his first name; he’s one of the few people out there in Internet land that I’ve met face-to-face, so I feel the familiarity is warranted) looks at five early major Morrison works. He begins with Zenith (the only one I’ve never read), moves on to Arkham Asylum, spends some time with Animal Man, goes back to Batman with Gothic, and ends with Doom Patrol. This is a good place to end, as after DP ended, Morrison seemed to spend some time in the comics wilderness (if I remember correctly) before DC gave him JLA and he became the mega-star he remains today. So this book encapsulates the “early years” in more ways than one – not only was it the early part of his career, it was a definite phase in his writing career that ended around 1993 or so (although he tends to revisit it more often than I’d like).
What Tim does is fairly simple, even if he’s dealing with complex issues. The book is extremely readable because of what he does, which is tackle each theme that Morrison deals with as it comes up. Ironically, it’s also the one weakness of the book (which I’ll get to below). Therefore, he gives us a plot summary of Zenith, for instance, and brings up the major themes as they appear. Obviously, this means there are spoilers aplenty, but that’s just the way it is, isn’t it? Similar themes are obviously present throughout Morrison’s writing, and Tim does a good job linking the themes of varied works together. Despite my love of Morrison, I recognize that he’s not as deep as some people claim he is, so the themes are often standard superhero stuff or Oedipal issues, but that doesn’t mean Morrison doesn’t do some fascinating things with them. Tim does a nice job bringing them to light.
The strength of the book is how Tim looks at Morrison’s penchant for anti-climax and even misdirection when it comes to the end of his stories. Zenith, Buddy Baker, Batman, and Cliff Steele (as the moral center of the Doom Patrol) are often useless as heroes. Zenith does little heroic in his story, and Morrison even uses legerdemain to make it appear he sacrifices himself to save humanity, when in fact it’s a parallel version. Buddy is often a spectator in his stories, from “The Coyote Gospel,” where his inability to read cartoon gibberish means he can’t tell Crafty’s story, to the two Invasion! stories, in which Buddy watches helplessly as the Thanagarian art martyr almost destroys the world and the Red Mask tells his tale of woe and then throws himself off a roof. Batman flails around in Arkham Asylum, revisiting mommy issues while the inmates run free. Cliff and the rest of the Doom Patrol are manipulated by the Chief and can’t even stop the Unmaker from destroying the universe (presumably it’s still destroying the universe right now!). It’s fascinating looking at these comics as a complete whole, because it’s more obvious what Morrison is doing, subverting superhero norms and trying to show superheroes in a different light than the standard “good-vs-evil” paradigm. In the early part of his career, he was quite good at this. If I might editorialize, one of the problems with the end of “Batman: R.I.P” is that Morrison seems to have forgotten the difference between an anti-climax and no resolution. But that’s just me.
The biggest weakness in Tim’s book is the fact that he goes through the works chronologically, as I alluded to above. By structuring the book this way, Tim has to reiterate themes quite often, and it drags the book a little. For instance, the idea of heroes struggling with parent issues comes up in a few different comics (mostly the two Batman books, obviously), and when it does, Tim has to remind us that we’ve already gone over this before. It becomes redundant because Morrison likes certain themes so much. If the book had been structured thematically, it might have taken away some of the summarizing of the comics and put more of the focus on how Morrison’s themes evolved over the six years these comics cover. I know, it’s my two cents and Tim probably doesn’t want to hear it, but that’s really the one weakness in the book – it tends to drag just a little bit at times.
Overall, however, Tim does a very nice job examining what kind of comic Morrison liked to write 20 years ago, when he was but a neophyte. He has a nice interview with the man himself at the end of the book, plus a reprint of a column he wrote for this very blog a while back. It’s a very interesting book if you like Morrison and enjoy having an overview of the themes he liked playing with back in the day (and occasionally still likes playing with). If you’re not a Morrison fan, this might give you a reason to go back and check out his work, because whether or not you think he’s the God of All Comics, at least he tries to do some different stuff!